After a few suggestions that I do so, I finally went ahead and splurged for another kit microphone – the micparts RK-47 capsule and amplifier circuit board, both sized to use the dirt-common MXL-990 microphone case.
The MXL-990 is kind of a go-to microphone for people just starting at home recording. I don’t recommend it, even in that role; I think it’s a nasty piece of kit and sounds terrible. Even at $50 – the used price, roughly – you’re better off spending another $40 and getting a low-end AKG or Nova. But it is about the cheapest condenser microphone with XLR out that you could pretend to treat like a real mic, and that has meant a thriving mod community.
Here are the basic parts included with the kit. I didn’t have the capsule out – the actual thing that vibrates to sound – because it needed to stay in its protective box until installation.
This is technically an MXL-990 mod, one wherein nothing is kept but the case and socket. It’s also a nontrivial assembly, so I’m going to talk about building in this one, and have some sound samples in the next.
You can see the instruction booklet over on the right. It’s quite clear, and has some important commentary, about extra care being needed not to touch certain components any more than you have to, and which parts are particularly sensitive to heat. It does not say up front that about 25 pages in it will suggest that you use a couple of chemical products if you have them, so I ended up having to order some purple loctite and conformance coating.
If I had it to do again, I probably wouldn’t order the conformance coating, because the MDA sheet on that is not attractive. But now that I have it, I might as well use it. If anyone local needs some, let me know.
As you can see, the board is clearly labelled:
For the most part, this is one of those insert-and-solder projects. The tolerances are reasonable, though they were emphatic about working at a meaningfully lower iron temperature than I prefer. If you use 60/40 lead solder, their temperature would be fine.
(I ran at 350°C, which is a little hotter than they recommend, but I use silver solder, and it seemed to work out. In these cases, I solder only one leg from each component, then cycle back to the start, and do the second leg, then cycle around again for the third if necessary. This lets the heat that is building up in the component itself dissipate, reducing peak temperature inside the component. This is most important with semiconductors, usually – particularly transistors.)
They also have you cleaning the board with isopropyl alcohol regularly, and suggest cleaning your iron between each solder point. I don’t know if they just meant wiping the tip or actually using the sal ammoniac, so I kind of compromised. (Though for the most sensitive components, I did do a complete sal ammoniac cleaning between each point.)
This is the board essentially complete:
The process is a bit fiddly, I have to say. They’re quite strict in the manual about flux cleanup and so on, so you’ll end up using tweezers and foam swabs and lint-free cloth and and and. Still, with kits this expensive, it’s best not to take chances.
You might note that the connections on the switch are not made yet; that’s because you’re wiring two of the leads from the pickup to the circuit at these points directly. Those connections are where they’re most persnickety about how things are to be done – but I followed their directions precisely and it worked out.
Here’s the new RK-47 pickup canister in its mount:
I’m liking this canister already, at this point. I know, I know, “good feel” is silly, but this capacitor pickup has a good materials feel to it. The mounting system you see in use is also partly a replacement – the original was a ring mount system; this is a saddle, larger, and is also where you need the threadlocker. I’m not convinced MXL used a threadlocker on that post, but I see how the larger, heavier pickup does kind of call for it.
Once the board is mounted back into the bracket and grille, you end up with this:
And once you’ve wired the three leads from the pickup and the three from the XLR connector, you’re pretty much ready to test.
I did have an initially-worrying test result: voltage at the primary test point – the one you conduct before any audio checks – was running high. The manual had a lot to say about what you’ve probably done wrong if it runs low, and further tests to isolate your mistake, and spends a couple of pages going on making sure you’ve got a bare minimum of 45V going to the exciter, with a preferred minimum of 50v, and an “operating range” of 50-62v, where 60v is optimal.
The range on mine ran from a low of 62.45v to a high of around 68v, so I was concerned. But it turns out the actual operating range is 50v-70v – they just don’t expect anybody to be able to get to the upper end. Support even said that if I was mostly recording quiet material I could safely crank it up to 65v full-time for an even hotter pickup, but, heh, that’s not what I generally do, so I’ll leave it where it is. XD
As for the sticker – I put “MP-SVS” over the “MXL” logo because at this point, it’s not an MXL microphone in any way, so why would I keep that? It’s just silly. MP-SVS is MicParts-Supervillain Studios, naturally. I also changed the model number to RK-47, after the canister number.
I did not mention before that this is a switch-selectable dual-pickup-pattern microphone:
That will let me try an instrument miking style I’ve wanted to try for a while anyway. The only downside of using an existing microphone housing is that the switch has to live on the inside, and you have to unscrew the bottom of the housing to get to it. But it’s just twist-open, so not really an issue.
Regardless, as you can see, the switch says “cart” (for cartioid) and “omni” (for omnidirectional), but I think I’m pretty sure it’s really more figure-eight, given the construction of everything and what the switch does. And pictures in the manual actually agree with that – the printing on the board is different in the photos.
An optional modification to the case involves coating the lower half with silicate caulk (or a couple of other listed materials). I, of course, did that too:
The idea is that this reduces case resonance. Does it? I dunno, I just went ahead and did it because silicon caulk is dirt cheap – the local hardware store down the hill had a small tube for three dollars. The lack of silicon at the top is necessary – the upper part of the case scrapes into the lower half quite tightly, and any added material would be scraped off right away. As you can probably see, it’s even scraping off its own coating.
This is what it looks like all put together, and put in the standard MXL-990 shock mount:
As always, larger versions of the photos are at my Flickr account.
All in all, I’d call it a straightforward well-documented build. It’s far from the most difficult I’ve done. Not a good starter project, but if you’re reasonably good with a soldering iron, you’re going to be fine.
And this is already a long post, so I’ve decided to make it Part 1 of 2, and will talk about the important part – what the result sounds like – next time. Spoiler: a whole hell of a lot better than an MXL-990. But it also has audibly (and visibly, in the waveform) finer and more precise pickup than, say, my Novas.
I’m also going to see if I can’t do some comparisons to my Oktava 319 and possibly the (already-improved via mods) Oktava 012s as well before next time. That, too, might be interesting.
Have a good weekend, everybody!
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