The AKG Perception 820
It seems that everywhere you look these days there’s yet another company making yet another low-to-mid cost valve mic in an attempt to cash in on the nostalgia and mystique of tube electronics. The prevailing consumer sentiment in nearly every manufacturing industry is that “they don’t make ‘em like they used to,” and just as vinyl is making a comeback, the venerable vacuum tube has been tearing its way through home and pro-audio circles, making an appearance in everything from microphones to iPod speaker docks. In nearly every instance, the marketing hype gets laid on thick. ‘Buy a tube mic and instantly add the warmth and richness of a major 1960’s studio to your home project studio today.’ It’s never that simple, but to be fair, a tube mic can soften out a lot of the harsh bite of a solid-state condensor, and can give you some of that vintage, flattering vibe that every singer dreams of.
While you can drop anywhere from about $150 to $6000 on a modern tube mic, the stiffest competition in the market is right where the Perception 820 drops in. With excellent mics such as the MXL Genesis and M-Audio Sputnik roaring onto the scene with bravado, making bold claims about how their quality compares to five and six thousand dollar legends, the Perception 820 has flown under the radar somewhat. To be perfectly honest, for whatever reason, AKG mics just don’t seem to have the same trendy cachet that AKG headphones do, or that companies like Blue or MXL have created for their microphone lines. That’s a real shame, because AKG’s one of the oldest names in the business and, despite having been bought by Harman International, they still make a consistently quality product. In my mind, the entire Perception line is one of the most underrated out there. So when I saw an 820 sitting on the B-stock shelf, I figured it was high time I gave it a spin.
Sound Quality and Tone
Just as the Perception 820 is one of the least overhyped modern tube mics on the market, it also has one of the least overhyped sound signatures you’ll find from a new-production valve mic. Yes, there’s a mid-range bump around 2-5k and some typical tube treble extension from 10-15k, which you’ll have to account for in source choice. But that’s fairly typical for an ECC83 tube stage (if I’m not mistaken, it’s a new-production EI ECC83, which is one of my absolute favorite modern 12ax7 types). The warmth, bass extension and richness you’d expect is all there, but pound for pound this is one of the more neutral tube mics you’ll find. If you want that big, bright, sparkly tone or buttery, rich saturation, there are better options in this segment of the market. Yes, the treble extension is definitely there, but it doesn’t jump out and smack you over the head the way many of its brethren do. If you want something more subtle, and hence considerably more versatile, the Perception 820 is an excellent choice.
One of the more disappointing discoveries for me in experimenting with the 820, however, is that the detail retrieval is only about average. It certainly doesn’t sound sticky or muddy like some of the cheapo-depot Chinese tubes out there, but compared to a mic like the Genesis, it does sound a little rounder. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as superior detail retrieval, especially for the higher-noise floor home studio, is not always desirable. Even in an ideal setting, more often than not detail plays second fiddle to tone, and a slightly warmer, softer sound can be perfect for applications like backing vocals, strings, brass, etc. Combined with its tone and voicing, this could be an ideal mic for reeds like oboe, or English horn, for example. But as a main mic for a lead singer, this wouldn’t necessarily be the first mic I’d reach for.
Tube mics, by nature, are bound to be character mics, but finding one that doesn’t overflow with character – for better or worse – is difficult. The term “workhorse” mic doesn’t have a lot of sex appeal, but versatile mics like these that perform admirably in a wide range of situations are the absolute backbone of a quality studio. My single favorite tube mic on the planet is the Peluso 2247 SE. It is, undoubtedly, a workhorse mic. I’ve used mine on everything from voice, to piano, to shakuhachi, to room micing. It’s one of those rare mics that you can instinctively reach for without having the faintest idea what kind of sound you’re looking for, and be fairly certain you’re going to get an excellent result. Now the Peluso is in a completely different class (and price range) from the Perception 820, but the principle is the same. If you’re going to buy a single tube mic to use on every source you want some tube character for, then the Perception 820 would definitely be my vote at this price.
Design and Build Quality
There are things here I like, and things here I don’t, but right off the bat I’ll note that the microphone itself, and especially the casing, is beautifully crafted. I know these are made in China, but you would not know it from the gorgeous, powder coated aqua chassis. The heft is unbelievable, and the hand-feel just exudes quality craftsmanship. That said, the accessories leave a little something to be desired. For starters, while several European power chords come standard, a purpose-built pop filter doesn’t. Maybe I’m just getting spoiled, but given that the last couple of mics I reviewed both sported nice, all metal filters, I was a little disappointed. Unfortunately, the shock mount and flight case do honestly feel like they’re made in China, and there’s not even a purpose built insert for the flight case. It’s just cheap-feeling styrofoam cutouts.
So far, none of these qualms are deal-breakers for me. However, the PSU build quality represents a much truer cause for concern. The metal face-plate is nice, but the rest of the case itself feels pretty flimsy, and just taking a peak at the wiring inside does not do much to further instill confidence in me. On the first unit I took home to review, the PSU died within five minutes, and I had to grab a second. Little things like this really drive home for me why I strongly prefer American or European made products. To be fair, most large companies manufacture their units primarily in China, and the build quality of the microphone itself is testament to the fact that “made in China” can still signify a solid product, but I disagree strongly with the “Sound On Sound” sentiment that this could be little better made in Vienna. This would be leaps and bounds better made in Vienna.
Returning to the real world from my soapbox, the biggest design feature worth raving about here is the remote pattern selection. Using an attenuated dial on the PSU itself, you can adjust the microphone’s pickup field to nine selectable polar patterns, from figure-of-eight, to cardiod, to omnidirectional, and everything in between. Words cannot describe how incredibly versatile this makes the Perception 820, though I’m about to try.
Every recording scenario you come across is going to lend itself naturally to one or two optimal pickup patterns. Recording a vocalist? You generally want a pretty tight cardiod pattern, though omni in a good, quiet room can add a nice touch of air and resonance. Figure-of-eight can be ideal for certain brass scenarios. And while many multi-pattern mics that feature omni, figure-of-eight and cardiod pickups can solve a lot of these kinds of problems for you, often-times you’ll find yourself somewhere in the middle, with no real good solution. Close micing a tom, for example, or an upright bass as part of a small ensemble, often works best with a hyper-cardiod pickup pattern, both to help optimize bleed and reduce proximity effect. Having nine polar patterns gives you phenomenally good control over exactly what your mic picks up, and as any engineer worth his salt will tell you, good placement and proper pattern is as important as having a good mic to begin with. An excellent mic in the wrong place at the wrong time will still sound like trash. And when you then factor in that the polar patterns are selectable from the PSU, allowing you to experiment with different possibilities remotely, the Perception 820 gives you a ton of options.
Of course, none of this would matter if the Perception 820 had such a colored voice that it only really excelled on a handful of tailor-made sources. Fortunately, as I’ve mentioned before, it does not (not that you’d ever know that just looking at the frequency response charts). Yes, there’s a very tube-like high-mid and treble boost, but neither’s quite as obtrusive as you might anticipate. Frankly, the band-shaping feels relatively subtle, and it takes EQing like a champ. The color is consistently (sometimes even shockingly) subdued, and that in turn makes the polar flexibility all the more useful. This is about as versatile a tube mic as you’re going to find south of a grand.
Just as this is a solid, all-around mic, the value is solid too. It’s not the same kind of value you get out of a very colored character mic like the Genesis, because while that’s going to give you a grade of performance that well exceeds its sticker, it’s also going to give you a much more narrow band of performance. The Perception boasts a level of sound quality that’s pretty much exactly what I’d expect from its price, and it’s the versatility that sets it apart. Having nine remotely selectable polar patterns and uncommonly neutral character for a tube mic will do that for you. It’s not the flashiest valve mic out there, but it can get the job done well in a huge variety of scenarios, and that makes it essentially unique for its segment.
The Final Verdict
No, the Perception 820 is not the hottest lady on the block right now, but she does pretty much everything right. For all the appeal that a sports car has, most of us end up with versatile, practical, well-made sedans, and that’s exactly what the Perception 820 is in this segment. It doesn’t do any one thing quite as well as the net sum of its competitors can, but it does everything better than most, and as such if you want to lay some tube tone on a vast swathe of tracks, the Perception 820 is the best way I know of at this price to do it. If you’re looking for a very specific mic for a very specific usage, there are several offerings in this range that do one or two things spectacularly, but none that I know do as many things even decently as the Perception 820 does well.
A Special Edition Spoken Word Sample
In an attempt to demonstrate a small portion of how you can shape tone, impact, room sound and feel by experimenting with the different polar pickups, the spoken word sample for this piece actually runs through all nine patterns sequentially, beginning with cardiod and working its way clockwise through hyper-cardiod to figure-of-eight, and then returning to cardiod and working its way counterclockwise to omnidirectional. In no way should this demonstration be taken as indicative of how each and every source will react to variable pickup manipulation (especially given the very limited frequency band of a male spoken voice), but hopefully folk will find it interesting or insightful in some small manner nevertheless.
Dev is a professional jazz-fusion composer, singer, sound engineer and front man for the band Wire Spoke Wheels, living and operating in beautiful Bushwick, Brooklyn. He’s also co-founder and co-chairman of Frost Audio, a small Michigan based audio company specializing in high performance cables and loudspeakers, all hand-made in the USA. He’ll be releasing his next studio album, Tears of Men, in early 2011. To learn more or hear his work, check out www.devavidon.com