On Broadway, industrials, broadcast, regional theatre, tours, theme parks, cruise ships, and seemingly everywhere, there is one manufacturer's name that is synonymous with lavalier wireless microphones. So it came not only as surprise, but more of a shock, when I first heard the rumor that Sennheiser was coming out with a new microphone that would replace the industry-wide standard MKE-2 Red Dot.
"Why such a big deal? Why overreact? It's just a simple product," I can hear readers thinking aloud. Remember, this is not the automotive industry we're discussing. In the pro audio industry, we do not expect to have a new 99 model out with a few updates that is similar to the old model but with a revised, sleek, more streamlined, and aerodynamic frame. This is the mic that resides in the ear or wig or on the lapel of every star, from David Letterman to Barbara Walters to Katie Couric; it's the industry standard on the lapel of the CEO of every major corporation; the secret weapon of all Broadway's greatest stars and singers. It is also considered the industry standard: the single most sonically consistent element in reinforcement sound systems. The idea of changing this natural, open-sounding mic, the Goliath of all lavaliers in a David-sized package, sends a small warning to the sound designer's sense of balance. Can Sennheiser improve the industry standard without changing the sound quality?
Joe Ciaudelli, director of marketing for Sennheiser's USA headquarters in Old Lyme, CT, confirms the rumor: the new mic is called the MKE-2 Gold. The Gold is the result of years of R&D for a product that customers had continually requested, he adds. "A lot of customers were asking for a more sweat-resistant version of the MKE-2 Red Dot." Ciaudelli explained that one of the reasons the MKE-2 Red Dot is considered the most accurate lav is by nature of the design. "The diaphragm is very close to the back plate. Because it's so much closer to the back plate than other designs, it was susceptible to premature failure due to sweat. And in theatre, where there are heavy costumes, makeup, and light, its not uncommon for actors to perspire," he jokes. "So certainly our customers wanted the sonic quality of the MKE-2, but they also wanted something that was more immune to the adverse conditions of theatre." That result is the MKE-2 Gold.
Are there any major differences in the microphone's design? One significant change is that two different end caps can be employed to tailor the EQ often needed to add high end due to alternate mic placement. "We did quite a number of studies in terms of how the frequency response should be tailored depending on different placements on and around the head, including cheek, forehead, and ear mounts, as well as different sizes and density of the head," he notes. "The idea was to give the sound designers, in conjunction with the performers and costume designers, as much flexibility in terms of where they want to place the mic, yet to still retain the sonic characteristics that are necessary for theatre."
After years of working with MKE-2s and all the competitive lavaliers, I wanted to know for myself just how close the new design was in sound quality, how good the product and changes were, and what if any pitfalls I would encounter. Because I am somewhat paranoid about testing and product consistency, I bought 20 MKE-2 Gold mics for two shows from a regular pro audio dealer, not mentioning the possibility of this article. I wanted to make sure that the product I got was no different than other MKE-2 Golds on the market. I purchased 10 each of the anthracite (black) and beige models.
The mics were delivered in sealed plastic baggies, each equipped with a six-language manual and four color-matched end caps, two each of the designs that allow for an HF boost of +2dB @~10k, and +10dB @~10k respectively. The mics look very similar to the Red Dot, with the exception of the gold indicator tag on the mic. As requested from the manufacturer, they were shipped with stripped and tinned "pigtails" so that I could have them connected locally for me by a Broadway mic guru.
The mics were placed on two separate shows with different artistic requirements--an existing Broadway show and a brand-new national tour of an intimate play, both using Sennheiser transmitter/
receivers. When powered either by a Cadac or a Yamaha 02R microphone preamplifier, the Gold mic elements did not sound noticeably different from the original MKE-2 Red Dot in an A/B comparison. They also continue to retain the open, natural sound that designers and engineers expect from Sennheiser, with the standard high-frequency boost around 15Hz. I am pleased to report that from the heavily reinforced Broadway musical to the intimate, close-miked national tour of a Tony Award-winning best play, the mics fared well whether the moment required a full-blast operatic belt or a subtle whisper.
Sennheiser's manual describes the mic's characteristics as insensitive to structure-borne noise and to sweat penetration. I can attest to that, as the mic cable has much reduced and almost insignificant contact noise. The MKE-2 Gold is designed with a passive top diaphragm that defends the bottom active diaphragm against sweat, protecting the electro-acoustic transducer from moisture.
Ciaudelli calls the passive diaphragm the "umbrella" diaphragm because it is sealed to the case over the active diaphragm, acting as a protective umbrella. "We found that sweat will often drip down the cable and enter through the rear of the capsule at the back plate," he notes. "So there is now a special sealant at the back of the capsule. The umbrella protects the front of the transducer and the sealant protects the back plate from behind."
What does this mean in terms of durability and reliability? After a couple of months of testing, the mics still hold up well. Are they completely impervious to sweat or any moisture? No. But they do fare better than the original Red Dot mic? A sweatout on a Gold does not sound as bad as a regular MKE-2 because the top diaphragm keeps the moisture away from the actual transducer, so it is unlikely that a capsule will fail completely from a droplet of moisture entering the cap. But any moisture that makes its way into the capsule will dry overnight and leave some type of residue. Over time, continued salt deposits from sweat will render the mic sonically unacceptable. The first time I encountered a sweatout onstage, I actually thought the mic had slipped placement, because all I noticed at first was a slight reduction in HF response that slowly got worse. After applying console EQ to correct the signal and alerting the deck sound to check the lav, the response was that placement was correct. Since the EQ change had fixed the problem for the time being, we left it for the rest of the show. During the preshow check for the next performance we determined the mic had indeed been sweated out by one of the more "perspirant" actors after weeks of use; this is not an unusual occurrence, and in fact it lasted about 1/3 longer than some of the Red Dot sweatouts.
The bottom line with the MKE-2 Gold is that the mic is better than the original on almost all fronts. But with any product, there is a downside, or at least a compromise. I found two things in particular that users should be aware of. First, the capsule of the beige MKE-2 Gold was resistant to coloring techniques needed to blend the elements perfectly to match performer skin and hair tones. The first four brands of permanent markers tried for this purpose came off the mics and bled onto other nearby surfaces. The wire is also resistant to color, but less so than the plastic capsule that protects the mic element. For ear mounting, this can be a problem, until your design team finds markers, colored polish, or paints that are permanent enough for the situation. In one instance, we wrapped the capsule in moleskin and colored the moleskin.
Secondly, the sweat resistance is a double-edged sword. Because a Gold mic sweatout sounds different, the operators dealing with them need to attune themselves and apply a learning curve when first using the MKE-2 Gold. Because the sweatouts experienced in testing were more of a gradual change in the tenor of the mic, they may not be caught at all during the preshow check by a deck operator or FOH mixer. During a performance it is hard to catch an early sweatout, while an A/B comparison of a fresh mic against one exposed to continued heavy moisture should provide plenty of evidence.
Once these issues are addressed by a sound team, changing over to the Golds should be a relatively painless process. And Ciaudelli confirms that the change is permanent. "Production of the MKE-2 has ceased," he says. "We're just producing Golds now as a replacement for the Red Dot model. There is an MKE-2 with the original sensitivity still being produced. But the Gold replaces all Red Dot (reduced sensitivity) versions."
After implementing the mics on two shows, I was curious to know about other users. How has initial customer response been to the shift to the MKE-2 Gold? "It's actually been much better than we expected, and at a faster pace," Ciaudelli admits. "I think that it reflects what happens when you respond to specific requests of your customers. Consistency is something that has been a cornerstone of the success of the MKE-2 lav over the years. While there are a lot of people who make lavalier microphones, to have complete consistency from one production batch to the next is very difficult. And Sennheiser has simply demonstrated that it can be done with the MKE-2. Certainly, our customers can expect that next time they buy lavaliers--say, in six months or so--they will have the same excellent sonic quality as the ones they previously purchased."
The new MKE-2 Gold is priced the same as the old MKE-Red Dot, retailing for $425 with a Lemo connector. The cost for consistency is not cheap, but production management should be happy that they are not more expensive than the previous design.
So what is next from Sennheiser, and the painstaking process of creation? "We have lots in the pipeline now," Ciaudelli notes that users should look forward to the premiere of the Evolution Wireless series transmitters and receivers. "That will be a budgetary ideal for regional theatres that want Sennheiser wireless. The Evolution series has a high sonic quality and is built for rugged reliability but without some of the Broadway features like computerized remote control and monitoring. In the end it will allow a theatre to buy a Sennheiser system for as little as around $1,000 per channel, which we think is another significant improvement."