Of all the equipment I use as part of my session recordings, the clip-on microphones I use for acoustic instruments generate the most interest from performers. So, I thought it was worth putting a post together with a bit more detail.
The microphones are by Danish brand DPA. DPA use both product names and number codes, which for these mics are “d:vote” and “4099” respectively. As DPA product names can describe a range of very different products I’ve just got into the habit of sticking with model numbers and tend to just call these microphones 4099s.
Aside from the very first session I recorded, every acoustic guitar and violin has been recorded on 4099 microphones. Some sessions use several 4099s simultaneously, including the first Amazing Devil session (guitar, violin, cello) and an upcoming video for Catherine Embleton (guitar, violin, stereo piano).
I use 4099s as they strike a balance between audio quality, visual appearance and convenience. The extremes of options being instruments pickups (sound bad, visually subtle, convenient) and stand-mounted microphones (sound good, visually obtrusive, inconvenient).
The inconvenience of stand mics comes in a few ways. My studio is very small, it can easily become cluttered and awkward to work in and stands are one more thing in the way. Plus if I want to get a shot of people playing the guitar the stand and mic will almost certainly be blocking a lot of the shot.
With a stand-mounted microphone there’s also the problem of the mic not being in the right position for the instrument. When I’ve got a lot to worry about in a shoot, or as time become tight, I can forget to check the mic is still is in the right place relative to the instrument at the start of a take. And even if it is initially correct, it may not stay there if the performer moves around. Once you’ve got a 4099 clipped on, it (mostly) stays put letting the performer play naturally and still giving a consistent result.
They’re also really useful for on-location recordings where I’m having to carry all of my equipment, audio & video, on public transport. Each microphone comes with a hard case to nicely protect one mic, but if you rip out the internal support you have something that will hold multiple microphones or all the clips you need. So with two small boxes and a separate vocal mic I’m ready to record groups.
Occasionally someone will ask if the 4099 could be used live on stage, but this is what they’re designed for and I’m the weirdo for using them in the studio. I mention this because you have to keep their live specialisation in mind when judging the sound. In that regard:
- They sound better than a pickup or contact mic
- They sound better than any PA I’ve ever heard
So live, they’re not going to hold you back. For studio use, the assessment is a bit tougher and truthfully if you only ever want to do audio-only studio recordings you’ll probably be better off with a more traditional, stand-mounted microphone.
Their main weakness is a relatively high level of noise. Compare these two recordings of my garden made with a 4099 (new CORE model) and a Rode NT5 which costs a third of the price. Aggressive low-cut filter applied to both.
In practice the noise level doesn’t matter for loud playing, such as guitar strumming. With very quiet guitar picking, like Katherine Priddy, it’s a problem that needs fixing in the mix.
Also, in my opinion, these mics are better with higher pitched instruments. They sound really, really good on violin and good on guitar. By the time you get down to cello pitch they lack a bit of body. That’s not to say they’re unusable, just not as impressive. So for cello, double bass in the studio I now tend go with a stand mic as the positioning is less of a problem given people tend not to swing their cellos around when playing.
How to buy
DPA sell kits tailored for each instrument, so for guitar you can get a DPA4099G kit and you’re off. And that’s not wrong, but if you can afford the slight cost increase, and want a bit more flexibility, my recommendation would be to get a cello/double-bass kit and buy the guitar/violin clip separately.
Quick tip: the guitar clips work fine on violins, you just have a longer stick poking out the bottom.
Understanding the kits
Each instrument kit is made up of 4 parts:
- Instrument specific clip
- Microphone – Either normal sensitivity (called “loud”) or low sensitivity (called “extreme”)
- Cable – Thin (1.6mm) or thick (2.2mm)
- XLR adapter – Flat or bass cut
All of these components can be bought separately and are interchangeable. The named instrument kits are just a pre-packaged combination of these parts.
For the cable, I prefer the thicker cable that comes with the cello set. Firstly, it’s only thick relative to the thin cable, and is still much thinner than a standard microphone cable. I don’t believe the thicker cable will ever become a hindrance and it just feels more solid.
I prefer the flat XLR adapter as it’s more re-usable. For instruments where you want bass cutting behaviour (guitar, violin) you can easily do this at the audio interface, or in software. But having a flat adapter means that if you do want to record something with lower registers (cello, double-bass, piano) you already have the right adapter and just need the clip. Extra clips are much cheaper than a new XLR adapter.
For guitar, if you only intend to play live then you might prefer the bass cut adapter rather than relying on the sound person at the venues setting up EQ on your channel, and in this case it might be better to get the guitar set and then optionally get the thicker cable separately.
You might see the term CORE used in some descriptions of the microphone. The 4099 CORE is the newer version of the microphone that came out in 2018. The older model, now called ‘legacy’, is no longer sold. The CORE version does have improvement performance but I haven’t it felt any need to upgrade my legacy versions to CORE.
The easiest way to tell the difference between the two is the shape of the windshield, the CORE version is more pointed. The difference is only in the microphone part of the system, the cables, clips, XLR adapters are identical.
Costs and alternatives
The 4099 is a medium-price microphone which makes it quite expensive in everyday terms. At time of writing a kit is around £450. Extra clips are normally around £30, cables are similar and XLR adaptors approach £100.
If that’s not expensive enough for you there is a ‘big brother’ to the 4099 called the 4011ES. This is physically larger, and almost four times the price. It is compatible with the same mounting clips as the 4099. You can hear how the 4011 compares on these DPA videos on how to mic a cello and double bass. The double-bass example in particular really shows off the difference in the low-end.
If you can’t stretch to a 4099 there is the conceptually similar Ovid series from Thomann which are much cheaper at around £60 for a guitar kit. And that’s all I know about them.
For what I do I’ve found these mics really useful, given the combination of ease-of-use, unobtrusive looks, decent sound quality and the flexibility of being able to use them on multiple instruments. They have become a ‘zero thought’ option where for any given project I just have to count how many acoustic instruments will be present and work out which clips I need as I know the the 4099s will produce something usable.
For an individual who doesn’t care so much about the visual side, or the flexibility, it’s a more limited offer. You get a very good live microphone and a recording microphone which is poor-to-good depending on your instrument and playing style.