Universal Audio SD-1 mic review: A contender to the throne
Stylish and natural-sounding, UA’s dynamic microphone aims to be a new classic for efficient home-studio setups. So is it?
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Founded in 1958, Universal Audio originally became a professional recording studio mainstay producing preamplifiers, compressors, and other tube-based processors. After decades of manufacturing channel strips and outboard gear, Universal Audio was acquired and the name retired. In 1999, Universal Audio, or UA, was relaunched and re-established as a signal chain cornerstone with the introduction of both hardware recreations and software emulations of classic console components, as well as a series of audio interfaces that brought studio-grade circuit paths home. Now, over 60 years since its founding, UA has introduced its first line of microphones. So does the Universal Audio SD-1 dynamic microphone maintain UA’s reputation for clarity and dynamic character and send a, well, clear signal to singers, podcasters, and other content creators that there’s an enticing new project-studio staple? Let’s take a look.
The Universal Audio SD-1 is the flagship dynamic mic in a line that stretches from the approachable Standard Series all the way to high-end condensers like the $1,499 Sphere L22 Modeling Mic, which I’ll be reviewing in August, and the multi-thousand dollar UA Bock 251 Large-Diaphragm Tube Condenser (coming fall 2022). The $299 SD-1, however, is marketed primarily as an affordable workhorse mic with an intuitive design and natural sound suited for all-around studio duties and everyday use.
I put the SD-1 through its paces at my home studio, where I tested its abilities on a variety of sources and compared its performance directly to that of legendary broadcast mic benchmark the Shure SM7B, which it is clearly targeting in form factor and features. Overall, I was pleased with the SD-1’s sound and performance and, despite a few quibbles about its design, I think it’s one of the best vocal microphones in its class considering the ease it can bring to the creative process. Below, I’ll break down the design, workflow, and overall sound of the Universal Audio SD-1 to help you decide if it’s worthy of a spot in your setup.
The Universal Audio SD-1’s design
Besides its distinct satin white finish, the utilitarian design of the Universal Audio SD-1 very closely resembles that of the Shure SM7B, an industry-standard vocal microphone that’s been used in recording and broadcasting for decades. The two microphones weigh roughly the same 1.6 pounds and, just like the SM7B, the SD-1 features a thick, sturdy metal chassis affixed to a threaded yoke mount. The top half of the microphone is encased within a distinct black foam windscreen that, when removed, reveals the microphone’s capsule within a protective metal cage, and the only controls on the SD-1 are two recessed switches on the bottom of the microphone, which give users the option to engage a gentle 200 Hz high-pass filter for reducing low-end rumble and a 3 dB bump from 3-5 kHz for enhanced speech and articulation clarity. The SD-1’s industry-standard XLR output jack sits next to these switches on the microphone’s chassis, marking a slight deviation from the Shure SM7B’s design, which places the output jack next to the threaded mount instead of the body of the mic.
Getting started with the Universal Audio SD-1
The Universal Audio SD-1 comes in eye-catching two-tone cream and black packaging that mirrors the design and color of the microphone itself. Removing the outer sleeve of the packaging reveals a sturdy black cardboard box that holds the mic itself snugly within a fitted insert. The box’s durability, tight fit, and hinged lid, along with the presence of a ribbon handle, suggest that it can be kept and used as a long-term storage case for the SD-1. Considering that most microphones in this price range use either unsightly and inelegant foam packaging or don’t come with a protective case at all, the inclusion of a fairly stylish and secure case is pretty significant—even if it is made of cardboard.
Mounting the SD-1 to a mic stand or boom arm is an easy task thanks to its one-piece design and integrated threads, but it does require a stand that’s up to the task of supporting its weight. If you’re looking for a radio-style desk arm, go with something sturdy like the IXTECH Boom Arm. For my tests, I mounted the SD-1 to a K&M Tripod Stand with a boom arm.
Perhaps the most cumbersome part of setting up the microphone was accessing its XLR jack, which sits directly opposite the address end of the mic and requires some awkward movements to achieve. Pushing against the microphone and trying to avoid scratching the white finish with the XLR cable didn’t feel natural either, leaving me to prefer the rugged and easy-to-access XLR jack on the SM7B.
If you own a UA interface like the Apollo or Volt, you’ll also have access to downloadable UAD presets for the SD-1 dynamic mic, which run on compatible computers and offer one-click sound sculpting options like EQ, reverb, and compression. These custom effect chains offer presets for a variety of sources, including cello, lead vocal, snare drum, and speech. I downloaded the presets with a quick trip to the UA website, after which they were ready to use within the Universal Audio Console application (available for macOS and Windows). For my tests, I connected the SD-1 to my Universal Audio Apollo x8, feeding a 2013 Apple Mac mini, and recorded to Apple Logic Pro X, my digital audio workstation of choice.
The Universal Audio SD-1’s sound
The Universal Audio SD-1 is a dynamic microphone with a cardioid pickup pattern, allowing it to pick up sound from a single direction while withstanding relatively loud noises and reproducing quick details. According to the company’s literature, the SD-1 has a frequency range of 50 Hz to 16 kHz and a flat, natural response without the high-pass or high-boost switches engaged. On paper, this is similar to the response of the Shure SM7B but, in a side-by-side vocal comparison, I found the SD-1 to have slightly thicker low-mids and a more true-to-life sound in flat EQ mode without switches engaged (appropriate, as UA interfaces maintain punchy low end).
Another way to put this is that the SM7B’s flat EQ mode sounds more sculpted specifically for vocal clarity (why you see it in use by so many podcasters and livestreamers). Still, I was immediately struck by the flat, neutral, and almost “unflattering” tone from the SD-1, which bodes well for its potential versatility. In general, microphones that offer a natural and unsculpted sound are more flexible than microphones tailored for specific instruments or sources and may have the potential to give users more bang for their buck.
Before verifying my hunch about the SD-1’s abilities on guitars and other sources, I engaged its high-pass and high-boost switches to finish my vocal test. Compared to the SM7B’s high-pass at 400 Hz, the SD-1 has a lower 200 Hz high-pass that helps it retain a lot of the wooly, in-your-face low-mids that first caught my attention. Its 3 dB high boost is an entirely different story and its placement at 3-5 kHz adds a crisp, nearly brittle quality reminiscent of some condenser microphones. Some users may perceive this as a clean, high-fidelity, or “finished” sound that can be very suitable for voiceovers and podcasting but, for my personal taste, I prefer a slightly darker and more natural vocal sound, which I was able to achieve with the high-pass on and the high-boost off. In my opinion, the 2-4 kHz high boost of the SM7B sits in a more ear-pleasing place, but your mileage may vary.
Next up, I tested the SD-1 on acoustic guitar and electric guitar amp with the microphone’s windscreen removed. In flat EQ mode, the SD-1 performed admirably on both types of guitar, with the fantastically quick transient response you’d expect from a dynamic microphone and plenty of high-end presence for a slick, modern tone without any processing required. Compared to my vocal test, the differences between the sound of the SD-1 and SM7B in this test were almost negligible on guitar and could almost be a toss-up. While the high-pass switch added some extra clarity and punch to the guitars, I felt the high-boost once again added too much thin high-frequency information for my taste.
The final piece of the puzzle in the sound of the SD-1 lies in its software presets, so I loaded up the lead vocal effect chain in the Universal Audio Console and once again tested the mic on my voice. The lead vocal preset chain consists of UAD 610 tube preamp emulation, a precision equalizer, 1176-style compression, and a reverb plugin. With the microphone’s EQ switches set flat, the software chain added gentle compression and tube saturation along with a subtle low-mid scoop and a high-end boost that brought out the detail in my performance and added record-ready polish. My biggest issue with these software presets is that they’re limited to UA interface owners. The SD-1 may be marketed toward users already committed to the UA ecosystem but, because the mic can be used with any interface, it would be great to see Universal Audio offer these presets to all SD-1 owners considering how effective and convenient they are.
So, who should buy the Universal Audio SD-1 mic?
Thanks to its flexible sound and reasonable pricing, the Universal Audio SD-1 dynamic mic is a great option for regular and frequent use in recording studios of every kind, especially if you can leave it on a stand or boom arm. I’m not entirely sold on its durability when regularly transported, considering its pristine white finish and bottom XLR jack, but the SD-1 really sounds and feels like a slightly under-engineered Shure SM7B for about $100 less.
If you already own a UA interface or are planning on entering the ecosystem soon, the SD-1 may be a no-brainer purchase for the presets alone due to the ease and speed with which they sculpt the sound, making it a good all-around microphone for impromptu musical writing and recording sessions. If you don’t have a Universal Audio interface or plan on buying one, and speech-based content is your primary focus, the Shure SM7B remains a standard-bearer in any ecosystem due to its proven durability and slightly clearer default vocal sound.