Dev

About Dev

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

In Dev Review: CAD M179 and E100S Microphones


The CAD Special: The Equitek E100s and The M179

When Ghostdad first told me that Pro Audio Star was going to start carrying CAD microphones, I knew right off the bat that I wanted to get in on the action. Over the years, CAD has built their reputation on price-performance ratio, and a CAD mic is often my first recommendation for the aspiring home studio owner. In fact, the CAD Trion 7000 was the first ribbon mic I ever owned. Now, the m179 is a mic that’s been near and dear to my heart for a while. As far as I’m concerned, if you have $200 to spend, and you need one mic that can do it all, you go and buy an m179. It’s really that simple. Yes, there are a lot of versatile microphones in the mid hundred dollar range, and a lot of them are quite good. Yes, you could probably do better with something like the Blue Spark or CAD’s own Trion 8000 if you were looking specifically for a vocal mic. For everything else, the m179 would be my first reach, and frankly, cost being no object, it almost always is my first reach for toms, and a strong contendor for overheads, acoustic guitar and smaller jazz kicks. Sorry for ruining the suspense in the first paragraph, but point blank, it’s a fantastic microphone.

The E100s is a little different though. At $500, it’s the flagship (price wise) of the CAD lineup, and its concept and sound signature are fairly unique. Unlike most other CAD mics (and most other mics in the price bracket period), the E100s is hand-made in the U.S. It also features a super-cardiod pickup pattern and solid nickel diaphragm (as opposed to the cardiod pickup pattern and gold-sputtered mylar foil diaphragms most commonly found in condenser microphones). Most strikingly, it has the lowest self-noise of any microphone on the planet (3.7dba!) and extremely good off-axis rejection. The real question though is, how does it sound? Well, quite unlike any other microphone in my locker frankly. And in a really cool way.

Design and Build Quality

Let’s start with the m179. It was an incredibly cool design when it came out, and it’s still a cool design today. For starters, it’s a lot smaller than you think it is. When you first open up the box you’ll think you got the miniature version. Especially given it’s strengths, this is a fantastic thing. Because it’s a side address design, and because of the flexibility of placement its shock mount enables, it’s a very easy mic to slip into tight spots on a drum kit (where it almost always excels) or right on the sweet-spot for an acoustic guitar without getting in the talent’s way. It’s a Chinese built microphone, but it’s a very well executed one: I’ve had my pair for the better part of half a decade now (though I picked up a new one for this review just to make sure the samples came from a recently produced iteration), and they look and sound just as good today as they did straight out of the box.

In my mind, however, the defining feature of the m179 is the infinitely variable pickup pattern. Yes, infinitely variable. There’s a rotary dial on the front of the capsule that you can freely swing from figure-of-eight to cardiod to omni, and every possible incarnation of super-cardiod or hyper-cardiod in between (with clearly marked indicators along the way for all of the primary pickup patterns). This is, frankly, awesome. For sound quality reasons I’ll get into in a bit, the m179 is not usually a go-to mic for me on vocals, but it certainly doesn’t sound bad, and the ability to dial in presence or add a bit of air and room at any increment you want is invaluable. For toms and kicks, just set to hyper-cardiod and go; you’ll get a fat, complete sound and really great sounding bleed. The m179s even work well as overheads. There’s almost nothing you can’t make an m179 sound good on; pound for pound it’s one of the best workhorse mics on the market before you even consider its staggeringly low asking price.

The E100s is something special though. Before anything else, it’s worth mentioning that the Made in the USA tag shows; it’s built like an M1 tank. It’s a beautiful microphone frankly, with styling reminiscent of the classic RCA designs, replete with a unique take on the classic yoke shocks. The shock mount is compact and effective, the case is designed to accommodate the mic with the shock still on so you never have to worry about wasting time on setup, and its sleek design takes up minimal space for close micing (and I highly recommend giving it a try on a snare in that vein). There’s a 10db pad and a high pass filter on the front thrown in for good measure, and the pickup pattern is fixed in super-cardiod (a tighter front pattern than cardiod, with a little bit of backside pickup, almost like a shrunken figure-of-eight). Combined with its vanishingly low self-noise, this makes it a fantastic choice for a room mic, picking up just a touch of the room itself while maintaining a tight focus on the direct source.

Sound Quality, Tone and Versatility

The m179 is not the most neutral mic in my cabinet, but it’s pretty close. There’s a little peakiness in the upper mids and trebles, and you’ll definitely get a touch of sparkle, but all in all it’s just a very even keel, natural sounding microphone – one of the least hyped signatures I can think of. If you place it well and set the pickup pattern appropriately it will give you a natural, realistic sound on nearly anything you put it up on. For sources that need that hype, it can sound a little flat, because it’s not your typical shiny, sparkly mic the way a lot of lower-priced condensers are these days. For me though, that’s a really good thing – I’d rather be EQing in a touch of top-end hype in post than trying to EQ hype I don’t want out. And the variable pickup pattern really lets you tailor the focus exactly the way you want for the given setting. It’ll give you an airy, roomy sound in omni, a tight, focused sound in cardiod and everything in between, just as you’d expect it to. For a pickup pattern that truly is infinitely variable, it’s surprisingly precise, and you can massage it into giving you a very full sound out of a somewhat thin source if you tinker with it a bit. It’s also a very quiet mic in it’s own right – 11 dba self-noise is nothing to scoff at, and certainly nothing you’re going to pick up in most applications. If I like the sound I’m hearing in the room more or less the way it is, I can always count on the m179 to capture it.

The E100s is a different beast altogether. First off, it’s absurdly quiet: throw it up 10 feet away from a kit or a string section, and it just sits in this inky blackness, completely disappearing from the room. Combined with its inherently bright signature, it lends a sense of air and detail that’s wonderful. The super-cardiod pattern is very tight too; off-axis rejection is excellent. Bass response is defined and solid; great extension and transient impact. It lacks that same pristine detail retrieval in the mids and trebles, but it’s so quiet that you end up with a signature that’s utterly perfect strings or woodwind, as well as many vocals and darker guitars. And of course, it’s the ideal mic for anything you need to distance mic. It’s so quiet, and so tight in terms of its pattern, that you can get a real sense of space without picking up too much room or having to dredge up too much floor. In most setups, you’ll pickup pre or converter noise before you hear the mic.

It’s definitely a bright mic, with a classic 10-15k rise, and in the wrong setup it can be painfully so. In trying to give it a reach on a slide guitarist, for example, it brought up way too much fret squeel, and sounded obtrusively harsh. On other setups, however, the hype is perfect. I went back to it for the same guitarist doing finger-picked blues on a fairly dark Martin, and it sounded fantastic; detailed and present. I’ve actually posted a little session I did with the same guitarist using the M179 on the guitar body, and the E100s on the vocals (the only mic he’ll let me use now, and he tried out all my favorite tube mics too), so you’ll get a chance to hear a complete session done with just these two microphones.

My tastes for singers generally pull me to one of the tube mics in my cabinet, usually the Peluso 2247se for male singers and the MXL Genesis or Lauten Oceanus for female singers. I was not envisioning using the E100s as a vocal mic, but it really works wonders on a lot of male voices. Its presence, low end detail and incredible capacity to absorb abuse really make it a fantastic reach for country and indie-rock singers.

Value

The m179 is the bargain of the century. It’s a mic I want within reach at all times, and I have mics that cost thousands of dollars more in my cabinet. I’ve used in countless situations, for dozens of applications, even on big-budget recordings where far more expensive microphones are available to me. Truly and honestly, if I could only have one mic for everything I do, and I couldn’t spend more than $200, the m179 would undoubtedly be it. If I had $400 to spend I might just buy two. Pound for pound I think this is the most versatile mic you can buy for the price, which might just make it the best mic you can buy for the price too.

The E100s, on the other hand, represents a different kind of value. There’s very little else out there like this anywhere close to its price range, so it’s sort of comparing apples and oranges. Frankly, if I needed a single mic to do everything, I’d rather have the m179. That said, it’s an utterly invaluable addition to my locker. There are things the E100s can do that no other mic I’ve tried can, and its sound signature is quite unlike any other microphone in my locker. It manages to sound bright and present and round and full all at the same time, and I can’t help but keep coming back to how damn quiet it is. Put simply, there’s half a dozen singers I work with at this point who have threatened to throw tantrums when I try out different mics. It’s not all things to all sources, but it’s unlike any other mic in my locker, and it excels in areas that many of my other mics fall flat, which makes it utterly invaluable to me.

The Final Verdict

These two mics really represent the two faces of what CAD does, and can do. For me, the m179 is the quintessential CAD mic: an inexpensive, rugged workhorse that always does its job well. I’ve loved my m179s for years, and doing this review has only reinforced in my mind just how I often I still use them. The E100s, on the other hand, represents a different (and incredibly positive) kind of vision for CAD. It’s not all things to all people, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s a truly unique concept, and it’s incredibly well executed. Frankly, I wish there were more microphones out there with this kind of design vision and purpose. The E100s is a mic I’ve been intrigued by for a very long time, and everything I was hoping it would do, it does. It’s an invaluable addition to my stable that solves a huge number of problems for me, and I’m incredibly glad to have it. There have been CAD mics I’ve worked with in the past that weren’t for me, but these two are both big winners in their own ways.

But don’t take my word for it. My good friend Tom Larsen, a phenomenal young guitarist and singer I regularly work with (you can learn more about him at www.tuckerandlarsenjazz.com), was generous enough to let me post one of the raw takes we did in a recent session featuring these two microphones exclusively. The song, “Three Hours Past Midnite” is an original blues composition of his, and features the m179 on the guitar, and the E100s on vocals. I’ve panned the m179 hard to the left, and the E100s hard to the right to help differentiate the signatures a little bit, but apart from that, the take is raw and unedited. The gain staging and peakiness on the vox aside (which is largely a function of the fact that it still needs some compression), I think you’ll agree that it sounds mighty close to a finished product as is.

CAD M179 and E100S Microphone Review by ProAudioStar

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

In Dev Review: Focusrite ISA-ONE Single Channel Mic Preamp

The Focusrite ISA One

I’m not entirely sure what there is to say about the ISA preamp that hasn’t already been said.  It’s a legend.  The original Focusrite Forte console of the 1980s that first introduced the technology was a game changer, and the modern-day ISA series remains largely unchanged from the original.  I’ve used ISA preamps on more sources for more recordings than I count.  If I’m doing a high-budget professional project, I want a combination of Daking and ISA pres on the drum buss.  Period.  Nothing else ever sounds as good to me.  Pound for pound, as far as I’m concerned, the ISA is the platonic workhorse preamp.  With all due respect to Focusrite’s now defunct Red series, I think the ISA is the better pre at half the price.  It makes perfect sense to me that, through the last quarter-century, no matter what else has changed, Focusrite has left their ISA preamps damn well enough alone.  Were I restricted to the use of a single type of preamp for the rest of my recording career, the ISA would make my short list of candidates.

Of course, these are boutique pres, and they carry a boutique sticker.  The 8 channel ISA 828, which is a fixture of major studios, is a $3000 unit.  Most of us are lucky to be able to budget that kind of money for our entire home studio.  There’s a reason why companies like Focusrite and Blue, who built their reputation on stratospherically expensive boutique pieces, expanded to and eventually focused the bulk of their marketing efforts on much cheaper lines.  You will not find yourself selling all that many $6000 microphones, but you will certainly find yourself selling a lot of $200 ones.  To be fair, some of the cheaper gear is still pretty good.  Focusrite’s own Saffire pres, for example, are eminently decent.  They’re clean, they have enough gain, they’re relatively detailed; they work.  Their price necessitates design compromises, and for the most part the right compromises have been made.  For most home studios they’re perfectly adequate.  But what if some of you uppity mortals decide you want a little taste of the good stuff?  Obviously you can’t afford eight of them, but what if you wanted just one ISA pre for lead vocals and the like?  Well my friends, may I turn your attention to the Focusrite ISA One.  Every laudatory statement I’ve made about any of the onboard preamps in any of the excellent interfaces I’ve reviewed (with the possible exception of the RME Babyface) you can pretty much shelve for the time being.  Because you’re about to get a crash course in the real elite.

Sound Quality

The ISA One is exactly what it sounds like: a single channel ISA pre, with an independent DI.    Focusrite also makes a version with an onboard ADC card, and while my review unit does not include it, my understanding is that it features the same converters you can purchase for the 428 and 828 series, in which case I can assure you the converters are excellent.  The DI, however, I can directly attest is top notch (my upcoming professional release actually features the ISA DI on electric bass).  Some may find it a touch harsh for a softer, jazz guitar type sound, but for grungier rock guitars and bass of any kind, it has a fat, growly bite that will send shivers down your spine.  It also has a surprisingly good onboard headphone amplifier (it’s as good or better than many of the entry-level to mid-range dedicated HPAs I’ve heard), which will give you latency free monitoring of the active inputs as well as playback of a line-level stereo signal through dedicated balanced back-panel inputs.  Gross gain is attenuated via a 4 step detented pot, and trim can be adjusted within a 20db range from there.  The sheer amount of available gain is monumental, so start out gingerly.  That said, with a picky ribbon, don’t be afraid to crank it up.  All that nasty noise you’d pick up from a cheaper pre simply will not be there, no matter how hard you drive it.

I’ve worked with ISA preamps in some incarnation or another for the better part of a decade now, so I have a fair bit of experience with how they react in a wide range of situations.  The short version is that they always work, and they usually work beautifully.  ISA pres don’t have quite the same crystalline transparency as some of the more renownedly neutral boutique pres, such as the Grace Design M201 or Benchmark MPA-1, and they sound positively fat next to the likes of a ‘straight wire with gain’ pre like the DACS Clarity or Earthworks ZDT 1024.  That said, they don’t have anything close to the kind of brashness or coloring of the classic ‘preamps of character’, such as the Neve 1073 or A-Designs Pacifica.  What they do have is unbelievably wide frequency extension which in turn gives it a very natural, organic voicing and excellent detail retrieval, and a touch of warm grain that you can either accentuate or minimize by changing the input impedance setting.  Different microphones will react differently to a given impedance setting (ribbons, for example, tend to prefer a higher input impedance), but as a general principle, go for the low-z or ISA 110 settings for a cleaner sound, and the mid-high z setting for an edgier one.  The differences are subtle though; regardless you will end up with a quite breathtaking, sweeping, open sound with tight, controlled lows and delicate, airy highs.  If you’ve never used a boutique preamp before, the ISA One is an ideal place to start.  You may find yourself wanting a more aggressive color for certain situations, and there is a camp that would argue that the ideal preamp essentially disappears, but for my money, ISA preamps are about as close to perfect everyday pres as you can find.

Design and Build Quality/Ease of Use

The ISA One is a stunningly good looking piece of gear.  The build quality is absolutely top notch: from the heft and feel of the unit in your hand to the hole-punched double ‘F’ venting on the sides, to the fit and finish on the indicators and pots, everything about the ISA One is done right.  The design is gorgeous; the all-metal casing and leather strap, the classic blue and yellow color scheme and old-school indicators and the awesome retro analog VU meter all give the ISA One an aura of days gone by.  It feels like a vintage piece in every sense, and that’s a huge compliment.  The ISA One is the exception that proves the rule that they don’t make ‘em like they used to.  It feels like it will last for decades, and given that the preamp topology hasn’t changed much in the last quarter century, odds are you’ll find yourself still wanting to use it right down to its dying breath.

If you’re accustomed to working with unnecessarily convoluted software control systems and sub-menus, the pure analog immediacy of the ISA One will likely be a refreshing departure.  It seems like psychosomatics, but for whatever reason, you will never experience quite the same kind of connection and control with a mouse and a computer screen that you will with physical buttons and knobs.  The ISA One is a very simple unit, and using it is utterly intuitive.  Just plug in your mic, rout the output to your converters, set your gain and impedance/phantom power settings and you’re good to go.  Straight out the box the ISA One has a very shallow learning curve, and if you have any experience with any kind of mic pres at all, you’ll have no trouble using any and all of its features.  Every input and every control is so thoughtfully laid out and precisely labeled that within minutes you’ll feel like you’ve had the unit for years.

Versatility/Value

I’m combining the two for the purposes of this review, because as far as I see it, price is going to be the primary factor that limits ISA One’s usefulness.  In terms of the versatility of the ISA One as complete unit, my only qualm is with the fact that it’s single channel.  There are enough instruments that I like to mic in stereo that only having one pre to work with limits the number of sources I can comfortably run through it.  That said, in terms of that pre alone, and what it can lend itself well to, if you didn’t gather by now, it’s probably the most well-rounded preamp I can think of.  It does have something of a more vintage sound on account of the slight bit of grain you’ll always end up with, but you can always count on an ISA preamp to deliver for you.  Precious few mics are too picky for an ISA pre to push.

At $500, however, the ISA One is essentially in a class of its own.  The only other single channel mic pres I can think of at that price are the True Systems P-Solo and the Grace Designs m101, both of which (but especially the latter) offer up some stiff competition.  And this presents two significant issues.  First, there are a LOT of good two channel preamps at that price range, and many situations simply necessitate a stereo micing setup.  Now, pure sound quality-wise, the ISA One is better than pretty much all of them, but at twice the price per-channel it should be.  Secondly, and more importantly, to justify this level of fidelity, you really need Apogee Duet grade converters or better, and at that point, from a price perspective, you could just as easily buy a unit like the RME Babyface that sports excellent onboard preamps (albeit still not in the same league as the ISA One, especially from a clean gain perspective) and freakishly nice conversion for a solid $250 less   Basically, my point is that the ISA One feels sort of like a ‘tweener.  From a studio perspective, I fear that for those who are looking to put together something small and low-budget, $500 for a single pre is just too much, and for those who are trying to build out a more professional-grade project studio, a unit like the ISA 428 or 828 is going to be more practical.

There are, however, two distinct niches where I see the ISA One as ideal.  The first is for singers, voiceover talents and solo instrument overdubs.  If all you need is a single, very high quality preamp, the ISA One will give you a level of fidelity that you’d be hard-pressed to match at its price.  For those who are a fan of ribbons as well, this is probably the only $500 preamp on earth that will give you enough headroom for quiet sources.  And given the quality of the independent DI, singer/songwriters could comfortably cut whole albums using an ISA one plus converter of choice alone.  The second is as a portable super-channel.  Especially if you buy it with the built in ADC, you could theoretically pair it with a unit like the RME Babyface that has ADAT in, and expand your ability to do quality overdubs or live micing exponentially.  You could run a set of overheads off the onboard pres and use the ISA One to power a single omni or figure-of-eight microphone for a more holographic sound, or to push a spot mic on a picky solo instrument like voice or trumpet.  You could get a quality drum sound using the ISA One to push a nice ribbon in front of the kit to pick up the toms and the kick, and use the onboards to power overheads.  I even know a couple of cats who use it as a super channel for live gigs.  Being able to pack it up and go is a major upside.

The Final Verdict

The Focusrite ISA One is an undeniably sexy piece of equipment, and a stunningly good sounding one at that.  The only question is going to be whether or not it fits your budget and needs.  If you find yourself in need of a single channel, truly boutique grade mic pre you can use with essentially any mic and on any instrument, and the ISA One can fit into your budget, I strongly recommend giving it a shot.  For the purposes of cutting demos and the like it’s probably a bit overkill; for the money it costs you might be better off just getting a really high-end all-in-one like the RME Babyface.  But if you want to be able to cut genuinely professional overdubs or voiceovers, or just have a single, portable super channel you can take anywhere to push your most important source, the ISA One is a real facilitator.  Make no mistake, this is multi-million dollar studio grade gear.  Think of it as the cheapest cure you’ll ever find for upgraditis.

Focusrite ISA One Review by ProAudioStar

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

In Dev Review: AKG Perception 820 Tube Studio Condenser Microphone

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.

Versatility

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.

Value

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

In Dev Review: RME Babyface USB Audio Interface

The RME Babyface

As I’m sitting down to write this review, my favorite album – Taylor Eigsti’s superb “Daylight At Midnight” – is playing through it on my vote for the best midfield monitors ever made: the Acoustech 8025s.  I’m writing more slowly than usual.  After every sentence I’m forced to stop, and sink a little deeper into the subtlety of what I’m hearing.  The spacious, enveloping, practically holographic imaging.  The powerful, controlled, deep bass extension.  The richness and detail of the mids.  The pristine treble, so effortlessly precise, and yet not fatiguing.  Out of curiosity, I turn the digital attenuator down as far as it will go, just to see how well it can maintain channel balance.  The stereo image doesn’t move a micron.  A smile creeps across my face, as I hear an especially tasty lick on the ride from the inimitable Eric Harland.  I don’t believe I’ve noticed it before.   My smile broadens as I anxiously anticipate hooking the Babyface into my Scherzo Andante and repeating the same process with my HiFiMAN HE-6 orthos.  And in the midst of this gleeful, childlike grin, Becca Steven’s haunting, smokey voice floats across the sound-field on “Between the Bars” and I literally start to tear up.  If this were a DAC and nothing more I’d tell you it was the bargain of the century.  Wolf will have to pry this from my cold, dead hands.

Of course, the Babyface is a whole lot more than a DAC.  It’s one of the most fully featured compact interfaces that has ever been made.  Fully balanced on both input and output?  Check.  Phantom powered pres?  Of course.  Hi-Z DI?  Yep.  Toslink I/O for both digital audio and ADAT, and support for up to an absurd 192khz sample rate?  You bet.  Dual headphone amps, each with a dedicated DAC, up to 8 configurable sub-mixes with simultaneous main and cue mix outputs, onboard DSP effects processing, 11 segment LED metering and fully recallable settings on nearly every parameter?  Why not.  Oh, and did I mention that the whole thing runs bus-powered via standard USB 2.0 protocol?  Only the Germans could possibly attire this with the epithet “baby” (I’m part Austrian, I get to make these jokes).  I have my gripes, especially with the ease of use and UI design, which I’ll get to shortly.  But it’s taxing the full extent of my willpower to refrain from just launching into a superlative-laden diatribe about the sickness of this unit.

A quick note before beginning, in the interest of full-disclosure, there will be many references and comparisons to the Apogee Duet in this review, because that’s clearly the competition here.  The Babyface looks like a Duet.  It has the same multifunction, all-purpose knob.  Many a PC-using friend of mine has been eagerly anticipating it as the ‘PC Duet.’  It even has the same ridiculous octopus-like cable assemblage attached to the back.  Given the price and corresponding feature increase, it would seem that RME designed the Babyface to one up the Duet.  My apologies for ruining the suspense, but I’ll tell you right now they’ve succeeded.  Don’t get me wrong: I love Apogee gear, and I especially love the Duet.  The Duet was the first interface I ever owned, and before it tragically died on me, it served my needs valiantly and with class and pizazz.  Apogee makes an excellent product, and their legendary converters need little introduction.  That said, this is hardly going to be a fair fight…

Design and Build Quality/Ease Of Use

Since pretty much everything else I have to say about the Babyface is laudatory, it’s probably best to get the monkey off my back up front.  The Babyface can be absurdly frustrating to use sometimes, especially if you’re trying to take advantage of its submix routing capabilities.  It literally took me an hour to figure out how to get the main mix to play on one HPA and the cue on the other.  The Total Mix FX software is confusingly labeled, and you’ll find yourself digging through the manual at first just to get around the basic functions.  Phantom power, for example, is enabled and disabled from a hidden context sub-menu on the input tracks.  There’s no hardware means to enable or disable it.  The list sort of goes on like this.

I give RME props for giving the Babyface so much functionality, and so many professional features, but at times it can all feel overwhelming.  The learning curve is too steep for what I imagine is its core use.  Yes, it’s very cool that I can create eight separate mixes, and dozens of groups, and rout them at will to any of the plethora of outputs, but in the vast majority of situations where I’m going to be using it, I’m going to have to have it set up and running as quickly and painlessly as possible.  To my mind, RME needs to take some of the baby fat off its UI, or at the very least create a more purpose-driven incarnation of the Total Mix FX software for the Babyface.  This is actually the primary area where RME could use to take a cue from Apogee’s Maestro software.  The Duet (which, in all fairness, has far fewer features), is entirely painless to use.  As a complete newbie six years ago, I never once struggled with it.

That said, a lot of what the Babyface can do that others can’t is incredibly useful.  For example, having two independent DACs for each headphone out, so that the engineer and the “talent” can have separate mixes, is an absolute Godsend.  So too is the I/O functionality for both S/PDIF and ADAT.  In essence, this feature lets me integrate the Babyface into a larger setup as a master clock, or for its excellent pres, at will.  It’s a seemingly small thing, but, as they say, the devil’s in the details.  And what’s important about these particular details is that they give the user immense flexibility.

As far as the physical plant is concerned, the Babyface is a beautiful unit.  It has a fittingly Teutonic heft in your hand and the fit and finish are stellar (I’m especially a sucker for the Blue color scheme). Small details, like the sexy metal flake finish on the primary knob, abound.  The LED metering excels in its functionality and elegance, and, while it might seem quite minor, I can’t stress enough how much I appreciate that RME includes a purpose-built padded carrying case standard, especially in light of its lone Achilles heel in the build department.  For those with any familiarity with the Duet, you know what I’m talking about already: the dreaded tentacle fetish cable dongle of doom.

Look, I understand why companies do it.  It helps keep the rest of the unit small and streamlined, and it’s cheap to make and cheap to replace if it ever fails (which I can guarantee you it will if you’re as rough on your travel gear as I am).  But I hate the breakout cables.  They look shoddy, they’re confusing, they have an infuriating penchant for getting tangled and, most importantly, they’re fragile, which is not a good for a unit that has to be roadworthy.  ALVA, the company RME has contracted out to build the Babyface’s breakout cables, has not even executed them well in my opinion.  The plastic tied, paper-printed indicators that let you know what cable corresponds to what function look like a DIY project, and the cable itself feels flimsy (though they seem to function without issue).  I’ve no doubt some enterprising folks will create an upgrade similar to the Breakout Box for the Duet, and I will begrudgingly go out and buy it.

Sound Quality

I don’t even know where to start.  So I’m picking the preamps at random.  They’re phenomenal.  My jaw is around here somewhere, though given how hard it hit the floor when I first heard these pres, I’m not sure it’s all in one piece.  Holy frackin’ schneikies!  Rich, subtle, enveloping warmth, beautiful top end air, clear and neutral but hardly cold or analytical sounding, detailed, musical … basically every superlative I can possibly think of.  For integrateds on a buss-powered interface?  You’ve got to be kidding me; it’s not even right how ridiculous these sound.  You’d be entirely justified in paying the $750 for the preamps alone.  For my personal musical palate, they have an absolutely perfect character.  They are immensely versatile, while still boasting the kind of depth and soul I usually associate with boutique standalone pres.  And they’re seemingly telepathic in terms of their response.  Want a fat, present sound?  Push yourself up on the mic and get a little proximity effect, and the Babyface pres will ooze with saturation in kind.  Want more air and delicacy?  Try a couple of small condensors as room mics with mid-gain.  You’ll think you were standing there.  And with 65 db of available gain, I can even push my pickier ribbons with them.  Suddenly, my Blumlein pair just became a viable option for room overheads on the go.  In case you’re wondering, this makes me ever so very happy.

And it only gets better from there.  In case my flowery intro didn’t clue you in to how wonderful the converters are, allow me to expound: these are hands down the best converters I’ve ever heard on a portable interface.  Ever.  They handily best the Duet, and they make the run-of-the-mill converters you’ll find on your average, big name, mid-price interface look a 6th grade science project.  They are as clear, detailed and resolving as their superb tech specs suggest they should be, but that’s only half the story.  Give the Babyface a spin around the block in the real world, and you realize that these are incredibly musical converters as well.  Just for giggles, I A/Bed the analog-to-digital converters against my Grace Design M201’s converter unit – which is something of a benchmark for me – using the M201 pres as the reference point.  Both excelled, but for my tastes the Babyface converters sounded richer and more natural.

As for the digital to analog converters, just re-read the intro if you need any reaffirmation of how heart wrenchingly beautiful they sound.  Even the clock on the Babyface is outstanding.  Just using the optical I/O to set the Babyface as the master clock for a friend’s system that centers around a Motu 828mkII (and I might note that optical is hardly as robust a word-clock signal path as BNC) made for a decidedly marked improvement in imaging and definition.

If I have any complaints at all here, it’s with the headphone amps.  Especially if you’re using both at once, they really don’t sport enough gain for pre-normalized tracks.  In a session I did with Jesse Mills, I was at or near max gain on every track.  The superb DAC still translates to fairly reasonable definition and clarity, but if you’re interested in the Babyface primarily for personal listening, understand that you will definitely want to invest in a quality dedicated amp.  As a point of reference, the integrated HPA on the Mackie Blackjack is considerably better.

Versatility

The flipside of the ease-of-use dilemma is that the Babyface does everything you could possibly want it to do short of making your coffee and washing your Pink Floyd pajama bottoms.  ADAT, S/PDIF and MIDI connectivity are all rarities in a compact interface, and the onboard DSP powered plugins that come bundled with the Total Mix FX software are surprisingly good, especially the reverbs.  And because they’re powered from the unit itself, you can expect next to no latency from them as well.  Yes, the Babyface is very complicated, but once you get used to it, you’ll realize that it’s capabilities rival that of much larger interfaces.  And thoughtful features like the aforementioned configurable cue mixes and recallable settings make the Babyface a very rewarding unit to invest the time into understanding.  The Babyface is equally at home nestling comfortably into a large existing setup, serving as the centerpiece of a growing one, or standing alone as a primary interface.  Its feature set is a genuinely versatile, useful one, that, combined with its superb sound quality, should make the Babyface an attractive unit for a wide range of users.

Value

The only other portable USB interface I can think of in this price range is the Sound Devices USB Pre2, which certainly has the features and pedigree to compete, though I don’t have any real experience with it beyond a few third party samples and word-of-mouth.  The Babyface is not a budget unit by any stretch of the imagination.  So it’s really a question of what you’re looking for.  You want the best possible sound quality you can get for $750?  As far as the gear I’ve heard, this is undoubtedly it.  But for that price you could get a full-rack interface, with 8 pres instead of two, many more inputs, bundled DAW software, etc.  If you need all of that, there are several excellent options in this price range.  But I can pretty much guarantee that none will sound anywhere near as good the Babyface.  I’d pay full freight for just the DAC.  Or just the preamps.  Hell, maybe even just the ADC and clock.  This is not quality you ever used to be able to get for under a grand.  The Apogee Duet is definitely the closest thing I can think of that I have any kind of real experience with, and this outclasses it in nearly every conceivable regard.

The Final Verdict

The Babyface is a knockout.  I was literally dancing around like a little kid when I first heard what this baby can do.  Sure, it’s pricey.  You could buy a legit full-rack primary interface for what this costs, and a good one at that.  Yea, it’s a royal pain in the padded petunias to get used to the maddeningly complex user interface.  If this is your first time around the block, get your feet wet with something like the Mackie Blackjack (which is a real standout for its sticker – you can check out my review of it here).  But the Babyface is in a class all of its own.  Every facet of its design – from the clock to the preamps to the converters – is stunning.  A number of my friends on Head-Fi have been asking me if I think this is a worthy PC counterpart to the Apogee Duet (whose converters have been, up to this point, the de-facto standard for the price point).  The answer is easily, and then some.  This is a straight up Duet killer.  Yes, it’s more expensive by a fair clip, but it does more, the converters are yet better, and the preamps are a lot better.  If I were Apogee, I’d be awful nervous right now.

About the Recordings: There are a number of competing schools of thought when it comes down to how to design the perfect preamp or microphone shootout. Converters, EQs, compressors and other pieces of outboard gear are fairly straightforward because you can simply run the same sample through each piece of gear you’re testing, but mic preamps, interfaces and microphones are a little more problematic. Ideally you want all your competitors recording the exact same source using the exact same ancillary equipment simultaneously, but that’s usually impossible. I’ve seen some shootouts simply mic their monitors playing back the same clip, and while that certainly helps to eliminate performance variables, I don’t think it really gives you a true and accurate sense of what a microphone or pre actually does on a given source. So I’ve opted to simply record the same short clip for each given sample, using the exact same settings and gain for guitar, and doing my utmost to maintain a consistent performance on vocals. There are definitely some slight variations, but most everything that can really affect the sonic signature – gain, tone, EQ, etc – was kept consistent.

Clean Guitar: This was recorded using an Epiphone Supernova played via a Marshall MG15CDR studio amp and recorded with an Avenson STO-2 microphone (an extremely neutral small-capsule omnidirectional pressure-transducer microphone that’s ideal for comparison testing because of how little it colors the sound on its own). All reverb and other effects were disabled, all tone controls were set at neutral, gain was attenuated at 75%, and Mogami Gold TS and XLR cable was used for all interconnects.

Overdrive Guitar: Same as above, except gain and volume were both set at 50% for the MG15CDR’s overdrive mode.

Male Vocals/Spoken Word: Using the same microphone and XLR cable as the guitar recordings, I sang a clip from the as-yet-unreleased song The Enlightened Paige, a piece I wrote for Wire Spoke Wheels’ upcoming debut release: After The World Ends, and spoke a short introduction to the Babyface test.

In Dev Review: Zoom H4N Handy Recorder

The Zoom H4n

About six months ago, my brother (a jazz pianist) asked me to record one of his sessions at Michiko to use as audition tapes for competitions and Grammy band.  He wanted to keep things organic, so I’d opted for a simple setup: a pair of Neumann KM-184s as ORTF overheads run into my Apogee Duet.  You would be amazed how professional a sound you can get with a quality portable interface – ideally something like the Mackie Onyx Blackjack or the Apogee Duet that sports very high quality converters and pres – and a matched pair of the right microphones.  As I was setting up, however, I noticed some very strange meter readings on the first channel for the Duet.  The input level was impossibly low and bizarre, random peaks kept popping up.  When I listened to the input monitor, my heart sunk.  The first channel was nothing but noise.  I tried restarting my system, cleaning the connections, even switching out the XLR cable, all to no avail.  The first channel on my Duet was dead.

As luck would have it, however, my brother had recently purchased an H4n to record some practice sessions and live shows.  To date, he had only taken advantage of its built-in small condensor mics, which, while very serviceable as far as onboard handheld recorder mics go, are most certainly not up to the task of a semi-professional recording.  However, the H4n also features a pair of external mic pres, replete with 48v phantom power.  I was dubious as to whether these would hold up well enough to power sensitive, highly detailed mics like the KM-184s, but with my Duet in the throes of a conniption fit, what choice did I have?  Well, to make a long story short(er), several of the recordings we did that day were of high enough quality that my brother included them in his debut professional release (a clip of which you can hear in the UAD-2 review sound samples).  Would it have sounded better with the Duet alive and well?  Probably.  Was I able to record something eminently usable with a battery powered box little larger than the palm of my hand?  You betcha.  Which makes the H4n a seriously useful piece of equipment, even if you don’t have to triage.

Versatility/Feature Set

The Zoom H4n is the swiss army knife of portable recorders.  The sheer amount of stuff it can do is staggering.  For starters, like most handheld recorders, it has a pair of reasonably high quality small condensor mics built in to the unit itself.  Unlike most recorders, however, these are mounted in an X/Y configuration (as opposed to the standard A/B), and can be rotated on axis to a 120 degree inclination to more closely emulate an ORTF configuration as well.  Both provide reasonably decent stereo imaging without inducing the kind of phase problems that an A/B cardiod pair often can.  The ORTF configuration can give you a fairly wide pickup angle as well.

Many a recorder would begin and end there, but for the H4n, that’s the tip of the iceberg.  Next up, the H4n also features two XLR combo jack inputs, sporting 48v phantom powered mic pres and Hi-Z DI functionality.  These can be used either in conjunction with or separately from the onboard mics, though if you use all four simultaneously, you’ll be capped at a 16/44.1 sample rate.  Using either the onboard mics or the external mics via the pres exclusively, however, the H4n is capable of up to 24/96.  The H4n also has three different limiter and compressor models that can be applied to the input source, about 50 or so effects, reverbs and amp models, and even a rudimentary onboard multitrack feature to allow you to track overdubs and to create up to four channel mixes with adjustable volume and pan information.  There’s even a mid-side decoder matrix!  I could probably fill this entire review with a laundry list of the H4n’s features.  To be honest, it’s maybe a tad overkill, but I’m not complaining.

Alas, all this goodness can drain your battery life pretty quickly; expect about 5-6 hours using the outboard pres and high sample rates.  However, if you only need to use the core functionality, an “economy” mode can extend the battery life to closer to twelve hours using only the onboard mics at 16/44.1 sample rates.  The H4n uses SD cards for storage, and comes with a 1gb card standard.  If you’re intending to take advantage of the higher sample rates, however you’ll definitely want to invest in a larger one.  An 8gb card should give you about 6 hours at 24/96.

Sound Quality

It’s worth noting up front that, for whatever reason, the H4n’s sound quality plummets when running off of AC power.  The pres, converters, even the DI all sound better when running off of battery power.  Bring some extra batteries if you need to, but basically forget that there’s even a power adapter to speak of.  I’ve also not had particularly good success running the H4n as an interface (which you technically can do).  So bear in mind that the caveat for all these notes is that you run the unit standalone, and off battery power.

The onboard mics are decent.  They’re clean and detailed enough for reference or maybe even a rough demo or practice tapes, but not really appropriate for any kind of serious recording.  You can use them in conjunction with a pair of external mics for added versatility, but given that you’re capped at 16/44.1 when you use four mics simultaneously, their value even as a supplement during any serious recording is questionable.  That said, they are very useful for jotting down rough ideas, recording a practice, even putting together a basic demo.  Compared to some of the onboard mics I’ve heard on other hand-held recorders, they’re definitely a cut above.  With the right placement and configuration, they’ll produce perfectly listenable takes.

The mic pres, however, are much more impressive.  No, they’re not really up to the same standard as a premium interface pre, like the Focusrite Saffire or the Mackie Onyx, but they’re relatively clean and neutral, and they have a respectable amount of headroom to work with.  They’re not the most detailed pres you’ll ever hear, but they don’t offend in any way, which is a feat unto itself given the size and cost of this recorder.  They do their job competently, which is all they have to do.  If you can’t get a good recording using these pres, the problem is probably elsewhere.

It’s hard to separate converter performance from mic pre performance on an all-in-one-box like this, but I’ve certainly not had any major problems to speak of.  As with the pres, the noise floor is acceptably low, and you won’t notice any major artifacts or intrusive distortion.  The digital to analog conversion and built in HPA are surprisingly clear and detailed.  Given that any situation that might call for the H4n’s use is probably not going to afford you a quiet booth to monitor levels in, this is actually quite valuable.  Paired with a decent set of noise-isolating IEMs, you can actually get a fairly accurate sense of the mix, even while standing in the middle of a live take, which makes tweaking microphone placement and preamp gain exponentially easier.

The combo jack inputs will also accept an instrument level signal, although, for whatever reason, true line level is a no-go (which I hope I’ve spared you from learning the hard way as I did trying to record the master line-outs from a live-sound mixer.  Not pretty).  And as DI’s go, these are not the strongest either.  My one experiment with a buddy’s Gibson SG-Z was mercifully brief.  The compressors and limiters are competent, but most of the amp models and effects are pretty amateurish.  You’re probably better off using your own plugins and processing in post if you have a decent DAW to import your recordings into.

Ease of Use

This is a bit of mixed bag.  The basic recording functions are pretty straightforward, especially if you’re just using the onboard mics.  It can take a minute for the unit to load up, especially if you have a larger SD card, but from there you can start recording with a single button press for quickly jotting down new ideas.  Of course, the H4n does a whole heck of a lot more than just basic sketch recording.  Some of the more advanced functionality can take a little bit of trawling and guess work to pin down.  However, once you familiarize yourself with the gestalt of the menus, switching modes, activating features, and even applying the DI models, limiters or compressors becomes pretty straightforward.  The one major exception is the multitrack mode.  To this day, for the life of me, I can’t figure out how to navigate it properly (although to be fair I haven’t really had much of a need for it as yet).

Value

The H4n is definitely on the expensive side for its class, but I really can’t think of another handheld recorder that does even a fraction of what the H4n does.  Two phantom powered pres, DI functionality (for what it’s worth), better quality onboard mics than most with more positioning flexibility and 24/96 capable converters (which are probably overkill given the quality of the pres and conversion itself, but still nice to have), is a lot of bang for your buck.  The sheer amount of stuff you can do with a Zoom H4n can be overwhelming at times, and I mean that in the most complimentary sense possible.  The H4n and a pair of decent small condensors are pretty much all you need to record a high quality demo.  People to play help too.

The Final Verdict

The H4n says in bold, italic script right on the front panel “handy recorder,” and I couldn’t agree more.  This is an incredibly valuable tool to have in a multitude of situations, and I make sure there’s one in my bag on pretty much every occasion.  You’d be amazed just how often you’ll find yourself with a need it can fill, and the sound quality is good enough to leave you with genuinely usable material for a wide range of purposes.  If you just want something slim and inconspicuous to throw in your bag as a sketching tool, this is probably not your best choice, but if you’ve been searching for the great pro-audio hobo-tool, you’ve found it.

In Dev Review: Zoom H4N Handy Recorder

About the Recordings: There are a number of competing schools of thought when it comes down to how to design the perfect preamp or microphone shootout. Converters, EQs, compressors and other pieces of outboard gear are fairly straightforward because you can simply run the same sample through each piece of gear you’re testing, but mic preamps, interfaces and microphones are a little more problematic. Ideally you want all your competitors recording the exact same source using the exact same ancillary equipment simultaneously, but that’s usually impossible. I’ve seen some shootouts simply mic their monitors playing back the same clip, and while that certainly helps to eliminate performance variables, I don’t think it really gives you a true and accurate sense of what a microphone or pre actually does on a given source. So I’ve opted to simply record the same short clip for each given sample, using the exact same settings and gain for guitar, and doing my utmost to maintain a consistent performance on vocals. There are definitely some slight variations, but most everything that can really affect the sonic signature – gain, tone, EQ, etc – was kept consistent.

All recordings done with the H4n’s onboard microphones were set at a gain of 40 (50%), and recorded in basic stereo pickup mode.  For the preamps:

Clean Guitar: This was recorded using an Epiphone Supernova played via a Marshall MG15CDR studio amp and recorded with an Avenson STO-2 microphone (an extremely neutral small-capsule omnidirectional pressure-transducer microphone that’s ideal for comparison testing because of how little it colors the sound on its own). All reverb and other effects were disabled, all tone controls were set at neutral, gain was attenuated at 75%, and Mogami Gold TS and XLR cable was used for all interconnects.

Overdrive Guitar: Same as above, except gain and volume were both set at 50% for the MG15CDR’s overdrive mode.

Male Vocals and Spoken Word: Using the same microphone and XLR cable as the guitar recordings, I sang a clip from the as-yet-unreleased song The Enlightened Paige, a piece I wrote for Wire Spoke Wheels’ upcoming debut release: After The World Ends, and spoke a short introduction to the unit.

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

In Dev Review: Blue Spark Cardioid Mic

The Blue Spark Microphone

You know In-Dev reviews is starting to take off when we get pre-release goodness to review! This time, we have the eagerly anticipated Spark microphone, a solid-state, fixed cardiod condensor mic from Blue, one of the most renowned and respected microphone companies in the industry. While many of their products easily break the four digit mark, the Spark’s ask is a head-turning $200, which makes it the least expensive professional microphone Blue offers. There is some stiff competition in this class and price range, including the AKG Perception 220, MXL V88, and countless low cost, high value Chinese made offerings, such as the Studio Projects B1 and C1 models, or the Apex 480. Even Blue’s own Bluebird microphone is not too far off.

Blue has one of the widest product ranges out there, offering everything from items geared toward the home-studio enthusiast, like the inexpensive Icicle preamp or Snowball USB mic, to truly boutique grade legends, like $6000 Blue Bottle microphone, and a host of other professional microphones at prices in between. The Spark looks like it’s designed to be the new entry in the latter category, and to be honest, the highly stylized presentation had me a little dubious at first. But having put it through its paces a bit, I’m happy to be able to report back that it’s actually quite good, if not (at least in my opinion) exactly what Blue makes it out to be.

Design and Build Quality

Seeing as most of my major qualms with the Spark revolve around its presentation, I figured we’d get this out of the way first. Before anything else, I’ll just go on record that the Spark is beautifully built. It has a surprising heft and weight to it for it’s size, and the construction is clearly quality from top to bottom, both for the mic itself and for the included shock-mount and form-fitted metal pop filter (which, unlike most other pop filters, actually screws onto the back of the case, guaranteeing perfect placement every time). The bright orange color and textured hard plastic finish of the body itself would not have been my first choice, but that’s hardly a show stopper.

From the second you open the box, however, the Spark’s highly stylized presentation hits you like a ton of bricks. The 50’s cartoon style of both the packaging and the manual feels lifted straight from Fallout 3 (whether intentionally or not), and while fun, takes away from the professional aura of the piece a bit. The purple prose and recording-for-dummies approach of the product manual is a little off-putting, as is the need to glorify a high-pass filter by calling it the “focus control.” This is not like the dark vs. warm settings or sides on something like the MXL V67i or the Crowley and Tripp Naked Eye. This is a simple high-pass filter, as Blue’s own comparative frequency graphs provided in the manual will attest to. And to market it as a unique feature that gives you two completely different characters is misleading. I would much rather have had a well labeled switch like most every other mic than have to remember whether in or out is on or off.

Once you get past the layering, however, and get to the mic itself, its class and pedigree is undeniable, especially given what a cheap date the Spark is. I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but the one outrageous claim they make in the manual that I have to agree with is that, as a singer, I always feel sexy singing into a Blue microphone. You can’t help but feel special when you’re singing through an all metal, custom fit pop filter with the name Blue emblazoned on it in all it’s retro glory. The Spark, like every other Blue microphone I’ve ever sung into, makes me feel like Dean Martin, and my singing edges just a little closer to that level of greatness as a result.

Sound Quality and Tone

Ultimately sound is always going to be the real meat of the matter, and this is where the Spark will live up to to its name. Despite Blue’s own assertion that the Spark is a largely uncolored mic, I found it be unusually colored for it’s class. The Spark is just that: a bright, highly saturated, somewhat aggressive sounding microphone replete with top end sparkle. It can and will fundamentally alter the sound and character of most sources you use it on, but as long as you recognize this, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Spark produces an undeniably desirable sound. Even in cases where you decide a different mic is more appropriate, it’s not because the Spark sounded bad. It’s actually a surprisingly versatile mic given how far off of neutral it’s voiced.

Given the Spark’s inherent depth of color, however, proper preamp matching is important. Things can get a little too saturated with the wrong preamp. I had the best results using neutral to slightly dark or warm of neutral preamps, like my Mackie Onyx pres or my Grace Designs M201. Especially with the latter, the detail retrieval the Spark proved itself capable of was really impressive. Home studio owners with fairly high noise floors will have to be sparing with their gain controls, however.

Having already established that the focus control is merely a high-pass filter, unless you have ambient noise you need to get rid of, or really want a nasally, bright sound, I’d stay away from it. The Spark, as I’ve said, is already a very bright, aggressive microphone, and, at least for my tastes, I almost always want the low end there. The rich, shimmery voice that makes the Spark so special to begin with thins out and starts to become grating with the high pass filter, ahem, I mean “focus control” engaged.

I am undeniably biased, but in my opinion the Spark really shines brightest on vocals. Again, keeping in mind that it does have a unique and less-than-subtle color, this mic can work beautifully on a fairly wide range of voices. The high-mids may be a little too pronounced for those with a more treble-heavy timbre (a.k.a. the Gretchen Parlato school of modern female Jazz vocalists), but I was extremely pleased with the results on my own voice, and I imagine the Spark’s tone would translate well to most similarly round voices. The Spark has all the right gestalt for a front and center microphone, and it’s probably the cheapest mic I’ve ever tried that I’d feel comfortable using for a lead vocal recording. Just be careful not to get to close to the capsule, as the included pop-filter, while doing an excellent job of not muffling the source, does not cut harsh transients as well as other filters I’ve used.

Versatility

One could easily be misled into thinking that the Spark is indeed yet another reasonably high quality utility mic at this price range, given how many sources it sounds excellent on. The Spark is a far cry from a “what you hear is what you get” type of mic, but so far I’ve yet to get it to sound bad. The tone may not always be what you’re looking for, but in my experience, once you’ve familiarized yourself with its voice, the Spark will behave fairly predictably based on your expectations. Its natural color will make most instruments sound fatter and a little treble rich, and as long as you know that up front, there are few sources I can think of that the Spark couldn’t be ideal for in the right situation. It’s worth noting that there are a number of good multi-pattern large-diaphragm condensors at this price point that are considerably more neutral, and hence suitable for more applications. That said, all price considerations aside, the Spark is a useful tool to have in your arsenal.

Value

There are many respectable microphones in this price range, but the sound of the Spark is essentially unique for its budget. It’s not clearly better than its competition, because I’m not sure it really has all that much competition. Simply put, I have not heard another mic in this price range that has this kind of tone and voice. The closest comparison I can think of is the Rode NT-2A, which is a fantastic microphone in its own right, and was actually the microphone I used for the vocals on my first album. At $200 for a mic of this character, the Spark may well be the only game in town. And when you place the Spark in the larger hierarchy of microphones, it boasts detail retrieval and sound quality that vastly exceeds its diminutive price. A number of the subtleties that distinguish a truly great mic from a good one are present on the Spark, and that too is a feat you’ll be hard pressed to match for a similar ask.

The Final Verdict

Once you get past the somewhat kitschy feel of the packaging and literature, you’ll realize that this is a phenomenally good sounding microphone for its price. Especially for lead instruments that you want to cut through a mix and stand out and shine, the Spark is easily the best choice you’ll find for $200 based on my experience with the competition. If you are putting together a recording setup on a budget, and you need one microphone that can add a little something special to nearly everything you throw it at, look no further than the Spark.

Blue Spark Cardioid Mic Review Audio

About the Recordings: There are a number of competing schools of thought when it comes down to how to design the perfect preamp or microphone shootout. Converters, EQs, compressors and other pieces of outboard gear are fairly straightforward because you can simply run the same sample through each piece of gear you’re testing, but mic preamps, interfaces and microphones are a little more problematic. Ideally you want all your competitors recording the exact same source using the exact same ancillary equipment simultaneously, but that’s usually impossible. I’ve seen some shootouts simply mic their monitors playing back the same clip, and while that certainly helps to eliminate performance variables, I don’t think it really gives you a true and accurate sense of what a microphone or pre actually does on a given source. So I’ve opted to simply record three different takes of the same short clip for each given sample, using the exact same settings and gain for guitar, and in this case using the same Onyx Blackjack preamps and converters attenuated to the same gain, and doing my utmost to maintain a consistent performance on vocals. There are definitely some slight variations, but most everything that can really affect the sonic signature – gain, tone, EQ, etc – was kept consistent.

The Blue Spark’s “focus control,” or glorified high-pass filter, was disabled for all recordings, as was the Shure KSM-44’s high pass filter, in keeping with the parameters of my prior microphone shootouts. The KSM-44’s pickup pattern was set to cardiod to match the Spark’s.

Clean Guitar: This was recorded using an Epiphone Supernova played via a Marshall MG15CDR studio amp and recorded into a Mackie Onyx Blackjack recording interface. All reverb and other effects were disabled, all tone controls were set at neutral, the amplifier’s gain was attenuated at 75%, and the Onyx preamp gain was attenuated at line level. Mogami Gold TS and XLR cable was used for all interconnects.

Overdrive Guitar: Same as above, except gain and volume were both set at 50% for the MG15CDR’s overdrive mode.

Male Vocals and Spoken Word: Using the same Blackjack interface (with preamp gain set to 30) and Mogami Gold XLR, I sang a clip from the as-yet-unreleased song The Enlightened Paige, a piece I wrote for Wire Spoke Wheels’ upcoming debut release: After The World Ends, and spoke a short introduction to the two mics.

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

In Dev Review: Universal Plugins and the UAD-2 Quad Flexi

Universal Plugins, and the UAD-2 Quad Flexi

When it comes right down to it, I’m an old-school, analog kind of guy.  If I had my druthers, I would have whole walls racked to the gills with every outboard goodie on the planet.  I’d track everything through a Helios console to Studer A800 reel-to-reel (GP9 tape, thank you very much) and have one of the last vintage Fairchild compressors on the planet as icing on the proverbial stereo buss cake.  I’d also have a submarine and a private island, and the ability to cause a rift in the space-time continuum that would have made John Denver decide to become a sushi chef instead of a crooner.  Alas, none of these  contingencies are in my foreseeable future (or sci-fi time warp pseudo past for that matter).  Which is why I am extremely grateful for Universal Audio’s plugins.

Historically, I have never been a huge fan of in-the-box EQing, compression or effects processing.  Most of the plugins and emulations I’ve worked with simply don’t sound right.  There’s something very unnatural and hollow to them, cheesy and plastic feeling almost.  One particularly well known set of emulations that shall remain nameless left me so frustrated after several Sisyphean hours of fumbling and tweaking trying to get anything to sound organic, that I actually had to call it quits on the day and go play Starcraft.  To be sure, there are many highly respected plugins out there, but to date none of the ones I’ve tried have ever really sufficed as a substitute for the real deal for me.

My long-time friend and engineering mentor Patrick Derivaz, however, has been using the UAD plugins for as long as we’ve worked together, and has always sworn by them, so needless to say, I jumped on the opportunity to give them a whirl and review them for Pro Audio Star.  Within about 48 hours of installing the review unit (a Quad Flexi card) I bought it, and spent the better part of the next two weeks exploring the trial libraries, getting a feel for which plugins I would end up using the most (as, it is worth noting, these are NOT cheap).  I’ve ended up using Universal plugins on literally every single project I’ve done since, with uncannily impressive results on each of them.  Simply put, these are the only plugins I’ve ever heard that can actually replace the real thing.  They’re that good.

Some Notes Before We Begin

For starters, it’s worth clarifying that the only difference between the Solo, Duo and Quad cards is the processing power (you can still run all the same plugins, but the more powerful your card, the more  instances you can run simultaneously).  The designation “Flexi” simply means that in addition to the DSP card and the seven plugins it comes bundled with, you get a $500 voucher to help you build out your library.  There’s also a Quad Omni package that includes nearly every plugin, and while it does represent a substantial saving over buying all the same plugins separately, at about $5,000, it’s probably not worth the investment to the average user who doesn’t really need a dozen different EQs and compressors.

I personally recommend the Quad Flexi for a couple of reasons.  First, while you’ll probably need to plunk down a little more on top of the voucher to put together a sufficiently flexible library, you’ll almost certainly find a legitimate need for at least $500 of additional plugins, so the $150 savings you’ll realize from going with the Flexi is a no brainer in my opinion.  The Quad card also represents the right amount of processing power to my way of thinking, at about 40-80 instances depending on the combination of plugins you have active (though some, like the Massive Passive for example, chew up a HUGE amount of resources, so it’s worth checking out the following chart for a more accurate overview).

Sound Quality

There are a lot of plugins to choose from, so your mileage will undoubtedly vary based on the ones you pick.  I still haven’t had a chance to check out the tape delays, choruses or the Moog.  Most everything I have tried, however, I’ve really wanted to hang onto.  Many of Universal’s original plugins, like the Precision Limiter and Cambridge EQ, are some of my favorites.  But for me, the defining characteristic of UAD plugins is that they sound pretty much exactly like what they’re supposed to sound like.  The Fairchild sounds like a Fairchild.  The LA-2A sounds like an LA-2A (as well it should given that it’s Universal’s own piece of hardware).  The Neve 1081 … well, you get the idea.  The point is that these really are the next best thing to the real deal.  To date, I’ve not used a single plugin that I’ve been disappointed by.

To try to go through and explain the sonic characteristics of each and every plugin would probably take me longer than my undergrad thesis did, so I’m not even going to try.  To be perfectly honest, some vague generalities aside, a lot of these, especially the compressors and EQs, can do and be a huge number of things.  I have tried to create a few samples for the Pultec, LA-2A and Fairchild that come bundled with the Quad Flexi card, as well as two of my favorite “character” plugins, the Studer A800 and the EMT 140, but remember that most of these plugins are eminently configurable, so don’t think of my recordings as representing their single defining sound.

Versatility

This, too, largely depends on the plugins that you end up purchasing.  The UAD library is vast enough that you could feasibly replace nearly every piece of outboard gear you’d find in a major studio with a comparably high quality plugin.  The maximum number of plugins you can use simultaneously depends entirely on which card you’ve purchased, though you can link up to four cards at once (which would allow you a seriously huge number of instances).  A single Quad card, however, should have plenty of oomph for a project studio.

Design and Build Quality/Ease of Use

Since we’re primarily talking about software here, I think of ease of use and design quality as going hand in hand, and, for the most part, these plugins are as intuitive as they come.  All the vintage emulations feature the exact same face plate or interface that you’d find on the physical hardware, and how your mouse will interact with the knobs is configurable as well (you can adjust to pull in a rotary manner, a vertical/horizontal manner, or simply click where you want the knob to pull to).  Universal’s original plugins (such as the Precision Mastering series) are well designed as well, and feel nearly as natural to work with as the analog emulations.

That said, the sheer number of controls you’ll see on certain plugins, such as the Dreamverb, can be daunting, and some do have a fairly steep learning curve.  You will have to understand what each knob means and does for a given plugin, and even on an ultra simple, two knob plugin like the LA-2A, it will take you some time and experience to get familiar with what you can expect each variable to do to your sound and mix, which plugins work best for which sources, how you should stack them in your output architecture, etc.  These are very advanced, powerful tools, and there are simpler and cheaper options out there for an amateur home-studio owner.

The card itself is a fairly unique feature, and given the power of the average Mac Pro these days, of varying value depending on the kind of work you’re going to be doing.  It does run very smoothly and efficiently though.  So far, in using UAD plugins essentially daily, I’ve had only the occasional minor hiccup, and with Universal plugins replacing most of my native onboard plugins for day-to-day use, I’ve had far fewer system overloads and crashes.  Then again, I routinely push my Quad card to the limits of what it can handle.  If you don’t see yourself often using more than about 20 or 40 plugins at a time, the Solo or Duo card may work just fine for you (again, keeping in mind that an emulation like the Massive Passive can max out a solo card all by its lonesome).  Just remember that if you run out of processing power on the card, you can’t rely on your computer to power more.  What your card can run is what your card can run, and while you can daisy chain multiple cards if you need to, without the value added by the bundled plugins, the card alone is unreasonably expensive.

Value

$1400 for a card and seven plugins is a lot of money, and I’m not the hugest fan of the fact that your onboard processor can’t be recruited to supplement your card’s processing power.  I also wish there were an option simply to buy a second Quad card without any of the bundled plugins for those of us who only need more processing power.  For that matter, given the power of many a modern workstation, it would be nice to have the option to use the plugins sans card.  That being said, if a single Massive Passive instance can chew up an entire core on my Quad card (whose Analog Devices SHARC processors are no slouches, I might add), I don’t even want to think about the kind of conniption fit my aging quad core Mac would pitch at having to shoulder it natively.

Minor quibbles aside, for my money, there simply aren’t plugins out there that can compete with the quality of Universal’s.  What’s ultimately most important is that these plugins sound nearly identical to their analog brethren.  When you consider that it would cost close to $50,000 to replace just the bundled plugins with their analog counterparts, the value of the UAD-2 starts to become more readily apparent.

A Quick Guide to Burning That Fiver

So let’s say you’ve decided to go the Quad Flexi route (which I wholeheartedly recommend), and you want to figure out what to spend that voucher on.  Tough decision to be sure, given the sheer number of quality plugins available.  Fortunately two of my absolute “must have” picks are already included: the LA-2A and the Fairchild.  There are many other excellent compressors available, the DBX 160 being one of my favorites, but between the LA-2A and the Fairchild you should be able to take care of most of your daily compression tasks, and the Fairchild can work wonders as a mastering compressor as well.

From there, it largely depends on your particular needs.  At $500 even, the Precision Mastering Bundle is a lot of bang for your buck for finalizing your mixes: the EQ is based on the Massive Passive (the plugin for which, by the way, is unbelievable, and if you can swing it, a worthy replacement for the mastering EQ), the Precision Multiband is the Swiss Army knife of dynamics processors – incredibly versatile and a real problem solver – and the limiter is easily the single most transparent brickwall limiter I’ve ever heard.  Especially on your final mix, if you’ve got a couple of gnarly peaky spots that are destroying the level of your pres, the limiter will subtly and effortlessly tuck them right back in.  In the age of the loudness wars, the Precision Limiter is an inoffensive way to compete without destroying the subtlety and dynamic range of your mix.

Another versatile package worth considering is the Cambridge EQ, the Precision Maximizer and the SPL Transient Designer.  The Cambridge EQ is a perfect complement to the bundled Pultec EQ: it’s one of their less expensive plugins and is easily the most versatile EQ they have.  It’s not a “twist a knob for instant character” EQ, but fortunately you have the Pultec for that, and the Cambridge is one of the most musical “precision” EQs I’ve ever worked with.  The Precision Maximizer is your glue; this is one of those powerful voodoo type plugins they won’t even clue you in to the workings of, but that tightens up everything effortlessly and can make your mixes really sizzle and pop.  Another good option for keeping up with the loudness wars without pounding your mix into the ground.  Finally, the SPL Transient Designer may seem like a strange choice here, but if you, like me, often find yourself recording in less than optimal spaces and settings, this is an absolute lifesaver.  This is the big boy gate: you can cut down on room noise and mic bleed effortlessly and transparently with this without anyone ever being the wiser.  And for those of us who don’t necessarily have dedicated booths for guitar amps, vocals and drums, I can’t stress enough how valuable that is.

Finally, if you have a set of daily use plugins you’re already comfortable with, and just want a couple of really cool toys to add to your arsenal, get the Studer A800 and the EMT 140 plate verb.  I’ve had the good fortune to work with the real deal a couple of times for each, and let me tell you, these are scarily close.  The A800 actually sounds like the original reel-to-reel, with the added versatility of your being able to swap or mix and match any of four different tape types instantly, adjust the bias and built in EQ as you wish, creatively use or eliminate tape hum and run up to 40 instances on a single Quad card.  Words cannot describe how awesome this is.  And while the Proverb plugin that comes bundled or the incredibly impressive Dreamverb plugin are ultimately more versatile, the EMT 140 plate verb has an enveloping tone and richness that is utterly unique and irreplaceable.  It has quickly become my go-to reverb for vocals.

The Final Verdict

These are the best analog hardware emulations I have ever used, and many of the best plugins I have ever used period.  They are very expensive, especially if you find yourself needing to run more instances than a single card will allow you to, but they are the only emulations I have ever heard that can competently substitute for their analog counterparts.  For less than I could have spent on a single compressor or EQ, the UAD-2 Quad Flexi has let me put together a complete mixing and mastering suite with a huge amount of flexibility and phenomenally good sound quality.  For the burgeoning home studio, these are probably not worth the expense, but if you’re looking to up the ante in terms of your ability to mix and engineer professional sounding albums, nearly everything you could possibly need to do that is all right here.  And make no mistake, these are hardly a poor man’s substitute for the real thing.  There are a couple of these plugins I actually prefer to their outboard counterparts.  Which simultaneously strikes fear and joy into my analog heart.

Universal Plugins, and the UAD-2 Quad Flexi by ProAudioStar

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

In Dev Review: MXL Genesis Tube Mic

Check out the video for The Bottom Line in a Brooklyn Minute, and the recording samples at the bottom of the page to hear for yourself.

Ah, the venerable valve mic. The great-grandaddy of modern condensor microphones. Along with the legendary RCA ribbon designs of the 1940s, Georg Neumann’s Telefunken U-47 valve microphone is, to this day, considered to be one of the greatest microphones ever made. Vintage U-47s in pristine condition can fetch tens of thousands of dollars on the open market. Heck, working original VF-14 tubes alone are worth thousands of dollars. For all intents and purposes, the U-47 is arguably the single most important microphone in history. Nearly every Beatles album featured it extensively, as did many of the defining recordings of the 50s and 60s, and Frank Sinatra reportedly refused to sing without his. Its warmth, lush mid-range boost, and unprecedented detail retrieval set the standard for tube mics (if not studio mics as a whole) to come.

Half a century later, it seems like every company is making a tube mic. Some are trying to emulate or reproduce the U-47, with many offerings even including the number 47 in the name somewhere. Others trace their lineage to the AKG C12 (probably the second most famous tube mic in history), and others still are trying to craft a tone and heritage of their own. The Genesis is gaining a reputation for being in the first camp: a bright, rich, flagship vocal microphone in the style of the U-47. So how does the Genesis stack up? Well, while I’m not lucky enough to have a vintage U-47 to compare it to directly, I do have a rebuilt U-47 that I’ve been working on for the past few years, using all original vintage parts except for the case, parts of the power supply, and the tube. I’m also going to shoot it out against the M-Audio Sputnik, a comparably priced modern tube mic with a very different character, and one of my own personal go-to microphones for vocals. Let’s get to it then!

Sound Quality and Tone

It’s important to note before we begin that this is not a mic for all occasions. The Genesis is definitely of the bright, bold, U-47 mold: not quite as dark or warm as many other modern tube mics I’ve heard, though certainly much richer than your average solid-state condensor. Even on vocals – the ideal source for this mic as far as I’m concerned – it’s not for everyone, or even every song. There may well be times when you want a darker, deeper sound (which the Sputnik provides in spades I might add), or for that matter a more neutral, even sound (for which there are dozens of excellent solid-state condensors). That being said, for what it is, and what it’s supposed to do, the MXL Genesis sounds unbelievably good. I was absolutely blown away by what this did to my voice; for my personal preferences, it was scarily close to perfect.

First off, the detail retrieval is stunning. I think of the Sputnik as having excellent detail retrieval, and this is in another realm entirely. Fine consonants and inflections sound clear as day on vocals, and subtle overtones and oscillations translate pristinely on the guitar. All the little nuances that are crucial to convey subtlety of emotion on a vocal take are right there, and I can’t stress enough how important that is. If the tone is right for your singer, this is a real show-stopper.

Tone, of course, is the most important part here, given that this is a valve mic after all. It is definitely a bright mic: not quite so round and mellow a mid-range or low end, but a gorgeous sheen and top end sparkle, and a very tight, well-defined bass (if perhaps a little lean at times). Some EQing is often necessary regardless of the mic you’re using, especially for vocal takes, but you still want to shoot for a microphone that gives you as close to the “right” sound as possible straight out of the box. For my own vocals, this is clearly that sound, and off the top of my head, I can think of about a dozen singers I know personally for whom this would sound ideal as well. Especially for rock vocals, this is in fact and indeed the tone you’re looking for. Something that will shimmer and shine and effortlessly slice through a mix like a stiletto without sounding grating or harsh. On the right source, I can’t imagine there are all that many mics that sound much better than this.

Versatility

As you may have gathered by now, a jack-of-all-trades the Genesis is not. It does sound quite natural on more sources than many tube mics I’ve worked with, but then again, I usually don’t think of tube mics as being superbly versatile in the first place. It’s also a fixed cardiod pattern, which does narrow its focus somewhat (if you’ll pardon a rather amusing pun). This is not necessarily a bad thing. If you’re looking for a single microphone that will work for a wide variety of instruments and sounds there are better choices out there, but odds are, if you’re not looking to build a pretty substantial collection of mics in the first place, you’re looking for one or two that work especially well for what you do. Most “versatile” mics sound pretty good on most things, and those kinds of workhorse mics are essential to have for any complete collection. But my guess is, especially if you’re a singer, you don’t really want your primary mic to sound “pretty good.” You want it to sound frackin’ sweet, and that is exactly what the Genesis will do on most voices. It also sounds really excellent on acoustic guitar and guitar cabinets, and you may well end up finding that it has the right sound for a number of percussive instruments as well. The trick here, as with most colorful mics, is to be willing to experiment a bit. Get a feel for its sound, and try it out on sources that you think that sound might work for. Sometimes it will, and sometimes it won’t. You’ll know when it does.

Design and Build Quality

Before I even touch on the equally colorful aesthetics of this mic, I should start by mentioning that the Genesis is very well put together. It’s a solid, heavy microphone that really feels well built. While I’m not keen on the fact that they only give you a hard wood case for the microphone itself (most other tube mics have cases that accommodate the accessories and dedicated power supply that tube mics need as well), the accessories themselves are of equally high quality. The power supply feels as sturdy as the mic, the shock mount attaches firmly and seems to provide good protection, and the included XLR 7-pin cable (a necessity for tube mics to carry power from the dedicated PSU) is Mogami cable, which should pretty much speak for itself. My favorite extra though is custom-fit metal pop-filter, which matches the gold tone of the microphone grill and can be fastened directly onto the main capsule body. It fits like a glove and it works (and looks) a heck of a lot better than your standard cheap cloth ones.

As for the design aesthetics, well, it’s definitely distinctive. It’s a huge microphone, the body and the power supply are both a bright, brick red and both the grill and the accessories sport a gold finish. It’s honestly up to you whether you find this tacky or sexy. I personally think it looks pretty fancy.

Value

There are cheaper microphones out there that will invariably sound better on certain sources. That’s pretty much always the case. There are also cheaper mics that will sound good on the same sources that the Genesis sounds good on. The Genesis is not a “cheap” mic. What it is, however, is a $500 dollar microphone that easily competes with $5000 microphones of a similar character. Understanding that it is, for all intents and purposes, a “boutique” grade investment that needs to be used for the right applications, I’m frankly floored by how good the Genesis sounds, and not just for its price. Keeping in mind that there are other excellent tube mics out there with a very different feel, for the kind of sound the Genesis gives you, the closest competition I can think of off the top of my head is the $1300 Peluso 2247, a phenomenal and extremely faithful reproduction of the original U-47. I’d have to listen to the Peluso again to make a good comparative judgment, and that alone is high praise.

The Final Verdict

The Genesis is a stunning microphone. You will have to play around with it to find what it shines the brightest on, but singer/songwriters take note: this is your big label sound on your GB gig budget. The level of sheen, detail, brilliance and shimmer you can get out of the Genesis is unlike anything else I’ve ever heard south of a $1000. In spite of the fact that I own several excellent tube mics, most costing several times what the Genesis costs, the good folks at Pro Audio Star are not getting this back. I can’t think of a more stirring endorsement than that.

MXL Genesis Tube Mic Audio Comparison by ProAudioStar

About the Recordings: There are a number of competing schools of thought when it comes down to how to design the perfect preamp or microphone shootout. Converters, EQs, compressors and other pieces of outboard gear are fairly straightforward because you can simply run the same sample through each piece of gear you’re testing, but mic preamps, interfaces and microphones are a little more problematic. Ideally you want all your competitors recording the exact same source using the exact same ancillary equipment simultaneously, but that’s usually impossible. I’ve seen some shootouts simply mic their monitors playing back the same clip, and while that certainly helps to eliminate performance variables, I don’t think it really gives you a true and accurate sense of what a microphone or pre actually does on a given source. So I’ve opted to simply record three different takes of the same short clip for each given sample, using the exact same settings and gain for guitar, and in this case using the same Onyx Blackjack preamps and converters attenuated to the same gain, and doing my utmost to maintain a consistent performance on vocals. There are definitely some slight variations, but most everything that can really affect the sonic signature – gain, tone, EQ, etc – was kept consistent.

All pads and high pass filters were disabled for all three microphones, and the Sputnik’s and rebuilt U-47’s pickup patterns were set to cardiod to match the fixed cardiod pickup of the Genesis.

Clean Guitar: This was recorded using an Epiphone Supernova played via a Marshall MG15CDR studio amp and recorded into a Mackie Onyx Blackjack recording interface. All reverb and other effects were disabled, all tone controls were set at neutral, the amplifier’s gain was attenuated at 75%, and the Onyx preamp gain was attenuated at line level. Mogami Gold TS and XLR cable was used for all interconnects.

Overdrive Guitar: Same as above, except gain and volume were both set at 50% for the MG15CDR’s overdrive mode.

Male Vocals and Spoken Word: Using the same Blackjack interface (with preamp gain set to 30) and Mogami Gold XLR, I sang a clip from Lost Under the Sun, the opening track on my upcoming album, Tears of Men, and spoke a short introduction to the microphone tests.

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

In Dev Review: Mackie Onyx Blackjack Interface


Check out the video for The Bottom Line in a Brooklyn Minute, and the recording samples at the bottom of the page to hear for yourself.

Mackie’s Onyx 1620i mixer has historically been a favorite of mine: it’s intuitive to work with, the feature set is well thought out and genuinely useful and, most importantly, it sounds killing, especially for the price point. With the Onyx Blackjack, Mackie has taken several of the components from the Onyx mixers and packed them into a relatively low cost, compact, bus-powered 2×2 interface called the Blackjack. At $200 street, the Onyx is entering a crowded market: there are several interfaces in that price range and literally dozens within a $100 of it. So why buy the Blackjack? Read on Macduff…

Feature Set

The Blackjack is admittedly pretty spartan. There are 2 Neutrik combo jack ins (XLR and 1/4”) and 2 1/4” monitor outs (balanced or unbalanced) on the back panel, a headphone out and “To Mon” control, which mixes the active recording input in with the monitor and headphone outs for essentially latency- free monitoring. Both inputs feature Hi-Z instrument DI capability and 48v phantom powered mic pres. The unit itself is bus-powered and core-audio compatible (no special drivers needed), and the converters feature sample rates up to 24/48. If you need S/PDIF or MIDI connectivity, or a higher I/O count, consider instead the likes of the comparably priced M-Audio Fast Track Pro or Focusrite Saffire 6, or the slightly more expensive Presonus Firestudio Mobile or Echo Audiofire 4.

On the flipside, while many of you (like me) will already have a DAW you’re comfortable working with, for those just getting started, it’s worth noting that the bundled Tracktion 3 production software is uncommonly capable: unlimited tracks, a high quality 64 bit, 192khz capable engine and eminently decent bundled plugins coupled with VST compatibility for 3rd party plugins are features you usually won’t find in the freebie DAW that comes with your budget interface. It’s one of the easiest DAWs to wrap your head around too, with most of the functionality accessible from a single main screen. No, it’s not Logic or Pro Tools HD, but it’s not an “LE” DAW either. I’d take this over any other bundled DAW out there for an interface at this price range.

Sound Quality

Basically it rocks. There’s nothing at this price range that can TOUCH the Onyx. Even the headphone amp (which is usually an afterthought on even relatively high end interfaces) sounds surprisingly decent, provided you’re not trying to make it push picky phones like AKG K701s or the like.

The Cirrus Logic AD/DA chips are pretty much the same ones you’ll find on comparable Focusrite interfaces, but chips alone only account for part of overall converter performance (which is why you should always take quoted performance specs, especially A-weighted chipset S/N ratio, with a grain of salt. Your converters are never going to perform as well in the real world as these best case scenario numbers make them out to). That said, the conversion is excellent. DA conversion sounds well defined and dynamic, with good stereo imaging and frequency extension, and the AD is low-noise and detailed.

But it’s the preamps that really just kick the competition to the curb. Most preamps on interfaces at this price range are trash, and even the ones that are decent (like the Presonus XMAX or Focusrite Saffire pres) are largely soulless. They’re fairly clean, they’ve got a decent amount of headroom, usually they’re pretty neutral, if anything they’re a little bright and “airy” sounding. They work. The Onyx pres are a totally different beast. These pres actually have some warmth and character to them (which is damn-nigh unheard of for a compact interface). They’re detailed, they’re rich, they’re maybe even a little dark of neutral. They don’t sound generic, which is more than I can say for the pres on any other bus powered interface I’ve ever tested. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they “meet or surpass expensive, esoteric standalone mic pres” per Mackie’s purple prose (trust me, Grace Designs and Universal are hardly shaking in their little space boots), these are far and away the best pres $200 will buy. There aren’t even standalone pres I’ve heard in this range that compete.

When you start to understand just how high a level of sonic quality the Blackjack represents, you realize that the real competition is the likes of something like the $500 Apogee Duet (which is a fantastic piece of gear I might add). I’d take the Apogee converters over the Cirrus Logic ones in the Blackjack, and the Onyx pres over the Duet’s. Factor in a few other respective limitations, like the Duet being Mac only and questionably roadworthy, and the Blackjack’s sample rate being capped at 24/48, and it’s basically a toss-up. Which, given that Blackjack is just north of a third the price of the Duet, is frankly unreal. Serious props.

Design and Build Quality

It’s a Mackie: it cannot be destroyed (not that I’d recommend you try). Nothing about the Blackjack feels flimsy or cheap. The case is powder-coated metal, the pots feel solid, the unit itself has a nice heft to it; everywhere you look it exudes quality workmanship. True to its name, you could probably use it for hand to hand combat and it wouldn’t break a sweat (again, not that I recommend you try this at home, no matter how thick your drummer’s skull is).

Ergonomically, it’s extremely well thought out. Everything is nicely spaced and easy to access, the controls feel solid and precise and the 25 degree angle that it sits at on your desk is one of those “why has no-one ever thought of this before” design features. It makes it so much easier to see what you’re doing, and make fine adjustments.

My one major gripe is that, while the Hi-Z DI setting can be engaged individually on either input, phantom power must be enabled or defeated for both inputs simultaneously, which essentially makes it impossible to combine condensor microphones with ribbon mics or certain instrument ins (though dynamic mics will still function fine). I’m sure there was a real technical roadblock somewhere that made it infeasible for Mackie to provide individually defeatable phantom power, but it’s still a royal pain in the butt sometimes.

Ease of Use

The Blackjack is about as straightforward as they come; you plug it in and it works. It’s plug and play, it integrates painlessly into pretty much every major DAW, and there aren’t very many controls to worry about. Plug in your microphone(s), engage the phantom power if you need to, set the gain where you want it and press record. Use the “To Mon” as a ‘more me’ knob, and you’re good to go. Just make sure you mute your active channels in your DAW or you’ll get some real nasty latency echo.

The bundled Tracktion 3 software is also Garageband levels of easy to use (albeit much more capable). Nearly every major function is easily accesible from a single screen, and the workflow feels very natural and intuitive for the most part. For the non-techie musician out there who still wants to be able to do some high quality recording on a budget, you’re not going to find a better combo than the Blackjack and Tracktion.

Value

Assuming you don’t need any of the features or connectivity the Blackjack doesn’t offer, its price to performance ratio is unparalleled. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: nothing at this price range comes anywhere close to offering this level of sonic fidelity. And given that the hardware alone is an outstanding value, if the quality bundled DAW is something you actually need, the Blackjack’s value is absurd.

The Final Verdict

The Onyx Blackjack is the cheapest product I know of that can boast a truly professional level of sound quality, and that’s before you even take into consideration the eminently competent DAW it comes bundled with. It’s a lean, mean recording machine, and if you don’t need more functionality than it offers, it’s a no brainer choice. Even if you’re a professional engineer with a studio full of sexy boutique toys (that clearly I covet), the Blackjack still deserves consideration for mobile and live sound recording. In short, the Blackjack is a serious winner. Kudos to Mackie for making a ‘quality over quantity’ budget interface in a sea of mediocre alternatives.

Mackie Onyx Blackjack Audio Comparison by ProAudioStar

About the Recordings:
There are a number of competing schools of thought when it comes down to how to design the perfect preamp or microphone shootout. Converters, EQs, compressors and other pieces of outboard gear are fairly straightforward because you can simply run the same sample through each piece of gear you’re testing, but mic preamps, interfaces and microphones are a little more problematic. Ideally you want all your competitors recording the exact same source using the exact same ancillary equipment simultaneously, but that’s usually impossible. I’ve seen some shootouts simply mic their monitors playing back the same clip, and while that certainly helps to eliminate performance variables, I don’t think it really gives you a true and accurate sense of what a microphone or pre actually does on a given source. So I’ve opted to simply record three different takes of the same short clip for each given sample, using the exact same settings and gain for guitar and bass, and doing my utmost to maintain a consistent performance on vocals. There are definitely some slight variations, but most everything that can really affect the sonic signature – gain, tone, EQ, etc – was kept consistent.

Clean Guitar: This was recorded using an Epiphone Supernova played via a Marshall MG15CDR studio amp and recorded with an Avenson STO-2 microphone (an extremely neutral small-capsule omnidirectional pressure-transducer microphone that’s ideal for comparison testing because of how little it colors the sound on its own). All reverb and other effects were disabled, all tone controls were set at neutral, gain was attenuated at 75%, and Mogami Gold TS and XLR cable was used for all interconnects.

Overdrive Guitar: Same as above, except gain and volume were both set at 50% for the MG15CDR’s overdrive mode.

Bass Guitar: This was recorded as a DI, using an ESP LTD F-204 and the same Mogami Gold instrument cable. No amp modeling was used, and all tone controls were set to neutral.

Male Vocals: Using the same microphone and XLR cable as the guitar recordings, I sang a clip from the as-yet-unreleased song The Enlightened Paige, a piece I wrote for Wire Spoke Wheels’ upcoming debut release: After The World Ends.

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