Microphones need to be more than just microphones now.
The latest in the trend towards USB microphones that come with multiple on-board functions is the Audio-Technica AT2020USB+, a side-address cardioid condenser mic that carries its own A/D converter, mix control, and headphone jack with volume control. Beyond music recording, the additional features make it a natural for podcasts and VO work, as well as mobile recording.
The AT2020USB+ will be available this month for an MSRP of $279.00.
If you like the thought of a mic that does more than just capture sound, read on. Here are the full details from Audio-Technica:
Audio-Technica is debuting its AT2020USB+ Cardioid Condenser Microphone. Equipped with a USB output, this microphone is designed for digitally capturing music or any acoustic audio source employing users’ favorite recording software. The AT2020USB+ offers studio-quality articulation and intelligibility perfect for home studio recording, field recording, podcasting and voiceover use.
The AT2020USB+ features a built-in headphone jack with volume control that allows users to directly monitor their microphone signal in real time, and a built-in high-output internal headphone amplifier that delivers superior clarity. The microphone also offers mix control that can blend the microphone’s signal with pre-recorded audio (perfect for DJ/karaoke use). The unit’s cardioid pickup pattern delivers excellent off-axis rejection, while its A/D converter, with a 16-bit 44.1/48 kHz sampling rate, ensures extremely articulate sound reproduction.
The microphone is compatible with Windows 7, Vista, XP and 2000, and Mac OS X. It is powered from a USB Bus and includes a tripod desk stand, stand mount, USB cable and soft protective carrying pouch.
The AES Convention has always been a time for new product announcements, and this year was no different.
Although there were markedly fewer exhibitors this year than usual, almost all of the companies that did show up seemed to be announcing new tools, which ranged from the practical to the idealistic to the downright unexpected. Companies with nothing to announce, it seemed, just stayed home.
This convention was at its leanest on the software front, with many of the biggest players in that field sitting out. Absent were giants like Apple, Avid, and Steinberg, and this allowed smaller companies like SoundToys, Sonnox and iZotope to soak up the lion’s share of the exposure on the plugin end.
SoundToys announced their new full-fledged Radiator saturation plugin, and made clear that this quirky-yet-satisfying tone shaper and last year’s Devil Loc plugin mark the beginning of a whole new series of plugins that aim to recapture the sound of classic unique-and-boutique audio processors.
Meanwhile, Shadow Hills took a surprise leap into software, unveiling their own Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor Plugin, made in conjunction with brainworx for UAD.
But what little software that was on display did not focus solely on emulation and re-creation.
For their part, iZotope unleashed Trash 2, a forward-looking plugin devoted to “audio mangling, distortion, and experimentation.” Then, in a display of a 180-degrees of diversity, the company announced the decidedly more pragmatic and mild-mannered Insight – a multifunction loudness meter made to ease compliance with the new CALM Act, which regulates audio levels for broadcast.
Two Visions for the Future of Analog:
A Return to 20th Century Simplicity, or a full Embrace of 21st Century Digital Control
A few companies this year introduced dazzling new products with a vintage bent. Eric Valentine’s UnderToneAudio was chief among them. Their custom consoles and channel strips – developed with Larry Jasper of Quad Eight – are about as uncompromising as a pure analog circuit can get.
The same might also be said for UTA’s all-tube UnFairchild Compressor, which takes the smooth, thick tone of the original Fairchild and adds a little bit of muscle and few, significantly more useful, attack and release presets.
But for every vintage-minded developer like UTA or Tree Audio or Mara Machines, it seemed there were two manufacturers intent on bringing digital features to analog circuits. A couple of high-profile new hybrid consoles promised to combine the best of both analog and digital workflows.
Focusrite for one, joined forces with Audient to release the 2802 Console, a compact analog mixing desk and summing unit. It comes complete with insert points, motorized faders, and digitally-controlled analog VCA bus compressor.
All this means that the 2802 integrates easily with both analog rack gear and DAW-based, fast & easy recall. With a prestigious collaborator like Audient and a street price around $5,000 it wouldn’t be surprising if this tactile, recallable analog mixing board makes a major dent in the hybrid mixing market.
On the higher-end of this concept, SSL released the new Duality Pro-Station, an analog/digital hybrid that places the DAW front-and-center and includes SSL’s recently developed A-FADA automation system.
Simply put, the hybrid Duality Console is a full-scale analog desk designed for digital work flow. It can easily follow the automation written into a DAW, making complete and instant recall painless.
There’s even a new 500-series Pultec EQ (BetterMaker) that offers complete digital recall and a USB port built right into the front panel.
Two Competing Visions for the Future of Digital:
Turn off Your Screen, or Turn it into the Main Attraction
Two of the most unexpected announcements revolved around the unveiling of digital audio systems that represent a true break from the norm.
The makers of RADAR emphasize build quality, the sound of their AD converters, and the robust simplicity of the system’s analog-style workflow over the bells and whistles of the modern desktop DAW.
That final point is where RADAR is fundamentally unique. It is in essence, a reliable, straight-forward hard-disk recorder and has a lot more to do with the tape machines of yesteryear than the screen-based DAWS of today.
The platform does offer some editing ability, and even an optional touch-screen to access the menus. But don’t expect to mix on it or run any plugins. On the other hand, don’t expect to worry about version compatibility, software updates, virus checks, eye strain or the distractions of email and YouTube.
This straightforward recording system demands a conventional recording console, relies on inexpensive and easily swappable solid state drives, and promises rock-solid reliability without system crashes and pinwheels of death.
On the other end of the spectrum lies Steven Slate’s Raven control surface and interface.
This unprecedented mixing system occupied the busiest booth at the entire convention. Even as the events simmered down on the final day, crowds thronged this 46” touchscreen, and onlookers gently elbowed their way in for a closer look.
But despite its forward-looking concept, the crowds did not seem to view the Raven as a curiosity, but rather as a pragmatic and logical next step in the evolution of the DAW. The majority of the under-40 crowd it seemed, could see themselves working happily on a system like this one.
Slate, for all their focus on showmanship, clearly put some serious thought and effort into making the implementation of this idea was as well-realized and feature-rich as any mature technology.
As of showtime, a few bugs remained, but they did nothing to reduce the excitement surrounding this touch-control system and proprietary HUI-based mixer.
To even begin to detail its surprisingly feature-rich implementation would require an article of its own. Suffice it to say that once perfected, the Raven is sure to become a viable new approach to studio control. And buyers are already lining up for it.
Microphones: A Quiet Revolution
Every year, the floor at AES is filled with lust-inducing high-end microphones that either faithfully recreate or aim improve on the classics. But often, there’s at least one standout that represents a clear break from the past. This year, there were two.
First was the Audio-Technica AT5040, a new flagship for the company which is meant to overtake the underrated, all-tube 4060 as the foremost ambassador of the line.
What makes the 5040 so remarkable is what’s under the hood. Instead of a single capsule, 4 matched diaphragms combine to offer an exceptionally large surface area and remarkably low self noise, without the transient smearing that would normally come from the added mass.
It’s a truly new vision for how capsules can be made, and what they can achieve, and brings together the best features of large and small diaphragm condensers.
Another set of microphones, the Sennheiser 9000 are a clear leap forward for live and broadcast engineers.
The 9000 series is likely to be overlooked by the studio press, as wireless units normally are, but they offer hidden implications for the studio world.
At its core, the 9000s are top-shelf wireless microphones with long-lasting rechargeable batteries and interchangeable capsules. But what makes them so groundbreaking, is that their digital capture is at a resolution of 24/96, and falls after an extremely short signal path built right inside the microphone.
After tens of millions of dollars in R&D over the course of a decade, the 9000 series represents a true raising of the bar in professional wireless. It is the first inarguably lossless wireless mic system, and its modular and expandable rackmount receiver means that buying channels in bulk can become increasingly tidy and cost-effective.
It may take some time for us to feel the true impact of these developments in the studio world, but the idea of an uncompromising wireless recording studio has just become radically more feasible. Within another 10 years, it might not seem so strange a concept at all.
500 Series Grows, Monitors Adapt
Two of the most consistent growth areas at this AES over the past couple years have been in the expansion of the 500 series units and the evolution of monitoring systems for DAW-based studios.
In addition to the previously mentioned BetterMaker, several vintage-inspired modules cropped up to got some serious attention: Daking revealed both a new 500 series compressor and EQ, Warm Audio released an API-inspired preamp, Moog introduced an analog delay, and Heritage Audio came out with an uncompromising re-creation of the Neve 1073.
Of course, all those new tones don’t matter much if you can’t hear them. Recognizing the need for superior monitoring options, high-end companies like Grace and Burl introduced practical systems for console-free rooms, while Lavry introduced their new Latency Killer — a “Zero-Latency Cue Mix System.”
Meanwhile, ADAM, one of the fastest growing high-end speaker companies took a step into the aspiring prosumer market with their new F Series. The price? Just half that of their affordable, high-performance A series. They, like so many growing companies, have discovered that the best way to expand market share is sometimes to open up to entirely new ones.
At AES this weekend, Audio-Technica launched their new flagship 50 Series of high-end studio microphones with the all-new AT5040 Cardioid Condenser mic.
In development over five years, the hand-built AT5040 side-address condenser was designed for realism and depth, presence and purity of sound.
Featuring a proprietary element design, the AT5040 employs four ultra-thin (2 micron) rectangular diaphragms that function together providing combined surface area unachievable in a standard round diaphragm.
Designed as a high-fidelity vocal microphone with smooth top end and controlled sibilance, the AT5040’s large-diaphragm characteristics and fast transient response also make it suitable for recording acoustic instruments such as piano, guitar, strings, and saxophone.
The AT5040 Cardioid Condenser Microphone, the first model of the new 50 Series, will be available January 2013 with a U.S. MSRP of $2,999.
Here’s what Audio-Technica had to say about the design process of this significant new product:
“The first of A-T’s design criteria for the AT5040 was purity of sound. To achieve this, A-T engineers developed a four-part rectangular element, the pinnacle of recent breakthroughs in sound-capture technology. Four exquisitely matched diaphragms function together (with outputs proprietarily summed) as a single high-performance element – effectively the largest element Audio-Technica has ever created. By using four diaphragms as a single capsule, the AT5040 achieves remarkably large surface area without the increased weight and decreased transient response that are the expected limitations of expansive size.
“Another key AT5040 design feature is advanced internal shock mounting that effectively decouples the capsule from the microphone body. For additional isolation, each AT5040 is also provided with Audio-Technica’s new AT8480 shock mount. Featuring a proprietary design, the AT8480 was engineered not only to isolate the microphone, but to rid the apparatus itself of any unwanted resonances and other audio aberrations that could be transmitted to the microphone. It also features a unique locking mechanism that holds the microphone securely in place.
“Every AT5040 is hand-assembled and inspected for 100% quality control and is housed in an elegant case of aluminum and brass with gray chrome plating for durability and low reflectivity. Discreet components have been selected for optimized capsule performance; in fact, every aspect of microphone has been carefully considered to minimize any effects on the audio signal. To protect the AT5040, each microphone comes in a custom-designed hard-shell carrying case, padded with die-cut foam compartments for the microphone and shock mount.”
Click for more details.
As digital recording has become the norm, many tools that engineers once took for granted have disappeared from recording studios. But it’s one of the ironies of the DAW-age that the embrace of computer recording has led directly to the comeback of one technology that’s even older than tape itself. Today, we’re talking about the triumphant return of the pressure-gradient ribbon microphone.
Below are my personal picks for the three contemporary classics against which all other ribbon microphones can be judged.
The Coles 4038 isn’t just one of the best ribbon microphones you can get for under $1,500 – it may also be one of the best microphones ever devised. In my book of vintage studio staples, the Coles 4038 would sit right up there alongside the most iconic designs from Neumann and AKG.
Unlike most of its condenser cousins, the Coles 4038 has remained completely unchanged for almost 40 years. The mic’s true legacy goes even further back than that, in fact, and buying a new one today is a whole lot like picking up an original off of the BBC’s private production line back in 1955.
The 4038′s smooth, natural, and textured sound makes it a beautiful performer on drums, strings, room and piano. It’s also a knockout on a good-sounding electric guitar amp, and it can even work well on vocalists who could use a little softening around the edges.
The top-end on this microphone rolls off sooner than many modern ears would expect, but that’s half of its charm. While the 4038 is not a natural choice for sounds that need to cut through a mix, it’s famous for taking EQ well, and a high-frequency boost in the right place can make the mic shimmer like satin does.
Still, don’t let the 4038′s balanced, gauzy timbre fool you: In the right scenario, this microphone rocks as hard as anything.
Royer SF Series
The Royer R-121 is about as far as a ribbon mic can get from the Coles 4038. On horns or electric guitars, it’s got balls, body, and bite all at once, and it’ll make your Shure SM57 sound razor-blade thin by comparison.
The R-121 may also be one of the best-marketed ribbon mics of the modern era, and it’s secured its place in the audio zeitgeist no matter what I have to say about.
Although I like the 121, I don’t believe it’s the magic bullet it’s been made out to be. I reserve that designation for another series of Royer ribbon mics that I believe stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best in the world.
Royer’s mono SF-1 microphone is now discontinued, but when it came out it was probably the best ribbon mic to hit the market since the Coles 4038. It even outperforms that old classic in some ways: the SF series handles hotter SPLs without breaking up, it rolls off less significantly in the high-frequencies, and it can sound slightly more controlled in the bottom end. All this comes in what’s a remarkably small package compared to the Coles.
At the moment, the SF is only available in fixed-stereo configurations, where it excels as both a room and a remote-recording microphone, especially for classical and jazz. In fact, if you can get one stereo SF-12 or SF-24 in a good-sounding space with a great ensemble, you might not even need another mic.
Although it was never marketed as well as the rest of their line, the mono SF-1 can be extremely useful, and it’s still one of my favorites for horns and clean guitar – especially on jazz recordings. Luckily for you, enough opinionated loudmouths like me have complained that Royer has finally decided to release a mono version of the SF series once again. Look out for the phantom-powered SF-2 later this year.
Beyerdynamic M 160
If you’ve never recorded drums with a pair of Beyer M 160s, you just haven’t lived. It’s remarkable that any microphone can deliver so much muscle, especially as an XY pair out in the room.
The M 160 also works surprisingly well in an overhead configuration, or even as a close mic on snare. This hypercardiod ribbon mic has an uncanny ability to highlight both the crack and the mass of a snare drum, while providing a welcome softening effect on cymbals that can help tame the grating edge of an over-eager bronze-basher.
I’m not a huge fan of the M 160 on guitars, but plenty of people are. (Just ask Eddie Kramer and Jimi Hendrix). In addition to drums and rooms, the 160 can be great on trumpets, trombones, and as the center of a Mid-Side stereo setup.
For a ribbon mic with all the quality and a little less attitude, the Beyer M 130 is a great sleeper ribbon. It’s more neutral than the 160, can be fantastic on strings and horns and it makes a beautiful “side” mic in an MS stereo pair.
Like the Coles, these Beyer mics haven’t changed much over the years. They also remain one of the most affordable of the pedigreed ribbon breeds.
Runner Up: AEA R44 and A440
Wes Dooley knows a thing or two about ribbon mics. He made his name as both the U.S. distributor for Coles and as one of the most-trusted ribbon mic repairmen in America. His own company, AEA, now makes ribbon mics based on the long-discontinued classics from RCA.
The famously pill-shaped RCA 77 is hard to replicate as microphones of that model are notorious for sounding so dissimilar to one another, especially with age. Where Dooley has done astonishingly well is with his modern remakes of the boxy-looking RCA 44. His R44 and A440 microphones are a startling approximation of the originals – maybe even an improvement – and a welcome addition to any studio’s color wheel.
Any microphone roundup that aims for digestibility is sure to leave out more mics than it can include. Rest assured that there are now fantastic ribbon microphones available at every price point, from companies like Cascade, Samar, Audio-Technica and Golden Age Audio, just to name a few favorites.
But before exploring the growing field of ribbon mics both good and bad, it’s good sense to get familiar with the contemporary classics profiled here. No matter what new ribbon mics come out, it’s likely that these models will remain the ones to beat.
For an exhaustive overview of a full field of modern ribbon mics, see our friends at RecordingHacks.com and their nearly overwhelming “$60,000 Ribbon Mic Shootout”.
Last week, we covered some of the best large diaphragm condenser mics around at an entry-level price of $300. This time, we’ll move up a bracket to review some of the most useful condensers available from $500 to $1,500 new.
Keep in mind that this list is no way conclusive. It only promises to offer a proven handful of options that I’ve used time and again, and which have consistently performed as some of the best in their class.
Also remember that this list focuses only on new condenser mics, and does not include ribbons, dynamics, or a whole array of used and vintage microphones that can be equally good options.
With that out of the way, here’s the roundup:
The Workhorse LDCs
AT4050 ($700 street)
As we mentioned last week, Audio-Technica was among the first companies to make condenser mics ubiquitous with their AT4033. They would ultimately take what they learned from the success of that mic and apply it to the slightly more expensive, significantly more well-rounded AT4050.
This is a mic that repeatedly fails to sound bad. It may never have the shimmer of a C12, the body of a U47, or velvety response of a U67, but it was never intended to. The 4050 was designed as an affordable, transparent, swiss-army knife and at that, it succeeds without question.
It’s a workhorse of a microphone that’s become a staple at pragmatic studios, where it’s routinely used on percussion, voice and acoustic instruments. It now occupies a niche once monopolized by the AKG C-414, and although it’s a mic may not always dazzle, it will never disappoint.
AT4047 ($700 street)
Eventually, Audio-Technica decided to build a condenser mic that would offer a little more character and attitude than the decidedly neutral AT4050.
The resulting AT4047 is a design that’s loosely based around Neumann’s classic FET 47. This mic has a bit more midrange “push” than the 4050, and I like mine on kick drums, bass amps and guitar cabs. It also suits plenty of male vocals, especially when a little body and edge are called for.
C-414 ($800-$950 street)
There may be more distinct versions of the AKG C-414 than any other major microphone in history.
For those of you who are confused by all the models, I recommend the audio history of the C414 I wrote for Trust Me, I’m a Scientist. And for those of you who are in the market for a new mic, just know that there are currently two versions of the 414 available: the relatively flat XLS and the intentionally brighter XL-II.
I’m still a fan of my vintage versions of this mic, but the newest models are well-built, and address some issues I had with the original pattern switches. Their self noise has also been brought down significantly.
To my ear, these new versions sound a little leaner and tighter than some of the originals, but this might be well suited to modern tastes. It’s also worth remembering that the differences can sound slight to some ears.
However your tastes run, the 414 has been a studio staple since it was first introduced, and it’s still a natural choice on drum overheads, stringed acoustic instruments, horns, pianos, amps, and just about anything you can throw at it. I tend to like the brighter “II” versions on acoustic guitars and voice.
Sputnik ($700-800 street)
The Sputnik is a funny-looking, affordable tube microphone that’s much better than I expected. According to its product literature, it was designed to sound like a hybrid of two of the most classic mics in history, and aims to deliver the upper midrange bump of the U47 and the high-end lift of a C12.
This can be a recipe for disaster in most inexpensive mics, but somehow the Sputnik pulls it off. It has a sound that’s forward and clear with just a bit of attitude and tube grit. It may not a great choice on already bright-sounding instruments, but the Sputnik can add life to dull-sounding tracks without taking them into the realm of irritation.
The Sputnik is a good character condenser for a mic locker in need of some zest on the cheap. It sounds more balanced than many affordable, bright condenser mics and there a closeout deals on this now-discontinued model at several dealers.
C 451 B ($580 Street)
For some reason, people seem to have forgotten all about the AKG C 451 B. It’s a small-diaphragm design that hasn’t changed too much over the years. At one time it was one of the best bets in small diaphragm condenser mics. Today, it still delivers a sound that’s pretty, clean, and crisp, and still does well on acoustic stringed instruments and in all sorts of tight places. The price hasn’t risen too much over the years, either.
MK-012 ($380+ street)
The Oktava MK-012 has become one of the most popular small diaphragm condensers of the past ten years, thanks in part to rave reviews in Tape Op Magazine and online. These mics are affordable, versatile and a great deal when purchased in pairs.
To my ears, the sound of the MK012s is a bit more broad and “throaty” than some of the other popular SDCs on the market. I like them on hi-hats, toms, and on sensitive acoustic instruments that don’t agree with brighter-sounding condensers.
KM-184 ($850 street)
Neumann makes a few mics for under $1,500, but the one I think deserves serious consideration at most studios is the KM-184.
Detractors say that this mic isn’t as silky or smooth as the original KM84. That’s true, and by design, the KM-184 offers a bit more presence than the originals. This seems to be a general trend across microphone brands, and some engineers argue that using a slightly brighter mic saves them from applying the equalizers they’d reach for otherwise.
Despite the changes over the years, the KM-184 remains a well-balanced mic that can be great on acoustic guitars, string instruments, snare drums and others. If you can find an original at a good price – then yes – those are definitely nice too.
The “Blue Collar Boutiques”
195 ($1,000 street)
The Bock Audio 195 is a big, clean-sounding mic with a special “fat” switch designed to deliver extra heft. It’s a good deal on a good FET condenser from one of the best makers of high-end boutique microphones in the world.
MA-200 ($1000 street)
Want a bright, airy, affordable microphone that sounds really good? The MA-200 has one tube, one polar pattern and one sound that works especially well on voice. This mic has quite a bit of lift in the high band, but it never sounds sizzly, spitty or harsh.
The MA-200′s silky, enhanced top-end is what I often want a mic to sound like when I’m done EQing it. It’s not always the right mic, but when it is, it can be the perfect mic. Try it on voice, overheads and acoustic guitar.
22 251 and 2247 ($1,300 street)
Peluso makes excellent re-interpretations of the classic Neumann U47, AKG C12, and others for a fraction of the price. Models start at a list price of around $1,500 and go up from there. In a similar vein, Lawson and Telefunken are also worth a look, although both companies tend toward at a higher price-point.
That’s it from us from now. Stay tuned for future roundups featuring favorite dynamics and ribbons. And as the economy continues to improve, don’t be surprised to see us run features on some of the most coveted condensers around.
In the meantime, feel free to share your own favorites in the comments section below.