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Friday, December 26, 2008

AES Nashville to hold two day workshop in February 2009

Great talent, very reasonable conference fee

The AES Nashville Section has developed a two-day recording workshop and gear expo focused on getting the most from your studio environment. With multiple Grammy Award winner, musician and studio owner Ricky Skaggs as the keynote address speaker, the AES Nashville section, in conjunction with Audio Engineering Society, Inc., is offering this two-day program on Friday to Saturday, February 20 to 21, 2009, at the Musician's Hall of Fame and Museum. Whether you are a recording musician, a songwriter laying down demos, or a professional engineer working in a personal production space, the Nashville Recording Workshop and Expo will provide essential insight and information geared to boost your career.

Affordable and more powerful technology has made for a burgeoning market in recording equipment as songwriters, musicians and engineers create their own personal production spaces. Nashville has long been touted to have more personal studios per capita than anywhere in the country, and never has this been truer than in today's DAW-centric recording environment. NRW+E presents a unique opportunity for personal studio owners to learn from the pros who put the Music in Music City, to check out the latest tools of the trade in the exhibition space and to network with their peers.

NRW+E presenters will include leading producer/engineers Ricky Skaggs, Jeff Balding, Russ Long, Pat McMakin and Gary Paczosa, and Lynn Fuston of 3D Audio, to name but a few of the high-profile participants. Subjects planned for the two-day event include vocal and acoustic instrument mic'ing, a singer/songwriter production roundtable, producing a dynamite demo, arrangement and recording for better mixes, adding rhythm and spice with virtual tracks, collaboration across time and space, work environments that enhance creativity, practical acoustic and room treatment, when to call in a pro, a beats and loops workshop, and many more.

Mike Porter, Chairman of the Nashville section of AES states, "The Nashville community has long hoped to host an AES event, with enthusiastic support from many outside our area. While this isn't as big an event as New York or San Francisco, it will certainly be a mini AES for area people to attend. AES conventions usually are geared more toward engineers; this workshop will have much more to offer songwriters, musicians, home and small studio owners and recording enthusiasts, as well as the studio professionals."

Early Bird registration for AES members and members of participating professional songwriter, performance, musician and engineering organizations is $79, non-members is $99, student members is $39, and non-member students is $59. Early registration is open through January 12, 2009. For the full program listings, information on registering or to book an exhibition space visit Nashville Recording Workshop.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Manley Dual Mono Microphone Preamplifier

Check out Steve Beckett's review of one of our favorite mic preamps

In recent memory, a lot of gear seems to get made over online hype. And, without disparaging the makers of that gear, usually these are simple pieces that put out ear candy sounds right of the box.

The Manley Dual Mono Microphone Preamplifier does not get a lot of online hype. I thought about this as I have used it. It is a versatile unit that features different sounds. The construction is on par with the best in the industry. I finally came to the conclusion that the Dual Mono Mic Pre was overdue for its own online hype, which probably would not be coming as too many people neglect to read the manual. Although the Dual Mono Mic Pre is a fairly simple to control unit, review of the manual is necessary to get full use of the pre.

The Manley Dual Mono Mic Pre features quality components and workmanship. The front faceplate appears to be 10 gauge steel with an engraved faceplate. The sides appear to be adonized extruded aluminum, which is an expensive touch not common in pro audio gear. The aluminum sides help dissipate heat.

The top and bottom of the Dual Mono Mic Pre feature perforated 24 gauge steel panels, which allow more than adequate cooling of the internal components. This unit does get warm when left on for long periods. I would not pack it solid in a rack but rather leave a space above and below to allow some air circulation.

The top and bottom panels remove with one screw and slide toward the back. I work with metal often and found myself impressed with this aspect of the Manley Dual Mono Mic Pre. The sides feature guide rails which hold down the perforated panels allowing for the one screw design.

The front of the unit features a power switch, a gain control which controls the gain for both channels, a phantom power switch for each channel, 1/4 inch direct input plugins for each channel, and an input attenuate control for each channel. Each channel also features a switch that controls polarity. The same switch features a setting for DI that disconnects the mic input and mic transformer.

The rear of the unit features XLR inputs and outputs for each channel. It also features unbalanced 1/4 inch outputs.

The Manley Dual Mono Mic Pre's gain knob works on both channels. It runs from 40 to 60 dB. It sets the amount of negative feedback. Even though one gain control affects both channels, the gain stage comes before the input attenuate stage. Each channel has its own input attenuate control. As the gain increases -- no matter the setting on the input attenuate stage -- the Dual Mono Mic pre gives you a more aggressive sound. The input attenuate knob controls the output level but does not really affect the color of the sound.

I found 60 dB, for example, on the gain control to be too aggressive for most sources. The sweet spot of the unit tended to be 45 to 50 dB in my experience.

If sound were lighting, then the 40 dB gain setting would be a soft light. The 45 to 50 dB would be a pleasing natural light. The 55 to 60 dB would be unfiltered halogens. And, 60 dB is sort of like when you are driving down the road and the oncoming car flashes its brights on you.

The Dual Mono Mic Pre features input and output transformers as well as input and output tubes. The output transformer is bypassed in the signal path when you use the unbalanced outputs. The balanced XLR output for each channel is bypassed anytime something is plugged into the unbalanced 1/4 inch output for that particular channel.

The direct inputs excel at synths. They are adequate for guitar and bass. You might prefer to use an additional DI box such as the Radial JDI which you plug into the XLR inputs for guitar or bass. Needing to add an outboard DI for guitar and bass perhaps was the only blemish I found from my time with the Manley Dual Mono Mic Pre.

On mic'ing electric guitar amps, the Dual Mono Mic pre at setting of 45 dB gave me a warm but natural representation of the amp's sound. I used both a ribbon and dynamic and got goods results with both.

I tracked an accordion with a Baby Bottle at 45 dB and the combination softened the harshness of this problematic instrument giving me useable results.

I tracked a cello with a Blue Dragonfly at 50 dB. The player commented that what she heard in the room was exactly what she heard in the headphones.

I plugged a keyboard workstation into the DI inputs. The gain at low settings softened the sounds. At high settings, the gain created thick tones. I like the versatility the Manley Dual Mono Mic Pre gives to keyboards and synths and I consider it my go to DI for these instruments.

The Bottom Line: The Manley Dual Mono Mic Pre is versatile. It's well made. It's one of the best mic pres to be reviewed at Mojo Pie. Highly recommended.

--Steve Beckett

Manley Laboratories

Toft ATC-2

Toft ATC-2 dual channel strip a tweakers delight

I became initially interested in the Toft ATC-2 to track toms. I have a variety of Daking, Neve, Summit, Telefunken and Manley preamps but none of them seemed flexible enough to carve out the right tom sound. I record drum kits every week and the toms sometimes come up a little short. I sort of thought the problem not enough EQ bands, wrong bandwith and wrong frequencies. I purchased the Toft ATC-2 and found it the ultimate piece for this job. It imparts a distinct 1970s classic rock sound to the drums as well.

The Toft ATC-2 is a dual channel recording strip with mic pre, EQ and compression. I used the unit exclusively for recording toms for a number of months. All of the engineers here and the clients were impressed by the improved tom sound. The only problem that popped up from time to time seemed to be my cutting a little bit too much in the low mids. If the drummers played hard (and I mean very hard), then the sound came up a bit thin. Once I became more careful in where I cut the low mids the problem disappeared.

After I decided to write a review of the Toft ATC-2, I decided to try it on some other instruments and vocals. I first ran a DJ’s turntable mixer into the front panel inputs. The source came across solidly with no input clipping and the compressor set the tracks correctly in the mix with no other compression necessary.

I then used it on a vocal tracked through my Manley Reference Cardioid Microphone. The compressor on the Toft grabbed the vocal in a way similar to an old DBX 160. The Toft imparts a definite retro rock sound at four to five dB of compression. Higher amounts of compression seemed unnecessary due to the way it grabbed the vocal and held it. Higher amounts of gain reduction proved to have too much color for normal vocals.

I found that using small amounts of compression and a little low mid boost on electric guitar put across an Allman Brothers type lead guitar sound. I then used the ATC-2 on a variety of odd percussion instruments played by an experimental music band. I used unusual EQ boosting, overcompression, and forced preamp distortion to the delight of the band. The band wanted some unusual treatment of the sounds and the ATC-2 delivered.

I tried plugging a Fender Precision Bass into the front panels inputs and didn't like the results. These inputs seemed to be optimized for line level inputs. I plugged the bass into the mic pre XLR input on the back through a direct box and was delighted by a fat 1970s bass sound using a little low boost and compression.

If someone wants to carve up sounds with EQ and wants a compressor that can be heard, then the Toft ATC-2 should be considered. It can be a bit touchy to use but if you don’t over EQ or overcompress it sounds great. It does lack phase reverse. The low cut filter is sometimes too noticeable. But, I've been able to work around those limitations. If you’re looking for the 1970s sound that you heard on countless classic rock songs, then you should give the Toft ATC-2 a try.

The Bottom Line: It's retro. It can be a little touchy. But, damn, the EQ and compression sound great. Recommended.

--Jay Matheson

Toft Audio Designs

tfpro P10

Come experience the Mighty Twin

Do you like recording channels? A recording channel to me contains a mic pre, a compressor section and an equalizer section. As part of Ted Fletcher's resurgence as an audio designer and manufacturer, tfpro brought out the P10, which is also designated as the Mighty Twin. It's a dual recording channel. It features extensive controls (somewhat over the top at times), an effects loop for each channel and switchable stereo linkage for the compressor section.

What's over the top about it? Let's think 30 knobs, the nice aluminum ones. Let's think about a knob that switches input from line, instrument, dynamic and condenser microphones. And, please note the utter coolness of the condenser mic switch slicing 15 dB off the gain. Has anyone else noted the problem with certain mic pres giving you so much gain on condenser mics that you've got to turn the gain control all the way down to try to avoid clipping on condenser mic placements on loud sources?

Even though the P10 gives you lots of control, most users will find it easy to navigate with its logical layout and easy to read print on the faceplate.

The Mighty Twin features a variable phase control. It allows the engineer to adjust the phase of a mic from 0 to 180 degrees (instead of the usual one or the other button). It allows control and correction of slightly to severely misaligned microphones.

The compressor section attempts to emulate four different flavors of compressor. Ted Fletcher, of course, successfully emulates his famous compressor sound with one of the settings. He doesn't achieve complete success with the other three settings which mimic certain characteristics of other famous compressors. However, you get four distinct flavors of compression. Use of the four compressor settings over a long period of time revealed all four settings to be useful. The large VU meters can be switched from input mode to gain reduction at the push of a button.

The EQ section features a four band semi-parametric layout with a 12 dB cut or boost range. Each channel finishes off with a master channel output control and LEDs to indicate the presence of signal and overload.

Many people find it easy to get acoustic guitar sounds to tape yet find it difficult to fit into the mix. The P10 allows the user the opportunity to use compression and EQ when tracking to get an acoustic sound more in line with where it'll be when mixed. Some people disagree with this approach and say don't compress or don't EQ until final mixdown. The talent seems to perform better when it sounds like a record in the headphones. That's just an observation.

Using a Peluso 2247 microphone, a Martin D1936 acoustic guitar sounded huge with the compression selection set to position three. The engineer set the compressor with a fairly fast response and slow release time. He set the EQ to roll off the low end and a slight roll off of the high end as well. He used his ears to dial in the sound. The session ended with two keeper tracks for an indie film.

Next, the P10 saw duty on an old Ventura Classic guitar tracked with a modded Oktava MK319. Again, another keeper track to be featured in the above mentioned indie film.

On electric guitar amps, the P10's variable phase control allowed multiple mic'ing of the guitar amp without need to precisely set the distances. The P10 allows a lot of flexibility. You can put a condenser on channel one and a dynamic on channel two. You can give one compressor and EQ treatment to channel one and yet another to channel two. It's almost as if you got channels from a quality recording console with the added feature of the variable phase.

As a DI, the P10 performed well on both synth and bass tracks. Again, dial in the sound. The DI did not exhibit any obvious coloration or unpleasant artifacts.

The P10 got more use for drum overhead channels than anything else while being evaluated. The engineers used these mostly in the context of the three-mic drum technique. While some of the most famous drum tracks in Rock music feature this often debated recording technique it's more difficult to get the overheads to work than most assume. Regardless of the mics used over the kit, the P10 always allowed for a superlative picture of the kit. The toms came across as powerful and articulate. The cymbals rang true and clear. The P10 put across the sound of each mic without trying to imprint its own sound in place of that of each mic.

If only used for drums, then the P10's performance makes its price a good value and a worthwhile investment. It's been missed at both studios in which it was evaluated when it comes time to record drums and acoustic guitar.

An engineer rigged the P10 up as a master mixdown device strapped on the backend of a summing unit. The P10 outperformed its in the box counterparts and did so easily in A/B listening tests. It exudes "power" in this application.

The unit, while well received by the evaluators, also features a niggle or two. One evaluator wanted a compression makeup gain before the EQ section. Everyone also found it possessed that English self noise. It's not something you'd be troubled with for 99.9 percent of popular music tracking. However, if you wanted to record some quiet passages of Classical music, then you might want something quieter. However, if you're doing that sort of work, then you likely own something extremely quiet. Another evaluator wanted to see a switch that changed the signal path to allow the EQ to come before the compression.

One thing about Ted Fletcher that you should note. His pieces always seem to possess some sort of flaw of one kind or another. The test unit seemed to confirm this reputation. Despite how much everyone liked this piece, it did possess shortcomings that normally would place it beyond the possibility of a recommendation. First, the XLR outs on the test unit did not function. Second, the high band on the EQ just squealed and hissed when engaged. The former American distributor told us that he never experienced this before with any P10 and thought it due to prior evaluators opening the box and messing around. Yes, this does happen. The evaluators for Mojo Pie gave him the benefit of the doubt.

The evaluators were asked about the mic pre section as it compared to top end standalone mic pres. The answer is that the mic pre section by itself is not a top end pre. It's sort of mid range in quality. However, with the other parts of the unit engaged (compressor and EQ), the evaluators never thought of the unit as mid range or disadvantaged in anyway.

The Bottom Line: All in all the tfpro P10 should be considered for inclusion in many studios. It possesses a good mic pre with a quality compressor section and a good EQ section. The added features such as the variable phase make it stand out from its competition. Recommended.

--Ken Morgan and Steven Langer


Sytek MPX-4Aii

The four-channel mic preamp that gets 'Respek'

A local church asked me if I would be able to record a few Classical music concerts for them. I was happy to accept the challenge. However, I realized that I would have to upgrade my signal chain, especially my microphone preamps. I normally used a small outboard mixer for recording Rock music but knew it would be too noisy to track Classical music.

I did not know much about mic preamps, so I spent some time talking to recording engineers. They suggested the following characteristics: Low noise, neutral, and transparent. I quickly compiled a list of four recommendations. Two of the preamps sold for $500, and I auditioned them locally through two different music retailers. Although both of these units were better than my mixer preamps, I could easily hear sonic flaws in them and I did not find them to be neutral.

At a friend's studio, I heard an Earthworks Lab 102. I found the sound impressive and it met all my criteria. However, it exceeded my planned budget. Finally, someone suggested the Sytek MPX-4Aii preamp, which I had never heard of before. I researched these and found that Steve Albini recommended them.

The MPX-4Aii is a four-channel, single rack space unit with a solid state transformerless class A discrete input. The manufacturer offers different configurations including optional Burr-Brown ICs on two of the channels, for “silky-smooth” sound, according to the sales literature. The listed specs are +75 dB gain, noise -96dBm, 0.0015% THD at 65dB gain, and a bandwidth of 10 Hz to 85 kHz +/-0.25 dB.

The front panel controls appear minimalist but straight forward, all black buttons, knobs, and lettering, on a brushed aluminum face plate. Each of the four channels has a gain knob, marked from 1 to 9, a peak led, and three buttons for mute, phase, and +48v phantom power. The only other control is an led illuminated rocker switch for power, on the far right side.

I contacted Mike Stoica, the designer of the preamp and owner of Sytek. He told me that the Chicago, Houston and Seattle symphony orchestras owned the MPX-4Aii as well as Steve Albini and Aerosmith. And, they were paying customers. So, I placed my order for an MPX-4Aii with the optional Burr-Brown ICs on channels three and four.

Unpacking the shipping box, I found the MPX-4Aii felt hefty and solid. The back panel contains only a male and female XLR connector for each channel, and an IEC power cord connector with an integrated fuse holder. On the front, the gain knobs feature stepped potentiometers, which also felt smooth, but sturdy. I counted 40 individual clicks. I patched the unit into my DAW, and was immediately pleased.

By just talking into a dynamic mic and adjusting the gain control, I could hear that the unit was dead quiet, and there was headroom to spare. I found the signal clarity to be exceptional. Switching over to a Burr-Brown channel, I discovered a richness that it added to my voice. I excitedly called my friend at his studio to tell him what I had just heard. He asked if I could bring the preamp over, so he could hear it for himself, and compare it against his Earthworks Lab 102.

I went right over, and we set up some mics, to recorded a series of tests with both preamps, using the acoustic guitar, a bass amp, a flute, a saxophone, our singing voices, and a crash cymbal. The results seemed to be a toss-up. The Earthworks seemed fuller on the lower midrange and bass. The Sytek possessed a more pleasing smoothness on the high frequency content. Our preferences bounced back and forth depending on the source material we used. Both units sounded very good.

The final, but most revealing test, was the crash cymbal. I played a series of loud fast staccato hits on the bell, followed by a series of loud crashes, letting the tone fully decay. The playback surprised me. The Sytek was cleaner on the bell hits, with a faster attack and tighter dynamics, while the other mic pre seemed slow, strident, and choppy. On the crash hits, the Sytek again had a faster and clearer attack, and was smoother on the decay with more detailed overtones. Afterwards, I felt really thrilled with my purchase. It met my requirements and was a more economical solution for critical audio recording.

After owning the Sytek for a few months, I consider it a joy to own. I think of the sound of the standard channels as quiet, transparent, clear, and ultra fast. The top end is exceptionally smooth, with no solid-state brittleness at all. I never seem to run out of headroom. The Burr-Brown channels share all of the same sonic advantages, but add a darker thicker flavor.

Initially, I did not find many musical uses for the Burr-Brown channels besides vocals. However, I found that large condenser mics pair nicely with the Burr-Brown channels on a variety of sources.

I've talked to other Sytek owners online. And, yes, we have some minor complaints. I would like to have a low cut filter on my preamp, since not all of my microphones have this. Some people would like to see an input attenuator pad, and it has also been noted that even when the gain is set all the way down, the unit is still passing signal at +12 dB of gain. This does not bother me, since there is also a mute button. A calibrated gain knob would also be nice, instead of being marked 1 through 9.

However, no one complains about the sound quality. My friend who hosted the preamp test in his studio bought two units for himself. One other sticking point: My unit did not come with an audition. I see no possibility of someone buying this preamp and not wanting it. However, a reasonable return policy would be nice. Mike Stoica seemed more than happy to respond to any of my email questions. You can order the Sytek preamps directly through him. Sometimes, he sells dealer returns on Ebay, which is where I bought my MPX-4Aii.

The Bottom Line: At a little over $200 per channel, this mic pre features exceptional sound and lots of headroom. Recommended.

--Art Douglas

Sytek Audio Systems

Studio Projects VTB1

Rumor is this mic pre was designed on a napkin by Ted Fletcher and developed by Alan Hyatt

The Studio Projects VTB1 mic preamp may be the most feature-laden mic preamp made in 2002 with a street price under $300. Usually, a lot of features such as a tube circuit with low $$ equals squalid sound.

Studio Projects USA of Torrance, California, marketed the VTB1, which is made in China. The design does not allow a rackmount option other than the Velcro-type rack solutions.

In the VTB1, a solid-state gain stage comes before a tube blend stage, which is a starved plate type. The tube blend can be turned all the way off. The VTB1 features phantom power for condenser microphones, a high pass filter, a switchable LED meter for input and output, polarity reverse and switchable microphone impedance. As well, the VTB1 features an XLR mic input, a DI jack and TRS insert. Output takes place through a balanced XLR or a 1/4 jack. It lacks a power switch. I measured the phantom power at 48.9v, which is within the industry standard for 48v phantom power.

The VTB1 seems quiet throughout the gain range. Noise only becomes apparent as the gain reaches maximum level.

The first use of the VTB1 came as a DI for bass and guitar. For the tracks, I plugged a G&L George Fullerton guitar and a Music Man Sabre bass through the VTB1. The guitar sounded clean and contained some useable detail. The bass sounded smooth. The sound did not come across as well as similarly priced units. Even so, I'd call the VTB1 acceptable as a budget DI.

As a mic preamp the VTB1 fares much better. I put the VTB1 to work making vocal sample tracks with a Rode NT1, a Studio Projects C1 and a Shure SM58. On the Rode NT1, the VTB1 fared as well as other preamps in its price class -- not better and not worse for the most part. But, there seemed to be a little more space with the VTB1.

On the C1, the Studio Projects VTB1 made the C1 seem more smooth than usual. It seemed to possess an exaggerated low end that leads to a feeling of proximity. Depending on your feelings regarding proximity effect being desirable or not, you might want to switch on the high-pass filter to cut it out.

I tried an SM58 with the VTB1. Through the VTB1, the SM58 sounded like a mic I might want to track a vocal on. The VTB1 imparted a sense of dimension to the microphone. It didn't bring an SM58 to life the way an expensive mic pre would but it didn't make it suck the way most cheap mic pres do.

I posted samples to the recording forum on Harmony Central. Most forum members seemed to concur that the VTB1 performed better as a mic preamp than it did as a DI. Most seemed to find it performed acceptably as a mic pre. I believe the VTB1 sounds significantly better as a mic preamp than it does as a DI.

The tube blender is part gimmick and part useful feature. If you don't turn it on, then it does not enter the signal chain. The VTB1 does not impart any overt color to the sound until the user engages the tube blender. I tried the tube blender on vocals tracked with the SM58. For lack of a better description, the sweet spot seemed to be around 12:30 on the dial. The sound seemed more harmonic, flattering in some ways and diminished in others. Think of the tube blender as adding another flavor. I thought the sound better with it off.

Do you want a particular 12AX7 tube in your VTB1? If you send the tube to Studio Projects, then Studio Projects will place it in the VTB1 before it leaves for your dealer. If you already have a VTB1, then send your VTB1 and your tube to Studio Projects and pay for shipping each way and Studio Projects will replace the tube for you. Don't expect huge qualitative differences from different tubes. The tube effect leans toward the subtle side. If you like to change subtle flavorings, then switching the tube might be for you.

The thing I liked about the VTB1 is that I could easily differentiate between the sound of different mics tracked through it. Most inexpensive mic pres seem to leave all mics sounding somewhat the same.

The Bottom Line: The VTB1 is a budget mic preamp with lots of features. I liked the noticeable smoothness the VTB1 imparted to some sounds. I also liked that different mics sounded like different mics through it. I can't say that about every mic pre in this price point. The VTB1 might be a good entry point into mic preamps for new recordists. It costs $99 street. It's an excellent value at that price.

--Steven Langer

Studio Projects

Speck Model ASC

Speck Model ASC musically equalizes

When I started putting together my home studio, there was one item that got recommended to me again and again. It was the Speck Electronics Model ASC, which is a four-band parametric equalizer.

It's a 1U piece of gear in a half-width chassis. It doesn't come with rack ears so you'll need to get a universal 1U tray to mount the Model ASC in your rack. I found the Model ASC's fit and finish to be excellent. The graphics and coloring on the faceplate seemed oddly out of place in my rack with its light gray face and black lettering.

The Model ASC comes in two models. First, there is the standard Model ASC with active balanced input and output. And, then there is the Model ASC with output transformer option. Each is available in versions with North American and European power supplies. The Model ASC with output transformer gives you two choices of balanced outputs: The transformer is wired only to the male XLR output and the active balanced output of the standard Model ASC is wired only to the 1/4 inch TRS output. When using the 1/4 TRS output, the Model ASC's XLR output is automatically disengaged.

The outputs are on the back of the unit, which is also where you'll find a 1/4 inch input and female XLR connector. The 1/4 inch input accepts both balanced and unbalanced 1/4 plugs. There is also a ground lift switch on the back of the Model ASC as well as chassis ground.

Normally, you'd resort to the ground lift switch or grounding the chassis in the event of a hum or buzz. But, there is an electrical benefit to the output transformer. According to Vince Poulos, designer of the Model ASC, "The transformer, unlike its active-balanced counterpart, does not reference ground during the transmission of its signal. The transformer is great for interfacing to all kinds of gear in all kinds of environments." In essence, you should get no hums or buzzes when using the XLR output on the Model ASC with the transformer option.

The Model ASC provides four bands of EQ. There is a low frequency band, a selectable low or mid frequency band, a mid frequency band, and a high frequency band.

The low frequency and high frequency bands do not contain a Q control but rather a "simulated inductor." If you do not know, then a "Q control" will allow the user to adjust the width of the frequency band. Inductor circuits are known for the musical equalization but not known for being quiet. Hence, engineers developed different simulated inductor circuits to create a musical EQ band that is very quiet. The one in the Model ASC is proprietary to Speck Electronics. The low frequency band also contains a peak/shelf select switch.

The low/mid frequency band lets you choose between low or mid frequencies. This band contains a Q control as does the mid band.

The front of the unit also contains a gain control adjustable between -12 dB and +6 dB. And, there is also a bypass switch.

Let's talk about sound. I think of the Speck Model ASC in terms of "clean." Even so, the Model ASC put a tad of musicality on the signal when adding or subtracting frequencies in any of the four bands. I felt it a bit surgical but not precise enough to act as a notch filter.

How does the transformer affect the sound? It seemed to make sounds more organic by just being in the signal path. When hit hard, I noticed the transformer exhibited a bit of pleasing distortion. In any event, it is a subtle effect.

In my studio, I use both analog and digital EQ. I tend to prefer analog EQ going in and then tend to use a certain VST plugin in the box.

The thing I like about the Model ASC in action is how it allowed me to tweak sounds going in so that I was able to put onto disk what I heard in my mind.

For instance, I like a sonically rich low end on bass guitar. I used my Music Man Sabre through a Great River MP-2NV. The sound of the simulated inductor circuit on the low band put the Sabre across as one of the most musical bass sounds I've ever encountered.

By comparison, the sound of the low/mid band with the low band engaged let me set the parameters I wanted. I set the width with the Q control. I selected the frequencies. I selected the gain, which is +-15 dB on all four bands. The sound was a tad musical but it wasn't the "in your face" musicality of the simulated inductor.

I liked the juxtaposition of sounds between the simulated inductor circuit on the low and high bands against the low/mid and mid bands, which don't have the circuit. In essence, Speck gives you two sorts of musicality between the in-your-face musicality of the low and high bands versus the plain jane Q controlled low/mid and mid bands.

I tended to prefer the sound of the simulated inductor circuit on the low and high bands. But, I found the low/mid and mid bands better at tailoring the sound with their added Q control.

Another thing I like about the unit is the high end extension seemed to go on forever. I never felt a frequency ceiling through anything put through the Speck. The high end adjusted without distortion through its claimed 25 kHz extension.

The thing that makes the Model ASC stand out to my mind is not the transformer balanced output version. Instead, it's the simulated inductor circuits on the low and high bands. Whether you get the regular Model ASC or the Model ASC with transformer balanced output you'll still get the simulated inductor bands.

The Bottom Line: The Model ASC delivers a very musical sound with its simulated inductor bands. Recommended.

--Steven Langer

Speck Electronics

Stedman PS101

It stops the pops and it doesn't blow

When I first saw the Stedman PS101 popscreen, I thought, "This is a popfilter?"

I first noticed the Stedman PS101 when browsing at Guitar Center. I saw that they had a ton of these things on the wall. I was there to try out some mics. As an afterthought, I asked the salesman if I could use a Stedman PS101 as the popscreen for testing out mics. I watched the salesman rip open the package to set the popfilter up for me. I felt bad knowing I was going to leave an open package for some other schmuck to buy. It couldn't be better than any of the fabric popfilters I knew about so well. I was wrong. And, I'm glad to admit it. I bought that Stedman PS101 and let me tell you why.

It sounds better. It's noticeably clearer than standard nylon filters. The louvered metal screen delivers an uncolored sound. It's washable. Anyone with vocalists coming in should have one for this purpose alone. You can clean it in the sink with soap and water if needed, or wipe it off and you're done.

It's sturdy. Everything about the unit is solid and should stand up to a lifetime of use. And even if it doesn't It comes with a lifetime warranty. Will I ever need that? Probably not, but it's nice to know it's there.

Steve Langer, the publisher of Mojo Pie recommends the Stedman PS101 for three reasons. He says, "First, the Stedman PS101 popfilters do not attenuate high frequencies like the traditional nylon pop screens do. Second, if you put one in front of you and blow through it, you don't feel any wind. It's an amazing diffusor. Third, they're very durable."

It's made in the USA. Yes, that's right. Stedman shows an innovative and durable product can still be made in the USA.

The Bottom Line: I admit that the Stedman PS101 is one of those cool little finds that makes a difference. Don't make your vocalist kiss the last singer that was in. Put up a Stedman PS101. Very highly recommended.

--Warren Dent


Speck MicPre 5.0

Speck MicPre 5.0 delivers 'Speck'tacular sound

After hearing the rave reviews of Speck's ASC four band EQ, I was eager to check out its soulmate, the MicPre 5.0. After spending quite a bit of time with the MicPre 5.0, I can assure you that this preamp can handle anything you throw its way.

Speck Electronics is located in Fallbrook California. The company has been in business for 35 years. The Speck MicPre 5.0 is a half rack space, single channel mic preamp/mix node. It can be linked to other 5.0 units to form a mixer. It can also be linked to their ASC EQ to form a single rack space channel strip. The Middle Atlantic Products rack shelf (model no. UTR1) is recommended by Speck.

The MicPre 5.0 sports 70 db of gain, a 5 db stepped gain control with fine tune trim for accurate gain staging, a variable hi-pass filter, selectable transformer and active balanced outputs, 48v phantom, -20 db pad, phase switch, LED metering, in/out/insert/line in and out/mix L/R jacks, AUX DC OUT for powering the ASC EQ and MIX LINK jack for connecting with other 5.0 units to form an outboard mixer. The preamp's output has a selectable "direct" output mode in which all the goodies are bypassed for a straight shot of audio. This unit has more connectivity than I'll ever need, but the possibilities are just about endless for anyone's needs. There is no wall wart as the power supply is internal. The white face plate is attractive, and all controls are solid and easy to find.

My first test of any preamp is bass. There's something about being able to walk up to it immediately and start tweaking without saying a word. The Speck is pleasing on bass guitar. It delivers a full clean sound with decent punch and all the low end is there. It's sound is very musical; nothing is exaggerated and nothing is lost. Slapping and popping transients are processed with a slight flatness (kind of a slightly limited sound in the low/mids), this isn't the optimum funk-style preamp but it'll do fine. The variable hi pass filter comes in handy when tracking bass to selectively roll off flubbier, unwanted low end.

On voice, the Speck has a nice presence. I did not find it hyped in any way but did think it possessed an open and natural character to it. The spoken word came across well. Singing is uncolored for the most part, although I picked up on a little extra color using the transformer output. The transformer output had a little heavier sound to it when loud vocals are pushing it, giving a bit of an "old school" option. Again, the hi pass filter is great for lopping off any unwanted boominess while tracking. The Speck is versatile for voice.

Acoustic guitar comes across clean, with good presence and delivers a nice sense of space. Snare drum has crisp definition and good ring detail; the level of punch works well in a mix. Kick drum tracking yielded good results, very uncolored and delivered a decent punch with no real "woof" to it (leaving less low end EQ'ing to be done in a mix) as there's no exaggeration going on in the low end. Overhead drum use was extremely balanced and natural sounding, definitely one of the best overhead preamps I've used. I found it imparted a realistic sense of space with a medium sized footprint to overheads. The sound is sweet, with lots of headroom to boot. Cymbals sing quite nicely and the MicPre 5.0 imparts no harshness on the sound. The drums themselves are accurately portrayed, with decent punch and giving you back whatever growl you give it in a very balanced manner.

I have found the Speck MicPre 5.0 to be an extremely useful, all purpose preamp with endless connectivity. It can be made into a handy mixer of high quality channel strips that would be especially useful for location recording as well as in the studio. I haven't found anything the Speck couldn't do at least well if not top notch.

The Bottom Line: The Speck MicPre 5.0 delivers a sonically accurate sound in a versatile package. Recommended.

--Warren Dent

Speck Electronics

Shure SM57 and Shure SM58

The 'Shure' things in mics are the SM57 and SM58

There are so many myths surrounding the Shure SM57 and SM58 microphones. One of my favorites is that the Shure SM57 is a studio only mic and the SM58 is a live only mic.

Let's talk about reality... The SM57 and SM58 are industry standards. They are the affordable real thing in this day of cheap microphones flooding the market. They are heavy duty. They can take real world use and keep on working. Each can play roles in the studio or on the stage.

Dynamic mics are often the most overlooked mics for the home or project studio. The Shure SM57 and SM58 deserve at least one, two or even more spots in most any studio depending on the needs and philosophy of the studio.

Like most dynamic mics, the Shure SM57 and SM58 come to life through nice mic preamps. Some nice mic preamps that work well with these mics are the A Designs MP-1 and MP-2, the Great River ME-1NV and MP-2NV, the Grace 201 and 101, the FMR RNP and the Speck Mic Pre 5.0. While they'll work fine with a Mackie, Behringer or M-Audio level of preamp, the Shure SM57 and SM58 open up to a higher sonic level with better mic pres.

My favorite application for the SM58 is vocals. There are certain singers who don't sound the best through good vocal condensers or even large diaphragm dynamics such as the Shure SM7 or the Electro Voice RE20. For these people, you need to put up a Shure SM58. I suggest using a Stedman popfilter with the SM58 even though the mic possesses a built-in windscreen in its bulbous head.

One of my favorite tricks is to let the vocalist hold the Shure SM58 in her hand. I'll place a Stedman popfilter between her mouth and the mic. The gravy is putting her in the control room so she can monitor through the control room speakers. I've found that freeing a vocalist of headphones often frees the performance. Yes, the noise floor comes up but the emotional impact of the performance comes up. Bono of U2 reportedly records with an SM58 in this fashion as well. Please note this "live" in the studio technique generally works only with louder vocalists.

The Shure SM57 seems to find its strength in spoken word, snare drum and guitar amps. One of the more difficult areas of recording is spoken word, which is also called dialog or voiceover. A lot of studios tend to think they can put any mic in front of a voice actor and get reasonable results. Most studios probably put up a Shure SM7, EV RE20 or even a Neumann U87 for dialog. You need to remember that the SM57 can put across the speaking voice as well. The President of the United States uses a Shure SM57 as his podium mic. Sometimes, the SM57 can be the best mic for the voice and perform much better than mics costing over 25 times its price.

On snare drum and guitar amps, the Shure SM57 needs careful placement. I recommend using a pair of Extreme Isolation Headphones to get the best mic placement. The Extremes allow you to hear what the SM57 hears. Be careful with the levels as an SM57 on snare and amps means close mic'ing. Watch the levels so you don't damage your hearing. I suggest setting the levels first then putting the Extremes on to fine tune the mic placement.

Sometimes I get a little taken aback by the cult of the SM57, which recommends that the project and home studio enthusiast should own lots of them. I've yet to find a mic that I'd own more than two of for my home studio and that includes the SM57. But, if you like, then there is no harm in owning multiples as there is always some possible use for an SM57.

The Shure SM58 also comes in a version with an on/off switch. This model is the SM58S. I've never been sure in what environment an on/off switch would be suitable. Live sound engineers tell me that an on/off switch on a mic means adding something to a mic that will cause a breakdown or failure where one otherwise would not occur. In the studio, an on/off switch is not needed. I've had SM58s with and without the on/off switch. For no particular reason, I preferred the ones without the switch.

I suggest cleaning off the grille of the SM58 after each session. If you need to replace the grille, then insist that your dealer sell you a RK134G grille, which is the official Shure replacement part. Most music dealers stock a generic grille that they usually price higher than the official Shure part, which can be found online for $14 and up. The grille is part of the sound. Demand the original part.

The Shure SM57 is a cardioid pattern dynamic mic. The cardioid pattern does an excellent job of isolating the source from background noise. To my ears, the SM57 cuts off about 200 Hz, puts a bump at the high end of the mids, and cuts off again with frequencies over 12 kHz. In essence, it doesn't give you the bottom of the low end or much of the high end but gives you a sculpted sound that accentuates the top end of the mid frequencies.

The SM58 is the same mic but adds the bulbous grille. It sounds different in that there are less highs. It seems to also be missing a tad bit of the accentuated top in the mid frequencies that are present with the SM57. Side by side, the SM57 sounds a little more open on the top end than the SM58.

The Bottom Line: Recommended. The Shure SM57 and SM58 are heavy duty workhorses.

--Steven Langer


Shure KSM141

Shurely you'll like its 'in-your-face' sound

You can't have enough flavors of microphones. As a drummer, I am always curious to see how this and that will sound on my Arbiter maple drum kit and mix of Zildjian and Sabian cymbals. I had the chance to check out a matched pair of Shure's KSM141 mics, and have found these to be another desirable color for recording.

The KSM141s arrived in a rugged plastic case which held everything nicely. They ship with windscreens and standard clips. You could trust the clips in any position. The mics have a mechanical polar pattern switch which opens a port to the mics capsule to allow omni-directional pickup as well as cardioid. The diaphragm is a 3/4 inches diameter (medium sized), 2.5 micron, made of 24-karat gold-layered low mass Mylar. There is a three position bass roll off switch, and a three position pad switch (0, -15db & -25db). The mic features a Class A transformerless preamp, and is made in the good old USA.

The mics have a nice solid feel, and the light bronzelike finish is very attractive. Pattern selection is performed by turning the ring which exposes or covers part of the diaphragm. The action is smooth and clicks into place so you know you're not between settings. Shure recommends never using the mic between settings as it will create a poor frequency and polar response that is unpredicatable.

I found the sound of these mics to be very much an "in your face" type of sound when used on drum overheads. In omni, these mics seem to reach down and grab the low to low-mid detail of cymbals, drums and room reflections and force them to the surface. It's a very unique sound, a big change if you're using many of the mid to low priced condensors that hype the high end. The snare's ringing overtone is very present, as is the rumble of toms. Cymbals are very strong sounding, not your typical sizzly hyped response. The high end is not overly pronounced in this application, and should require very little or no EQ in a mix. The attack could best be described as "fat" (I know I know, that word that word!), sort of a very quick-release compressed type of sound.

The X/Y cardioid sound was more balanced overall, with a noticeable loss of low end response when compared to omni. Imaging is decent but the "in your face" sound doesn't create a very big sense of space. Again, nothing bad, it's a different sound that I like. There is some more snap and punch to the snare and toms in cardioid as well. Cymbals make their way through a little thinner sounding without such a broad midrange response, and would fit easily in a loud mix.

For those engineers using a "butt mic," you will get a lot of that detail simply by using these as overheads.

Close mic'ing a snare with the KSM141 in cardioid proved to be undesirable for me. The transient response of the mic was a little slow for this application. Mic'ing a tom wasn't much better, the sound was boxy and just wouldn't open up. I don't think this is the intended use of this mic but it might work for someone else.

On kick drum they really accented the mids, which enhanced the "basketball bouncing" sound we've all had to eq out of many a mix. I'll stick with my big dynamic mic in this application. Sucking those mids to the surface isn't working here. Again, the KSM141 is not marketed as a kick mic but curiosity got the best of me.

On hi-hat, the KSM141 mic picked up all of the nice detail and overtones. It sounded very nice in this application. The ring is somewhat pronounced and the cardioid pattern is tight enough to keep out much of the bleed from other drums. I could see the KSM141 being the "go to" mic on most hi-hats.

I had to engage the -25dB pad on these close mic'd sources when playing loudly. Overhead use did not give a problem without the pads.

The area where this mic sort of surprised me was vocals. Whether on dialog or singing, the KSM141 showed some promise when mic'ing the voice. I compared it to a couple of large condenser mics. I thought it did a respectable job and even sounded better than one of the large condensers.

On acoustic guitars, I found these mics to put across more of their "in your face" character. The KSM141s performed solidly in matched pairs whether omni or cardioid. One even performed fine in this application. However, the best sound came from putting one in cardioid and the other in omni on different ends of the guitar. I put the cardioid where the neck meets the body and the omni about 12 inches from the bridge. I blended the sounds together. No, it's technically not stereo but it put the biggest, up-front acoustic guitar sound in the monitors I've ever experienced. I wouldn't pick these out to stereo mic a nice solo Classic guitar piece but for harder Country and for Rock the KSM141s will put the acoustic guitar up front.

I did not find the KSM141s to impart any real sense of space to a source or the room. If you want that sort of sound, then look elsewhere.

The Bottom Line: The KSM141 mics by Shure are versatile mics that excel at the "in your face" sound. Recommended.

--Warren Dent


Sebatron vmp-2000e

Sebatron vmp-2000e mic pre has character to the bone

The Sebatron vmp-2000e is a two channel tube mic preamp, which is made in Australia. I've had a unit in for evaluation for about 90 days and it's sort of grown on me in some ways and alienated me in others.

I think the Sebatron is suitable for all music idioms with the exception of legit or what the music buying public refers to as Classical. For all other types of music, I think the Sebatron presents an interesting color.

The Sebatron vmp-2000e is a 2U piece of gear in a full width steel chassis. On the front, there are controls for each of the two channels as well as the on/off switch with its green indicator light. There are bits of standard mic pre fair with a switch for a -15 dB and -30 dB pad, a phase switch and a phantom power switch with indicator light. There is also the 1-10 output level and DI input.

The quirky thing about the Sebatron's controls is the EQ switches. There is a switch for the high end and one for the low end of the sonic spectrum. The high end switch is a three way switch with settings for bright, flat and air. The low end switch features settings for flat, deep and low cut.

The back of the unit features an XLR input for each channel as well as balanced XLR and unbalanced 1/4 inch outputs. Inside there are two 12AT7 tubes and a mixture of circuit boards and point-to-point wiring.

I tried the Sebatron as a bass DI on numerous occasions. I liked the sense of presence even if the sound didn't seem absolutely tight. The deep switch gave some tasteful emphasis on the low end. At times, some of the EQ switches seem to be pure genius. At other times, a couple seemed to be huge question marks.

As an electric guitar DI, the Sebatron put across the character of a quality tube guitar preamp. Yes, things stayed on the clean side of guitar sounds. But, I wouldn't mind tracking through the DI for electric guitar. As player, I liked how the Sebatron responded to what I gave it.

I'd heard one complaint about the Sebatron not supplying enough gain. So, I gave the mic pre my Electro Voice RE20 test. It did not supply enough gain for dialog. It did possess enough for singing, amps and drums. Personally, I would want more gain and this came up again with the EV 635A, which a dynamic omnidirectional mic. The 635A is perhaps the most popular stick mic used in television. However, it's also one of the most versatile studio mics. When I plugged the 635A in I did notice that again I wanted more gain for dialog while the Sebatron gave the mic enough juice for all other situations.

The vmp-2000e did show itself off well with the 635A in terms of putting across good fidelity and a musical sound. To me, the true test of a quality mic pre is how it performs with dynamic mics like the 635A or the Shure SM57. As I continued using the vmp-2000e with mics like the SM57 and SM58, the mic pre started hitting me as creating a stylized moody sort of sound consistently from mic to mic yet each mic retained the the essence of its sonics in most all respects but being a little more dark and more rounded on the top. The bright switch and the air switch were useful to add different flavors of top end.

One mic that loved the Sebatron was the Oktava MK012. This small condenser doesn't always get the respect it deserves. I like it but it sometimes gets a little flabby at certain frequencies. With the Sebatron, the MK012 never sounded flabby.

I tried the Sebatron with the Blue Dragonfly. I like the Dragonfly for its complex high end. The vmp-2000e totally zapped this high end and made the mic more than a little boomy. The air switch and the bright switch made things sound agreeable again but they did not return the sonic complexity to the high end. The mic's character went AWOL. Dan Valencia, the former American distributor of Sebatron, suggested that I try a couple things. First, he suggested I engage the pad on the channel. I adjusted the gain and I got some of the missing high end as well as got rid of the boominess. Second, he suggested that I daisy chain the 1/4 unbalanced output of one channel into the DI of the other channel. I found the sound again put back part of that high end and did not contain any boominess. The mic never sounded right, though. Each of these fixes imparted a slightly different coloration to the sound. I did find from engaging the pads and the daisy chaining that different variations of color could be achieved.

I went back to the power hungry EV 635A and the EV RE20. I tried the daisy chaining trick. The Sebatron could now give me power to spare for dialog. I recommend using a 1/4 inch unbalanced patch cable for the daisy chaining trick.

On vocals, the Sebatron generally imparted a certain air of darkness to the sound. It's not heavy. I'd say the preamp is a moderately colored preamp in sound. If you want high end and super clean fidelity then look elsewhere. The Sebatron's color seems sort of organic. I've been told that one of the goals of Sebatron is to produce tube gear with soul. I'd say in a way that's been achieved but the soul is a melancholy one. Given its bone color exterior, the sound is fitting.

I found the vmp-2000e's strength to be in creating mood. I also found it rounded off the top end on more strident sources, such as female vocalists and higher pitched male singers. I never truly felt it to be a high end piece of gear. Something seemed missing in the build. Something seemed missing in the sonics. However, I did like the quirkiness and I would not mind owning one. I'd probably say that you'd probably go with a Sebatron as a second, third or fourth pre in your rack. It's a complimentary color to lots of pres.

The Bottom Line: Despite my misgivings about the unit, I do think many project studio enthusiasts will find the Sebatron vmp-2000e to offer enough flexibility to keep them satisfied with only one pre in the rack. However, most pros will view the vmp-2000e as a character piece to work alongside more worthier pieces. Recommended.

--Steven Langer


sE R1 Ribbon

All the ribbon pleasure and a great guarantee too

One of my fave online activities is looking for buzz on new products. Sometimes, I create buzz. I humbly submit to you that sE deserves a decent amount of buzz for its R1 Ribbon microphone.

At AES 2005 NYC, my good friend Warren Dent of Front End Audio and I would meet at lunch or at the end of the day and discuss gear finds we'd made during the day. Warren told me one day after the show that he tried the sE R1 Ribbon on the show floor and liked it.

OK, I know that's the floor of the AES. It's loud. Still, you can kind of tell if something should be good. After hearing Warren's enthusiasm, I put it down in my list of things to do to evaluate the R1.

I tracked a rootsy Rock 'n' Roll band. The band features two decent guitarists. One of the guitarists in the band is Kevin Wright. If you watched "Star Search" back in Ed McMahon's turn as host, then you might remember Kevin as the hotlicks guitarist with a "Star Search" grand prize winning musical act called the Kingpins. I got an sE R1 Ribbon mic in just to track Kevin. It turned out to be the only mic I ever put up on his amp during two days of recording.

I wanted to track the band in a let it bleed fashion in that I wanted most of the members in the same room. Kevin and his guitar amp ended up next to the drums. I set up the sE R1 about six to 10 inches from the amp with the mic facing slightly away from the cone. The sE R1 features a figure eight pattern. Picture a figure eight with the mic's ribbon transducer positioned perfectly where the lines from each part of the eight cross each other. Off to the sides of the eight are nulls where little to no sound should enter the transducer. In effect, they are dead areas around the mic. I made sure to position the drums in one of the nulls.

Kevin doubles on electric guitar and pedal steel guitar. I took two things away from the session about the R1. First, it's an excellent choice for pedal steel guitar. It might be my sensitive ears but a lot of steel guitar tracks on modern recordings seem to grate on me. And, I actually love the sound of steel. Rather than grating I found the steel guitar tracks recorded through the R1 smooth and a tad lush. Second, I liked the lead runs on electric guitar but thought that even though the R1 imparted a certain pleasing amount of smoothness to the guitar amp that the clarity on rhythm guitar seemed to be more apparent with the R1 than other ribbon mics in this application.

Later, I got the R1 out and did some experimenting. I always evaluate microphones for spoken word. The engineer assisting me agreed that the R1 might be the most flattering dialog mic we've yet tested. It doesn't give your voice the sound of Orson Welles but it sort of imparts a certain sonic authority on a voice. I also thought the sound of the mic well suited for drum overheads and horns.

I found the front side of the mic to be in the traditional ribbon mic flavor whereby the highs get pleasantly tamed. I finally got around to trying the rear side of the mic. I originally tested the R1's rear side through a Millenia TD-1. I initially found the rear side of the mic less open and sort of a cross between a cardioid dynamic mic and a ribbon. However, I later plugged it into a Great River MP-2NV and found the back side of the mic to possess more high end and a more open sound. It's a sound that is ideal for more agressive guitar sounds, drum overheads and for vocals. Lesson learned: Always try mics with more than one mic preamp.

Please remember that ribbon mics need a decent mic preamp to power them up. The R1 doesn't require as much gain as some other ribbon mics but it still requires a decent amount of gain.

You may or may not know it but ribbon mics need a little TLC. Don't blow into them. Don't carry them around outside the case. The ribbon element can break. The R1 features the best ribbon mic warranty that I know about. It's a five year warranty. sE will replace the ribbon element up to three times during that time period. It also comes with a sturdy aluminum case and a shockmount. I found the fit and finish of the mic and its accessories equivalent to other mics in its price class.

The Bottom Line: The sE R1 Ribbon microphone deserves some serious buzz due to its quality sonics and its quality warranty. The front and back of the mic both possess distinct sonic qualities giving the R1 high marks for versatility. Highly recommended.

--Steven Langer


Rupert Neve Designs Portico 5012

Portico Series 5012 Duo Mic Pre as good as the 'Rupert Neve' name

Short of selling the kids or refinancing the house, most of us cannot afford a vintage Neve 1073 or 1084 preamp. There are also numerous Neve clones on the market from $1,000 and up which have attempted to provide a similar sound at a more reasonable price than classic Neve units.

Rupert Neve himself has come out with his own new brand, Rupert Neve Designs. The first product to market is the Portico Series 5012 Duo Mic Pre. It's a two channel mic pre with a 1U half rack footprint.

So what makes a Rupert Neve design so special? Three characteristics come to mind when discussing vintage Neve preamps: Depth, detail and range. Others have described the sound as smooth, big and rich. However you describe it, the sound is THE SOUND I've wanted for a very long time.

When you go to the website of Rupert Neve Designs you will find the 5012 tantalizingly described. It calls the 5012 “a dual-channel microphone preamplifier that incorporates a number of unique features." It adds, "The classic warmth and presence of Mr. Neve's renowned audio circuit designs may be added to both outputs through the front panel 'Silk' switch." I was completed hooked by the words, "renowned audio circuit," and ordered one for my project studio.

After waiting the requisite two weeks to receive the device, I opened the box and found a well packed and professional looking preamp inside. My first impression was that the unit is very solid, well built, mostly metal and heavy in the hand.
Each channel of the 5012 front panel contains a variable high pass control with selectable frequency ranges from 20 to 250 Hz. Mic gain runs from 0 to 66 in 6 dB increments. The mic pres also possesses a switch for 48 volts of phantom power and as well as a phase control. The knobs are plastic.

The "Silk" button, which supposedly introduces the "renowned audio circuitry," in fact, engaged a sound very similar to the 1073 I just recently used for recording. It has a very rich low end and slightly scooped midrange with detailed highs. This is the big voice type sound people refer to which is associated with vintage Neve preamps. I don’t really care how Rupert got there. It definitely had the sound I had been looking for. Is it exactly like a 1073? Well, vintage preamps vary from module to module so let's just say it's right there in the ball park. In normal mode it has a very intimate and slightly more transparent sound that I found enjoyable on acoustic guitar and is a more versatile setting for instruments in my opinion.

For the record the unit does not have an internal power supply which seems to be a source of discontent for some people. The power supply is not a wallwart but uses a boa type similar to those you find attached to laptop computers. Some have speculated that this somehow cheapens the offering or they cannot believe it has a serious sound given this design choice. I am here to say it most definitely has a serious sound despite the external power.

Another key feature unique to this preamp is the routing buss on the back panel which sums multiple units into a common buss mix module (shipping sometime in the future). If you’re looking to build a world class mixer you will be able to expand several 5012s along with other modules from the Portico line into a top quality external mixer.

The Bottom Line: The Portico 5012 delivers a detailed sonic image with a broad range of frequencies. It provides a great value and two channels of a classic sound sure to put a smile on most any studio owner’s face. Recommended.

--Phil Grabmiller

Rupert Neve Designs

Royer R-121

Royer R-121 mic: Ribboned for guitar amp recording pleasure

Known for their smooth, even response, ribbon mics have been around for decades, but until recently have been considered a little esoteric for the project-studio market. With the introduction of the Royer R-121, all that changed.

I began hearing about this microphone back when it first came out. After reading interviews with well-known engineers, I started to notice that the R-121 was creeping in when they discussed their favorite mics for electric guitar mic'ing. As the majority of projects I work on involve recording electric guitar, from clean to ultra-heavy, I became interested in checking one out. Anything to make my job easier and make my clients happier, don’t you know.

After exhaustively checking out all available resources, I can honestly say that I couldn’t find very many negative comments about this mic in general and none at all in regards to electric guitar recording. Without much hesitation, I pulled the trigger. I love this mic.

First, it absolutely excels at recording guitar amps. On the whole, I’m used to incremental increases in quality, when upgrading gear. I plugged in my trusty Telecaster to a nice Marshall JCM800 and a 2x12 cab loaded with Greenbacks. I positioned the R-121 in front of the cab, about 3” off the grill cloth and tilted slightly towards the side of the cone. I'll admit I got the position from the mic's manual.

I went into the control room and brought up the fader. I really wasn’t prepared for what came out of the monitors that day. It sounded just like the amp: Full, rich and detailed. No harshness or any nasty overtones that I’d normally have to EQ out during mixdown. This was the sound I’d been trying to get for years. Every one in the room agreed that it was an amazing sound. By moving the mic closer and farther away from the speaker, I found I could tailor the low end response to my liking as well as change the room ambience.

I’ve used this mic extensively, mainly to record electric guitar, but also on some other sources. On acoustic bass it was very nice - full and rich, although the figure-eight pattern caused some problems - we were recording in the same room with a small drumset and had to be very careful with our placement, to minimize bleed. For vocals, I tried it on a smooth female singer and a pretty forceful high tenor male vocal. While it sounded good, it really wasn’t what we were looking for. It lacked the clarity and detail needed to cut through a dense mix. We went with a large diaphragm condenser mic instead.

I also had mixed results on trumpet, but I feel it was the player's rather strident tone and not the fault of the microphone. I used it as a mono room mic on some rockin’ basics we were cutting and it darn near gave us a complete sound, just by itself. We squashed it with a limiter and used it along with the other tracks, to give the song a little more aggressive, trashy feel.

Another interesting use is for acoustic instruments. As noted in the manual and on their website, the R-121 has two different frequency responses available, due to the design of the mic. It has a figure-eight pickup pattern, and if you record into the back of the mic, flipping the phase, it has a little bit brighter sound, with more high frequency extension. I tried this on an acoustic guitar and was amazed at the sound. Detailed high end with a realistic, rich body that was hard to find fault with. It just sounded "right." I could easily build a record around that sound. I’ll still use my trusty AKG 451 or 460 to track acoustic guitar when I need to cut through a pop or rock track, but for acoustic music, this may turn into my first-call mic.

Those are the reasons that it’s become one of the favorite mics in my collection. There is a downside, which is shared by all other ribbon mics. The Royer R-121 is fragile. I had to have the mic re-ribboned after only seven months of less than average usage. Talking to Royer, I explained that I had followed all their suggestions, actually being more conservative and careful with it than they recommended, and still it went. They were amazingly helpful however and the first re-ribbon is free at their discretion. One small glitch in the process was that they didn’t get the details of why it broke, which they can deduce from inspecting the damaged ribbon. I still don’t know if it was from misuse or from a defect.

The Bottom Line: It may be the best guitar cab mic made today. Every project studio should have one. Highly recommended.

--Mark Gifford

Royer Labs

Rode NT5

Rode Microphones NT5 small diaphragm condenser NOT a rodent

I had a quick session with the Rode NT5 small diaphragm condensers as drum overheads. The NT5 mics feature an attractive silver finish. They are quite small in size. The black sticker at the base of the mic does look sort of old school Radio Shack.

These microphones sounded pretty damn good. They really pick up the entire sound of the kit, with enough low end to make a kick mic optional in some cases. Toms and snare sounded tight and punchy while cymbals sounded smooth and realistic.

I was able to create a very realistic stereo spread with typical X/Y placement about 20 inches above the cymbals. The cardioid pattern seemed tight, as the mics did not pick up as much room sound as I'd expect.

The Bottom Line: The Rode NT5 small condensers are a very realistic pair of overhead mics that should require little or no EQ in most cases for a good tight mix.

--Warren Dent

Rode Microphones

Rane MS 1b

Rane MS 1b not a bad little pre

Looking for a mic preamp to add to your setup? The Rane MS 1b gets the job done well for a nice price.

The Rane MS 1b is a single channel mic preamp featuring up to +66 dB of gain with 48v phantom power, a signal/overload LED and phase reverse. Input and output are balanced XLR. The power cord looks like a telephone cable connector, and does not ground the unit. You must ground the unit yourself on the grounding screw located on the rear of the unit.

So how does the MS 1b sound? The MS 1b is a surprisingly nice little box, offering a neutral clean sound for the most part, with low self-noise. We compared it to several preamps in my own collection, as well as several in my buddy Bob's collection and the Rane held its own indeed.

So what are the characteristics of the MS 1b's sound? Clean, neutral with a sort of thin low-end response. The thin low-end worked very well with sources you'd want to roll some low frequencies off. The MS 1b is designed for paging and DJ type duties where strong low freq response could be annoying. There is a bit of a scratchiness to it. I'm not saying it's going to go "krrkkkkrkrtttkktktchck" when I say scratchiness but I mean in comparison to some of the more expensive preamps we compared it to there was certainly a slightly scratchier sound. The high-end response is extended to 200 kHz which naturally adds some more high-end noise. But for the $199 list price, this is certainly not a major complaint.

On snare drum with an SM57 it's fast with good punch to it. The transient response is certainly better than many entry level preamps found in lower cost mixers. Overall snare sounds punchy and neutral with good overtones.

On vocals with dynamic and condensor mics, it's not as much of a stand out compared to higher-end units, but it gets the job done admirably. Used at normal levels it produces basically an unhyped, clear sound. I actually liked pushing the MS 1b a bit, getting a small amount of distortion out of the box for effect. There's this area you can push the box in vocally to get a bit of the "Little Richard" type of sound. I like that effect on some voices. The Rane has a more predictable break up range when overdriven than many preamps if you want to go for some fuzz on a vocal.

On acoustic guitar with a small diaphragm condensor, the Rane did its best. Again, the somewhat thin low-end complimented the sound but there was also a nice overall tone with good attack. Some nice acoustic tracks can be had with this box.

The Bottom Line: As a general purpose preamp, the Rane is certainly a well priced addition to the studio. I recommend using it on acoustic guitar and snare work as it takes a nice step away from entry level preamps on these sources and holds its own against many higher end units. For those seeking a different flavor preamp (and only a preamp, there is no DI) the Rane MS 1b should be getting quite a few calls to duty. List price $199. Recommended.

--Warren Dent

Rane Corporation

Rane G4 Quad Gate

Rane shines with its new analog controlled G4 Quad Gate

Rane is one of those companies that recording engineers often overlook. They make a lot of gear for DJ applications and live sound, but they have many tools for studio use as well. The Rane G4 Quad Gate is one of those pieces. I was able to spend some quality time with the G4, and have found it to be a useful studio tool.

The G4 is an analog controlled digital four channel gate, ducker and expander in an all steel 2U chassis. There are 1/4 inch and XLR active balanced/auto-unbalanced inputs and balanced outputs. There are 48 kHz, 24 bit converters in and out. The power supply is internal (no wall wart) and clean. The unit can be used as four channels or you can link channels 1 + 2, or 3 + 4 for dual stereo use for any combination you like. The unit is attractive. I like the combination of black face with white print and the yellow, red and green LEDs. The LED metering is very fast, and allows monitoring of the sidechain as well as the main signal being processed. The chrome switches are a nice touch. The layout is easy to learn and navigate.

Being an analog controlled digital device, it's got "real" analog knobs with fine control. The digital domain also allows for look ahead or what Rane calls "Pre-Ramp" gating which allows the gate to be 100 percent effective on drums and other fast attack sources. The digital domain is also not susceptible to RF interference, which I never found any problem with whatsoever using the G4.

The manual is worth a mention. First of all, it took about three minutes of scanning to get the hang of the entire device. But most importantly, it's written in plain English and can be easily understood. A lot of folks hate manuals, Rane included a quick start page that anyone with reasonable skills will be satisfied with and up and running in seconds with a full grasp of the device.

My first run at the G4 was ducking a bass guitar under a kick drum. I ran a bass guitar track out of my DAW and into channel 1 on the G4. Next, I ran a kick drum track into the side chain and selected external with the side chain switch. Selecting listen allows you to monitor the side chain only, selecting normal allows you to monitor your input signal as it's being effected.

The G4 has a 12 dB per octave low cut and high cut adjustment which allows you to tailor your external or internal sidechain signal. The controls are not very surgical but useful enough to be somewhat selective. I was able to focus in on the low end to clear out some space for the kick drum without affecting the higher frequency response of the bass guitar track. This allowed for some very smooth and transparent ducking that sounded great. The kick drum was able to stomp right on through the mix much clearer now.

The ducking feature proved useful also on a stereo guitar mix, when using the main vocal as a sidechain I could get some of the midrange guitar sounds out of the way a bit to allow the vocal to pop out front in the mix.

Next up was the G4's gate, which is a look ahead sort of gate. This gate is quite simply a nice sounding and easy to use function. You don't lose a thing, you can select "0 ms" for attack time, an advantage of making this a digital box. Between threshold, attack, depth, hold and release adjustments you can shape everything from a guitar track to a snare drum.

You can trigger the gate with a sidechain if you like for some funky results. Got a boring snare drum? Run some white noise into the G4 and trigger a snare to open it up, then blend the two to taste in the mix. Need some boom for your toms? Try running some synth bass through the gates and trigger it with the tom track. The possibilities with the G4 are great, but to top it all off it's a great sounding unit. It's clean and doesn't color the sound in any negative way.

The expander is a nice shaping tool that is easy to work with. I was able to breathe some life into a "dynamically challenged" acoustic guitar track with good results. This is similar to the gate function except the hold control is unavailable in expander mode, and the ratio control is used instead of depth. This effect can be as subtle or as wild as you need it. Again, you can key the expander off of a sidechain for some interesting results.

The Bottom Line: Rane's G4 is a creative tool for sure. Its ease of use and clean sound would be welcomed in any studio in need of some good envelope shaping. Then there's some of the wilder uses as I mentioned above, which make the Rane a fun piece to reach for when you've got an idea to mangle something or just keep it in its place. List price is $999 and can be found for less on the street. Recommended.

--Warren Dent

Rane Corporation

Presonus Eureka

Eureka! Presonus gets it mostly right with its recording channel

I've owned PreSonus gear in the past, specifically the DigiMax eight-channel pre, and I wasn't a big fan of that unit. Most notably, my opinion of the unit's performance on low-output dynamic microphones was especially poor. So, when my dealer encouraged me to take a listen to the new PreSonus Eureka, I already had a negative disposition for PreSonus preamps. Still, I'm always up for playing with a new toy so I said I'd give it a shot.

The box itself is a channel-strip type arrangement with a microphone preamp and direct input section followed by a compressor and EQ. The compressor and EQ are order switchable and both have a bypass mode. There is a master output control to provide 10 db more or less gain before output and an analog meter in the center of the unit providing output level monitoring, including the ability to monitor the compressor’s gain reduction.

The preamp section features several standard controls including high-pass filter, phase invert, 48v phantom power and a 20 db input pad. There are also less commonly seen features including adjustable impedance and "saturation" controls.

Tunable impedance seems to be a hot topic in preamp design lately, but in my tests using an SM57, Sennheiser 441 and Earthworks TC30K, I always picked the 2500 ohm setting, the highest offered by the Eureka. The 600 ohm setting was interesting on snare drum with the SM57, making the sound thicker and more strained.

The other non-obvious control on the preamp is the saturation feature. The documentation behind this knob indicates a current depletion technique designed to control the generation of second order harmonics adding a "pleasing analog tape or tube like distortion." It adds something for sure, but I'm not sure if I'd call it pleasing. I would liken the sound to a fog or haze in the signal, as if someone were screaming into a telephone handset from across the world. Each time I tried adding even subtle amounts of color I preferred the sound of the saturation control fully off.

OK, so I don't like the sound of the Eureka preamp's special features, but what about the preamp itself? This little preamp is really great! Again and again I was impressed with the very useable quality coming out of the unit. For my own edification, I compared the Eureka to a Millennia Media HV3D. First, I tried the Eureka on a 10-inch popcorn snare drum with an Earthworks TC30k microphone. To my ears, there was very little difference in sound between the Millennia Media HV3D and the PreSonus. This was especially surprising given the notoriously hot output of Earthworks microphones and the transformer coupling of the PreSonus versus the transformerless Millennia. Both preamps delivered great, focused sounds ready for tape.

Second was the same source using a SM57. For this test, I was surprised at the difference in the Eureka vs. the Millennia. Admittedly, I used two different SM57s so I could cut both takes at once, so much of the difference may be difference between microphones. That said, the Millennia seems to have a good mid-range thing going on and seemed a bit more punchy, but there's clearly a lot more high frequency information plus a certain “spread” to the sound coming out of the Eureka. For a Pop record there's no question I would have chosen the PreSonus over the Millennia

Next up was a Fender Precision Bass using the direct input on the Eureka. For this comparison, I also plugged the bass into the wonderful Millennia STT-1 direct in. While I still preferred the openness and richness of tone from the Millennia, the PreSonus is a great sound with plenty of punch. I also felt this was the one place where the saturation control might be useful if one likes a dense, thick bass sound with lots of mids instead of an open, clear one.

Finally, the last test was voice. I had Dave Dye, lead singer for Submarinehead, sing a bit from a new comedy song a cappella and tried both the Millennia HV3D and the PreSonus out side-by-side. Dave is very fond of the sound of the Sennheiser 441 for vocals (as am I), and this microphone can be challenging for preamps because of its very low output. In this test, both the HV3D and PreSonus were set at their highest gain settings possible, with the Master Out on the PreSonus also maxed out.

The sound from both preamps was open and clear. To my ears, the PreSonus was a slight bit harsher on the sibilant sounds, and in general had a bit of crunch on the top. There was no doubt, however, the Eureka sounds great and performed admirably at this application. To me, vocal handling separates great preamps from the mediocre ones, and the Eureka was just dandy on Dave’s voice.

One thing I noticed is the very, very low noise floor of the PreSonus. Usually ultra-low noise performance like this is reserved for "money" preamps like the Millennia. Even at max gain (in the neighborhood of 65db), the PreSonus was whisper quiet -- only very slightly noisier than the HV3D. This is a huge improvement from my experience with the DigiMax, and a welcome one. I would not hesitate to reach for the Eureka for quiet, sensitive sources and low output microphones.

During a mixdown session, I also found the compressor useful. I got great sounds using the line-in on snare drum with shades of tight and squashed to punchy and resonant. The Eureka was also good on vocals, though it left me wanting a bit more squash as the compressor tops out at a max ratio of 10:1. The sound is reasonably uncolored, and I was impressed at how easy it was to get a good sound without excessive pumping and breathing, even when squeezing sounds heavily. I would not hesitate to put the PreSonus on snare drum for tracking or mixing.

The EQ was by far my least favorite. For starters, the parametric EQ is arranged such that the Gain, Q and center knobs are in different positions on each band! Yes, they are in the same order, but because PreSonus arranges them in a "three triangles" pattern with the center triangle inverted, they are in different positions vertically band-to-band. This awkward arrangement plus the very small print on the front panel was an endless point of frustration using the device.

Beyond the ergonomics, the sound of the EQ was less than stellar. It reminded me a bit of a Mackie console -- very forward in the mids, a crunchy top and a boomy bottom. The Q control just won't get wide enough for smooth, wide boosts or cuts. I also felt the EQ, at notch settings, starved too much punch from the sound.

The Bottom Line: The PreSonus Eureka features a good pre, solid compressor but not so good EQ. Still, the good outweighs the bad and the unit sells at a reasonable price. When you take into consideration the Eureka's street price, one can do little else than applaud PreSonus for a job well done.

--Jim Dugger


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Oktava MK-319 modified by OktavaMod

OktavaMod puts new sonics and some zing into MK-319

I own an Oktava MK-319, which is a large diaphragm made in Russia condenser microphone. It's laid around without getting use for a long time. I bought it back in my bedroom recording days. It just did not seem to give me satisfactory results on anything.

I now own a commercial recording studio. While I've upgraded I thought it was time to give a go at upgrading my MK-319. I decided to try getting it modified by Michael Joly, who owns an online business called OktavaMod. I felt skeptical about the whole thing. But, Michael quoted me a price of $99. I felt I did not risk losing much if the mic came back without a significant improvement.

First thing... I found Michael to do the rarest of things for a techie. He gave me a fast turnaround. I think eight days went by from the time I shipped out my mic until it came back all modded out including a cleaned grille sans the dent that I shipped it out with. Thanks for the undent, Michael.

With my MK-319 back in my hands, I wasted no time in getting to work. I recorded test tracks of the modded Oktava MK-319 through an A Designs Audio P-1 mic pre and an OSA MP1-C mic pre. I tracked two different C.F. Martin guitars. The modded MK-319 captured sounds from either guitar that I'd not encountered before whether tracking hard strumming or delicate picking.

I found the modded MK-319 to be sensitive to position (moreso than I would have imagined from any mic in the less than $2,000 range). I found that moving the mic just 1/4 inch produced dramatic changes in the tracked result. I compared the modded MK-319 tracks to several other tracks recorded in the past with different mics including the Audio-Technica AT4033 and a Peluso 22 47. I generally liked the tracks made with the modded MK-319 more than the others about 85 to 90 percent of the time.

I tested the mic on vocals. I cut several tracks of various male and female voices, in various musical styles. I found myself thinking of words such as clarity and power. The modded MK-319 seems suited to vocal styles other than screaming rock. I liked it on middle and lower register voices. I did some more A/B'ing with some older tracks and found myself preferring the modded MK-319 tracks when I wanted to hear "smooth."

I thought the mic seemed to sort of ooze a vintage sound. So, I went so far as to record a mono track of a small group consisting acoustic guitar with male and female vocals from about five feet from the sources. It worked. Playback revealed a sense of a small intimate living room concert.

I next tried the modded MK-319 on electric guitar amp for a blues project. I set the mic up about 18 inches from the speaker and slightly off axis. I got keeper tracks, giving up that elusive smoky, old school blues sound. I thought the modded MK-319 held its own on clean guitars, dirty guitars, and anything in between. It didn’t matter. I even gave it a whirl on Fender Rhodes. And, I captured that "tone" I equate with the greats of the electric piano such as Ray Charles.

As I gathered more and more experience with the modded MK-319 I found myself thinking the mic close to the old FET U47 microphones. I did not say identical. I thought the vibe to be close.

I learned that different mic preamps imparted their character on the modded MK-319. What this means to you is that the modded MK-319 will accentuate any differences in mic pres, thus opening up your pallet of sound even more.

I got to talk to Michael Joly on the telephone about his history. I learned of his former work in mic design for David Blackmer, founder of Earthworks, and that he likes to think of himself as “an empirical engineer.”

I want to thank Patti Spurgeon Irvin for providing her extraordinary vocal talents in my evaluation of this mic.

The Bottom Line: If you own an Oktava MK-219 or a MK-319, then get it modded now. Not only does your mic deserve it, your clients and your recordings deserve it as well. Recommended.

--Ken Morgan

Oktava MK-319

Oktava MK-319 captures a neutral, natural sound

Of all the inexpensive condenser microphones available to day, Oktava is the only manufacturer that doesn’t have ties to the Orient. Established as a Russian radio factory in 1927, Oktava soon began to focus on the production of acoustical-electrical transducers consisting of both loudspeakers and dynamic microphones. In the 1950s, Oktava began manufacturing successful copies of RCA ribbon mics for the Soviet television and movie production industries. Today, Oktava is a major producer of affordable ribbon and condenser microphones.

The Oktava MK-319 is a large (28 mm) diaphragm cardioid pattern condenser microphone that is essentially a repackaged version of the MK-219. The MK-219 body rightfully gets a lot of criticism due to its boxy shape negatively impacting the mic's sonics. So, Oktava put the insides of the MK-219 into a new mic body and the MK-319 was born.

The MK-319 utilizes a -10 dB switch and a low-cut switch that reduces the mic's sensitivity by 10 dB below 50 Hz. The mic usually sells in a soft vinyl pouch with a stand adapter. The literature that comes with the MK-319 still reads “MK-219” and lists the sensitivity as 10 mV/Pa and the max SPL @ 1 kHz as > 140 dB. I recently picked up a couple and have spent a considerable amount of time both listening to them and examining their design.

Before purchasing the MK-319, my friends at my local Oktava dealer helped me set up a temporary listening station in their pro audio room consisting of a pair of Audio-Technica headphones, a Focusrite VoiceMaster Pro, and a pile of MK-319 microphones (seven to be exact). This allowed me to compare them to determine any sonic variations that might exist due to the inadequate quality control that low budget offshore microphones are so famous for. To my surprise, there was little variation between them and selecting two from the heap was just a tossup. Bear in mind that the ones I tested were probably all from the same run, so variations between manufacturing runs are still a possibility.

At home on the bench, I took each mic apart to examine its internal parts. The capsule appears to be a copy of a Neumann design, similar to the one found in most of the Chinese mics. One difference I did notice, even before taking it apart, was that the capsule had a strange plastic disc attached to both its front and back sides. Each disc has nine holes symmetrically placed around it. I'm not sure what the purpose of this disc is. Some say it improves the higher frequencies, but it may just simply be there to help protect the diaphragm.

As I examined the electronics, I immediately discovered that the low-cut and -10 dB switches were reed switches rather than the mechanical slide switches normally used on mics in this price range. The significance is that reed switches operate magnetically and have no sliding contacts to wear out. Reed switches also are hermetically sealed in a gas filled tube, and thus totally isolated from the outside environment. These two things provide a long switch life. If you've ever flipped one of those cheap slide switches only to find it had become faulty or intermittent, you'll understand why this is such a big deal to me.

I traced out the circuit and found that it functions similar to the one used in the MK-012. One exception, however, is that the MK-319 uses an output transformer and provides a true differential output. (Incidentally, the MK-012 does not have a true balanced output.)

In most of the transformer-coupled Chinese mics, the low quality output transformer has always been a major weakness of their design. According to Scott Dorsey, who is quite knowledgeable about Oktava mics, this is not true of the MK-319. Over at the rec.audio.pro group at usenet, Scott said, "I was kind of surprised that the transformer in those (Oktava MK-219 and MK-319) mics actually sounds pretty good, and measures well on the bench." As to the Chinese mics, Scott said, "The transformer rings. The core is poorly made; the windings are poorly wrapped. You put a square wave in, what comes out isn't square."

Like the newer vintage MK-012 microphones, the printed circuit board and its components are lacquer coated to resist moisture and prevent noise. The electronic components appear to be consistent between the two mics I have, and even though the quality of some components could be improved, none of the parts are what I would call shoddy.

For my listening test at home, I used my Aardvark Q10 with its built-in preamplifiers, and a Blue Cranberry microphone cable. I listened to the results through some decent headphones and a pair of KRK Rokit monitors.

I tried the MK-319 on a few acoustic instruments, and it always performed well without the harshness usually associated with low cost large diaphragm Chinese microphones. Although it sounded neutral, I could still detect a little "color" that isn’t there when using small diaphragm condensers. Another thing I noticed was that it isn't nearly as picky about placement in front of an acoustic instrument as its MK-012 sibling. This would suggest that the MK-319 has a wider polar pattern.

Next, I tested the MK-319 on both male and female vocals, comparing it to identical clips made using some different Chinese made large diaphragm condenser microphones. In comparison, the MK-319 didn't seem to add anything of its own flavor to the vocals.

Now, before you get the idea that the MK-319 is dull and boring, rest assured that it's not. There is a clarity in the lower mids. This low-mid clarity and smooth, unhyped upper end is where the MK-319 shines.

The Bottom Line: The Oktava MK319 is a versatile mic with somewhat neutral sonics. Contrary to popular myth, the MK319 is not a dark sounding mic. Street prices vary. Try it out before you buy.

--Tim Harbin