Technology

Field Test: JZ Microphones Black Hole

THREE-PATTERN CONDENSER FEATURES DUAL CAPSULES, SWIVEL MOUNT 5/01/2008 8:00 AM Eastern

Last fall, when I heard about the formation of JZ Microphones, a Latvian company spun off from Violet Microphones, I wasn't sure what to think. The principal behind the company is Juris Zarins, who was Violet's chief designer and formerly with Blue Microphones. I wondered whether the world really needed another mic manufacturer, but after previewing JZ's debut product — the BH-1 Black Hole — I was intrigued.

There are lots of me-too mics on the market, but this one's different. It has a matte-finish black body and a center cutout — hence the “Black Hole” name — but what's under the grille has piqued my curiosity. Rather than the traditional approach of using a single condenser capsule with dual front/back diaphragms, the Black Hole places two identical 27mm capsules back-to-back, combining the output of both to create its omni, cardioid and figure-8 patterns.

LOOKING WITHIN

The capsule's design is also unique. The usual approach is a thin, uniform sputtering of gold over the diaphragm surface. The Black Hole uses a patented variable-sputtering process with a proprietary alloy mixture placed in a pattern of irregularly sized circular shapes surrounded by noncoated areas. Under the hood, the discrete Class-A preamp electronics provide an equivalent noise level spec that's rated at an impressive 7.5 dB (A-weighted, DIN/IEC).

The mic ships in a beautiful wood case with magnetic locking latches that keep it protected between sessions. Inside is a stand clip unit that uses a spring-loaded mechanism to secure the mic to the stand. Placing the mount on the mic requires simply compressing and releasing the spring so it couples with two steel pins within the mic's center-section cutout. In addition to fixing the mic securely to the stand, this shock-mount arrangement allows the mic to rotate ±30 degrees side-to-side for more placement flexibility in tight quarters, such as drum miking.

IN THE STUDIO

Having the Black Hole for weeks, I tested it in a variety of situations. First up was voice-over for a video project with a male narrator. After a few takes in cardioid mode, several things became apparent. The mic is extremely detailed, which is wonderful for capturing nuances, yet at the same time captures distant air-handling noise, page turns and bench squeaks with unerring accuracy. With a lesser mic, such details are often hidden by capsule weaknesses or excessive self-noise, but here the Black Hole delivered everything put in front of it, especially with an ultraclean preamp such as the Millennia Media HV-3.

Tracking male vocals on a surf-rock tune into Pro Tools via a Groove Tubes ViPRE preamp and an LA-2A provided a much different sound. The Black Hole has a fairly flat, neutral character; here, the added tube processing was just the right ingredient. The mic's proximity effect is fairly subtle, even in cardioid, and taking advantage of that extra LF boost required getting very close (about three inches from the capsule) and using a stocking filter to reduce the plosive sounds. This vocalist needed a bit of presence boost (+2 dB around 6 kHz), although female background vocals on the same track needed just a hint of HF boost for an airy quality. Tracking that same soprano on leads, the track was fine without EQ.

I was impressed with the Black Hole's polar response. The cardioid setting is fairly wide, with a smooth tail-off that's great for vocalists who move around a lot. However, this same wide, smooth pattern requires a little more effort when trying to isolate loud nearby instrument/noises. The omni response was absolutely consistent from side-to-side, and the figure-8 provided the most identical front-to-back I've ever heard. I'm sure this stems in no small part from the dual-capsule design; regardless, figure-8 devotees will love this mic. I was less jazzed about the pattern switch itself, which has a cheap feel and a foil sticker — rather than engraving — to indicate switch positioning.

On that same surf session, I used the Black Hole as a distant room mic combined with a Sennheiser MD-421 positioned up-close on a vintage Fender Deluxe Reverb amp to track tremolo guitar parts. In omni, the mic's low-noise performance shined, providing a nice ambient track from a fairly low-SPL guitar performance. Switching to cardioid to record close-in (and very high-SPL) cowbell overdubs, I detected a faint ringing sound, which disappeared when the mic was touched. Evidently, this was a slight body resonance from the mic's outer shell (according to JZ, a new shock-mount that grips the mic body would negate any such resonances), but this was the only time I experienced this using the Black Hole.

In other overdub situations, ranging from acoustic guitar to chimes and crotales, the Black Hole exhibited consistently neutral tonal balance, with a crisp (but not overblown) top end that reminded me of a Neumann U87.

LITTLE, BLACK, DIFFERENT

Anyone looking for something different in a versatile studio mic should check out the Black Hole. Retailing at $2,295, it's hardly an impulse buy, but at the recent Musikmesse show, JZ unveiled the Black Hole SE, a single-pattern (cardioid) model that lists at $1,895.

JZ Microphones Ltd., www.jzmic.com.