AUDIO-TECHNICA 30 SERIES CONDENSER MICROPHONES
Audio-Technica's 30 Series condenser mics offer extended frequency response, high-SPL handling, excellent dynamic range and low self-noise — at an affordable price. The newest additions to the line are the large-diaphragm AT3035 cardioid ($349) and the small-diaphragm AT3031 cardioid ($259). A small-diaphragm omni (AT3032) is also available. All three are fixed-charge backplate, permanently polarized condensers requiring 11 to 52VDC phantom power; each includes -10dB pad, and 80Hz, -12dB/octave bass roll-off switches.
The AT3035 is a side-address design with a 6.7×2-inch, 13.8-ounce body and an attractive pewter-look finish. The mic ships with a simple, yet effective shock-mount that holds the body securely with a definitive “click.”
In the studio, the AT3035 proved surprising. Despite its low cost, the mic was extremely smooth, to the point of being almost ruler flat from 50 to 15k Hz. If you're looking for a mic with attitude, weird vocal bumps or excessive top-end boost, then this one isn't it. Instead, the AT3035 puts back a near-identical picture of what's in front of it, while providing an impressively low self-noise of 12 dB. It was ideal for recording a fairly bright 12-string, where mics with a more “traditional” condenser top end would have yielded a brittle sound. Recording tenor sax, the opposite was true: Here, I chose a mic with more edge, while the AT3035 was very nice — smooth and natural — on alto and soprano sax.
The AT3035 excels on female voices, providing the right blend of close-in proximity effect for fullness, with a linear HF response that was never shrill or edgy. On male vocals, the AT3035's flat response meant reaching for the EQ to add a slight (2 to 3dB) presence boost to increase intelligibility. In either case, working in closer than 6 inches or so, I did need to use a stocking-screen filter, as the LF roll-off was a bit too much for vocal pops — it's better suited for wind noise or general bass filtering, for drum overheads and the like. Also, the AT3035's off-axis response was excellent — I never had to worry about the mic's character changing when singers moved around while tracking.
The AT3031 is a small-diaphragm cardioid, in a familiar, probe-style 5.7-inch-long package that's just over ¾ inches in diameter. Overall, the AT3031 exhibits a more typical condenser mic response, with a gentle +2dB HF rise that kicks in from 9 to 15k Hz, and then levels off and extends out to 20 kHz. Its unpadded 148dB SPL handling capability and wide response scream out for percussion applications, and the AT3031 was spot-on for drum overheads and close-up on hi-hat, yet retained plenty of LF moxie for near-field recording of a 28-inch Paiste symphonic gong — the proximity effect combined with the mic's sub-40Hz response for a powerful, thundering result.
Next up for the AT4031 was capturing overdubbed harmonic grace notes on a Taylor acoustic guitar. Here, the extended top end was a real plus, while the mic's stated 16dB self-noise (this spec seems very conservative) combined with the ultra-clean sound of an Aphex 1100 preamp revealed some weird clicking noise, which turned out to be the guitarist's wristwatch!
Audio-Technica might have made a mistake in categorizing its 30 Series for “home and project studio” use. These are quality engineering tools that can hold their own in any pro environment — stage, studio or broadcasting.
Audio-Technica; 330/686-2600; www.audio-technica.com.
— George Petersen
TUBE-TECH SMC 2B STEREO MULTIBAND COMPRESSOR
Tube-Tech has updated and improved its SMC 2A Multiband Compressor by adding a balance control, useful for fine-tuning the stereo image of 2-channel program material. Served by a continuously variable pot, the balance control on the SMC 2B (the updated unit's new model number) provides ±1.5dB maximum gain adjustment for its final amplifiers. This is accomplished by varying the tube-cathode resistance to ground, so that no additional circuitry is added to the audio path.
In all other respects, the SMC 2B ($4,395) is identical to the original SMC 2A. For the uninitiated, the tube-based, dual-channel unit incorporates three independent stereo opto-compressors. Each compressor serves its own frequency band, the bandwidth of which you can adjust by tweaking the unit's two adjustable crossovers. Each compressor also has its own continuously variable threshold, ratio, attack, release and makeup gain controls, and an 11-segment LED display shows gain reduction for the band. Global controls include master gain and a Bypass switch.
The addition of a balance control puts the finishing touch on what was already an incredibly flexible, pre-eminently transparent and sweet-sounding compressor. The SMC 2B provides considerable headroom and handles percussive, broadband, stereo program material without pumping even the slightest bit. Bottom line: The SMC 2B is the best compressor I've heard for mastering applications.
Dist. by TC Electronic; 805/373-1828; www.tube-tech.com.
— Michael Cooper
PRESONUS DIGIMAX 8-CHANNEL MIC PREAMP, A/D CONVERTER
PreSonus makes a great multichannel mic preamp, the M80, retailing at $2,300. Unfortunately, that's a sizeable chunk for a lot of people, so PreSonus has followed it up with DigiMax, an 8-channel mic preamp that also includes eight channels of 24-bit A/D conversion via Alesis ADAT Lightpipe or (optional) 48 or 96 kHz S/PDIF or AES formats, along with two direct box inputs and onboard analog signal processing, with independent peak limiting and a frequency EQ Enhance™ circuit on each channel. DigiMax retails at $1,699.95.
With its machined, thick, aluminum slab front panel, 20 illuminated push-button switches and 27 status LEDs, DigiMax is a work of art. Also on the front panels are eight concentric pots for channel gain and limiter threshold, as well as switches for setting the pad-in/out, 32/44.1/48kHz sample rate, and internal/external clocking. Channels 1 and 2 also provide ¼-inch high-impedance direct inputs and polarity reverse.
The designers obviously ran out of room within the one-rackspace chassis, so they opted for a beefy, linear external power supply that connects to the main rack unit via a 6-pin XLR for a solid connection. The rear panel also has eight XLR inputs, eight ¼-inch balanced TRS analog outputs, plus an 8-channel Lightpipe digital out, wordclock in/out, 8-channel AES/EBU/S/PDIF output on a 9-pin D-sub (breakout cables with conventional connectors are optional) and individual phantom power switches for each mic preamp. The rear panel location of the phantom switches is inconvenient, but that's the price you pay (or save) when so much is crammed into a tiny chassis. Even so, some type of recessed switches would be preferable, as the switches are easily bumped when reaching to the back of the unit to make connections or set phantom power.
In the studio, DigiMax was ideal, either as a multichannel front end for a workstation or in a conventional studio configuration as a remote preamp for tracking drums. The limiter relies on a variable 0 to +24dB threshold control and a combo of peak and RMS detection at the same time, but it worked!
The limiter was especially useful on hi-hat, where a simple hat ride pattern can suddenly explode with loud open cymbal hits. I also like to be able to leave the limiters engaged for live tracking, when levels can change suddenly — the limiting was audibly inconspicuous. I was less impressed with the enhance circuit, which puts a -3dB cut in the 250 to 5k Hz range; occasionally, it worked on drum overheads, but without more available parameters, it wasn't nearly as slick as the preamps and limiters. Incidentally, all outputs are active at all times, so the digital and analog outs can be used simultaneously — great for tracking to two different media at the same time or mixing/monitoring a live show (analog) while tracking to disk or ADAT.
At $1,699.95, DigiMax would be a great deal just as an 8-channel preamp, but add in the direct box inputs, A/D conversion, transparent limiting, multiformat outs and more, and DigiMax is nothing less than a bargain.
PreSonus Audio Electronics; 225/216-7887; www.presonus.com.
— George Petersen
COLEMAN AUDIO M3PH CONTROL ROOM MONITOR MODULE
Today, you can record, overdub, process, mix and master entirely from a computer screen. Yet, as we move away from the traditional console concept, we still need monitoring control for playback volume, muting, mono checking, switching between several sets of reference speakers and selecting from various playback sources.
One possible solution to this situation comes in the form of the Coleman Audio M3PH. Housed in a single-rackspace chassis, the M3PH offers four stereo inputs, three alternate speaker outs, a main volume attenuator, a mono sum to check phase, left/right mute switches, and front panel headphone output with independent level control. All connections on the rear panel are balanced XLRs, and the AC cord is an attached 2-prong type.
The main point behind the M3PH is signal purity. The signal path is almost entirely passive — no VCAs here! All switching is passive. The volume is controlled by a 10k⌠ stepped, ganged attenuator that tracks with an accuracy of 0.05 dB. The only active circuits are the headphone amplifier and a necessary summing amp used for combining the left/right sides for mono listening. Other than those exceptions, it's nearly as close to straight wire as it gets, and the audio performance is impeccable.
My only complaint with the MP3H is a lack of a power switch and pilot light to let you know it's powered up. Also, because the unit is passive and designed for balanced I/Os, if you're powering an unbalanced amp (or active monitors), then you can't use the usual “connect pin 3 to ground” adapter — you'll need a cable that lifts the low side of the output and leaves it floating; otherwise, you'll run into phasing problems.
In a DAW-based audio room (or video/post suite), the Coleman MP3H provides a pro solution to monitoring hassles. Retail is $850. The company also offers a selection of other monitoring accessories, including outboard stereo and quad VU meters, an active surround level controller with individual mutes on the 5.1 channels and more. Check 'em out!
Coleman Audio; 516/334-7109; www.colemanaudio.com.
— George Petersen
SUMMIT AUDIO TD-100 TUBE DIRECT BOX
Over the past 23 years, Summit Audio has established itself as one of the industry's premier suppliers of high-performance tube gear, and Summit equipment is found in major studios and touring racks worldwide. Along the way, the company also branched out into cutting-edge, solid-state equipment, such as its award-winning Element 78.
Conscious of its “great, but pricey” reputation, Summit has embarked on a new series of affordable, half-rack products. The first arrival in that series is the TD-100, a tube direct box retailing at $495, a hybrid design using a 12AX7A/ECC83 to drive the input section, with the output section driven by a discrete transistor circuit utilizing ±24-volt rails.
As a direct box, there's little mystery to the TD-100's operation, although it does include features not found on other direct boxes. The front panel has switches for power (the power supply is internal — no wall wart here!), ground lift and input polarity reverse, rotary controls for input impedance and output gain, indicators for power, signal presence and overload, a ¼-inch input jack and a paralleled jack for outputting to an instrument amp.
A variable impedance control (10k to 2 Megohm) tweaks the input loading to match any source — synth or guitar/bass pickups. Other than spending 30 seconds or so to find the optimum impedance load for your instrument, everything else is plug-and-go.
The back panel has a fused IEC power cable socket, XLR mic level output, ¼-inch TRS line-level output (for balanced or unbalanced connections) and a ¼-inch headphone output jack. The latter is convenient for using the TD-100 as a practice amp or for privately checking pedal setups, tone, etc., onstage or in the studio.
Overall, this is a great direct box, combining an ultra-clean discrete stage with the added desirable second harmonics of the tube input. Although its performance on guitars and basses (new and vintage, active and passive) was exemplary, using it on synths only made me wish I had two TD-100s for laying down stereo patches. Priced at $495, this made-in-the-USA gem is built like a tank and soars like a Learjet.
Summit Audio; 831/728-1302; www.summitaudio.com.
— George Petersen
Now in Version 1.6, the TC PowerCore brings to native DAW users the kind of high-end processing and expendability that was once only reserved for TDM systems. PowerCore is a full-length PCI Mac/PC expansion card that ships with a healthy bundle of TC's world-famous effects, including MegaReverb, Chorus/Delay, Vintage CL, VoiceStrip, EQSat and the PowerCore 01 virtual analog synth. The Mac version also includes SparkLE — a lite version of Spark that handles basic sample and 2-track editing/mastering.
Installation is totally straightforward: Install the card, load the drivers/plug-ins from the included CD-ROM and you're set. PowerCore works with all VST 2.0 applications (Cubase, Logic, Digital Performer, Wavelab, Deck). I tested PowerCore on a Mac G4 450 with 768 MB of RAM, running Cubase 5.0r2 and the (included) SparkLE with OS 9.0.
As far as the plug-ins' overall sound, I can't say enough good things. For the first time, you can get pro-sounding results out of native DAWs. MegaReverb is probably the best-sounding native reverb on the market, and the VoiceStrip is almost worth the price of admission on its own. Hardened studio rats with an ear for higher-end Lexicon and UREI units won't be swayed that easily, but most project studio owners will be in plug-in heaven.
Within Cubase, PowerCore worked fairly well, with a few exceptions. Most notably, there are some latency problems when PowerCore effects are used as sends. In this instance, the delay (a result of pokey PCI bus speeds) must be manually tweaked by inserting the TC Delay Compinsator plug-in (also included) on every audio channel that is not using a PowerCore effect. (As a quick fix, you can route these channels though a group bus and add the Delay Compinsator as an insert.) Additionally, when activating or using more than one PowerCore plug-in at a time, there were several instances where the unit produced a few seconds of feedback that usually faded away. And to TC's credit, as I've updated their software over the past few months, the problems are getting resolved.
When I was using the included version of SparkLE, the PowerCore was totally solid — it didn't so much as hiccup. Spark includes four master effect inserts. For test purposes, I loaded different PowerCore plug-ins into each slot, and the system performed flawlessly. So, obviously, the core technology is sound, and the problems I experienced were confined to Cubase.
Some future system enhancements include an emulation of the Sony Oxford EQ for the PowerCore, as well as a collaboration with Access, the makers of Virus keyboards. Also TC's TC MasterX3 plug-in (a stripped-down software version of the TC Finalizer designed for the PowerCore) is currently shipping.
TC Works; 805/373-1828; www.tcworks.de.
— Robert Hanson
HOSA TECHNOLOGY PBP-362 LIGHTPIPE DIGITAL PATCHBAY
No pro would consider working in an analog studio without a patchbay, so why does the concept of a digital patchbay seem so foreign, given the proliferation of multiple digital I/Os in our production environments?
Designed to emulate the operations of the half-normaled analog patchbays we're all familiar with, Hosa's PBP-362 is a modular, multifunction, Lightpipe patching system that puts all of a studio's ADAT Lightpipe (or S/PDIF optical) sources and destinations within fingertip's reach.
The single-rackspace PBP-362 is designed around patching modules, and the $325 unit includes one MFO-363 half-normal module with six patch points, an AC adapter that powers up to four modules and blank plates that cover the three unused slots. Extra 6-point modules are $250 each, and Hosa also offers an $85 1-in/2-out splitter module for dividing one Lightpipe signal into two identical feeds.
In most cases, the PBP-362 works just like a half-normal analog audio bay, with front and rear panel optical connectors, and all the top jacks designated as outputs and the bottom jacks as inputs. (Obviously, the reverse applies to the rear panel jacks.) Internal jumpers let users custom-configure the patchbay to their needs, whether they prefer a simple rear-to-front jack connection or the factory default where the top rear links to the top front while it's normaled to the bottom rear jack. Here, the normaled connection to the bottom jack is automatically diverted directly to the lower front whenever a lower-front connection is made.
With no physical connection between the front and rear jacks, the PBP-362 actually creates a “clone” of the signal. Therefore, the usual patchbay practice of connecting everything to the patchbay and using short cables to route the signal should be avoided, because this would create a clone of the cloned signal, which, in some cases, could result in added jitter. Also, to avoid clocking errors in multiple feed situations, everything in the system should be slaved to one master clock source, although that's just good audio practice in general.
In my studio, I have no shortage of optical feeds, both S/PDIF (DATs, CD players, CD recorders, computer audio cards, outboard DACs, and ADCs and DAW I/Os) and ADAT (M-20s, XT-20s, ADAT-Edit, Pro Tools ADAT Bridge, etc.), and with the growing number of optical feeds in any studio, the Hosa PBP-362 makes sense.
Note: Speaking of Lightpipe interfacing, Hosa also makes the OGC-361, a 2-piece, bi-directional uplink/downlink system that transcends the 30-foot limit on Lightpipe transmissions by boosting level at the source to an appropriate level for glass-fiber transmission, using SC glass terminations. Retail is $499, and numerous glass-fiber cables (up to 100 meters) are available for long-run Lightpipe installations.
Hosa Technology; 714/736-9270; www.hosatech.com.
— George Petersen