Cardioid Tube Microphone
When everybody in the audio biz goes one way, CAD always comes up with something different. This time, that something is the M9, a cardioid tube mic combining a 1.1-inch diaphragm capsule with the servo-valve technology used in its flagship VX2. The front end is driven by a single 12AX7, followed by a high-speed, low-noise, dual op amp that drives long cable runs with ease.
From the M9's impeccable fit, finish and feel, you'd never know you were dealing with a product retailing at $599 — including aluminum flight case, power supply, 30-foot 7-conductor cable, and shockmount. The latter's die-cast construction and sturdy elastics are light years ahead of the usual “free shockmount” that accompanies most other under-$1,000 mics, and the unit is great at isolating the mic from external vibrations.
This side-address design has recessed switches for its -16dB (non-capacitive) pad and a subtle, quite gentle (-6dB/octave @ 100 Hz) bass roll-off filter. The power supply is simple, with AC switch (selectable for 120- or 240VAC use), removable power cord, 7-pin XLR input and standard 3-conductor XLR output (pin 2 hot).
The M9 is plug-and-go, although on power up, I was greeted by a cacophony of pops and hiss until the tube stabilized about a minute later. Then the noise disappeared completely, leaving just the sweet sound of this mic. I started with a tracking date on a Taylor acoustic guitar, with the mic about a foot from the soundhole. The result was well balanced and bright, capturing the entire top end with tons of warm bottom and detail. I had similar results cutting solos on my Gold Tone Banjitar (6-string banjo). Normally, large-diaphragm tube mics aren't my first choice on close-in stringed instruments, but the M9 really surprised me here with well-formed transients and lots of zing. Owwweee!
Next up, for overdubbing female R&B vocals the M9 really shined, with its extended top end adding a smooth breathiness to the track and a warm — but not overdone — proximity effect up close. The tightness of the M9's cardioid pattern is great for isolating the mic from other sounds, but requires the vocalist to stay on-axis with the mic. This, however, was only a problem when close-miking singers moved around a lot. The M9 was equally nice on male vocals, where its slight presence bump around 5 kHz helps bring baritones and bass singers out in a mix, while providing a smooth balance of lows and highs.
The M9 performs like it costs a lot more, and its clean, flexible performance fits in well, either as a first “good” mic for the novice or as a new flavor in a well-stocked mic collection.
CAD Professional Microphones; 440/593-1111; www.cadmics.com.
— George Petersen
Multitrack Drum Loops
There are lots of drum loops on the market, ranging from the classic Drum Drops LPs to dozens of libraries for popular samplers or loop players such as Sonic Foundry's Acid. Reel Drums is an 18-CD collection of drum loops presented in 24-bit/44.1kHz multitrack Pro Tools sessions that are ready to rock.
Rather than the typical repackaged TR-707 sounds we've all heard too many times before, Reel Drums was recorded from the ground up with this project in mind. The drummer is session ace Joe Franco, recorded by multi-award-winning engineer Kooster McAllister in a great room (Bear Tracks, Suffern, N.Y.), captured directly to the vintage API console in the renowned Record Plant Remote truck.
Besides a large variety of grooves and styles — from teary ballads to slam-dunk rock — there's lots to choose from: Different cuts have feels reminiscent of greats such as John Bonham, Carmine Appice, Mitch Mitchell, Billy Cobham and Chad Smith. Stylistically, the set runs the gamut from Bo Diddley, Phil Spector, the Black Crowes, Motown and Sly Stone to Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin and Hendrix — blues, punk, rock, R&B, you name it. The sessions are supplied on standard CD-ROMs, and you simply copy the files to your hard drive and open them as Pro Tools sessions. Everything worked fine on my PT 5.1 rig.
Once in a session, you uncover the beauty of Reel Drums. Each tune is laid out with chorus/verse/bridge sections and fills as separate loops, so cutting or extending files is a breeze. The set also includes an Audition CD to quickly locate the session that you need, without loading all of the files into Pro Tools. A disc of single hits is also provided to easily customize or create your own loops.
The tracks do not have reverb or gating, so you can process as needed by your own project: demo or master. For example, I added some under-snare mic (it's also provided on all sessions) to add bite, but needed to gate some of the sympathetic buzz between hits — no sweat in Pro Tools. And, with two mics on each kick (Sennheiser 602 and AKG D-112), I could pick whatever suited the tune best. The individual (or multiple) mics on each drum, stereo distant room mics and a mono “depth” mic, allow a near-infinite range of possibilities and really sets this apart from stereo-only loops. About the only thing missing from Reel Drums is a click track. I suppose one could create a click track via MIDI (tempos are solid throughout), but an existing click would be a useful addition. Maybe in the next revision.
Reel Drums is just like its name: It rocks, sounds great, is fast and lots of fun. The set of 18 CD-ROMs in Pro Tools session format (plus Audition disc) runs for $299. A 2-CD set (single hits plus stereo loops mixed by Kooster of all the performances) is $99. A stereo version for GigaStudio/Rex/Acid is $199.
Reel Drums, dist. by Wave Distribution; 973/728-2425; www.reeldrums.com.
— George Petersen
Twenty years ago, Ivor Drawmer secured his place in audio history when he introduced the first frequency-conscious gate, the DS201, which allowed users to tightly tune out unwanted sounds by filtering the key signal. Tens of thousands have been sold, and the DS201 has become the measure of all products in this category. For many, there is still no substitute. Drawmer's new upgraded DS501 Power Gate is the only revision to this product since XLR connectors were added a decade ago.
The two units are sonically indistinguishable, except for two added features. A new 4-segment vertical LED meter next to the threshold control shows the signal's level below threshold, making it much easier to adjust and obtain optimal rejection of unwanted background sounds that can't be monitored during a live show.
If you know the 201, the 501 will be instantly familiar. The 501's controls are nearly the same as the 201's, except for Threshold, which adjusts down 18 dB further to -72 dB. The trademark black knobs with yellow pointers at their skirts are slightly reduced in size to accommodate two additional controls at the end of each channel.
Peak Punch is a dynamic feature first introduced five years ago with the MX40 quad gate, a worthy product overlooked by many live engineers. It accelerates the leading edge as the gated signal opens, adding up to 12 dB of gain for the first 10 milliseconds, and breathing life back into a gated signal whose transient is usually clipped off. Intended for percussive material, Peak Punch is ideal on kick, snare and toms.
The 501's version of Peak Punch adds an octave-wide filter that's tunable from 75 to 16k Hz to contour the effect's response, letting users select a portion of the signal to emphasize with the process. Especially effective when the kick drum takes up all of the available headroom in a wedge monitor mix, Peak Punch tuned low can put a little extra thump in the signal without clipping the mix. FOH engineers will enjoy similar benefits for drum inputs, achieving more impact without overpowering a mix. Tuned higher, Peak Punch can put some snap back into a gated snare mic. Studio engineers who use gates creatively will find many other uses for this feature, which can be effective on all different types of percussive tracks: guitars, keyboards, synths and horns, for example. Drawmer has enhanced its legendary product without alienating users by changing it too much. With a list price of $899, vs. $749 for the DS201, it's an obvious choice for updating any outboard rack.
Drawmer, dist. by Trans-america Audio Group; 702/365-5155; www.drawmerusa.com.
— Mark Frink
Studio Ribbon Microphone
Mention “ribbon mics” and the word “expensive” usually comes to mind. However, due to the recent resurgence of interest in ribbon mics, Oktava — the 55-year-old microphone company that was once Russia's sole supplier of ribbon mics — has now returned to building affordable ribbon models.
Housed in a large body with an open “birdcage”-style top, the new Oktava ML52 uses a double 2.5-micron-thick aluminum ribbon element with a classic figure-8 pickup pattern. Including foam-lined carry case and standmount, the ML52 lists at $799.
One drawback common to all ribbon mics is their low sensitivity, which in the case of the ML52 is no exception, coming in at 1 mV/Pa. As with dynamic mics, there are no onboard electronics, and hence no self-noise. However, like other ribbon mics, the ML52 needs a clean preamp with lots of gain, and preferably a preamp that's as close to the mic as possible to avoid long cable runs. I paired the ML52 with an Aphex Model 1100 tube preamp, which has plenty of gain and ultra-clean, -135dB EIN specs — a great combo for use with ribbon mics.
With the ML52's low price, there are some tradeoffs. The standmount feels cheap, and when the mic's coarsely threaded attachment ring is removed, paint overspray on the threads makes them harder to manage. Fortunately, Oktava offers an optional shockmount, which does a far better job of holding the mic in position. Because the mic is quite susceptible to stand-borne vibrations, the shockmount is a necessity. The same goes for a pop filter, as the mic is highly sensitive to breath noise; here, a standard Popper Stopper™ stocking filter was just right.
First up for the ML52 was cutting male vocals on an R&B tune. The mic has a very flat, mostly uncolored response, so just a hint of upper-HF EQ added a nice sparkle to the track. There's a nice, thick proximity boost up close, but with the Popper Stopper in place, popping plosives presented no problems. On female lead and background vocals, the ML52 really jumped, yielding an ultra-smooth, velvety track that was warm and unhyped.
Next up was tenor sax overdubs, a task that ribbon mics typically excel at. Here, again, the ML52 didn't disappoint, offering a lush close-in sound that, with 60 ms of delay and a medium-room reverb, was exactly what we were looking for. I also noticed that the ML52's pickup pattern was tight and highly controlled, with excellent side rejection. The mic's front and back sides are nearly identical in sound — perhaps just a twist more present on the front (logo) side. This opens up some possibilities, offering a bit more variation from a single mic.
Retailing at $799 (the street price is much lower), the Oktava ML52 offers an affordable introduction to the ribbon microphone world. Anyone looking for something “new” should give this one a listen.
Oktava, dist. by A&F MacKay Audio Ltd.; (44) 01428-708-400 (UK); www.oktava.net.
— George Petersen
Stereo Tube Mic Preamp
James Demeter has been building great tube gear for two decades, and artists and engineers worldwide love his Classic Series. It's also pricey for those without major-label funding. With this in mind, Demeter offers the HX line of single-rackspace gear, which puts tubes in the first stage (for maximum sonic benefit) followed by a transistor output stage (for clean sound and major cost savings). Current HX products consist of the HXC-1 (a very LA-2A-sounding tube optical compressor) and the HXM-1 tube stereo mic preamp/direct box.
Despite its affordable $1,399 pricing, the HXM doesn't scrimp on quality, using high-grade parts such as Jensen input transformers, metal film resistors, high-spec film caps and custom toroidal power transformers. The front panel has identical controls for each channel, and each offers a ¼-inch hi-Z input, 200Hz -6dB/octave highpass filter, switchable -20dB mic pad, phantom power, phase (polarity) reverse, 30dB rotary gain pot, volume control and 10-segment LED meter with -10/+4dB switching. The internal 115/230VAC (selectable) power supply has a front panel switch and LED. The rear panel has balanced TRS/XLR mic inputs and TRS/XLR outputs for line-level signals.
Operation is straightforward, but I wondered if the front panel gain and volume pots might act like a guitar-amp-style master volume arrangement to add distortion. Not so: The gain knob controls gain by varying the amount of feedback going to the tube. Volume allows users to tweak levels to match their systems via a fader between the tube preamp and the solid-state balanced line driver output stage.
Tracking with tube, condenser and lots of dynamic mics, the HXM-1 was wonderful. The combo of the Jensen transformer with the 12AX7A front end provided a rich, silky top with a warm, full — dare I say phat? — low end. But I was really impressed with the unit's headroom that doesn't seem to end. (The manual lists it at +28 dBv — enough for anybody, anywhere!) The DI input was a perfect complement on Hofner bass, Epiphone Casino, Gibson J160E and Rickenbacker 12 for some Beatles-style sessions we were doing: clean, full and sweet.
Demeter Amplification; 818/994-7658; www.demeteramps.com.
— George Petersen
Acrylic Panel Reflector
ClearSonic's hinged 2-foot-wide acrylic panels have long been a favorite for isolating drums in the middle of an ensemble. Now, horn players can get in on the action: ClearSonic's Flector 8 and Flector 12 are 8- and 12-inch-diameter (respectively) transparent discs ($12 and $14 list respectively) made from ⅛-inch-thick modified acrylic (Plexiglas MC), which is much stronger than regular acrylic. A slightly off-center ⅝-inch hole allows the panel to fit over the threaded end of a mic stand's boom arm, and a mic clip screwed over it holds it in place. (A larger hole in the center allows the cord to pass through.) The use of a short 6-inch gooseneck makes it easier to correctly position the Flector and can even obviate the need for the boom arm.
In addition to making it easier for a musician to hear his or her instrument, Flectors also deflect sound away from both other musicians and other microphones in front of them, diffusing the narrow, high-energy acoustical beam associated with brass instruments, and making the stage more bearable for those in the “line of fire.” (Because of its larger size, the Flector 12 blocks and reflects twice as much sound as the Flector 8.)
Another benefit can be increased gain-before-feedback and isolation from floor monitors pointing at the back of microphones. I used the smaller Flector 8 with success on acoustic guitar mics, which are typically half as far away from the floor monitor as the vocal mic is, yet often need to be twice as loud. Even if you're only using a guitar's pickup in the monitor, an instrument mic tends to hear the wedge and impart a hollow sound in the mains to both voice and guitar. A short stand with a boom arm offers the right angle if it's placed directly between player and wedge, but the artsy angles that some musicians insist on for their mic stands may again require a short gooseneck.
I found another application with my Smart measurement mic when mixing at the back of a room and trying to take a measurement there. The larger Flector 12 helps block comb-filtering from back-wall reflections with just the tip of the mic protruding through the smaller hole and the boom arm going back through the larger hole in the center.
Finally, broadcast and recording engineers working on live shows will find that the Flector increases the isolation of certain primary mics from the sound of the room and the P.A. enough to warrant using these panels for either musical soloists or spoken-word lecturers. For the price of a roll of gaffer's tape, you can add a tool to your gig bag that you never knew you needed.
ClearSonic; 800/888-6360; www.clearsonic.com.
— Mark Frink