Snapshot Product Reviews

SD SYSTEMS STM 99 Saxophone Miking System Over the years, the Netherlands-based SD Systems has developed a number of microphones designed for the needs

Saxophone Miking System

Over the years, the Netherlands-based SD Systems has developed anumber of microphones designed for the needs of reproducingspecific jazz and orchestral instruments. The company's latestoffering is the STM 99, a modular system intended to providehigh-quality miking of saxophones onstage or in the studio.

Priced at $1,395 (individual mic capsules, mounts andaccessories are also available separately) with a foam-lined woodbox, the STM 99 system consists of three interchangeable miccapsules (cardioid, hypercardioid and omnidirectional), a 5-footcable connecting the mic body to a 4-inch preamp section (with astandard-XLR output), a removable foam windscreen and three micmounts. Among the latter are a stand mounting clip (for using theSTM with other insturments), an on-axis mount that centers thecapsule about five inches in front of the sax bell and a clip-onmount with a flexible 6-inch gooseneck.

All of the mounts include shock-mounting hardware that suspendsthe mic capsule via elastic bands, isolating the mic from thumps,bumps and other vibrations. The on-instrument mounts have thickrubber coatings at the point of contact, which adds to the shockresistance while protecting the instrument from scratches. Eithermount holds securely while allowing for easy removal after the gig.A minimal screen over the capsules provides for an open sound,which, unfortunately, exposes more of the diaphragm to smoke, dirt,etc. For live applications, I suggest using the foam windscreen foradditional protection. Also, the threads on the capsules are veryfine, and caution should be used when changing capsules to avoidcross-threading.

In use, the system offers an extraordinary degree of flexiblity,both in mounting and placement options, as well as in capsulechoices. The omni capsule had the best LF response of all and wasespecially nice on bari and tenor saxes; the omni also exhibits arising top end that added an airy, breathy quality. The cardioidhad the flattest overall response of the three (especially in theupper registers) and was ideal for altos and sopranos, where theomni's HF rise could get somewhat edgy.

The choice here, however, depends on the sound of the sax itselfand the type of music or track it was in — for example, as aspot mic on an orchestral or light jazz piece the cardoid may notbe right, while that same tone for a screaming rock solo could bespot-on. The sound of the hypercardioid capsule was somewherebetween the omni and cardioid in character and, due to its tightpattern, would be my first choice on a busy, high-SPL stage whereisolation or feedback is problematic. The availability of theon-axis mount or the gooseneck clip also allows for more variationin the audio palette, offering either a down-the-throat growl or asmoother, more ambient effect.

The need for an on-sax mount is obvious onstage, but I'msurprised at how many sax players refuse to stand still in front ofa mic while tracking in the studio. For such players, the STM 99 isideal. But whether onstage or in the studio, the STM 99 offers anelegant solution to an old problem.

Dist. by Advanced Sonic Concepts; 609/726-9202;
— George Petersen

Portable IC Recorder

Designed for ENG or location sampling applications, the DN-F20Ris a portable stereo recorder that stores audio on CompactFlashType I memory cards via two front panel card slots. Up to 999tracks of audio can be stored as stereo or mono files in variousformats, depending on the user's fidelity needs: linear PCM(16-bit/48kHz .WAV files); MPEG1 Layer 2 (16-bit/48kHz, 128 kbps);or MPEG-2 Layer 2 (16-bit/24 kHz, 64 kbps).

The 2-pound unit features AC or DC powering (six AA batteries),XLR-balanced mic inputs, RCA stereo line inputs/outputs,traditional Play/Stop/Record buttons and a simple set of keys forselecting recording modes. A backlit LCD shows metering, recorderstatus, time/locator information, etc. The mic inputs also haveswitches for selecting or bypassing a highpass (low-cut) filter,-20dB attenuator and an overload protection limiter. Plugging intothe ¼-inch headphone jack disables the small onboard monitorspeaker.

Operating the DN-F20R is only slightly more complicated thanusing any portable cassette or DAT deck. One nice touch is the factthat the connections on the two side panels are recessed forprotection, as are the Power, Record Level and Record buttons, toavoid any unexpected “changes,” and there is also a keyhold switch for locking the transport controls. One obviousdifference the DN-F20R offers is its no-moving-parts design, whichshould keep the unit running for years to come. The CompactFlashcards have a maximum capacity of 192 MB, offering up to three hoursof recording at 16-bit/24 kHz. Via an optional adapter, theCompactFlash cards can fit into a standard PCMCIA slot for quickuploads directly to a PC.

Retailing at $1,299, including shoulder strap, soft carry caseand external AC adapter, the DN-F20R is a convenient, simple-to-useunit providing great-sounding field recordings with affordable,reusable media, and simple interfacing to other systems forediting, storage and archives.

Denon Electronics; 973/396-0810;
— George Petersen

British Mode Option

The Empirical Labs EL-8 Distressor single-channel compressorimmediately turned heads when it was introduced in ’96. Theunit's ratio settings call up four alternate circuit paths, eachhaving its own distinct personality, making the Distressor one ofthe most versatile compressors on the market. Additionally, second-and third-harmonic distortion can be added to the audio path tosimulate tube or analog tape saturation.

The Distressor's recently released British Mode option bringseven more excitement and flexibility to the party. The option canbe ordered for a new Distressor or retrofitted to any unit youalready own and costs only $100. (Without British Mode, theDistressor's list price is $1,499; list is $1,599 with the option.)Enabled by a front panel switch (the retrofit also includes anassociated status LED), British Mode changes the unit's attack andrelease reference voltages to create totally new time constants andcurves for all ratios and circuit paths. Empirical Labs' guidinginspiration here was to emulate the UREI 1176LN. In fact, with afast manual attack time dialed in, British Mode makes a Distressorsound startlingly similar to an 1176LN with two or more ratiobuttons pushed in.

British Mode serves up an absolutely savage “powerpop” snare drum sound that is to die for. It also soundsstunning on electric guitar with a 20:1 ratio switched in,imparting a wonderful crunchy attack. On vocals (with the“1:1” ratio setting chosen), British Mode produces aclear, in-your-face quality much like an 1176LN. For comparisonpurposes, the 1176LN offers a bit more presence. But theDistressor's British Mode does a surprisingly authentic emulationof that distinctive “over-the-top” compression curvethat the 1176LN is famous for.

Bottom line: British Mode kills. Whether you already own aDistressor or are thinking of buying a new unit, you owe it toyourself to order the British Mode option. This is the Holy Grailat a bargain price. I'm buying!

Empirical Labs; 973/541-9447;
— Michael Cooper

Virtual Tonewheel Organ/Rotary Speaker Emulator

The B4 from Native Instruments (the people who developed theacclaimed Reaktor software-based synth) is a virtual re-creation ofthe legendary Hammond B3 organ and Leslie speaker, with a host ofother features and goodies thrown in. Priced at $235, theASIO-compatible software can be used as a stand-alone applicationwith a PC or Mac, or used as a plug-in with DigidesignDirectConnect or with any VST 2.0-compatible sequencer.

Features include 91 tonewheels, two manuals and one pedalkeyboard, nine drawbars per manual, scanner vibrato/chorus,percussion on any harmonic, adjustable keyclick, tube distortionparameters, independent treble and bass rotor tweaks, and an arrayof “miking” adjustments, including balance, pan angleand distance from the rotor. All parameters can be saved aspresets, named and stored for recall; any changes can bedynamically altered via MIDI or mouse commands. The software canalso be used to process other (nonorgan) sounds, such as voice,guitar, drums, other keyboards, whatever, by using it as an inserteffect within the VST environment.

Installation on either a Mac running Pro Tools 5.0 or a PC withSteinberg Cubase 5 was straightforward. The software is provided ona CD-ROM, and the copy protection scheme simply asks the user tooccasionally insert the master CD into the drive on boot-up. Thereare no dongles, online codes or disk authorizations to lose. I likethis. Also, the user interface is simple: Drag a drawbar or clickon an effects switch and there you are. One minor hassle is using amouse to turn rotating controls, such as pots, but by holding theShift key while adjusting a control, the knob goes into a“fine-tune mode,” which increases the degree ofmovement required to make changes.

Despite a dazzling collection of adjustable parameters, thestrength of this program is the audio quality of its virtualorgans. It would be too easy to unknowingly dismiss the B4 as acollection of B3 samples. However, in developing the B4, NativeInstruments engaged in an extensive research project, analyzing allof the possible components and parameters that make up the B3 soundand constructing a software model that re-creates nuances of the B3sound, such as harmonic foldback, drawbar crosstalk and loudnessrobbing, for a sound that is virtually (pun intended)indistinguishable from the original and rivals the sonic quality ofthe best hardware organ emulations from Roland, Korg andKurzweil.

The bottom line is, this thing rocks! The price is downrightlow, latency was never an issue, there's plenty of parameters toget exactly the sound you need and it's fun to play. Oh, and itsounds great; you can check it out for yourself by downloading ademo version of the software on the company's Web site. But best ofall, give your roadies a rest: You won't need that B3 dolly to movethis software package around.

Native Instruments; 800/665-0030;
— George Petersen

Pro Tools Music Library System

There are over 100 production music libraries availableworldwide, representing tens of thousands of music tracks inbuyout, blanket-licensed and needle-drop forms. So does theindustry really need another music library? If a library is asunique and versatile as Cutting the Edge from Pro Creation, thenthe answer is a resounding, “Yes!”

The first of its kind, Cutting the Edge is a buyout productionmusic collection in the form of five Mac-readable CD-ROMscontaining 40 different themes (each in 60, 30 and 5-secondlengths) — all in Digidesign Pro Tools session format. Usingthe collection involves little more than choosing a theme (eachCD-ROM has tracks grouped according to genre: ambiences, rock,world, movements, techno, etc.), loading the session and hittingthe spacebar on your keyboard to hear the mix.

Here's where the versatility sets in: Once in the Pro Toolsenvironment, users can solo or mute tracks, extend or shorten theperformances, tweak the mix or add a new solo instrument over theexisting rhythm beds. The original files are protected on theCD-ROM, so there's no risk in altering the files. All the tracksare assembled in easy-to-loop segments, so editing is a breeze.Each track also includes the tempo and key signature informationfor adding solos over the top of the existing tracks, ifdesired.

All in all, Pro Creation has devised a different and ingeniousway of creating customized production music that's fast, easy andfun. The five-CD set is $550 — not cheap, but notunreasonable for a set of production music that uniquely reflectsyour style.

Pro Creation; 27/11/886-6411 (South Africa);
— George Petersen