Snapshot Product Reviews

BLUE MICROPHONES THE BALL Phantom-Powered Dynamic Mic You can't really accuse Blue's mics of blending into the woodwork. Apart from being a 4-inch plastic sphere, The Ball is a phantom-powered dynamic model.
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Phantom-Powered Dynamic Mic

You can't really accuse Blue's mics of blending into the woodwork.Apart from being a 4-inch plastic sphere, The Ball is a phantom-powereddynamic model. However, there's no active gain circuitry in thisfront-address cardioid mic; its output level is in the same range asany other dynamic model, maybe 15 dB below a typical condenser.Instead, the phantom power is for a Class-A balancing circuit thatkeeps the output impedance even across the mic's specified frequencyrange. Thus, the impedance controls we're seeing on an increasingnumber of new preamps should not have an effect.

The goal of The Ball's active circuitry is to even out the frequencyresponse and create a smooth, open sound without giving up the mainadvantages of a dynamic mic: ruggedness, some acoustic compression, anddistortion-free, high-SPL tolerance. (It's listed at 165 dB, which Ididn't test.) While the condenser mics I compared The Ball to have moretransient detail (and more low end), it does achieve those aims to afair degree. Blue specs a usable frequency range of 35-16k Hz. The Ballhas a bit of useful response at 35 Hz (about -25 dB down), but it rollsoff rapidly starting at approximately 100 Hz. Its most prominent regionis roughly between 100 and 500 Hz, and the high end drops sharplystarting at 4 kHz or so. I didn't notice any signs of life above 12kHz.

This spherical mic can't use a traditional clip or shock-mount: Athreaded swivel recessed on its bottom attaches it to a mic stand. Thisdesign provides about 45° of up/down adjustment, although I foundthe friction to be a little too light. The Ball isn't hypersensitive toshock noise, but there's no obvious way to avoid coupling it to thestand. [A shock-mount is planned for release next month —Eds.] Like the rest of its line, Blue assembles the mic in Latviaand build quality seems very good.

In general, The Ball is a mic for high-SPL usage. With a 17dBA-weighted self-noise spec and a dynamic mic's output level, it's notthe first choice for distant-miking an orchestra. But one of the thingsthat the Ball does capture well is male vocals, both sung and spoken.Its prominent lower midrange and smooth, round sound in that region,along with the natural acoustic compression, combine very nicely.

Its low-frequency roll-off has a side benefit: You can often get bywithout using a pop filter. This would also be a good mic for a femalesinger who really belts it out. The Ball worked especially well on ahard-strummed acoustic guitar. Here, again, the smooth midrange andacoustic compression created a natural sound that sits nicely, withjust enough detail not to sound constrained. The mic was also nice onwooden percussion — claves, castanets, etc. — and handclaps and finger snaps.

For $199, it's hard to go wrong with The Ball. It's a role-player,but one that can play many parts.

Blue Microphones, 818/879-5200,
Nick Batzdorf

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High-Resolution Control Room Amp

These days, more studio monitor builders are turning to powereddesigns, yet there are plenty of great unpowered monitors available.For those models, a great power amp can make a huge difference inplayback quality. Hot House Professional Audio has been buildinguncompromised amps for the studio market since 1987, and itsHigh-Resolution Control Room Amplifier Series is the latest in thecompany's legacy. At 280 watts/channel (into 4 ohms), the Model SixHundred is positioned as the middle of the series, flanked by the FourHundred (225W/channel @ 4ž) and the One Thousand (450W/channel @4ž).

From the Model Six Hundred's thick-slab front panel to theimpeccable build quality of this 36-pound, three-rackspace behemoth,you know the company is serious about sound. Inside, Hot House hastaken a meticulous straight-wire approach: There are no protectioncircuits or limiters in this fully differential design with splitdual-toroidal power supply and zero-feedback topology, resulting in aworst-case 0.003% (@ 1 kHz) THD+N and a bandwidth that's only -3 dB at100 kHz. Another nice touch is the Teflon Kimber cabling on theinternal I/O wiring. This sports car approach is evident by the simplefront panel (just an AC switch) and the rear, which has two NeutrikCombo ¼-inch/XLR inputs (balanced or unbalanced), IEC AC socketand dual-Cliff five-way binding-post outs. The latter are okay, but theposts limit direct wire-though-the-hole connections to AWG 10 orthinner, although they accept any type of crimp-on terminations.

So, armed with a pile of SACDs and a roll of Monster Cable, I beganchecking out the amp's sound. I began with a favorite pair of KRK 700s.The little 7-inch woofers on these small two-ways seemed more like10-inch drivers, but with tight, well-articulated bass. Bear in mindthat there was no undue emphasis on lower frequencies here, buteverything seemed to be right, from low organ fundamentals to thetransient “ching” of finger cymbals, with rock-solidimaging. Results were similar on a pair of 4ž M&K MPS-2510near-fields. Moving up to a pair of large custom monitors — basedon Altec Model 19s, but with an added super-tweeter stage — theSix Hundred really shined with ample headroom reserves, giving theimpression that I was hearing a much larger amp driving the two vintage15-inch 515B woofers. And even cranked up, the amp never broke a sweat— it was warm but not hot at all, with its large external heatsinks keeping temperatures under control.

There are cheaper power amps than the Six Hundred's $2,499 list (or$2,698 with a polished, high-gloss front panel), but if your monitorsaren't delivering what you need to hear, maybe your monitors aren't theculprit. In such cases, a great power amp can really deliver.

Hot House Professional Audio, 845/691-6077,
George Petersen

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Updating the Ursa Major

Seven Woods Audio's SST-206 Space Station is a faithful reproductionof the original Ursa Major SST-282, originally known for its uniqueeffects and 11-bit floating-point grit. The SST-206's complement ofcontrols is pretty much identical to that of the original SST-282 butwith some minor differences. First, the original unit measured threerackspaces with large chicken-head knobs, whereas the new Space Stationis roughly the size of a couple of dollar bills placed side-by-side.There are knobs for input level, dry level, LF/HF decay, echo delay anddecay time. There are four pairs of spaced taps in the delay sectionand a knob to control the output level of each pair. An Audition DelayPattern knob determines which of 16 different delay patterns isused.

The original Space Station was an 11-bit unit that cut offeverything above 7 kHz. The new unit, however, has a secondaryoperating mode called Room, which represents frequencies as high as 22kHz. This is a much smoother, creamier reverb algorithm that uses theCPU in a way that was simply not possible with the original unit. InRoom mode, the echo delay, audition delay program and tap knobs doublein function to control pre-delay, early (ER) length, ER delay, ERlevel, reverb level and size parameters, respectively.

To keep the product simple and — I would venture — tokeep the cost down to an affordable $1,395, MIDI was not implemented.The unit also lacks digital converters — I/O comes in AES/EBUformat on a pair of XLRs. This makes it an obvious partner for a DAWwith digital I/O, but there's the rub: The product is intended to betweaked “like a Pultec EQ,” yet as much as I love to tweakparameters, it would be nice to be able to recall settings fromprevious sessions. The unit includes a paper template to documentsettings, although some of the unit's knobs have a pretty long throw; apencil mark really cannot be considered a reliable snapshot recall.

The SST-206 provides gorgeous, lush reverbs, excellentroom-reflection programs and wild comb-filtering effects. It is aunique and excellent product with a true cult following, but in 2004,the lack of a Recall function is a disappointing oversight. In allfairness, there are plenty of users who aren't as passionate about therecall issue as I am, and even without recall functions or onboardconverters, this is an incredible-sounding reverb unit.

Note: At press time, Version 3 software for the SST-206 wasreleased, which includes improved versions of the Space Station'sreverb and delay program.

Seven Woods Audio, 617/489-6292,
John McJunkin

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Cardioid Condenser Microphone

The MBNM 440-CLS ($439/pair) from German mic-maker MBHO is asmall-diaphragm cardioid condenser based on its MBNM 440-CL. Theupdated version adds a switchable -10dB pad and a -6dB/octave highpassfilter at 250 Hz. These are recessed to prevent accidental switching.Like the 440-CL, the 440-CLS has a heavy-duty feel, with a brass,matte-black body, gold-plated XLR pins and a fine-mesh screenprotecting the diaphragm. Specs are similar, with a 40-20k Hz response,14dBA self-noise and 126dB SPL handling. At 3.75×0.8 inches, theMBNM 440-CLS is perfect for discrete instrumental spot-miking. Fieldand concert recordists will be happy to know that it accepts phantompower between 22 and 48 volts.

The review units arrived as a matched pair with consecutive serialnumbers and sounded well-matched. The company intends for the mics tobe used on acoustic instruments and choirs, as well as drum overheadsand percussion. As I planned to record a local theater companyrehearsing and performing an operetta, I jumped at the chance to putthese to the test. Due to space limitations, I used a Spartan system,going direct to disk using an Apogee Mini-Me preamp connected to my MacPowerBook via USB.

The highly directional mics had positive aspects, but were lessdesirable in some situations. An X/Y coincident pair pointed at thefront of the stage provided a nice representation of the stereo space.On playback, it was easy to hear where the singers and instrumentalistswere positioned. The mics have a slight HF presence boost, which inthis setting helped maintain intelligibility of the vocal parts. Themics' directionality, however, downplayed the room sound, giving therecordings a somewhat 2-D feel. Nonetheless, the mics' good transientresponse helped make these recordings sparkle. The two MBNM 440-CLSscaptured lower frequencies in a reserved, polite manner, although Iwouldn't characterize them as sounding thin.

In the studio using an FMR Audio RNP8380 preamp, the MBNM 440-CLSworked well on snare drum, emphasizing stick attack over shell tone. Itwas even better on rack toms, where directionality helped isolate thedrums from surrounding cymbals. On dumbek and other hand drums,fingersnaps on the heads and the tone of the shells were nicelycaptured. As stereo drum overheads, the mics tended to emphasize thesizzle in the cymbals, which overshadowed the drums' midrange tone.Consequently, exact placement was crucial to get a good balance betweenthe two (though I still added some LF EQ at mixdown). Once placed, themics offered good directionality and an up-front quality that, again,minimized the room sound. The MBNM 440-CLS was especially nice onacoustic guitar, where its transient response and clarity balanced thestrings' complex harmonics with the upper-midrange sound of the body.In addition, the mic's understated low end was helpful when it cametime to place the instrument into a mix.

MBHO (dist. by Music Trade Center), 718/963-2777,
Laura Pallanck

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CD Sound Effects

Frank Serafine is no stranger to the art of scoring and sounddesign. His work has appeared on a long list of music and feature filmprojects ranging from the Star Trek films to Field ofDreams, Tron, The Addams Family and The Hunt forRed October. During the years, Serafine has also begun assemblinghis huge holdings of audio content into sound effects libraries,including Guns of Cinema, Comic Relief and The SFX Collection. High-endHollywood pros find these indispensable. However, for the user seekingsomething slightly less worldly, Serafine offers Sci-Fi: The Library, a$695 five-CD set with hundreds of sounds that offer something beyondthe ordinary library sets of bottle openings and car crashes.

Housed in a slick metal storage case, Sci-Fi: The Library deliversexactly what the title suggests. The discs are divided into fivecategories: beeps/tones/noises, destruction/creatures,industrial/environment, sci-fi transportation and weapons/wooshes.There's plenty here for your own mini-galactic epic, but there's alsolots of effects that fit into everyday use, whether you're looking forjust the right elevator call-button sound or more exotic alienbreathing effects, atomic bomb blasts or simply odd stereo factoryambiences. Effects range from short to very long backgrounds,and most are easily loopable or loaded into a sampler to createouterworldly drum/percussion rhythms. Also, most of the effects provideseveral alternatives, giving the producer more choices and the abilityto repeat sounds without that “I've been here before”feeling. Best of all, the audio quality is excellent.

Whether you're doing jingles, soundtracks, commercials or gamedesign, this collection packs a wallop (in fact, there are dozens ofthose to pick from) and provides a great “idea point” forcreative design.

The Serafine Collection, 310/399-9279,
George Petersen

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Studio Boom Mic Stand

We all use boom stands, but sometimes, big projects require a bigboom. Unfortunately, tall boom stands with a 9-foot boom can cost$1,000 or more, which can get expensive, especially if you need astereo pair. With this in mind, SE Electronics offers Ghost, a seriesof folding, telescopic boom stands priced from $299 to $399.

Ghost uses camera tripod — style latches to adjust the leg andboom lengths, so set-ups were fast and secure. The boom arm has a heavycounterweight and a user-fillable sandbag that attaches to a lower hookfor stability. The sandbag is reversible from discrete black to yellowstripes for visibility. With full extension on a heavy mic bar, placingthe sandbag over the weight and keeping one leg pointed under the boommade for extremely stable mounting. SE should also offer a secondsandbag as an option for more security.

A center post adjusts overall height ±12 inches and has aself-locking handle for safety. The adjustment crank has a very lowratio — about 20 turns for a foot of elevation. Such fineadjustment is necessary in photo/film work but doesn't relate to micplacement, where ⅛-inch up or down on a boom with a 14-footoverall throw isn't necessary. Much more useful are the stand legs(which are fitted into swiveling large rubber cups for secure footing)and the included wheeled tripod base with 4-inch locking casters, whichmade placements a snap. The yoke that stabilizes the legs has athumbscrew that digs into the center pole, leaving dents. It wassecure, but a compression fitting would have been prettier.

Whether you're looking for a tall stand for handling choir mics, anorchestral bar or simply want an affordable solution to secure drumoverhead miking, Ghost may be just the ticket.

SE Electronics, 408/873-8606,
George Petersen