Snapshot Product Reviews

Apr 1, 2004 12:00 PM


Education Guide

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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-powered dynamic model. However, there's no active gain circuitry in this front-address cardioid mic; its output level is in the same range as any other dynamic model, maybe 15 dB below a typical condenser. Instead, the phantom power is for a Class-A balancing circuit that keeps the output impedance even across the mic's specified frequency range. Thus, the impedance controls we're seeing on an increasing number of new preamps should not have an effect.

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

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

In general, The Ball is a mic for high-SPL usage. With a 17dB A-weighted self-noise spec and a dynamic mic's output level, it's not the first choice for distant-miking an orchestra. But one of the things that 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 by without using a pop filter. This would also be a good mic for a female singer who really belts it out. The Ball worked especially well on a hard-strummed acoustic guitar. Here, again, the smooth midrange and acoustic compression created a natural sound that sits nicely, with just enough detail not to sound constrained. The mic was also nice on wooden percussion — claves, castanets, etc. — and hand claps 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


High-Resolution Control Room Amp

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

From the Model Six Hundred's thick-slab front panel to the impeccable build quality of this 36-pound, three-rackspace behemoth, you know the company is serious about sound. Inside, Hot House has taken a meticulous straight-wire approach: There are no protection circuits or limiters in this fully differential design with split dual-toroidal power supply and zero-feedback topology, resulting in a worst-case 0.003% (@ 1 kHz) THD+N and a bandwidth that's only -3 dB at 100 kHz. Another nice touch is the Teflon Kimber cabling on the internal I/O wiring. This sports car approach is evident by the simple front panel (just an AC switch) and the rear, which has two Neutrik Combo ¼-inch/XLR inputs (balanced or unbalanced), IEC AC socket and dual-Cliff five-way binding-post outs. The latter are okay, but the posts limit direct wire-though-the-hole connections to AWG 10 or thinner, although they accept any type of crimp-on terminations.

So, armed with a pile of SACDs and a roll of Monster Cable, I began checking 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 like 10-inch drivers, but with tight, well-articulated bass. Bear in mind that there was no undue emphasis on lower frequencies here, but everything seemed to be right, from low organ fundamentals to the transient “ching” of finger cymbals, with rock-solid imaging. Results were similar on a pair of 4ž M&K MPS-2510 near-fields. Moving up to a pair of large custom monitors — based on Altec Model 19s, but with an added super-tweeter stage — the Six Hundred really shined with ample headroom reserves, giving the impression that I was hearing a much larger amp driving the two vintage 15-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 heat sinks 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 monitors aren't delivering what you need to hear, maybe your monitors aren't the culprit. In such cases, a great power amp can really deliver.

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


Updating the Ursa Major

Seven Woods Audio's SST-206 Space Station is a faithful reproduction of the original Ursa Major SST-282, originally known for its unique effects and 11-bit floating-point grit. The SST-206's complement of controls is pretty much identical to that of the original SST-282 but with some minor differences. First, the original unit measured three rackspaces with large chicken-head knobs, whereas the new Space Station is 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 and decay time. There are four pairs of spaced taps in the delay section and a knob to control the output level of each pair. An Audition Delay Pattern knob determines which of 16 different delay patterns is used.

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

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

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

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

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


Cardioid Condenser Microphone

The MBNM 440-CLS ($439/pair) from German mic-maker MBHO is a small-diaphragm cardioid condenser based on its MBNM 440-CL. The updated version adds a switchable -10dB pad and a -6dB/octave highpass filter 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 screen protecting the diaphragm. Specs are similar, with a 40-20k Hz response, 14dBA self-noise and 126dB SPL handling. At 3.75×0.8 inches, the MBNM 440-CLS is perfect for discrete instrumental spot-miking. Field and concert recordists will be happy to know that it accepts phantom power between 22 and 48 volts.

The review units arrived as a matched pair with consecutive serial numbers and sounded well-matched. The company intends for the mics to be used on acoustic instruments and choirs, as well as drum overheads and percussion. As I planned to record a local theater company rehearsing and performing an operetta, I jumped at the chance to put these 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 Mac PowerBook via USB.

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

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

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


CD Sound Effects

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

Housed in a slick metal storage case, Sci-Fi: The Library delivers exactly what the title suggests. The discs are divided into five categories: 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 also lots of effects that fit into everyday use, whether you're looking for just the right elevator call-button sound or more exotic alien breathing effects, atomic bomb blasts or simply odd stereo factory ambiences. Effects range from short to very long backgrounds, and most are easily loopable or loaded into a sampler to create outerworldly drum/percussion rhythms. Also, most of the effects provide several alternatives, giving the producer more choices and the ability to 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 game design, this collection packs a wallop (in fact, there are dozens of those to pick from) and provides a great “idea point” for creative design.

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


Studio Boom Mic Stand

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

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

A center post adjusts overall height ±12 inches and has a self-locking handle for safety. The adjustment crank has a very low ratio — about 20 turns for a foot of elevation. Such fine adjustment is necessary in photo/film work but doesn't relate to mic placement, where ⅛-inch up or down on a boom with a 14-foot overall 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, which made placements a snap. The yoke that stabilizes the legs has a thumbscrew that digs into the center pole, leaving dents. It was secure, but a compression fitting would have been prettier.

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

SE Electronics, 408/873-8606,
George Petersen

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