Snapshot Product Reviews

Mar 1, 2001 12:00 PM

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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 of reproducing specific jazz and orchestral instruments. The company's latest offering is the STM 99, a modular system intended to provide high-quality miking of saxophones onstage or in the studio.

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

All of the mounts include shock-mounting hardware that suspends the mic capsule via elastic bands, isolating the mic from thumps, bumps and other vibrations. The on-instrument mounts have thick rubber coatings at the point of contact, which adds to the shock resistance while protecting the instrument from scratches. Either mount 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 for additional protection. Also, the threads on the capsules are very fine, and caution should be used when changing capsules to avoid cross-threading.

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

The choice here, however, depends on the sound of the sax itself and the type of music or track it was in — for example, as a spot mic on an orchestral or light jazz piece the cardoid may not be right, while that same tone for a screaming rock solo could be spot-on. The sound of the hypercardioid capsule was somewhere between the omni and cardioid in character and, due to its tight pattern, would be my first choice on a busy, high-SPL stage where isolation or feedback is problematic. The availability of the on-axis mount or the gooseneck clip also allows for more variation in the audio palette, offering either a down-the-throat growl or a smoother, more ambient effect.

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

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

DENON DN-F20R
Portable IC Recorder

Designed for ENG or location sampling applications, the DN-F20R is a portable stereo recorder that stores audio on CompactFlash Type I memory cards via two front panel card slots. Up to 999 tracks of audio can be stored as stereo or mono files in various formats, 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 for selecting recording modes. A backlit LCD shows metering, recorder status, time/locator information, etc. The mic inputs also have switches for selecting or bypassing a highpass (low-cut) filter, -20dB attenuator and an overload protection limiter. Plugging into the ¼-inch headphone jack disables the small onboard monitor speaker.

Operating the DN-F20R is only slightly more complicated than using any portable cassette or DAT deck. One nice touch is the fact that the connections on the two side panels are recessed for protection, as are the Power, Record Level and Record buttons, to avoid any unexpected “changes,” and there is also a key hold switch for locking the transport controls. One obvious difference the DN-F20R offers is its no-moving-parts design, which should keep the unit running for years to come. The CompactFlash cards have a maximum capacity of 192 MB, offering up to three hours of recording at 16-bit/24 kHz. Via an optional adapter, the CompactFlash cards can fit into a standard PCMCIA slot for quick uploads directly to a PC.

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

Denon Electronics; 973/396-0810; www.del.denon.com.
— George Petersen

EMPIRICAL LABS EL-8 DISTRESSOR
British Mode Option

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

The Distressor's recently released British Mode option brings even more excitement and flexibility to the party. The option can be ordered for a new Distressor or retrofitted to any unit you already own and costs only $100. (Without British Mode, the Distressor's list price is $1,499; list is $1,599 with the option.) Enabled by a front panel switch (the retrofit also includes an associated status LED), British Mode changes the unit's attack and release reference voltages to create totally new time constants and curves for all ratios and circuit paths. Empirical Labs' guiding inspiration here was to emulate the UREI 1176LN. In fact, with a fast manual attack time dialed in, British Mode makes a Distressor sound startlingly similar to an 1176LN with two or more ratio buttons pushed in.

British Mode serves up an absolutely savage “power pop” snare drum sound that is to die for. It also sounds stunning 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 a clear, in-your-face quality much like an 1176LN. For comparison purposes, the 1176LN offers a bit more presence. But the Distressor's British Mode does a surprisingly authentic emulation of that distinctive “over-the-top” compression curve that the 1176LN is famous for.

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

Empirical Labs; 973/541-9447; www.EmpiricalLabs.com.
— Michael Cooper

NATIVE INSTRUMENTS B4
Virtual Tonewheel Organ/Rotary Speaker Emulator

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

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

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

Despite a dazzling collection of adjustable parameters, the strength of this program is the audio quality of its virtual organs. It would be too easy to unknowingly dismiss the B4 as a collection of B3 samples. However, in developing the B4, Native Instruments engaged in an extensive research project, analyzing all of the possible components and parameters that make up the B3 sound and constructing a software model that re-creates nuances of the B3 sound, such as harmonic foldback, drawbar crosstalk and loudness robbing, for a sound that is virtually (pun intended) indistinguishable from the original and rivals the sonic quality of the best hardware organ emulations from Roland, Korg and Kurzweil.

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

Native Instruments; 800/665-0030; www.native-instruments.com.
— George Petersen

PRO CREATION “CUTTING THE EDGE”
Pro Tools Music Library System

There are over 100 production music libraries available worldwide, representing tens of thousands of music tracks in buyout, blanket-licensed and needle-drop forms. So does the industry really need another music library? If a library is as unique and versatile as Cutting the Edge from Pro Creation, then the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”

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

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

All in all, Pro Creation has devised a different and ingenious way of creating customized production music that's fast, easy and fun. The five-CD set is $550 — not cheap, but not unreasonable for a set of production music that uniquely reflects your style.

Pro Creation; 27/11/886-6411 (South Africa); www.procreation.co.za.
— George Petersen






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