Microphone Review: sE RN17

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Over the years certain microphones have become known for doing some particular thing very well. There’s the SM57 (snare drums and guitar amps), MD 421 (toms and kick drum), U87 (vocals and anything else) and so on. In the world of classical recording we have similar iconic tools. The DPA 4006, Schoeps CMC 6, and Sennheiser MKH 20 are all something of a standard for orchestral and chamber music. Paired with a good preamp like a Forsell, Buzz Audio, or GML, and you’re talking classical recording heaven.

So if it ain’t broke, then…

Hold up. As you might expect, all those fancy names come at a VERY fancy price. In fact, if you’re trying to recreate the sound of the standard Decca Tree (a famous 3-mic orchestral technique) you’d need the unique polar pattern/frequency response of not one but three Neumann M50s – which would set you back a total of about $15,000. There aren’t many universities, regional symphonies or community theaters that can justify that. If you’re a little guy (like a state university) trying to sound like Abbey Road, you have to do it some other way. No, cheaping out is not the answer. Quality still costs, but it doesn’t have to cost $2-5K per microphone.

Enter the sE Electronics RN17 small diaphragm condenser, one of 3 flagship products in the sE lineup co-designed by Rupert Neve. The RN17s are the most flexible of the group thanks to swappable cardioid/omni capsules (omnis sold separately). Here are some of the cool things about the RN17 the company points out on their webpage: it has the world’s smallest production (15mm) gold-sputtered diaphragm, a monstrous Rupert Neve designed transformer, and a wide and even frequency response (down deep into the lowest lows) that’s never before been achieved in small diaphragm condenser design.

That sounds fantastic. But at about $999 per mic (only a couple hundred shy of the Sennheiser MKH 50) does it offer any real threat to the well-known class of iconic classical music tools? You bet. The most obvious advantage is the swappable capsule. It is a few hundred bucks more, but with it you essentially have two mics: omni or cardioid (for about $1350). That’s $750 cheaper than buying both patterns in the MKH line. Keep in mind most serious classical recordings involve more than a stereo pair, so this isn’t just a “times two” factor in savings. It’s x3 for a decca tree; x5 for a decca tree with outriggers. More with spot mics.

But is it worth it? These mics would have to seriously outperform the dozens of options at the $500 pricepoint. Heck, they’d have to outperform the Neumann KM series, which is not exactly a budget option. In fact, the RN17s would need to give the MKHs, DPAs and Schoeps ALL a serious run for their money. And they do. Tonally, financially… they really do.

If you compare the RN17 to a KM-184, the obvious difference is extended low end and a smoother top. As drum overheads, the RN17s are gorgeous. Cymbals sound three-dimensional and just …pretty. Cymbals. Pretty. Yeah, I said it. In front of a string section it’s the same thing. Perhaps if you wanted an in-your-face bluegrass fiddle scorcher sound, you’d go for the KM-184. But for a classical string section? Mr. Neve, please. Even the AKG C414 XLS large diaphragm (in omni) doesn’t extend down as well the RN17s. And though it goes against all expectations, the RN17s are more silky on top than the LDC 414, too.

It’s the transformer. You can get the different capsules/patterns, which is awesome, but really it’s the transformer. Even without a great preamp there is some Neve mojo coming right out of the mic itself. But let’s say you DO have a great preamp. That’s when your game is really elevated. I’ve used the RN17s with a Millennia HV-3D and a Buzz Audio SSA 1.1. The sound is impressive with stock interface preamps, but it is strikingly impressive with a nice stand-alone pre. Neve gear is not known for its transparency, so maybe the biggest critique of the RN17s (in the classical genre) is just that: “they’re not as transparent as the DPA 4006.” That’s probably right. But in my opinion, the subtle flattery of that Neve “color” is far more likely to help a collegiate choir or orchestra than hurt it. Unless John Williams has been beating down the door to record in the performance space available at the local university, it probably isn’t that fantastic of a recording space. Mics known for having a certain character exist for this purpose: you deploy them because they hide a problem, or because they fix a problem. They make something sound better than it did in the room. The Neumann U87 does this, and it is arguably the most popular microphone ever. The RN17s do it, too, but oh so subtlely. Unlike the U87, it’s not a little goosing of the high mids that sells it. It’s the Neve transformer and the attractive round sound it imparts.

Of course, the RN17s are great for a million things. I already mentioned drum overheads. Acoustic guitar, piano, solo instruments… for the studio that already has a pair of KM-184s, the RN17s would provide an entirely different character for the same sorts of sources. Options are always nice! Honestly, if I had to give up one or the other, I’d give up my KM-184s. They do not get as much use as they once did. I’m also on the fence about getting a second AKG C414 or a third (or fourth) RN17. I can see using the RN17s in more situations. I just like to have an even number of like microphones! Anywhere you would use Earthworks or DPA or Neumann SDCs (or even some LDCs) the sE’s will shine. I bet in the right acoustic space you could cut some killer vocals with the omni caps!

So are these things DPA killers? It depends. If you already have 8 DPA 4006s, probably not. If you will most likely never be able to drop over $2000 per single-pattern microphone, then yes. The RN17s are top-shelf small diaphragm condensers. They are not cheap, but they have much more in common sonically with the most iconic “classical music” SDCs than they do the budget options flooding the market for home and project studios. If I can get 90% of the way to DPA sound for 50% of the cost, count me in  …especially if the last 10% difference is Rupert Neve character!

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Drums in a Small Room

Maybe it’s because I’m stubborn. I really don’t like the idea that I can’t get a decent drum sound out of a real kit, so I just keep trying. It’s like playing the same level of a video game over and over and over and refusing to move on until you feel like you’ve achieved a certain level of proficiency. Except drums are way cooler than video games.

Maybe it’s because I think music, like life, is better when people are connected. I like having a living, breathing percussionist walk into the studio with a lifetime of experiences and knowledge and then just letting them do their thing. You’re getting a little bit of what makes that musician unique grafted right into your project. Pretty cool.

Maybe it’s because using a bunch of microphones seems like it is becoming a lost art, and I hate to think future music-makers might rob themselves of the fun.  Trying to solve the aural puzzles that arise from having a bass drum, snare drum, two toms, cymbals and hi-hat all played at the same time in the same room while being recorded by 8-12 microphones is a challenge, and solving the puzzle is pretty gratifying.

For whatever reason, I really like trying to record the studio drums in our crummy little room with 7 foot drop ceilings. Here’s my latest attempt, and some ideas you might want to try on your next drum sesssion.

1) Line up a stellar drummer. This is far and away the most important thing in terms of getting a good recording. My pal Brian has good time. He has good taste. He has tons of experience. He is a true student of the drum kit. Everything else could be perfect, but if the drummer is not groovin’ then it really doesn’t matter.

2) Put your time in ahead of time. There’s no substitute for experimenting with mics, placements, and tuning. If you have a kit, then really get to know that kit. It wants to spend time with you.

3) If you have the tracks and the mics, give yourself options. I put a large diaphragm tube mic out in front of the kick drum, a dynamic mic way inside, and even a little clip-on horn condenser dangling over the pedal beater. I actually did end up using a blend of all three, although the “beater” mic ended up functioning more like an under-snare mic.

4) Even in a tiny room, try a room mic. I used the AEA R88 stereo ribbon mic in a mid-side configuration about 5 feet in front of the kit. I really didn’t think I’d end up using it, but after rolling a little low end out I decided it really helped add a sense of space to the dead room. I’ve often found that combinations of mics at different distances can help add sonic dimensions to a recording.

5) Try different flavors of preamps. For the inside kick mic I ran into a Focusrite ISA 430 preamp. It’s a little juiced on the top and bottom and I thought it would be a nice compliment to that snappy attack on a bottom-heavy source. The outside kick mic and snare ran through a Millennia preamp for crispy transients. The overheads ran through a Buzz Audio preamp for a subtle touch of softening on the cymbals.

Here are the specifics:

  • Kick In: Miktek PM11 into Focusrite ISA 430
  • Kick Out: Lauten LT-386 tube (gentle, figure-8) into Millennia
  • Kick Beater: Audio Technica ATM350 horn condenser into Audient
  • Snare: Beyerdynamic M 201 TG into Millennia
  • Rack Tom: Sennheiser MD421 into Audient
  • Floor Tom: Sennheiser MD421 into Audient
  • Hi Hats: Neumann KM-184 into Audient
  • Overheads: sE RN17s cardioid caps into Buzz Audio SSA 1.1
  • Room: AEA R88 Stereo Ribbon into Millennia

I had previously used an AKG 414 as the Kick Out mic, but it seemed to catch a lot of hi-hat bleed. I knew the Lauten LT-386 would provide plenty of thump, but I also figured that if I set the character to the “gentle” mode I would minimize hi-hat and other high frequency bleed. Mission accomplished! It sounded a lot better than the 414 in this application.

There is no compression on this mix and minimal linear phase EQ for high-pass filtering on the room and overhead mics, and some low-mid reduction in the overheads and kick drum mics. I’m looking forward to overdubbing the rest of the parts so I can dive into mixing!

-Update-

Here’s a look at some things starting to come together. Still a lot to do, but rough edges are slowly getting smoothed. Looking forward to finishing it up!

Wind Revival (part 2)

(Sample audio from the session – a quick balance with no percussion or synths added)

It’s been a couple of years since I chronicled a Fannin Musical Productions recording session.  John has a thriving business selling marching band arrangements to high-schools nationwide, and the live performances of show options he provides to potential clients is something of a distinction in the marching band biz. For me, FMP recording sessions have become almost routine. But with plenty of down days to set up for latest session (a luxury not always available) I decided to try a few new tricks.

We’ve always used Lovett Auditorium on Murray State’s campus for recording high-priority sessions. It’s a big, wonderful hall built in 1926 with a basketball court-sized stage, several rows of heavy theater curtains, and 2000 seats for the audience. One of the very first recordings I made at Murray State was on this stage: a violin and piano concert. It didn’t take me long to realize that this hall was probably the best location for recording a wide variety of projects. There are several other recital halls, theaters, and auditoriums, but Lovett is by far the largest. I have enjoyed the soundstage environment for everything from Americana sessions to classical performances. No changes in venue!

The thirteen wind players were also a consistent element. We had eight brass players: tuba, euphonium, trombone 1 & 2, trumpet 1, 2, & 3, and mellophone. These folks travelled from Memphis, Texas, and beyond to be with us. There were also five woodwinds: flute, clarinet 1 & 2, and sax 1 & 2. Excellent musicians all around. We planned to get two good takes of everything and stack them so our 13 players would sound like 26. No changes there either; so far so good.

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The analog time keeper.

The first significant change was pretty simple: a brand new audio interface. This was my second session ever using the Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt (which replaced our well-loved and utterly spent Ensemble Firewire after many years of service). The technology between the two Ensemble designs represents about a decade of innovation. I really like this updated interface! The Control software is eons ahead of the old Maestro software, and the hardware unit provides a lot more control right from the face plate, not to mention offering a total of 30 inputs compared to the old model’s 18. Plus it’s jet black, which is really nice after staring at brushed aluminum for so many years! Using the new Ensemble is very intuitive. I found myself thinking, “I want to change THIS…,” and simply clicking on the name of any channel, source or destination and making it happen without trying to think like a software engineer. And of course working in Logic means the integration with the Ensemble is tight. I could tweak parameters on the hardware interface (like soft limit or 48v) from inside my Logic project file! It’s always a little risky to try to work a new piece of relatively unfamiliar gear into a session, but it turned out to be easy to keep the Apogee playing nicely with the monitoring system and two extra banks of digital inputs. And yes, I do think this new Ensemble sounds superb.

The second deviation was the most obvious visually and seemed potentially risky (from a morale perspective). It involved splitting up the winds into two lines: brass up front and woodwinds in the back, with 30 feet and two thick theater curtains hanging between the groups. Previously everyone had been in one long line stretching across the stage, but I hoped this new setup would reduce brass bleed in the woodwind mics and help everyone sound better. It definitely made a difference by creating enough isolation to actually use a distant woodwind section mic, whereas before there was no point given the spill. Aside from potentially making the woodwinds feel like second class citizens tucked away in the back of the hall, the video feed over which they watched the conductor had just a tiny bit of latency as well. However, given that they had a click track keeping time in their headphones this seemed to not cause any serious issues. Who watches the conductor anyway? They were good sports, and I think we’ll continue this practice in the future.

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Looking down the brass line.

The 8 brass players were aimed out into the cavernous auditorium, which helped to minimize the acoustic energy bouncing back into the mics (and back through the curtains to the woodwinds). My AEA R88 stereo ribbon mic was in front of the first row of seats with a makeshift reflection filter behind it in an attempt to reduce the ambience of the hall. The R88 is a huge part of the sound for this project. It may be only one mic, but it is probably 50% of the sound for the whole thing. I regularly use the R88 as a room mic for almost any project (the list of things that don’t greatly benefit from some R88 blended in is very, very short). But there is something really special about the way it works on brass in a big room. Once you hear it blended in with the close mics, it just sounds like you want it to. I love all the mics used in this session for different reasons, but the AEA is the one mic that has to be out in front NO MATTER WHAT.

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LDC on Bone 1; dynamic on Bone 2.

With several of the 2 or 3 member small instrument groups I tried to use different types of microphones. For example, I used a condenser mic on trombone 1 and a dynamic mic on trombone 2. I have found that using the same mic all over the place can sometimes lead to a build up of that one sonic signature. And no matter how great that signature may be, having it on every source usually isn’t so great. Think of it as a way to help differentiate similar sources (not to mention avoiding that condenser sensitivity at every station).

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Ribbon mic on trumpet 1, SM7b on #2, and Miktek PM9 on #3.

The last big change was a major focus on phase relationships. I acquired Voxengo’s PHA-979 phase plugin this Christmas, and per my MUS 338 textbook, Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio by Mike Senior (chapter 8), I set out to examine how small timing and phase rotation changes might preserve more of the tone with all these different mics bleeding into each other, not to mention their relationship with the stereo room mic. There just wasn’t time to listen and move the R88 around during the very abbreviated sound check. Back in the day that’s how it would have been done. But with 13 people waiting on me, I had to settle on a distance for the room mic that has worked before and plan on fixing individual phase issues in post production.

The PHA-979 definitely made a big difference in correcting thin, nasal, phase-cancelled tone. Even the 3:1 spacing rule can’t prevent phase cancellation. And while I made sure there was 6 feet of space between players and no more than 2 feet from mic to intended source, the PHA-979 helped mop up the problems. It’s not an enticing plugin like vintage gear simulations, but it sure solves some core issues. For example, among the three trumpets I found that trumpet 1 was really bleeding into trumpet 2’s mic (trumpet 1 is LOUD). So upon combining those two mics, trumpet 1’s tone began to suffer due to his own bleed spilling into trumpet 2’s mic and being out of phase. I adjusted the phase of trumpet 2 (and therefore the phase of the bleed from trumpet 1) and got trumpet 1 sounding great again! Powerful stuff; thanks Mike!

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Avenson STO-2 SDC on the ever-important mellophone.

The mellophone was the only brass instrument – aside from the tuba and trombone 1 – to get a condenser microphone. Actually, if you look closely, you’ll see there is also a Shure SM57 up as well. I auditioned both and decided the Avenson STO-2 small diaphragm condenser had a deeper, rounder sound. Mellophone (or horn, depending on who’s available) is a super important element to the brass line. It provides the middle ground, or the glue, that holds everything together. It has to be prominent, and given it’s easy-to-pick-out range, it needs to sound nice. Next time I’ll try the Avenson and some other mic to see if I can find a mic that can beat out the STO-2, but so far the little Texan omni is in the lead.

I also used several MikTek PM9 vocal microphones (on euphonium, trumpet 3, and bone 2). These are bright-ish, somewhat less midrange-y dynamic mics that sound a little different than the standard SM57 or SM58. I have also used MikTek’s drum kit pack (the PM10 and PM11) in these sessions before. They are great for splitting the difference between a dynamic and condenser type of sound.

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Miktek PM9.

I’ve had good results running low brass through the Millennia HV-3D preamp for a long time. If it’s good enough for Skywalker Ranch and the LA Phil, then I think it’ll probably take care of me. I like to keep things on the low end fairly clean, and clean is the HV-3D’s bread and butter. The 4 channels were spent on euphonium, trombone 1 & 2, and horn. The Buzz Audio SSA 1.1 two-channel preamp is another clean machine, but it has a great extended low end and lots of gain. Just a touch less detail than the Millennia, but that’s actually what I want from my room mic. Perfect for the AEA R88. I used one Audient ASP880 as an ADC for theses two preamps, bypassing it’s internal preamps altogether and just piping things into the Apogee digitally. The second ASP880 was in full swing, though, routing some sources out and back from my 500 series rack of EQs and compressors, and handling preamp duties for the trumpets and some distant section mics.  Lastly, the on-board Apogee Ensemble preamps handled the woodwinds.

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Sputnik tube condenser – NOT looking directly down the bore, but rather at the bell’s edge.

I tried running the tuba through the Focusrite ISA 430’s opto compressor for a thicker, more syrupy low end. If I was really on my game I would have alternated between VCA and opto compression between every double take for maximum variation. Sometimes the tuba can poke out, so I used a very gentle setting just to take a few dB off the peaks. The ISA 430 is just a little bit juiced-sounding. It seems to have just a touch more bottom and top than a more neutral preamp. This is usually the sort of sound I want for tuba in a marching band. I also engaged Focusrite’s “air” button, because I wanted as much brightness as I could get without resorting to EQ on the front end (and the opto compressor took a little edge off, too).

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The woodwinds watching John conduct on TV, thirty feet behind the brass line.

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Fathead Ribbon on sax 1.

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AKG C414 XLS large diaphragm condenser on flute.

The flute and trumpet 1 ran through a Radial Engineering EQ set flat, just for the nice little punch that 500 series unit gives. They don’t seem to get enough love, but Radial makes great-sounding hardware. Then said high-end sources went through a couple of dbx 560A compressors to roll a few dBs off the peaks. I was conservative with the compression, but next time I’m clamping down harder on both these two! I really like the AKG 414 mic on just about anything, and the flute is a great fit. As for trumpet 1… you’d think that a dark ribbon mic (off axis from the bell) going through a compressor might be in danger of sounding too dark. Yet there were times when he really punched it and I thought I should have used that Radial EQ more aggressively.

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The woodwind line with diffusor/gobos covered in John’s old drapes.

I tried a little experiment with the clarinets. They were both on sE Electronics RN17 Rupert Neve designed small diaphragm condensers (with the omni caps). These are mics I usually use as a stereo pair in front of the choir or as outriggers for the Wind Ensemble. They sound wonderful. I knew there would be bleed from other sources with the omni caps, but I decided that on one of the two double-takes I would pan each clarinet hard left and right. The idea was to increase the stereo spread with two ambient-heavy tracks. I could’t do this with both takes, as there were places where the extreme panning didn’t work, but it seemed to work well when the two takes were combined to make 13 players sound like 26.

I sang the praises of the PHA-979 already, but there is another plugin that saw action on even more channels. The Brainworx bx_console N is an emulation of a Neve VSX analog recording console. All 72 channels of it. That is to say, each channel is slightly different-sounding (just like the real console). No, I didn’t wade through 72 options and find the “perfect” sound for each source. But I did click through 5 or 6 channels at random and chose my favorite from that small sampling. Unlike the PHA-979, the console N IS the enticing sort of plugin that makes people drool. The N was used on all the tracks for the second take (the stacked parts) for the whole ensemble. Think wide, warm, smooth… a nice analog juicing which, when compared to the uneffected signal, was clearly preferable. Because I was stacking two takes, it was easy to make the choice to only treat one of the two. I was trying to get the best of both worlds and not over do it, and this also helped further differentiate the takes from each other. Another cool aspect to this plug is that the Neve EQ and compression emulations are built-in, so if I decided later in the process that I needed a little of one or the other, it was already loaded up. No need to drag another plugin over. Besides that, having a virtual channel strip for any track you choose is pretty cool!

Mix bus plugins included the Virtual Tape Machine, FG-Grey bus compressor, Brit 4k E console bus emulator, and FG-X limiter – all from Slate Digital. EastWest’s QL Spaces also found a place for its nice soundstage ambience.

I’ll have to wait until I arrive at the finished product to feel certain, but so far I think the sound of this session is a significant improvement. The biggest contributors to this being the extra separation between the woodwinds and brass and Voxengo’s PHA-979 phase correction plug. The PHA-979 seems purpose-built to help correct the excessive bleed from a session such as this. Looking forward to using it on drum kit! Cheers!

One Mic Session

Most of us listen to music that is produced via a combination of a lot of different mics, software instruments, overdubs, et cetera. The mix engineer works his fingers to the bone to try to make all that stuff fit together, and in many cases the result is brilliant. In some cases it’s not. When the result isn’t so great, I often wonder how things could have turned out if everything was just left… natural.

It’s always an eye-opener to listen to a one-mic recording. The great thing about it is that there is no bleed, no phase cancellation, and little to no exaggerated frequency peaks due to the ultra-close proximity of a mic to a source.  On the downside you can’t really fix mistakes in the typical “studio” fashion and you definitely can’t balance things after the session is over.

Still, if the tune belongs to a genre that lends itself to honesty, a one-mic session has the potential beat the pants off all the fancy tricks of a million isolation booths and a zillion tracks of discrete audio.

A few years ago I bought a stereo ribbon mic from AEA – the R88mkII. This mic has two crossed figure-8 elements, which results in a left/right image in front of the mic and a mirror left/right image (in opposite phase) to the rear. It’s a great tool for drum overheads, general room miking, and, of course, being the solo mic in a one-mic session.  For this session, we placed the singer/guitarist/harmonica player front and center in the stereo image and back just far enough to keep the vocal from dominating everything else. The bass was elevated, mostly opposite the singer, but was leaning just a little to one side of the stereo image in order to balance out the fact the the drums had to be slightly to the other side in order to peak around the body of the singer and be heard clearly.

There have been many times when I’ve wished I could get a simple, clean drum sound like this with close mics. But a SM57 3 inches off the top of a snare (or a Beta 52 inside the bass drum) will RARELY be capable of faking a sound like a stereo mic 10 feet away! The other great thing about ribbon mics is that they tend to be dark. As such, there are certain software processors (like the Slate FG-MU Fairchild-style compressor) that can really breathe life into the signal without making things too bright.

Here’s Wayne Harper, Dean Hughes and Scott Thile working the R88!

Lauten Audio Eden LT-386 Review

By Justin Pattonlauten_eden

The flagship microphone from Lauten Audio is a real looker. Everyone who sees me extract this monster from its case has the same reaction – oohs and aahs (the case is impressive in its own right, and just pulling it off the shelf primes anticipation)! I’ve drooled over a lot of beautiful microphones online, but the Eden takes the cake. It looks similar to a U47-type mic, but the shock mount design is a radical departure from the elastic spider-web style. There is a clamp that tightens down on the microphone body (don’t worry, fat rubber washers provide gentle contact points) via small hexagonal sockets. The clamp is suspended inside a concentric ring of hefty metal with a very heavy duty threaded socket that looks like it will never strip out. The mount is mostly shiny nickel plating and matches the trim on the Eden very nicely. The rest of the mic is covered with a lovely ceramic coating. It absolutely screams professional – and looks crazy expensive (it’s really not).

I recently had the opportunity to record a couple of different voice-over projects. I began one prior to obtaining the Lauten. For that I decided to try out a mic I’d never used for VO before, but one that had a stellar reputation: the AKG 414 XLS. I spent a fair amount of time trying out the different patterns on the 414 looking for something that seemed to flatter my speaking voice. I also ran it through the Focusrite ISA 430 channel strip using the vintage compressor setting for some extra color and warmth. Though I worked hard on it, the result was not my favorite voice-over sound. I had gotten better results with some of the cheaper Chinese tube mics that were popular in the late 2000s. The 414 just wasn’t a great fit for my voice. Still, it was workable.

By the time the second VO rolled around, I had the LT-386 in my grubby little hands. I ran the Eden straight into my stock Audient iD22 mic pres. It was no contest. The Lauten sounded so much more palatable. The honkiness of the 414 was gone; my voice had a much more natural, comfortable quality with no channel strip tweaking required. The LT-386 has all the character you’d expect from a top-shelf tube mic. With two stages of hi-pass filtering, three selectable frequency responses and three polar patterns, the Eden has plenty of sonic options. I also set up my cheap Chinese tube mic and did an A/B test singing my favorite Punch Brothers melody. Again, the Eden had the clear advantage. It was sweeter and warmer with less harshness. It absolutely sounds like it belongs up there with the very best, most expensive mics I’ve ever used. I’m sure there are voices out there for which the cheap tube (and the AKG) would be better fits, but I expect they’d be in the minority.

Just a little bit more about the three frequency setting options… The switch on the rear of the mic offers “F” for forward, “N” for neutral, and “G” for gentle. I used the “forward” setting for my voice-over, and it was perfectly present. But compared to the AKG 414, even the forward setting was smooth and easy on the ears. Which is actually great. If you’re into warm, smooth and buttery tone, it’s hard to make a mistake with the Lauten. Still, I’ve recorded plenty of sources that could benefit from rolling back the bite even more. For example, sometimes a jazz sax solo can benefit from a bit of extra taming. On the “gentle” setting the Eden approaches a quality similar to my AEA large ribbon mic, which I really love to use on harsh sources and as a room mic. And of course “neutral” splits the difference. This super-useable tweakability is something that other mics just don’t offer. Especially mics that sound like they ought to cost several thousand dollars.

The Eden comes in just under $2500. Yeah, it’s a lot. But not for mics of this caliber. It’s actually at the bottom of the price range for anything approaching this level of quality. In fact, I’ve used a Bock 5 zero 7 ($7595) and I think the Lauten LT-386 would probably be my preference for a larger number of voices and genres. Not that I wouldn’t be very excited to have the Bock in my arsenal – but I don’t have the luxury of dropping close to ten grand on one microphone.

Lauten also makes a great line of entry-level microphones, and there is a lot of Lauten mojo included in those. If the Eden is just too expensive for you, I’d recommend taking a trip to your local mega-dealer and trying out some of the Lauten Series Black options. But if you’ve been around the block and know what you like, you owe it to yourself to give the Eden some serious consideration. I can’t think of any mic that impresses me more than the LT-386 under $10 grand. I just might have to get a second one.

Justin Patton messed around with music technology in high school, researched music technology in college, and currently works as the recording engineer for the Department of Music at Murray State University. He also teaches the Recording Techniques course for students in the Music Business program, using kindred spirit Mike Senior’s book: “Recording Secrets for the Small Studio.”

Blue-Collar Recording

By Justin Patton

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The Fostex X-18 4-track cassette recorder

Take a look at THAT! Now doesn’t that make your 2016 Christmas haul pale in comparison? That is an exact likness of my first “AW” (as in Audio Workstation). It is not a DAW because, as you can see, there is nothing digital about it. This bad boy recorded on both sides of a cassette tape at the same time (using the stereo tracks from side 1 and the stereo tracks from side 2 simultaneously in order to give 4-track playback). At high speed, I would burn through a 60-minute cassette tape (30 minutes per side) in 15 minutes.

I spent 500 bucks of hard-earned warehouse pay on this recorder when I was about 19 years old. Shortly after that, I got a programmable drum machine (because any time I tried to record real drums it sounded absolutely gruesome). I already had a Shure SM 58 microphone; I was all set (although I did have to run my mic through the preamp section of my Peavey guitar amp in order to get a good, clean signal)!

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The TEAC 144 4-track cassette recorder

Here is a slightly more uptown 4-track cassette recorder from TEAC. It has channel EQs and overdubbing capabilities. Priced at $1100 in 1979, it also has the distinction of being used to record Bruce Springsteen’s album ‘Nebraska’. While there haven’t been a whole lot of well-known albums produced on such modest equipment, it would be fair to say a whole lot of TERRIBLE albums have been made on much higher-end equipment.

There’s no denying the allure of multi-million dollar recording equipment. If for no other reason, it makes you feel special just to be in the same room with it. And yes, it can and often does make a difference in perceived sound quality. However, top-dollar fidelity is not the most important element in a recording. Many listeners would have trouble distinguishing between a $10,000 channel strip and a $500 strip. It is an interesting scenario to consider: would Nebraska have been any more highly regarded if it had been recorded at Abbey Road with all the buzzword pieces of famous gear?

Top-dollar fidelity is not the most important element in a recording.

I recall the first time I started using “good” microphones on a regular basis. We had been recording with some $100 bargain mics for several months in the Performing Arts Hall at Murray State University. I’d been dreaming of getting a pair of Neumann KM-184s for just as long. Finally, I wrote a grant request and got half of them paid for by the Provost and half paid for by the Music Department. The pair was about $1800 total. When I set them up for the first time I was expecting the clouds to part and angels to sing. Guess what? They sounded better than the bargain mics – but not nearly as much better as I had been expecting. Were they worth it? Yes, considering that these mics would record hundreds of concerts over the next 10 years (and that the bargain mics tended to go bad after about two years of heavy use). But I was surprised, given all the hype about super special audio gear, how the difference in quality wasn’t nearly as remarkable as I thought it should have been.

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Over the years I have had people express a desire to come record in the studio because they needed access to “a really good mic.” Now, I love microphones. And I know the first microphone I’d reach for if I wanted to impress someone with a vocal mic. The Lauten LT-386 does warm and silky like nobody’s business. It’s pricey, but in my opinion it’s worth every penny. If you’re going to splurge a little, getting one really nice vocal mic is a great place to do it. I also have a $100 Audio-Technica 2020 microphone (the dumpy-looking little black mic on the right). It was among dozens of high-end mics in a “shoot-out” by Sound on Sound back in 2010, and it fared very well. It was even the preferred mic for one of the female singers, beating out a $10,000 world-famous micophone standard!

So how does one know for sure that a cheap mic just won’t cut it? Presumably one has used it and found it lacking. But in my many years of recording I’ve found that a stellar vocalist sounds stellar no matter what. Sure, a $2500 mic may flatter her voice in a very pleasing way. But it won’t turn an average song (or average voice) into something magical. The magic has to be part of the performance to begin with, and a cheap mic – used correctly – should still capture that magic. The same is true of most solid, yet budget-friendly, recording gear. Will the better mic provide better results? Most likely, yes. But the cheap mic won’t be the thing that stops the record from going platinum!

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The Slate Digital FG-MU compressor

Over the last year I’ve been enjoying using every plugin made by Slate Digital as part of their subscription service. When I joined, the deal was $249 for an annual license. There are dozens of different EQs, compressors, preamps and tape emulators to choose from, most modeled after specific pieces of well-known hardware studio gear costing many thousands of dollars. Of course the software versions cost only a tiny fraction of the real thing. Do they sound identical? No. In an A/B comparison at Sweetwater Sound’s Studio A, engineer Mark Hornsby played a group of people, myself included, a drum mix going through a real Universal Audio 1176 hardware compressor, then through a Slate 1176 plugin. Most of us liked the hardware sound better, but it was really close. As Mark said, there’s nothing stopping anyone from cutting a legit record using only plugins.

Why train in a multi-million dollar facility if, odds are, you’ll be working in an entirely different setting?

Simply put, a multi-million dollar studio has always been a luxury – today more than ever! Since record sales have been tanking for years, it isn’t a luxury very many artists (or their record labels) can afford. Without question, more music (film, television, bands, et cetera) is being made in multi-THOUSAND dollar studios today. Or even on laptops. To make up for a waning clientele, many of the “big boy” studios are teaching recording classes in facilities originally intended for something other than education.

This begs the question: why train in a multi-million dollar facility if, odds are, you’ll be working in an entirely different setting? If one is accustomed to the finer things in life, perhaps it is a luxury one can afford. But if Bruce Springsteen could get it done with a 4-track cassette recorder, we can surely do amazing things for a lot less than we’ve been led to believe! Here’s to more great blue-collar recording in 2017! Happy New Year!

Justin Patton messed around with music technology in high school, researched music technology in college, and currently works as the recording engineer for the Department of Music at Murray State University. He also teaches the Recording Techniques course for students in the Music Business program, using kindred spirit Mike Senior’s book: “Recording Secrets for the Small Studio.”

Wind Revival

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The Focusrite ISA 430 feeds the flute into the Audient ASP 880 on channel 3, bypassing the mic pre via the handy DB25 inputs so as to access the outstanding Burr-Brown AD converters directly! Good thinking, Audient!

 

Once a year MSU Recording Services gets to participate in a special “horns only” recording session. Marching band is a pretty big deal here in the States; there are thousands of high schools fielding marching bands, and they all need new music and drill every year. Many band directors prefer to purchase fresh and appropriately-licensed arrangements from a reputable source. That’s where John Fannin of Fannin Musical Productions comes in. John’s business provides dozens of unique arrangements, marching drill, sound effect packages, and even commissioned pieces to high school bands. He makes shopping extra easy by mailing an annual CD of his latest offerings to every public high school band director in America. That’s about 15,000 copies!

 

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The Neumann KM-184s in ORTF capturing the woodwind section

 

John’s clients seem to prefer live wind instrument recordings to libraries, so once a year John rounds up some winds. One flute, two clarinets, two saxophones, a mellophone, three trumpets, two trombones, a euphonium, and a tuba make up the ensemble. John does it right, too. He starts with killer players. Most have either a master’s or a doctoral degree in their respective instruments. There may only be 13 of them, but when those 13 are all ultra-competitive professionals… watch out! They also stack takes, which gives the effect of 26 professional players (or probably more like 75 typical high school musicians as far as wind power is concerned). Alas, the percussion must remain MIDI as it would more than double the time and cost to make a live drum line recording in advance of the wind session.

A session with 13 wind players requires a big space. The stage of Lovett Auditorium doubled as a basketball court back in the 1920’s, and this huge soundstage-like venue allows for 11 players to be spaced at 6 feet apart in one big line. The last two players had spots just in front of the bookend players. The big room and tall ceiling helped reduce the intensity of early reflections, and this made for a much better recording environment than the typical band room.

 

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Five of the eight brass players in front of an AEA R88 ribbon mic capturing the room

 

Woodwinds took up one side of the stage and brass the other. A stereo ribbon mic (AEA’s R88) functioned as the brass ensemble microphone, while a pair of Neumann KM-184s in ORTF stereo captured the woodwinds. The AEA ribbon is a terrific room/ensemble mic and adds a sense of space and warmth that is tough to get with anything else. The crossed figure-8 pattern probably has a lot to do with that. The KM-184s are just great all around acoustic ensemble mics and worked well within 15 feet of the woodwinds; the cardioid patterns helping to isolate the weaker signal of the flute, clarinets and saxes. Baffles provided a little more isolation between instrument types, and everyone got a spot mic.

 

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The flute cave with the AKG C414 XLS on duty

 

The flute was probably the most isolated instrument – placed between theater curtains and baffling – with an AKG C414 XLS about 2 feet away in the hypercardioid pattern. The C414 is a classic instrument microphone, with the XLS version often considered more appropriate for instruments (the XLII version is a bit brighter which some consider a boon for vocals). We only had one, so this is where it sat – running through a Focusrite 430 Producer Pack channel strip (which we count as one of our 5 “boutique” signal paths). The Focusrite mic pre has some great characteristics: quiet, solid and just a little bit of color.

 

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One of sE Electronic’s cool Rupert Neve designed mics on the clarinet: the RN17 small diaphragm condenser.

 

Both clarinets were recorded with sE Electronic’s RN17 (as in Rupert Neve) small diaphragm condenser mics with the cardioid capsules. These mics are among the more forgiving small diaphragm condensers. I credit the giant Neve transformers with providing some subtle flattery. I have heard some people compare the sound of these to the pricier Schoeps SDCs, but I can’t comment myself having never used Schoeps. I do know that I’d worry more about using a KM-184 this close to a bright-ish, potentially harsh-ish source. But the sE’s sound a little less edgy. They ran into the stock Apogee Ensemble mic pres.

 

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These mics don’t look like anything special, but the Miktek PM9s are actually super cool supercardioid dynamic mics. You can easily hear the improvement over the standard stage dynamic mics!

 

Saxophones were treated to the Miktek PM9 supercardioid dynamic mic. This mic is primarily a vocal microphone in the vein of the Shure SM58, but with a bit more top end over 10 kHz. They also seem to have a slightly less congested sound than the SM58. Of course, they are twice the price. I’d put their sound halfway between the SM58 and the SM87 – Shure’s condenser handheld (but with a smoother top end). The saxes also ran through the Apogee pres.

 

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The Miktek PM9 made me wish I had some of their LDCs to sample!

 

The mellophone also received the PM9 effect, just off-axis a bit and through an Audient ASP 880 preamp. The Audient pre, by the way, is a nice analog preamp utilizing discrete circuits as opposed to the more common integrated circuit design found in less expensive gear. There will always be those who swear by discrete circuits, and the ASP 880 will definitely satisfy those folks! More on the ASP 880 in the next block…

 

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Cascade Fathead II mics on the right; a Shure SM7b on the left, and trumpets straight across.

 

The Audient mic pre has variable impedance settings on all 8 channels, and with passive ribbon mics that can make a big sonic difference. We used the lowest impedance setting to get the warmest, smeariest sound for trumpet! The two fellows on the right are using the passive Cascade Fathead II ribbon mics. And yes, they are fat-sounding. You may notice the player on the far right is on-axis and blowing right into the mic (it actually is farther away than it appears in the photo). This would usually be a bad position for a condenser mic, but the Fathead really rolls the edge off. It sounded great both on and off axis. And being ribbon mics, the figure-8 pattern helped to reject the sounds to the left and right. Nice bonus. The player to the far left is using a Shure SM7b. Compared to the ribbon mics, it was pretty thin sounding. But with three trumpet parts, you don’t necessarily need all of them to have big bottoms.

 

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The M-Audio Sputnik tube LDCs are pretty to look at and pretty to listen to on a lot of different sources.

 

I was torn about where to use the Fatheads. I thought I might like to try them on the trombones, but I eventually decided my best bet was to put them on the brightest source. So the bones got miked with even pricier pieces: the M-Audio Sputnik large diaphragm tube condensers. The M-Audio tube mics never really caught on that big among the audio masses, but fans of the mic are very devoted. I’ve compared the Sputnik with other mics (like the AKG C414) and found they more than hold their own. In fact, in blind vocal tests, singers prefer the Sputnik just about every time vs the C414 XLS! These were a couple of feet back and up / off-axis a bit running through a Millennia Media HV-3D (our other “boutique” 4-channel signal path). The Millennia is popular with classical and jazz producers for its natural, uncolored sound. Some percussionists like to use it for its quick transient capture on drum kit. The combination of Sputnik and Millennia definitely provided nice clarity and power for the low end.

 

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Low brass played well is always impressive!

 

A Miktek PM9 was set up off-axis and a few feet back from the euphonium. This also ran through the Millennia HV-3D. The euphonium is like a little tuba – extra warmth to help round out the trombones!

 

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If a tuba is the right kind of bass for Jon Batiste and Stay Human on The Late Show, then it’s the right kind of bass for almost anything!

 

And last but not least, the tuba enjoyed a Sputnik tube LDC four feet above and only slightly off-axis going through the Millennia HV-3D. The extra distance on the tuba mic really helped the sound develop to feel big and fat! I wish I had a tube preamp to try out with the tuba, but there are plenty of plugins I can try out during mix down if I want to get more tube-y than the Sputnik itself.

This was my first session with the Behringer P16-M personal monitor system. Everyone got to dial in their own headphone mix (just the click track and MIDI mix). As one who has always used a single mix via the old-school headphone distributors, I have to say it’s wonderful to leave the headphone adjustments up to the individual players rather than try to be the sole intermediary for 13 people! When the players can adjust their own phones, they seem to end up a lot happier. Too often players compromise on their headphone mix when they’re stuck with only one mix option (or when they feel dependent on an engineer who has a million other things to deal with). You get better performances from happy musicians who can hear things just they way they want, and we all agreed the personal monitor system was an improvement that was well worth the price.

 

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Break time – thanks John! But only for 5 minutes (…slave driver!)

 

We spent 8 hours the day before just setting up the space, line-checking and making sure things were working. Everything went pretty smoothly with the exception of the headphone outputs on the Ensemble. I had intended to have John and myself monitor off of those, but I failed to realize that by setting up the multi-mix phones for the musicians, I had rendered the Ensemble headphone outputs somewhat handicapped: one was click only and the other was MIDI only. Whoops. I had hoped the Behringer Personal Mixer system would eliminate my need for a headphone distribution amp, but since the director sorta needed to hear everything too, I patched a distribution amp into one of the P16-Ms for a grand total of 20 headphone outputs!

Even though we were recording marching band arrangements, I didn’t necessarily want to achieve an authentic “marching band sound.” Marching bands perform outside on a football field, after all. I approached things with a little bit of classical sensibility, hoping to get better-than-marching-band tonal quality. Sort of like a big chamber wind band, except that everyone got their own mic, too.

I rarely use spot mics for the classical recording I do. Not that spot mics would never help, but the extra work to payoff ratio isn’t usually enough to persuade me. Not to mention that most of my classical recording is done live anyway. That’s why a session like this one is a lot of fun, because it is so different. It’s always good to get creative while matching mics, mic pres and sources, and this session provided one of the widest varieties of sources ever!

Sessions like this are also great for MSU’s music business students. Fresh off a summer internship at a recording studio, our new intern for Fall 2016, Brandon Gleason, was primed to help out. In fact, he ran about half the session while I took the fine photos you’ve been enjoying. Feeling the pressure of a dozen people waiting for your every mouse-click is a good test for aspiring engineers!

Next up: editing out the bad stuff, mixing, and sending things off to the high schools! Long live marching band!

 

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Our modest rig: the old version of Apogee’s Ensemble, an Audient ASP 880, Millennia HV-3D, Focusrite ISA 430, and part of the Behringer headphone distribution system.