Here - Mike Rivers – Useful Audio Stuff

Here - Mike Rivers – Useful Audio Stuff
Winter NAMM 2013 Show Report
Anaheim, California, January 24-27 2012
Mike Rivers ©2013
Anaheim in January – never as cold as the Washington DC area where I’m from,
so it’s always nice to get away from Winter if only a few days. While there weren’t
a lot of breakthrough products, this year’s show, compared to the past couple of
years, had more of an upbeat feeling. People were even saying that the music
business recession was over. The show was more crowded and noisy than last
year for sure, and there were fewer exhibitors conspicuous by their absence.
The Anaheim Convention
Center had a makeover last
year that changed the layout of
the show somewhat, and, I
think, for the better. In past
years, security had become
really annoying. I don’t think
they were concerned with
people walking out the door
with a piano or even a
microphone, but rather, they
wanted to avoid the practice of
trading badges with friends who
aren’t sufficiently connected to
attend. It was necessary to show your badge and ID to a guard each time you
entered one of the five main halls, the arena, or went upstairs to the demo and
workshop rooms. With the lobby overhaul, you only had to show your badge and
ID once at the entrance and then you were free to move about the convention
center without further ID checks. A large and loud outdoor performance stage
was erected in the new Grand Plaza with continuous music from before opening
time to well past closing. If you like basses and kick drums, you’d dig that stage.
The bottom end could be heard all the way down the long hotel-lined block,
across Harbor Boulevard, and into the parking lot. A couple of evenings, I walked
that gauntlet wearing my earplugs.
One other thing that was very different this year was that a great number of
exhibitors had no product literature to hand out, no printed press releases, CDs,
nor USB drives. Ask for something to take away and they hand you a business
card and tell you to go to the web site. Now I’m all in favor of saving trees, but
this really puts me at a disadvantage when consolidating what I saw each day. If
I don’t have a piece of paper in front of me when doing my daily reports and this
consolidated report, it’s easy to forget something. Web sites are great for the
folks back home, but they’re painfully slow to access from a hotel filled with a few
hundred others grabbing for the limited bandwidth. If you’re an exhibitor reading
this, PLEASE at least bring a little printed info for those of us who are still living in
the 20th century. If this report seems a little skimpy compared to previous years,
this is why. Enough griping, now on to the real report.
Realizing that I was unprepared for a show that seemed to promote
shooting videos rather than talking to people, taking notes, and
gathering literature to research when it’s quiet, first thing Friday
morning, I visited the IK multimedia booth. They announced a
number of new products to support Android portable devices, and
since I had my Android tablet with me, I thought I might be able to
use it as an audio recorder if I could get audio into it from some
other source than its built-in mics. I found an iRig Mic connected to
Android pad on the display table, disconnected it, plugged it in to
my tablet, and, by golly, I had a portable recorder, albeit a kind of
clumsy one. I mooched one for the show and brought back some
“audio literature.” The iRig Mic comes in two flavors, a handheld
mic with a cable (the one I used) and a mini version, the iRig
Mic Cast designed to plug directly into a phone or tablet.
The handheld mic (and I assume the plug-on one as well) is
a small electret element that’s nicely shock mounted inside a
sturdy grill with a good blast filter. I noticed very little
handling noise and no plosives in my in-the-trenches
recordings. A three-position output level switch gets it in the
ballpark for your recording application, and plug-in (5v)
power is supplied through the TRRS plug, which also has a stereo headphone
jack for monitoring and playback. The mic has a cardioid pattern and its
frequency response is tailored for voice recording.
New this show from Blue is Nessie, true to the company’s history for
making mics, sometimes wacky looking but uniquely functional, that
are clearly not copies of any other mic. Nessie looks like the stylized
head of a Loch Ness monster and incorporates some real time
adaptive processing along the same lines as Blue’s Tiki USB mic
from a couple of years back. The Tiki is targeted for podcasting and
Skype-ing (could that be a word?), so it optimizes speech while
suppressing background noise. The Nessie claims to intelligently
optimize the processing for speech, singing, or instruments. Surely
it’s not going to put engineers and talented artists out of business,
but it’s the sort of thing that, if done well, can encourage a novice in
his first recording attempts. The base includes a headphone jack for direct
monitoring and playback, headphone volume control, mute button, and mode
switch for vocals, instruments, or unprocessed mic output.
Miktek introduced two new large diaphragm mics at the show. The C1 is a
cardioid 1” diaphragm FET mic with a low cut filter and 10 dB pad, a lower cost
version of their C7. An interesting twist (in common with the C7) is that the
capsule itself has two operating modes. An internal DC-DC converter provides
the polarizing voltage, which can be switched to either 48 or 60v by opening the
case (easy) and sliding an internal switch (which, at least in the unit I saw, was
unmarked). As described by Miktek, when operating at 48v, it’s “able to react to
extremely subtle changes in sound pressure, enabling the microphone to capture
the slightest nuances in performance,” which, it seems to me, is just what a
microphone is supposed to do. At 60v, the diaphragm is pulled a bit closer to the
backplate, increasing its static tension and voicing the mic a bit differently so that
it’s “extremely accurate and articulate,” whatever that means. Miktek has a very
good reputation, particularly among Nashville engineers, (their home base), so I
suspect that, while the brochure sounds a bit like marketing speak, each voicing
has its strengths. Also new from Miktek is the CV3, a large diaphragm multipattern tube mic. This is quite similar to their existing CV4 but uses a currently
available subminiature pentode rather than a new old stock vintage tube, which
saves big bucks. The C1 is $600, the C3 is a grand.
Mojave Audio previewed a new stereo mic still in the testing and tweaking phase,
which consists of two large diaphragm tube mics of the MA-200 design housed in
a single case with the top element rotatable relative to the bottom element. Polar
patterns are continuously variable for each mic of the pair, thus you can have
such stereo configurations as M-S with either a cardioid or omni mid mic, crossed
figure-8s (“Blumlein”), X-Y with cardioids at 90° or hypercardioids at 120°, or
whatever suits your fancy. Both in design and configuration, it’s functionally
similar to a Neumann SM69 or AKG C-24. Probably available in the Fall if the
creek don’t rise, says designer David Royer.
Monitoring – Speakers, In-ear Phones, and Personal Monitor Mixing
Ultimate Ears was showing the UE Vocal Reference Monitor, a new series in-ear
phones with frequency response optimized for the vocal range and attenuating
below 105 Hz and above 8 kHz. While the web site doesn’t say anything about
this, they come in boy and girl versions with slight tweaking to take into account
the difference between male and vocal range as well as differences in
resonances in the male and female ear canal. But what was more interesting was
the answer I received when I asked why nobody makes an in-ear phone like a
hearing aid, with DSP that can be tuned to the individual user. It turns out that
they have a system that approaches that goal, but in a different way, though
without the surgical accuracy possible with a modern hearing aid. The customer
spends some time with a set of flat phones and a box with a fairly gentle three
band fixed frequency equalizer. When he finds a sound he likes, the company
custom-builds a phone with his or her preferred frequency response. They had
that rig set up in their hotel room demo suite and I had the opportunity to play
around with it for about 20 minutes. I was working with my eyes closed so I
wouldn’t be distracted by where I was setting the knobs, and it turned out that for
the material I was listening to – orchestral and small combo jazz – my preference
kept coming back to nearly flat response.
The night before the show, PreSonus had a big blowout
with lights, video, music, speeches, and jambalaya
announcing some new partnerships, extensions and
directions. This is a company that, in recent years, has
chosen some very good partners to fill in gaps in their
product line with the goal of taking the musician from
song creation to final delivery. In partnership with Dave
Gunness’ Fulcrum Electronics, they introduced a series
of new live sound speakers and professional studio
monitors based around a coaxial speaker and internal
DSP designed by Gunness and his company. All three
of the live sound speakers feature the coaxial 8” driver
and horn for mids and highs, and either a single 12”
(312AI), 15” (315AI), or two 8” (328AI) drivers for the
lows. These are all active (powered) speaker systems
and have 2000 watts (peak, probably) behind them.
There’s also an 18” subwoofer with a 1000 watt power
amplifier. While DSP for speakers, particularly coaxial
speakers, isn’t anything new (the Equator monitors are doing
well) Gunness explains that the conventional approach is to build the best coax
speaker you can (as Equator does) and then use DSP to optimize the speaker
system. He’s taken a somewhat different approach, studying what needs to be
fixed in the coax speaker, then deciding what can best be fixed in the mechanical
and electrical design and what can be best fixed using DSP. With today’s
processors, a lot more than frequency response and time delay can be
controlled, so that’s what he’s doing. The live music we heard through a pair of
328AIs and subwoofers sounded great.
“AI” is short for Active Integration, which is PreSonus’ name for a technology that
they’re building upon which, when they expand their products’ networking
capabilities, will allow control as well as audio to be passed around a system
digitally. One of the first applications is SL Room Control, an iPad-based speaker
management system that allows remote control over both a parametric and a
31-band graphic equalizer, multi-band notch filter, subwoofer crossover
frequency, limiter, and delay time, plus offers set-up features such as soloing of
individual speakers, and grouping for simultaneous adjustment of multiple
speakers. Of course everything can be saved and recalled.
Not to leave the studio folks behind, the Scepter series of Gunness designed
studio monitors use the 8” or a similar 6.5” coaxial speaker in a ported enclosure.
These are fairly pricey, so for the bedroom studio users, there’s the Eris series of
powered two-way monitors that aren’t Gunness designs but they’re still mighty
proud of them. The Eris 5¼” or 8 inch speakers don’t have all the DSP tweaks
but have preset low frequency response for speakers close to corners, closer to
a back wall, or in the free field.
Last year, IsoAcoustics introduced their series adjustable
supports for control room monitors that provide both isolation
and damping of the speaker cabinets. This year they showed a
few new sizes, some prototype instrument amplifier stands,
and they’ve teamed up with studio furniture maker Argosy
Consoles, integrating the IsoAcoustics support as the Argosy
Spire series 420i and 360i speaker stands. Of course you can
always put an IsoAcoustics support between your speaker
stand and the speaker, but welding the parts together
eliminates one more thing that can move. Argosy makes really
solid stuff, and building a speaker isolation system into the
stand seems like a good idea.
Aviom, one of the pioneers of the
commercial personal monitor mixing
system, has a new 16-channel mixer. The
A360 integrates with existing Aviom
interface hardware including their AN-16I
analog interface as well as plug-in cards
for various mixers. The new model offers
more mixing tweaks, built-in EQ and
reverb, and recallable mix presets. With
its 36-channel mix engine, each of its 16 input channels can be either mono or
stereo and leaving room for effects or ambience. Mono channels have a
conventional pan control while stereo channels use what they call “enhanced
Pan-spread” which appears to function not simply as a left/right balance control,
but allows a stereo source to be placed off center in the mix with control over the
width. One “Dual Profile” channel allows any channel button to instantly swap
input sources with all mix settings recalled along with the switch. For example,
you can switch guitars between songs and have the EQ and reverb for each
guitar in your monitor mix follow you. A built-in microphone provides stage
ambience, or a separate ambience feed can be sent to one or two of the 36 mix
channels. Four complete mixes can be stored, with a dedicated recall button for
each mix. A mono output can feed a wedge speaker or, for the drummer that has
everything, a butt shaker. A USB port allows storing and loading of all settings.
This clearly isn’t a mixing system for your part time church band, but then, more
jobs for skilled monitor mixing engineers to set up basic mixes surely can’t be a
bad thing.
Allen & Heath’s ME-1 personal monitor
mixer has a similar feature set as the Aviom
but takes a different approach to the user
interface. While the Aviom’s panel is filled
with knobs, buttons, and indicators, the
A&H has a very clean front panel with 16
main buttons, a few control/setup buttons,
and an OLED display screen and a single
knob that controls whatever is selected. A
built-in mic provides ambient stage sound
to keep the player on in-ear phones from feeling isolated. Those 16 main buttons
can be set to perform multiple functions. On the simplest level, they select the
input to be tweaked. Buttons can be set up to control groups of channels such as
vocals, drums, effects, or simply select between a couple of preset mixes with
the all important “me.” The ME-1 integrates directly with the A&H GLD mixers. A
companion unit, the ME-U, is a ten port Ethernet hub, which comes standard with
an interface card that connects to the GLD dSnake, iLive ACE or Aviom A-Net.
Optional I/O cards are available for connecting to other systems, offering mixing
of up to 40 channels coming in through MADI, Dante or EtherSound.
Warm Audio is a fairly new company that makes classic style mic preamps. Their
core product, the WA12, is a half-rack sized API 312 style preamp built around a
discrete op amp with custom CineMag transformers at the input and output. It’s
now available in a 500-series package as the WA12-500. Brand new for this
show is the Tone Beast, a mic preamp that offers a choice of internal signal
paths selectable with front panel switches. You can choose between either an
API 2520 or another model op amp that I can’t remember (no literature, no web
page for it yet), or you can plug in your own favorite 990-style and footprint op
amp. There’s a switch to choose between a steel core or a nickel core output
transformer (both from CineMag), or the output transformer can be bypassed.
Another switch gives you a choice between tantalum or aluminum electrolytic
capacitors at critical points in the signal path. I’ve seen a few mic preamps that
offer plug-in op amps or transformers, but this is the first time I’ve run into one
that’s this convenient to play around with while you’re recording.
Focusrite’s Red 1 500 is a single channel 500-series module
version of their legacy four channel Red 1 preamp. The 500
uses the original Red circuit and components, with a Lundhahl
input and Carnhill output transformer. It’s red, of course, with a
backlit analog VU meter, phantom power, polarity reverse, and
60 dB of gain in six steps. Departing from the usual lunchbox
preamp configuration, there’s no high impedance instrument
The Tonelux Sunset Sound S1P 500 series is a mic preamp
recreating those in a custom designed console originally built for the
legendary Sunset Sound studio in Hollywood. Named the Tutti after
Tutti Camarata who established the studio in 1958. Sunset’s custom
console, which at one point landed in the hands of Paul Wolff of
Tonelux, came to the studio in 1962, and 50 years later, Tonelux recreated its preamp. The S1P uses dual 990 op amps with nickel core
input and output transformers built to the original design specs by
CineMag, who built the original transformers under the Reichenbach
Engineering name. Mic gain is up to 60 dB in 10 dB steps, with a ±6
dB trim control. The front panel input is an XLR-¼” combo jack with a
high impedance instrument input selected by a front panel switch.
Polarity reverse and 48v phantom power switches fill out the panel,
which is finished in a lovely setting sunset yellow and orange.
More From the 500 Club – With only one stand-alone preamp in my show notes
(though, I assure you, there was more than one mic preamp on display at the
show) I tossed a couple of 500 series modules in with the category to keep it
company. Here are a couple of other new developments that are more than
straight-ahead mic preamps:
SM Pro Audio introduced a few new lunchbox modules. The
TubeBox is a single slot tube preamp with optical compressor. It
uses a 12AX7, however the company encourages experimentation
with vintage and other new tube brands. The compressor controls
pack the front panel so tightly that the front panel mic input is a ¼”
TRS jack rather than an XLR. A mechanical VU meter doubles as an
output level and gain reduction indicator. Also new from SM is the
MBC-502, a two space two band optical compressor with a rotary
switch to select the crossover frequency from 70 Hz to 3.6 kHz in 16
steps. A VU meter monitors the master output, while an LED ladder
indicates gain reduction for each band. The new PEQ-505 is a five
band parametric EQ with each band covering the full audio range so
they can be used individually, though it isn’t clear to me (I realize
now) how the outputs are combined or routed to the outside world.
Also new from SM Pro is the JuiceRack and JuiceBox, a
family of 500 series rack housings. The JuiceRack 1 and
JuiceRack 3 are, respectively one- and three-slot single space
rack mounted chassis. JuiceBlock 3 is a more conventional
vertical “lunch box” style rack. JuiceRack 8 is an 8-slot rack
mount housing. The multi-slot racks have relays to control
routing and patching between modules, controlled by front
panel digital switching with memory (8-channel version shown
here). The output of one module can be fed to the input of
another, or a single input can be fed to multiple modules. Also common to the
series is that the panel space is slightly taller than the API standard to
accommodate modules that don’t quite fall within the standard (though modules
with non-standard voltage requirements aren’t accommodated).
The Aphex USB 500 Rack is a unique and potentially very useful concept. It’s 4spack l500-series lunchbox style rack with built-in multi-channel A/D and D/A
converters (24-bit resolution, up to 96 kHz sample rate) and USB I/O. In addition
to functioning as a conventional lunchbox with XLR inputs and outputs, it’s also a
6-in by 8-out USB audio interface with each module’s output as well as a stereo
S/PDIF input appearing as an
ASIO input source to a DAW.
DAW outputs can be routed to
the inputs of any of the modules,
the S/PDIF output, and the stereo
analog outputs (for monitoring).
There are two independent
headphone outputs as well as
MIDI in and out. The analog
monitoring section has a master
volume control, a Dim button, and a Mono button. Word clock input and output
for converter synchronization with other digital devices in the system is provided,
and rear panel switches link adjacent outputs and inputs. Empty slot inputs (or
possibly filled/bypass slots) can be used directly as analog inputs to a computer
through the USB port. This is a really cool combination of interfaces that offers a
lot of potential for a tabletop studio. You can assemble a channel strip, have up
to four of your favorite flavor mic preamps, or use 500-series signal processors
as insert devices for your DAW program. It’s a smooth addition to an existing
Mac system which accommodates multiple ASIO devices as part of an aggregate
audio device, though Windows is still behind with this, allowing only one ASIO
device at a time to be recognized.
PreSonus had a big
blowout to introduce
the latest in the
StudioLive family,
the StudioLive
32.4.AI. Built on the
familiar pattern of
An interesting corner of the mixer
the original
StudioLive mixer,
the 32.4.2AI
features 32 full
featured input
channels, four effect
processors, 14
auxiliary sends, six mute groups (new) with dedicated “all off” and “all on”
buttons, and eight dedicated buttons for quick access to preset scenes (new).
The former Pre/Post auxiliary send switch has become (by popular demand) an
aux mute, with the pre/post configuration being set from a menu. Since the
current StudioLIve was just about at the limit of its processing power, the AI
series sports a new CPU and operating system (Linux at the core) to give it a
couple more years of room to expand. Although many will be using it together
with a computer for recording and control, but if all you need is the ability for
remote control via and iPad or personal monitor mixing via iPhone or iPod Touch,
there’s a USB port to which an included wireless USB dongle can be connected
for instant networking. Integration with the Dante network and Thunderbolt I/O
are in the cards. Firewire 800 (48 in by 34 out) is now supported directly, though
I’m not sure I got an answer to my question as to whether you can still record 32
channels with computer that has only a Firewire 400 interface (like all of mine, for
instance). I think it’s all too new to have been fully tested. The new generation of
StudioLives has answered a lot of user requests, but it still has only four
subgroups, the effects are still only reverbs and delays (no modulation, so no
chorus/flange) and no amplifier simulators. And, last but certainly not least, my
pet peeve - the solo still doesn’t mute whatever is going to the monitor path when
a Solo button is pressed. First hatchlings should be Maybe May.
Mackie introduced the DL-806, a scaled down version of their DL-1608
introduced at last year’s NAMM show. To remind you, this is a platform for an
iPad (bring your own), trading the tactile feel of faders for a tablet that you can
lock down to the chassis or take anywhere within WiFi range. The iPad concept
appeals to a lot of users, but there were calls for a smaller (and less expensive)
version, so Mackie answered the call. The DL-806 is functionally and sonically
identical to the DL-1608 but with 8 (down from 16) inputs, 4 aux sends (down
from 6) and the same two main outputs. As a reminder, the iPad isn’t included,
nor is a wireless router that is necessary if you want to un-dock the iPad and
maintain control over the mixer’s functions.
Who shrunk the Behringer X32 mixers? Behringer did! This show, they
introduced several new members of the X32 family of digital consoles. While
each of the new models is physically smaller than the full-blown console, they all
provide pretty much the same capability and I/O count as the full sized model.
Here’s a quick rundown.
The X32 Compact (shown to the right) has 16 mic preamps (versus 32 on the
standard model) with two AES50 ports for additional inputs via Behringer’s digital
snake system. It has the same eight
output bus faders plus master stereo
fader, but where the full sized X32 has 32
input faders, the Compact has eight,
switchable through four banks to control
the full complement of inputs. The X32
Producer loses the active scribble strip
and has a slightly smaller (5”) color LCD
screen. It’s slimmed down enough to be
rack mountable. The Producer and
Compact lose some of the quick access
buttons at the right hand side of the large
console but everything that those buttons
control can be accessed through the menus.
The X32 Rack, shown below front and rear, is a 3-space rack mount version with
16 mic preamps plus the two AES50 I/O ports, a 5” display, a few knobs, and no
faders. It’s intended to be controlled by an iPad or outboard computer.
Smaller yet is the X32 Core, a single rack space mixer with no faders, fewer
knobs than the Rack, and all I/O with the exception of analog monitor outputs
handled through the AES50 ports.
If anyone wants to restart the “Behringer copies Mackie” round of stories, their
new iX16 digital mixer borrows a lot from the Mackie DL1608. It has 16 mic
preamps, built in effects, and remote control
capability with a place to put an iPad so it looks
like a mixer. Unlike the standard docking
connector on the Mackie, however, the iX16
has a cable coming out from the side of the
tablet well with the intent that the mixer isn’t
locked into the Apple iOS, but will be able to
use other tablets as software for them is
developed. Other pluses are integration with
Behringer’s personal monitoring system and
Ethernet snake. While the other new mini-X32s
will probably ship some time this Summer, the
iX16 will probably come along next year some
I keep cheering quietly for the Phonic 16 channel digital mixer, which seems to
have been re-announced as a slightly new version every year for the past few,
but still isn’t released. This year’s model is the iS16, which continues with its
touch screen design but adds a mouse port for better control when a finger just
won’t cut it. There’s also WiFi connectivity for remote operation.
There seems to be an emerging family of products dedicated to multitrack
capture of live performances. The JoeCo Black Box Recorder was probably the
first of this family, and this year I saw a couple of new entries. Actually, one
showed up at AES as the Archwave R-16, but now that a distribution channel has
been established, look for it as the . . . .
Cymatic LR-16 Live Recorder.
You can check my 2012 AES
report or the web site for
details, but briefly, it’s a
tablet-sized box with 16 line
level inputs, a stereo
headphone output, and a
USB socket for connecting
the recording media, which
can be either a thumb drive
or a disk drive, or, if you
wish, a computer. The
LR-16 can also function as a
class compliant USB 16 channel recording input device, so it will plug-and-play
on an iPad or a Mac. A single button press starts recording on all 16 channels
(whether they have inputs or not). The 16 input jacks are specifically wired to
connect via TRS cables to a mixer’s Insert jacks so the Insert send output
(generally directly from the mixer’s preamp output) and sending it right back to
the mixer’s Insert return so as not to interrupt the signal path through the mixer
channel. This is probably fine for most users, though it makes it cumbersome to
insert a signal processor into the channel path, and it can be difficult if you have
a balanced direct output. I expect to be getting one of these for a review, so I’ll
suss it all out eventually.
Allen & Heath introduced the ICE-16, a single space rack mounted 16-channel
recorder and player that’s similar in function – connect it to a console’s direct
outputs, plug in a thumb drive or external hard drive, press a button, and go. It
also serves as a
computer interface
with both Firewire
and USB
connectivity. Each channel has a signal present and an overload LED for
monitoring levels. Inputs are balanced on ¼” jacks, outputs are unbalanced on
RCA jacks (to save panel space, I gather) and it’ll do 24-bit resolution recording
up to 96 kHz sample rate when used with a USB hard drive, or up to 48 kHz
sample rate with a USB thumb drive. The individual channel outputs can be fed
back into a console and used as a source for a virtual sound check if you’re
working in a venue where very little of the stage sound is heard by the audience.
Multiple units can be cascaded and synchronized if more channels are needed.
Audio Interfaces
TASCAM has once again revamped their small
USB interface line that grew out of the US-122.
The US-322 offers two input channels (XLR and
¼” TRS jacks) with phantom power for the mics
and with the left ¼” jack switchable between line
and instrument gain/impedance. The US-366
adds stereo digital I/O, both coax and optical,
and extends the sample rate capability to 192
kHz (the 322 goes to 96 kHz). Both have built-in
effects for monitoring and a cool button on the
front panel that opens the control panel on the
computer for the interface’s DSP mixer and effects.
The new Aphex IN2 is a USB audio interface for
the tabletop studio that incorporates a pair of
high quality mic preamps with an optical
compressor (both borrowed from the Aphex
Project Channel channel strip) on each channel,
MIDI I/O, S/PDIF I/O, and a high quality
headphone amplifier using Aphex’s HeadPod 4
circuitry. XLR mic inputs are on the rear, with
high impedance instrument DI inputs on the front.
Plugging in an instrument disconnects the mic
input for that channel so you need not disconnect
mics when tracking instruments. Sampling is 24bit, up to 192 kHz sample rate. In a world filled
with virtual controls, it’s refreshing to see buttons on the front panel for switching
phantom power, low pass filter, input pad, and compressor on/off. The input level
indicator is a tri-color LED, and the LED adjacent to the compressor switch
changes brightness to indicate the degree of gain reduction. An external power
supply rather than USB powering allows for higher headroom for both inputs and
outputs. Aphex’s goal with the IN2 is to provide high quality inputs and outputs
for the user who doesn’t need a lot of channels.
Focusrite’s new member of the Scarlett family is the18i20. It offers eight mic/line
inputs, six XLR-TRS combo jacks on the rear and two on the front, with front
panel ¼” inputs selectable between balanced line and instrument inputs. There
are 10 analog line level outputs, 8 channels of ADAT optical I/O, and stereo
S/PDIF I/O. Like the rest of the Scarlett series, computer connection is via USB
2.0 and recording is up to
24-bit 96 kHz sample rate.
There are two independent
front panel headphone
outputs and a built-in low
latency DSP monitor mixer.
If this big boy follows in the footsteps of the Scarlett 8i6 and 18i6 that I reviewed,
the input monitoring path, even though it goes from analog to digital and back
again, has a latency well below 1 ms, which Is good enough for me, and I’m hard
to please when someone claims “zero latency monitoring.”
Gadgets – Things You Might Be Able To Use – or not
Goltar Robotune is an automatic guitar tuner. They claim
to be the first of such a product, and that may be so for
their particular configuration, but the concept and
products implementing it one way or another has been
around for a dozen years or so – strum across the strings,
sense the pitch, then turn the tuning pegs with a motor
until it’s in tune. One of the better implementations is a
Gibson guitar with the motorized tuning system
completely built in, however, with the Goltar Robotune,
you bring the guitar to the tuner. With the guitar on a
table, you clamp the sensor around the neck, fit the tuner
assembly on to the tuning pegs, power it up, strum, and it
tunes the strings. There are two different tuning
assemblies to accommodate guitars with all the tuners on one side of the peg
head as well as the more conventional three on each side. Because of the
physical setup, I wondered who would use a tuner like this. Surely it’s not
something you’d use on stage. Perhaps it’s a good tool for a backstage guitar
tech preparing the next guitar he needs to bring out to the star.
Korg pioneered the electronic tuner
more than 30 years ago (I still have
and use my WT-10A with its big
analog meter) and they’re still in
the business. Now they have so
many different ones that it’s hard to
choose, but they had a new
desktop (larger than you’d want to carry in your guitar case) polyphonic tuner in
the Pitchblack series that has a large display that’s easy to read by old folks like
me. TC introduced the concept of the polyphonic tuner a few years back and now
there are a number of different ones available. In addition to a high resolution
display of individual notes, it gives you a quick overview of all strings with a
single strum so you can easily see what’s out of tune.
The last time I got enthusiastic about a mic stand design was when Latch Lake
Music showed their super heavy duty stands a few years back. This year Galaxy
Audio introduced the MTS-C Standformer, a mic stand that has a cleverly
designed boom swivel. The pivot point is offset from the vertical centerline so that
with boom swung to the fully vertical position, the boom arm can slide down
inside the main vertical shaft (in the photo, note the hole just to the left of the
boom clamping knob), converting the boom stand into a straight vertical stand.
Pull the boom arm section up, swing it
around on the pivot, and you have a boom
stand. This could be really handy for those
quick-change festival shows where you
don’t know if the performer is going to sit or
stand until he comes on stage. Further, with
the boom fully collapsed into the vertical
tube, it’s more compact for storage than a
K&M style stand and boom. It comes in two
sizes, one about the usual stage or studio
height, the other extending just a few
inches shy of 8 feet when in the fully
vertical configuration.
A couple of years ago I reported on D-Fend, a speaker protection device from
Eminence. At that time it was still a concept. Now, finally, there’s a product
available for sale. It’s a hand-sized module that can be attached directly to the
back of a speaker or installed in an amp rack, and when it detects a signal that
could damage the speaker, it acts like a compressor, dissipating excess energy
into a heat sink on the back of the module. Unlike some speaker protection
devices, it never disconnects the speaker so you never “go dark.” Using a fill-outthe-form computer application, you can set limits for maximum power including
maximum power for each frequency range in a multi-speaker system,
compression threshold and ratio (affecting how it sounds when it goes into
action), and a couple of other things. The D-Fend module is connected between
the power amplifier and speaker, and is reported to be audibly transparent until a
protection threshold is crossed. Since the average user probably wouldn’t know
what values to set for the protection parameters, Eminence is now working with
as many speaker manufacturers as are willing, to test the module with their
speakers and recommend safe but unobtrusive protection settings. The target
price of $200 seems reasonable considering that it can save the cost of repairing
or replacing one or more drivers in a speaker system.
Lampifier is another of those Hall E exhibitors who seems to have survived the
first critical period. Their entry product was a vocal microphone with built in EQ
and compression that can be optimized for a singer’s voice and technique. This
year they introduced the Infinite Direct Box, one of the most complex DIs that I’ve
seen. Seven knobs on the front panel control an equalizer that’s tailored to
guitars – low and high shelving, a presence range around 2 kHz, a broad
sweepable peak in the 400-1600 Hz range, and a narrow bandwidth sweep in the
low mids to tame body resonance in acoustic guitars that tends to encourage
feedback when amplified. There’s a compressor, a speaker simulator, and a
mysterious Lamplify knob. A combo XLR-1/4” jack for acoustic setups
accommodates either a condenser mic with phantom power if needed, or a high
impedance input from a piezo pickup, though not both together since they’re on
the same connector. There’s also a medium-high impedance input tailored to a
magnetic pickup. A nominal -10 dBv line level output is provided to feed an
instrument amplifier or other line level device. There’s an XLR DI output (at a hot
mic level) which accepts phantom power to power the DI, as well as a ¼” jack
that provides a buffered but otherwise unprocessed “thru” output, Finally, there’s
a USB connector for direct recording into a computer or to connect an alternate
power source. And for backup to the backup, there’s a 9V battery and an
outboard AC adapter. (nothing there about this product yet)
Coleman Audio has added a peak indicator LED
to their analog VU meters. Since the peak level
required to turn on the LED is adjustable, this
qualifies it as an LKFS loudness meter. In the
meter panel shown to the right, the red LED
illuminates the whole meter scale, making the
peak level very obvious. With both the peak level and RMS level (as close as the
standard VU meter gets) adjustable, a Coleman VU meter can be set up to meet
the new US Congressional requirement for television commercials to be no
greater than 2 dB above the program level. I’ve always liked using a VU meter to
set record levels, though it’s important to know when peaks that aren’t shown on
a VU meter approach a digital level of 0 dBFS. With the peak LED calibrated to
flash at –1 or –2 dBFS and the VU meter calibrated so that 0 VU represents –16
or –18 dBFS, one meter will do the job nicely.
The TC Electronic Ditto is a really simple looper for guitarists. I don’t normally get
into pedals here, but this one is really well thought out, and wherever he is now,
I’ll bet Les Paul wished he had invented it. There are just two controls, a loop
playback volume control and a stomp button that controls the record, playback,
overdub, loop start and stop points, undo (yup! – that would have saved ol’ Les a
bunch of acetate), and straight through hard wired bypass.
Total memory time is five minutes. What’s really clever
about it is that it keeps two independent audio files in
memory, your original recording and your last overdub.
There’s a three-input mixer at the output that sums the
input, the first recording, and the overdub if you want it
played. If you want to add a third layer, the current two
recordings are summed and you can add an overdub to
that. The last overdub can be deleted and re-recorded if
you goof. And when you want to get back to playing
straight, the hardware True Bypass takes the pedal
completely out of the signal path between guitar and
amplifier without putting any additional load on the pickup.
And it’s only $129. You probably can’t buy a Watkins
Copycat tape for that price.
And while we’re with TC, not too long ago, they introduced the TonePrint series
of effect pedals. These were mostly common functions but with specific tone
parameters developed as customized versions for famous guitarists. Once you
bought a TonePrint pedal, you modify its characteristics by loading in a new
TonePrint file (a free download) via the USB port. About 15 seconds after the
original introduction, players were asking for the editor so they could design their
own customized versions. TC kept putting them off saying it was a really complex
process, but now a TonePrint editor for the end user is available, and it’s a free
download. Check it out if you have a TonePrint pedal, or if you’ve been saying
“I’ll buy one when I can edit it myself.”
Software and Apps
Auria, the 48 track DAW app for iOS isn’t brand new, but I finally got to see it in
the flesh and in action. It’s really well thought out and easy to get into. I’m not
ready to buy an iPad yet but I have a better appreciation for the not-a-toy status
when an app appears to have been developed by people who have actually
worked with the hardware that they’re emulating. The app does just about
everything you’d want to do with a DAW, though I/O is still, of course, up to the
user. There are several good choices of class-compliant USB audio interfaces
that will work directly with an iPad as long as you don’t need a lot of inputs, but
for live work where you need a whole band’s worth of inputs simultaneously, the
choices are more limited. You may need to cobble a couple of devices together,
for example by expanding a PreSonus 1818VSL or Focusrite 18i6 with a multichannel mic preamp connected the USB I/O device through its ADAT optical
port. You could make a very compact live capture system with this app
connected to a Behringer X32 console.
Xonami is a combination of a server system and metadata management system
to make collaboration on large audio projects during tracking and editing more
efficient. It’s a sort of front end to an on-line file server such as Sound Cloud,
targeted to larger projects such as sound-for-picture or mixes of large multitrack
projects. Rather than send a whole project’s set of files back and forth, or
alternatively, send a new or modified track and leave the user on the receiving
end to import it properly, this “in the cloud” system looks at the project on the
sending end, decides what has been changed since the last update, and only
sends that audio, along with the metadata that puts it in the right place on the
receiving end. I had to chuckle at the last line of their tiny info card: “Join our beta
test team.” It’s an interesting development to watch and see if it flies.
IK Multimedia has had the iRig Recorder for iOS for a while now, but at this show
they announced an Android version. I have an Android table (no, I didn’t buy it, it
was a door prize) and I’ve been jealous of the other side that’s filled with audio
apps, some really very useful and good, so having a mature recording app for my
device is something that I’d appreciate. It’s not released yet, though a version still
in test was running at the show. I had a really nice chat with IK software
development manager Alissandro Fiorletta who gave me some further insight into
the problems developers have with audio input products for Android, and also
some hope that things were looking up.
SW Sonarworks is a room measurement, analysis, and correction program not
unlike IK Multimedia’s room correction system. There’s a limit to how much room
correction you can do without a hammer, but knowing what sort of problems exist
in your listening or recording room can help guide you toward improvement,
either with construction or, for some problems, equalization. Sonarworks has a
fairly intuitive wizard that guides you through taking measurements in your room
– as many as you have patience to make – and gives you some intelligent
choices as to what to do with the data. You can find reflections that cause large
dips in frequency response that you can’t fix with EQ, but respond well to
properly placed absorbers. There are also frequency response irregularities,
particularly at low frequencies that can be improved with EQ and the program
can provide correction EQ as a software plug-in through which you monitor.
There’s a trial version available that you can use with any reasonably flat omni
AirEQ from Eiosis is a new equalizer plug-in (VST, AAX, AU, RTAS) that includes
some concepts that encourage the user to visualize EQ a little differently than
just from curves on a graph. It has the normally expected parametric EQ controls
but adds Character and Strength sliders with their own somewhat spacey
terminology. The Character slider alters the shape of the overall EQ curve from
Neutral in the middle (conventional bell and shelving curves) to Water on one
end “Beyond the smoothness of analog” to Fire on the other end “Ideal for
precise and focused boosts and cuts while maintaining a tight phase response.”
The Strength control appears to adjust the EQ curve as a whole, controlling how
much affect the curve you’ve established has on the signal passing through it.
Two bands at either end of the spectrum, Air and Earth adjust very high highs
and very low lows respectively. I wouldn’t normally have bothered stopping at this
booth if it weren’t for a chat with Dave Hill (Crane Song) about what was new,
and he pointed me to this EQ. One of the things that it can do is create a broad,
near flat topped peak, sort of like the ideal “box” surrounding a portion of the
spectrum and either removing it (cut) or removing most of what’s outside it
(boost). He said he’d tried to make an analog filter like that and had only limited
Tracktion is back! Tracktion is a DAW program that never got a lot of traction in
the field but has some fans, mostly among Mackie customers since the program
was acquired by Mackie in 2003 and all of their recording products came with a
Traction license. The Tracktion approach is to have nearly everything you need
on a single screen. The program has been dormant since about 2007, but has
been revived by new owners (same programmers, though) and is now available
again, Version 4.0 is now compatible with Windows 7 and 8 and Mac OS-x 10.8.
If you’re a Traction user or refugee, or you’re looking for a different way to look at
recording, check it out. There’s a free trial demo version.
Musical Instruments – Hey! Isn’t this what NAMM is really all about?
Korg has revived their MS-20 monophonic
analog synthesizer as the MS-20 Mini. It’s
miniaturized with a smaller keyboard,
though with all the knobs and patch jacks.
The original circuitry is accurately replicated
and oscillators are now digitally stabilized
(something about which analog synth purists
will probably turn up their noses). People
were grumbling about how the mini jacks
and patch cables just don’t feel authentic. I grumble about those mini jacks
because they’re just not very robust, though the supplied patch cables feel pretty
solid. It has the look, the feel, and the sound for a new generation that missed
out on all the fun.
Remember the Stylophone, a palmsized analog synth from the early
1970s? Well, Dubreq, the makers of
the original unit re-launched the
company and in 2007, re-introduced
the original S1. This year they have
a new, larger, and more powerful
model, the S2. The name comes
from the fact that it’s played with a stylus on the mini etched circuit keyboard, but
it’s also touch-sensitive so it can be played with a finger. Ten knobs adjust the
synth parameters (waveform, filters, modulators, and arpeggiator) and, as
expected, the S2 produces the sounds of an analog synth. Curiously, the knobs
are unlabeled, just numbered. The maker encourages experimentation with the
The Wheel Harp from Antiquity Music gets my
award for the most unusual hand crafted
instrument of the show. It works on the basic
principle of a hurdy gurdy. There’s a motor driven
wheel with rosin coating its circumference. Strings
are perpendicular to the wheel. Pressing a key
pulls a string into contact with the wheel, which
plays the string like a violin bow. One version
looks like a small beer keg placed on top of a
small grand piano, with a conventional linear
keyboard. Another version looks like that beer keg
with a keyboard wrapped around it. The sound is
kind of pretty, though in all honesty, this seems
like the kind of thing you’d put in your living room
and just wait for a guest to ask what it is.
I normally wouldn’t have noticed a
violin tuning peg at the NAMM
show, but on preview day, we
heard a performance by classical
violinist Elizabeth Pitcairn playing a
Strad with geared tuning pegs from Wittner. What caught my interest, in addition
to the fine player and fine violin were those tuning pegs. This is something new
for the violin family, but they reminded me, both in principle and construction, of
the Planet tuning pegs that came from a banjo I have that was made in the
1930s. There’s a planetary gear mechanism inside the head of the tuning peg,
but there’s no modification required to the violin other than making sure that the
peg fits snugly and that the part that’s supposed to remain stationary does so. I
know some fiddlers who could probably benefit from these pegs so I’ll pass the
word around next time I’m at an old time or bluegrass jam.
MIDI is 30 years old this year, and the MIDI Manufacturers Association has an
exhibit with a pair of analog synths connected together to remind us what MIDI
originally was developed to do – connect two musical instruments. And bringing
together the old and the new, there was a Commodore 64 computer, one of the
earliest home computers to offer a MIDI interface, running a sequencer program
and communicating with a soft synth on an iPad. In conjunction with the
anniversary, there was an interesting panel discussion with Dave Smith, George
Duke, Tom Oberheim, Alan Parsons, Jordan Rudess and Craig Anderton talking
about the past, present and future of
MIDI. In discussing how the MIDI spec
was drafted and why it’s still working
after 30 years, one of the panelists
pointed out that to eliminate ground
loop problems that had plagued preMIDI attempts to interconnect
synthesizers, they specified an opto
isolator in the signal path. Then 25
years later, MIDI over USB came
along and without the traditional 5-pin
cable, there was no ground isolation –
and the hums and buzzes came back.
If you’re interested in music
technology history, watch the video of
the panel discussion:
I’ve been ranting and raving lately (some here) about why Androids don’t have
good audio apps and have been trying to find out why. I finally met someone who
knows, knows what needs to be done to make it better, and has hardware and
software products ready to go when the rest of the planets align; Freescale
Semiconductor has an extensive set of development tools which includes a
hardware backplane and development circuit boards for dedicated functions
along with support software. You can develop and test your app and accessory
hardware using their kit, and when it’s all working, they can integrate your
hardware into a final product. So far all their work has been with iOS but they’re
aware that somebody has to be there for Android and they’re working toward it.
Freescale’s Robert Thompson acknowledged the lack of documentation and
general knowledge about the Android I/O, but he said that with the current
version of the Android OS (4.0 and now 4.1) there’s a way to get USB in and out,
and that’s a big step for recording apps.
On the same theme, Sonoma Wire Works announced a new low latency audio
solution for Android that uses the analog (headset) I/O jack. For playback, which
is the principal use for mobile devices, latency is of no concern, but when it
comes to overdub recording, playing a virtual instrument, or running a signal
processor, all things that are pretty common on iOS devices, the typical input to
monitor output latency of a stock Android device of around 200 ms is a real deal
killer. Sonoma Wire Works is claiming to be able to cut that to 20 ms – nothing to
write home about, but that would get into the range where guitar processor apps
could be workable. The bad news is that, at least in the near term, it’s not a
universal software bolt-on like a low latency driver for a PC, but rather an
attachment to the Android OS that will have to be built into the OS by the
device’s manufacturer. This means that whatever Android you have now won’t be
helped by this development, but the next one you buy might incorporate it. Since
the Android is gaining popularity pretty rapidly, perhaps in the coming year
someone will jump on to the music apps bandwagon and offer a low latency
Android tablet.
I’m always skeptical about cables that claim to be better than the rest, but I was
happy to have a chat with someone who really seemed to understand what
makes a cable better. Solid Cables doesn’t claim any whiz-band technology, just
smart application of the right type of cable for the job. Their primary interest is in
reliability, and once that’s achieved, make the cable be the best fit electrically. By
combining characteristics of inductance, capacitance, and even conductivity, they
make cables for specific applications. In a guitar system, the cable capacitance
and pickup inductance (as well as stray capacitance) form a resonant circuit. One
of the tricks that make instrument cables sound different (this is really physics,
not baloney) is where the resonant frequency lies. A given cable will have a
different resonant peak frequency when used with a Stratocaster than with a Les
Paul, so these guys are treating the cable as a system component and tuning
what they can in order to optimize the interface at both ends. It’s good to talk to
someone who isn’t selling snake oil, but understands the science and recognizes
that there’s no “best” way to make a cable for every application.
Finally, Behringer’s new studio monitors look an awful lot like Focals, but is that
really a plastic heat sink molded into the back of the plastic cabinet? This may be
taking new material technology too far, but I couldn’t find anyone at the booth to
discuss this with.
Another good show is behind us. Now we have to wait for some of the cool stuff
to actually come to market. If you’re an exhibitor, please bring some handout
literature to future shows, and if you’re a wealthy venture capitalist, ask me about
my great idea for getting product literature to those like me who want to carry it
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