Winter 2003 - Mike Rivers – Useful Audio Stuff

Winter 2003 - Mike Rivers – Useful Audio Stuff
Winter NAMM 2003
January 16-19
Anaheim, California
Mike Rivers ([email protected])
A pleasant weekend, long hours, tired feet, and another NAMM show has been
here and gone. After a few days to catch my breath and organize my literature,
here’s the report. Like many past shows, this one was more evolutionary than
revolutionary, but there were some interesting new ideas and I hope you might
find something useful here.
The usual disclaimers:
To the users – If it’s not here, it wasn’t at the show, I missed it entirely, or it just
didn’t interest me. This report isn’t a regurgitation of press releases; it’s my
impressions of what caught my interest. Hope you find something here that also
interests you.
To the exhibitors – Same as above. If I missed you, sorry, better luck (or
placement) next time. If I’ve misrepresented your product, feel free to e-mail me
with a correction, or better yet, post to the newsgroup where you’ll
find most of the interested readers. Please don’t expect a retraction unless it’s
really a gross error (my judgment) and don’t ask me to modify this report. It’s too
much trouble, and I’m doing it for free.
Now on with the show.
The most common studio condenser mics simply plug directly into a preamp with
a phantom power source, but the miniature condenser mics such as those used
for close-in instrument placement or lavaliers typically have a lump containing
power supply can amplifier components at the end of a thin cable attached to the
mic. You need to find a place for this power unit, which is sometimes
inconvenient. Audix has introduced a pair of mics suitable for these applications
which have the electronics built in to the body, and connect with a mini XLR
connector. A cable with a standard sized XLR is supplied so you won’t have to
go hunting. The M1245 and M1290 are just over 3/8” in diameter, the 1290 being
about 3-1/2 inches long and the M1245 about half that length. The 1290 is
available as a cardioid, hypercardioid, or omni, while the 1245 is cardioid or
hypercardioid. They’re similar in performance, with greater low end extension on
the 1290. There’s also the M1245-PLUS which increases the sensitivity by about
10 dB. The M1245 is well suited for hanging choir mics in a church, particular
the Plus version, or when used close to the sound hole of an acoustic guitar.
The M1290 is more appropriate for conventional placement when a physically
small or unobtrusive mic is desired.
Powering concerns seem to be “in” this year. Tube condenser mics typically
have an outboard power supply which not only adds complexity to the setup, but
also increases manufacturing cost with the added chassis and multi-conductor
cable between the power supply and the mic. Audio-Technica’s new AT3060, the
latest in their low priced 30 series is a large capsule condenser mic with the high
voltage power supply built right into the case. It connects to a standard 48 volt
phantom power source and an internal DC-DC converter provides the plate
voltage for the tube. It’s a real tube design, with the tube being the impedance
converter for the condenser element, not simply a tube output circuit grafted on
to an FET amplifier. The capsule design is similar to the externally powered tube
It’s promised in the Spring, with a shock mount and MSRP of $600.
Blue Microphones never does anything ordinary. At the AES show in October,
they had some pictures of a new dynamic mic (all of their other products have
been condensers) with a ball-shaped plastic case. If that’s not enough, it has a
built-in active buffer amplifier and takes 48 volt phantom power. Something
we’ve learned through the trek through the hundreds and hundreds of mic
preamps released over the past half dozen years is that the impedance that the
capsule sees when connected to a preamp input can greatly affect the sound of
the mic itself. The buffer in The Ball assures that the capsule sees the optimum
load impedance regardless of the preamp used. I call it The Wiffle Ball. You’ll
probably call it cute. And since they don’t have the sound quite to the point
where they want it yet (Skipper tells of the capsule sounding great in the
prototype, but the case still needs some work to keep the good sound) all of us
will have to wait to hear it.
In other Blue news, there’s a promotion going on now that will get you a Blue
Baby Bottle mic and a Focusrite Voice Master Pro preamp/channel processor for
$1000 total. Good through February 28 at your friendly pro audio dealer.
While not exactly a microphone, and not exactly the NAMM show (I saw this at
the CES the previous week, but thought it worth mentioning), Ray Kimber of
Kimber Cable was showing his IsoMike system, a new configuration for a baffled
omni stereo mic setup. This baffle is huge, roughly heart-shaped, and about six
feet across the widest part. The advantage of the size and shape is that it
improves low frequency isolation. This obviously isn’t something you’d toss in
your backpack when going to a Phish concert, but rather a rig that you’d install in
a hall where recordings are regularly made. I heard some recordings (DSD no
less) that sounded like very good stereo, so it obviously works.
Consoles and Stuff
While not brand new for the show, this was the first outing for Mackie’s Version 5
software for their d8b console. The most obvious feature (other than the price
tag, which is $300 – previous updates over the past 4+ years have been free) of
the new software is a redesigned graphical interface with several new views of
what’s happening, including a nice display of the channel meters on screen.
There’s new and less restrictive effects routing allowing chaining of effects on a
channel path, improved EQ algorithms, and graphic displays of gate and
compressor transfer functions. Also new is full control of 5.1 surround
monitoring, with a master volume control as well as individual level controls for
the outputs. Of great importance to (some) DAW users is the new control layer
which offers the Mackie HUI control protocol. DAWs which will work with a HUI
can now be operated directly from the d8b control surface without any fiddling
with MIDI mapping. And wouldn’t you know it – there’s a service release for
Version 5 coming out very shortly after the show.
Also brand new for the d8b is the Pro Audio Lab plug-in, a combination spectrum
analyzer, phase meter, and tone generator. Typically this would be installed on
the main L-R bus to keep track of what’s going on in the mix. Typical of Mackie
plug-ins, the graphics are excellent. This one isn’t available yet, but was
installed on the console at the show, so I got a peek.
Interestingly, Mackie wasn’t showing any of their analog mixers. Their emphasis
this show was on interoperability of DAWs with their various hardware control
surfaces. About a dozen different workstations demonstrated the operation of
their control surfaces with a number of different software packages including
their own Soundscape 32. On the evil business side of things, shortly after the
opening of the show, Mackie announced the intention of a major investment by
Sun Capital Partners in which the partnership would purchase about 65% of
Mackie stock and give the company about $6.3 million in working capital.
Lawyers are still hammering out the details, and Greg Mackie is enjoying his
new role as consultant and chief worm-drowner.
Yamaha has a new digital console, the 01V96. It’s really more like a scaled
down 02R96 than a goosed up 01V, but I guess someone in the Marketing
department decided on the model name and that’s it. As the model implies, it’s
96 kHz capable, and like the other 96 kHz Yamaha consoles, you don’t lose half
the channels when running at greater sample rates than 48 kHz. You do lose
half of the internal effects, however (two rather than four). Like any other digital
console, you have to count your gozintas and gozoutas carefully though, before
you buy it to integrate into a system. It has 16 analog inputs (12 with mic
preamps) and an ADAT Lightpipe for eight digital inputs, but the built-in
Lightpipe is only 48 kHz. There’s one I/O expansion slot that accepts the
Yamaha Mini-YGDAI format cards, and that’s where you can get 96 kHz I/O.
There are 16-channel AES/EBU, TDIF, and ADAT cards available, but they
operate at 96 kHz in the double-wide mode, so the maximum number of 96 kHz
I/O connections is eight.
For the past several years, I’ve been mourning the demise of the analog 8-bus
console in the marketplace. We have the Soundcraft Ghost and Mackie 8-but,
but they’re getting a bit long in the tooth. Coming soon to a pro audio dealer
near you is an old familiar name with a new brand behind it. Wharfedale, famous
for their speakers for 50 years or so is offering a new Topaz (yes, the same
Topaz) series of consoles. Presently there’s a 20 input 4-bus “Mackie style”
console in production, and a both larger live sound version as well as a true 8bus in-line recording version are around the corner. The prototype of the
recording console on display looked well thought out, and at a low enough cost,
it will provide a long missing introduction to both the analog sound and the
intuitive operation of a fully configured console for those who haven’t fully
committed to digital interfacing and processing.
While not a full console, the product line from Dangerous Music has been filling
out. Their initial product, the Dangerous 2-bus is an eight-pair stereo analog
summing amplifier with limited control – just a 6 dB attenuator for each pair and
an overall -3 to +6 dB output level adjustment. The principle here is that you use
your DAW for recording, playback, processing, panning, and level balancing,
then sum up to 16 outputs to stereo through the analog mixer, bypassing the
software summing bus (which many think is the weak point of a DAW). A new
version, the Dangerous 2-Bus LT is a scaled down version at a lower cost. While
employing the same analog summing circuitry as the full out version, switching
to 25-pin D-sub connectors for the inputs, losing the 6 dB switches for the
channel pairs, and slimming down the case to a single rack space gets the price
down to $1500.
One of the biggest problems with using a computer-based DAW is how to
monitor everything – a mix when tracking, muting and dimming when you need to
talk, mono summing when you want to check mono compatibility, listen to
alternate sources, and monitor on alternate speakers. The Dangerous Monitor
provides all this, as well as a high quality 24-bit D/A converter to allow you to
monitor digital sources, and more importantly, monitor all of your digital sources
through the same converter for fair comparisons. All that, plus the all important
volume control. There’s an output for both analog and digital meters, and as you
might expect, a meter panel with real analog VU meters and digital peak meters
is available as an accessory (or to stand alone if you don’t need the monitoring
What’s an audio show without signal processors? Some well respected
engineers consider the t.c. electronic System 6000 to be the ultimate reverb.
New this show is the Reverb 4000, a stereo version of the 6-channel System
6000, with all the algorithms of the 6000, a fairly intuitive t.c. style user interface,
and stereo analog and digital I/O for $3000. Also new from t.c. are two harmony
and pitch-shift processors, the TC-Helicon VoiceWorks and Quintet. The
VoiceWorks is primarily a studio unit producing multi-voice musically based
harmonies, pitch correction, a mic input, and a collection of TC effects. The
Quintet is more of a stage version with simpler controls and MIDI control.
Presonus introduced the single channel TubePRE tube mic and instrument
preamp (yeah, I’m getting jaded and lumping these in with processors now).
Input gain of up to 40 dB and an additional 20 dB of tube overdrive (see why I
call it a processor) lets you get a range of clean or colored sounds. It fits in a
1/3 rack space and mounts on a standard shelf. Wall wart input, phantom power,
low price. While not quite ready for prime time, Presonus was also showing a
collection of small single function boxes – preamp, EQ, and compressor, that are
designed to stack vertically in a rack that holds six units.
In other Presonus news, they’ve partnered with Anthony Demaria Labs to
develop a new line of tube-based audio products. ADL has been a leader in tube
preamps and compressors for many years, and this partnership intends to bring
out a line of Demaria-designed and Presonus-built cost-effective products. The
first one will be a stereo tube preamp with transformer coupled inputs and
outputs for around $2500.
At the AES show, Manifold Labs introduced Plugzilla, a stand-alone plug-in
player that brings the power and variety of software plug-ins to the studio that
isn’t based around a computer DAW. The concept, for those of you who missed
it, is a box with two pairs of input and output connectors (both analog and digital)
with the computer horsepower to run industry standard VST plug-ins. Unlike
some products that provide the platform and then try to entice software
developers to port their plug-ins, Plugzilla takes the opposite approach and
provides a hardware platform to run the vast array of available plug-ins,
providing input and output connections as well as a front panel user interface to
adjust parameters. While negotiations are still going on with a good number of
the major developers (issues such as copy protection must be resolved),
Plugzilla is now ready to ship as soon as the chassis parts arrive from the sheet
metal shop, and will come with a suite of a couple of hundred freeware plug-ins
which have been tested with the unit.
Finally, Little Labs introduced the IBP Junior analog phase alignment tool. This
is a scaled down version of a previously introduced unit that included a high
quality direct box. The IBP provides a continuously adjustable phase shift to
bring two sources into alignment when switching polarity isn’t close enough.
While the original version was intended primarily to be used as an instrument
input and get the direct pickup signal lined up with a mic, the Junior is line level
in and out, appropriate for when you have tracks recorded and want to adjust
their relative phase.
Digital Stuff
Apogee announced the Mini-DAC, a companion to their Mini-Me mic preamp and
A/D converter. The Mini-DAC provides D/A conversion, output level control, and
a high quality headphone amplifier to monitor a digital output up with sample
rates up to 192 kHz. A clever interfacing feature is a bi-directional USB
connection to a computer to allow playback from a DAW as well as a “Digital
THRU” mode which takes an optical, coax, or AES/EBU digital input and sends it
out the USB port. This allows you to connect your favorite A/D converter to a
computer via USB. Pretty clever.
Apogee converters have developed a reputation for having really great, low jitter
word clocks, and many people use an Apogee converter as the master word
clock source in their systems. Apogee has now put that word clock technology in
a stand-alone box, the Big Ben. As expected, it provides all sample rates p to
192 kHz including the 0.1% and 4% pull-up and pull-down rates and provides six
BNC outputs as well as AES/EBU, SPDIF coax and optical at either standard or
Superclock (256x) rates. In addition, the digital inputs and outputs are all live all
the time and function at format converters. Another neat feature is a indicator for
each BNC output that tells whether the output is properly terminated,
unterminated, or double-terminated.
MADI has been the professional choice for digital I/O between multitrack
recorders and consoles since it’s capable of handling up to 64 channels of 24-bit
audio at 48 kHz and 32 channels at 96 kHz on a single cable up to 100 meters in
length. Because of its relatively high cost, MADI has eluded the project studio
products, but now RME offers the Hammerfall DSP MADI, a cost effective PCI
card with MADI I/O. While the number of devices that you can interface to your
computer using this card is fairly small today, hopefully the lower cost
technology (a cheap MADI chip, I’ll bet) will be adopted by others and we’ll start
seeing $2000 consoles and hard disk recorders with MADI I/O.
While the majority of DAWers are DIYers, some people enjoy the comfort of
letting someone else configure their PC hardware for them. Shoutmedia is a new
kid on this block, and they’re offering a really cute DAW-optimized PC based on
the Shuttle PC motherboard. This is a really cute little box named the Pulse
which is less than 8 inches square and a foot deep. It contains a 1.8 GHz Mobile
Pentium 4 CPU, up to 1 GB RAM, a passive (= quiet) heat pipe CPU cooler,
10,000 RPM fluid bearing Seagate Barracuda hard drive, CD-RW (DVD
optional) drive, 4 USB and 3 Firewire ports and Ethernet. They’ve taken great
pains to quiet the system, using a feal metal case and vibration damping
material to line it. As a limited time introductory special, they’re selling the
computer with a 60 GB drive and 256 MB RAM together with a Digidesign M-Box
for $1349. For those who prefer the traditional rack mount format, their Cadence
system with equally quiet and carefully chosen components is also available.
Speakers and Stuff
Alesis has always come up with some remarkably cost effective products that
truly don’t sound bad for the money (and a few that do, but this isn’t about those)
and the new ProActive 5.1 speaker system is one. This system consists six
loudspeakers – one subwoofer that provides power for the whole system, a front
pair, a rear pair, and a center speaker (all slightly different designs), a master
controller, and an IR remote control. It has six discrete analog inputs, six
discrete digital inputs on an ADAT Lightpipe connector, and a surround decoder
for use with two inputs. The controller provides a master volume control as well
as control of subwoofer and center channel level, a few gimmicky sound
processors, and input source selection. The remote lets you put that (rather
compact) box out of the way and do most everything you need to do without
trailing wires. All this and THX approval for only $400.
KV2 Audio is a brand new company formed by several ex-Mackie folks involved
in the Mackie Active speaker product line. Not surprisingly, they’re building a
powered sound reinforcement speaker system consisting of a power amplifier
module, a choice of three different sized subwoofers and one or two mid-high
three-way cabinets. There’s some trickery in the power amplifier module to
increase efficiency and improve power reserve for transients, as well as time
alignment and switch-selectable optimization for the selected speaker
components. Being former Mackoids, their brochures have the typical
wackiness, technically informative but slightly irreverent. A true international
company, much of the engineering talent is located in the Czech Republic, and if
that sounds a bit like the folks who designed the Mackie Fussion speaker line, it
is. As an old friend and former associate, I wish them success.
I mentioned the Intelligent Audio Systems subwoofer system in a brief report on
the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) but it’s worth mentioning again here. This
is a subwoofer system that contains two speakers at opposite ends of a fairly
long box, firing in opposite directions, and independently driven by two power
amplifiers which are DSP-controlled. Since the two speakers are independently
powered and controlled, they don’t necessarily have to do the same thing at the
same time. The DSP can control the amplitude and phase of each speaker’s
output to shape the radiation pattern, and can have different radiation patterns at
different frequencies if necessary to control room modes. A built-in test system
optimizes the speaker response to the room. Not inexpensive (about $11,000 for
the pair) but perhaps cheaper than rebuilding the room.
Cool Gadgets
Back when I was trying to learn guitar, I’d tape a record at 7-1/2 ips, then slow
the tape down to 3-3/4 ips. Not very inspiring, but it worked. Today there are
plenty of software programs that will allow you to change pitch and tempo
independently to slow down a part for learning, but the new TASCAM CD-GT1
puts it all together – a CD player with tempo reduction up to 50%, pitch control
up to 50%, looping, instant cueing, a built-in guitar input with a tuner, effect
processor, and mixer to the headphone output. Batteries included, so you can
take it to practice at the beach.
Personal multitrack recorders seem to be getting more powerful and more
compact, but each generation seems to have some cooler features than the
previous one. (well, sometimes they lose some features too) The Fostex MR-8 is
a very basic 8-track digital recorder the records 16-bit 44.1 kHz PCM (WAV) files
directly to a flash memory card. It will take up to 128 MB cards (it ships with a 64
MB one for 24 track-minutes) which, with the proper adapter or slot, you can
transfer to your computer for further processing or burning CDs. It records a
maximum of 2 tracks at a time, there are two mic inputs with companion line
inputs, one of which is switchable to a guitar input, and one of the mic inputs can
be switched to an internal microphone, which might actually be usable since
there isn’t a motor grinding away. Reverb is just a button away, as are three
choices for mic simulation and three guitar effects. A single button bounces the
eight tracks (there are four mono and two stereo pairs) to the 7-8 track pair, and
you can apply on of three Mastering presets in the process, aptly named
Powerful, Natural, and Bright.
One of my favorite gadgets at the show is the Sight Reader, a battery powered
clip-on light that’s intended to go on a music stand, but I can see using it to
illuminate a mixer or recorder for those times when you’re doing live sound or
recording in a dark corner.
The folks from SE Electronics brought in a new line of microphone boom stands
that are based on camera tripod hardware. They come in three weights (different
tubing diameter) and all will get a mic about 15 feet up in the air. A removable
wheel base is included, and it comes with a sandbag to add some stability.
Being a camera tripod at heart, it folds up into a nice compact package.
I don’t follow musical instruments as much as I used to, but one interesting
concept was presented by Open Labs. The eKo is an open platform that’s based
on a PC motherboard, has a 61-note keyboard, LCD screen, and scroll pad built
in, plus four modular and removable panels with other human interfaces. As
configured for the show, it had a 16-fader bank, a bank of 24 rotary controllers, a
QWERTY keyboard and a multi-purpose control module with a joystick, a
numeric pad, and a bunch of buttons. The concept is that you can load up
whatever software you choose, and control it with the provided (or third-party –
the interface is going to be open to developers) controllers. This is intended to
be a performance instrument as well as a fixed workstation, so it includes a
battery backed UPS to prevent a long disruption on stage if there’s a temporary
loss of power. At this point, it’s a concept that the company hopes to sell.
Need some unobtainable memory for an old synth or computer? Lifetime
Memory Products may be able to help. They use modern premium quality
memory and, when necessary, package it in older style modules.
Taylor Guitars was showing a new line of pickups, the Expression System, which
mate with a preamp designed by none other than our old friend Rupert Neve.
Taylor is very much committed to getting good amplified sound for an acoustic
guitar and they’ve been reasonably successful as far as they’ve taken it. I had
great hopes for this, and I played with a guitar (sorry, I don’t know which model)
for about 15 minutes, twiddled the controls on the preamp (there were high and
low EQ plus a sweepable parametric equalizer and two gain controls, one of
which didn’t appear to be functional. Listening on headphones, which I admit
isn’t a very good representation of live amplified acoustic guitar sound, I couldn’t
get rid of the buzziness that I so much dislike about acoustic guitars with
pickups. But having faith in Taylor and Rupert, I’d like to give it another chance
when listening conditions are better. Be on the lookout if you’re an acoustic
guitar player.
Things That Go Click and Whirrrrr In The Night
I miss the old days at AES shows where there was a whole section of the show
floor devoted to tape duplicators, cassette loaders, printers, and packaging
machines – things that went click and whir. Not much of that going on these days
with CD burners and digital recorders, but there’s hope. There were several CD
duplicators on display with a robot arm that picks the disk from a stack, drops it
in the drive, when recorded, removes it, drops it into a printer, and when printed,
drops it on to a finished stack. While it’s been advertised for quite some time
now, this was my first look at the one that Diskmakers sells. Primera showed the
Bravo, a “disk publisher” that records and prints up to 25 disks at a time. It
connects to a PC to get the audio source data and print file. Stack it up and go to
Where there’s a CD recorder, there must be CDs, and Verbatim now offers the
Digital Vinyl CD-R, a blank recordable CD that looks like a phonograph record,
complete with a 45 RPM style label. For a look, check out
Perhaps the exhibitor I least expected to see at a NAMM show was Grizzly
Tools, an importer of heavy (and not so heavy) woodworking tools from China.
At their booth, they had everything you’d need to start with a tree and end up
with a guitar – large bandsaws for sawing logs into boards, thickness planers
and sanders, shapers, routers, and so on. Really great stuff, and of course
important for instrument builders, without which we’d be in a pretty boring world.
Finally, one more thanks to EveAnna at Manley Labs, makers of fine amplifiers,
preamps, and signal processing equipment. My hotel room had only Styrofoam
coffee cups, and a Manley Tubes Rule real china (made in China) cup saved the
mornings for me.
That’s about all that’s cool and that I remember. Next show’s in the Summer in
©2003 Mike Rivers
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