Tag Archives: Product Reviews

Apple Mac Pro Rack: A Real-World Review

The Mac Pro Rack dominates the 10 RU rack that houses it in Rich Tozzoli’s workspace.
The Mac Pro Rack computer dominates the 10 RU rack that houses it in Rich Tozzoli’s workspace.

If there’s one thing that we studio people like, it’s consistency in our gear. As the primary brains to most setups, the computer is central to that theme, so when my trusty Mac Pro “cheese grater”—which ran perfectly for 10 years—went down for the count a few months ago, I didn’t take it lightly. It was time to make some big decisions. I weighed the basic questions we should always ask ourselves when upgrading: Do I stay with my current platform (a Mac, in my case)? What’s my budget? What’s the latest hardware on the market to fit my I/O needs? Am I buying for the short term or long?

Over the last few years, I thought about upgrading my old Mac Pro, my primary DAW platform, when I ran into roadblocks with OS upgrades, software and Pro Tools compatibility, but the little “trash can” shape that Apple used for Mac Pros manufactured between 2013 and 2019 just didn’t work for me. I didn’t want to put my Avid HDX card and my UAD Octo card into a chassis. The trash can form factor is now history, however. After working on my laptop for a few months to get me through my “crisis,” I made the move and went big with a new Mac Pro Rack.

Inside the Apple Mac Pro Rack
Inside the Apple Mac Pro Rack Apple

Luckily for me, my friend, producer/drummer extraordinaire Omar Hakim, had recently been through the whole process, so I had a guide. “Right before I got my new Mac, my ‘trash can’ suffered a catastrophic thermal meltdown,” he told me. “I ended up using a laptop for a few months while I was waiting for the release of the new Mac Pro Rack. I settled on a 12-core Mac Pro Rack model with 96 GB of RAM, a 2 TB factory SSD card and a base video card. I added two 2 TB internal Samsung SSD EVO 970 NVMe M.2 cards with two Vantec PCIe adapters—components I purchased, assembled and installed myself. I then loaded up my two Avid HDX cards and Universal Audio Satellite PCI card. My studio has never run smoother!” He noted that he purchased the base amount of RAM from Apple and bought the rest from OWC.

With his feedback in mind, I made the decision to purchase a Mac Pro Rack over an iMac Pro or Mac Mini. I visited Apple.com and went through the process of ordering the components I wanted: a 3.2 GHz 16-core Intel Xeon W processor-based machine with the base 32 GB of 2933 MHz DDR4 RAM to get started.

I also worked with Rob Zenn at Alto Music on this purchase; Zenn convinced me to get the AMD Radeon Pro W5700X 16 GB graphics card, as it includes four additional powered Thunderbolt 3 ports. We made sure the hardware came with macOS Catalina version 10.15.5 installed so as not to get into conflicts with the upcoming Big Sur OS release.

The good news: I had a machine that would rock. The bad news? It came to a whopping $9,900. However, since this is the brains of my setup, which I use every day to compose, mix or create music, I judged it to be a good allocation of funds. Besides, it’s a tax write-off!

The new Mac Pro Rack was quickly teamed up with the brand-new Avid Carbon interface.

When the machine arrived, crated in foam, I couldn’t believe what a monster it was. It’s built like a tank. I was taken aback by its design and downright sturdiness. I’ve had a lot of Macs in my day, but nothing like this. It came with eight PCI Express expansion slots, two of which were filled by my Avid HDX card and the Universal Audio UAD-2 OCTO card.

Engineer Mike Dwyer and I slipped on the heavy-duty rack rails (sent separately from Apple) and slid it into the 10-space rack I purchased for it. We hooked up an HDMI video cable from my Samsung to the Mac, set up the cool black wireless keyboard and mouse, and fired it up. Within a few minutes, it was game on.

Next, we attached a single AVB Ethernet cable from my new Avid Carbon interface (which I reviewed last month) to the Mac Pro, and plugged in a Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88 Mk2 keyboard and PreSonus FaderPort 8 into two of the included USB ports. I had made an Apple Time Machine backup of my laptop the night before and saved the data on a portable SSD drive, which I hooked up to the new computer.

REAL-WORLD REVIEW: Avid Pro Tools Carbon Production System

Using Apple Time Machine’s Migration Assistant, I transferred the files from my backup to the new Mac Pro Rack, and while it took almost two hours, everything transferred over to the new Mac: Pro Tools 2020.11, Reason, all of my Vienna Instruments, Omnisphere, Universal Audio Console and all of my plug-ins. I opened Pro Tools and everything simply worked. With just a few software updates, it was the easiest migration I’ve ever experienced.

This week, I’m ordering 32 GB more RAM and a few SSD internal drives to load the chassis up even more. It’s been flawless in its performance so far, and not even my heavy virtual instrument sessions can choke it. For the first time, I’ve found a machine that works faster than I do, which has already helped my creativity. For me, it’s already worth the money.

Apple • www.apple.com

 

Original Resource is ProSoundNetwork.com

Mackie MP-360 & MP-460 In-Ear Monitors — A Real-World Review

Mackie MP-460 In-Ear Monitors
Mackie MP-460 In-Ear Monitors

Mackie’s MP-360 and MP-460 professional in-ear monitors are a great option for the engineer that can’t afford $1,500 custom IEMs but wants something better than basic buds that have one speaker driver.

Fela Davis
Fela Davis is a 2019 Hall of Fame inductee at Full Sail University. She also owns 23dB Productions and One of One Productions Studio, which specializes in podcasting, video, and music production. Clients include the Holding Court with Eboni K. Williams podcast, Sirius XM, Atlantic Records, iHeart Radio and numerous Grammy award-winning musicians. www.oneofoneproductions.com Courtesy of Full Sail

More drivers can give better clarity for recording and mixing, so Mackie has packed both models with Knowles balanced armature drivers and a 3-way crossover. The MP-360 has three Knowles drivers in each ear, while the MP-460 gets four drivers for a quad driver design. These drivers, originally developed for hearing aids and critical listening applications, are intended to provide fidelity, realism and detail, providing considerable output with less power, with the MP-360 impedance at 36 ohms and MP-460 impedance at 15.5 ohms.

The Mackie MP IEMs arrive with a small, sturdy hard-molded travel box that holds everything needed to take care of the in-ear monitors. This includes a cleaning cloth, cleaning tool, 1/8″-to-1/4″ adapter, braided cable and an extra braided cable with remote for phone or laptop use. Attaching the IEMs to the MMCX connectors is with a simple click-and-go system. There’s also a dozen pairs of ear tips which include wide-bore silicone, silicone, foam, triple-flange styles with a small, medium, and large option in each style.

The frequency range for both sets of MP IEMs is 20 Hz to 20 KHz, with up to 40 dB of sound isolation, which is key to blocking outside noises in order to hear what’s going on with your recording or mix. The Mackie MP-360 has 117 dB of audio output and the MP-460 gives you an extra decibel at 118 dB. I could definitely hear the differences and it’s one of the reasons I liked the MP-460 a bit more. The MP-460’s four drivers ultimately give you more information in the mid-range; that was what really put it over the edge, not the loudness. You’ll never turn it up all the way with it being so close to the threshold of pain for hearing.

How to Pick a Studio Mic for Your Podcast Studio

The isolation that can be achieved once you find the correct ear tips is just what’s needed for a pristine recording and mix. Clarity in the mid-range for vocals is what I look for in any IEM and the MP-460 knocked that right out of the park for me! That clarity gave me a real sense of what was going on with my recordings and mixes.

I found that the MP-460 sat better in my ears as well, and gave a better seal for me to hear, whether I was recording, using them for mixing podcasts or walking around town listening to music. The MP-360 felt a little tighter in my ears compared to the MP-460, but both pairs were enjoyable and comfortable.

Overall, I was very impressed by both pairs of MP IEMs. They’re versatile enough to use out on tour, in the studio or during a good workout! The hard-plastic case that houses the IEMs is perfect for the road and light packing. An important accessory for the Mackie MP series is the MP-BTA Bluetooth adapter, which makes the IEMs perfect for working out, also adding a crystal-clear microphone for cell phone use. It was amazing to finally have mobility with a great-sounding IEM. The additional $99.99 is well worth it to have an enjoyable listening experience.

The Mackie MP-360 retail price is $399 and the Mackie MP-460 retail price is $499. Both of these IEMs were impressive, but I’d suggest spending the additional $100 for the MP-460, as I found the fit and clarity are totally worth it.

Original Resource is ProSoundNetwork.com

REAL-WORLD REVIEW: Avid Pro Tools Carbon Production System

Avid’s new Pro Tools Carbon is a hybrid audio production system based around a hardware interface with onboard HDX DSP acceleration that works in conjunction with your native computer’s CPU.
Avid’s new Pro Tools Carbon is a hybrid audio production system based around a hardware interface with onboard HDX DSP acceleration that works in conjunction with your native computer’s CPU. Mike Taylor

I can honestly say that Pro Tools is a vital tool in my daily workflow, so when Avid sent an advance unit of Pro Tools Carbon my way, I was anxious to put it through its paces and see what it could do on some real-world sessions.

Avid’s Pro Tools Carbon is a new hybrid audio production system starting at $3,999 that combines a hardware interface with onboard HDX DSP acceleration and your native computer’s CPU power. With this Hybrid Engine, you can track and monitor with near-zero latency when using AAX DSP plug-ins. Intelligently, when you put a track into DSP Mode for recording, the chips in Carbon process the AAX DSP plug-ins while the computer plays back your mix in Native mode. Simply switch off the tracks in DSP Mode and the whole session is back in Native Mode, ready for mixdown.

Let’s take a quick look at the Carbon hardware, then get into how it all works together. The sleek 25×34 simultaneous I/O, 19-inch, 1U rack-mountable interface features two variable Z, unbalanced, ¼-inch TS instrument inputs on the front, as well as four separate stereo headphone outputs. There are eight 20 Hz to 20 kHz XLR Mic/Line preamps on the rear (four of which have Variable Impedance), as well as eight channel Line In and Line Out DB25 25-pin D Sub multipin connections. There’s a TRS Monitor L/R Main output, ¼-inch footswitch connector for talkback on/off, WC I/O and two Ethernet connectors. Also on the rear are a pair of ADAT optical inputs and two ADAT optical outputs, offering 16 channels at 44.1 – 96 kHz and eight channels at 176.4 – 192 kHz.

Avid Launches Pro Tools | Carbon

Back to the front panel—you’ve got eight separate LED meters for the Mic/Line inputs and a Main L/R stereo out meter. Input levels are controlled with the Input Encoder knob on the left, which, when pressed, switches between Mic/Line, as instrument input is automatically detected. The Input Level Strip displays input source and amount of gain.

There are buttons for Input Selection, Z for impedance choices, Link, Phase, Phantom Power, Input Metering, Integrated Talkback, Output Metering and another knob for main output and headphone levels, as well as a master Mute button, Headphone button and DIM button. EXT or NET indicators light up on the front when properly connected to their source. The Output Encoder knob controls headphone and monitor (Main/Alt 1/Alt 2) out, indicated with the Level Strip above it.

Under the hood lies the all-important eight HDX DSP processors (2.8 GHz aggregated processing), which allow all of this hybrid production to take place. Note that at launch, all preamp and monitor controls will be from the front panel, but remote control is at the ‘top of the list’ for the upcoming updates.

Since I do production and TV composing from my own studio and in a variety of locations, I have long used my own ‘hybrid’ system of recording. I go ‘Native’ with my mobile rigs, based primarily around a MacBook Pro and several interfaces, and ‘combo’ on my main HDX system, with an HD I/O hooked up to a MacPro. It works, but Native-only production tends to frustrate me with latency and buffer sizes and so on.

That’s why Carbon is a different animal. To integrate it into my system, I simply connected an RJ 45 Ethernet cable from Carbon to my MacPro and selected it in the Network Device Browser on the computer. I then hooked up both the Main L/R outputs and ADAT output 1 into my Grace Design M906 Monitor controller. Since I run a lot of guitar-centric gear and pedal boards into my Manley, Millennia and Universal Audio preamps, they connected via a DB25 to the analog input on the rear of Carbon. My Grace Design m108 8-channel preamp connected via ADAT optical input 1 and now shows up on ADAT 1 of the Input Tab in the I/O setup.

Pro Tools | Carbon
Avid Pro Tools | Carbon

Literally within a few minutes, everything was connected and simply worked. It was remarkably seamless and since it’s connected via AVB Ethernet, you not only get 32-bit end-to-end workflow, but your regular computer audio will play back directly through the converters of Carbon.

Top Guitar Miking Tips—How to Capture a Roaring Guitar Amp

With Carbon, it’s all about DSP Mode. Each track has the ability to switch from Native to DSP Mode, which can be enabled for Audio, Aux, Instrument, Routing Folder and Master Fader Tracks. When selected, the small ‘lightning bolt’ icon turns from gray to bright green and all plug-ins on the track switch from Native to DSP (if a DSP equivalent is available). DSP Compatible plug-ins are identified with a DSP Compatible badge.

At this point, the entire signal path for the track will then run on the HDX DSP mixer in Carbon. Any Native-only plug-ins will be automatically bypassed in DSP Mode. What’s cool is that any tracks associated with a track put into DSP Mode (light green lightning bolt) are automatically also put into DSP Mode (dark green lightning bolt). This would include tracks being bussed to downstream (subgroups, routing folders), as well as effect return tracks from sends.  For effect returns, if a plug in does not have a DSP equivalent, the track can be placed in DSP Mode Safe. This places the track back onto the native mixer with a slight predelay. Note that you can also set DSP Mode to enable automatically when putting a track into record, and you can also set tracks into DSP Mode Safe to prevent DSP Mode from being auto-enabled.

So what this all means is that I was able to track my guitars through DSP plug-ins and some of my favorite effects with virtually zero latency, which is the only way to get that “feel.” Note that you can also use Aux tracks to put external reverbs, delays, etc. that have no DSP equivalent, into DSP Mode Safe. The main record tracks are running DSP with sub ms latency, but the reverb return is still on the Native mixer live, so your playback buffer is still relevant to the plug-in. This all adds up to me using Pro Tools for what it’s for—seamless creativity without technology getting in the way. Yes, it might require some forethought on DSP plug-ins, but it’s worth it.

Carbon is Mac-only at launch, with PC support hopefully added in the future. For those without Ethernet ports on your computer, you’ll need to use a qualified Thunderbolt-to-Ethernet adapter; check Avid’s website for compatibility data. Also, the computer has to be qualified with macOS 10.15.7.

Also included in the package are a one-year subscription to Pro Tools software with its 115 AAX plug-ins (more than 70 AAX DSP plugins), a 5.4 GB sound library and standard support, and there’s also an additional selection of partner plug-ins from Arturia, McDSP, Plugin Alliance, UVI, Native Instruments and Embody.

Essentially, in one hybrid system, Pro Tools Carbon lets users have the best of both worlds: AAX DSP and Native. Carbon is a creative game changer in a lot of ways, and I can’t wait to see—and hear—where this is going.

Rich Tozzoli is an award-winning, Grammy-nominated producer, engineer and composer for programming such as FOX NFL, Pawn Stars and Oprah & Deepak Chopra. www.richtozzoli.com

Avid • www.avid.com/carbon

Original Resource is ProSoundNetwork.com

Dirac Live Room Calibration/Correction – A Real-World Review

Dirac Live
The Dirac Live software guides users through the steps of the measurement process.

Purpose-built rooms with ideal acoustic treatments may not need room correction software, but the rest of us do. With chart-topping artists producing hits in re-purposed bedrooms, basements, garages and hotel rooms, the need for acoustic analysis and correction is greater than ever.

I reviewed Sonarworks’ Reference 4 software for PSN back in 2018, so I was eager to compare this new calibration/correction system from Dirac, as it promises to bring some different methodologies, concepts and results.

Dirac Live seeks to correct room anomalies and inaccuracies in both the time domain and the frequency domain to improve the soundstage with greater imaging and localization of sound, increased clarity and intelligibility, as well as tighter bass response with fewer resonances. This is accomplished with a combination of linear- and minimum-phase IIR filters, as well as impulse response correction (affecting the timing of signals and the ratio of direct to reflected sound).

 

Out of the Box

Dirac Live is available in the ‘big four’ formats (VST, VST3, AAX and AU) for both Mac and Windows (OSX 10.11 and up, Windows 10, respectively). A measurement microphone is needed for calibration; I used a USB reference mic as provided by Dirac, but other models are suitable (at least models that a frequency response plot is available for). Dirac Live is compatible with all the major DAWs and supports nearly every multichannel format under the sun (2.0, 2.1, 3,1, 4.1, 5.0, 5.1, 5.0.2, 5.1.2, 6.0, 6.1, 7.0, 7.1, 7.0.2, 7.1.2, Quadraphonic, Pentagonal, Hexagonal, Octagonal and Ambisonic). The stereo version sells for $349, while the multi-channel version is $499. I tested Dirac Live in stereo, as Audio Units on a Mac Pro.

There are two components to utilizing Dirac Live—the Dirac Live processor plug-in that will be inserted within a DAW session, and the calibration tool program that will read your room’s response, create a custom filter(s) and communicate with the plug-in. After instantiating the plug-in, you open the calibration program which scans for a “device” that will ultimately store your filters and do the audio processing. Dirac also makes a hardware version for home hi-fi enthusiasts, but this pro version sees the plug-in as its “device.”

The measurement process is lengthy and very specific, but not difficult, just like all the other correction systems I’ve tried. The process involves setting system volume for the playback of frequency sweeps, measuring those sweeps from nine different positions surrounding your listening position and then fine tuning the correction filter that Dirac Live suggests. The whole process took only about 10 minutes and is rather interesting, as you can hear changes in room response as the full-bandwidth sweeps excite your room, creating some resonances and some dips, and it’s fun to correlate graphs of the measurement on screen.

Dirac Live’s Filter Design Page

Next, you’ll “proceed to filter design,” and this is where the really interesting part is. Dirac Live has automatically generated a response curve, but you can customize that curve by grabbing control nodes, moving them to desired frequencies and then boosting or cutting. You can also choose to move the “curtains”—the dotted vertical lines placed very low and very high on the frequency graph, which represent the lower and upper frequency limits of Dirac Live processing (it is not wise to try to achieve perfectly flat response all the way down to 20 Hz, or all the way up to 20 k; that would eat up a lot of headroom).

Furthermore, custom target curves can be loaded in .txt or .targetcurve formats and then “snapshots” can be taken of the current condition, modified and then easily compared to other stored snapshots without having to close the current project—nice for ultra-fine tuning of curves. For those of you who (like me) want to know exact frequency values of your room’s trouble spots, you can zoom into your response curve with your mouse scroll wheel and pan across the frequency spectrum with <hold+drag>.

Now that you’ve created (and possibly modified) your target curve, upon going back to your DAW session, the Dirac Live plug-in is now loaded with your correction curve. You’ll notice the output level of the plug-in may be attenuated; this is in order to give Dirac Live some headroom to apply processing (the amount of attenuation is about equal to the sum of your target curve’s positive and negative deviation). You can now turn the processing on and off as well as switch between different target curves you’ve stored without any jumps in level.

An impulse response page in Dirac Live
An impulse response page in Dirac Live

In Session

For in-the-box mixing and mastering work, an instance of Dirac Live inserted on the master fader informs your decisions and then must be bypassed during bounce/render, or else the Dirac Live processing would be applied to your mix. Wisely, Dirac Live can be automatically bypassed when bouncing/rendering with a simple preferences setting. For analog mixing, I inserted the plug-in on my stereo mix track, where I would monitor the processing but it would not be recorded into my mix file.

Even though it’s a little jarring to suddenly hear your system responding differently, I began mixing with Dirac Live and got slightly improved results on my first attempt. My room is in pretty good shape except for some low ceiling-induced bass issues (with adjacent dips and bumps) and a bit of low-mid mud. Dirac Live cleared up that mud and did quite a bit for that bass response, inducing me to fine tune my kick drum, boost that bass guitar and get my lead vocal right in the pocket. Frankly, it’s hard to describe the improvements I heard, as they were slightly different than what my system corrected with Sonarworks; not relegated to just frequency response, it sounded like phase accuracy had improved and imaging was more exacting, perhaps due to the impulse response correction, as well as precision filtering.

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One drawback to using Dirac Live was the inevitable switch to other monitors or headphones for reference. When using frequency challenged full-range monitors (Avantone Mixcubes), I had to bypass the Dirac Live processing, same as with headphones. I do wish that it offered correction for cans like Sonarworks does, which is as effective (if not more) as its correction for rooms/monitors.

 

The Final Mix

Even though it adds a little complication to mixing and mastering, Dirac Live can definitely improve monitoring accuracy to the point where it is worth the extra effort. At a cost of $349, the price is significant but not prohibitive, especially considering just how much knowledge can be gleaned from the measurement process. Furthermore, that knowledge can be very useful for the fine tuning of your room via furniture, bass traps, absorbers and diffusers that can help make Dirac Live’s job much easier.

If you work entirely in-the-box (and maybe even in a small boxy room), then software-based room correction is a no-brainer that should be utilized. If you do a lot of ensemble tracking or analog mixing like I do, then you may find the inevitable switching from unassisted monitoring to corrected monitoring to be a little jarring and maybe even disturbing to your “acclimation.” How I wish there was a freestanding hardware-based calibration/correction device that could be placed in-line before my main monitors so I could easily hear everything with proper correction, maybe even with headphone amps with their own specific correction.

Until that time comes, I still recommend Dirac Live for the wealth of knowledge it teaches you about your room, the tremendous flexibility it offers and what appears to be the best-sounding room correction algorithm on the market today.

Dirac Live • www.dirac.com

Original Resource is ProSoundNetwork.com

TZ Audio Stellar X2 Microphone – A Real-World Review

TZ Audio Stellar X2 Large Capsule Condenser Microphone
TZ Audio Stellar X2 Large Capsule Condenser Microphone

This is the first time I’ve reviewed a piece of equipment that I knew I loved—and had already heard countless times—before it showed up on my doorstep to review. It’s likely you have heard it as well. When NYC went into lockdown and voice actors couldn’t go to studios to do their job, the scramble was on for them to get set up at home. A decent number of them already had home studios, but the vast majority only ever needed a cheap USB mic to record auditions in a pinch. The game changed overnight though, as post facilities and their clients suddenly needed actors to be “broadcast quality from home.” For many facing an uncertain financial future, the idea of dropping thousands on gear was scary. My message via webinars and consults with voice actors has been that you can pull off a truly impressive sound without breaking the bank!

There was such a run on affordable large diaphragm condenser mics across the industry that each time I prepared a presentation, I needed to vet sources to make sure actors could actually buy the mics I was suggesting! It was in one of these moments that I stumbled upon a YouTube video comparing the TZ Audio Stellar X2 to a Neumann U87AI. I found that hard to believe—until I listened. It seemed to be a hidden gem, and cost a mere $199.99. I immediately reached out to TZ Audio via their website to make sure they had inventory and that they were still open for business. In the weeks that followed, I would spend time working with dozens of actors to get them connected so that we could all continue to work together.  Once their mic was connected, we’d either go live over Source Connect or they’d send me files to make sure they were sounding solid. Time after time, I was floored by how good the Stellar X2 sounded.

Affordable condenser mics are obviously not a new thing. I recall an actor boasting about a $300 mic in the mid 1990s, saying “It’s an overseas knock-off.” I was pretty dismissive at the time, but there have been some remarkable improvements over the years. What I hadn’t seen or heard, however, is a mic that holds its own against the big boys and which also breaks the $200 price barrier.

The Stellar X2 comes a carrying case that holds the mic, its shock mount, wind screen and pouch.
The Stellar X2 comes a carrying case that holds the mic, its shock mount, wind screen and pouch.

Let’s talk for a second about what you get. The mic comes neatly boxed with all of the testing documentation. Inside the box is a solid carrying case that holds the mic, its shock mount, wind screen (not a pop-filter) and pouch. When I finally got my hands on the Stellar X2, it was smaller than I imagined it would be, given its big sound. It was like someone used a shrink ray on a classic large mic and case—but when you lift the mic, you know you’re holding quality. It is solid. All of TZ Audio’s documentation describes the care taken to build the mic, and you can feel it. The shock mount squeezes open, and in the mic goes, safe and secure.

I connected it to my home rig as I was preparing for a session with a well-known actor coming to my home studio for a national TV spot. I had been using a shotgun mic on him and decided to compare it to the Stellar X2 while I was getting things set up. It sounded really close to a ubiquitous studio mic that costs five times as much. Later that night, I ran a webinar to a group of about 90 voice actors, and they all wanted to know what mic I was using. One actor even said “it sounds delicious.”

One of the criticisms from voice actors and engineers of mics in the $200-$300 price range is that they often have a notorious “harsh” bump in the upper-mids. Personally, I think that largely depends on the actor’s voice. Truth be told, when I mix voice actors into spots, I’m always bumping up the upper-mids and highs to cut through anyway, so I don’t see it as an issue. However, the Stellar X2 doesn’t add any exaggerated brightness. Sure, you can see what they’re claiming in the graph they send, but I’ve never been one to trust that stuff. I rely on my ears, and my ears are happy with this mic.

It also doesn’t have an over-the-top proximity effect, which can be a blessing or a curse, depending on the actor. Some voice actors working at home with some of the similarly priced competitors are struggling with extra mouth noise, no doubt related to that upper-mid boost. During my webinars, I had been using a different mic that had me cringing at my own mouth noise. Once I switched over to the X2, I noticed pretty quickly that it was gone.

While the Stellar X2 caught Verderosa's eye as a low-cost voiceover mic, he found it appropriate for recording electric and acoustic guitars, such as his Hirade Model 5 classical acoustic.
While the Stellar X2 caught Verderosa’s eye as a low-cost voiceover mic, he found it appropriate for recording electric and acoustic guitars, such as his Hirade Model 5 classical acoustic.

Next, I wanted to do some musical testing with what I had on hand at my home studio. First up was putting it in front of my Hirade Model 5 classical guitar. I recorded it flat into my Pro Tools rig—and it was, in fact, delicious. It didn’t improve my playing, but it made the guitar come alive. It picked up everything from my fingers to the strings, as well as all of the resonance of the instrument. I couldn’t resist putting some concert hall reverb on it, and with no processing at all, I was getting a clean, crisp sound.

The next test was to see how it handled a guitar amp. I fired up my Gibson SG with an old distortion pedal and turned it up to a responsible level because my rock and roll days are long behind me, and I live with my family who doesn’t need to hear that kind of noise. It’s worth noting that the Stellar X2 doesn’t have a pad or a roll-off built in, but it took a solid blast effortlessly, capturing what I was hearing in the room perfectly. I should also note that there is no polar pattern switching on this mic. Keep that in mind if it is something you need.

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For a mic priced under $200 (by a penny!), the Stellar X2 is a must have. It competes effortlessly with mics costing five or even ten times the price. It continues to be my strong recommendation for voice actors, and is a worthwhile addition to any mic locker. Whether you’re a voice actor, podcaster or a musician, this mic is well worth a listen!

TZ Audio • www.techzoneaudioproducts.com

Frank Verderosa is a 30-year veteran of the New York audio industry, fighting the good fight for film studios, ad agencies and production companies, but secretly loves mixing music most of all. These days, he plies his trade at Digital Arts in NYC, and is also a noted podcast engineer.

Original Resource is ProSoundNetwork.com

Revive Audio ART VLA Custom Modification – A Real-World Review

My interest in Revive Audio was renewed when I reviewed its MSL-Mk2 stereo VCA bus compressor last year and noticed the company’s palette of modifications for popular gear. Revive offers mods on no fewer than 72 different pieces of audio gear ranging from compressors and interfaces to mic pre’s and more—and the prices were surprisingly affordable. When I saw they offered a mod of the popular ART VLA compressor, which is surprisingly good-sounding for its low price (although I could tell that there was room for improvement), I knew I had to give it a try, particularly since it had a base price of only $350.

ART Pro VLA II
An unmodded ART Pro VLA II

I had experimented before with swapping out tubes in my unit, which are used as output stage drivers only, as the actual compression is via optical vactrol ELOP sensors. I had achieved slightly sweeter tone with various tubes, my favorites being some old Telefunkens I had salvaged, but the improvement was only moderate. Revive offers “standard” tube replacement (NOS vintage GE tubes), or premium Genalex Gold Lion tubes for an additional $40. I chose standard tubes for my custom mod.

The VLA is a transformerless model, and considering my usual fondness for transformers, I knew I just had to add them at $200 for either Carnhills or Cinemags. Both makes sound great in my experience, but there’s something about that Carnhill tone that really pushes my buttons for euphonic reasons that words can’t quite explain, so I chose them … even though Revive owner Jason Lambson advised me toward the Cinemags.

Lambson says the mods collectively “increase headroom, widen the frequency response, lower the noise floor and increase detail of the three-dimensional imaging, and increase the speed of attack and release time.” This is done by switching to Burr Brown op amps at both input and output stages, some Panasonic parts, a new vactrol sensor on each channel, increasing tube plate voltage and upgrading the aforementioned tubes and transformers.

Revive Audio ART VLA Custom Modification
My modded ART VLA was returned to me with a Revive Audio sticker on the front panel.

 

 

 

The mod only took about a week and my unit was returned to me with a Revive sticker on the front panel, indicating it was hot-rodded, and stickers on the removable side panels indicating that opening the unit would void the one-year warranty. Of course, I was very disappointed to see the latter stickers, as I wanted nothing more than to open the box up and peer at the changes, but my need for a warranty squelched my curiosity.

Review: Revive Audio Vintage Audio MSL-Mk2 Compressor, by Rob Tavaglione, April 22, 2019

The stock VLA is known for being especially useful on bass guitar, vocals, synthesizers and all manner of parallel compression (especially with subgroups), and I’ve been using my rejuvenated VLA on all those applications with excellent results. In many ways, it’s still the same sonic signature—warm, forgiving, rich in bottom end and tastefully congealing—but now it does all those things better. It’s warmer, deeper, richer and more euphonic, and all with that unmistakable Carnhill tone: abundant in low-mids, with a larger soundstage and a feeling of more substance and solidity. The unit also seems capable of being faster-acting, sweeter in the top end, and a little cleaner (less distortion) overall when working hard. The gain structure has changed, though, seeming to require higher thresholds, more eagerness to compress and overall hotter output levels. Higher ratios, which aren’t typically my thing, are more useful now with more musicality and less pumping.

Frankly, I never did favor my old VLA on mix buses (where I prefer cleaner, less apparent compression, via VCA-type compressors) and I’m afraid that hasn’t changed. It seems to make my mixes a little too warm, a little too weighty in the low-mids and a touch too soft. Maybe I should have gone with the Cinemags as Lambson suggested. But I’m not sweating it, as I have VCA comps for that and this modded VLA does unique and useful things when tracking, overdubbing and massaging subgroups that my VCAs can’t touch.

Review: ART Pro VLA II Two-Channel Vactrol-Based Compressor/Leveling Amplifier, by Rob Tavaglione, Oct. 21, 2011 

There are a number of companies offering intriguing mods to familiar gear these days, and users are recommending them for the most part. If you’re interested in upping your game with the familiarity of your favorite gear without the risk of trying something completely new and different, let me recommend Revive Audio. The turnaround time is excellent, the expertise is commendable, prices are quite competitive and the results are familiar, yet dramatically improved on your stock favorites.

Revive Audio • www.reviveaudio.com

Original Resource is ProSoundNetwork.com

Vibes Hi-Fidelity Earplugs – A Real-World Review

Vibes Hi-Fidelity Earplugs
Vibes Hi-Fidelity Earplugs TechRadar

I discovered the joy of earplugs more than 20 years ago and have been on the hunt for the ideal model ever since. I’ve gone from fairly expensive audiologist-fitted custom plugs with switchable filters in various attenuations (Etymotic Research), to more simplistic Flare Isolates (with a metal core that encourages clearer sound through bone induction) to my most recent acquisition, Vibes Hi-Fidelity Earplugs.

Having tried many models over many years, I have found that I need different styles and attenuations to best suit all applications, from mixing monitors on very loud stages, to mixing FOH (only after my mix is completely dialed in and I’m simply riding solos and cueing vocal FX), to mowing the lawn and leaf blowing, to enjoying concerts and attending my recording clients’ club shows. For the apps where fidelity is most crucial, I am sold on these Vibes.

Real-World Review: Loop Earplugs, by Russ Long, Nov. 26, 2019

Their design is so simple and pedestrian that their performance is surprising. The ear tips of soft plastic are provided in three different sizes; they slip over a small, hollow plastic tube with an angular cut on the tip. This tube slips into a hollow plastic tube that is close-ended and acts as the earplug’s handle. The inside tube is just small enough that a vent is created, allowing a little bit of air—and therefore sound pressure—to pass through.

Vibes Hi-Fidelity Earplugs
TechRadar

Apparently, the designers got that air gap’s dimensions just right, as the sound is attenuated a healthy 22 dB, nicely balanced, with much flatter frequency response and lacking the uncomfortable jumps in volume and frequency that many other earplugs provide. Speech intelligibility is better than typical, too, which is an important factor that matters for all but the yard work applications.

Vibes Hi-Fidelity Earplugs Review, by Lewis Leong, TechRadar, April 17, 2019

I find these plugs insert into my ear much more easily than other models—not requiring the squishing of the sleeves, just steady firm pressure—and they stay in once inserted, too. Cleaning is easy enough, and so far, after nine months of use, durability seems good, too.

I remember seeing these Vibes presented on the TV show Shark Tank a ways back and thinking, “This product is doomed to fail. There are plenty of good earplugs already out there and they can’t bring much to market other than a low price.” Well, I was clearly wrong and they are affordably priced at $19.99.

Original Resource is ProSoundNetwork.com

Austrian Audio OC818 Microphone – A Real-World Review

Austrian Audio OC818 Microphone
Austrian Audio OC818 Microphone

While plug-ins seem to gather most of the “revolutionary new product” excitement, a team of 20-plus ex-AKG engineers has formed Austrian Audio and put out the company’s new OC818 microphone, combining the best of the old with a healthy dose of some extraordinary new features.

While plug-ins seem to gather most of the “revolutionary new product” excitement, a team of 20-plus ex-AKG engineers has formed Austrian Audio and put out a new microphone that combines the best of the old with a healthy dose of some extraordinary new features.

Out of the Box

With a small, flat, rectangular body somewhat reminiscent of a C414, and a capsule (Austrian’s handmade CKR12) made with similar dimensions, not to mention properties similar to a CK12 capsule, comparisons to the AKG classic are certainly founded. The similarities continue with multiple polar patterns (cardioid, omnidirectional, figure 8, hypercardioid), two levels of defeatable padding/attenuation (-10 and -20 dB) and three levels of defeatable highpass filtering (40, 80 and 160 Hz). A major difference, however, is the ceramic capsule housing that contains the dual diaphragms. Ceramics are low in resonance, insensitive to temperature changes and quite stable, contributing to the consistent performance of the diaphragm. Such consistency is achieved that Austrian Audio boasts that all OC818s are close enough in performance to be a matched pair, and that in cardioid mode, any OC818 microphone is also a match for any other OC18 microphone (the OC818’s single-pattern little brother).

Beyond construction and materials, what really sets the 818 apart are its futuristic electronics, which include dual outputs, wireless remote control and post-production flexibility.

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Via a small LEMO connector on the rear of the mic (and a supplied short LEMO-to-XLR-M cable), each diaphragm of the 818 can be output separately, allowing astute engineers to combine the two signals and manipulate their polarity and gain for various polar patterns—or simply use the free PolarDesigner open source plug-in (VST, AAX, AU with Windows or Mac) to do the dirty work for you. Deep control is provided via one to five crossover bands with selectable crossover points, band solo/mute, full automation, EQ for dialed-in free or diffuse field response, proximity effect control, store/recall/share of presets and phase linear operation.

That same LEMO connector can conversely be connected to the optional OCR8 Bluetooth dongle, and with the mic’s polar pattern set in the “black circle” position, wireless control is achieved via the free PolarPilot application (Android or iOS). Real-time control is provided with the ability to create as many as 255 discrete polar patterns, save/recall/share settings, a 60-second overload/clipping monitor and logger, and storing of the last setting used within the 818, even without the PolarPilot app. This is all done with only microprocessor control of bias voltages. The actual signal path remains purely analog; there is no use of digital signal processing or conversion.

The kit is completed with an aluminum carrying case, a largely plastic (yet sturdy) shock mount, foam windscreen and standard mic stand mount.

In Session

Naturally, I started testing without any apps or wireless control, with cardioid usage on vocals, drum room, tambourine, cajón and acoustic guitar. Yes, I realize those are radically divergent sources, but I grouped them all together, as the 818 showed no difference in its response. About as neutral as a large-diaphragm condenser mic can be, the 818 always provided seemingly perfectly flat response, regardless of sound pressure level, placement or frequency content. Vocals (in cardioid with no pad and 40 Hz HPF) were completely un-hyped and natural, absent of excessive resonance, sibilance, mouth noises (i.e. clicks, pops), chestiness, high-mid frequency emphasis or excessive proximity effect. Drums (cardioid or omni, -10 dB pad or up full) showed only minimal cymbal preference (likely created by my room), an extended bottom end and very natural dynamics. Instruments, including tambo, lacked harshness, translated accurately and sounded just like being there. The 818 lacked the depth of a ribbon mounted low on my cajón and lacked the snap of a crispy condenser when mounted high, but with a neutrality that many engineers might just prefer for either position. Off-axis pickup was smoother than typical for an LDC.

At times, I found the OC818 microphone to be a little too neutral for vocal work, but the super-cardioid pattern brought a little more excitement and presence, as well as directional focus to my vox. The highpass filtering proved its mettle here too, with the second-order filters at 40 and 80 Hz being obviously useful, but the multi-order 160 Hz position (first order gently down to 80, a steep second order below) being nicely sloped and helpful for seriously thinning out backup vocal stacks.

Figure-eight patterns found the OC818 sounding more neutral and similar to its cardioid pattern than typical. For classic fig-eight apps like two-person harmony vocals, dual handclaps and drum room, you’ll find airy naturalism, balanced frequency response and nice null rejection.

PolarDesigner offers some seriously advanced uses for those who want deep control. I tracked some drum roomage using the supplied LEMO-to-XLR-M connector and sent both diaphragms to a stereo track. I then applied PolarDesigner and found a world of options. Changing the polar patterns was easy enough and quite useful, but having five bandwidths and allowing each to have its own directional property was more than I could find use for, considering my need and habit of working quickly. Basically, I found one full-frequency band of control sufficient. What I did find very useful was the proximity effect control; you can boost or cut it variably, and a little careful boost brought some very nice low-end girth and boom to my drum room. For those tracking either dialogue or Foley for film production, this app’s advanced control could be extremely useful, even if it may be a bit much for standard music production or those with shorter attention spans.

If you don’t need to track both diaphragms, then you can insert the OCR8 Bluetooth dongle into that same LEMO connector and enjoy some remote control via PolarPilot. Being able to change patterns, filters and pads remotely while seated right in the monitoring sweet spot obviously has its attractions, but I found myself at a distance of 35 feet plus, just barely outside the operating range of the current Bluetooth standard. (The newly announced standard will increase that range.) Unfortunately, my iPhone 8 Plus couldn’t manage to stay connected with the app even at close distances, with skittish performance and dropouts. What I did manage to do was quite useful, though; I set the 818 for a wide cardioid pattern, with no pad and the 80 Hz HPF, and enjoyed my very favorite setting for vocal work. With this setting stored in the 818, I could recall it when needed, even without the app. I hope that Austrian Audio can work the bugs out of the OCR8 dongle, as the app’s functionality could be a major benefit.

The Final Mix

Considering the incredible versatility of the OC818 microphone, the quality kit, the post-production flexibility and PolarPilot’s utility (even if hampered by quirks and distance), the 818 is an easy recommendation at a very reasonable $999. Easy stereo-pairing with other 818s and the OCR18 is another big plus that makes these mics a great choice for live show “tapers,” recording ambiences and classical recordists. It seems to me that Austrian Audio is off to a great start and are moving their legacy forward in worthwhile new directions.

Original Resource is ProSoundNetwork.com

Pliant CrewCom Professional Wireless Intercom – A Real-World Review

Pliant's CrewCom wireless communcations system
Pliant’s CrewCom wireless communications system

CrewCom by Pliant Technologies is an incredibly capable wireless communications solution. The system consists of 2-channel or 4-channel radio packs, headsets, up to four control units, HUBs for copper or fiber distribution, radio transceivers and system software. We put the system to the test on productions staged for the National Black Theatre Festival, as well as a school musical at Winston-Salem’s historic Reynolds Auditorium, and overall, we had a great experience with the system.

Pliant CrewCom was able to interface with our existing 2-wire communications system by way of XLR connections on the control unit, preventing us from having to choose one system or the other. Each CrewCom control unit can support up to 18 radio packs, and when deployed in combination with wired comms, it really expands your system. As there are several components in the system, I’d say CrewCom is better suited for use in a permanent install. It would require additional cases to be practical for a temporary or on-location setup.

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The front panel of the unit shows all the packs that are linked up. The name of the pack is displayed, along with battery life and RF strength. You can use the control unit as another wired headset location if needed, as it has a front headset port for monitoring.

We chose to keep all our board ops on our wired com and used the wireless as an expansion for our fly operators, props manager, stage managers and production manager, a setup that allowed for extensive flexibility for shows with a lot of movement.

We found the Pliant CrewCom system’s wireless packs incredibly useful during our school’s production of Peter and the Star Catcher. In our theater, fly operators have to travel up and down from the rail to get back to the deck level. Our main curtain operates from the stage level on stage right, while our double purchase fly system operates from up a ladder on stage left. In the past, they had to take off their headsets and packs to move to deck level and put on another set once they got there.  Having wireless packs was an incredible benefit because they never had to disconnect.

Meanwhile, our stage managers help with major set changes, including moving the set on stage, which requires them to coordinate their movements. The wireless headsets allowed them to hear the call at the appropriate moment, keeping them in sync. Our production manager usually has to travel back and forth between backstage and front of house to check on progress with the box office and seating; the wireless system, allowed him to hear any questions or concerns from the production team while he was assisting with front-of-house duties.

In Pliant’s CrewWare system management software, you can assign packs to specific profiles, giving the packs individual names (and then labeling them) and assigning channels to them, setting channel options and so on. You can set system routing with a visual representation of your network connections and signal flow. Our radio packs were not preconfigured with a talk latch button like we were used to, but we were able to configure them with latching talk buttons in the profiles.

The packs themselves worked well. They are slightly bigger than some standard wired beltpacks but are still a manageable size, and we were able to integrate our existing headsets with them easily. The rechargeable batteries are simple to charge, but we found the battery hatch somewhat complicated. Aside from that, the packs were robust and seemed ruggedly built to handle the most challenging of situations.

Of course, the most important function of a wireless intercom system is communication, and this system excelled in this regard. The system’s range was impressive. The venue, Reynolds Auditorium, is a 1,900-seat classic theater built with plaster, stone and steel. Without putting up additional network infrastructure, I was able to post the receiver at backstage right, head out to our lobby and walk around most of the building without drop-outs. We did not notice any issues with interference. There was a bit of a noise floor with the wireless units compared to a wired com system, but you can set a noise gate on the unit that helps eliminate most of the white noise.

We had additional transceivers to connect via a supplied copper hub, but it was not easy to install it for a temporary review situation. Pliant uses a proprietary network, so it can’t piggy-back on something like a Dante network. If we were purchasing the system, I would do a permanent install and mount one in our dressing room area, one in the green room (located below the stage) and one in our lobby to ensure we had clear signal on the front of the building.

All in all, Pliant CrewCom was a reliable and easy-to-use system, and I would proudly use it again.

Pliant Technologies • www.plianttechnologies.com

Original Resource is ProSoundNetwork.com

Sanken Launches CUX-100K Ultra Wide Range Microphone

Sanken CUX-100K Ultra Wide Range Microphone
Sanken CUX-100K Ultra Wide Range Microphone (front and back).

Los Angeles, CA (July 8, 2020)—Sanken Microphones has introduced its new CUX-100K microphone, designed to switch between three settings: Cardioid (Far), Cardioid (Near) and Omni modes.

While based on the Sanken Chromatic line’s omni-mode CO-100K—named as such because it’s intended for 100 kHz high-resolution recording—the new microphone’s addition of the two other modes brings that high-res approach to a broader set of applications, such as spatial or close miking uses. As a result, Sanken aims for the new mic to be used in ensemble, solo, vocals and orchestral mic arrays, plus specialized uses such as Foley, location sound effect recording, and all types of acoustic instruments.

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In Omni mode, the mic can be used to capture source, spatial and ambient sounds with articulation and clarity. In Cardioid (Far) mode, the CUX-100K records a mix of moderate ambience and main performance sources with cardioid directivity, making it plausable for stereo and multichannel pairing. In Cardioid (Near) mode, the CUX-100K can operate as a spotlight, solo, or vocal mic. To selectively reject some ambience, the mic is optimized up to 50 kHz.

Because of the way in which analog to digital converters operate, the CUX-100K aligns with the heightened frequency response of new hi-resolution digital audio formats. As X-Y, ORT, or Decca tree overheads, the CUX-100K can also be applied to capture the spatial reality of specialized acoustic spaces.

The CUX-100K is available with an MSRP of $3,400.00.

Sanken Microphones • www.sankenchromatic.com

Original Resource is ProSoundNetwork.com