It’s no secret.
Most audio engineers are not a fan of USB microphones.
Many of them are not convinced that one affordable plug-and-play device can really be as good as a separate preamp, A/D converter and a studio condenser. They say convenience never trumps quality.
Besides, a small adapter like the CEntrance MicPort Pro can turn any XLR mic into a USB microphone, so why buy a separate mic?
Yet, thanks to the popularity of tablets and the growth of home studios, the market for USB microphones is getting crowded.
Audio Technica sells a USB version of the best-selling AT2020. Shure’s got the PG42 USB. MXL released the Studio 24 and USB-77 classic style microphone. The folks at Blue are offering the Snowball, the Yeti, Yeti Pro, Spark Digital and the Nessie. AKG has a USB version of the Perception 120.
Over at sE Electronics you can find the USB2200a, while Studio Projects designed the Little Square Microphone that’s both XLR and USB. In my own voice-over community, the compact Apogee MiC has become a favorite travel companion.
If any manufacturer wants a piece of this pie, he better come up with something truly special.
A NEW CONCEPT
Enter Aphex, LLC, which is owned by DWV Entertainment. This small Burbank company has made a name for itself making widely used products for the broadcasting and music industry such as preamps, processors and converters. Early 2013, Aphex introduced its very first microphone at NAMM, called the Microphone X™ and it’s definitely different.
While many USB mics lack controls and offer only 16-bit/44.1 kHz conversion, this new mic has quite a few buttons and it comes with 24-bit/96kHz conversion. Let’s take a closer look.
The black and silver X stands about 7 inches (17.78 cm) tall with the Aphex name in big green letters printed on the side. It weighs 15.16 ounces (430 g) which gives it a solid feel. This electret condenser has a 16 mm capsule with a low-mass diaphragm and a cardioid pattern.
In the box you’ll find a mini tripod plus mount, a 6 feet 9 inch cord, a user’s manual and a leatherette carrying pouch. The mic also comes with free Reaper DAW software and the Harrison Mixbus DAW.
This microphone will work with Mac OSX 10.5 and higher, Windows XP SP3 (32-bit and Windows Vista SP2 and Windows 7 SP1 (32/64 bit). The Windows drivers can be installed from a CD or from the Aphex website. For Mac it doesn’t need special drivers. The computer recognizes the X automatically. According the manufacturer, a fully charged iPad can power this microphone for approximately five hours before the iPad’s battery is completely drained.
Now, here’s where things get interesting.
SCULPTING THE SOUND
On the back of the mic the first tiny button you’ll find activates an optical, analog compressor which limits the dynamic range of the input signal. In other words: it prevents clipping. This eliminates the need to correct audio overload in post production. Microphone X™ can withstand a moderate maximum SPL of 120 dB (compare: LSM 132 dB, AT2020 USB 144 dB, Shure PG42 USB 145 dB, AKG Perception 120 USB 150 dB).
The next button activates two analog processors that were developed by Aphex: the Aural Exciter® and the Big Bottom®. Both are meant to enhance the sound before it is broadcast or recorded. This is also known as psychoacoustic processing.
Introduced in 1975, the Aural Exciter® was developed to enhance brightness and sparkle on instruments and vocal tracks. In studios, the Aural Exciter® is used to bring lead vocals right to the front of a mix. While it can add some extra harmonic sizzle, too much Excitement can increase sibilance, that striking hissing sound that occurs when speaking sentences with the letter ’s’ such as this one.
Here’s a quick demo where I start in “neutral” and I gradually increase the exciter level and take it to the max:
The Big Bottom® processor enhances the low-frequency spectrum. It adds low-end presence and punch. This allows studios to pack more bass into their mixes without overloading amps and recorders or blowing up speakers. Here’s what it sounds like on Microphone X™ as I gradually add more bottom:
The amount of Big Bottom® and Aural Exciter® can be controlled by two knobs below the on/off switch.
Microphone X™ has two front controls: an input level control and a headphone volume control connected to a high-output headphone amp. The output jack is a 3.5 mm (1/8) headphone output. It will only work if you change the output to the microphone in the settings of your computer.
ONE OF A KIND
At $299, Aphex has created a microphone that is unique and daring, and I have to give them credit for packing something into a product that’s never been done before. For the first time, it’s possible to change the tonal characteristics of a USB microphone at the source. (The one other microphone with onboard processing I’m aware of, is the Blue Nessie, but that’s a different beast. Nessie adapts automatically and it has three recording modes)
However, being the skeptic I am, the X reminded me of the many all-in-one stereo systems that are on the market. They conveniently take up less shelf space, but you just know that one or two elements are not as well-built to make it affordable. Could the Microphone X™ have such a weak link?
Secondly, is it really new to equip a mic with a compressor/limiter? Some USB microphones such as the PG42, the AKG Perception 120 and the Studio Projects model come with a -10 or -20 dB pad, allowing them to handle loud sources like electric guitars and drum kits. The Apogee MiC warns you with a red light that your input is too loud.
Then there’s the issue of up front analog processing, the greatest unique selling point of Microphone X™. How useful and necessary is it really, especially for a voice-over pro? After all, that’s the (narrow) perspective I’m using as I’m evaluating this mic.
ADDING EFFECTS: PRE or POST?
Psychoacoustics are a matter of personal preference. I often compare them to kitchen spices. You just don’t use them all the time no matter what’s on the menu. Spices can add some good flavor to an otherwise dull dish, as long as it’s done tastefully. Once they’re in, you can’t take them out. Overusing effects like the Aural Exciter® and Big Bottom® may lead to ear fatigue. I’m sure the folks at Aphex would agree.
Without exception, my voice-over clients want me to deliver clean, ‘unfooled-around-with’ audio, giving their own engineers an opportunity to sweeten the sound should that be necessary. No one has ever asked me to add some Big Bottom™ to my narration.
Here are a few other points to consider.
If you really feel your voice could benefit from some bass boost, why not use the proximity effect of the mic you already own? And if you’d like to bring out the highs and increase brightness, why not play around with the EQ?
Those who are enamored with Aphex effects could buy them as digital plug-ins or add them to their racks as a channel strip. It’s not the cheapest option, but those processors can be refined with more finesse and precision. The effects on the Microphone X™ are very bare bones Big Bottom® and Aural Exciter® solutions.
FINDING THE SWEET SPOT
So far I’ve talked about the bells and whistles, but let’s get to the heart of the matter. Is this latest Aphex product actually a solid condenser microphone? You can color the sound all you want, but if the input signal is sub par, it renders the rest irrelevant.
Let’s first talk about the sensitivity of this mic.
For most condenser microphones the sweet spot is generally about 6 to 8 inches away from the diaphragm. Putting two fists on top of each other should give you the right distance between mouth and mic. With the input level set at 12 o’clock and my mouth seven inches away, I started talking into the Microphone X™. Much to my surprise, the signal I got was a rather low -22 dB.
At first I thought there was something wrong with my demo model. I checked all settings and connections and couldn’t find anything. Then I contacted Aphex. They told me the ideal mouth-to-mic distance for the X was 3 inches, with the input control at 3 o’clock. It worked, but I had to be much closer to the mic than I’m comfortable with as a voice-over. That probably tells you more about me than about the mic.
Roaming reporters and radio jocks might be used to “eating the mic,” but I like my studio condenser at a distance and slightly off-axis to prevent popping. And the X did pop when I got close, in spite of a thin layer of foam behind the grill. After attaching a PopGard 2000 by WindTech, things were much better.
We should also keep in mind that many audio engineers prefer to record at lower peak levels, say, -10 dB to -12 dB, as this leaves more headroom and thus lowers the risk of clipping. Because Microphone X™ has a 24-bit converter, the noise floor is still very low (Aphex couldn’t give me the self-noise level).
Without the effects activated and with the input gain way up, the Microphone X™ produces a clean and clear sound. It doesn’t have a distinct personality and I like that. I believe the voice should put the personality into the mic and not the other way around.
What I also noticed was this. Turning up the analog effects did increase the input signal considerably.
How does the X stack up to another popular (and very portable) USB mic? Well, here’s a comparison between Microphone X without effects, and the “Little Square Mic” by Studio Projects, which did quite well in a recordinghacks.com shootout:
So, what’s the verdict?
It’s neither easy nor fair to compare the X to the other USB models mentioned at the beginning of this review. That would be comparing apples to oranges because the added bass booster and treble enhancer make Microphone X™ one of a kind.
If we take the effects out of the equation, Microphone X™ is a neutral-sounding USB mic that’s pretty hard to drive into the red. Budding recording artists, podcasters and audio engineers will appreciate that. In my experience, an external pop filter is a must for this mic.
Is it good value for money? A plug-in bundle of the Aphex Aural Exciter® and Big Bottom® retails around $495. So, having a version of these effects built into a quality USB mic for under $300 is a pretty sweet deal.
I did find that the small black controls on the black microphone body were not so easy to read, especially in a dimly lit studio. I couldn’t really tell whether the dial was at 12 o’clock or at 3 o’clock. A white arrow on the knob could be helpful.
What might help Aphex in sales, would be to turn this mic into a hybrid like the Yeti Pro and Studio Projects LSM. They are both USB and XLR microphones.
The best use I see for Microphone X™ is in live podcasting and other recording sessions that don’t require post-production. In these situations it’s nice to have an all-in-one tool that can give your sound more definition and character. But let’s remember this.
Although it’s fun to play with all the buttons and hear your sound change, this microphone won’t turn you into a smooth talking bass-baritone of a radio jock. That greatly depends on talent, and a sophisticated and unique instrument we were all born with.
Let’s end with one last taste test. You’ll hear Microphone X™ “au naturel” without processing; then with both effects at 1 o’clock and 2 o’clock.
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
PS Many thanks to Matthew McGlynn of recordinghacks.com for his invaluable feedback and suggestions. I gave Aphex a few weeks to respond to my review and to point out possible factual inaccuracies. Aphex has yet to take me up on that offer.