Apogee MiC

Move Over Apogee MiC?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear 25 Comments

iRig Mic StudioWill the tiny but mighty Apogee MiC finally get a worthy competitor?

Absolutely!

At the Winter NAMM in January, IK Multimedia announced the release of the iRig Mic Studio. It’s a very portable microphone for ALL platforms.

The iRig Mic isn’t available yet, but looking at the specs, it’s possible to make a preliminary side-by-side comparison.

Both mics will fit into the palm of your hand. The iRig Mic Studio is 117 (4.61”) x 45 mm (1.77”) and weighs 218 g (7.7 oz). The Apogee MiC is 116 mm (4.57”) x 39 mm (1.54”), and comes in at 181.4 g (6.4 oz).

ALL PLATFORMS

The big news is that the iRig Mic Studio is compatible with nearly every mobile and desktop platform. You can plug it into iOS devices, as well as into many Android devices.* Apogee’s MiC is Apple-only.

Another difference is the diaphragm. The Apogee is a medium (¾”) diaphragm electret condenser microphone. The iRig Mic Studio has a large 1” diameter electret condenser capsule. Both are cardioids.

The second generation Apogee Mic offers up to 96kHz, 24-bit analog-to-digital conversion. The iRig Mic Studio has a 24-bit converter with 44.1/48Khz sampling rate.

Both mics feature a multicolor LED for status and sound level, and the built-in preamps have a gain range of 40 dB.

iRig Mic front viewThe Apogee has no on-board headphone jack for latency-free monitoring. That means your headphones must be attached to a host device. The iRig has a built-in 1/8” headphone output with dedicated volume control (see picture).

LOTS OF EXTRAS

The iRig Mic Studio comes with a suite of vocal apps such as VocaLive and EZ Voice, as well as with iRig Recorder, an app for sound capture and editing. Apogee’s MiC does not come with any apps.

The Apogee MiC ships with a table top stand, a lightning connection cable, and a USB cable. A microphone stand adaptor and travel case have to be bought separately.

The iRig Mic Studio comes with a mic clamp, a protective storage bag, and a mini-tripod. It also ships with a Micro-USB to Lightning for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch; micro-USB to micro-USB OTG for Android; and micro-USB to USB for Mac and PC. A 30-pin cable is sold separately.

And what about the price? Well, the Apogee MiC retails at $229, and the iRig Mic Studio will sell for $179.

At least on paper the iRig offers more bang for less bucks, but since it’s not available yet, we don’t know which one is the better sounding microphone. The fact that the Apogee can record at 96kHz may seem impressive, but it’s not a deal breaker for me. Be honest, has a client ever asked you to record a voice-over at 96kHz?

Massdrop logoARE YOU UPGRADING?

Now, if you’re in the market for new audio equipment and you wish to save a few dollars, chances are that you may find a good deal on a site called Massdrop. This site describes itself as follows:

“Massdrop is an online community for enthusiasts that provides people across several communities — from audio and electronics to quilting and cooking — a place to connect, discuss their favorite products and activities, and buy those products together.”

So, how does it work?

Let’s say you’re looking for a new preamp, and you’ve decided to get the FocusRite 2i2. On Amazon you’d pay $149.99, but at Massdrop you can get it for $119.99 including shipping (this “drop” ended on April 2nd). The FocusRite 2i4 portable interface is also discounted. Here’s how they do it. 

If you’re interested in a certain product in one of the Massdrop categories, you can start a poll. Other people on Massdrop can vote for that product, which indicates that they’re interested in buying it together.

Once a product has reached a certain number of votes, Massdrop contacts the vendor or manufacturer on behalf of the group, and negotiates a discount. The more that is bought, the more the price will drop. Please note: these price drops last for a limited amount of time, and limited quantities are available. Read the FAQ for more details.

The Pro Audio community regularly features deals on microphones, preamps, studio monitors, headphones, isolation shields, and recorders.

But wait, there’s more!

CUSTOMIZING THE GEAR

Last year, Massdrop entered a joint venture with AKG that resulted in an improved version of the 65th anniversary edition of their K702 headphones, named the K7XX. Get this: The anniversary edition retailed at $499. The Massdrop mod sold for $200!

Can you imagine what the international voice-over community could do on this site? What about a special VO version of the Sennheiser MHK 416, the Rode NTG 3, or the CAD E100S? Why not get a voice-over mod of the famous AKG K712 PRO studio headphones?

Collective bargaining power is a beautiful thing, especially for freelancers who are used to operating on their own all the time.

And who knows, one day the iRig Mic Studio might appear on Massdrop as well.

It’s supposed to be released in the first quarter of this year, and I already put in a request to review it.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS My voice is for hire, but my opinion is not for sale. I am in no way affiliated with or compensated by IK Multimedia.

PPS Be sweet. Please retweet.

*The iRig Mic Studio is compatible with Android devices that support Samsung Professional Audio technology, like the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and Galaxy Note Edge. Samsung Galaxy S5 and Galaxy Note 3 require Android 5. It’s also compatible with Android devices with USB (OTG) connector running Android apps that use USB (OTG) audio input, and compatible with any Android devices with USB (OTG) connector running Android 5.


Reviewing Microphone X

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Studio 13 Comments
Microphone X™ USB microphone with analog processing

Microphone X™ by Aphex

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

Microphone X™ rear view

Microphone X™ rear view

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™ front view

Microphone X™ front view

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:

CONCLUSION

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.

Our voice.

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.


Recording Voice Overs on your iPhone

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear 22 Comments

Name the number one electronic gadget you can’t live without.

To me this is a no-brainer. It’s my iPhone 5.

It goes wherever I go.

Thanks to audio editor Twisted Wave (one of MacLife’s 29 Web Apps We Can’t Live Without), it’s also my portable recording studio.

The iPhone 5 comes with three microphones. One in the front, one on the back around the camera area, and one on the bottom. Having three mics improves the sound quality of phone calls, Skype sessions, and FaceTime. However, using those microphones for voice-over recordings is not such a good idea. Here’s why.

1. The iOS has automatic gain control, regulating your input signal. To make sure the audio from the built-in microphones doesn’t distort, the gain for the mic preamp is set very low. As a VO-pro, you want to be able to control the gain yourself for the best signal-to-noise ratio.

2. Apple automatically applies a High Pass audio filter that only lets frequencies over a certain threshold get by. The frequency of the data in your voice is compressed around the mid-range and it lacks bass. This ensures that your plosives won’t pop during a call, and it makes calls more intelligible. It also means your voice will sound thinner and not as rich.

3. As each of the three microphones picks up the sound coming from its respective direction, an internal processor analyzes the sound data, loaded with the location and type algorithm of the mics, and processes the sound, in part to eliminate background noises. Again: all this processing is great for making phone calls, but it’s not ideal for recording unsweetened voice-overs.

Here’s a quick tip from Thomas Thiriez, the developer of Twisted Wave: 

By default, Twisted Wave does not bypass the iOS processing, but if you go to the preferences in TW (tap the button in the lower right hand corner of the document list), you will have the option to disable it.

EXTERNAL MICROPHONES

Of course there are a number of external microphones on the market that can be plugged into an iPhone, such as the RØDE iXY and the TASCAM iM2X. Both are for stereo recording and are made for the old 30-pin dock connector that was replaced by the Lightning connector. In order to use these mics on the iPhone 5, you’d need a Lightning to 30-pin adapter.

The original Apogee MiC (introduced in 2011) also needs such an adapter if you own an iPhone 5, and it can also be connected to a Mac device via USB. The MiC is a compact condenser featuring 24-bit analog-to-digital conversion at 44.1/48kHz. It resembles a studio microphone and comes with adjustable gain control. Reviewing the Apogee MiC for Macworld, Christopher Breen said:

Where I found MiC lacking was with voice—specifically a speaking voice. It produces very clean results, but it lacks bottom end. Try as I might, I just couldn’t get a baritone-FM-DJ timbre out of this microphone. When I moved within a few inches of the mic’s capsule the mic rumbled, even with the gain turned down, and plosives because a problem. 

When I backed off and turned up the gain, the mic’s sound was bright, but didn’t pick up my voice’s more sonorous tones. If you’re accustomed to “working” a mic by changing the distance between it and your mouth you’ll find it difficult to do with this microphone.

I don’t agree with Breen. I have enthusiastically adopted the MiC as my favorite iOS voice-over travel solution

At the beginning of 2013, Apogee came out with the MiC 96k. It is optimized for the latest Apple iOS devices, including the ability to record in pristine fidelity – up to 24-bit/96kHz. It has a direct connection with Lightning or 30-pin iOS devices such as the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, as well as a USB connection to Mac.

This year, Zoom came out with the iQ5, a stereo microphone with a Lightning connector that works in conjunction with iOS applications. The iQ5 (currently unavailable) captures uncompressed 16-bit 44.1 kHz audio (the RØDE iXY offers up to 24-bit/96kHz resolution).

the MicW iShotgunDid you know that there’s even a shotgun mic for smartphones, tablets and DSLR camera’s? It’s the MicW iShotgun microphone and it comes with a windscreen, a shoe mount and a mini boom pole. Reviewers agree that it works quite well, but that this sensitive mic is rather susceptible to handling noise.

USING YOUR OWN MIC

What if you could simply connect your own studio condenser or dynamic microphone to your iPhone and use your favorite recording software to capture the audio? That’s the idea behind the MicConnect made by Griffin Technology. It’s a small, portable microphone interface that uses a 1/8 inch (3.5 mm) jack to plug into your phone’s headphone jack (or iPad).

Griffin MicConnectWhen needed, two AA batteries will supply +48V phantom power. On the side of the MicConnect you’ll find a gain adjustment wheel and there’s also a headphone output for monitoring. Griffin was kind enough to send me a MicConnect for review. Before I let you listen to a sample recorded with this device, here’s what I sound like using only the iPhone 5 internal microphones:

 

It’s probably best if you listen to these recordings on your headphones. Now, let’s compare what we just heard to the recording I made with the Griffin MicConnect. The WAV 16 bits, 48,000 Hz audio was converted to MP3. 

 

iRig PREThe iRig PRE is very similar to the MicConnect. Both devices allow you to plug any type of XLR microphone into an iPhone or an iPad using the headphone jack. There are differences.

The MicConnect retails for $39.99 and Amazon sells the iRig PRE for $34.49. The MicConnect is only compatible with Apple devices. The iRig PRE interface also works with many Android devices. iRig PRE owners can download a free audio recorder & editor, as well as VocaLive Free, a live vocal effects processor.

And now it’s time to listen to the iRig PRE. 

 

I don’t know about you, but I think we have a clear winner. Let’s do a short recap so you can really hear the difference:

 

CHECKING IN

After testing the Griffin MicConnect, I contacted their technical department and asked them about the high level of noise. The microphone I’m using for these recordings has a self-noise level of only 7dB(A) so it couldn’t be the cause. Had they perhaps shipped me a defective device, or was this normal? Griffin told me they were inclined to think that the unit itself was not defective and that the noise I experienced was “to be expected.” Griffin’s Public Relations Director wrote:

The collective feedback that I heard from our engineers was that while they strove to make a high quality interface connection, the $39.99 price point just doesn’t match up with some of the $1K and more microphones. The expected usage scenarios were more in line with recording a garage band, practicing at home, or capturing ideas on the road. We’ve also heard from podcasters that found it quite useful for recording podcast audio.

Speaking of audio quality, it’s important to remember that both the MicConnect and the iRig PRE use an old-fashioned analog TRRS connection to connect to the iPhone and/or Android. It would be unfair to expect too much from these affordable devices. The 30-pin dock connector and the 8-pin Lightning connector carry digital signals. 

iRig PRECONCLUSION

It speaks for itself that a soundproof studio with high-end equipment is the best place to record pristine audio. But on the road, the best solution is the one that you carry with you. 

Although the MicConnect and the iRig PRE have similar features, the iRig PRE clearly beats the MicConnect in terms of audio quality. It  comes with a Velcro strip to secure the device, as well as two free apps. Best of all, it can be used for Apple and Android devices.

For under $40, it’s hard to beat.

Would I use it for anything other than a quick audition?

No way!

I’ll stick to the Apogee MiC.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.