Reviews

Do You Really Need That New Microphone?

by Paul Strikwerdain Articles, Gear, Reviews, Studio12 Comments

George, a reclusive, world-renowned wildlife photographer, was invited to a posh dinner party at a New York brownstone. His host, a vivacious heiress to a rapidly declining fortune, took him aside and said:

“George dear, I want you to know that I am a huge fan of your work. Your photographs are simply stunning. You must only use the very best cameras.”

Without missing a beat George retorted:

“Thank you for your kind words, Dorothea. Dinner tonight was absolutely divine. You must only use the best pots and pans.”

Dorothea was not amused, but George had made his point. Even the most expensive cameras or pots and pans are of little use in the hands of an amateur. They are tools. Nothing more, and nothing less.

RECORDING SOUND

The same is true for microphones. Owning a pricey Neumann U 87 Ai just tells me you can afford one. It doesn’t say anything about your talent or experience.

Even if you happen to be better than Don LaFontaine and Mel Blanc combined, that new Neumann is not going to make a poor performance or a crappy recording environment sound any better. It will probably expose all its flaws. You can’t fault the microphone for that of course, but it goes to show that you cannot fix everything with a more expensive mic.

If you’re in the market for a different microphone, ask yourself this:

Apart from wanting a new toy to impress my colleagues, what problem am I hoping to solve?

Here are a few valid reasons to buy a new mic:

  • SOUND QUALITY: Your current microphone just doesn’t flatter your voice. It’s too muddy, too dark, it accentuates the highs too much, it doesn’t handle plosives or sibilants very well, there’s way too much self noise.
  • TRAVEL: You need a sturdy mic for on the road; a microphone that’s built like a tank with excellent side and rear rejection so you can use it in less than ideal recording environments.
  • SOUND MATCH: Your client wants you to closely match the sound quality of previous recordings done in another studio at another time. E.g You recorded a script using a Sennheiser 416, and you only have a Neuman TLM 103 in your home studio. Time to buy a shotgun.
  • UPGRADE: You want to move from a cheap USB microphone to a regular XLR condenser mic. Go ahead. Exchange that Snowball for a Worker Bee.
  • COMMUNITY SERVICE: You are a vlogger or blogger like me who enjoys reviewing audio equipment to inform, entertain, and educate the unwashed masses.

 

Before you start the search for a new sound catcher, here’s what you should consider.

THE MICROPHONE MISTAKE

I believe there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way we evaluate microphones. We talk about them as if they’re separate entities.

We compare the specs pretending they tell us anything about the way the mic is going to sound as part of the recording chain and acoustics in our personal studio. That just doesn’t make any sense.

Of course you should be familiar with the basic characteristics such as polar patterns, self noise, phantom power and whether or not the mic comes with high and low pass filters. Anything beyond that is just marketing mumbo-jumbo and fluff.

And even when you read the specs, keep in mind that manufacturers measure the characteristics of their microphones in anechoic chambers. In other words, ultra isolated, echo-free rooms covered in sound absorbent materials that come nowhere close to the repurposed clothes closet you call your “professional home studio.”

MISLEADING VIDEOS

I’m pretty sure that in your search for the next best mic you’ll spend a few hours, even days, watching a parade of mic testing dudes on YouTube. For some silly reason, only men review microphones. Usually, they’re either videographers with too much time on their hands, or musicians that look like they were kicked out of their bands.

Here’s the one exception, and I think she’s absolutely adorable.

Apart from voices dot com-member and Booth Junkie Mike Delgaudio, and the team at VOBS, there are very few people from the voice over industry weighing in on the tools of their trade. That’s a problem (and an opportunity!).

You don’t need to know how a mic sounds on electric guitar, or on a boom arm, fifteen feet up in the air. All you really need to know is this:

How does my voice sound on this microphone, plugged in to my equipment in my studio?

And that, my friends, you won’t find out by watching a dude like Bandrew on YouTube. You won’t even know what a microphone really sounds like because of the standard compression YouTube applies to every video.

YouTube uses a lossy audio format, meaning that any audio has been compressed using a compression algorithm. Compression leads to loss in sound quality and how aggressive the compression is can be determined by the bit rate of the audio. So, a 128 kbps AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) will sound worse than a 256 kbps AAC. Standard YouTube audio comes in at 128 kbps AAC, and you can only get 256 kbps if you’re a YouTube Premium subscriber. As a comparison, Apple Music is streamed at 256Kbps in AAC.

Are you still with me?

HOW DO YOU LISTEN?

Not only is the sound quality of YouTube videos purposely compromised, the folks reviewing these microphones are probably not going to use the preamp you happen to have in your studio. The same microphone can sound differently plugged into a different preamplifier.

Now get this. What you actually use to listen to the audio samples, also colors what you hear. I listen to my audio in four ways: I use the built-in speakers in my iMac, and I listen to my Presonus Eris 5 monitors. I also put on my Beyerdynamic DT 880 headphones, as well as my Austrian Audio hi-X55 cans.

And guess what? The same audio sounds different depending on how I listen to it.

Our ears, by the way, aren’t exactly objective either. Hearing is interpreting. A sound engineer will hear things in your audio you aren’t even aware of. And you are probably the least objective person in the world to evaluate your audio.

BRANDING

There are more things people take into account when choosing a microphone:

  • Brand recognition
  • Price
  • Peer pressure

 

Before I started writing about the E100 S, very few people in voice overs had ever heard of a small Ohio company called Conneaut Audio Devices (CAD). Yet, they were making one of the best VO mics on the market.

When I tell the average voice over colleague that I have an Austrian Audio OC18 microphone and a Gefell M930 Ts in my booth, they look at me with wonder and confusion. I then tell them that Austrian Audio came from AKG, and Microtech Gefell was founded by Georg Neumann.

Just because you haven’t heard of a particular brand doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider it. In fact, you will often get more bang for your buck by not buying a well-known brand because you’re not paying for a massive marketing machine. (A review of a Lauten Audio microphone coming soon!)

PRICING

Now, let’s talk about the price of a voice over microphone. It’s a story about the law of diminishing return. Once you get past the $300 point, the more money you spend on a new microphone, the greater the chance that you’re paying for subtle improvements in sound quality most people won’t even be able to hear.

An affordable microphone isn’t necessarily a bad microphone.

Case in point: I just paid $156 for a brand new Synco D-2 microphone I found on eBay. Yes, that’s the one Minami was giggling about in the video you just watched.

Synco is actually Guangzhou Zhiying Technology Co., Ltd in China. Their D-2 is marketed as a cheaper alternative to the venerable Sennheiser MKH 416 that retails for $999.

Even though Mike Delgaudio couldn’t hear a difference between the Synco and the Sennheiser, some reviewers miraculously concluded that these two mics are not the same.

Wow! Stop the presses!

Here’s my point. Launched in 1962, the 416 may have the edge, but does it sound $843 better?

Come on!

I just booked a $1500 job with the Synco, and the client loved the punchy sound. He didn’t ask:

“Can you please record the same script with a Sennheiser? I’d like to hear the difference!” 

In the real world, clients don’t say: “I missed a bit of the airiness in the upper register the 416 is known for.” The audio is either acceptable, or it isn’t. 

The truth is that so-called experts are more likely to give the Sennheiser higher marks because they know it’s the Sennheiser, just as higher-priced wine will score better on a taste test. It’s called cognitive bias.

STATUS SYMBOL

Here’s the thing with high-priced mics. They’ve become a status symbol in the VO world. Look what I can afford, people!

Well, good for you.

Feeding my family is more important to me than impressing a peer with new gear.

But Paul, when I buy a German microphone, I know it’s made of high-quality materials. I don’t want a cheap Chinese knockoff.

Fine, but let me ask you this.

Do you know how many of these high-quality German microphones actually use parts that are Made in China? Try living your life for one year without buying anything that contains anything made in China. One of my friends actually did that. He only wanted to Buy American, and found out it was impossible.

That wasn’t his fault. It’s the way big corporations work. Buy cheap materials, pay as little as you can for manufacturing, and sell at a premium. It’s Western-style capitalism, courtesy of the People’s Republic of China.

But I digress. We were still talking about microphones, and I’m about to wrap things up. 

SILVER BULLET

What I wanted to say is this:

STOP being such a mic snob. Most of us are recording one track mono. Not a symphony orchestra. When narrowing your search for a microphone down, ignore most of the self-styled experts telling you what to look for in a mic.

You don’t look. You LISTEN.

In your own studio, using your own equipment.

And while you do that, think about the problem you want to solve.

And maybe, just maybe, your microphone is not your problem. Mic placement could be an issue, or a failing preamp. 

Maybe you could benefit from some acting and improv classes… or some additional soundproofing. Just a guess.

The thing is…

Owning an expensive camera does not make you an award-winning photographer. Buying the best pans at Williams-Sonoma does not turn you into a Michelin-star chef.

No matter how shiny it may look, a microphone is not a magical silver bullet.

You bring the magic. The mic just records it.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Awesome and Affordable: Solid State Logic’s New Audio Interface

by Paul Strikwerdain Articles, Gear, Reviews, Studio6 Comments

Get this. A couple of weeks ago there was a flash flood in my neck of the woods, and rain water came gushing into our basement. Lots of it. In a matter of minutes the entire floor was covered in a brownish liquid, as the carpet tried to absorb it like a thirsty sponge.

All I could do was use our wet/dry vac to pump up the roaring waters, hoping my basement voice over studio would be spared. Luckily, my heroic efforts paid off (the Dutch know a thing or two about keeping the waters at bay!).

The studio was pretty much spared, but the rest of the basement was one wet, damp mess. It took me a few days to clear the space, and dry it out completely. Later that week I started recording again, and the moment I connected my preamp I knew something wasn’t right.

Gone was the crystal clear signal my Audient iD22 is known for. Instead, I heard an unacceptable, annoying electrical buzz that refused to go away.

This could only mean one thing. The moisture had gotten to it, and once that happens, it is pretty much game over. Mind you, I’ve had this stellar preamp since 2013, so it’s had a good run. I knew it was time to find a worthy replacement.

SOLID STATE LOGIC

In January of this year, Solid State Logic (SSL) introduced two desktop audio interfaces, the SSL2 and the SSL2+.

If you are an audio engineer, you are no doubt very familiar with SSL. You’ll find their mixing consoles in most major recording studios, and more number one hits were recorded with SSL equipment than with any other brand. Their 4000 series is particularly coveted.

Now, what SSL has done is condense everything the brand is known for in a compact, affordable package. I’m talking about solid build quality, pristine analogue microphone preamps, and super clean 24/192 kHz conversion. I’m talking about low-latency monitoring, high-performance headphone preamps, and a special Legacy 4K button.

Each preamp has a 5-segment LED meter for visual level reference. You can plug in microphones that require 48V phantom power, but you can also use ribbon and dynamic microphones like the Shure SM7B without needing a Cloudlifter ($150 in savings right there!). That’s because the preamps have an ultra-low noise floor of -130.5 dbu EIN, and offer a gain range of 62 dB. That’s enough for very detailed and clean recordings.

In the back there are two studio-grade Neutrik mic/line combo jacks, and two 1/4″ outputs for your studio monitors. In addition, the SSL2+ has two 1/4″ headphone outputs as well as MIDI I/O  over 5-pin DIN jacks. You’ll also get two pairs of RCA outputs with the 2+ to attach some outboard gear.

photo credit: SSL

THE MAGIC NUMBER ELEVEN

Most voice overs will be quite happy with the cheaper SSL2. I chose the 2+ because I’ve always wanted an interface I could plug two headphones into. My Beyerdynamic DT880’s, which I use for recreational listening, and my Austrian Audio Hi-X55’s which are my editing cans.

What I also like is that both units are USB-powered (USB C & A). No more ugly power brick. If you have an Apple computer like I do, the unit is plug and play. If you’re a Windows fan, just download the ASIO/WDM Driver and you’re in business.

Esthetically speaking, these interfaces have the familiar SSL look and color scheme with a simple, logical setup for the knobs. I particularly like the big blue monitor level knob which goes to…. eleven!

Speaking of the exterior, what’s this 4K Legacy button all about? SSL puts it this way:

Engaging this switch allows you to add some extra analogue ‘magic’ to your input when you need it. It injects a combination of high-frequency EQ-boost, together with some finely tuned harmonic distortion to help enhance sounds. This enhancement effect is created completely in the analogue domain and is inspired by the kind of extra character the legendary SSL 4000-series console (often referred to as ‘4K’) could add to a recording.

Of course that’s just the company talking, so what do I find of this 4K effect? First off, it’s not a miracle cure for bad audio. I’d call this effect a subtle sound colorizer that’s actually quite pleasing to the ear. It adds some mojo to your mix, especially if you’re using a dark sounding microphone. Mind you, once you’ve recorded in this mode, you cannot undo the effect like you would with a digital plugin.

To hear the difference, here’s a short recording, first without 4K and then with the switch engaged. Lastly, you’ll hear me line by line without, and then with 4K. I’ve used my new and “darkest” sounding microphone, meaning the one that accentuates the lows in my voice.


IT WORKS OUT OF THE BOX

What I like about the SSL2 and 2+ is the fact that these units are pretty much self-explanatory. There’s no need to go into a virtual mixer (as was the case with the iD22) and fiddle around with different settings. Everything just works as advertised. The online user guide is easy to follow -even for beginners- and SSL support is very responsive and eager to help.

I contacted them because I had the crazy idea to plug in my brand new shotgun microphone (review coming up), and my Gefell condenser, and switch between the two as I was recording my auditions. Channel 1 (my shotgun) came through loud and clear, but Channel 2 (the Gefell), didn’t send any signal to my Twisted Wave audio editor. The LCD’s were lighting up, but that was it.

SSL rep Tim Shortle kindly explained that my audio interface was perfectly fine. Twisted Wave just wasn’t developed for multi-channel recording.

Silly me!

It turns out that there’s a workaround in Twisted Wave (thank you Sean Daely!). When opening a new file, choose stereo. One microphone will record in the left channel and the other in the right. When it’s time to edit the tracks, you  simply copy and paste them to a new mono file so you hear them in both ears. Problem solved!

By the way, these SSL desktop interfaces also come with free digital audio workstations like Pro Tools First and Ableton Live Lite (plus some other cool stuff for those who are into music production).

PROS AND CONS

Let’s end this review with a list of what I liked and liked less. I’ll start with what I liked less about the SSL2+.

The housing seems sturdy, but it’s part plastic, part metal. Audient (their main competitor) makes all-metal units, but they are more expensive (the iD14 model is about $300 with fewer features).

There’s no on/off button. What’s up with that? My Audient iD22 didn’t have one either. It’s less of a problem with the SSL2+ because it’s bus-powered, so it turns off when you shut your computer down.

The cord connecting the unit to the computer is too short. My preamp sits to the right of my iMac, and I needed a longer connection. I just don’t like it when you’re excited to try out a brand new piece of gear, and you can’t because of a short stupid cord. 

The LED’s don’t show enough dynamic range. It’s a five-step ladder LED meter going from -40 to 0, and I’d like to see a few more intermediate steps. It’s not a deal breaker though, because most of us will set the gain looking at our DAW.

The headphone sockets are on the back. I prefer to have more direct front access. That way, the cords don’t get entangled in a mess of wires. 

The 48V phantom power buttons are black and small and they don’t light up when engaged. In poorly lit surroundings it’s not always easy to see if these buttons are pressed down.

SSL2+, Audient iD22 & iD4

Unlike my iD22, the SSL2 and 2+ units don’t have a high-pass filter which I think is a useful feature if you want to cut down on low rumble in your recordings (and your microphone doesn’t have that switch). I’ve attached a Shure A15HP – In-Line Hi-Pass Filter to my unit and it does the job, but you can also filter your audio with a plugin in post.

I’ve read reviews that don’t recommend using low-impedance headphones with these units. Nonsense! My Austrian Audio Hi-X55 cans have a low impedance of 25 ohms, and sound magnificently detailed through the SSL headphone amps.

And then there’s the Legacy 4K effect. Some reviewers love it and won’t record anything without it. Others think it’s just a gimmick.

Now for the pros.

By building these interfaces in China, SSL was able to put them on the market at an insanely low and very competitive price. The SSL2 is a little over two hundred dollars, and the 2+ comes in under three hundred. This includes the production pack software package.

These may be entry level units, but they definitely bring superb Solid State Logic sound quality to your home studio. The overall no-frills design is intuitive and just makes sense. I like the sloped shape, and the controls are smooth and sturdy. This plug and play audio interface is easy to use. You don’t need an external power supply, and yet it has enough oomph to go to 11, and feed a dynamic/ribbon microphone!

CONCLUSION

In short, the SSL2 and SSL2+ offer outstanding value for money. Don’t let the audio snobs talk you into buying expensive boutique preamplifiers. Spending more cash doesn’t automatically mean your sound quality will get exponentially better.

In fact, the more money you spend, the smaller the audible improvements will be. Who are you trying to impress? Your Facebook friends or your Insta-buddies?

Give me a break!

For a little over two hundred bucks you can get all you need to power your voice over studio with pizzazz!

What’s more, you’ll feel very good about having saved some hard-earned money.

And that’s a logical, solid state to be in!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS SSL did not provide me with a test unit. I paid for it myself, and the opinions in this article are mine and mine only.

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Albert Einstein and the Microphone Mystery

by Paul Strikwerdain Articles, Gear, Reviews, Studio8 Comments

My story begins with a microphone. The Austrian Audio OC18 to be exact.

It’s a microphone I called “an instant classic.” This mic is mostly handmade in Vienna by people who used to work at AKG.

Click here for my impressions.

I’m not the only blogger who fell in love with this new microphone. Do a quick online search, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find one bad review. No matter what you throw at it, the OC18 performs extraordinarily well. I think it offers exceptional value for money, especially for vocal applications. 

Inspired by my review, A Dutch colleague decided to take the plunge and order one. A week or so ago, he got in touch with me to say that he was disappointed in the OC18. He said he’d expected “a more beefy sound.”

He sent some sound samples of his new mic to two audio engineers in Amsterdam. One of them really liked what he heard and said that the OC18 made it easier to edit the recording in post. The other disagreed, and said that he had to add more bells and whistles to make it sound good, compared to the old microphone the talent was using, made by SE Electronics.

Same microphone recorded in the same home studio. Two professional opinions. Who is right and who is wrong? Or is there even such a thing as right and wrong?

THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM

It was time for me to dig deeper. I asked my colleague to send me some raw OC18 audio from his studio. The sample sounded fine, but there was something strange going on. His OC18 had more lows than my OC18, yet he noted that his new mic “lacked the punch” he had been hoping for.

I firmly believe that you can never evaluate a microphone in isolation, or by looking at the spec sheet alone. After all, a cake recipe in a cookbook doesn’t tell you anything about how the cake is going to taste, and whether or not you will like it. It doesn’t even take into account how good you are at baking a cake.

As you no doubt know, a microphone is part of an entire recording chain with many variables. Every element within that chain can color the sound. On top of that, the recording space and the way we reproduce and analyze the sound, makes a huge difference to our perception.

I once attended a recording session at the famous Abbey Road studios, and the vintage Neumann U 87’s sounded majestic. Taken into a cramped voice over booth, that same, venerable microphone just didn’t do it for me. To my ears, the sound was a tad too muddy.

Well, I discovered that my Dutch colleague had his OC18 plugged into an Apogee Duet 2 preamp that’s been described as clean, quiet, and detailed.” I have an Audient iD22 in my studio that I would describe as clean, quiet, and detailed. As it turns out, even notoriously neutral preamps add some character to the mix. Perhaps that’s why my OC18 sounded brighter.

ANOTHER OPINION

Just to be sure he hadn’t bought a lemon, my colleague talked to Austrian Audio and had them listen to a sample. Their senior acoustic engineer Christoph Frank confirmed there was nothing wrong with the microphone. He suggested that my Dutch colleague was probably so used to the sound of his old microphone that the OC18 didn’t meet his expectations.

I have to concur. Our perception is constantly colored by our senses, our memories, and our expectations. 

You see, in order to function as a human being we are continuously comparing and adjusting. It’s an unconscious process. In order to determine whether or not we’re getting closer to our goal, we have to compare where we’ve been and where we are, to where we want to go. It’s a feedback loop.

Sometimes the place we want to arrive at is very concrete and explicit. For instance, if I want to go to the Easton Farmers’ Market, I have to know where it’s located and what to look for so I will recognize it once we get there. Then I get into my car, and as I am driving I am comparing where I am to where I want to be. Every comparison is a measurement. A judgment. The better the instruments are that I’m measuring with, the more precisely I can determine my progress.

But quite often, the goals we’re trying to reach are vague. So many people simply say: “I want to be better at….blank.” The question is “What do you mean by better? Compared to what?” That’s where the trouble begins.

I see so many colleagues on social media saying: “I want to buy a better microphone. Which one do you recommend?” This is immediately followed by a whole string of suggestions. The cure has already been offered without a proper diagnosis, and without knowing what someone’s criteria for a better microphone are, let alone the available budget.

ALBERT EINSTEIN

In this case my Dutch colleague wanted a microphone with “more oomph,” but what the heck is oomph anyway? “More oomph” means different things to different people, and is it even fair to expect more oomph from something that might not even be capable of delivering it?

As Einstein said:

“If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

The other question we’d have to ask ourselves is this: Are there other ways to give a microphone more punch, for instance by using some compression? Perhaps the mic is not the problem.

What I’m ultimately trying to get across is that your expectations are telling a lot more about you, than about the object of your anticipation. Expectations are mostly built on your past experience, your subjective taste, and your personal preference.

Part of our expectations also comes from social proof, such as the reviews we read and the videos we watch. I mean, if Mister Booth Junkie (whom I love) says this $250 Synco shotgun sounds exactly like a $1000 MKH 416, it must be true!

CONFIRMATION BIAS

Let’s face it. We can’t help being biased, and the tragedy is that so many people are not consciously aware of it. And here’s the kicker: I can make you biased if I want to!

For instance, if I would tell you that you’re about to listen to a recording that was made using a pricey Neumann microphone, chances are that you would give it higher marks than if I had told you it was done on some cheap Chinese brand you’ve never even heard of.

That, by the way, is the same reason why people are convinced more expensive wine tastes better. It’s an example of the confirmation bias where we favor ideas that confirm our existing beliefs and what we think we know. 

For most people, it’s hard to have an open mind, especially if you haven’t been taught to think critically, and you’re more of a follower than a leader. Just turn on the news, and see for yourself how confirmation bias colors people’s perceptions and actions. Our political affiliations do not matter. We’re all guilty.

Luckily, my colleague was aware of his limitations, and asked for outside help. After our conversation he invited a trusted audio engineer over to his home studio to test the microphone at the location where it would be used. In about two hours, the engineer carefully tweaked the settings of the Apogee Duet, and installed a few updates. He also adjusted the input levels which had been way too low.

In musical terms I guess one could say that he tuned the entire recording chain like a grand piano.

Once he was done, the Austrian Audio mic began to sing with a full dynamic spectrum. The clarity that had been missing was back, and the microphone now produces a rich and bright sound that totally flatters my colleague’s voice. He’s not going to send it back to Austria. That’s for sure!

The moral of the story? 

Be aware of your limitations, your biases, and your expectations.

In the studio, and in life.

In doubt, always ask an expert.

And never expect a fish to climb a tree.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Austrian Audio’s Hi-X55 Headphones Reveal All

by Paul Strikwerdain Gear, Reviews, Studio1 Comment

Okay, here’s the thing every aspiring voice over wants to know:

“Why was my amazing audition just rejected?”

Well, I am not a certified psychic (if there is such a thing), but without even listening to your audition, I think I can tell what was wrong with it.

It’s the same reason why eighty percent of all auditions end up in the bin:

POOR AUDIO QUALITY

If you don’t believe me, ask experts like Roy Yokelson, Don Baarns, Dan Lenard, and George Whittam.

I dare you to send them a sample of that audition you were so proud of, and they’ll kindly tell you what you don’t want to hear:

– your gain is too high

– your gain is too low

– there’s a persistent low rumble in the background

– your booth isn’t well-isolated and outside noises are coming in

– your recording space sounds too hollow because it lacks proper acoustical treatment

– your audio sample is filled with mouth clicks, lip smacks, popping plosives, and loud breaths

– your cheap microphone has too much self-noise

– you’ve over compressed your audio, distorting the sound

Reading all this, you say to yourself:

“How can this be? I’ve listened to my audition over and over again, and I had no idea this was going on! What did I miss, and how did I miss it?”

THE UNTRAINED EAR

Before you start blaming yourself, just realize that as a beginner, you don’t know what you don’t know. Folks like Roy, Don, Dan, and George also have a gift. Just like Simone Biles was born to be a gymnast, these guys came into this world with extraordinary ears. Ears which benefitted from many years of training and listening experience.

If you enjoy watching cooking shows like I do, here’s an analogy that will appeal to your senses.

What happens when you give a professional chef a dish s/he’s never tasted before? Within seconds their brain will begin to analyze aromas, smells, and textures. After the second bite they’ll be able to tell you all the ingredients and all the ways the dish was prepared. On top of that they also know what went wrong during preparation, and what needs to be done to make it better.

Think of their palate as an exquisite instrument. It’s almost like a microscope. The more refined and precise it is, the better results you get. That, by the way, is reason number two why beginning voice talent is unable to hear their own flaws. Not only are their ears untrained, they also lack the sophisticated equipment to identify and measure the quality of their audio.

There’s also the bias factor. It is impossible for us to listen to our ourselves with clinical objectivity. Most of the time we see what we want to see and we hear what we want to hear. We’ve become so used to the low humming sound of that fridge not far away from our studio, that our brain filters it out as unimportant information.

Our biology limits us in more ways. Some of my older and even younger coaching students are experiencing hearing loss. Thirty nine percent of adults ages 60 to 69 have trouble hearing speech clearly. The first thing to disappear is the ability to clearly hear high-pitched sounds.

BETTER GEAR

While we cannot reverse hearing loss or make up for years of ear training, what we can do is invest in equipment that is better at revealing the weak spots in our recordings. Some people like to use spectral sound analyzers such as the one in Adobe Audition (click here for a quick demo).

I do all my editing in Twisted Wave, and I rely heavily on my headphones to tell me what’s wrong with my audio. If you’re new to voice overs, I strongly suggest you invest in headphones designed for audio engineering purposes since you are in fact an audio engineer. I highly recommend you buy good quality cans before purchasing studio monitors.

In my workflow I first do the precision editing using headphones, and once that’s done I’ll often listen to the audio on my computer speakers because that’s how many people will hear the end result. In the beginning, I relied on AKG’s classic K240 semi-open over ear headphones (55-ohm version). They’re light-weight, very reasonably priced, and reasonably reliable.

Since AKG was taken over by Harman, and Harman was taken over by Samsung, AKG is focusing more on the consumer market than on the professional market. That’s why I hesitate to recommend AKG products for the voice over studio. For audio monitoring I now rely on the Beyerdynamic DDT 880 PRO headphones, the 250 Ohm version, to be precise.

ENTER AUSTRIAN AUDIO

Austrian Audio Hi-X55

Last year, I discovered a brand new brand: Austrian Audio. The team behind Austrian Audio was responsible for the development of most of the AKG products in the past twenty years. When their Vienna offices closed, they made a deal with Harman to buy as much AKG equipment as they could, from office furniture to machinery. Austrian Audio is focused on developing best-in-class, professional audio equipment. Last year I reviewed their stellar OC18 microphone, which is based on the famous C12 capsule.

More recently, Austrian Audio came out with two headphones. One on-the-ear model, and one for over the ears. They were kind enough to send me the over-the-ear model for review, the Hi-X55 which retails for $299. Unlike my DT 880’s which are marketed as “semi-open” (but are really “open”), the Hi-X55 cans are closed. This means no sound is supposed to leak in or out of the headphones.

Whereas the DT 880’s use moderate to low spring pressure, the Hi-X55 feels firmer but not in an unpleasant way. Coming from the gentle Beyerdynamic cans, I did have to get used to the increased pressure on my ears, but there was a payoff. The outside world did not leak into the sound very much, allowing me to focus entirely on my recording. Especially if you plan on monitoring in an environment that’s not as quiet as you’d like it to be, closed back is definitely the way to go.

The Beyerdynamic headphones are known for their soft, velvet ear pads which offer unrivaled comfort. They’re like a teddy bear hugging your ears. The Hi-X55 has leatherette earpads with additional room and slow-retention memory foam to increase comfort and reduce fatigue. They fit my rather large ears and head very well, but the fake leather did cause my ears to sweat a bit after prolonged listening. And listening I did, from the early hours of the morning until late at night

To be honest, I couldn’t put them down and here’s why.

INCREDIBLE DETAIL

The amount of detail the Hi-X55 headphones reveal is -pardon the pun- uncanny. Don’t expect a rich and warm audiophile sound. That’s not what they are meant to reproduce. I’d call the soundstage direct and very accurate. To me that means uncolored with no hyped frequencies and especially no beef in the bass department.

Listening back to some of my previous recordings using the Hi-X55’s, I heard mouth noises and breaths I should have edited out. While I wasn’t happy about that, it’s precisely what I want and need in a good pair of studio headphones. They have to be as unforgiving as the Spanish Inquisition. When you’re performing sonic surgery, your headphones better sound close to clinical.

But I went a step further in my test, realizing that not everyone is going to use these Austrian Audio headphones to edit simple voice over tracks. In order to recommend them, they have to perform well in different soundscapes. Click here for one test I always do when I take headphones for a spin. The Hi-X55’s passed with flying colors. 

Audio engineer Darin Fong has developed virtual speaker software for headphones that replicates the experience of listening to high-end speakers using only headphones. He says it allows the listener to experience their music or movie as if they were actually sitting in the room with the speakers that were measured – but without having to actually be there. Think of it as audio “virtual reality.” Anyway, hearing is believing, and every time I test new cans I have to play this Darin Fong demo:

Lately, I’ve really gotten into a thing called “binaural audio.” Binaural literally means “having two ears.”  Binaural sound is stereo audio that is recorded through a dual microphone setup mimicking human ears. The goal of recording binaural sound is to create a 3D audio effect that simulates sound as if it is being heard live. Binaural sound can only be experienced through headphones. Here’s a stunning demo that takes you to the streets of New York:

On YouTube you’ll find lots of binaural recordings ranging from classical music to pop. If you have trouble sleeping, check out the binaural tracks that supposedly bring you into a state of deep relaxation. It worked for me! For something more upbeat, here’s Pink Floyd like you’ve never heard before:

I am giving you these examples because they really gave me an opportunity to test the Austrian Audio Headphones in terms of realistic reproduction of sound. I have to admit that I often forgot that I was wearing headphones as I was taking a virtual tour of the streets of New York. It was such an immersive experience, and to me that speaks to the quality of the Hi-X55’s. 

LOW IMPEDANCE

What surprised me most about these cans was the low impedance of 25 ohms. Headphones with low impedance require little power to deliver high audio levels. This means you can easily plug them into mobile recording solutions such as your laptop or tablet, and even your smart phone. 

Normally, professional, high-end studio headphones favor high impedance. They demand more power from a headphone pre to deliver high audio levels. But for the low-impedance Hi-X55’s, the secret is in the High Excursion (Hi-X) drivers that were designed in-house, generating a higher sound pressure level.

Monica and Sabine, of the production team in the reorganized production rooms in Vienna, assemble Hi-X headphones.

So, what’s my final verdict?

From the classy design, innovative technology, and high-end materials, it’s obvious that these Hi-X55 headphones are built to last. They are as much at home in the professional studio as they are suitable for recording on the road. Austrian Audio has once again raised the bar in terms of uncompromising sound and build quality, a quality that is often lost in an era of mass production. The Hi-X55 are my new go-to cans for voice over audio editing.

Don’t just take my word for it. The MusicTech Magazine recently awarded these headphones their prestigious MusicTech Choice award. Click here to read their review. Here’s a quote:

“Austrian Audio has created a superb set of headphones in the Hi-X55s. Their sound-for-pound cannot be faulted and, in many respects, especially with regard to the capacious soundstage, they outperform some more costly designs.”

SPECIAL OFFER

If $299 headphones are not in your budget right now, but you would like to get a second opinion on the sound coming from your home studio, I have good news.

Uncle Roy Yokelson has kindly offered to analyze and annotate your studio audio FOR FREE, if you send him an unprocessed 30-second sample (be sure to include room tone) and the same sample using your normal audio processing.

Please label the unprocessed sample with your name and RAW (e.g. paulstrikwerda_RAW.wav), and the processed sample with your name and FINAL. Roy’s email address is antlandprods@aol.com.

Thank you so much, Roy. You are a gem!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Many thanks to Austrian Audio for sending me not only the Hi-X55 headphones for testing, but also for the photos you see on this page. As always, my opinion is independent and not influenced by any manufacturer. 

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Testing the Tri Booth

by Paul Strikwerdain Articles, Gear, Reviews, Studio1 Comment

Sick of building unstable pillow forts in your hotel room?

Done doing auditions under duvet covers? 

When (voice) actor Rick Wasserman needed to record on the road, he wanted a portable booth that would travel on a plane without incurring overweight fees.

Such a booth didn’t exist, so he designed one himself. He ordered PVC piping and moving blankets from eBay, and with a bit of DIY, the prototype for the Tri Booth was born. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start.

Wasserman had no intention of ever selling his contraption to colleagues, until a well-know voice talent saw his booth and made him a surprise offer.

“Perhaps I’m on to something,” said Rick, realizing that his design would need some serious fine-tuning before it was a marketable product. To that end, he teamed up with master audio engineer George Whittam, and together they obsessed over every detail (their words, not mine). 

A few weeks ago, Rick and George launched their perfected product, and I got to try it out.

BUILDING A BOOTH

In essence, the Tri Booth consists of a triangular PVC frame that’s covered by moving blankets. It’s super easy to set up because the plastic poles arrive already connected like tent poles. All you need to do is fit the color coded pieces together, hang up the blankets, and add the optional accessories. Here’s how the Tri Booth arrives:

Inside you’ll find a rolling suitcase with everything you need (click on each photo to enlarge). The premium version weighs 45 pounds (about 20 kilograms), and you won’t incur any overage penalties at the airport check-in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are some of the accessories: an LCD light, a small table, a copy holder, and an extension cord (Premium version only).

 

 

 

 

 

It took me less than ten minutes to put the frame together. Click here for a demonstration. Note that the connected straps give the structure strength and increased stability.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next up: the moving blankets. There are three of them. Two “walls” and a “ceiling.” Candlelight recording sessions are out of the question. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The moving blankets are in place. You’re looking at the booth with the “door” open, so you can see the interior. Note that the cloth does not reach the floor. At the level of your microphone, the moving blankets are folded in half to double the thickness. 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s my recording set up. Note that the main pole has a microphone boom arm that will accommodate shotgun mics as well as large diaphragm condensers. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By now you must be eager to know what it’s like to record in the Tri Booth. Let me take you inside.

After I recorded this video, the Tri Booth team decided to take the Standard model off the market and just sell the Premium version as THE Tri Booth.

HARLAN HOGAN

Until now I already had a recording solution for the road, the perfectly portable Harlan Hogan Porta Booth Plus. It’s basically a foldable box, lined with Auralex® foam. How would this travel booth stack up to the Tri Booth?

Here’s a quick  and dirty recording to demonstrate the difference. It was made with an iPhone and a Shure MV88+ microphone. First, you’ll hear my voice as recorded in the basement. Then I talk into Harlan’s Booth, and finally I step into the Tri Booth. 

As you can tell, the recording in the Porta Booth sounds very muffled, and I wouldn’t be happy sending it to a client. The Tri Booth, on the other hand, sounds surprisingly good. The enclosure manages to tame the reverberations and flutter echoes to leave you with audio as dry as a top-notch Martini. 

Keep in mind that booths like these only dampen the sound. They offer little or no isolation, so you’ll still hear leaf blowers blowing, twelve mad dogs barking, and a partridge in a pear tree. The Tri Booth wasn’t designed to be soundproof, but created to be used in a space that already is relatively quiet (like a hotel room).

MORE COMPETITION

Now, when I first saw the Tri Booth, it reminded me of another product, the VocalBoothToGo. It also consists of a frame and tailored moving blankets. From the outside the designs look quite similar, although the Tri Booth has three walls and the VocalBoothToGo has a larger footprint with four.

The VocalBoothToGo company offers many options, including double-walled booths they claim can offer up to 45dB of noise reduction. I say “claim,” because I didn’t see any substantiating data from an accredited lab. That noise reduction comes at a hefty price and considerable weight. These double-walled booths are too heavy to comfortably take on a plane. 

AVB4

Their single-walled Mobile Acoustic Vocal booths have a lower price tag, and it would be lovely to be able to do a side-by-side comparison with the Tri Booth. Instead of a PVC frame, the VocalBoothsToGo have an expandable metal frame that for the AVB66 model weighs 23 pounds (a little over 10 kilograms, just for the tubing). Even the smaller version, the AVB4, comes in over 50 pounds or 22 kilograms. For transportation, the company recommends buying their $160 rolling duffle bag.

Colleagues who have assembled both booths say that the Tri-Booth is much easier to put together. The AVB4 has a metal tube frame that feels like you’re assembling a canvas Army tent from the 60’s. It also doesn’t include all the accessories the Premium Tri Booth offers. That’s why it’s also cheaper.

SECRET WEAPON

The Tri Booth comes with a service no competitor is offering: having the audio processing for your booth and microphone be fine-tuned by George Whittam. When you buy the Tri Booth, George will take a sample from your existing studio, and he’ll have you record on the fly in the Tri Booth. He will then create a processing preset for the software you’re using to match that sound as closely as possible. It’s like a magical filter.

Rick Wasserman says that when his producers listened to the promos he taped in the Tri Booth, they couldn’t believe they were recorded on the road.

To round up this review, here’s the ultimate question:

Should you put this booth on your Christmas wish list?

As I said in my video, I see two markets for the Tri Booth. Number one: the road warriors. If your life as an international voice over star takes you from hotel room to hotel room, and your clients can’t live a day without you, spending $1500 on PVC pipes, moving blankets, and some accessories is a no-brainer. You’ll probably make your money back in one session.

The second group that could benefit from this booth consists of beginners who need a dry recording space but don’t want to spend thousands of dollars on a WhisperRoom. The Tri Booth is a more affordable solution that delivers as promised.

DO IT YOURSELF?

At this point you might be wondering: “Couldn’t I just go to Home Depot and build my own PVC booth?” You absolutely can, but you should realize that Rick and George have agonized over every detail of the Tri Booth, and it definitely shows. Why reinvent the wheel? 

$1500 (excluding tax and shipping) may seem a hefty price tag, but as with all products, you’re paying for the concept, the design, the materials, and the convenience. And don’t forget George’s preset! What you’re also getting is lightning fast, hands-on customer service from the inventor himself. I just emailed Rick a few questions, and literally three minutes later I had my answers! Two minutes later, George chimed in!

So, think about it. How long would it take you to create a portable, lightweight booth that is easy to set up, break down, and transport in a suitcase? If you know your way around the tool shed, it might take you anywhere between six to ten hours to come up with something that might resemble a Tri Booth. If your average hourly voice over rate is around $400, you could make between $2400 and $4000 in the time you’d be piecing together your own booth. I’d say: spare yourself the grief and make some real money!

One last question: Would I buy a Tri Booth?

The honest answer: Not in a million years, but that has nothing to do with the product. The Tri Booth is a solution to a problem I don’t have. My clients do not need me every day, and I’m not a frequent flyer either. When I travel, it’s usually for pleasure.

Yes, I’m one of those silly Europeans who believes that vacation equals preventative healthcare. I don’t want to be always available. It’s stressful and unhealthy. My friends and family need me more than my clients do.

If, however, you’re an average American workaholic living life in the fast lane, by all means, get a Premium Tri Booth and knock yourself out! It’s got my seal of approval.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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PPS For a second opinion, click here to watch Paul Stefano’s Tri Booth review on YouTube.

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The Neumann Killer Has Arrived, and it’s from Austria!

by Paul Strikwerdain Articles, Gear, Reviews28 Comments

Austrian Audio OC18 (click to enlarge)

Any day I get to test a new microphone from a new company is a good day.

Today is even better, because I’m trying out the OC18, one of the signature models from Austrian Audio.

For those of you who’d like to skip to the conclusion, here’s my verdict:

The OC18 is more than a microphone.

It is a statement. A statement that puts Austrian Audio on the map. 

The OC18 is a sublime ode to tradition, to mechanical engineering, and to uncompromising craftsmanship.

As far as I’m concerned, the Neumanns, Sennheisers, and Lewitts of the world have been put on notice!

DEEP ROOTS

You may not have heard of Austrian Audio, but you’re familiar with its lineage. Ninety-nine percent of its employees come from the Akustische und Kino-Geräte Gesellschaft m.b.H., better known as AKG.

AKG itself is a subsidiary of Harman International Industries Inc. That’s the company behind Harman Kardon, JBL, Studer, Lexicon, and many other brands. 

In 2017, Samsung Electronics bought Harman in an all-cash transaction, valued at about $8 billion. 

After the deal was done, Harman wanted to cut 650 jobs across the globe to continue its focus on the infotainment and automotive sectors. One of the victims of this policy was AKG’s home office in Vienna. AKG production moved to Eastern Europe and the Far East. 

Anechoic chamber

On July 1st, 2017, a core team of former AKG personnel (management as well as engineers) emerged from the takeover, and formed Austrian Audio. This team was responsible for the development of most of the AKG products in the past twenty years. They made a deal with Harman to buy as much AKG equipment as they could, from office furniture to machinery. Even the anechoic chamber was part of the purchase. 

Right now, the people at Austrian Audio are focused on developing best-in-class, professional audio equipment. As we speak, they’re selling a new suite of hardware and software for audio analysis, testing, and measurement that’s based on the tools they use each and every day. In April they’ve also released two microphones that have recently made it to the United States.

CONTINUING THE TRADITION

These new microphones are based on the famous C12 capsule. According to experts, this is one of the finest and most complex microphone capsules ever made. The C12 is known for having very precise polar patterns throughout the entire frequency range (it could produce 9 different polar patterns).

The original C12 was hard to manufacture (it had a failure rate of 65%), and much of it had to be done by hand. During its ten-year run only 2,500 were made, which comes down to one a day.

Austrian Audio’s CKR12 capsule is traditional in terms of acoustics, but thanks to new materials and an innovative (and to be patented) production process, the assembly is much faster and easier. This no doubt keeps the price down.

Where most makers of C12 clones use a metal-on-plastic interfacing, the CKR12 capsule uses a black ceramic-on-ceramic interfacing of the capsule halves. Ceramic is stiffer and more temperature and humidity resistant. It also has a higher density, which improves mechanical isolation. This makes for a more modern, consistent, and reliable microphone.

The capsule is suspended from three flexible rubber grommets that serve as an internal shockmount. And did I mention that every microphone is 100% made in Vienna? Take a look.

The OC18 I got to test is a large-diaphragm capacitor microphone, featuring a fixed classic cardioid pick-up pattern. The more expensive OC818 features multiple patterns, dual outputs for recording its forward-facing and rear-facing capsules independently, and optional Bluetooth wireless control. The 818 is a marriage of tradition and innovation, but for my purposes it has too many bells and whistles. 

Both mics feature the proprietary handmade ceramic CKR12 capsule, and both models have a pad with -10 and -20 dB settings, as well as a high-pass filter. The Equivalent Noise Level (self-noise) is 9 dBA. In contrast, my very own Gefell M930 Ts has a self-noise level of 7 dBA, just like the Neumann TLM 103. The Sennheiser 416 has a self-noise of 13 dBA.

The OC18 comes in a sturdy carrying case with a mic clip and a spider mount, plus a foam windscreen. The body of the microphone is made as a single piece and has a distinct, stylish look which I find pleasing to the eye. Everything about this microphone tells you that this is a professional piece of gear. Are you ready to hear what it actually sounds like?

TIME TO TEST

Before I share a sample with you, there’s something you need to know. I’m not a musician or a sound engineer, but a voice-over. I’ve been using microphones professionally for over thirty-five years to record commercials, industrials, audio books, guided tours, and eLearning programs. I am going to evaluate the OC18 from that perspective.

Here’s what I look for in a voice-over microphone: 

  • minimal voice coloration (Does it make me sound like myself?)
  • tight pick-up pattern (cardioid or supercardioid)
  • excellent rear rejection
  • controlled proximity effect (bass boost)
  • low susceptibility to sibilance (shrill “S”-sounds) and popping
  • low self-noise
  • value for money

 

Secondly, a word of warning.

Evaluating a microphone based on what you see and hear online is an exercise in futility. If you’re in the market for a new mic, you want to know what it sounds like in your studio using your voice, your acoustics, and your preamp. You don’t need me or some bearded dude using his recording chain and booth, sharing some compressed audio you listen to on your computer speakers. It ain’t fair and it ain’t right.

Having said that, I know you’re getting more curious to find out what the OC18 sounds like in the limited setting of my VO studio. The audio you’re about to hear is “unfooledaround with” (meaning no compression or other sweeteners), and recorded with an Audient iD22 preamplifier. No pads were engaged.

For fun we’ll do an A – B test. The OC18 against my Gefell M930 Ts which I consider to be the best voice-over microphone I have ever tested.

Here’s microphone A:

 

And here’s microphone B:

For the connoisseurs, this was recorded in WAV format, 24 bit, 48,000 Hz and converted to MP3 so it would load quickly. Click here if you’d like to hear the samples uncompressed. I purposely recorded something in Dutch so you wouldn’t be distracted by the content (unless you speak that language, of course).

YOUR IMPRESSION

The question is: How would you describe the difference between mic A and mic B? Is it striking or subtle? 

Which one do you think sounds best, and based on what?

Is that your objective or subjective conclusion? 

At this point I can tell you that one microphone costs $699 and the other $1,647.73. Did you hear a $948.73 difference? More importantly, would a client be able to tell?

Leave your remarks in the comment section, please.

Technically speaking, the OC18 has pads and switches the M930 doesn’t have, but as a voice talent I have no need for them. My iD22 already has a high-pass filter and I’m not going to expose my mic to loud noises any day soon. 

Looking at my criteria for a good voice-over microphone, both mics convincingly tick most of the boxes. Based on specs alone, the OC18 is a clear winner. It’s an all-round performer which will do as well on stage as in the studio.

Considering you’re getting a stellar C12-based, hand-built capsule, the $699 price tag is beyond reasonable. Remember: a Neumann TLM 103 -always a crowd favorite- will set you back about $1,100. I have used the 103 many times, and to me the OC18 sounds more open, balanced, and clear, without being clinical. It is a very user-friendly microphone, even for beginners, and it’s backed by years of audio expertise.

Some critics have mentioned that the form factor makes it hard to place the flat microphone in a generic shock mount. Well, as you can see from the picture at the top of this review, I was able to put the OC18 in a Rycote InVision shockmount system without any problems.

SUMMING UP

Back in 2012, I think I was the first to introduce the voice-over community to the CAD E100S. While this is still a fabulous microphone that offers excellent value for money, there have been some quality control and corporate communication issues at CAD. That’s why I’ve become hesitant to recommend the E100S wholeheartedly.

The OC18 on the other hand, is a different animal. Yes, it’s from a new company, and it was just released. It comes from a small but incredibly knowledgeable and dedicated team that is sought after by other brands who hire Austrian Audio to test their products.

Next to their anechoic chamber, Austrian Audio has a climate chamber where they can simulate the entire life-cycle of a product in a compressed time frame. You bet they’ve subjected their microphones to the most rigorous of tests, before putting them on the market. 

Mark my words, the OC18 is going to be a worthy successor of microphones like the classic AKG 414. I’m sure it will find its way into many voice-over studios across Europe, the United States, and Canada. 

Austrian Audio is being distributed in the U.S. by Momentum Audio Sales in California. Many thanks to Director of Operations Reezin Lovitt, for providing me with a test model, and to Kent Iverson from Austrian Audio to make the introduction. If Sweetwater is your store, you’ll be happy to know that they have the OC18 in stock. Keep in mind that you can test drive several microphones from Sweetwater, and keep the one that makes you sound like your best self.

The opinions expressed in this article are my own, and as with any review on this blog, I did not seek nor receive any compensation for it. 

Oh…. I almost forgot.

Microphone A was the OC18 from Austrian Audio!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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How I Saved Over $1,000 On My New Computer

by Paul Strikwerdain Articles, Gear, Money Matters, Reviews, Studio5 Comments

We’ve all had this experience.

After years of functioning fabulously, your computer tells you it can’t keep up with the times.

You see the spinning beach ball of death way too often, applications suddenly freeze, websites crash, and you can’t upgrade to the latest operating system.

I’ve had my trusted Mac Mini since 2011, and the once so silent computer wasn’t so silent anymore. As it heated up, the fans worked overtime, huffing and puffing right next to me in my voice-over booth. I almost felt sorry for the thing.

A few weeks ago my Mini made its last grand gesture of expiration: it crashed in the middle of a live interview with the Voice Over Body Shop guys, even though I had placed an ice pack on top of it. That terrifying moment was not something I wanted to relive with a well-paying client on the other end of the line.

Something had to be done.

MAC OR PC

In my small family we’ve had the Mac versus PC discussion a long time ago, and we’re done. My wife and I both have had a few Dells and they were a D-saster. The remote techs that were supposed to help were even worse than the lousy machines they were paid to support.

The moment Apple arrived in our household, sanity returned, and we never looked back. We now have iPhones, iPads, Apple TV, Apple desktops and laptops, and we’re living on the iCloud where all is well. And if it isn’t, we just call the friendly folks at AppleCare where they speak using words we can actually understand.

Last year, Apple finally updated the Mac Mini, and for a while it seemed obvious that I would just upgrade to the latest model. Then I started thinking (a dangerous habit of mine, I know).

CAMERA MAN

I don’t have many hobbies, but one thing I do like is photography. I enjoy going out in nature seeing the world through the lens of my mirrorless camera. I especially love taking pictures of people, particularly when they’re not posing.

Over time my photos have been used for social media campaigns, magazines, and websites. Last year one of my pictures landed on the cover of a historic novel. I’ve even won a photography competition with this shot:

click to enlarge

Just like voice-overs, photographers spend a lot of time staring at screens, editing. And that’s why I started thinking about getting an iMac.

iMac

Back in the days I owned one of the first fruit-colored iMacs in the Netherlands (mine was purple), and I’ve always loved the newer aluminum, minimalist design dating back to 2007. Plus, this all-in-one comes with a gorgeous 5K monitor. It is ideal for photo and video editing.

The cheapest 27” display with a 5120 x 2880 resolution is made by LG and costs around $1,300. What if I could get an entire computer for less than that? And if I could, would it be smart to have a huge iMac in the middle of a recording booth?

I asked my VO Facebook friends about it, and the responses ranged from “Don’t do it, you idiot!” to “No problem whatsoever.” Thanks, guys! Very helpful.

COMPUTER NOISE

Now, most of the computer noise usually comes from the fans that kick in when the CPU (Central Processing Unit) has to work hard. This usually happens when you run complicated programs involving lots of graphics. The more bits and bytes the machine has to process, the hotter it gets.

Thankfully, voice-over recordings require very little computing power so they’re not likely to cause overheating, as long as you don’t have a lot of other programs running at the same time.

Hard Disk Drives (HDD’s) are another source of noise because they have moving parts. HDD’s can make clicking and humming noises when the motor is spinning and data is being read or written. Computers with a Solid State Drive (SSD) are quiet because SSD’s have no moving parts. Although prices are coming down, SSD’s are more expensive than HDD’s.

When buying a new iMac you can choose between two different types of storage: Flash storage (SSD) or a Fusion Drive. When you go to the online Apple store, the three iMac models on virtual display all have 1 to 2 TB Fusion drives. Are they good options for the VO studio?

A Fusion Drive consists of two separate drives ‘fused’ together. It contains a regular (heat-producing) hard drive, with a spinning plate inside, and a solid-state drive. What Apple doesn’t tell you is that only 128 GB of that Fusion drive is SSD.

Bottom line, if you want a studio computer that stays cool and runs quietly, forget a Fusion drive and choose SSD instead. SSD’s offer better performance, boot up much quicker, and are not as power hungry. Nice features, but they come at a price!

FINDING A BUDGET FRIENDLY iMAC

A 2019 base model iMac with 16 GB of RAM and 512 GB of SSD would set me back $2,299.00. That’s way over my budget! What if could get an older computer that was in good shape for a lot less money?

The Apple store is selling reconditioned 2017 iMacs with 16 GB of RAM and 512 GB of SSD for a whopping $2,209. Not cool!

For the next couple of weeks I kept a close eye on eBay and saw that some 2017 iMacs had a more friendly price tag. I also looked at the reputable Apple refurb sites, as well as at Amazon Renewed. It took me a while, but I gradually narrowed down my options.

One day I decided to take a little detour and check out Facebook Marketplace. This ad caught my eye:


The owner turned out to be an IT specialist working at a Philadelphia university, and when I reached out to him, he couldn’t be nicer. Long story short, I made him an offer and his pristine iMac became mine in a Starbucks near Philly. Now, here’s the best part. How much did it cost me?

I’ll tell you!

I paid $1,260, saving me $1,039 by not buying from Apple. That meant that the iMac did not come with a one-year warranty, but to me the price difference was worth the risk.

MEMORY

Part of what makes Macs so expensive has to do with what Apple charges for memory upgrades. For instance, 32 GB of RAM costs $600 at the Apple store. Crucial sells the same amount of RAM for $134.99! The trouble is that for most Apple products, it’s a giant pain in the neck (if not impossible) to upgrade the RAM yourself… unless you own a 27″ iMac. That’s another reason why I chose the iMac over the Mac Mini. Watch how easy it is to install memory.

Speaking of upgrades, if you’re in the market for an iMac, I have a few suggestions. To create a sleek, clean look, the Apple engineers decided to hide all ports in the back like so:

This means that every time you need to reach one of these slots, you’ve got to turn this 21 pound (9.44 kg ) computer around, leaving scratch marks on your desk. That’s why I got the Rain Design i360 Turntable for iMac (see video below). Please note: if your computer is placed close to the wall, this turntable doesn’t work (obviously).

You’ll also notice another accessory, the Twelve South Backpack for iMac. It’s a small hidden storage shelf for things like external hard drives and SSD’s. In my case it holds an ADATA SE800 1TB IP68 Rugged – Up to 1000 MB/s- SuperSpeed USB 3.2 Gen 2 USB-C Solid State Drive. That’s my backup drive for Time Machine. I’ve also added a 1 TB Seagate backup drive for all my photos and videos.

Thanks to the Backpack, I can enjoy my 5K monitor without having to stare at all kinds of wires and drives cluttering up my desk.

And finally, I wanted to protect my investment with a Tripp Lite 8 Outlet Surge Protector Power Strip. What I like is that Tripp Lite will repair or replace any connected equipment damaged by surges, including direct lightning strikes, up to $75,000 for life (valid in the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico only). Let’s hope I never need it.

USING THE iMAC

I’ve used my brand new, previously loved iMac for almost a week now, and as my wife will attest, I am in love with this beautiful machine! A bit too much perhaps.

I love how fast it boots up, how brilliant the screen is, and I marvel at the classic Jony Ives design. I no longer have to wait endlessly for pages to load and websites to connect. As a result, I can work faster and be more productive and free of frustration!

The fans have yet to kick in, and if they did, I didn’t hear them. It’s just the way I want it to be.

I am only left with one question:

Who wants a mid-2011 Mac Mini?

Come meet me at Starbucks and I’ll quote you a good price!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet: Subscribe, Share & Retweet!

PPS If you own a Mac and your fans are out of control, check out the following tools to reduce noise: HHD fan Control, SSD Fan Control, and smcFancontrol.

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Audient’s iD22 Audio Interface: The Backbone of Your Voice-Over Studio

by Paul Strikwerdain Articles, Gear, Reviews, Studio12 Comments
Audient iD22 ad/DA interface and monitoring system

the Audient iD22 – click to enlarge

Every day, new audio gear is developed, manufactured and heavily hyped.

Most of what I see falls into two categories: MOTS and VOAT.

More Of The Same, and Variations On A Theme.

Brochures of these new products never fail to praise technological breakthroughs and stunning design features. But let’s be honest. Most microphones still look like grey grille-topped pipes. Studio monitors are built like boring black bricks, and painted plastic is overused in the pro audio world. 

Rarely do I spot a glimmer of inspiration, innovation or craftsmanship. But when I first saw Audient’s iD22 desktop audio interface and monitoring system, I knew intelligent design was still alive and kicking!

Based in Hampshire, England, Audient was founded in 1997 by David Dearden and Gareth Davies. Major studios worldwide, such as Abbey Road Studios, Pete Townshend’s Eel Pie Studios and House of Blues, USA, use Audient’s mixing consoles, preamplifiers and monitor controllers.

With the iD22, Audient has condensed these three elements and paired them with digital converters offering up to 96kHz resolution and USB 2.0 connectivity. It comes in an all-metal compact package (about 7” by 9”) that looks as good as it sounds. It’s almost everything a voice-over professional can wish for, and a lot more.

PREAMPLIFIERS

A fine preamplifier can make a mediocre microphone sound like a million bucks. The iD22 has not one but two top-notch class-A preamps that are identical to the ones found in Audient’s consoles and standalone preamps. Each channel provides 60dB gain.

Does a voice-over really need two preamps? Not really, but many colleagues use a shotgun mic like Sennheiser’s MKH 416 for promos and commercials, and another, less muscular mic, for things like audio books and e-Learning.

I love the fact that I can switch between mic 1 and 2 without losing any time plugging and unplugging (although you need the virtual mixer to set that up). If you’re using the iD22 in a recording studio setting, the second pre can be used to plug in a talkback mic.

The preamps themselves are pretty much silent and stand out in transparent clarity and uncolored detail. They are designed to sound large and to produce a clean low-end and a nicely defined hi-end.

Trust me, these pre’s alone are worth the price tag. Listen to a comparison between my Grace Design m101 single mic preamplifier and the Audient. Without telling you which is which, can you pick a clear winner?*

The iD22’s top panel (see picture above) has metal preamp switches for phantom power, a -10dB pad, a polarity flip (phase invert) and a high-pass filter (set at 100 Hz with a 12 dB/octave slope).

If you own a mic pre you like very much (or need to keep for sound matching purposes), you can patch it into the insert return jack. This bypasses the Audient mic amp and gives you a pure signal path.

CONVERTERS

Let’s talk about the 24-bit/96kHz AD/DA converters. Why are they such a big deal?

Every time you record your voice on a computer, the analog signal has to be turned into digital information that can be stored, manipulated and sent to the client. The better the conversion, the better the quality of the recording.

When listening to digitally stored audio, the opposite conversion happens. A Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) turns the bits and bites back to analog so you can listen to it on your speakers or headphones.

Cheaper converters can sound metallic, unmusical and thin. The converters on the iD22 are flawless and produce a realistic, crystal clear sound in all frequencies. During a one-month test period, there were no glitches or computer crashes (something that was happening more and more with my old FireWire converter).

The headphone amplifier (fed by an independent DAC) has plenty of gain and produces a full, rich sound. Before getting the iD22, I was seriously thinking of buying an audiophile headphone amp in the $300 price range. After listening to the one on the iD22, I took that off my wish list. It’s that good!

MONITOR CONTROLLER & CONNECTIVITY

Another item that is often bought separately but that’s an integral part of the iD22, is a monitor controller. You can connect two sets of speakers via TRS jacks to the iD22. The big silver knob in the center of the console sets the monitor volume digitally. Beneath the knob are switches that dim (up to -30dB) and mute the signal.

Having tested the interface for weeks, it was a pleasure to have the monitor control as well as all the other functions at my fingertips. The layout of the front panel is intuitive and also includes three programmable function buttons which can be used to activate alternate speakers, the talkback function or switch to mono. You’ll also find four LED’s for the output VU-meters.

iD22 rear view – click to enlarge

The iD22’s rear panel has two fully balanced insert points allowing you to connect outboard gear like a compressor and an equalizer to the unit. The whole system can also be expanded via optical outputs and inputs supporting both ADAT and S/PDIF. You’ll also find two combi jack inputs for your microphones plus a discrete JFET DI input to plug in any electric instrument such as a guitar or a drum machine. When in use, it replaces the second mic input.

VIRTUAL MIXER

All these inputs are listed in the mixer app (see picture below) that can be accessed once the software has been installed.

That’s right! On top of the above features, you also get a mixer console on your desktop. Some of the inputs can be hidden to make the interface even easier to read without scrolling. The monitor section of the app controls the buttons on the interface with simple clicks. All the way to the right there’s a routing matrix allowing you to assign any source to any analog or digital outputs.

this virtual mixer can be expanded – click to enlarge

If all you’ll ever use is a quality USB mic and recording software, a mixer is overkill. Bear in mind that the iD22 wasn’t specifically designed for voice-over purposes, but rather to record music (Watch this video. The audio was recorded with an iD22!).

But think of it this way. Having a mixer will give you the option to add music or sound effects to your audio. A number of colleagues have gained new clients who are happy to pay good money for fully produced spots. You also need a mixer if you want to set up an ISDN chain or a “mix minus.”

What’s a mix minus? It’s a set up on your mixer console for when you’re using a phone patch or Skype. The person on the other line will hear everything that’s playing, including you, but the caller does not hear his or her own voice. That way there’s no echo or feedback howling into your recording. Using mix-minus, a caller can direct your voice-over session without being recorded.

CUSTOMER-CENTERED

The last thing I want to mention is something that doesn’t come in the iD22 box and that can’t be found on your computer screen. It’s Audient’s documentation and customer service. When a lot of functionality is squeezed into a relatively small system, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the options, especially if you have little or no audio engineering experience.

The accompanying PDF manual is well-written and detailed. On Audient’s website you’ll find a number of excellent video tutorials to help you set the system up and configure it to your needs.

Get this.

When I had specific questions, Audient’s managing director Steve Flower personally answered my emails within 24 hours, even on weekends. That’s not something he did because he knew I was writing a review. I’ve heard the same from other users who have contacted Audient. A responsive company clearly cares about its clients.

WEAKNESSES

click to enlarge

At this point you might be wondering whether you’re reading an advertorial for the iD22 or a serious review. Even though the pros greatly outweigh the cons, this interface isn’t perfect. 

Strangely enough, the iD22 doesn’t come with an on/off switch. I’m all for conserving energy, and I don’t want my gear to be on all the time. The power cord that comes with plugs for every continent, is rather short (5 feet/1.5 meters). Since it’s sold as a desktop unit, you better be close to an outlet.

Even though I like the idea of having a virtual mixer at my disposal, the software is not intuitive to use. The other day I wanted to add another microphone to the mix, and after it was plugged in, I couldn’t get it to work using that mixer. That’s something that should be a plug-and-play thing. Most of my colleagues aren’t audio engineers, and they don’t want to spend hours experimenting to get simple things done. 

For voice over purposes, the iD22 has too many buttons I don’t need, like dim/cut and the three function buttons. What I would like to see is an additional 3.5 mm headphone connection. I have one set of cans for critical listening (the Austrian Audio  Hi-X55’s), and I use my Beyerdynamic DT880’s for recreational listening. I keep on having to plug them in an out, and that’s inconvenient because I have to go to the back of the unit to make the switch. Why not put the outputs in the front, like on the much smaller iD4?

Even though the iD22 is compact, it’s not ideal for recording on the road. Yes, it’s sturdy, but because it’s not USB-powered and can’t run on batteries, it needs to be plugged into an outlet. For out of studio recordings I recommend the USB-powered Audient iD4 which retails for $200. If only it had a high-pass filter, and I would use it exclusively!

At around $500 the iD22 is not the cheapest preamp for your studio. The Motu M2 costs about $170, and the new SSL2 is $230. Both are solid alternatives.

Lastly, my unit developed a nasty electronic buzz after six years of constant use. After a quick repair it’s back in action, but since I treat all my equipment with a velvet glove, I was disappointed it had broken down in the first place. I’m not the only one this has happened to, and from what I have heard, after-warranty repairs aren’t cheap. 

SUMMING IT ALL UP

Audient’s iD2 in the Nethervoice over studio

With the iD22, Audient is moving out of the professional studio and into the self-recording market without compromising anything. The build quality of this interface and monitoring system is equal to the quality of the sound. It’s fabulous! The design is as pleasing to the eyes as it is functional.

If you’re a voice-over pro, you can simply plug in your microphone(s), your headphones and your monitors and connect the unit to the computer. Once you’ve uploaded the software and adjusted the settings in the mixer app, you’re good to go. From that moment on, no client will ever reject your auditions because of poor audio quality. I predict the opposite will happen. Customers will seek you out because of your sound.

Even if you do not use all the functionality that’s built into the iD22, this is still a lot of bang for your buck. Try buying two world-class preamps, pristine AD/DA converters, an audiophile headphone amp, a monitor controller and a mixer for six hundred dollars. That’s a tall order. My current single microphone preamplifier alone costs almost seven hundred dollars, and I prefer the pre’s on the iD22.

With this compact, sturdy interface, there’s no need to stack up and connect different boxes from different brands, hoping they will work together. All the elements of the iD22 are designed to make you sound your best and built to help you focus on your craft, instead of having to worry about technology.

To me that may be the best benefit the iD22 has to offer!

It’s my top pick for best voice-over gear of 2013, and it’s staying in my studio.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Many thanks to colleague Scott McDonald in Finland who was the first VO to choose an iD22 (read his blog here), and to Audient for the evaluation model. 

PPS Be sweet. Please retweet.

*Number one is the Grace Design m101 and number two is the Audient pre.

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