Neumann

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

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Reviews 28 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

PS Be sweet: Share, Subscribe and Retweet!

Send to Kindle

Picking Bodalgo’s Brain

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, International, Internet, Journalism & Media, Money Matters, Pay-to-Play, Studio 13 Comments

“I’m being offered $200 to narrate a 120-thousand word audio book. Do you think that’s a fair rate?”

“A client wants me to record a movie trailer for $150. Should I do it?”

Not a day goes by without someone asking these types of questions on Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+.

Sometimes I stick my neck out and I respond to these questions, especially when I get sentimental and remember the early days of my career.

I was young and unafraid and incredibly ignorant. Back then there was no Internet. Picking brains became my specialty.

On other days I’m not so sappy, as I remember the kind words of my business coach:

“If you’re a Pro, you know what you’re worth. If you’re not, go do your own homework! You won’t learn a thing if I hand you everything on a silver platter.”

He was right.

These days, getting info has never been easier. Search Google for voiceover rates. You’ll get about 5,600,000 results in 0.52 seconds. How’s that for starters?

MONEY TALKS

Bringing up rates usually spells trouble. Talent likes them to go up. Clients love paying less. Where to begin?

The Freemarketeers will tell you to leave everything up to the unregulated forces of supply and demand. After all, it worked well for subprime mortgages, didn’t it? The Interventionists fear a free fall for all. They want rates to be regulated.

Unfortunately, it’s not that black-and-white. Voice-Over rates reflect many variables, and unless you belong to a union or you have an agent, it can be tough to put a price on your pipes.

Enter a parade of Pay-to-Plays. You pay for the privilege of being offered the opportunity to audition and bid for projects, together with thousands of other privileged colleagues. Here’s the catch.

As a member, you often have to subject yourself to an agreed price range per project deemed reasonable by that site. Whether or not you choose to accept that range depends on your personal Price Floor.

A Price Floor is a point below which a product or service should not be sold, or else you’d incur a loss. I bet you anything that most people reading these words right now, have no clue what their price floor actually is.

Be honest. Do you?

A EUROPEAN PERSPECTIVE

If you’ve read my work before, you know that I have written about U.S.-based voice casting sites and their perceived influence on dwindling voice-over rates.

On January 8th, 2008, a new player entered the market: Bodalgo. Based in Germany, Bodalgo is the brain child of a man who once had a very boring job as the deputy editor of Penthouse: Armin Hierstetter.

Armin’s no dummy.

He studied the existing P2P’s carefully, as he set out to take the good and improve the bad to create something beautiful. Unlike similar sites, Bodalgo is available in German, Spanish, Italian and English (American and British).

Now, if you think that you can buy your way into Bodalgo, you are wrong. No matter the credit limit on your Visa Card, if you sound like crap, you can’t join the club.

Bodalgo caters to clients from all over the world, but because it’s based in Bavaria, it’s a gateway to the European voice-over market. This brings me back to rates. How does Bodalgo compare to its American counterparts?

I (PS) decided to check in with the boss: Armin Hierstetter (AH). Here’s a transcript of the interview.

PS I just saw a project posted on your site in the 100-250 USD range. It made me think: Is Bodalgo going in the direction of its American counterparts, or did I miss something? Has $100 always been the minimum?

AH In USD the minimum range starts at 100 dollars (the Euro has a 50 to 150 minimum range as – for example – a local radio spot in Germany is usually 50 to 55 Euro).

If jobs are posted that are budgeted too low (intentionally or not), Bodalgo contacts the voice-seeker suggesting what we believe is a fair rate. Sometimes the voice-seeker sees our point and is willing to raise the budget, sometimes not. If the voice-seeker does not agree on increasing the budget, the job simply does not get posted. Period.

Of course, we hear many times:

“What? You want me to pay 250 USD for a job that is done in five minutes? You must be insane, you [censored]”

Well, depending on my mood, I sometimes try to explain why voiceovers cost what they cost (knowing that with these types of folks it really does not help at all in most cases), or I simply press the delete button and go on with whatever I am doing.

PS Bodalgo’s been in business for a few years now. What’s your overall take on how voice-over rates are established and where they are going?

AH There are many factors when it comes to rates. Here are few of them (this is by no means meant to be a complete list):

Your voice:

  1. Experience
  2. Skills
  3. Uniqueness (most important if you ask me)

Your studio:

  1. Equipment
  2. Recording skills

Other factors:

  1. Currencies
  2. Inflation

I see a link between equipment becoming more powerful yet more affordable, and declining voice-over rates. Let me share three trends with you:

1. The costs for your own studio are coming down, so you can make this beneficial for your clients as well;

2. Because many talents build their own studios, there is much more competition which also leads to lower prices. That’s how the market works.

PS Sorry to interrupt, but clients are saving money due to the increase in home studios. They no longer need to pay for studio time, an audio engineer/editor and a director.

It is my impression that these savings are simply pocketed and not passed on to the voice talent. In the end, we end up doing more for less. Shouldn’t this give us some leverage to raise our rates?

Armin Hierstetter

AH I fully understand that voice-seekers already save a lot of money because they’re used to getting the finished audio from the talent without paying for a studio.

I want to be honest with you. I really think that’s one of the biggest mistakes talents have made for a very long time: They did not charge properly for the studio work, only for the rate as a talent. It will be VERY difficult to change this to an approach where talent charges their normal rate plus editing costs;

3. More and more people of the type “My friends all tell me I should host a radio show,” buy a Shure SM58 microphone and think that their laptop recording is God’s gift to the audio world. Untrained amateurs seem to flood the market.

What’s worse, there are many voice-seekers out there that listen to crap demos thinking they are actually good, because they don’t have a proper recording at hand to compare.

But one thing is for sure: Bodalgo will never start to accept amateurs. Yes, there are a few talents with Bodalgo that have just slipped through the net that might not have passed if I had been pickier the day I activated their accounts. Still, the level of Bodalgo’s talent is much, much, much higher than with any other Pay2Play site that we’ve come across.

PS What’s your advice on how to best play the game? Everybody loves to win an audition, but not at any rate. Do you expect voice-over rates to go up any time soon?

AH If you ask me, the reasons why rates should go up are purely to be seen in costs of living. If those prices would be stable, I’d say it’s fair to assume that our rates would stay stable as well.

With financial markets facing the issues they face at the moment, including all the effects like higher inflation, increased costs for energy, food, rent etcetera, I think that we’ll see rates rising over the next years to cover the rising living expenses.

PS Inflation correction keeps rates at the same level. Talent won’t be making more just because the number on a check is higher. If we wish to increase the amount of money coming in, we need to compensate for the rise in the cost of living, and add e.g. 10% to whatever we’re charging.

AH Well, U.S.-based talent benefits from the weak dollar when paid in Euros by Euro-Zone clients. The opposite is true for Euro-Zone-Talent paid in USD. U.S. clients will not accept higher USD prices just because of exchange rates. It’s really just bad luck for us Euro-Talents. 

So, to cut a long story short: Yes, I see higher rates over the next years. But this is only because everything else will go up in price as well.

PS So, how can we best prepare for the tough years that are ahead of us?

AH 1. If you have not done so already, invest in your own studio.

2. Buy the good stuff (like Neumann or Brauner for mics, for example) as it will serve you well many, many years. Personally, I would no longer waste money on analog equipment. I would solely buy digital stuff (like the TLM 103 D from Neumann).

PS Quality equipment is essential, but owning a state of the art camera does not make one a top-notch photographer.

AH I do appreciate that a cool mic does not make a great voice talent, but this is not where I am coming from at all. I am just a firm believer that successful talent simply needs both: A well-trained voice and great equipment to deliver high-quality audio. There are too many Samsung USB mics out there in my opinion.

I know, of course, that those top shelf brands are pricey. But when you look at what you (and your client) get for the money – it turns out to be an excellent investment.

3. LEARN HOW TO RECORD PROPERLY!!! It’s really, really, really (I mean it) horrible to hear how bad, bad, bad many of the auditions are recorded (hiss, bad miking, bad levelling, bad everything). Use proper headphones to proof-listen your recordings and be super critical about the work you deliver. [Armin insisted this should be printed in bold]

PS Can Bodalgo keep both voice-seekers and voice talent equally happy, or is that impossible?

AH That’s easy: Our main goal is to attract more and more voice-seekers that post sanely budgeted jobs. We want to provide them with the easiest solution available to find high-quality talent without paying any commission. That way, both sides will win.

PS Herzlichen Dank, Armin.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

Send to Kindle