Blurring the Line between Project and Professional
The annual NAMM show just wrapped up in Anaheim, California, and as they have every year at this time, musicians and gear-heads alike experience an influx of new and exciting products. NAMM is the National Association of Music Merchants, and their shows are the place where gear and musical-instrument manufacturers, big and small alike, come to show off their new wares. A developing trend of the last few years has been an increased focus on recording gear with professional features for the project studio, and 2013 has proven to be no exception.
The novelty of smaller and sleeker has come and gone; these elements are now expected in new gear, such as USB interfaces. What is new, however, is that we are seeing features in these small packages that were historically reserved for much pricier gear. From USB-powered interfaces that can track at 24-bit/192 kHz resolution to USB mics with built-in adjustable EQ curves and de-essing, there are features that just over ten years ago were relegated to the realm of the professional studio, with a price tag to match.
It Starts at the Source
With recording, most engineers know if you don’t get it right on the way in, you won’t have it right on the way out. Sure, there are plenty of tricks you can use to fix a sound in your DAW, but getting the sound right on the way in can save you headaches and time later on. The first piece of gear your sound is probably going to hit is the microphone, and NAMM saw a lineup of new mics from some well-known companies.
Samson has long had a reputation for producing quality project-studio mics, and the new MTR line of condenser mics sees them continuing this trend. The MTR101 features a cardioid-pickup pattern, a 1-inch diaphragm, and can handle SPL levels up to 137dB. The MTR201 also has a cardioid-pickup pattern, but with a gold-sputtered 1-inch diaphragm and a 10dB attenuation switch. Things get a bit more interesting with the MTR231. Samson ups the ante from the MTR201 and gives you multiple-pickup patterns, allowing you to select between cardioid, omnidirectional and figure-8. All three feature an internally shock-mounted capsule and are designed to be at home tracking a variety of sources, including close miking instruments and vocals, or acting as a room mic.
Another perennial name in mics geared for the project studio is MXL. Their new Tempo XLR is based on their popular Tempo USB mic, with some noticeable differences. As the name implies, this is an XLR microphone. It can handle 134 dB of input and is designed for use with vocals, stringed instruments and percussion. MXL has put some impressive attention to detail into the Tempo XLR. It is internally wired with Mogami components and features a 10 dB attenuation switch, enabling it to be used in front of loud sources.
AKG microphones have long been known as one of the biggest names in recording by both professional engineers, hobbyists and everyone in between. NAMM 2013 saw them bring the mark IV version of their popular C 1000 S small condenser mic. Out is the 9-volt block battery—the C 1000 S mk IV is powered by two AA batteries. It has three frequency settings as well as both cardioid and hypercardioid-pickup patterns. While condenser mics generally find themselves amongst the more delicate studio gear, the C 1000 S mk IV is designed to be a workhorse for both studio and live use and has a sturdy metal chassis, a humidity-proof capsule and XLR plug.
Blue Microphones is a company that has built a reputation for many things: studio condenser mics by which many top-level engineers swear, entry-level USB mics, and of course, those love-'em or hate-'em designs. Above all, however, is Blue’s commitment to quality, and the Nessie USB Adaptive mic stays true to that goal. Though it can easily handle tracking instruments, the Nessie was really designed for vocals and voice-overs, and that is where its features shine. It has what Blue calls adaptive processing, and automatically can apply its built-in EQ and de-esser as well as level control while you are tracking.
Another entry in the USB mic category is a familiar face with some new features. Audio Technica has updated their AT2020USB line with the AT2020USB+. Like the AT2020USB, it features a cardioid-pickup pattern and a tripod for desktop use. However, the AT2020USB+ has an extended frequency response of 20 Hz to 20 kHz (the AT2020USB is only 20 Hz to 16 kHz), as well as a built-in 1/8” headphone jack that allows you to monitor your signal delay free, as well as provide playback of audio from your DAW.
One of the challenges any project studio on a budget has is creating an ideal environment for tracking vocals. Let’s face it, space is typically at a premium and if you are renting, you are not going to take a trip to the Home Depot to start building an isolation booth in your bedroom. sE Electronics addresses this situation with their RF-X Reflection Filter. It attaches to your mic stand and helps isolate your mic from the reflections in the room. Your mic picks up more of what you want while the RF-X rejects late reflections and echoes from less-than ideal tracking rooms. You will be amazed at how much this can improve the quality of vocals tracked at home.
Digital audio has almost single-handily democratized recording, producing and music making. Portable converters and audio interfaces now make it possible to produce and track almost anywhere without the need for racks full of expensive gear. The quality of conversion and list of features you can get in a USB-powered audio interface today is downright astonishing when you look at how far they have come in the last ten years. One significant focus of many of these devices continues to be portability, as more people look toward their iPads and other tablets as music-making machines.
Focusrite is one of the most well known gear manufacturers in the world. One of their showings at NAMM was the Scarlett Studio, and with it they seem to be intent on raising the bar for value. Focusrite gives you almost everything you need to record, minus the computer. The Scarlett Studio is a package that includes their Scarlett 2i2 USB interface, a CM25 mic, a pair of HP60 headphones and a 10-foot XLR cable. The Scarlett 2i2 is USB powered and features 24-bit/96kHz conversion as well as two Focusrite mic pres housed in a sleek red anodized-aluminum body. The package even includes a copy of Cubase LE 6 as well as Focusrite Scarlett plug-ins.
While many know Steinberg as the company that makes Cubase and Nuendo, you might not realize they also make some impressive hardware as well. Their UR22 USB 2.0 interface has some impressive features. This USB bus powered audio interface is capable of conversion rates up to 24-bit/192 kHz, an audio fidelity that, until recently, could only be found in dedicated rack-mount converters costing in the thousands of dollars. It also has two combo XLR/TRS inputs with Steinberg's proprietary D-PRE microphone preamps as well as 5-Pin Din MIDI ins and outs, making this box a MIDI interface as well. It provides latency-free hardware monitoring while tracking, and is compatible with all major DAWS.
Where It All Ends Up
Most recording engineers will tell you the best tool they have is their ears. While monitoring with headphones is important and typically necessary, tracking, mixing and editing with them quickly gets tiring. While it is important to check your mixes on headphones, your sound will only benefit from a good pair of monitors.
PreSonus is known for many things: recording systems, live sound, software, monitor distribution and talk-back solutions, but not monitors. Not yet, anyway. The Eris E5 and Eris E8 monitors that were introduced at NAMM seem fairly intent on changing that. The Eris line is designed for project studios looking to up their monitoring game. They both feature Kevlar woofers and silk-dome tweeters as well as acoustic tuning and space control. Acoustic tuning helps you fine-tune the monitors to the resonant frequencies in your room, while the space control helps eliminate the boundary bass boost that commonly occurs when your speakers are near a wall or corner. The E5 has a 5.25” woofer and 1” tweeter with 70 watts of output. The E8 has an 8” woofer, 1.25” tweeter and produces 130 watts of output.
What to Take Away
NAMM, like any massive convention, can be simultaneously exciting and overwhelming. If I took anything away from this year’s lineup, it is that gear makers are looking to continue to increase the quality and affordability of their products. There will always been the standard line of novelties being passed off as innovation, but as the market continues to demand professional results from project and in-home studios, many manufacturers will rise to the call.