Antares AMM-1 Microphone Modeler

I was rather skeptical when I first read about the software version of Antares' Mic Modeler. I own a couple dozen vintage tube microphones - all with unique sonic characteristics - and I just could not conceive of their reasonable facsimiles being created in software.
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I was rather skeptical when I first read about the software version of Antares' Mic Modeler. I own a couple dozen vintage tube microphones - all with unique sonic characteristics - and I just could not conceive of their reasonable facsimiles being created in software. After spending considerable time with both the software and hardware versions of this tool, however, I've been convinced big time. This is my new favorite toy!
Product PointsApplications: Studio, post production

Key Features: Microphone modeling software and hardware; AMM-1 features XLR, 1/4-inch analog I/O, AES/EBU digital I/O and MIDI in/out/thru; software versions include TDM, MAS VST, RTAS and DirectX

Price: AMM-1: $995; plug-in: $299 to $599

Contact: Antares at 831-461-7800; Web Site: www.antarestech.com

Plus

+ Close-to-perfect mic emulation

+ Good for effects processing on prerecorded tracks and mixes

+ Plug-in has good tube preamp emulation

Minus

- No support for higher sample rates of 88.2 and 96 KHz

- Hardware version A/D converters could be better

The Score: Highly recommended and impressive microphone modeling hardware and software with a large selection of mic emulations.
The idea is actually quite simple: feed in signal flowing from one particular microphone (selected from a long list of possibilities), adjust a few parameters about it, then select a different microphone (from the same long list), adjust a few of its parameters and presto - a new sound!

While I have no idea how much DSP goes on "under the hood" (as the often-amusing manual puts it), it must be considerable - a mere frequency response equalization change would never be sufficient to explain the magic I hear output from this tool. I was able to make one of my wonderfully smooth Royer R-121 ribbon mics sound amazingly similar to my highly colored Telefunken U 47 and, even more remarkably, visa versa.

I could also make either one possess the stringy smoothness of an AKG C 12A, or to go from the sublime to the practical - acquire the rock'n'roll aggressiveness of a Shure SM57!

I do emphasize that the sounds are similar - not identical. Although the process does is not 100 percent accurate, it would certainly pass the proverbial "seven points of similarity" test.

What Antares has done is to create good virtual simulations of the most salient of each microphone's identifying characteristics and, in the process, has given engineers a new creative tool. It is not equalization, and it is not "aural excitement," it is somewhere in between.

Features


The hardware AMM-1 has parallel XLR and 1/4-inch phone analog inputs and outputs on the rear panel, as well as AES/EBU digital I/O, MIDI I/O, another 1/4-inch jack for a bypass footswitch connection, and a 7-pin female DIN jack, which connects to one of the two cables emanating from its hefty multivoltage line-lump AC power supply. Its front panel has a two line by 20-character yellow LCD, three soft knobs, nine pushbuttons and a single 6-LED level display.

The software plug-in versions, simply called Antares Mic Modeler, gets its I/O from insert patching within whichever sequencer or DAW application it is plugged into (I used MOTU's Digital Performer 2.72), and has virtual equivalents of all the hardware box's knobs and switches. All plug-ins are 48 kHz, 24-bit capable.

Simply select from the source list the microphone you are using (or used previously) on a recording and select the mic you want the Antares to mimic from the model list, adjusting a few parameters on each. Technically, matching the same source microphone to one's own source mic causes Antares' DSP to neutralize its known characteristics, rendering your sound source sort of "mic-less."

The audio is then processed by a second "modeled mic" algorithm, which imposes certain characteristics of the modeled microphone onto the previously neutralized signal. Mic Modeler also contains the software equivalent of a high-quality tube preamp circuit - one that offers the possibility of injecting an adjustable amount of tube overdrive-saturation distortion into the final output signal.

The various tweaks one dials in for effective modeling include specifying the source-to-mic distance for each microphone (so that the DSP can remove the proper amount of proximity effect bass boost from the source mic's signal); the user can then apply a precise amount of proximity effect to add to the modeled microphone's output.

Similarly, any low-cut filters that have been imposed by physical switches on the source microphone must be specified - so they can be neutralized - and then one can switch any cut filters back in on the modeled microphone. The appropriate pickup pattern for any of the multipattern microphones must also be selected.

Both the hardware and software versions have input gain (up to +12 dB) and output attenuation controls. Antares has also included a fascinating pair of switches under the Preserve Source label: bass and treble. If selected, these split the source microphone's sound into two - its bass sound and its treble sound - and allows the DSP to process both, only one, or none of the two frequency ranges.

If you like your source microphone's low end, but not its treble response, it is possible to create a hybrid output microphone that has, say, the lows of a Shure SM57 but the highs of a Sony C37! One can also completely bypass either the source mic or the modeled mic (or both - leaving only with the tube preamp overdrive stage). This feature is useful for subtly changing the sonic characteristics of an entire mix.

The hardware box has a few extra system menu items for selecting sample rate (44.1 or 48 kHz) when working from an analog input, and for selecting which channel of an AES/EBU digital input pair will be processed and which will be either passed through untouched, or zeroed.

You can download new microphone model files from Antares' Web site. You can actually download such files to 100 locations in the unit's FLASH memory, view information or do housekeeping on the contents of the FLASH memory and adjust the contrast of the LCD screen.

When I received my units (both software and hardware iterations), they shared similar but not exactly identical microphone lists; the Antares Web site listed other newly modeled mics not contained in one or the other units' FLASH memory (such as the Neumann M 147 microphone). By simply downloading these models (which are actual Standard MIDI Files) and playing them within Digital Performer, I was able to load them into the hardware AMM-1. Getting them into the software plug-in's lists was even easier; I simply dragged my downloaded files into the appropriate folders (source or modeled) in the Antares folder, which, on the Mac, is found with-in the System folder's Preferences folder.

In use


I first set up two microphones that were also on Antares' lists -a Royer R-121 and a Stephen Paul-modified Telefunken U 47. I picked these two particular microphones because I knew their sounds very well and they were about as far apart in sonic characteristics as any I own.

I fed each into a Manley MIC EQ 500 Combo preamp and sent one set of the Manley's outputs into a pair of analog inputs in the MOTU 1296 digital interface box, and the other to a Coleman Audio MS8 switcher, temporarily appropriated to feed the AMM-1's single analog input.

The MOTU 1296 fed the mixer in Digital Performer, whose output fed an input on a Lucid DA9624 digital-to-analog converter; the AMM-1's digital output directly fed the AES/EBU digital input of the Lucid DAC. I did my listening evaluations with both Stax electrostatic headphones and Manley Tannoy speakers. With this setup I could easily compare the Antares software and hardware's effects on each of my two microphones.

I spent several afternoons at this, becoming increasingly fascinated with the results I obtained from the Antares tools. I also became more proficient at doing the various tweaks, which actually made all the difference between amazingly accurate simulations and rather mediocre ones.

Since I'm a bit of an effete snob who does classical recording with ridiculously expensive condenser microphones, I had the most fun making some of them sound like other high-end microphones I don't own yet, such as the Brauner VM1 and Antares' model of a vintage AKG C 12A. I quickly learned that it was a little easier to get the Royer ribbon microphone to sound like one of these expensive condenser models than to get my U 47 to sound like them.

In fact, I'll go out on a limb and state that, in my opinion, the Royer R-121 is perhaps one of the best microphones to use for modeling other mics for the simple reason that it has an extremely smooth frequency response curve and contains no electronic circuitry whatsoever. Since the modeled microphone's output retains just a smidgen of the original mic's sound character (especially that of its internal amplifier), choosing a smooth ribbon mic as a source rather than a snappy condenser makes perfect sense.

I also played back some of my multitrack classical master tapes and changed the mics around to quite interesting effect, but it was when I started using the Mic Modeler plug-in on stereo mixes that I really became hooked. If you make the stereo mix "mic-less" (by selecting Bypass on the source mic), and then choose one of the high-quality condenser microphones as an output model, you can impart subtle tonal changes to the entire mix, simulating the sound of a perfectly balanced stereo pickup as made via a single pair of expensive microphones. Amazing!

My listening tests also revealed the differences and similarities between Antares' software and hardware versions of its mic-modeling DSP. First, the hardware unit has no noticeable latency (digital delay), as its internal DSP chips are dedicated only to doing microphone modeling, not running a fancy computer at the same time. Latency in Digital Performer can be minimized - but not eliminated - by playing with RAM buffers, etc., but experienced native DAW users will appreciate the tradeoffs involved. Use the plug-ins only during mixing and, if you really need Antares' magic while recording, spring for one or two AMM-1s!

On the other hand, the one place where the hardware unit falls significantly short of the plug-in is in the sound quality of its ADC circuits. Only 20-bit and apparently not as well implemented as some of the high-quality 20-bit ADCs of days past, they are a little noisy and sort of wiry-sounding when compared to modern chips.

The difference was particularly noticeable while brightening up the sound of my Royer R-121 to mimic a Brauner VM1 or a Sony C800G. The AMM-1's ADCs added a bit of hiss to the preamplified signal coming from my Manley microphone preamplifier, while the plug-in version - using the same mic preamp but a better converter - added no hiss whatsoever, and sounded considerably smoother.

I recommend the AMM-1 only if a better converter is used ahead of it. In that case, I found its sound output became identical to that I obtained from the plug-in and, of course, didn't have any of the plug-in's latency factor - which would surely bother a singer trying to monitor his or her sound in headphones.

While I'm being critical here, I find it hard to believe that any product as good as the AMM-1 (or Antares' plug-in software) can be released without high sample rate capability. (Antares plans to release 96 kHz versions of its software by June 2001 - Ed.)

Summary


For those who work at 48 kHz and below, the two Antares Mic Modeler tools are highly recommended without reservations. Don't use them merely as a means to increase the number of microphones in your locker - these are highly functional effects devices in their own right, entirely worthy of being put in the same category as your favorite equalizers and spectral modifiers.