Regular Pro Audio Review readers have seen the name Lawson appear quite frequently. This small Nashville company has been creating high quality capsule microphones for many years now, mostly catering to studio recording of vocalists and musical instruments.
Product PointsApplications: Broadcast, voiceover
Key Features: Hypercardioid pattern; double mesh pop screen; condenser element; gold-sputtered three-micron diaphragm
Contact: Lawson Microphones at 615-259-5542, Web Site.
The new AIR microphone, priced at well under $1,000, cannot be considered a departure from the company’s established mic line (which includes the 2000 PAR Excellence award-winning L251 tube mic). The AIR microphone is rather a daring exploration into another sphere of audio production: voiceover and radio broadcast.
Based on the Lawson L47 capsule used for studio recording, the Lawson AIR mic has just hit the market at a list price of $895, which is incredible for a handcrafted-in-USA, high-quality FET condenser. Our test unit was a preproduction unit with a nickel-plated brass top-cage and a turned-aluminum body.
The AIR is about the same size as the company’s L47SH microphone but minus the gold trim and blue finish. (The production version of the AIR is gussied up in the Lawson blue body finish). It is a serious-looking mic, and its stubby body and tall capsule cage gives it a rugged look. As a result, the AIR mic has a definite heft that broadcasters should like.
Good thing too, as day-to-day broadcast use means it would be subject to more abuse than it would receive in a music space. Radio broadcast microphones normally are suspended from cantilevered mic booms and are swung around mercilessly by air talent more pre-occupied with their performance than with how delicate a mic might be.
Opting for FET circuitry rather than a vacuum tube is another broadcast concession that makes perfect sense. High-energy broadcasters don’t want to know of blown filaments, microphonic elements or anything else that could knock their mic out of service.
A rugged circuit board with all-discrete components (no SMD) is tuned for peak response for voice, a stout Neutrik transformer couples the mic to the outside world, and a heavy machined brass ring keeps the base closed.
The upper cage that holds the one-inch capsule connects to the circuitry below by a nine-pin D-sub connector, much like the ones found on computer serial ports. Three screws hold the top-cage to the base.
The specs include a one-inch, three-micron gold-sputtered diaphragm, optimized for hypercardioid polar pattern, 20 Hz to 20 kHz frequency response, 138 dB maximum SPL, 20 dBa self-noise and 150 ohms impedance.
The dimensions are 6.5 inches long and 2.37 inches deep. The units comes in a vacuum plastic case with a standard swivel mount. Like other Lawson microphones, other Lawson capsules can be attached to the body.
The mic is quite simple in function with no pad or roll-off switch; the rolloff is always active in the circuit.
Designer Gene Lawson designed the AIR to be worked up close. At first, this seems a contradiction to proper mic technique in general. Everyone knows how bad plosives can be when working a mic up close, and the exaggerated bass caused by proximity effect would guarantee a less-than-perfect recording.
But up close is the way many radio broadcasters work. Maybe at National Public Radio you will find delicate microphones with the pop-stopper hoop in front, dictating the proper working distance for the performance to be properly captured. But in the commercial world, technique-be-dashed. Announcers tend to eat the mic. Lips are right on the edge of the screen.
In talking to voiceover and broadcast talent, Gene Lawson knew the tendency to “eat” the mic meant he had to make some tweaks to get it to sound good under “normal” use. Thus, the built-in, 6 dB of rolloff at under 100 Hz. There is still a large low-frequency presence in the talent’s voice, but it does not overpower everything else.
Although the mic frequency range is listed at 20 Hz to 20 kHz, the mic’s frequency response graph is indeed indicative of its voicing for vocal work. Not only is there the built-in -6 dB bass rolloff, but for vocal clarity, there is a gentle response from 2 kHz to 4.5 kHz, which brightens up the voice without being harsh or brittle. The response decreases a few dB from 4.5 kHz to 8 kHz, at which point the response again rises a couple of dB to 10 kHz. The response then gently lowers to about 12 kHz with another small rise the rest the way out to 20 kHz.
Although many microphones come with with pads and rolloff switches, Lawson has kept the AIR simple without control of the rolloff and no pad control at all. A pad might be useful with some preamps, but Lawson figures that any tweaking will likely be done with external processing prior to air or to recording.
Radio broadcast audio differs from music recording in the studio, as microphones are individually (and often grotesquely) processed with heavy compression, noise-gating and corrective EQ prior to even hitting the input channel on the console. The even, peak-free vocal delivery of high-energy radio talent is more the work of the processing than of a talent’s particular technique.
My experiences with the AIR mic were at the production facilities of WMET(AM), a Washington DC talk station with new studios under construction and an increase to 50,000 watts underway.
Production for this station consists primarily of commercial announcements, but I also put the AIR mic through its paces in station imaging and recording announcements for our separate concert web casts (www.wmet.net).
Without the mic processor switched into the line, the AIR mic had a spacious and open sound typical of most condenser units. When worked the typical distance a capsule mic would be set for, the bass response was indeed lacking. Gene Lawson was right: this mic has to be worked up close and personal to bring out its character.
In its unprocessed form, the AIR mic had a wonderful body that lent itself to “serenity” reads, such as commercials for massage therapy and Cancun beach vacations. When worked a little closer (again minus the compression), the mic took on what I call “museum read” quality – an authoritative-sounding thump in the higher bass range that carries a feel reminiscent of the programs one hears in museum headphone tours.
Adding in the mic processing kept the qualities in place, only making them a little more assertive. With compression, my “museum read” evolved into a lawyer commercial read (‘Have you been injured in an accident or workman’s comp case?’).
Up close with compression is when this mic shines. Here is where imaging announcers do the Growl (‘The city’s bes-s-t r-r-rrock is r-r-right hee-ere!’) The Air mic is up to it, although I felt the mic needed a little more pop immunity.
Blasts and plosives were handled on the prototype by double screening – a large mesh screen atop a tighter screen with smaller spaces – but lots of up-close work is filled with popped Ps and Ts, some juicy enough to get by.
The proper technique of talking across the capsule at 45 degrees goes a long way to resolve this, but again, not everyone follows the rules.
Indeed, announcers used to front-fire microphones, such as the E-V RE-20 or the classic Sennheiser 421, may be a little disoriented in having to deal with a side-fire unit. The “safety net” of having an instrument pointing directly at your mouth does not exist here, and inexperienced performers may find themselves frequently going off-axis.
According to Lawson production mocels will include an internal mesh screen and sensitivity settings customized at Lawson’s factory.
Although it will be a challenge for Lawson to convince broadcasters to switch away from their big $400 dynamic microphones, those with bigger budgets may be swayed by the classic condenser sound of the AIR. It also could be attractive for voice-over artists who want something in between the $1,500+ upper-end condensers and the mass-produced $200 Chinese microphones.