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Special Report Studio Microphones

For our January Studio Microphone Special Report, PSN sent a survey to a number of mic makers. What follows is the unedited transcript of their replies.

For our January Studio Microphone Special Report, PSN sent a survey to a number of mic makers. What follows is the unedited transcript of their replies.

Responding were:
• Michael Edwards–Director, Product Management, Wired Products, Audio-Technica
• Bob Crowley–President, Soundwave, Makers of Crowley and Tripp Microphones
• Dawn Birr–Product Manager, Sennheiser Professional Products
• John Jennings–VP Sales & Marketing, Royer Labs
• Dan Radin–Product Manager, Neumann USA
• Bob Heil-Founder/CEO, Heil Sound
• Jeff Segota–Staff Engineer, Shure

PSN: Are there overall trends you see in studio microphone design that have developed or accelerated in the last year?

Edwards: Not so many new design ideas, but plenty of design copies.
Crowley: Outside our own efforts, I’m not aware of any fundamental innovations in microphone technology, but users are now very much concerned with specific sounds, tones and voices, and there is continued emphasis on how the sound of the front end is used to develop a specific instrumental tone, feeling or vocal presentation.
Birr: In general, it appears that studio microphone design has been an exercise in making the successes of the past greater successes in the future. By this I mean that a great deal of inspiration continues to be drawn from what is largely considered “the classics.” However, there is clearly a trend for smaller mics that exhibit ultra-high frequency response extending out to 50 kHz. The new Sennheiser MKH 8000 series is a prime example: 3 1/2 inches and 19mm in diameter, but packing the punch and specifications of the earlier MKH microphones. Digital studio microphones will have a place in the near future in studio, live, post and broadcast applications.
Jennings: The ribbon microphone appears to have achieved mainstream status. We have seen the introduction of a great number of new ribbon microphones over the past 18 months, mostly cheap to moderately priced models made in China.
Radin: At the high end of the market, there continue to be numerous attempts to recreate the legendary Neumann U 47 using new, refurbished or reverse-engineered componentry. Many of these microphones look very similar to the U 47. I continue to see an increase in specialty microphones for specific applications and vintage-sounding microphones. The success of this second category is evident to me with the enormous success we’ve enjoyed with the TLM 49. And at the cost-effective end of the spectrum, the quality of apparent manufacturing tolerance and resulting audio output continue to improve. It’s certainly a great time to be a studio mic nerd!
Heil: Finally, an American company of 45 years has brought new technology of the dynamic microphone industry for use in serious recording studios, broadcast stations and live stages.
Segota: Yes, more Asian imports. New microphones with USB interface. And new, small companies offering studio microphone products.

PSN: If you do have trends to discuss, what do these mean for the end-user?

Crowley: Indie and Roots Rock, if I dare to generalize, now rely on a more natural-sounding vocal tone with less processing and hyped tops than is still common in classic and commercial rock and popular music, and some commercial R&B. The expansion of ethnic, Bluegrass, Gypsy and World genres have also embraced a less compressed, dense and hard tonal palette. Vocal expression style in Hip-Hop also trends toward a relatively natural, albeit “large,” presentation of the human voice. We are experiencing widespread acceptance of our assertion that one microphone cannot do all things, and so providing choice of tone color, voicing and timbre options, for specific applications, is an idea that is being embraced by users. Some of them give us the “Aha!” or “Why didn’t anybody think of doing this before?” response. It required education, lots of demonstrations, and consensus building to achieve acceptance, and we are very proud of this artistic contribution to the field, perhaps even more than the scientific progress we made in the last year.
Birr: Mics with ultra-high-frequency response yield lower distortion throughout the audible range. The end-user now has a wide variety of quality, aesthetics and application-specific microphones to choose from. This means that a smaller budget is no longer necessarily the limitation it may have been 10 or more years ago. Highly sophisticated productions are now done by people who own only a few mics.
Jennings: The wider variety of ribbon designs and price points means that ribbons are available to recording enthusiasts at all levels. While professional and semi-pro engineers will want to stick with the best gear, there are a number of recordists who are unable to afford higher-priced microphones. The less expensive models let them get into the ribbon game, and they can upgrade later if their recordings progress to a level that necessitates the use of higher-end microphones.
Radin: When my colleagues and I visit the people who use our microphones, we always take time to ask about their needs. We like to ask which microphones they are using the most and if they can describe tools that aren’t currently available to them would be helpful. These discussions are often the genesis of a new microphone’s development.
Heil: This means that the end-user has microphones with much better control, wider responses and finally the dynamic replacement of overly sensitive, offshore condensers.
Segota: Good sound at lower prices! USB interfaces allow direct connection to computers/digital audio workstations, which requires less gear, and easier operation for podcasters.

PSN: Has your studio microphone line grown or changed over the past year?

Edwards:: Yes. We are introducing a side-address USB studio microphone at NAMM. It is based on our popular AT2020.
Crowley: We introduced two new models in 2007–the Recordist Ensemble Stereo Kit, which is a low-noise, high-output pair for stereo and Blumlein; and el Diablo, which is a completely new type of ribbon microphone with a ribbon made of our proprietary Acoustic Nanofilm technology. We are about to introduce a Roswellite-equipped version of the very popular Naked Eye ribbon microphone in the coming months.
Birr: Sennheiser introduced the MKH 8000 series at AES 2007. This is a line of high-quality, modular, mini condensers. We are excited about this product not only because it continues the tradition of the “classic” MKH line, but it takes the MKH line in a new direction. The modular design will allow the MKH series to be placed in any number of applications, both live and in the studio.
Jennings: We have a number of new studio microphone designs underway, but this year’s new product release was in the live-sound market. Our studio microphone line has not changed over the past year.
Radin: Last year was a fairly “quiet” one for Neumann. We introduced an exciting new variation on the classic U 87 celebrating its 40th anniversary. The U 87 Anniversary Set packages an exclusively finished U 87 in polished nickel with matching elastic suspension and a specially designed vintage pop screen. The mic and its accessories are housed in an elegant instrument-style case that also holds an embroidered dust cover, an individually numbered, signed, framed certificate of authenticity and a pair of white gloves for handling.
In our KM D digital line, we added three new capsule heads to the range: the KK 131 free-field, optimized omni, the KK 143 wide cardioid and the KK 145 “speech cardioid” with low-frequency roll-off. The addition of these familiar capsule heads, siblings to the KM 100 and KM 180 series, round out the KM D line to offer a comprehensive selection of microphones to give engineers and recordists the flexibility to tailor the microphone to the situation.
Heil: Absolutely. We have several new products– all dynamic with several being used on recently produced CDs, over 12 top-line tours and in hundreds of broadcast production studios.
Segota: Our premier studio offerings have been KSM mics, which include three side-address and three end-address condensers. Our newest microphone in the KSM line is the KSM9 vocal mic, which is a dual-diaphragm condenser with switchable polar patterns. We believe it brings studio quality sound and useful functionality to live-performance applications.

PSN: Are you using any new materials? New approaches in design and manufacture?

Edwards: We are always open to evaluating new materials and design/manufacturing methods in order to keep up with whatever advantages technology has to offer. If something can be improved, we look into it.
Crowley: The trade name in the mic biz for Acoustic Nanofilm is “Roswellite” that evokes a lightweight and durable nanomaterial, which is exactly what it is. We invented and now manufacture the material, and it was first introduced in Crowley our el Diablo ribbon mic at AES in 2007.
As el Diablo and Roswellite become accepted and the very high initial costs are recovered, we expect to provide other microphones with it. It is so much stronger than conventional ribbon material, that we think it will replace the old “foils” used in ribbon microphones.
Jennings: Our new Live Series ribbon microphones are using a thicker ribbon material that stands up better to live use.
Radin: First, we absolutely guarantee continuity in our processes. When developing new models of capsules, microphones and other devices, we always look at new materials and processes to explore opportunities for potential improvements, while taking care of existing items by not changing any tonal or quality aspects.
Heil: Our diaphragms are unique. Our magnet materials are using combinations of materials, not just the usual offshore products.
Segota: In the KSM9, we use a micromachining method to manufacture one of the critical acoustic components in the capsule. With this process, the component can be made reliably to extremely tight tolerances, whereas before we would have to constantly struggle to get suitable material.

PSN: Is your manufacturing process completely automated? More automated than in the past?

Edwards: We are not completely automated, and we will never want to completely give up the “human factor.” However, our design/test/manufacturing processes are carefully developed to take advantage of new technologies in order to bring about extreme product consistency. This is not new for us, but it is easier to accomplish now (with the technology available to us) than it was 10 years ago.
Crowley: Some of the processes involving nanomaterials are completely automated and are accomplished under extremely tight conditions in high-vacuum systems located in a clean room environment. There is no way to make Roswellite by hand! Actual microphone building and test at Crowley and Tripp are still accomplished manually, by skilled engineers and technicians. We also continue to make investments in automated CNC machining equipment as demand grows for components.
Jennings: Every Royer microphone is built by hand in Burbank, CA. It’s a classic manufacturing approach that is expensive, time-consuming and requires the use of well-trained, dedicated personnel, but in the end, we’re giving the consumer the very best product we can possibly offer.
Radin: The parts for microphone housings as well as the basic parts for the microphone’s capsules are made, as in previous years, in our metal shop using automated lathes. All work related to capsule assembly and fine-tuning are still completely manual processes performed by our skilled craftsmen and craftswomen.
Heil: No. Much handwork is done, and the final assembly is all handwork, with each and every microphone tested three different times during the complete process.
Segota: It’s not completely automated. For products of this caliber, hand assembly is still a preferred method.

PSN:Where do you build your microphones?

Edwards: Our 30 Series and 40 Series studio mics are designed and manufactured in Japan. Our 20 Series mics are designed in Japan and manufactured in China under supervision of our microphone engineers.
Crowley: Our microphones are made in Ashland, MA, which is about a half-hour from Boston. We have sufficient manufacturing and R&D space at present, though we are about to expand into new space in the same facility as we grow.
Birr: Germany.
Jennings: Burbank, CA.
Radin: All Neumann microphones and their capsules are built exclusively in Germany without exception.
Heil: Parts built all over the globe-U.S., U.K., Malaysia, Japan, Taiwan, China with all parts shipped into our southern Illinois facility, where the final assembly process, testing and shipping occurs.
Segota: Most studio microphones (SM81, VP88, all KSMs except the KSM109) are built in Wheeling, IL. The KSM109 and the SM94 are made in Juarez, Mexico.

PSN: Any changes/evolution in quality control to report?

Edwards: Quality control (QC) has always been of highest priority to us. Our 40 Series undergoes double 100 percent QC. We have always stressed consistency through the entire development/manufacturing/quality assurance and QC process. We will continue to invest in the quality of our personnel, methods and products. This is a key area of continuing development in our company.
Crowley: We have been rather methodical in our approach to quality, adopting many of the same standards and philosophies that we follow in medical-device manufacture. It surprises people when they find out that initial component and material level quality, where there are near-zero defects from the beginning, actually lowers production costs. It works well, and we are going to keep at it, especially now that the world supplies of important metals we use such as gold, silver bar, nickel, copper and neodymium continue to fluctuate.
Birr: Our quality control continues to be of the highest caliber, and an aspect that we will not negotiate on, and will not change in the future.
Jennings: No.
Radin: In 2007, we made a big step forward by implementing computer-aided control features at the anechoic chamber where every microphone is run through acoustic testing. We implemented some new procedures to make the tests even more detailed. Additionally, we are now able to monitor all of the microphone test data remotely from Neumann production in Hannover to Neumann headquarters in Berlin–about 175 miles! This means that we can now look at any data at any time to ensure that production quality is as high and reliable as our demands.
Heil: It just continues to get tighter.
Segota: Within the past year, we’ve changed over our acoustical test systems on the manufacturing line (as well as development and quality control) from custom-built systems to SoundCheck from Listen. This allows us to test the mics faster and more accurately, and makes it easier to customize test procedures for individual microphone models.

PSN: Anything you’d like to comment on regarding studio microphone design and manufacture that wasn’t specifically asked about?
Edwards: To design a microphone is to design a compromise that trades off many variables to the best performance advantage. Some companies can copy existing microphones, and some copies can work well, sometimes. However, it takes a team of experts to design and produce a mic that correctly and knowingly blends variables such as acoustics, mechanical characteristics, actual or equivalent circuits, magnetics, fluid dynamics, vibration analysis, materials engineering, chemical properties, physics, RF performance, (and many others) for a consistently desirable performance.
Crowley: We saw growth in our patent portfolio, with seven issued and three pending patents covering various materials, microphone types and manufacturing methods. Our library of music from customers has grown too, and we now have more great music by great musicians, who inspire us as we work in the lab. The democratization of quality music-making is still undergoing rapid change. Not all musicians want to spend the entire day seeking the right preamp and mic combination. One such musician recently told us, “People spend months and many dollars to get the sound that comes naturally from your mics.” For this reason, we expect we will keep developing specifically tuned, purposeful microphone designs, made for applications that musicians and engineers tell us they need.
Birr: It’s a very exciting time to be in pro audio! The transducer choices available are outstanding, and far richer than at any time in the past. I am encouraged that we are learning from what has been done correctly with the great microphones of the past, and are carrying it forward in a modern and viable way.
Heil: It is refreshing to see so many Grammy Award-winning producers, studios and movie lots now looking back to the high-quality dynamic microphone industry after so much suffering over the offshore condenser market has tainted their talents.