The Low Down On The Front End

The microphone and mic preamplifier market has never been more diverse, with a broader market base and a staggering number of manufacturers in the competition for end-users. Sales outlets for professional products are also more varied than ever, with MI retailers an increasingly significant outlet for products alongside various online vendors. Pro Sound News queried a number of manufacturers on design, application and sales trends, discovering a range of opinion as diverse as the market itself.
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by Frank Wells

The microphone and mic preamplifier market has never been more diverse, with a broader market base and a staggering number of manufacturers in the competition for end-users. Sales outlets for professional products are also more varied than ever, with MI retailers an increasingly significant outlet for products alongside various online vendors. Pro Sound News queried a number of manufacturers on design, application and sales trends, discovering a range of opinion as diverse as the market itself.

On Microphones:
Karl Winkler, director of business development for Lectrosonics, noted the introduction of microphones with USB interfaces, like those from Blue, MXL and Samson, as a trend from the past year, though he notes that digital mic interface on the high end hasn't seen similar activity. "Some of the interesting products we saw a couple of years ago," says Winkler, "including the Neumann Solution-D, the AT895 and the Microtech Gefell KEM970 appear not to have spawned a lot of imitators or even subsequent versions. Perhaps the market is still not yet ready for digital microphones and the interfaces changes that would be required. I think until the mating side, i.e. console and workstation manufacturers see the need for digital microphone interfaces, we probably won't see much movement in the marketplace."

Dawn Birr, product manager at Sennheiser for Neumann, True Systems and Klein + Hummel, comments that "Neumann is always interested in bringing new design possibilities or opportunities to the market. In the last two years, Neumann designed and brought to market a new line of broadcast microphones--the BCM line--which is aesthetically unlike any microphone design produced in the history of Neumann. It was built around the ideas of ease of use and common-sense functionality for the broadcast professional. Broadcast is a new arena for Neumann to directly expand into, however Neumann had something new and fresh to offer. The BCM 104 is the Neumann condenser broadcast microphone, and we followed it up with the BCM 705 dynamic microphone. The dynamic was a first for Neumann, and a great opportunity that allowed us to look to our relationship with Senneheiser for inspiration."

Birr further sees an influx of microphones that are trying to achieve a "one size fits all" role. "In general, the trend to make one microphone, or a few microphones, do the work of a full mic closet, seems to be more and more the goal of the market as we see the semi-professional recording enthusiast begin to really make a difference in the home studio arena. To that end, the recording studio market continues to be full of a variety of large-diaphragm studio condensers that look a lot alike, at a variety of price points from a variety of manufacturers from all over the world. Customers are becoming more savvy about the cost vs. quality aspects of microphones and the fact that an investment in a quality transducer will pay off for years.

Lectrosonics' Winkler sees the results of competition and innovation in the microphone market. "There is the continuation of 'weeding out' of the Chinese microphone products, meaning that those business who have exhibited innovation of some sort have survived, and the 'first wave' where everyone and anyone was simply importing Chinese mics and re-branding them has seemed to slow down. Now that companies are putting their own unique spin on things, we're seeing a more unique offering, beyond the simple 'crude U87 copy for 1/10 of the price.'"

Winkler also sees an undefined desire in the market for some ethereal über mic. "I am observing that there seems to be a slowly gathering 'renaissance' of microphone interest," he says. "The 'vintage' thing seems largely dead now, but what's happening is more and more engineers seem dissatisfied with current offerings and wish that there was 'something awesome' on the market. Internet forums and newsgroups bubble with this kind of talk, but it's difficult to determine how much real market power is represented there."

The trend towards an ever-increasing range of end-users is evidenced in the range of products available, while quality still has its place, notes Birr. "Neumann's customer base has expanded tremendously. The Neumann product line has expanded to cover a full range of applications and price points that allow beginning recordists to be able to invest in a Neumann as their first purchase knowing their investment will only increase in value as the years pass. The professional knows that Neumann is tried and true, with almost 80 years of quality and history to support their work. The year 2007 will see the 40th anniversary of the U87!"

Bob Crowley, a principal in new manufacturer Crowley & Tripp, sees opportunity in the resurgence of ribbon microphone designs. "Now that ribbon microphones have re-entered the mainstream in a big way," he says, "users are realizing the limitations of reissue ribbon designs, and are asking for more consistent, higher output, lower noise performance.

Crowley notes that the resurgence of ribbon mics is added by new materials. "We have moved forward with an aggressive composite material development program at Soundwave Research Laboratories that allows ribbon mic technology to compete directly with condensers in various studio applications, such as vocals. We have filed multiple patent applications that cover the materials and designs. Basically, we are in the process of reinventing microphones." Microphone manufacturing has been aided by the efforts of other, unrelated industries, notes Crowley. "The adaptation of process controls and 'six sigma' techniques from industries such as medical devices has improved product quality dramatically, while allowing us to retain the hand-built methods.

Crowley & Tripp, unlike many of the newer faces in the microphone market, sees opportunity at the high end of the market as well as with individual engineers. "We are focused on larger studios, production houses, the movie industry, and in broadcast," says Crowley, "where the best and most reliable is needed. At the same time, the personal studio is turning into a very sophisticated place with a need for the best instruments. These users seem to quickly graduate from beginning microphones up to finest as their skills develop."

David Bock of Soundelux Microphones says the trend towards interface like USB is "not pro, so I'm not paying attention," adding that "users prefer classic designs with transformers."

Bock says the burgeoning mic market has seen "more of the same inadequacies" in the past year, though adding a positive note about market potential. "It's a more infinite market than I imagined," he exclaims, suggesting that while "there are fewer studios" on the top end, "we may be seeing more home-studio purchasers."

Venerated mic pre designer, Rupert Neve, also sounds a cautionary note about some of the current trends in microphones: "Significant trends in the search for quality seem to be still wrapped in 'mystery.' Various designs have provided switched input impedance which, of course, does produce an effect, maybe beneficial in masking other deeper problems. A bit like adding the extra load of an RV to your sports car to slow it down! USB can only seriously limit available voltage, headroom etc. There seems to be a trend to sit back and let the wonderful computer do it all--so convenient!"

Blue Microphones has embraced the entry-level market, alongside its flagship products. "At Blue, we have realized a vast market for a high-quality yet affordable USB transducer, hence The Snowball," says Blue director of marketing, Eric Boyer. "With more hobbyists entering the realm of in-the-box home recording with platforms like Garage Band, Nuendo and Sonar, we recognized the need for professional USB connectivity that is easy to use and eliminates the need for a separate interface or mic pre. We also see a virtually limitless potential for this kind of product as consumers outside of our traditional pro audio/MI channel start to discover the need for high-quality connectivity when using services like internet telephony, online conferencing, recording lectures, etc. We are excited by this potential."

Microphone design and usage include art as well as science, as Rupert Neve reminds. "Professional customers are looking deeply at the use of microphones to convey lovely scenes--as opposed to just accurate voltages--that are pleasing and satisfying; often as adjuncts to the picture. Realization that the audio scenery is as important as the picture! Demand for a product is being influenced more today by how well it fits the purpose. Beginners are awakening to new vistas of what can be done with the right tools. Better education is a large part of this."

Blue's Boyer echoes the sentiment: "Fortunately for us, the audio professional not only still recognizes the need for a high-quality transducer at the source, but also considers the microphone to be her primary sound-shaping tool. One of the concepts we emphasize when talking about our products is the fundamental skill of microphone selection and placement. In fact, we'll go as far as to say that this is the essence of our craft. The painter selects a brush based on his knowledge of the media, likewise the sculptor a chisel. The recordist must have a similar relationship with her microphone."

Blue's product line is designed to meet the needs of all levels of users while maintaining their standards for "magnificent" sound, says Boyer. "Certainly we have witnessed a paradigm shift in the recording industry over the past decade as professionals build more sophisticated home studios and perform an ever-increasing share of their work at home," he elaborates, "enjoying the freedom and flexibility that the home environment affords. But like the mammoth facilities that we see falling by the wayside, the professional working at home needs the same high-quality input device."

Boyer sees a rosy future for the microphone market: "In an era when 'cheaper, faster, smaller' seems to be on everyone's lips, we have realized outstanding sales growth in 2005 and see the professional studio microphone category remaining stable for many years to come.

On Mic Pres:
Brad Lunde, of distributor Transaudio and dealer Las Vegas Pro Audio declares that "preamps have become one of the most important 'color sources' as digital recording has taken hold. The trend emerging now is mic preamps with more than one sound. How mics and preamps work together is the future, such as mic pres that can adjust themselves to work with a specific mic."

Simon Daniels, product marketing manager for AMS Neve, notes the blending of the old and new, citing success with the 1073 DPD, which adds an A/D converter to the classic mic pre design. "Classic mic pre designs are not only holding their own but increasing in popularity," Daniels elaborates, claiming the 1073 is the "most sought after mic pre sound. Recognition of the importance of a high-quality mic pre has grown and covers all sectors."

Peter Montessi, president of A Designs Audio, also notes new interest in the "classic" approaches to capturing sound. "In the past one to two years, there has been a resurgence in the demand of the ribbon microphone and tube microphone preamplifiers. Through either formal education, or trial and error, these engineers have discovered there is a vast difference between the condenser, dynamic or tube microphone. They have also discovered the differences between solid-state and tube microphone preamps."

Those trends are what Montessi credits with the creation of A Designs. "It was this trend that brought A Designs into professional audio manufacturing. We saw this trend and knew that the MP Series would complement the existing microphones and preamps that were currently available on the market. As ribbon mics took further hold on the market last year, A Designs responded by retooling our MPA Series to 60 dB of gain as a standard and our solid-state pre at 72 dB of gain. On the other hand, ribbon microphone manufacturers have also responded by developing ribbon microphones that require less gain, to adapt to an existing market of lower-gain preamplifiers."

Simon Blackwood, COO Focusrite-Novation, sees a demand for products across a range of design approaches. "At the entry level, we see an increase in demand of both FireWire-based interface products such as our new Saffire product line (though little demand yet for USB2 devices), conventional channel strips and multichannel mic pres as users lose their traditional analog mixers and reclaim their desktop workspaces.

"By the nature of FireWire devices being portable and requiring bus-powered 48v, we see our pedigree and expertise in designing the top selling Mbox for Digidesign as being particularly relevant in this respect. We note that not all products on the market seem to deliver what's promised in the marketing materials!

"At the professional level, our unique 2005 TEC award-winning Liquid Channel technology with its massively innovative mic pre coupled with convolution has now gained wider market acceptance and is increasingly being used to support live sound digital mixers for either the vocal or the mix bus outputs."

While Rupert Neve's classic designs are still in high demand, he says the industry needs to move forward. "There is a growing awareness that we need to get beyond the stage of worshipping the golden oldies. There is new life in the trend to sweeter-sounding audio, ribbons and derivatives, understanding what kind of generator is involved and providing appropriate input circuitry as opposed to slavishly following industry norms that are now 40 to 50 years old. Preamp design is close to my heart, and those who have used my latest offering, realize that there must be something that 'ordinary' or traditional approaches don't achieve. To get into this at this stage would be to write a book. I'd be happy to (and have already) talked to several of my friends and competitors with a view to publishing some guidelines. Bear in mind that we all have to live, and there are far too many cloners out there for any of us at the top end to want to hand out our secrets on a plate!"

Montessi notes a desire for quality on the front end of the recording process. "I have noticed a great desire," he says, "among the professional recording engineers and artists, to bring back the quality of personal tone that seemed to diminish with the great phenomenon of digital music software, plug-ins and components. So, the significant trend that has followed has been the reintroduction of ribbon microphones and tube microphone amplifiers, equalizers and compressors."

He adds that a broader market has become aware of the need for quality capture of sound. "The personal computer brought the ability to record to a new consumer," he elaborates. "In the past few years, the layman has been able to record their own compositions, vocals and instruments in the digital environment. Through that, there has been a 'learning' process for both the 'home recording engineer' and the manufacturers of software and hardware that produce these products.

"They have been discovering that the most significant part of a 'serious' recording is the 'front end.' By the 'front end,' I mean the quality of the music performance, being recorded through the microphone, and followed by the microphone preamplifier. The trend that followed was a great demand in the low-cost, computer-compatible version of these products."

Beginning recordists are learning what the pros already know, says Montessi. "Through the education process, the home-recording engineer began to discover there was a difference in tone--or sound of the recording--by the use of different types of microphones and microphone preamps. The mass-produced, low-cost products, of course, performed the rudimentary function of recording. But, the resulting tone was most often narrowed, squeezed and condensed. The recording seemed to lack the depth of certain qualities, such as, the sound of the room, the silvery tones of the flute, or the soulful sound of the cello."

Tim Spencer of True Systems says that market trends have motivated True to address the needs of the entry-level market as well as the high end. "While our products have always been very attractively priced compared to other professional mic preamps," he says, "we knew there were many potential customers out there who could not afford our Precision 8 or P2 analog products. We knew they didn't need multiple channels, but still wanted the sonic performance offered by our preamps. So, we decided to come up with a single-channel version of our preamp that would be well suited for these customers."

True Systems P-SOLO is its newest product, designed to address the needs of those customers as well as its traditional customer base. "We think that many 'pros' will buy the P-SOLO because of its performance, portability and price," he says. "It'll do a great job in their studio, broadcast and live sound applications just like our other products that they've come to respect. But we also think there will be a whole new group of customers who are sort of 'entry level' but are serious enough about their music to invest in one really good preamp to get the best recording or live sound possible. These customers are likely to be recording on a Mac or PC, doing one track at a time, and using plug-in effects. So they may not have the space or interest to put together a rack full of outboard equipment. Hence, the compact design of the P-SOLO enclosure. And, we think that the affordable pricing of the P-SOLO will be very appealing to these customers."

Spencer says that the one thing True Systems would not do in expanding their product offerings is compromise the quality of their design. "We want to provide a limited number of targeted products that satisfy needs in the consumer price range. But, we will never pursue products that are designed for maximum profit margin and sales volume at the expense of mediocre sound quality."

At Millennia Media, managing director Joel Silverman notes a diversity in the company's customer base from contemporary music makers. "We've noticed a change in our customer base. There are a lot more users coming from the pop and hip-hop market for our STT-1 channel strip. They are mostly Pro Tools users trying to get a 'rich' version and an accurate version at the same time. The STT-1 has a straight out from the HV-3 preamp and a main out through the tube/solid-state Twin Topology Parametric EQ and Opto compressor so they can record two different-sounding tracks from the same take at once and have the choice of what sound they need later in mixdown. They are also using stereo pairs of STT-1s on mixdown to get the analog console vibe on the two-mix." Silverman also notes a usage trend that looks back to the methods born of technical necessity in the early days of recording. "I've spoken to many customers about how they are using our 8-channel HV-3D, and there is a trend to record everyone playing at the same time in the same place to get away from the one-track-at-a-time feel."

"Demand for high-quality mic pre and channel strip units has considerably increased this year as more and more DAW users are looking to get a great front-end for their system," comments Jim Motley, partnership manager for XLogic products at Solid State Logic. "Most are looking for a choice of either 'clean' or 'colored' sound depending on their personal preferences as a first purchase, but often coming back to make an additional buy to complement it. Feedback to our new XLogic products has been very positive, in particular the new modular X-Rack system, that allows customers to build their own scalable SSL processing rack, has been particularly welcomed by smaller studios."

In microphone preamp design, Montessi says that "A Designs Audio saw the trend to 'tubes' coming in 1999 from Japan. We decided in 2001 that it was time to open the doors. Tube microphone preamplifiers have been making their comeback for a few years now, and we still see this continuing well into the years to come." This 'retro' trend is not limited to tubes, he says. "We also noticed a trend to recreate the sound of the late '60s to early '70s, as well. Our recent response has been the development and release of the solid-state microphone preamp called, Pacifica. Our 2-year research project brought our sights to the products once manufactured by a company known as Quad Eight. They were considered, by some, to have been the tops in their field. We were so inspired by their units, we developed our own version of the Quad Eight. This has been received very well by the pro audio industry and has been making its way to the studios, as well as the desktop musicians."

Marc Bénard, product manager for PC audio interfaces at Digigram, anticipates that there will be growth in the professional digital microphone market. "We believe that digital microphones that are compliant with the AES42 standard will become more and more important. Production studios, and as well broadcast studios, boast more and more digital equipment, and it makes sense to start the digital signal chain immediately at the microphone," he explains, offering a new outlet for market penetration of the type of products Winkler mentioned as generating little market enthusiasm. "For this reason" says Bénard, "Digigram will be the first sound-card manufacturer to implement AES42-compliant inputs on our PCX924HR mic and VX222HR mic boards that will be launched in the first quarter of 2006."

Besides circuit design, Montessi cites trends in the packaging topology of audio devices like those embraced in the aforementioned SSL X-Rack. "A Designs has recently become aware of the emerging trend coming for 2006 and beyond, which is the development and design of modular pres, EQs and compressors. Due to more people recording in their homes, lack of space has become a serious issue. Also, engineers are required to be more mobile than ever. We also feel that this is a niche market that should be taken seriously, and A Designs is doing just that!"

Michael Grace of Grace Designs says that pres, as well as mics, are benefiting from design advances in other industries. "While the advancements in the world of low-noise analog circuitry are incremental and usually come in the form of better power supply topologies and better internal system grounding, there have been some nice advancements in the world of passive components. For instance, metalized film capacitor technology, which is largely driven by the switching power supply industry, has allowed for better AC coupling of phantom-powered signals without the use of electrolytic capacitors. Also, thin film (read metal film) surface-mount resistors are commonly available now which allows us to migrate away from metal film through hole resistors without the sonic compromises of thick film SMD parts."

This year will see new restrictions on certain materials used in electronic equipment sold in Europe, notes Montessi. July 2006 is the deadline for compliance with the elimination of lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, poly-brominated biphenyls (PBB) or polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE). "This is a major problem for smaller manufactures and could result in the closing of some boutique manufacturing companies," says Montessi. "The European community is clamping down on lead in consumer electronics products and is demanding, at this point, that all recording equipment be lead-free.

"Although electronic-parts manufacturers have reached a fevered pitch in their attempt to comply, there is a significant loss in quality in some of these lead-free products when it is applied to professional audio equipment. There has been a high level of complaints from assembly houses using lead-free solder, for example. That it is unreliable, difficult to work with, and has a tendency to shatter, or break with 'gentle handling' after cooling."

While understanding the motivation of the regulations, Montessi cautions that "this could turn the professional audio business and industry into a tailspin. We really need to perfect the materials needed to accomplish the task. In order to sell our product to the European community next year, we are required to use materials such as lead-free solder and lead-free resistors, caps, etc. As of yet, we have no idea of what changes to the audio signal path this will bring nor has there been enough testing done to know of their reliability factor." Montessi calls for audio organizations to rally in assistance of manufacturers as they face the challenges brought forth by the new restrictions.

An additional trend in pro audio that Digigram's Bénard sees impacting the mic preamp market is audio networking. "Modern audio networking technologies such as the EtherSound standard offer the possibility to transport audio and control data over the same cable and hence to control mic preamps or AES42 digital microphones remotely. The sound engineer now has the possibility to place the mic preamp where it is most suitable, which is not necessarily in the reach of her or his arm. We will see more and more mic preamps with networking capability, as well as dedicated devices that can insert signals delivered by AES42 digital mics into digital networks."

Michael Grace sees a similar trend-remote-located preamps remote-controlled direct from a DAW. "I think the most significant change in demand for our products is in the area of remotely controlled microphone amplifiers. We have seen an increase in demand from Pro Tools customers who want to have their microphone preamps integrated into the software interface. Also, I think recording engineers are becoming more and more aware of the benefits of keeping mic lines short and driving long line-level signals from the stage or studio--or at least they are more willing to pay for the convenience of remote control."

On the Sales Channel:
On the business side, Blackwood notes: "Focusrite has seen its mic pre business grow significantly with new product releases into new lower price points (Octopre LE with its optional ADC-DAC card) that specifically address the growing DAW marketplace and, as such, our analog products are increasingly bought with our ADCs.

"We, of course, see the growth of Guitar Center and Musicians Friend, and we're seeing major retailers start to be selective on which brands they stock--reducing the level of choice to fewer entry-level and premium ones such as Focusrite which offer the user a superior signal path.

"From a general market viewpoint we're seeing the first-time user increasingly grapple with complex products that appear to offer huge capabilities but are very hard to learn how to use easily--we pride ourselves on our clear and intuitive front-panel controls and offer processing presets to make things easy.

"As we've grown and offered lower-price-point products, we've added more staff in our pre and post sales support areas to help our users get the best out of their investment with us--most interaction is now done via e-mail."

Crowley notes a ready acceptance of new brands. "We were initially surprised. The reverence for the 'tried and true' old line mic names doesn't seem to run very deep anymore. So much for loyalty. Artists are making the choices based on sound and asking for specific microphones. Engineers and producers are 'putting the analog back in' with improvised mic qualities, and using even less EQ than before. So I'd say that there is a great deal of enthusiasm out there for innovative and better instruments, and that is driving the business."

That e-commerce is becoming of greater significance for pro audio should not be a surprise, says Winkler. "More and more sales are happening via e-commerce, but this is a general trend and not specific to pro audio or microphones." Winkler also sees a Wal-Mart effect happening in MI sales. "The general retail consolidation continues," he explains, "with one large chain seemingly dominating MI and semi-pro sales. Smaller retailers have had to specialize further in order to thrive, and many have done so."

Another general trend Winkler notes in the retail distribution chain to towards unified price polices. "We saw the first hint of this with Fostex in 1999 or so. Now we're seeing it more often, and there are MAP and Unilateral price policies in effect from many manufacturers. As usual, the ones willing to enforce their policies and also those that have a carefully written, legally strong system are the ones to benefit from such programs."

While the role of retail in microphone sales has flourished, Crowley declares that, "you cannot beat direct contact with the customer. That's how you learn and improve. We also provide qualified distributors with a reliable product that sells, because our value proposition is a good one, and support, if needed, is always available."

In the retail arena, says Winkler, "Quality does seem to be important though, and one additional thing I'm hearing is how critical good service seems to be for the pro customers. There may even be a backlash from the 'box houses' that don't also service their products."
"The internet is a serious threat to dealers and traditional distribution," declares Rupert Neve, concerning online retailers. "I feel that the best ones do a great job in helping customers to decide what they need. These will survive (and we are cultivating the best ones, and, together with others of our respected colleagues and competitors, we will work with them to that end). Box shifters will survive at the bottom of the pyramid, and their customers will take the luck of the draw. Pro users like to talk to us direct, and we to them. That's the way we find out what the guys at the really sharp end want to do.

Grace comments, "As far as sales channel go, some of our best dealers are still the ones who are out in the field with their customers--especially for our higher-end products. However, some of our more internet-oriented dealers are doing quite well with our less expensive models."

Sennheiser's Birr promotes the value of the company's retail partners, commenting that, "Neumann dealers are, without a doubt, the most valuable resource our customers have. Many of our dealers also offer both brick and mortars and e-stores which allows a more remote customer to have access to and information about a product he or she may not have been able to easily purchase 10 years ago."

SSL's Motley promotes the value of the expert dealer. "Good retail seems to be the key to selling high-end products. Many successful dealer sales that we know of are made on the back of lending units to a customer for trial and comparison. Customers seem happy to pay a little more to purchase from specialists, they want great service more than they want a $5 price-beat!"