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After XLR: Digital Audio Capture

Perhaps it was a product like Neumann’s Solution D that was an early sign of our industry’s flirtation with digital microphones.

Perhaps it was a product like Neumann’s Solution D that was an early sign of our industry’s flirtation with digital microphones. There have been others. And over the years, many more digital microphone products—as well as associated transducers bypassing traditional analog amplification and processing—have entered the pro-audio marketplace. Today, whether it’s Neumann, Audio-Technica, Blue Microphones, IK Multimedia or others that have embraced everything from USB to Lightning to AoIP/Dante-networked microphones, our mics have never been more digital than now.

“Around the time Apple began including GarageBand on every MacBook, we realized there wasn’t a simple, great-sounding way to record audio into that setup, so we created our first digital microphone,” recalls John Maier, CEO of Blue Microphones, one of the pioneers in the realm of USB microphones. “It was a huge success and led us to immediately reject the narrow definition of the customer as someone exclusively in a recording studio with a mixing board and outboard gear. If that’s all you see, that determines what kinds of products you will make.”

Straight to a DAW, a digital microphone’s output—after its built-in signal amplification and subsequent conversion—is free to never return to the noise-guaranteed analog domain. It is captured forever, as it was at the source, at a particular frequency rate and resolution. The point is, digital microphones preserve the signal that much earlier in acoustic sound recording. That, and today’s DAW can reside on a tablet or a smartphone, too—which just might be a recordist’s only device.

“At Blue, we’ve created a customer definition that’s much broader, and that means we now consider different workflows and product expectations,” continues Maier. “Many of our newer USB customers may have little to no background in pro audio, and expect great plug-and-play results. In that world, mics need to connect directly to phones and laptops, and the interfaces become invisible. And as we look to the future, we ask the same basic questions: Who are the next generation of content creators? How can we make their jobs easier?”

Audio-Technica engineer Ben Cochran has been front and center of this digital microphone revolution via his work on the company’s Ao-IP/Dante-ready microphones from their early stages of development, an initiative bolstered by the continued success of USB microphones in the marketplace. “Audio-Technica is committed to providing our customers with innovative solutions to real-world audio problems using the latest technology available,” attests Cochran. “Our USB microphone products have been very successful in the market for a number of years, proving that customers value reliable, accurate sound directly from a digital microphone. We’ve simply extended that principle to our line of Dante microphones; these three models—the ATND971, ATND8677, ATND8734—give users the versatility, ease-of-use and great sound quality that is expected from all things digital.”

Despite stylistic or creative uses of analog signal processing, most of these historic products have been effectively emulated in digital tools, or plug-ins, today, thus these processes living in an at-the-source captured digital world offers a variety of good benefits. That, and network controllability of digital microphones open up a world of workflow (and cashflow) benefits.

“Networked audio affords end users and installers so many benefits that it’s easy to see why customers are demanding it for certain applications,” explains Cochran. “Installs are cheaper and easier when using Cat 5 over traditional copper cabling. Giving customers the ability to remotely-control their devices over the same cable connection that’s providing audio means less confusion in routing, channel identification and establishing presets between different setups or shows. Customers are always excited by the ability to plug a host of microphones into a network switch and configure them without worrying that something was plugged in to the wrong channel, or has the wrong setting. Once the audio is on the network, it can go anywhere and easily be reconfigured. For that reason, we believe that networked audio is the future of connectivity for professional media products.”

Though USB microphones began as a cost-effective, arguably “prosumer” solution, today’s digital microphone landscape continues to expand far beyond music recording, podcasting and personal audio applications. From installed sound to corporate communications, innovative networked audio solutions increasingly incorporate feature-rich digital microphones.

“Our current line-up of Dante microphones are positioned for use in installed sound applications that require high performance, interoperability and control,” continues Cochran. “In order to take full advantage of the benefits of a digitally-connected microphone, we built in network-controllable preamp gain, low-cut and phantom power and give the user control of capacitive touch switch and LED behavior [on appropriate models]. Using our Dante microphones with compatible Dante products from Symetrix and Biamp is a breeze, thanks to the custom control blocks that have been built into each company’s software. This gives integrators the ability to quickly create a setup that will perform exactly how they desire.”

Integrators and custom installers aren’t the only ones that increasingly use these microphones, though. Savvy audio types are thinking creatively about the future of digital microphones in our midst, as well as interoperability, as countless associated products emerge.

“We’ve seen our boundary mic, the ATND971, used everywhere,” illustrates Cochran. “From the ledges of church balconies capturing ambient and crowd singing in times of worship, to picking up locker-room hallway conversations in professional sporting events, the [typically] long cable runs and challenging audio capture of these environments are made simple with Cat 5 and remote control of the mic. Audio-Technica is a proud member of the Media Networking Alliance, which promotes the adoption of AES67—an interoperability standard for networked audio. We believe that networked audio is here to stay, and so full interoperability between audio devices will be required to provide customers with the best experience as they begin to embrace networked audio for all of their unique applications.”