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Mic Market Makes Moves

Recent years have found microphone manufacturers facing a steady stream of obstacles, ranging from the FCC to the economy.

Recent years have found microphone manufacturers facing a steady stream of obstacles, ranging from the FCC to the economy. January’s Winter NAMM Convention, then, provided insight into how the companies have responded—and what their plans are going forward.

“There’s no question that there have been big challenges in the marketplace,” observed John Maier, CEO of Blue Microphones. “I think what we saw at NAMM was probably a combination of necessity and optimism from us and others. Necessity in the sense that companies really have no choice but to adjust product lines and price points, and add new products just to try and grab market share and create some excitement for their customers. Optimism in that it’s been a couple of years of a very tough market, and I think there’s a general feeling that it really can’t go anywhere but up.”

Optimism could be found across the show floor, but each company had its own take on what the pro audio industry needs now. For Shure, the emphasis was on wireless; Mark Humrichouser, general manager of the Americas Business Unit for Shure, observed, “What made this NAMM show special for us was the introduction of several new products, including our new high-end wireless system, Axient, and our first digital wireless system, PGX-D. We have been working on the Axient system for several years in anticipation of the potential changes to the regulation and availability of wireless spectrum in the U.S. and around the world, and it was designed from the outset to withstand interference from the analog and digital sources that exist today and those that may exist in the future. The feature set we included employs several new and innovative technologies that work together to deliver interference- free audio in the most critical live broadcast, theater, music and corporate events.”

For some companies, NAMM was an opportunity to re-address certain market segments. Gary Boss, marketing director, Retail, Live Sound & Studio at Audio-Technica, related that his company’s upcoming AT2022, due in March and geared towards field recording, was the result of a two-year joint project with A-T product development and engineering groups around the globe. “This actually replaces a product we discontinued a few years ago—we found that there is still the need for a high-quality stereo recording mic that operates on a standard AA battery and sends out an unbalanced signal,” said Boss. “We took it a step further by developing unique pivoting capsules that not only fold flat for secure transportation and storage, but feature two detent positions at 90 and 120 degrees for flexibility.”

The apex of the high-end studio era has passed, but in its place has sprung the lucrative market of project facilities, prosumer recording enthusiasts and professionals simply looking for a bargain. This fact was not lost on any pro audio company that exhibited at NAMM, and numerous microphone manufacturers had products that answered its call.

To whit, Ben Escobedo, MI product specialist at Sennheiser, explained that his company’s latest recording mic was made with those users in mind: “With the increase of project studios and individuals recording voiceover dialogue in their homes, it seemed like the right time to bring the MK4 to the market. It’s a large-diaphragm, true condenser microphone that addresses shortcomings in the market with its German construction, no-frills operation, great sound and accessible price point. The externally polarized, true-condenser cardioid element really works great on a wide variety of sources, too.”

New microphones aimed at home recorders ready to make a bigger commitment were a popular topic, as Blue Microphones, too, used the NAMM show to debut its new Reactor, a multi-pattern, large-diaphragm condenser microphone due out in April. Blue’s Maier explained the thinking behind it, noting, “We want this to be in reach of the aspirational buyer who has dabbled and now wants the absolute best of the best, but isn’t going to plunk down $2,000. At the same time, there are no compromises in quality and even a few unique features, like the 90-degree rotatable head, that allow seasoned pros to add this to their locker and even be able to do multiple mic setups with ease.”

The price points that new mics are being released at illustrate the tenuous position that the economy has placed manufacturers and end-users in when it comes to new products. Dusty Wakeman, president of Mojave Audio, pointed out, “A lot of folks on both sides have had plans in place to produce new products or acquire new gear, but have been sitting on their hands for the last few years. I think there is enough light at the end of the tunnel that people are deciding to move ahead with their plans.” With that in mind, Mojave used NAMM to introduce its new MA-300 multi-pattern tube condenser microphone; due out in April, it is a multi-pattern version of Mojave’s MA-200, first introduced five years ago.

For some microphone companies, NAMM wasn’t a showcase for new mics but rather new technology implementations. For instance, CAD Audio’s Remote Variable Pattern products—microphones whose patterns can be changed remotely via DSP—now integrate with Biamp Audia and Nexia digital audio platforms. Tony O’Keefe, VP sales & marketing at CAD, noted, “We were gratified to confirm at NAMM that our Remote Variable Pattern technology is still absolutely unique and exclusive to CAD’s Astatic Commercial division. Internet Protocol technology is popular in many audio devices, so we thought it would be a natural fit to enable our core technology, Variable Pattern Controlled microphones, to be adjusted from within a DSP capable of IP. There’s nothing else like it out there.”

Cloud Microphones, on the other hand, didn’t introduce or update any of its mics. Instead it introduced its single-channel Cloudlifter CL-1 mic activator, which uses any 24-48V phantom-powered device to supply up to 25 dB of initial gain to a passive, low-output ribbon or dynamic microphone. While the original Cloudlifter, launched at AES in 2009, was a 2-channel box aimed almost exclusively at ribbon microphone users, RJ Cloud, CEO of Cloud Microphones, felt that both units’ technology “offers an affordable solution that is useful for users with the most basic setups as well as those with high-end preamps and microphones, and is perfect for allowing the budget-minded to make immediate sonic improvements. Although the technology was originally designed for ribbon microphones, it has quickly proved itself as a simple and useful tool that could be used with a vast majority of the microphones that people already have.”

There’s an old adage that the best way to get out of economic doldrums is to innovate your way out, and at the NAMM show, it certainly appeared that mic manufacturers have each taken that to heart in their own unique way. Fortunately, it is a marketplace that can handle—and which welcomes—the blossoming variety that results. As Blue’s Maier pointed out, “This is a category filled with lots of great boutique companies doing all kinds of interesting things—that, combined with the fact that like guitars, users rarely own just one. In fact, at least at the mid to higher end, they usually own a whole locker of microphones and are always looking for new colors or capabilities to add to their collection.”