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COREY REV.PAGE.JPGFRONT ROW

THE RETURN OF MR. MICROPHONE

COREY GREENBERG

(AUDIO/AUGUST 1997)
 
     
 

One of the nice things about being an Audio columnist is that I can not only strongly encourage but also grant full diplomatic immunity zine who suddenly lunges forward and violently karate-kicks the next audiocreep who repeats that hi-fi lie about how only people who regularly attend live music can accurately judge the sound of audio gear.

I've been hearing this elitist line ever since I got into this hobby, and it's time to put it to rest once and for all.  Because it's just plain wrong.  If it weren't, then all the reviewers in the high end who get up on their hind legs about how they regularly "condition" their ears with live music would be at the top of their game, and the fact of the matter is most of these guys are clowns.  Earnest yes, but a clown can be earnest, too.  He's just got to paint a frown on his mouth instead of a smile and carry a wilted, oversize prop daisy in a cracked pot (at least according to some carnies I run with). 

The fact is, simply exposing yourself to live music on a regular basis does not enhance your listening ability one iota.  You can attend all the live music you want and never get any closer to being I able to tell if a piece of hi-fi gear is accurate or not.  I've been going to hear live music of all types since I was the proudest owner of the fakest ID you ever saw, but while that love of music fueled my entry into the hi-fi hobby, it never "conditioned"  my ears to be able to tell whether or not , a component  is accurately reproducing the audio signal that's being fed to it.  All my years of steady live music attendance didn't save me from making the same errors in judgment that I see so many self-professed Super Audiophiles make time and time again, labeling less accurate components superior because they color the sound in ways that remind them at what they think live music should sound like.

What did educate my ears and brain in a big hurry was recording live music and then comparing the sound of the recording to my memory of the original event.  I cannot overemphasize this point enough.  Making recordings of live music and then hearing these recordings played back was the turning point when I started making much more accurate judgments when listening to audio gear.

There's just something about being present at the original acoustic event and then hearing a good recording of that same event later that dramatically schools your ears for good. It's like you cross a threshold, and henceforth you're a much better listener.  And this isn't just my experience:  The reviewers over the years whose listening and judgment I've respected the most, Gordon Holt and the late Peter Mitchell, were lifelong amateur recordists who've pointed to that experience as being not merely beneficial but essential to any audiophile's development as a reliable arbiter of sonic accuracy.

Now, making your own recordings of live music was a pretty common thing back in the olden days of  '50s and '60s hi-fi, when that good ol' do-it-yourself spirit was in full swing.  It wasn't unusual at all for an audiophile back then to own a good open-reel tape deck and a pair of decent, semi-professional microphones.  And later on, many upmarket casssette decks even came packed with a nice pair of mikes so you could plug'em in and start making your own recordings right.

It's too bad that kind of thing went away, because making your own recordings is some of the best fun you can have with hi-fi.  And you don't have to rent a hall and an orchestra, either.  If you've got a friend who plays acoustic guitar, or sings, or even belches the alphabet, for that matter, you've got live sound to record.  Once you take that got live sound to record.  Once you take that step of making a recording and then hearing it over your system, your perception of what is and isn't accurate when it comes to hi-fi gear will never he the same.  Not to mention the thrill of hearing your own recording efforts on the hi-fi rig you've spent so much time and money on in order to make other guys' recordings sound so good.

The reason I've got home recording on the brain lately is because I've been playing around with a set of DSM-6S stereo microphones from Sonic Studios (of Sutherlin, Oregon, 888/875-4976). DSM stands for Dimensional Stereo Microphones, and Sonic Studios' Leonard Lombardo says these little omnidirectional microphones, placed on either side of your head, "fully utilize the natural psychoacoustical cues involved in normal spatial hearing of sound".  Lombardo must be doing something right, because the DSM mikes are currently being used by the BBC, National Public Radio, 60 Minutes, and Skywalker Sound, among others.

The $400 DSMs look kind of like those little in-the-ear "earbud" headphones, except instead of a speaker inside, there's a high-quality Panasonic condenser microphone element and , some really teensy I circuitry to make it go.  Lombardo hand-builds the professional-grade DSM-6S, matching each stereo pair for gain accuracy to <0.25 dB.   For $100 clams less I you can buy the standard -grade  DSM-6 stereo mikes, which are identical to the DSM-6S but matched to only 1 dB.  And either way, since these mikes are condenser types, you'll also need Sonic Studios' $75 PA-6 phantom power supply, (A $200 version with adjustable low-bass cut is also available.)

Each mike nubbie is about the size of a Milk Dud, with a little rubber loop for you to slip onto the stem of your sunglasses. And voila--Mr. Microphone rides again!  My sister-in-Law Ann-Marie took one look at me with the DSMs on my Revos and shouted, "You freak! Get out of my house!!"   But you should hear the DAT I made of her screaming this at me--it sounds like she's right there in the room!

The beauty of the Sonic Studios mikes is that all you have to do is stand where you .a think the music sounds good, hit record on a good-quality portable deck, and as soon as the music' s over you'll , have a finished, ready-to-listen-to stereo recording that sounds much, much cleaner and more natural than most anything you've got on record or CD.  And no, I'm not simplifying things. It really is that easy.  The recording quality of these Sonic Studios mikes is so good that the normal beginner's learning curve of coping with typical mediocre budget mikes just isn't there at all.  As long as you set the recording levels correctly so the recorder doesn't overload on peaks (very important with DAT, less so in good cassette recording), you will come away with an amazing sounding tape that will stun and spoil you for most of what you consider to be excellent commercial recordings, just by standing like a freak with little black Milk Duds hanging off your shades.

The excellent, comprehensive set of instructions Sonic Studios includes with the DSM-6S mikes makes it a breeze to start making great recordings right away.  Lombardo does tend to cram a ton of real-world recording tips and tricks onto a page, in the manner of Dr. Bronner's Soap labels.  ("Use the -20 dB attenuator for all Essene scroil recordings. All-One-God- Faith! And remember to hit the record button twice to start recording.  Dilute! Dilute! OK!")  But believe all the ins 'n' outs on how to get fabulous sound from these little mikes, and you should read every word he says before getting started.  I, of couse, dove straight into things without reading the poop sheet and found out the hard way that the Sony TCD-D8 portable DAT doesn't dig input levels that force you to turn its level control below 4, because its preamp overloads and distorts like crazy even though your meter isn't anywhere near 0 dB.  Had I read Lombardo's tips, I could've learned this the easy way.  So read them!  Moral ABC!  Exceptions eternally?  None!!

The coolest thing about these DSM mikes is that you can radically alter their stereo pickup pattern from a quasi-binaural setup (for "3-D" virtual imaging over headphones) to a stereo sound field that translates extremely well over a pair of loudspeakers.  How do you go about making this adjustment, you ask?  Well here's where things get tricky:  For binaural recording, you slide the Milk Duds all the way back on the stems of your sunglasses so they're right in front of your ears, and for normal recording you slide them all the way forward.  Ouch, that hurt my brain. How about you?

It's only a matter of moving the mikes a few inches, but, man, does it make a huge difference in the sound field they lay down onto the recording.  Set up for binaural pickup, my recordings sounded amazing on my Grado RS-1 headphones but with a very dull treble balance and nearly no stereo spread over the pair of NHT 3.3s  I've got in my living room.  I liked the sound of the recordings I did much better with the mikes pushed all the way forward on my shades--huge, wide, brilliant purist stereo with a crystal-clear high end on the NHTs.  And while headphone listening didn't have the same reach-out-and-touch-it "3-D" effect as the binaural setup, it sounded at least as good as any conventional stereo recording heard over headphones.  Unless you're one of those binaural cultists with a buzz cut and the black Nikes and the beatific smile as a you listen to the Indy 500 on your Sony earbuds, I recommend sticking with the regular stereo setup when using the Milk Dud mikes.

I ended up making a ton of recordings with the Sonic Studios mikes and the Sony portable DAT. Everything from my sister-in-law shouting "You freak!" to local musicians to street corner traffic to myself strumming a Stratocaster plugged into a little Fender tube amp on the other side of the room. And when I hooked the Sony DAT up to my hi-fi rig and listened to these recordings, they sounded so much like the original events I couldn't believe it, even after years of making my own recordings both at home and in pro studios.  It's just uncanny how great this simple, affordable recording system sounds and how ridiculously easy it is to make reference-quality recordings that kill most of what you hear on the audiophile labels.  I sure wish I' d had the Sonic Studios mikes back when I was first learning my way through a recording studio--they would've saved me years of learning on how to get good-sounding recordings from  a pair of microphones.

The $700 Sony TCD-D8 portable DAT is a natural partner to the Sonic Studios mikes, but if you don't feli like ponying up that kind of dough, I can tell you that I also made some truly excellent recordings with the Milk Dud mikes plugged into my Sony Walkman Pro D6 portable cassette recorder, which you can buy new for around $350 or used for under $250.  The sound quality wasn't quite as transparent or jaw-dropping as with the portable DAT, but I was pleasantly surprised at how good the Walkman Pro sounded when fed a purist stereo mike signal from the DSMs.

As for you, Dear Reader, for just $475 you can own some of the best-sounding microphones I've had the pleasure of using.  I can't recommend these Sonic Studios stereo mikes enough. Whether you opt to mate I them with a portable DAT or something more down to earth like the Walkman Pro cassette recorder, you'll be making your own audiophile recordings that push the sound of your hi-fi rig to heights you never dreamed it could go.  And even more important, the moment you listen to the first good recording you've made of an event you heard right in front of you, your ears and hearing ability will never be the same again. Trust me, the money you'll save on dumb gear purchases by being a much better listener will pay for these mikes and whatever recorder you mate them with several times over.  That's a promise.

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