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Relix Magazine Volume 18, Number 4, August 1991


Sonic Studios DSM-5L Microphones

by Barry

WHEN I wanted to purchase a pair of quality microphones in 1978 for serious live recording, several factors were paramount.

First, the microphone had to be wide range and with relatively little coloration. This is important since many microphones are only suited for portions of the sound spectrum. In particular, microphones that provide clean, extended response below 1 00 Hz are hard to find, especially if such mikes are also called upon to provide extended response out to 18 kHz or better. In 1979, 1 found that the Nakamichi CM700 microphones (no longer in production) were extremely well-suited to field recording. Not only did these mikes provide accurate response, but also their thin, cigar-tube size, light weight, and black color made them concealable. In covert recording, such factors become almost as important as the quality of the mikes. It's now been 11 years since I purchased the CM700 mikes, and with their original purchase price of about $400 for the pair, I haven't really seen any mikes that have tempted me away, except at outrageous cost. The CM700s have become the "standard" to which I hold all other mikes. Certainly, in terms of quality alone, there are many to choose from-Schoepps, B&K, Neumann, to name a few, are state of the art. They will often cost between $1000 and $4000 a pair, some will require external power supplies, and some will be hard to conceal (both on entry and during taping). I have and still find it hard to justify the costs and problems when the qualitative differences are not great.

When I was approached by Sonic Studios to review mikes that are smaller than dimes and slip onto eyeglass frames, I was both skeptical and intrigued by what might be a significant breakthrough after all these years. Could it be that for a modest price ($300, case included) there is now serious competition for my cherished CM700s? Sonic Studios was anxious for me to use the mikes during the past spring tour by the Grateful Dead, but since I was not prepared to use them in the taping section, I decided to wait for a better opportunity. I wanted to record a band with permission where I could set up the CM700s on a tropod at head level and simultaneously, with a second set-up, wear the DSM-5L mikes on my eyeglasses using a deck with a shoulder strap. Arrowhead Ranch in Parksville, New York, sponsored the 18th Relix Anniversary and Tapers' Convention this past Memorial Day weekend. That provided the opportunity to tape the band Midnight Sun with permission in any manner I wanted.

The concerts were held in a club-like setting with a small stage, low ceiling (about eight feet, maximum) and capacity for a couple of hundred people. I used two Sony TC-DSM analog cassette decks with Maxell MX-C90 cassettes. The CM700s were set up on a tripod about 30-35 feet from the stage, mikes just above head level (about six feet). Each mike pointed at a P.A. stack, so I used a standard open "V" pattern with an angle of about 45 degrees. The tape deck was left in a bag on the floor next to the tripod. The DSM-5L mikes were worn on the frames of my eyeglasses in front of each ear as recommended by Sonic Studios. The mikes are powered by a single AA battery which is held in its holder by a Velcro strap. The pair I used was customized with two 1/4-inch phono jacks to match the Sony TC-DSM mike input connections. The standard format for the mikes is to provide a stereo mini-jack for input to your tape deck.

In setting up the DSM-5L mikes, there were three specific aspects I wanted to test and rate: The quality of the sound as compared to the CM700 mikes; the degree to which spurious noises or crowd sounds interfere; and the ease of use and ease of set-up, including personal comfort. Once back at home, both Sony TC-DSMs were set up to play back in a manner such that I could switch back and forth with both tapes running the same song cued up as closely as possible. The tapes were played through Thiel CS3 speakers, known for their sonic accuracy, powered by the Perreaux 2150 power amp and SM2 matching preamp. The preamp has no tone controls, so the output could be considered to be "flat." The A/B comparison showed a somewhat brighter and more detailed sound with the DSM5L mikes than with the Nakamichi CM700 mikes. Particularly, the cymbals and percussion stood out better than with the CM700 mikes. This is -interesting, since the CM700s had the benefit of tripod-mounting and perhaps a little more height. The brightness was not tinny or harsh, but better reproduction. Vocals sounded identical in quality and depth on both sets of mikes. Bass response seemed identical as well, but this may be an area where the CM700s have a slight edge. Midnight Sun did not offer in their music the very deep bass we are accustomed to in listening to the Grateful Dead, for example. Bass reproduction will require some further testing and study. For this, I will probably bring these mikes to upcoming June stadium Grateful Dead shows and try them out once again.

Since I've been rather satisfied with the overall sound quality, I know I will make good tapes. I must say that I am surprised (pleasantly) that mikes so small manage to do the job so well. The set-up and ease of use bears commenting upon. Unlike hand-held mikes or a tripod set-up, you wear the mikes. You do not have an option to do otherwise. This means you must be aware of what you do throughout the show and how it may affect the sound. Head movements, those talking near you, and bending down can affect sound. You will hear more of a channel difference with the DSM-5L mikes, since they are geared to better approximate the overall sound of the live experience. Your head acts as part of the sound field aspects. Frankly, I am less concerned about how these mikes reproduce the psychoacoustic aspect of channel balance than I am with a good-sounding, low-audience-noise tape. I am pleased that, when worn properly, the mikes will be extremely difficult to detect by security.

With your hands completely free, you can move about, even through a crowd, tape deck running, and this is perhaps the epitome of stealth taping. During the test with the DSM-5L mikes, I jiggled the thin wires, which lead to the actual mikes and would reposition the wires behind my neck. I did this with the cables as well, moving them as I might during any show to afford better comfort or concealment. I found in careful listening to the tapes that there were no detectable noises, thumps, or hums introduced during the 80-minute performance. This tells me that the mikes are well-isolated from their Connecting cables, and that is essential. Body movement did not affect sound, either, and movements of the head did not make major changes in the overall sound. Ducking down far below the audience will, as with any hand-held mike set-up, cause a drop of the high end. Since I had to keep an eye on levels on the machine running the CM700s, I had to occasionally bend down to check that deck. The DSM-5L mikes are very forgiving.

There was no difference in the hiss levels for the tapes made on the two decks. This seems to indicate that the signal-to-noise ratios are about the same. I'll probably never be completely used to "wearing" mikes. The set-up is quite easy. Physically, wearing the mikes is much less tiring than hand-holding a T-bar mounted with a pair of conventional mikes. I found that after a half hour of wearing the mikes, you start to forget they are there.

At $300 retail, case included, you can hardly go wrong. Since these mikes are not intended to be used in any other way than on eyeglasses, their purchase implies a commitment to audience concert taping. I would not recommend that you use these mikes while standing in the tapers section at a Grateful Dead concert. They are certainly what you want to use at a non-Grateful Dead concert where you are close to the front and probably need the concealment they offer. If the opportunity presents itself to me to use these mikes with a portable DAT, I will follow up with another review. In the meantime, I can highly recommend the DSM-5L mikes for use with Sony TC-DSM type analog machines for results that will leave the taper very satisfied. Sonic Studios, manufacturer of the DSM-5L mikes can be contacted at (541) 459-8829 for more information, or you can write to Sonic Studios, 1311 Sunny Court, Sutherlin, Oregon 97479.

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High-definition, low noise, very wide bandwidth preamp designs to fit any field/event/studio application using DSM™ stereo-surround mics.

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