Monday, June 22, 2009

Tiffany Microphones

If you followed my posts regarding home voice over studios and microphones, you noticed I haven't had much to say beyond getting started and settling in. I haven't reviewed Neumann mics or Avalon preamps and the like. This is because, as your experience grows, you need to listen to your ears more, and listen to people like me less. I can give you some advice if you ask, but overall you are the only person who can judge what works best for you.

A few months ago, I bought an AKG Perception 220 because of a low-low bargain deal I spotted. I paid about $160 all told, and I've been surprisingly pleased with the mic. My voice benefits from the mid to upper range sweetness of the AKG family. I started getting compliments right away, so the 220 has stayed on my mic stand and has become the workhorse. Not bad for under $200.

So, do I need a Neumann? Well, at the moment, my balance sheet says "No," and that may be all she wrote. But do you need a mic with a price tag over $1,000?

You should know that there are two mics that appear again and again in LA studios. One is the Sennheiser MHK 416, a hypercardioid "short shotgun" that rules the sound stages and Foley rooms throughout So Cal and beyond. It's a sleek beauty with a quality that makes your voice cut through the mix, not necessarily with balls, but with that "sweetness" I mentioned in the AKG. It's a different breed of mic than the typical studio condenser, and at an MSRP of $2,000, it's worth every penny. A nice choice if you don't like talking into a pop filter; the pattern on this baby lets you back off. But it will expose every bad habit you bring to it, and it can't make up for poor room acoustics. Yes, it will pick up your neighbor's dog barking... a block away.

The other is the stalwart of the recording booth, the one you're most likely to see in the behind the scenes voice recording footage of animated cartoons, the Neumann U87. At this moment, I should point out that Neumann is a religion all its own. They are that good. Neumann offers a wide selection of studio condensers with differences that range from the subtle - a U49 has a bit of high end loss when addressed off axis, which can be used to great effect to reduce mouth noises and sibilance - to the Holy Overengineered, Batman!" end of the spectrum. (Their most expensive mics, like the one that was on Jay Leno's desk, has infinitely variable pick-up patterns selected by remote control. Oh, and it comes in black.) The TLM series is transformerless design. The U's are old school Neumann. The M line is modernized classics like the 47. The BCM's are aimed at the broadcast market and contain the sole dynamic in Neumann's studio collection.

The U87 is a gentle, unforgiving, sensitive beast. If you're wearing headphones and have never used one before, the U87 will make you stop and go, "Whoa. I sound good." Unless you don't... then you'll stop and say, "Yeee cats! I sould like Gilbert Gottfried!" Your studio must be perfect. It too can pick up your neighbor's dog, but it'll be the best damn dog bark you'll ever record. At an MSRP of $3,800, that dog better sound like Harry Connick Freakin' Junior.

My advice is, if you can, test drive different mics at studios that have them, or a retailer, or make some professional connections and see if you can borrow one. (The friend that lets you borrow his Neumann is a friend indeed.)

Just like choosing a watch, you should pick the mic that you like. And you are the only person you need to impress. If you like what you hear when you test drive a Neumann, then by all means, get it. If you like Audio Technica, stay with it. And so on. Just don't be afraid to try something new once in a while. And grab a bargain when you can. You might be surprised.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Digital Rapture

It's here. The post analog era of television. The Digital Rapture. Were you left behind?

At the this writing, the panic calls to our station have been sparse. I suspect they'll trickle in as the days pass. As I put it in an inner-office memo, there's bound to be somebody out there who won't notice the analog is gone until they try to tune in Saturday Night Live. After all, we are NBC.

I'd say the majority of the issues with digital have something to do with the antenna, with the rest of calls falling into the "Can't get this f____ converter box to work" category. Most people used to aim an antenna in the general direction of the TV station and watch to their heart's content. Digital requires that the antenna be aimed with the precision of a surveyor's laser sight, and focused to a degree just slightly less demanding than that used for the Hubble telescope.

A year or so ago, some jackalopes got on TV with those "Make the Switch" spots and told people that rabbit ears would do the trick. Anybody with any working knowledge of radio and television signals knew that this was baloney. Guess what? We've turned off the analog, and the rabbit ears aren't working. That's because these guys never told you how to use them. With a few easy steps from me, you'll be watching I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here in crystal clear High Def. No need to thank me.

Rabbit ears - dipole rod antennae, to be technically and linguistically correct (One antenna, two antennae) - never really worked well even back when Jackie Gleason was on Saturday nights. They are a compromise that served only those in urban locales with strong signals that bounced off of every solid surface known to man. What's really happening here is that a reflected signal is reaching one rod of the antenna at a slightly different time than the other. When this happens the wrong way, you see ghosts in the picture. But, if you angled the ears just right, you managed to cancel out the effect of the bouncing signal, kinda like the way the IRS cancels out your yearly income. Oh, and did I mention they only work on VHF channels? UHF gets the hoop, that equally useless piece of metal little TV sets used to come with.

Like women in a singles' bar, digital receivers only want a strong signal, and have a low tolerance for weak reflected signals, so the phase cancellation method the rabbits ears use doesn't work all that well. You have to go for the direct pickup. We're still talking about TV reception, right?

First, as I said, rabbit ears only work on VHF, channels 2-13. Moving the rods around might seem to do something on UHF channels, but what's really happening is your body is changing the reception. Step away and the signal reverts to where it was. If you don't have any VHF signals in your area, you can still use your new rabbit ears as modern art, a cap holder, or for Halloween when you want to dress up as Uncle Martin from My Favorite Martian.

Second, digital television broadcast signals use what's called horizontal polarization. Easy, folks; that's not the name of a porn movie. It simply means the signal travels from the transmitter in wavy lines parallel to the ground. You know, like Lindsey Lohan returning home on on a Saturday night. That means the best antennae use horizontal rods to catch or reflect the signal, which is why an outdoor antenna looks a bit like something you could use to hang your laundry on. That means the rods of your rabbit ears have to be down in a horizontal position.

Third, this arrangement must now be rotated to present the largest aspect to the transmitting antenna. In other words, turn it until one of the rods pokes you in the eye every time you walk near it, and you'll get perfect reception - assuming you're on the second floor or higher and have a picture window looking straight out in the direction of the TV station.

And it's just that simple. So, the next time some technogeek who works in television tries to tell you rabbit ears won't work on digital, you can say, "Mine do... if you could just step a few inches to the left, and hold up your right arm."