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Royer SF-2 Active Ribbon and 3 Zigma Audio CHI Microphones

January 30, 2014
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WHILE SPEAKING TO ROYER LABS’ JOHN Jennings at a recent AES show, I mentioned that I was planning to record a collection of unique and highly unusual acoustic instruments for an album I was working on, as well as creating a sample library of the sounds for use in film scoring. When I told him the instruments were really tricky to record, he suggested I try a pair of Royer’s new SF-2 ribbon microphones ($2,495 retail/$2,295 street), which were designed specifically for use with acoustic sources, particularly orchestral instruments. Coincidentally, about that same time I was contacted by Larry Villella of ADK, who asked if I’d like to try a couple of microphones made by ADK’s sister company, 3 Zigma Audio. Ostensibly, I was to try them for recording acoustic guitars and guitar amplifiers, which I did—but I also wound up using them to record some of the aforementioned instruments.

Those instruments—designed and played by Michael Masley—included percussion (e.g., a giant kalimba with large reverb springs mounted inside, and a metal canister containg oil that changes pitch as it is tilted), wind (e.g., a wooden Lakota flute fitted with a trombonelike sliding mechanism), reed (e.g., a clarinet mouthpiece attached to a sliding mechanism), and uncategorizable (e.g., a large metal floor ashtray with reverb springs inside that is struck in various ways as well as bowed and manipulated with a metal ball). All of these instruments create complex, overlapping timbres, often with sharp transient attacks followed by various rates of decay, and in some cases long reverb tails. They also tend to emit sound from various points, requiring lots of experimenting with mic positioning. In other words, recording them is challenging.

 
 The CaveCore, flanked by a pair of Royer SF-2 microphones.
I used the stereo pair of Royer SF-2 mics for the sample library recordings, running them through the ultra-clean mic preamps in a Universal Audio Apollo recording interface. While tracking the album, however, I also sometimes ran them through a Universal Audio LA-610 tube mic preamp/optical compressor, and a solidstate Retro Channel channel strip, for specific types of coloration. Ditto for the two 3 Zigma microphones.

ROYER

The SF-2’s Active Series electronics allow it to be used in much the same way as a phantom-powered condenser, without the need for special high-gain preamps. Its frequency response is essentially flat from 30Hz to 15kHz, and its custom FETs and other electronics—including a fully balanced head amplifier system and a proprietary toroidial transformer—provide a -38dB output level and result in nearly noisefree operation. The mic can also handle SPLs up to 130dB (at 70Hz) without distorting, which comes in handy when recording loud sources such as guitar amps. The SF-2 comes with a shock mount, an elegant mic sock, and a nice protective case. A Deluxe Package ($3,295 retail) that includes a custom wood presentation case and a camera-style carrying case is also available.

While recording the sample library sounds (to Pro Tools 10, 32-bit floating/96kHz), I placed the SF-2s roughly a foot apart, adjusting the specific distance and angles to accommodate the various instruments. In some cases I also placed a sound absorber behind them, as both sides of the ribbon are active. The first thing I noticed was how startlingly lifelike the mics sounded, an impression repeatedly corroborated on playback. Every timbral nuance was rendered with breathtaking clarity, and the stereo imaging was magnificent. (In fact, the mics worked almost too well, as even the slightest background noise was captured with equal efficiency—but one could have worse “problems.”)

 
 The Alto Cojonalumba (with internal reverb springs).
One of the most remarkable characteristics of the SF-2 is its ability to accurately capture even the faintest sounds, and, by getting in close and working the proximity effect, to enlarge them dramatically. For example, a small instrument that is basically a rubber band on a metal frame had all the depth and thump of an upright bass, and the reverb tails on the spring-loaded instruments remained clearly audible for what seemed like minutes. Acoustic guitars were also recorded with great warmth and clarity, and I even got excellent results using the SF-2 as a room mic with my Rivera Venus 6 combo amp.

If you record acoustic guitars and/or other acoustic instruments, especially fine-quality ones, and have been searching for a professional-level studio microphone that will truly do them justice, the SF-2—or better yet a pair of SF-2s— would likely be a very worthwhile investment. royerlabs.com.

 
 

 
 The LakotaSlide has three bodies that produce very different sounds.
3 ZIGMA AUDIO

The 3 Zigma CHI (Capsule Head Integration) microphones comprise a modular system of interchangable elements. Currently there are four Lipstick (small-diaphragm condenser) and four Lollipop (large-diaphragm condenser) capsules available, all of which may be used with either of two head amps or bodies: the transformer-less model HA-TLII, and the transformer-coupled model HA-FX, the latter of which features three-way pad and high pass switches. Roughly speaking, the Lipstick caps provide more transparent sounds and the Lollipops have more personality. In fact, the Lollipops are even named after four venerable vintage mics—Neumann U 67 and U 47, AKG C12, and Telefunken/AKG ELA M 251—though the names are merely intended to evoke particlar colors, rather than to suggest any sort of equivalency.

Villella sent C-LOL-67 and C-LOL-12 capsules, both with cardioid pickup patterns, and one of each head amp ($799 retail/$549 street for a single cap and head amp). He suggested that the 67 might work particularly well on guitar amps, and the 12 on acoustic guitars. While that proved to be true, I found both of the microphones to be quite versatile, and I loved the way they sounded in a variety of applications. Being able to swap the caps and head amps provided additional flexibility, as the HA-FX had a tad more oomph than the HA-TLII—though my preference depended on the situation. And, no matter what the combination, the mics were almost alarmingly quiet.

The 67 sounded big and warm, with a smooth and nicely detailed high end, imparting a satisfying blend of depth and presence to nearly everything I used it on. It performed particularly well on percussion and wind instruments, though it sounded great on acoustic guitars and female vocals as well. The 67 also excelled when positioned a few inches from the combo amp, capturing both clean and distorted tones beautifully, without ever sounding harsh or overly hyped.

The 12 didn’t sound radically different than the 67, though its fuller lows and increased highend response, particularly around 12kHz, gave it a distinct character—one that paired especially well with darker sources such as hand drums and male vocals. Also, somewhat counterintuitively, it sounded wonderful with 12-string acoutic guitar and flutes. And, the 12 and 67 complemented each other perfectly when used as a stereo pair.

The C-LOL-67 and C-LOL-12 microphones may not rival their historic namesakes (I was unable to confirm this, however, as all of my ’60s-era Neumann U 67s and ’50s-era AKG C12s were on loan to George Martin), but they sound fantastic, and outperform similar microphones costing much more. Whether you are a home recordist looking to significantly up your game without breaking the bank, or a studio pro, these mics provide remarkable value, which is why they receive an Editors’ Pick Award. hybridmic.adkmic.com.

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