Category Archives: Gear Reviews

Descriptions and performance of equipment I’ve used on location and in the studio

Bargain Gear: The Crest Audio iPro One Preamp

As you probably know, I’ve been doing a bunch of ribbon mic experiments lately. The thing about ribbons is that, in general, their output level is fairly low, and the mics I’m building are no exception. As a result, you have to crank the input gain pretty high on a ribbon, and when I tested the Austin ribbon mic, it was pretty clear that my preamp department was lacking. And until I start making thousands of dollars in the studio, I won’t be able to buy a nice John Hardy M1 preamp like we had at OnLine Audio (list price, $2905 for four channels. It sounded REALLY good…)

So my alternative was to build one myself. A conversation with Les Watts told me he uses THAT chips for the pres that he’s built, and their performance equals or exceeds discrete mic preamps like those used in the M1. So I began looking at designs and collecting parts to build one or two myself.

The input side of the studio. The two interfaces are usually fed from these preamps, though I have direct outs on my mixer if I need more. I bought the Nady years ago. It works, but isn’t the best solution… I only use it when I’m looking for a quick signal input. It’s due for a complete overhaul soon. My other preamps are relatively new additions, a Presonus Bluetube, and on the bottom is the main subject of this review.

That’s when I came across the Crest iPro One. It uses THAT chips and has a very low EIN (Equivalent Input Noise) spec of -129dB. I found one on eBay for $140, including the shipping, so while I probably shouldn’t have, it was too cheap not to try one. They seem to be discontinued, I can only find them from a seller called Audiosavings. But they are brand-new units and arrived via FedEx just a few days after ordering.

It came in the other day, and I’ve set it in my rack and gave it a listen. Here’s my initial impressions.

About the only real beef I could find was that the name starts with an “I,” which has gotten really overused. The rest is pretty darn good… crazy good considering the price that I paid for it. It is indeed a low noise preamp, and my ribbon mic sounds way better when connected to this box.  In fact, it’s made the mic a viable option for a speaking voice signal, where before you really couldn’t use it for anything relatively quiet like spoken voice.

The Crest preamp and mic processor controls

And there are lots of other options available on this unit for coloring the signal to your liking. Going from left to right, first is a low-cut filter, which will be useful in several cases. It has a fairly gentle 12dB/octave slope, so it won’t be like a brickwall filter or anything like that, but it’ll help with low-frequency noises and resonances.

Next is a basic 2-band parametric EQ section that can be switched into or out of the circuit as needed. With the controls set flat and no mic connected, I noticed very little added noise when the section was switched in and out of the circuit, which was a good thing. It’ll probably be most useful as a notch filter to knock out an offending frequency, and has a greater cut range (24dB) than boost range (12dB). A very handy feature is a parametric to sidechain switch. With this, you can set up a de-esser easily by using the parametric to boost the frequencies that cause the compressor to to operate, causing it to clamp down on the highs. Or if the compressor is reacting too much to, say, a bass note or kick drum, the parametric-to-sidechain button can be used to doctor the compressor’s operation.

Next is a dynamic section which includes a basic expander (I prefer the term noise gate, though that isn’t exactly correct. A noise gate acts more like an on/off switch when a signal falls below a certain threshold, while an expander acts more like a fader that activates below a certain threshold). The release time is fixed, so this unit can seem abrupt on a signal like a voice, but you do have a ratio and a threshold control, so it has a pretty broad adjustment range. The compressor section has threshold, ratio, and make-up gain controls. It isn’t as adjustable as a standalone compressor, of course, but it’s easy to use and works well. There’s also a limiter with fixed attack and release times, I’d imagine this would be useful to prevent overloading your DAW input. The dynamics section also has an external sidechain input and an on-off switch, which are pro-level features.

The “SmarTube” feature adds high-frequency harmonics, which can “brighten up” a signal, according to the manual. I haven’t used it much yet. Personally, I believe that if you want “that tube sound,” you should use tubes. But then again, good tube gear can cost a fortune, so this may be an alternative. It could be especially useful when using the unit as an instrument interface, thanks to the inclusion of a line input and level control… another reason I bought the unit, it should work well as a bass direct in. I haven’t tested that yet, though.

The unit also has a headphone out, which is super handy to have. I love it when these options are available, as I can plug in and concentrate on a single function. It saves time since I don’t have to think about the signal flow.

There are two meters, gain reduction and output level. Sure, Crest could have saved a few bucks by using a single meter and a switch, but it’s great to have visual confirmation of the unit’s operation.

What I really appreciate are the little things, though. The fact that this has front panel connections AND rear panel connections, for example. It increases the cost to the manufacturer, and the suits would argue that the unit would still work with connectors on either the front or the back, but I really prefer both. Sometimes I’ll want to keep things clean in the front and use the back connectors, but when I want to plug in a mic or guitar cord, it’s great not to have to crawl around to the back of the rack, then realize I need my glasses, then go find a flashlight so I can see what the heck I’m connecting… you get the idea. And something as simple as putting the power switch on the front… somehow Nady seemed to think that on the PR8, the back was a good place for a switch, so on my other preamp, I have to reach around the backside of the rack to power it on and off… a stupid place to put a switch on a piece of rackmount gear, makes me cuss every time I do it. (Actually, the Nady is being scheduled for a full heart transplant. I’ll keep the connectors and the case, but replace the power supply and all the circuit boards with something that works better… probably a bunch of THAT circuits.)

Now, I haven’t put this unit through an exhaustive battery of tests, and I’ve only used it on a few actual sessions. A proper audio job is always much more telling than just going through the functions. But it really seems to be an affordable, very functional piece of gear. The overall weight seems lighter than you’d expect for a box of this size, and I’d imagine the switches and pots won’t last into the next century. But waddaya want for 140 bucks? For what it can do, I think it’s a terrific buy… if you’ve been wanting to try an external preamp, and you’re on a really tight budget, this would be a good choice.

Full Disclosure: I don’t have any connection to Crest. This unit was purchased at retail on ebay, and was done so for use in my own studio. I don’t receive any sort of benefit from this review. (though I’m not above that sort of thing at all. Feel free to send me your expensive gear, and I’ll publish an equally expensive opinion.) The post above is strictly my personal impressions, accuracy and correctness are not guaranteed, and your mileage will almost certainly vary- BG

Austin Ribbon Mic Completed

The completed Austin ribbon mic. This one will be given away at the Producer’s and Engineer’s Summit at Welcome To 1979 in Nashville, coming up in November.

Here’s a look at my Austin ribbon mic, I completed it yesterday. Building this mic certainly was actually really easy, except for one part… installing the ribbon in the frame. I had to do this several times… six, to be exact. I  had various problems. One, for example, didn’t show it’s ugly head until I’d completed an installation… tiny tears all along the edge of the ribbon. I learned they were caused by the ruler I was using, which had a cork backing that was set slightly behind the ruler’s edge. This small unsupported space allowed the foil room to stress and tear. I corrected this by using a length of rectangular aluminum as a straightedge, this pressed down on the foil right at the cutting edge.

Another problem I had was corrugating the ribbon. I was trying to protect the ribbon by corrugating it with the release paper on the top and bottom, but doing so a) causes the ribbon to curl up, and b) makes the corrugations shallower. If the ribbon isn’t sufficiently corrugated, it is extremely difficult to get it tensioned properly. The tension is important… the ribbon can neither sag in the frame, nor should it be too tight. I had the latter problem, and the ribbon developed a longitudinal curl, so scratch that ribbon.

But thanks in no small part to Rick’s patient support via several emails, I finally got one in. It wasn’t perfect… it could be centered just a hair better… but it looked ok, so I closed it up and finished the mic.

And considering everything, it sounds quite lovely. The last time I used a ribbon mic was 25 years ago, when I did my thesis recording using a pair of RCA TK77’s that the university owned, so I don’t have much of a frame of reference, but it seems to have a nicely balanced frequency response. From what I understand, construction errors show up as poor highs or lows. I don’t have a frequency analyzer set up yet so I can’t give any numbers, but my subjective analysis says “nice.” Now, like all ribbons, the output is rather low, and I did my testing using a rather crappy mic preamp. On voice, one has to crank the gain up quite a bit, and this gave me a lot of preamp noise. For someone who is a low talker, this wouldn’t work. But I got a rather useable level on my acoustic guitar.

Again, I can recommend Rick’s kit quite highly, especially if you’ve never built a mic before. He’s done everything that can be done to insure a good outcome, and the one I built certainly worked out well. That’s not to say it’s simple… you need patience, and good, steady hands will help as well. But I’ve already got parts here to build four more for myself!

The Austin Ribbon Mic

I recently received an Austin Ribbon mic kit from Rick Wilkinson (Rickshaw Records) out in California. Unfortunately, I can’t say I’m the proud owner… this mic is going to be built and given away as a door prize at the DIY panel at the Producers and Engineers Summit at Welcome To 1979 in November.

I haven’t finished the build yet, so I can’t give a complete review of the mic, but I can make some comments about the kit and the resources that come with it. Building a ribbon mic is not that complex- IN THEORY. It’s just a thin metal ribbon suspended between two magnets. There isn’t much electronic inside the mic, just a transformer. The design has been around since the 30’s.

The theory is simple. But like most things, it’s the Devil in the details. You can find articles and instruction on the web for free. And that’s what I started to do years ago. I got halfway through the project and shelved it… there wasn’t enough detail for me to be successful.

Or you can spend some money and increase your chances. Rick sells plans for ten bucks, or his ribbon kit for $275 with a Cinemag transformer. (There is a less expensive version with a stock transformer, and I understand the stock transformer is exceptionally high quality. It’s sold out right now, but should be available again shortly) Rick sent me a kit with a Cinemag transformer, so that’s the version I’m reviewing here.

The kit itself is extremely well done. The mic tube is powder coated brass, 1 1/2″ diameter, and exactly machined. All the holes are already drilled, so you don’t need a drill press. The motor frame (a critical part) is a machined piece of plastic. The fit was perfect. I especially liked his design… I designed my own once, and it was a cumbersome mess. Ricks is elegant, simple, strong, and works well. (some folks claim that metal frames are superior. Perhaps they are… I’m not sure… but I think that at least part of the reason behind this claim is that’s what is available from China.)

The greatest value for me, though, is Rick’s instructional materials. When you buy a kit (or his plans), he sends you a link where you can download  PDF instruction manual and several videos where he goes through the process of building a mic. These videos are really helpful, especially when it comes to corrugating and installing the ribbon.

Commercial mics use ribbons that are anywhere from 5 microns to 1.8 microns thick. The ribbon material that Rick supplies is about 0.8 microns. (Thinner ribbons increase high-freq sensitivity.) This is similar to “imitation silver” guilding leaf, it’s readily available on the internet. I’ve bought some from Hobby Lobby before and tried to cut a ribbon from it. I can say without hesitation that it ain’t easy. But that’s the beauty of these videos. Once you see someone doing it, you understand the method better… much better than just reading about it. And you can see that it is possible to make a well-functioning ribbon from scratch, but understand that it’ll take some practice. Even breathing can cause a cut ribbon to fly off your bench. So be ready to make several practice ribbons before you get one correctly made and mounted in your mic frame. And if you just can’t get it, there is an internet source for commercial ribbon foil now. A company called Lebow sells pure aluminum foil in a variety of thicknesses, including 1.8 and 2.5 microns. This would be vastly easier to handle, but it’s also vastly more expensive at $25/sheet. (There may be other sources as well, but this was the only one that I could find. I ordered two sheets to use in my own mics, but they aren’t in yet.)

Ribbon-making details is a big advantage of his instructions, but it isn’t the only one. For example, I learned that you can use a brass footrail cap on the bottom of your mic to hold the XLR connector. These things are nice, solid castings, and if you shop around, you can find them at about $5 apiece. (I wish I’d thought of that.) Circular Switchcraft connectors fit well in these caps.  This would be a good solution for any tubular-bodied homebuilt mic.

The videos do have a slight downside. You have to remember that Rick has built a lot of mics, so some of the things he does in the videos look easier than they will be to folks like you or I. It’s really difficult to explain the things that practice teaches you. But I’m pretty sure that I’ll have a working ribbon mic once the dust settles… I’ll keep you posted.

UPDATE: I finally got up the nerve to install the ribbon today. It worked on the second try, which really isn’t bad. I’m pretty sure that my success with this is pretty much due to Rick’s instruction. Like I said previously, I’ve tried this before and failed miserably. Seeing it done (in a video) makes all the difference.

A just-placed ribbon in the motor frame. This job requires lots of patience, but it can be done.

That is not to say, however, that it was easy. The foil is the definition of flimsy… if it were any thinner I think it’d fly off my bench because of the rotation of the earth. Using the more expensive 2.5 micron foil should be easier (though I expect still no picnic), and that’s what I’m planning for my own ribbon motor frames. (I figured this one should be made as a stock kit, in order to give a fair review.) There will be some slight differences, like slightly thicker magnets… I’m still in the design and prototype phase. But if they work, it’ll be fun to try some design variations like waffle plates (resonators) and silks.

A DSLR Timecode Workflow

Most of the DSLR shoots I’ve worked on have been fairly simple affairs, at least in terms of synchronizing the sound… mostly because there weren’t any other options. These shoots are done old-school “double-system,” where the camera records the visuals and the audio is recorded with a separate recorder. We used to use a Nagra for this (which is still a desirable piece of gear… one day I’ll find one that I can afford.) A standard slate is used at the head of each take to provide a marker for the editors. They line up the little bar of the slate with the crack of the slate’s clapper on the waveform, sliding the audio around until they match, and then the audio is locked to picture. Many folks are using PluralEyes to speed up this process. But if you’re doing a long-form production with a lot of takes, manual sync can become a fairly large chore.

The Ambient Lockit Buddy in the hotshoe mount

I did a shoot recently where the production house supplied an Lockit Buddy (built by Freelance Audio Visual Services in the UK) along with an Ambient Clockit Box (we used an ACL 203) timecode generator. Ambient timecode generators have been around for a long time, and are proven pieces of kit… though they are expensive little morsels. What’s new is the Lockit Buddy. This is  a small passive device designed to drop linear timecode down to mic level, allowing it to be recorded on the DSLR’s right channel. You can also feed a reference audio track to go on the left channel, if you have an extra wireless or line level out. The Lockit Buddy doesn’t generate its own timecode, and requires some sort of timecode signal for it to work… either generated as it was on this shoot, or a feed from a timecode out from a timecode-capable audio recorder (My Edirol R4 Prohas a BNC timecode out that would be perfect for this application, but the DP didn’t want to be tethered to my recorder) or a video camera.

A typical Lockit Buddy setup. Note that there’s no provision to mount either the wireless receiver or the timecode generator… not ideal for handheld shooting or tight production schedules

In use, the Lockit Buddy worked pretty well. We would jam sync the recorder at the beginning of the day and then disconnect the two (with both the recorder and the master generator running in “free run,” of course). The generator and lockit buddy combination was a bit cumbersome on the camera. The Lockit Buddy comes with a hotshoe mount, but not the lockbox, so we had to tape everything on top of the camera. The assembly was  constantly slipping out of the hotshoe mount. Because of the mounting difficulty, we didn’t use the wireless receiver on the camera. But it did work. I’ve even got my own Lockit Buddy on order, as they’re not too expensive (around $140).

setting the sound recording level manually is required for the timecode signal to work, though the constant level of LTC would likely override the audio gain setting of the camera. Sudden loud bursts of noise may cause the level to fluctuate in auto mode, however, causing potential sync problems.

Unfortunately, the post work is being done in the UK, so I can’t report how seamless the system is on the backside. I understand they “had some trouble syncing up the takes,” but they didn’t elaborate. Still, if a scratch audio track is fed to one side, one could still use PluralEyes if the LTC signal somehow failed to lock up. Using a slate is, needless to say, mandatory. And there is more info about the post process on the Ambient website.

While I like the Lockit Buddy, there are some improvements that I’d like to see… maybe in version 2.0. A full-sized XLR connector with a mic/line selector switch would be a big improvement, and wouldn’t require any active circuitry.  This way a DP could plug in a basic mic for an audio scratch track, without requiring a tether to the soundperson. The TA3 connector means that special cables must be built to get audio into the camera, and an additional 3.5mm female jack would be highly convenient. I may do that modification myself, once mine arrives.

Comparing Lav Mics

I don’t have a huge collection of lav microphones, but I’ve tried several different models over the years. All of them work amazingly well, though I’ve naturally developed a preference, and I do have one particular model that I tend to use as my “go-to” mic (which I’ll reveal in a moment).

Some wired lavs- from left to right, unmarked EV lav, evCO90, Sony ECM44b, Sony ECM55b

The problem with comparing different lav mic models is that many wireless transmitters use their own wiring conventions. Lectrosonics uses a five-pin connector (a TA5), while Sony and Sennheiser use a 3.5mm jack… and the two aren’t interchangeable. So while I have a fairly diverse collection of lavs, they aren’t all wired to use the same transmitter. One of these days, I’ll get rid of my other transmitters and go “all Lectro,” but that’s a somewhat expensive proposition.

Two Sennheiser lavs

My lav mic locker includes the following:

  • Countryman EMW (wired for Lectrosonics)
  • Countryman B6 (Lectro)
  • Audio Technica 899 (Lectro)
  • Lectrosonics 119
  • Lectrosonics 152
  • Sennheiser ME102
  • Sennheiser ME104
  • Sony ECM44B (hardwire)
  • Sony ECM55B (hardwire)
  • Sony UWP lav
  • EV CO90 (hardwire)
  • EV MysteryLav- looks suspiciously like a Sanken COS11

These two mics are the ones I use most often... a Countryman EMW and my current favorite, the Audio Technica 899

There is a really good article about comparing several different models of lav mics at Ken Stone’s website- click here. I haven’t done extensive side-by-side comparisons of all the mics that I have, but I’ve got some favorites. I found a good deal on some Countryman EMWs. These are small, rectangular, side-address lavs, similar to Trams, which are kind of an industry standard. But Trams were too expensive and only available new. The EMWs small size and resistance to handling noise are big advantages and I used these for several years. But then I happened to try an Audio Technica 899 during a 3-person shoot… two people wore EMWs, and one wore an 899. While all sounded good, I was surprised at the reduction in room noise when I soloed the 899… there was a significant improvement in the amount of background noise. Since then I’ve managed to purchase a set of three 899s, and these are my favorite mics in most situations.

Any mic with a larger head is generally not my first choice on the set, since most clients would rather hide the mic in the talent’s clothing, even though this means a reduction is sound quality. My Sony 55b almost never gets used for this reason, even though it’s an excellent-sounding mic. My Lectrosonics mics have some rather questionable-looking cables, so I keep them to use as backup mics.

The Sony PCM-m10 vs Zoom H4n

Like many folks, I’ve been using a Zoom H4n

Zoom H4n portable flash recorder

as my bag recorder for awhile now. But I recently acquired a Sony PCM-m10. This post will compare the two for use as a location audio-for-video recorder. My recorder of choice is an Edirol R4Pro, but it’s too large to use in a bag along with a mixer. What we’re after here are small, palm-sized 2-track recorders, and there are several to choose from.

My Sony PCM-m10. The front panel layout is fairly straightforward.

The Zoom is a good recorder, and has a number of useful features that aren’t available on many other recorders. These are easily discovered through any web search, but the major points are 4-track recording ability, and XLR inputs. But like everything in life, there are drawbacks… at least in my application. These are:

Lousy battery life– There’s no getting around it, the H4n is a power hog. Used as a straight recorder, I get about four hours from a pair of AA alkaline batteries. I’ve been on shoots where I’ve drained two sets in a single day, and the stress of starting a take with a low battery  indicator has to be experienced to be fully appreciated. Or worse still, putting in your last pair when you’re a mile and a half in the woods… and your extras are back in the car. My workaround has been to use very expensive lithium batteries, which will last nearly three shooting days. The folks at Zoom realized their design was a bit thirsty, and they put in a “stamina mode” switch on the back.

Beldar Conehead... never a big fan of reduced sample rates...

This will extend the battery life by disabling some features, but it limits your sample rate to 44.1/16 bit. As Beldar Conehead would say, “Mips!!! Unacceptable!!!” If you’re too young to understand the reference, I’m sorry, but your cultural education needs some work. Do the research.

The Zoom H4n is bigger overall, and the larger input connectors makes a slightly cumbersome package in a bag.

Picky Line Inputs– the 1/4″ inputs on this unit are high impedance ins. These are great if you want to plug an electric guitar directly into the unit, but for a mixer tape out… not so much. I know, you can buy a cable with a built-in pad, but it’s still a pain in the butt.

Fragile Form Factor- the adjustable mics on the top of the unit are nice for grabbing a quick stereo soundfile, but when used in the bag they tend to be somewhat vulnerable. The big 1/4″ connectors means it usually lives in the bag mics-down, and I worry that these may someday break.

4-Track Limitations- While the zoom H4n is widely advertised as a 4-track recorder, the implementation isn’t as great as it could be. Yes, it can record four tracks at once, but two of those tracks are intended to come from the unit’s onboard mics. There is a 3.5mm jack that can bypass those mics, but this is still a bias-powered mic level input. It can be made to work with yet another padded cable, but doing so involves such a web of special cables and workarounds that I’ve never tried to do a 4-track recording in the field.

The Sony is thinner than the Zoom, but this is a limitation of the XLR connectors.

These drawbacks led me to search for a better solution for recording in the bag, so I’ve gotten a Sony PCM-m10. For my application, the Sony is a better choice, because:

Line Inputs– At first glance, the 3.5mm stereo line in jack would seem to be a downgrade of the balanced ins on the Zoom, but since these are true line-level ins, this isn’t the case. Levels match fine from my mixer tape out using a plain 3.5mm stereo cable. Plus the Sony has a rotary input level control, so adjusting levels is a bit faster that setting a level using an up/down button, as it is on the Zoom. It is slightly more likely to accidental adjustment through careless handling, though.

Battery Life– Power management is vastly improved over the Zoom. The manual says to expect around 4o hours from a set of batteries… less if you use higher data rates. I record at 48k/24bit, and I can get more than three full days of work from a single set of alkaline AAs. The stress relief alone is a big value for me, as I’m not having to constantly check my battery level.

Compact Case- While I’d think these are about the same in terms of their fragility- both are basically built with plastic cases and could be damaged from extreme handling- the Sony is smaller and rectangular. The Zoom is slightly larger, but the bigger 1/4″ jacks can place more leverage on the connector itself, plus the irregular shape makes me think that of the two, the Zoom is going to be more likely to break over time. (I do plan to make a mic guard for the Zoom that screws into its tripod mount, but haven’t managed to find time for that experiment yet.)

The Zoom usses buttons to set the record level, while the Sony uses a thumbwheel. This isn't a digital encoder, either, but an analog level control.

Better Filenames- Though this seems a little nitpicky, I do like the filenaming convention on the Sony better than the Zoom. The Zoom gives each recording’s filename in a given folder a sequential number, starting at 001. The Sony does the same thing, but it adds the date at the head of each filename. This way it’s a little easier for me to tell what’s in each file without having to open it up and listen to it… handy if I’ve been shooting for four days and neglected to download. It just adds a little confidence.

There was one situation where I was glad I had the Zoom. I needed a lav mic on a motorcycle, and  expected the talent to drive out of wireless range. Using the Zoom, I plugged in a hardwire mic directly to the H4n’s input, started the recorder, and put the whole package in the bike’s saddlebags. You couldn’t do this with the Sony… at least not with a hardwire mic. I did some experiments by plugging in various mics with 3.5mm jacks into the Sony’s input, and  it turns out that mics wired for Sony’s UWP transmitters will work fine plugged directly into the input jack… a neat trick in a smaller package. Not so with mics wired for the Sennheiser G3 series, though.

While both are fine recorders, I think overall I prefer the Sony. In fact, I’ve ordered a second one. The idea is to use a pair to record iso tracks from my wireless units, then sync them after the fact using Plural Eyes software. I’m still running tests to figure out the best way to pull this off… the results will be in another post.

To be fair, I haven’t tried some of the other palm recorders available from Edirol, Fostex, Tascam, Marantz, Roland, and others. These two recorders are the ones that I own. (I’ve no connection with either company, nor have gotten any freebees or discounts from anybody. I’d be happy to take some, though.)

A Nine-Volt Power Solution

Thankfully I’ve been doing a lot of work lately. And as a result, I’ve been going through a lot of 9v batteries. My Lectrosonics wireless units are quite good in terms of their battery life… I can get about six hours from a Duracell Procell alkaline battery. But running three units all day long, plus a pair for my Shure FP33 means that it’s tough to keep enough batteries on hand. I always like to have a spare unopened case with me, just in case… running out of batteries during a shoot is just not an option.

The iPowerUS Lithium-polymer 9v batteries and charger

Unfortunately, most rechargables do not have enough energy density to be very useful on the set. I’ve tried some 9v NiMH, and they would only last 2 hours in the same application.

There is another option that is available from Trew and other dealers. A company called iPowerUS makes a 520 mAh 9v Lithium-Polymer battery. I had heard about these before, but a DP I worked with recently (Roger Herr, shooting Infested for Animal Planet/Darlow Smithson UK) actually had a set and recommended them, so I finally broke down and invested in a set.

I’m pleased to report that these are working great for me. I can get nearly an entire day in my wireless units from a single charge… even a little more by switching the power off between takes, so I’m not constantly changing batteries. iPower says their batteries will get over 200 charge cycles from each battery, and Trew reports this to be accurate… and in some cases, 200 cycles is a conservative estimate.

The downside is the initial cost… these batteries are initially quite expensive at $23 each in sets of four. (About $30 each with a charger.) But if we do a little math, they are really dirt cheap:

iPower- appx $30 each/200 charges = 30/200 = .15 per use
Procells- appx $20/12 (case)= 1.66 per use

These batteries break even after you’ve used six cases of 9-volts. (Or if you prefer, after being recharged about eleven times.) For me, that’s around 9 or 10 shooting days. These make sense if all you consider is dollars and cents. But more than that, it saves me time and grief not having to order a couple of cases of batteries every time I turn around. They charge in about 45 minutes, and the iPower charger comes with a 12-volt option for car charging… really handy. About the only downside I can think of is they don’t have a AA-sized solution for my Sound Devices gear.

So while it was a momentary pain in the wallet at purchase time, I’m really glad I bit the bullet and bought these batteries. So far, they’re quick, dependable, work great, and save quite a bit of cash and hassle over time.


A New Bag Upgrade

I just completed a job in Nashville, and I did some shopping at Trew Audio. One of the things I was interested in was a long-overdue bag upgrade. This time I went with a Petrol bag… a small Deca Eargonizer. My friend John Billings (location sound, studio engineer and session musician in Nashville) bought one recently and likes his, so I brought one home.

The Petrol small Eargonizer bag

The Petrol small Eargonizer bag

There are a number of things that I like about this bag, one of them is space. It’s a bit roomier than my old bag, which means it’s naturally a bit bulkier than before, but not by much. It’s “stiffer” as well, meaning that it’s made with semi-rigid sides. This means more protection for my mixer (though I never felt my gear was vulnerable with my old case). It also allows more flexibility with the configuration. Petrol includes little risers to lift gear up, which works because of the rigid sides.

Actually, Petrol includes a lot of little options and extras. Some will be indispensable for some folks, some will be unneeded for others… but it means I can configure the bag the way I want it, which is a big plus. One item that everyone will like is their wireless pouch… my bag came with a pair, and there are anchor points for two more, which I’ll be ordering directly.

Petrol bags come with a number of risers, dividers, and pockets for custom tailoring the bag to suit various ways of working

Other details that are really handy:

  • Multiple anchor points for the strap, so the bag can be balanced
  • the clear vinyl window flap attaches with velcro on both sides, so it can be removed and stowed out of the way in clear weather.
  • Places to put sharpies and pens (though it doesn’t have a dedicated business card pocket, and I always like to have cards ready to hand out).
  • Cutouts on the inner divider for easier & neater cable routing.

Just to be fair, there are a few small details that I’d personally like to improve. I’d like some more padding on the strap, since I usually run a fairly heavy bag. And some method of attaching transmitters for Comteks or camera hops on the strap, up high and away from the mic receivers, would be cool. But my biggest irritation are connector covers. For some reason most bag manufacturers don’t make them removable, and they are always getting in my way when I need to make fast connection changes in the mixer. I never take my personal gear out in bad weather, since I can’t afford to replace it if it gets damaged, so the connector covers aren’t quite as big an issue as it is with, say, a news crew. At least Petrol makes their covers out of a lighter, more flexible material, but I’d like something that could either be removed or rolled completely out of the way.

The bag from the front. Its center divider can be removed if need be.

This isn’t to say that I don’t still like my Portabrace bag… for me, the Portabrace is better for my old Shure FP33, since its smaller & lighter. That’s my rig of choice when I need to be very mobile. (Portabrace doesn’t list the FP33 anymore on their website, but there should still be plenty of bags for them around.)

Overall, though, I think the Petrol is a great bag and I expect to get many years of work out of it. By listing my old bag (that wasn’t really that old at all) with Trew’s consignment program, the net cost of my upgrade was pretty small… a successful trip, I think.

Sound Devices MM1

In the new gear department, I’ve just taken delivery on a Sound Devices MM1 mic preamp and headphone monitor. While it is possible to find a cheaper headphone monitor these days(for example, this one by Behringer), I decided to invest in this unit, partly because of Sound Devices‘ reputation for quality gear. My initial impression is their reputation is quite safe… this is a very well-built and functional little unit.

The Sound Devices MM1 is fairly compact and lightweight. A Portabrace-style casewould be nice to keep the unit from getting dings, though it's ruggedly built

The Sound Devices MM1 is fairly compact and lightweight. A Portabrace-style casewould be nice to keep the unit from getting dings, though it's ruggedly built

A recent shoot for CNN required NO mixer in the signal path… rather, they wanted a direct wireless lav in one channel, and a wireless boom in the other. While I have the wireless transmitters covered, the “butt plug” Lectrosonics that I’ll use with the boompole doesn’t have a provision for monitoring the signal. The MM1 will be perfect for this application… at least until I come up with the $3K for a Zaxcom 992 wireless camera link.(For a review by Glen Trew, click here.)

Besides reputation, the reason I selected this unit was for available features on the preamp section. Inputs and outputs are transformer-balanced, there’s a limiter and a high-pass filter that can be set to 80 or 160 Hz. Also of critical importance is the mic powering section, which can be set for 48 volt phantom or 12 volt T-power. I have two Sennheiser shotguns that use T-power, a long 815T and a medium 415T. The 415 has a smoother high end than my Sennheiser ME66/K6, but its power requirements and sensitivity to moisture mean that it doesn’t get used as often as I’d like.

There is one thing that I DON’T like about it… if the preamp section is set to 0dB, as in no added gain, the unit doesn’t pass a signal at all… no signal at the headphones or the output. So the unit can’t be used if you want to monitor a signal without boosting it. I tried to use it to monitor to my boompole signal before transmitting into a Lectrosonics 187 “butt plug” transmitter, but that requires a mic-level signal. Any boost will distort the transmitter, so this hasn’t been the solution I’d hoped. Some custom input cables for my Lectrosonics transmitters will help (thanks to Lectrosonics for making their wiring information available… click here.)

Adobe Soundbooth- First Impressions

I recently purchased Adobe Soundbooth for audio editing and sweetening of soundtracks. It’s normally a part of a large, and expensive, “suite” of Adobe programs. But Adobe recently made Soundbooth available as a standalone app at a lower price.

I’ve used Adobe software for many more years than I should admit, usually for graphics production… Photoshop, Illustrator, Acrobat Pro, etc. While their stuff has never been cheap, they have always produced pro-grade products that deliver real work.

Soundbooth is turning out to be a similar experience. Like the others I’ve used, it’s aSoundboothScreen good, capable program with lots of flexibility. I haven’t used it with video files yet, but just to get my feet wet, I decided to try some music remasters of old vinyl that I have, and see if I could transfer the result into iTunes. Vinyl records– especially the classics that I grew up with– were made with vinyl in mind as its final output. The format was part of the musical decisions the bands made, and it has a characteristic sound. And for those of us who are a certain age, we remember that “sound” of a vinyl record as part of the music. Old Beatles records sound better with some turntable rumble and a few crackles and pops at the head. It was all a part of the experience… the giant cardboard squares with all the groovy graphics, the bonus of a printed paper liner, or better yet, a separate sheet with lyrics, methodically cleaning the grooves and checking the needle for the evil dust, and then you “dropped the needle.” The resulting thud and the crackles that came just before the music only heightened the anticipation. The whole thing became a ritual. It made music more fun.

I used Soundbooth to import a record side– complete with the crackles and rumble– as an MP3 (though there are several other file formats that I can use), then cut each song out of the side and save it as an individual file. It was a simple matter to add fade ins and fade outs before program audio starts. Then, just for grins, I used the advanced graphic EQ to add a little “air” to the top end and a slight bump to the bass, while cutting out the freq beyond the range of the vinyl… at least the vinyl I have. Most of the records are somewhat worn, and my transfer process didn’t yield any audible program material much above 15kHz, so that was notched out, and the same with subsonic rumble  below 31 hz. Switching the EQ in and out showed a nice, though subtle, improvement.

 The parametric EQ and mastering screens in Adobe Soundbooth

The parametric EQ and mastering screens in Adobe Soundbooth

There are several otther “effects” that are available in this program, including parametric EQ, reverb, noise gates, compressors, expanders, etc. I haven’t had much of a chance to play with these yet, and most wouldn’t really apply to this particular job anyway. Being a former mastering engineer myself, I was careful not to change much of the EQ that the original engineers so meticulously set for each record.

After I applied a slight amount EQ and trimmed the heads and tails, I went through and fixed any particularly loud pops or scratches using a “reduce noise” command only at the offending sections. This leaves most of the program untouched.

After saving these doctored files, I moved them into the folders where iTunes stores its music. They appeared in iTunes as “unknown artist” and “unknown album,” but the song titles were there, and they played. I just had to “get info” about each song and manually add the album name and artist. Then iTunes moved the files into their correct folder, and the album appeared in the iTunes library. I even added the album artwork by dragging the image from Wikipedia articles.

All in all, I’m quite pleased and will probably look into buying the other Adobe production programs. That’s not to say I loved everything… there are a few odd bugs that need fixing, and this program could really, REALLY use a good printed manual. But I’m enjoying myself with it- BG