Is this just another Arturia Pigments review? Not really…
Developing as a musician is a curious phenomenon. In theory, the fundamentals of music theory can be broken down into a set of rules that are quite mechanical and mathematical. But if we’re all playing by the same set of rules how are we creating such a vast spectrum of music? How, for example, can a hip-hop producer look at a particular instrument and use it for bowel-shaking bass, while a soundtrack composer uses the exact same instrument to emphasise tension in a scene. Inspiration is probably the answer to both questions, so can inspiration be bought?
I expect you are reading this review because you want to learn more about Arturia Pigments 3, and you need not worry because that is what you will get. But we’re going to look at what this instrument might do for you as an instrument of inspiration, rather than list technical specifications.
I decided against listing all the technical specifications for Pigments – Arturia do a thorough job of listing tech specs on their website. Look here…
In fact, I can probably sum up the question of specifications by saying that if there’s something sonic you want, then you’ll probably find it in Pigments. I was going to add a list of caveats about some wilder requirements not being present in this soft-synth, but in reality, Pigments is plenty full of weirdness. But the stranger side of sound mangling doesn’t detract from the overall solid brilliance of this soft synth. Pigments is like a reliable friend who will always support you, love you dearly, has your back in a fight, but happens to also like mayonnaise on cornflakes.
The complex simplicity of Pigments
Pigments 3 isn’t the only ‘do it all’ soft synth package on the market, so what marks it out as different? Simplicity. Pigments has a very shallow learning curve. The interface just makes sense on so many levels. Regardless of how knowledgeable you are about synthesis I wholly believe that you’ll feel at home as soon as you load Pigments.
The Pigments interface is split into three main tabs; Synth, FX and Seq. The main section of the software changes but remains consistent throughout. I found it very hard to get lost while using Pigments, and that’s impressive.
Magic tabs and kissing god The synth tab has the controls you might expect to find on a hardware synthesizer front and centre, subtly surrounded by an array of ‘fine detail’ controls and (depending on what sound journey you are on) a whole collection of ‘fun stuff’.
The synth tab is split up into three main ‘engines’, each accessible via its own tab. This includes the new ‘utility engine’. I feel I’m abandoning my duty as a reviewer by not describing every aspect of the utility engine, but while the controls are few, the possibilities are incalculably vast. Trying to describe the joy of the utility engine would also be like giving someone the spoilers for a film they’re are about to watch. Or trying to describe what a deeply personal experience like losing your virginity feels like.
The Utility Engine is a playground where madmen become angels and where even the most mild-mannered and gentle sonic explorer can kiss god.
The effects and sequencer tabs offer up more opportunities for travel than every airport on earth, and yet don’t need a warehouse full of Ordnance Survey maps or a team of Sherpas to navigate. This summarises the brilliance of Pigments. You can get what you need very simply on the ‘surface’ interface, but this is only a gateway drug. The deeper you dig, the more you’ll find, and the deeper in love you will fall.
The more you explore, the more alive and almost sentient Pigments becomes. The many, many ways you can route and manipulate patches brings the beast to life in a way I’m not sure I’ve experienced since falling in love with Swarms by Spitfire Audio. Pigments breathes and swells in a similar way to Swarms, it’s organic, controlled and alive!
Arturia Pigments 3 – a (rather long) Conclusion.
I have reviewed (and regularly used) many other huge software synths, but I always felt outsmarted by them. Scratching below the surface can sometimes be a bewildering ordeal. If your experimentation results in a happy accident then great, if not then, it’s time to get the manual out. As an aside, saving presets in Pigments is very easy
Simply having options to do everything is not a pleasurable experience by default. I remember the first time I used the Internet a friend told me that it had ‘everything’, and I was paralysed by choice. Pigments is a vast cathedral of opportunity, but it’s more like a Tardis of sound than a labyrinth of chaos.
Over recent years there have been several occasions where roadtesting a new instrument made me want to forgo everything else in my life for a few hours, just to revel in the joy of exploration. Most recently this joy was inspired by the Sequential Circuits Rev2, The Moog Subharmonicon and the Arturia Microfreak. Pigments 3 costs considerably less than any of those instruments, and I get the feeling it’s going to be more central to my musical life than any of them.
The presets that come shipped with Pigments 3 are wonderful, but I also recommend diving face-first into the range of sound packs that Arturia make available via their website. There are plenty of jumping in points with Pigments, and a billion reasons to create something utterly unique. But are the sounds usable? You’d better believe they are. For the purposes of getting to know Pigments well enough to write this review, I charged around it in a berserk fashion befitting of the deadline I was under to get this review published. And yet I feel like I already know Pigments like it’s a well-educated, supporting and nurturing friend.
This review is not a love letter to Arturia, although I’m yet to find an Arturia product I dislike, the buoyant nature of this review is a reflection of how the software made me feel. And buying anything musical is not as logical as any of us may like to fool ourselves that it is. Feel is everything, and Pigments feels great.
One problem though, I released a new album recently and I can’t stop thinking about how much better some of the tracks would have been if I’d used Arturia Pigments. Shit.
The Roland TR6s is rocking our world. This fantastic little drum machine packs (almost) the same punch as the larger TR8s but at a price point that is a total bargain. Sure there are fewer tracks and a few of the TR8 features are missing, but for a lot of people, the TR6s will bring untold beat-driven joy.
Integrating the Roland TR6s into your DAW
One of the appealing features of the TR6s is how well it integrates with your DAW. I’m an Ableton Live user and the fact that each channel on the TR6s can be sent to a separate track in Ableton was part of the reason I bought the TR6s. This plucky drum machine works just fine with the two outputs (Left/Mono and Right), and is particularly at home in a DAWless setup, but when it comes to recording having each channel on a dedicated track is a godsend.
The purpose of this post isn’t to review the Roland TR6s, there are already tons of great TR6s reviews elsewhere. We’re here to make it super simple for Ableton Live users to integrate as simply as possible. We have created an incredibly simple Roland TR6s Ableton Template.
We decided to create this template because as far as we can tell nobody else has created a Live template specifically for the TR6s. There are some great templates for the Roland TR8s, but none have been created for it’s little brother. The TR8s Ableton templates are great, but might be challenging for anyone who isn’t already an advanced user of either the TR8s or Ableton Live. The examples we looked at had some quite complex routing set-up. But if you just want the basics, so you can weave your own magic over the template there was nothing out there.
Download the Roland TR6s Ableton Template
So there’s why we’ve made this template for Live, here’s how to get started with integrating your TR6s with Ableton:
When you open the template project in Ableton you’ll see each track has been labelled and grouped in a TR6s group. All tracks are primed to record and all channels are set to ‘Auto’ for monitoring. You’re good to go!
We have made the template using Ableton 10, so if you’re using Ableton 11 you should be able to use this template without any issue.
Aston Microphones are troublemakers. I don’t mean that in a bad way, I just mean they want to shake things up a bit. They haven’t released a glut of ‘identikit’ microphones over their five-year existence, but when they do release a product it always has something different or special about it. And (in my humble opinion, dear reader) they’re always good.
The Spirit and Origin, their first microphones to be launched, had a flexible waveform spring head around the basket to act as protection and all were finished in tumbled stainless steel. The Stealth was a large-diaphragm dynamic that used phantom power to engage an onboard preamp and had four different voicings. Their small-diaphragm condenser, the Starlight, had a laser targeting system for heaven’s sake!
This also follows the ethos of the company. They design and build in the UK, as their aim is to have home-grown products revered in years to come and to have a heritage pedigree as the Germans have with Neumann. They make a point of their green credentials as well, using recycled PET in their Aston Halo microphone screen and minimal but recyclable packaging.
Up until now, their prototypes had been blind tested by a panel of audio professionals known as the Aston 33, named after the number of people in the first test group for the earliest products. As the range grew, so did the numbers on the panel but, for the Element, Aston decided to go even further and invited the great, microphone buying public on board as well.
Using a series of recorded files, this 4000 strong development family, listened to recordings of male & female vocals and acoustic guitar using a number of different microphones, including prototypes of the Element, ranking what they heard and giving comments on why they liked one recording over another.
This informed Aston over the ensuing months and they tweaked the voicing based on each set of results until the design was finalised. The first ‘People’s Microphone.”
In One’s Element
The microphone arrived for review in a cardboard shop-shelf box and inside were 3 other smaller boxes: one for the microphone, one for the cradle and one for the pop filter. True to their aim of reducing environmental impact, the only piece of plastic insight was that used to wrap the microphone itself and I would suggest that, with the addition of a small amount of silica, this was purely to keep moisture away during transportation. The main box is proudly adorned with the phrase “Your complete recording solution.”
So, is it?
Billed as a studio microphone, the one and a half-inch diaphragm has a Mylar membrane and a side-address capsule that is based on the dynamic microphone principle of a moving coil design. It’s incredibly light though, which is somewhat off-putting when you first pick it up but the casing and grille is made of sturdy metal. There are no pads or filters, but the front and rear have a smooth waveguide-type styling under the grille to help direct sound to where it needs to be. How big a part this plays on the sound of the microphone is hard to tell, but it exhibits a tight cardioid pattern (similar to the Origin) which will be great for reducing any room reflection or spill from other instruments.
The cradle and pop shield are stock Aston products to give the package a bespoke feel and both are made out of rigid plastic. Once slipped into the cradle, clips locate into two slots on the mic and can be secured with one hand. It holds the mic remarkably well, allowing it to be positioned accurately, although you must ensure it is clipped in properly.
The pop shield attaches by the use of some strong magnets to the front of the mic and the grille is a fine metal mesh, with the Aston logo on it. As it fits so well, the pop shield can also be attached upside down for those times you are recording anything that doesn’t require it. These are small but beneficial touches that are, as far as I know, unique to the Element and just show the thought that the designers have put into the product.
The capsule technology is something that Aston has named Ridyon, being a portmanteau of sorts, derived from the 3 types of microphones that the Element takes its cues from. The natural sound of a ribbon, punchy bass and rejection of a dynamic and the sensitivity and performance of a condenser.
The frequency plot shows an almost flat response, with the low-end roll-off starting around 40Hz but the high end extending well past 20kHz. There is a slight dip at around 3kHz and a gentle bump at 7kHz, which would be considered useful for vocal recording to reduce any honky/nasal sound and to add presence respectively.
The key to that extended high end is down to the onboard active circuitry, which needs phantom power to operate, as well as a light, low-impedance moving coil that helps the microphone to pick up fast transient detail. With phantom power engaged, the small Aston badge on the front of the body glows a purple colour and, while it looks cool, this is also part of the preamp biasing circuit that, along with a humbucking circuit, means the Element has low self-noise and is incredibly quiet.
For the listening process, I wanted to have some fresh ears from someone who didn’t know the background to the mic so I roped in Jake and Jamie, a couple of my recording engineer compatriots at Punch Studios. As there was a drum kit conveniently set up in the studio, we first set the Element up as a mono overhead alongside a 1970s Neumann U87. We didn’t do this to make it a shoot-out per se, but the U87 is used as an all-around mic in the studio and so the sound is familiar.
The Element did a good job over the kit, picking out the fullness of the toms and snare while sounding smooth in the high end of the cymbals. The mid-range wasn’t quite as upfront as the U87 and had a slightly scooped feel to it, but it held its own in covering the wide range of frequencies and transients from the kit. We also tried it as a mono room mic, around five feet back from the kit and it sounded great with some 1176-style smash compression, blended back in with the close and overhead mics.
Moving on to acoustic guitar, we placed the mic about two-feet back from the instrument and aimed it around the twelfth fret where it gave a solid performance, with the high end sounding just right, without the harsh, zingy-ness that some condensers impart to fingers on steel-strings. The low-end however accentuated a slightly thumpy sound, but switching in the high pass filter on the desk soon balanced that out. If you don’t have a HPF on the way into your recording set-up, this can be done equally as well using a software EQ to clean up the low frequencies.
On male spoken vocals, the proximity effect really showed itself but the Element produced a lovely warm and rounded ‘made for radio’ sound of a large-diaphragm dynamic and by backing off the mic a little the low end was controlled much better. We didn’t have a female voice to try the microphone on, but I would presume that position and the proximity effect could be put to really good use to warm up the lower register without having to resort to EQ.
The Element of Surprise
This idea of distance was experimented with next on both electric guitar and bass cabs. Placed around an inch and a half from the cloth, the low end was a little too overbearing on the guitar and unbalanced the frequencies captured overall. However, moving the mic back to about two feet let the cab breathe and the Element captured an excellent sound, which kept all it’s weight but was now that much closer to what we heard in the room. The ribbon voicing kept the top end smooth without any aggressiveness creeping in. This was our favourite instrument/position combo of the tests, with no additional desk EQ needed.
On bass guitar, the results were a little more subjective and we preferred the extra low end from the up-close position, but this would all come down to personal choice as well as the genre of music you are recording for.
At the end of our listening sessions, I asked Jake and Jamie for their thoughts. Both agreed that the Element really held its own, especially when the position was adjusted and it didn’t sound bad compared to the U87, it just sounded different. When I told them that the cost of the mic, cradle and pop shield was under £160 they couldn’t quite believe it, pitching it more towards the top end of the £400+ range.
The Element certainly has its own sound but is it a genuine all-rounder? I think that it’s as close as anything comes and especially in this price range. The styling is interesting, the build quality is excellent and the inclusion of a made-to-measure cradle and pop shield makes it a great package.
Sound-wise, the high end is detailed and smooth without suffering from cheap condenser brittle-ness and there’s low end for miles. It’s this tendency to be a bit OTT with the lows that is the only thing that could make it tricky to work with, if you have to back off the microphone from the source and the acoustics in your room aren’t that great. However, the tight cardioid pattern and waveguide certainly make this less of an issue and I’d rather have too much than too little, as a HPF can be engaged either pre or post-recording without degrading the sound quality at all.
The price sounds cheap, but this is far from a ‘cheap’ microphone sound. How Aston has managed all this and made it as affordable as they have is beyond me. It’s a little too early to give it any ‘Microphone Of The Decade’ awards, but this is a fantastic package and a genuinely great microphone. I can’t wait to see what Aston do next.
In the world of music gear, all manufacturers like to claim world firsts. Everyone likes to think they’re breaking the mold and offering the universal something truly unique. Sadly this is often a fanciful embellishment of the truth. But sometimes, it’s true, and frequently that truth comes from British Company Aston Microphones.
Aston is known for their passion for getting feedback from industry professionals while developing new products. We recently reported that for their next product Aston planned to open out the consultation process to the whole of planet earth. A decision that we viewed as much brave as it was ambitious.
After the white coat wearing folk at Aston completed the gargantuan task of collating a whole lot of feedback from three months of public listening tests – following on from 18 months of development work behind closed doors – a new microphone has been born. It’s worth bearing in mind that Aston Microphones’ product range is remarkably small, so launching a new product is far from ‘just another day at the office’ for these guys. It’s a real big deal.
Aston head cheese James Young explains :
Introducing the Aston Element… bundle The Element is packaged as a bundle and includes a shock mount and a nifty magnetic pop shield. The microphone itself has a new proprietary capsule type designed by Aston, called ‘Ridyon’. It’s a large, but lightweight, moving coil diaphragm which uses phantom power to deliver a capacitor-style performance and clarity, with the punch of a dynamic mic and open sound of a ribbon.
The Element is a flexible beast and is ideally suited to, well, everything by the looks of it. Although the blind testing was based on acoustic guitar along with male and female vocal, by having the transient detail of a capacitor, the robustness and directionality of a dynamic and the midrange presence of a ribbon mean that it could be put in front of practically any sound source and it should be able to reproduce it with aplomb.
Price at time of typing is a surprisingly low £159 / €179 / $199 MRP.
So is the Aston Element worth buying? Aston Microphones tend to upset people. Not us, the consumers, but other microphone companies. We’re guessing here, but Aston manufactures exceptionally high-quality microphones that cost considerably less than those churned out by the well-established marketing leaders. Not only do Aston sell microphones that won’t cripple your wallet, their microphones are also built like brick privies. Here’s a video that nicely illustrates the point.
This news article is not some industry-contact-pleasing hagiography; everyone here at Making-Music.com relies on the Aston Microphones we own to ‘get the job done’, day after day, week after week, month after… you get the idea.
In short, at this price, it would almost seem daft not to buy an Aston Microphones Element!
RRP (at time of publication) GB£899.99/US$999/EU€999
The idea of multiple microphones from the same manufacturer being made into a specialist pack is not a new one. It’s also a tricky path to tread as every engineer has their own favourite tried and tested mics, which means it’ll take something special to tempt them away.
Enter sE Electronics, who have been producing microphones and accessories for twenty years and are still a family-owned and run business. They also have the distinction of being the only microphone manufacturer to have the seal of approval of Rupert Neve no less, who has collaborated previously with the company on three other microphones.
Having sold single and matched pairs in the past (I’ve owned and used a matched pair of sE1-a mics for 15 years), the V Pack Arena is designed as a complete drum miking collection incorporating seven mics for kick, snare, toms and overheads. So far, so normal, when compared to similar kits from other manufacturers. What, I hear you ask, makes these any different? Well, read on…
The V Pack Arena arrives in a sturdy, Peli-style case that, while it probably wouldn’t stand up to being run over by a truck, would certainly survive the rigours of being thrown into the back of one night after night. Inside, the mics are slotted into pre-cut spaces in the base and the lid is lined with foam to protect the mics. They are not in individual pouches themselves so if you’re thinking of ditching the case in favour of your own production box you might have to consider this.
The seven mics are made up of the V Kick, three V Beat for toms, a V7X for snare and two sE8 for overhead duties. There are also three V Clamps to attach the VBeat to their intended drum, standard clips for the sE8 and the V7X, foam windshields for the sE8 and a selection of spare stand adapters and washer-type-thingys in case you lose any or don’t have a thousand spares in the bottom of a case already.
The V Kick, V Beat and V7X all share some common characteristics; they all have a dynamic capsule, have a quoted frequency range of 30-19,000Hz except the V Kick which goes down to 20Hz and all have a super-cardioid polar pattern.
You would think that’s where the similarity ends, but a cursory glance at the polar plot and frequency response graphs shows that the V Beat and V7X are identical. Unscrewing the baskets reveals that they both have the same capsule with the body being the only difference. Indeed, the inclusion of the V7X as the snare microphone doesn’t reserve it specifically for that role and faced with a drum kit where there are difficulties placing a microphone stand anywhere near the snare, using the clip-on V Beat will give you the same sonic outcome.
Design and build
All of the microphones are really well built and have an air of assuredness while being handled; even the sE8 feels weighty and solid. The V Kick is, as you would expect, virtually bulletproof and the V Beat and V7X will stand up to being struck with a drummer’s stick on numerous occasions.
First (and lasting) impressions of the V Clamp system are really positive. This is the best clamp system I’ve used for tom and snare mics. The elastic clamp works in the same way as other manufacturers, stretching easily onto the drum’s rim, but it’s the adjustable rod and the microphone’s angle adjuster that is the star of the show. This combination means that you can more accurately position the mic on the drum and the securing mechanism on the rod and swivel mount almost give you physical feedback to let you know when it’s tight enough. It’s similar to the centre detent on a mixer’s pan or EQ section that you can feel through your fingers. I’m fairly sure that these things are not going to fall foul to over-tightening. Brilliant!
Another massive benefit of the design of the V Beat is the position of the XLR connector. As it is at the bottom of the base, next to the clip/mic stand mount, it keeps the XLR cable well out of the way of cymbals and makes the mic very compact overall.
The V Kick also has some tricks up its sleeve. Along with the rear-exit XLR connector, there are 2 small, recessed switches that can give different voicings to the mic, dependent on your requirements. Used in different combinations they can change the frequency response in the mid and high ranges, allowing you to tailor the sound before having to reach for the EQ on your desk.
The sE8 are small-diaphragm condenser mics, with a cardioid polar pattern and need +48v phantom power to operate. They are also fitted with a pair of recessed switches, one as an attenuator reducing by 10 or 20dB and the other as a low-cut filter operating at either 80 or 160Hz. With the 20dB pad in, the mic can handle a maximum of 159dBSPL, which is some going for a SDC and especially useful for giving plenty of clean signal on particularly loud stages.
My first few experiences with these mics were in a live sound setting in my role as house engineer for a venue of 80-capacity and another one-off gig in a 200-cap room.
The sound quality of both the V7X and the V Beat was clean and transients are handled well. The super-cardioid pattern is excellent at reducing spill, particularly hi-hat in the snare mic as long as it’s placed appropriately. Neither microphone exhibits that hi-mid bite of something like an SM57 and seems much more behaved in that frequency range. The sounds sat well in the mix with little EQ needed to help this happen. Being super-cardioid they exhibit a proximity effect and this really rounded out the low-mids of both snares and toms without sounding too flabby and added to the punch of the transients.
The sE8 was used in a couple of different configurations, both as a X/Y pair and as a spaced pair in the larger venue. In the 80-cap venue, it was more difficult to judge their handling of the stage sound as we use very little of the overhead sound in the front of house system, but the spaced pair gave a great performance in the larger room as well as on the subsequent mix of the recording of that night. The overhead’s sound was crisp without being harsh and the coverage over the kit was spacious. Loud sounds were also handled well without the need for the pad to be engaged. The recorded sound showed that the stereo picture wasn’t obviously compromised by the “hole-in-the-middle” that you sometimes get with spaced pairs.
The V Kick, on the other hand, didn’t play quite so nicely on these early outings for me. I’ll hold my hands up and admit that it probably wasn’t a fair test (and this was proved when I got the mics into a studio. See below) but where the rest of the microphones were very immediate in getting the right sound quickly, the kick threw me.
If, like me, you work in a venue where soundcheck time is at a premium and, whether it’s because of bands arriving late, kit sharing issues or general milling about, the time is even shorter in reality. So, on the first attempt with the V Kick I had about an hour for the headline act to get in, set up, get sound checked, and then line check the first band on before doors opened. I was up against it.
Normally my goto kick microphone is the Audix D6 as it really is one of those mics that you put in the right place and it just gets on with its job. This wasn’t the case with the V Kick. Leaving both the switches in the Classic position, the mic felt really boomy and uncontrolled. Admittedly the room does have a certain frequency that excites easier than others, but even with EQ I couldn’t get the mic to behave. Trying to switch the voicings didn’t help either and as I was up against it time-wise, I had to reach for the D6 and got on with the night.
The next time I tried the mic was in the 200-cap venue where I presumed it would have a bit more free air to work with due to the size of the room. This time, weirdly, I could hardly get any low end out of it at all! This was getting strange, but again as time was of the essence the D6 came out and I put the problem down to a faulty mic that needed more investigation.
In the studio
Even though the name V-Pack Arena suggests live sound, I wanted to try out the mics in a more controlled environment and specifically, get to grips with the V Kick. I was thankful that I did as, with a bit of time with no pressure, the V Kick did exactly what I hoped it would.
The voicings give you the choice of four sonic flavours in total. The left-hand switch controls the low-mids where you can change from a fairly flat response to a scooped sound, favoured for contemporary rock. The right-hand switch lets you shape the high frequencies, Classic gives you more upper-mid presence and Modern a clickier sound favoured by some extreme metal drummers.
Combined, these different voices give the microphone extra range and choice of sonics dependent on what you are working on at the time. My personal favourite setting in the studio was Classic on the left switch and Modern on the right, which gave a nice forward sound in the mids without the low end overpowering the sound overall. That said, I could imagine these four choices working across a myriad of genres and giving the mic extra value. It conveys the low end solidly and there’s plenty of weight to the signal and the different voicings balance really well.
My one minor gripe is that, once the microphone is in position, the switches are either upside-down or very nearly and probably inside the kick drum. This doesn’t make them the easiest of things to adjust as you need a small screwdriver or key to move the switches at the same time as holding the mic and balancing upside down with your head on, or close to, the floor. I know, I know – a tiny gripe. But maybe the switches didn’t have to be recessed quite so much and a small surface-mounted switch would have done the job without impeding the swivel mount. But, as I said, minor compared to the benefits.
We set the kit with a single rack tom and the floor tom and I used the clip-on mountings for the V Beat rather than mic stands as I normally would in the studio. The clips did a grand job of decoupling impact and vibration noise from the shell and the tom sounds came through as they had done live. With the spare V Beat I tried it as an under snare mic and it turned in an unfussy job, capturing the snap of the snare wire without sounding too brittle. The sE8 was placed as an X/Y pair and once again sounded clean and clear as overheads, with a good stereo image.
Just as with most mics, these can turn their hand to other jobs and I’ve had the V Kick on larger floor toms as well as bass cabs where they have worked with aplomb. The sE8 are quite discrete in size and can work in other roles such as acoustic guitar or piano, just as the V7X (and by default the V Beat) is an all-round instrument mic and does a great job, especially on guitar cabs, the polar pattern reducing spill from other close-by cabs and drums. To this end, you’re not just buying mics for a drum kit but a whole myriad of uses.
The V Pack Arena is a kit that can do a lot more than drums, even though it is tailored for that job. Whether live or in the studio, you have a range of options for use and individual settings on the actual mics themselves increase their usefulness. Be aware though that with the additional options, the V Kick may need a little more of your time to get acquainted with, so it would be ideal to try it out first in a non-pressurised situation. The build quality of all the mics is top-notch and coupled with clean sound quality, should survive the rigours of touring and studio work. This is a great set of microphones. Highly recommended.
In this video/audio demonstration you will first hear the four voicings of the V Kick with no other enhancement. They were all recorded using identical gain. Then you will hear the same four clips with additional EQ and compression using stock plugins in Logic Pro X. Finally, a mix of the whole kit, switching between dry recording and then processed using Logic plugins as before but with reverb and parallel compression added as well. As with any audio files for auditioning musical equipment and technology, you should listen on either good quality monitor speakers or headphones.
It’s hardly news, but here at Making-Music.com we are big fans of pretty much everything that Aston Microphones get involved in. First to wow us was their absolutely brilliant reflection filter, the Halo. Then we got hold of their capacitor microphone, the Origin. We were so impressed with the Origin that at least two staffers here at Making-Music.com now use an Aston Origin for every recording session.
Aston Microphones might be a relatively new name on the market, but they’ve gained a reputation that many more established manufacturers must envy.
Every new Aston mic gets blind tested by industry experts and a list of famous musicians as long as the longest XLR you’ve ever seen. Every one of the celebrity endorsees actually uses Aston mics, these are not names paid to appear on a list. In fact, Aston proudly claims that they have never paid any artist who endorses them. That fact alone speaks volumes.
So when Aston told us last month that they were developing a new microphone we were all ears. This suits Aston perfectly; they took the remarkable decision to extend the test group for their new product beyond their group of trusted industry professionals.
The Aston Element
Aston Microphones are using blind tests, assessed by the public to make choices about the path the development of their new ‘Element’ microphone will take. In this world-first thousands of musicians, home recording fanatics and many other people have been directly involved in taking blind listening tests online.
The public phase of testing is open until 15th July 2020, so if you want to get involved in this historic process you need to do it NOW!
So, I’ve in worked live sound as part of my career in the industry for longer than I care to remember. I’ve seen guitarists and drummers, keyboard players and bassists arrive for gigs and unload from their cars, vans and shopping trolleys (oh yes!) all manner of expensive equipment that they then proceed to lug onto the stage, assemble, tune and tweak before a gig.
But this isn’t something that the majority of singers that I work with do in the main and it strikes me as odd. Ok, a singer can’t be expected to bring the vocal PA, but surely if the guitarist has paid a pretty penny for his Les Paul and a Fender Twin, why can’t the singer invest a fairly paltry sum by comparison in a microphone.
A singer with their own microphone can broadly be sure of two things; firstly, they know where it’s been and secondly, they know what it sounds like.
Most sound engineers, tour techs and venue teams endeavour to keep vocal microphones sanitary. Between gigs the grill basket can be removed and, along with the integrated pop filter, can be cleaned but this can’t really happen between singers if you’ve got a five-band-bill to get through in a short period of time. Even if there are spare microphones that can be swapped, they probably haven’t got enough.
In some venues, hygiene for microphones can be a bit hit and miss depending on where you play. Consider that you and maybe twenty other singers use the same microphone in a given month, it’s very easy to see how any germs can be passed on, from the simple common cold upwards, which in turn could lead to sore throats and possible gig cancellations. Why would you as a singer want to risk that? And now it’s just got all the more important, because of the potential of Covid-19.
So, this is a plea really. And a bit of Health and Safety. And good practice. Singers – invest in your own microphone!
Now, the problem is that every singer’s voice is different and a microphone that sounds great for one might not sound good for another. But, actually, the sound is all you have to think about. Most of the technical aspects that you’re not really interested in (unless you’re a secret tech geek as well) shouldn’t really trouble you. It’s easier to tell if a microphone is the right one for you by going to your local music shop or instrument supplier and trying them out than by reading the technical specifications on a website. That said there are a couple of things to be aware of.
Which polar pattern?
This refers to how well the microphone picks up sound from certain directions, how sensitive the microphone is at different points of the basket and where it will reject sound.
Cardioid pattern (it looks like a heart shape, get it?) or uni-directional, gives you the most sensitivity direct into the basket, being ‘on-axis’, at the front of the mic, but will also pick up in decreasing amounts around the sides. It rejects sound coming from the rear of the mic and so is good if you want a floor monitor pointed directly up at you.
Super-cardoid has a tighter pick up on the front of the mic with less sensitivity on the sides. However, they do pick-up from the rear of the mic and so floor monitors need to be placed accordingly in the points where the mic rejects sounds. Hyper-cardioid is a similar principle, although it has a narrower pick-pattern even still. Although both of these types of pattern helps to limit spill from other instruments getting in the vocal microphone channel in the PA, a singer has to be careful not to sing too far off-axis of the microphone.
Dynamic or Capacitor?
There are two main types of microphones for live vocal duties and they are either dynamic or capacitor, sometimes known as condenser. Both have their pros and cons but if this is your first microphone purchase for live performance, a dynamic will be just fine.
Just so you have some knowledge, dynamic microphones are more rugged and can deal with the rigours of live stages, can be less susceptible to feedback issues, particularly on small but loud stages and they are cheaper in most instances.
Handheld capacitor microphones are being developed to handle live situations and, while they can translate a wider frequency range than most dynamic mics, unless you are playing sizeable venues or festivals, this difference will not really be discernible. By all means, you should audition any and every microphone you can, but capacitor microphones tend to be more expensive and for your first microphone is a little like buying a Ferrari to go and do the grocery shopping.
In some circumstances, having a microphone with an on/off switch can be very useful. But, for live music performances and in the heat of the moment on-stage, a microphone with a switch can inadvertently be turned off at the most inopportune time. This leaves the sound engineer in a slight panic as something has gone wrong and there is nothing they can do about it (been there, felt the stomach drop) and the singer is left silent until they realise what they’ve done. My advice is don’t buy a microphone with an on/off switch.
And that’s it! As far as I’m concerned, if you can get to a music equipment dealer to audition some microphones you need to know nothing more than that and you should let your ears make the choice for you. It could also be helpful if you take someone along to listen and be a second pair of ears – sometimes trying to critically listen to your own voice while you are singing can be a bit tricky.
As a final piece of advice, buying microphones cheaper than this will probably give you more problems than you need and don’t be tempted by what look like great deals on certain second-hand sites. There are lots of fake SM58s out there that sound rubbish and won’t last a week. When you can, get out to your nearest local dealer and talk face-to-face with someone.
Five of the best
So, if you’ve never bought a microphone before, here are five of the best choices to be had. All of them are dynamic microphones, all used extensively in professional venues and all for sale around the £/$/€100 price point. Personally speaking, no one of these is better or worse than the others, it will just depend on what suits your voice.
The term ‘industry standard’ is often used (I try not to though, it’s a bit misleading) but the Shure SM58 has cemented its place in rock history just as much as the Fender Stratocaster or Marshall amplifier. You can find videos of people running over them with trucks and even barbecuing one (!) and they still work. This ubiquitous uni-directional microphone has graced more stages than any other.
Relatively new kids on the block, Sontronics have produced a few hand-held dynamic mics for live vocals and these are designed and made in the UK and, as with their whole range of products, come with a lifetime warranty. This has a tight super-cardioid pattern and a more slender look overall (if visuals are your thing).
sE Electronics V7
The current vocal microphone of choice at The Smokehouse where I am a house engineer, the sE Electronics V7 is a sturdy microphone with a smooth top end, which works particularly well on female voices. Again, a super-cardioid pattern, it rejects feedback really well.
Although classed amongst Sennheiser‘s more budget models, the E835 is a great microphone for cutting through mixes without too much EQ needed. With the cardioid pattern the singer doesn’t have to worry too much about staying on-axis all the time – you have to go way off before it has an obvious effect on the vocal quality.
Another microphone manufacturer with a great track record, the AKG D5 is a bulletproof microphone and perhaps the warmest sounding in the lower-midrange of all of the mics. Again, visually a bit different, with a more square basket similar to the V7.
There is obviously a huge range of microphones to choose from out there, but this is a great starting point if you’re a singer and you don’t own your own yet. Any of these mics will last you a long time, unless you’re prone to launching them at walls or speaker stacks and, as you’re the only one using it, it will be more pleasant to use and you’ll hopefully pick up less sore throats.
Have you ever wanted to design or build a piece of musical equipment but never had the chops with a soldering iron to do it? Well now you can…sort of…
Aston Microphones finalise their British-designed products, using the Aston 33 panel, a 600 strong group of many of the top industry professionals, who blind test prototypes to build a consensus of opinions as to which design is best.
Now, they want you (yes, you!) to join the panel and help choose the desirable characteristics of their next release. Throwing open this stage will give Aston a much wider base of research and opinion to finalise their design before release and thus they are dubbing it the “People’s Microphone.”
As before, they have multiple prototypes with differing attributes already built and all they ask for are opinions on which sound you prefer. This ‘testing’ will be conducted over a number of rounds, from May to July and achieved by giving you access to sets of recorded files to review in your own listening space and then rating them from best to worst.
By logging into the website you can rank the audio files, using a blind testing protocol; you have no idea which audio file relates to which prototype. At the end of each round, Aston will analyse the results, adjust their prototypes depending on the results and then alert the participants to a new clutch of audio files for ranking.
In return, you will be able to call yourself a member of the official ‘Aston Family Voter Panel’. Aston will also be offering all participants a 25% discount on a limited edition version of the Aston Element, ONLY available to members of the Aston Family Voting Panel and will come complete with a certificate signed by Aston’s CEO, James Young, special edition window stickers and a special edition Aston pin badge, as well as digital logos for panel members to display on their own social media posts and webpages.
Design by consensus might not always work, but judging by the Origin and the Stealth, Aston have been able to bring high-quality products to the market at a fraction of the price of the competition. The results of this new project will be interesting to see and if you want to be a part of the Voter Panel, you can sign up by going to Aston Microphones website here….
When almost anyone decides they fancy having a crack at making music on a computer there are several things that might hold them back. The first challenge is learning how your DAW (recording / sequencing software works. The second problem is often a lack of music theory knowledge.
A lot of musicians come to making music on a computer from a more traditional band setting. If (for example) you are a bassist, then you can get by in a band by simply watching what the guitarist is doing. If you’re the band member actually writing the songs you can randomly hit strings and chords until they sound ‘right’. It’s entirely possible to be in a band but have absolutely zero knowledge of music theory.
This carefree nonchalance to the ‘rules’ of music can be a problem when musicians sit down by themselves and try and make music on a computer.
The good folk at ‘Mixed in Key’ have a solution; the solution is the Captain Plugins. This suite of plugins pretty much takes care of music theory for you, in a very clever and intuitive way.
Captain Plugins – what do they do?
Captain Plugins is a song building and inspiration tool that comes in the following parts:
Each of the parts can be run as standalone software outside of your DAW but it’s real power is revealed when used inside a DAW. Each of the above parts appears as a separate plugin. Captain Chords takes care of the chords for your composition. Captain Deep takes care of the bass, and beyond that, you can probably guess what each part does from its name.
The Captain Plugins workflow
The user experience with this software is incredibly good. Each plugin part is connected to the other parts to ensure musicality. For example; drop the Chords plugin into your DAW, then drop in the Melody plugin and they will connect to each other. So if you change your chord progression the Melody should update itself.
As you’ll see from our demo video, once you set your chords a basic song just sort of appears out of thin air. That by itself is impressive.
If you’ve not got a brain full of musical theory you can pretty much just charge around like a bull in a china synth shop and the song you create will still be passable. Most of the time.
If you’re a music theory virtuoso then there are enough options and tweaks to push your creativity to brave new places.
While building your song you can preview your creation using any of the many instruments included within the software.
When you are happy with your composition you export the midi data from each of the plugin parts, drop the midi into your DAW and assign whichever instruments tickle your fancy.
It’s that easy.
Captain Plugins Conclusion
As a creative tool Captain Plugins is great. You could use the software to crank out a ton of tracks in no time at all. But I think the real strength of the software is the ability it has to give songwriters a starting point that they may not have thought of. Better than that, Captain Plugins can give you an idea for a track that comes from far outside your comfort zone. That’s where the magic is.
Usually, when writing hardware reviews we lazy writers can start by making comparisons with similar devices in the market. But with the Arturia MicroFreak we simply can’t do this. As far as we’re aware there is no similar device. But why is that?
For some years now there has been a huge trend toward analog synths. From (dare we say it) ‘entry level’ analog synths like the Arturia Microbrute right through to some of the most expensive synthesizers you could almost be forgiven for thinking analog is all anyone wants to buy.
But the Arturia MicroFreak is a hybrid analog / digital synth. In fact it’s mostly digital; the filters are mostly analog, but almost everything else on the MicroFreak is digital.
So why have Arturia launched a keyboard that appears to be railing against the apparently market trend? Well you’d have to ask them for the exact reasons, but we can see from the consumers’ perspective you get a ton more for your money than you would with a pure analog synth.
Why would anyone want to buy the MicroFreak?
There have already been many very in-depth reviews written about the Arturia MicroFreak that dive deep into the many, many layers of functionality. So for this ‘review’ we’re going to look at why anyone might want to buy this little synth.
It. Does. So. Much. It might seem a little strange to offer a conclusion to this review so early on, but the fact that MicroFreak is such a capable device for so little money probably is it’s greatest selling point. Before we go any further lets compare what you get with what you get for a similar price point from other manufacturers (and from Arturia!).
Arturia MicroFreak comparison table
As I write this I can almost hear the waves of disapproval from the analog purists. But it’s not pure analog etc etc. Yeah, it’s not, but why would that make the MicroFreak something to disregard? Would you disregard a higher-end synth like the Elektron Digitone because it’s a digital synth? Nah, if you’re honest you probably wouldn’t.
Arturia MicroFreak vs Elektron Digitone Let’s stick with a little comparison with the Elektron Digitone. I’ve owned the Digitone and one of the features I adored was the very hands-on and simple way to affect parameters. None of the Digitone settings are hidden behind complex layers of menus.
Cheaper synths are often stymied somewhat by the curse of excessive menu diving. It’s a simple matter of economics – the fewer knobs involved in the build process, the cheaper the end product. While there’s undeniable a bit of menu diving involved in manipulating the MicroFreak, the vast majority of functions are assigned to knobs. This fact alone almost puts the MicroFreak in the same realm as synthesizers that will do much more damage to your wallet. That kind of simple control makes an astonishing amount of difference on stage.
I can’t get past what great value the MicroFreak is. In fact, you could easily buy two MicroFreaks for the cost of a single Digitone. But enough about the Digitone…
Could the MicroFreak be the perfect first synth? It’s possible a little subjective for a simple review like this one to declare what your first synth should be. If you are in the joyus position of buying your first ‘proper’ synth then take a look at the comparison table above and decide what you actually want.
As someone who has bought a ‘few’ hardware synthesizers, I’m going to give you some reasonably subjective reasons why the Arturia Microfreak could be your perfect first synth.
Instant gratification As much as I adore the Arturia Microbrute new users need to wrap their heads around the rules of synthesis before taking full advantage of what is on offer. With synths like the marvellous Korg MicroKorg you can hammer through thrilling presets easy enough, but you’ll be missing out on the brute power offered by twiddling knobs on devices like the Microbrute.
The Microfreak offers the sound design power of the MIcrobrute with the boundless flexibility of the MicroKorg. Where you might reach an upper limit of manipulation with some other synths in a similar price point, with the Microfreak the more you learn the more you realise the power of the device.
I fully believe that anyone can walk up to the MicroFreak, start prodding it, and then realise several hours have passed them by. The last time I played with such an accessible device it was the Arturia Matrixbrute. You can buy four or five MicroFreaks for the average price of a Matrixbrute.
But what if you want to learn ‘proper’ synthesis? Yup, the MicroFreak has you covered. The genius of the MicroFreak is that it’s perfect for complete beginners, and yet folk with a ton of experience and synthesis knowledge are also unlikely to get bored.
Arturia MicroFreak Review Conclusion
So what’s the catch? At a price point as low as £233 (at time of writing) surely some corners have been cut? If corners have been cut we have no idea where. The Arturia MicroFreak is a solid little beast with study pots (knobs), a robust chassis and an incredibly kinesthetic appeal.
So have corners been cut with the sound? Hell no. I simply can’t state strongly enough just how astonishingly good this little synthesizer sounds. Depending on what you choose to do, the MicroFreak is as warm as a hot bath and as clear as crystal cut glass. It can do downright filthy, but it can also sing like an angel.
The Arturia MicroFreak punches damned hard for the money it costs. It comes with functions that you simply won’t find at the same price point from any other manufacturer.
The MicroFreak also comes with abilities that you won’t find outside of Eurorack Modular Synths. Most notably the device includes the wildly popular Plaits oscillator by Mutable Instruments.
In conclusion, I can’t think of a single reason why everyone reading this shouldn’t own an Arturia MicroFreak. But do you really need a hybrid synth that isn’t quite one thing and isn’t quite another? Yes. Yes, you do. Now.