Saturday, January 23, 2010

Presonus Firepod (FP10) Firewire Preamp Review

All Rights Reserved © 2008 Thomas W. Day

(NOTE: This is a review moved from the Wirebender Audio Systems site. The product may have changed from the hardware I tested in 2008)

I purchased my Presonus Firepod (also known as the FP10) practically the moment it became available at my local Guitar Center. I paid $440 for the unit and put it to use immediately. I immediately took a load of crap from other engineers for even considering such a low-priced piece of equipment, especially from Presonus. I have to beg to disagree.

Sort of.

First, I disagree that there is some inherent defect in the basic Presonus preamplifier sonic design philosophy. I believe that being quick, clean, and quiet is all a microphone preamplifier should be. Others believe that a microphone preamplifier should have as much personality as microphones. Presonus took the less trendy approach with the Firepod and their engineers attempted to create a product that is relatively invisible to the record chain. That works for me, but it may not be your cup of distortion. They have, since, moved over to the other side of the audio fence with their XMAX preamp circuitry and the collection of tube pres they currently offer.

The Firepod is one of the most successful OS X/Windows XP Plug 'n Play devices I've ever experienced. My Mac G4 and My WinXP laptop recognized and incorporated the Firepod seamlessly and flawlessly. Unlike every other piece of equipment I've added to either of my systems, the Firepod simply worked from the moment I connected the Firewire cable to the computer. Even my old PC standby, CoolEdit Pro v1.2, snagged the Firepod device and was able to multi-track record and playback without any difficulty.

The eight microphone preamplifiers have 60dB of gain and can be used as either line amplifiers, mic pres, or instrument DIs. The first two channels incorporate inserts, so external equipment (such as EQs, compressors, or alternative mic pres) can be inserted into the analog signal chain.

The Firepod's outputs are equally flexible. The back panel offers balanced main, cue, eight line (group) outputs, SPDIF, and MIDI outputs. A pair of Firewire connectors complete the rear panel. Up to three Firepods can be connected to create a 24-channel recording system. One SPDIF channel pair can be used along with the included channels, upping the max record chain channel count to 26.

I have used and/or owned Digidesign's 001/002/003 interfaces and, based on sound quality, the Firepod is my preference in comparison to that group, both for sound quality and flexibility. If quiet and clean is your recording objective, the Presonus Firepod is a reasonable, low-cost option. For no other reason, the fact that Presonus' drivers are far more compatible with non-Pro Tools DAWs than the Digidesign drivers could be a motivating factor.

For the money, it's hard to beat the value provided by this simple and functional product. However, if reliability is entered into the equation, it's a tough call. I owned my Firepod for five years without any problems. I used it on dozens of projects, in-studio and in the field. Finally, it gave up the ghost in a weird way. I was adding the Presonus Central Station to my system and tried to use the SPDIF output to free up a Central Station input for my 002. I discovered during the setup that the SPDIF output was out-of-phase. I swapped back to the balanced main output and found it was unbalanced and out-of-phase.

This is not a field-repairable unit, as Presonus is notoriously stingy with service information. So, I returned it to the factory for a $90 repair. In the meantime, I had another project to record so I bought a replacement, mostly to be able to use Pro Tools and Logic with the same interface. By the time the Firepod came home, I was sold on the replacement unit and the Firepod ended up on eBay. It sold for $300, so I can't complain about either the use I got from the unit or the resale value. It did die at a particularly inconvenient time, in the middle of a project, but that's as much a function of Murphy as Presonus.

PS: If you're on the email list for this blog, please consider joining my little group of fellow "ranters." I swap out the email list fairly regularly in a lame attempt to attract readership to the blog.

Shure KSM44 Microphone Review

All Rights Reserved © 2006 Thomas W. Day

(NOTE: This is a review moved from the Wirebender Audio Systems site. The product may have changed from the hardware I tested in 2006. Musictech College is now the McNally Smith College of Music.)

Back in 2005, I had the opportunity to experiment with the KSM44. The Shure folks loaned Musictech College a pair of KSM44s, probably with the expectation that they would get them back in a reasonable period of time. Our definition of "reasonable" is probably different than theirs. I have no idea when we're planning on returning the 44s. (NOTE: We eventually bought a pair for the school's microphone inventory.)

The list price on this mic is about $1300, but street price is nearly half that price point. At this price point, the KSM44 is a fairly expensive microphone in the current market. So the question is, is it worth it?

Shure says, "the KSM44/SL is a multiple pattern (cardioid, omnidirectional, bidirectional), externally biased, dual large diaphragm condenser microphone with extremely low self-noise (7dB)."

The KSM44's features include dual 1-inch 24-karat gold-layered diaphragms and a discrete class-A transformerless preamplifier, which provides a low self-noise factor rated at 7dBA. The 44 has a subsonic filter (17Hz), a three-position LF filter, a 15dB pre-attenuator, and gold plated connectors. Shure sells the KSM44 in a "matched pair" set, including a case, shock mounts, storage bags, and miscellaneous hardware. However, "matching" is something the Shure engineers say is unnecessary with this product, since their quality control is tight enough that all of their high-end products could be called matched sets simply by model numbers. I found that these two mics, placed 4' from a grand piano and summed out-of-phase into a pair of Trident preamplifiers, matched each other at least as well as the two preamps with a single source. That's the second time a pair of Shure mics has successfully passed this test (the KSM141s were the first) and I think that's a pretty good indication of Shure's repeatability.

One downside to the KSM44 is that it isn't much of a distance mic. One of the Shure engineers warned me that programmable polarity microphones are inclined to lose their directivity after 2-3' and that is certainly the case with the KSM44. However, several of the microphones we used in comparison were less inclined to exhibit this tendency at normal studio distances than the KSM44. For example, Studio Projects' B3 hung on to it's cardioid characteristics at almost double the KSM44's mic'ing distance. The same was true for the bidirectional pattern. AKG's 414 and the Neumann U87 were also slightly more directional at distance than the 44s.

Several Musictech staff members used the KSM44s and we all had good experiences on male and female voices and a range of acoustic instruments from drum kit overheads to grand piano to tuba (seriously). If I had to put words to a description of the sound of a KSM44, I'd describe the mic as being "full." Sometimes the KSM44 is full to a fault, making it hard to find room for a vocal in a mix without some EQ'ing to compensate for the muted upper midrange. In a direction comparison, on female vocals, with the Studio Projects B3, the Rode NTK, and the AKG 414 ULS, the KSM44 was more natural sounding than 414 and U87 and warmer sounding than the B3. One of Musictech's golden ears thought the KSM44 was perfect as it stood without any EQ, which is unusual for that engineer. In several head-to-head solo comparisons, my students and I consistently picked the KSM44 as the "best sounding" mic but the Rode NTK often won the shootout with the same vocals in a mix. We usually pulled out a little bottom end and bumped the upper mid-range on the 44's recordings to find real estate for the vocal, once the voice was blended into a mix. The same held true for the U87. In our comparisons, the 414 and B3 recordings didn't hold up well enough to be considered in the final mix. That's saying something because the B3 has been a studio favorite in many of our classroom shootouts.

One of the weirdest experiments to which I subjected the KSM44 was jazz tuba. That extended, warm bottom end placed the tuba exactly where I wanted it to be in the mix without a breath of EQ. The same was true for acoustic bass, where I convinced an experienced studio bassist that this mic combined with a KSM141 near the neck was a dramatically better recording system than his expensive built-in bass pickup. The low end of the KSM44 is incredibly detailed and full, making it a likely candidate for any instrument that produces lots of bottom end.

PS: If you're on the email list for this blog, please consider joining my little group of fellow "ranters." I swap out the email list fairly regularly in a lame attempt to attract readership to the blog.

REVIEW: Blue Ball

According to Blue, the Blue Ball is the "world's first phantom powered dynamic microphone." It's very possibly true, for whatever that statement is worth. Here's Blue says about their Balls:

"The Ball's output stage. This circuit maintains a constant pure-resistive 50-ohm load across the useable frequency spectrum yielding an exceptionally smooth and open sound previously unheard of in a dynamic microphone. Additionally, as a dynamic mic, The Ball is capable of handling extremely high sound pressure levels without distortion, making it the ideal choice for studio, stage, broadcast, film or any other applications where reliability, versatility and the utmost sound quality is required."

What I found was that this microphone appears to do none of the things they claimed. The sensitivity is not noticably greater that a typical large element dynamic; an AKG D112, an EV RE20, or a Sennheiser MD421, for example. It's list price is $279, which is incredibly high for the functionality of the Ball, but the street price is closer to $200, slightly more reasonable.

The mounting system is downright stupid, considering the microphones handling noise and size. There is minimal shock isolation built into the microphone's design and the mounting arrangement directly couples the mic body to the stand. This makes for a mic that is very sensitive to stand/cable-transmitted shock and noise. Hardly the characteristic you'd want for a microphone that appears to be intended for use in percussion or high volume applications.

Blue claims a 35-16kHz frequency response for the Ball. If the tolerance for this spec is +/-10dB, I expect they're not exaggerating. Otherwise, this is a very misleading spec. The microphone has a more band-limited sound than an SM57, not exactly known for broad band reception. I experimented with the Ball on a wide variety of acoustic sound sources; kick drum, toms, snare, electric and acoustic guitar, trumpet, sax, and vocals. Like the SM57, the Ball is tolerable on toms, especially small drums, but it's sound was thin and unusable on kick. The Ball was practically irritating on every acoustic application I tried, except muted trumpet. The bandwidth was so limited that it made several acoustic instruments sound like they'd been produced by moderate quality sample players. On vocals, the Ball is very low-fi, so it has some application for that tactic.

I didn't think of trying the Ball on a harmonica during the testing, but in retrospect I think that might be an ideal application. There is some resemblance between the sound of the Ball on electric guitar and a Shure Green Bullet on the same instrument, so there might be a similar effect on blues harmonica.

Personally, I'd rather have an SM57 for the limited value the Ball might provide.

Winds of Change

Last night, I hung out with a collection of students, some audio instructors, and a West Coast movie-audio wizard, Tim Hoogenakker, who was at our school to talk about audio in movies, surround sound, and all things Hollywood. Things, are as everywhere, dismal. The economy has squashed hope and employment all over the country, including Hollywood. Audio folks of all sorts are out of work, underemployed, and on the edge of unemployment.

On the other hand, the $400M chick-flick, Avatar, which is as of this writing the 2nd largest grossing movie in history. I have no clue what the 1st is, sorry. Supposedly, this one movie is making the industry look profitable. I can imagine this is true, since when my wife and I saw Avatar the multiplex theater was practically empty outside of the lines for Avatar on three or four of the theater's screens. Far better movies, like The Road or Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus are barely drawing flies in the same market. Avatar hit the market with the right combination of predictable writing, chick-friendly cutsie characters and video-game action and tons of marketing. Honestly, it's hard to imagine the movie making a profit, even with the monster gross profits announced, after the enormous budget and world-busting PR.

For me, the most interesting moment of the night came after the event was wrapped up and some of us were talking about movie economics. Tim described all of the movies that had left California for cheaper climates; Canada, Iowa, New Mexico, and beyond. I brought up the most recent Cohen Brothers' film, A Serious Man, that was filmed in the Cities. Another local audio guy dismissed that movie because "it only cost $6M."

On the way home, I was still going over "it only cost $6M" in my head. It struck me that good parts of the game have changed and not many have noticed. As a long-time SF fan, with damn little tolerance for Hollywood SF, I saw something happen in 2009 that should have flipped Hollywood upside down and inside out. Peter Jackson and Neil Blomkamp's District 9 completely blows away all SF and story-line aspects of Avatar and did it for 1/20th of the budget. Of course, District 9 was not 3D and that's something to consider, but on every other plane District 9 was a total triumph of movie-making. If you didn't know what was coming up in every scene of Avatar you're either retarded or just arrived on this earth with no experience in either movies or television. District 9 was story-driven and interesting enough that even someone as movie-jaded as me could consider seeing it again. The only way I'll sit through Avatar twice is if I'm trapped in a wheelchair and can't get to a staircase.

Technology has obsoleted most of the Hollywood industrial base. A creative kid with a few creative friends can outdo hoards of James Camerons and all of Hollywood's business lawyers in story-telling, special effects, acting, and (soon to follow) distribution. A great story can go Internet-viral before it hits the screens. Stay tuned for the changing of the guard. It's on its way to your town, even if your town is in southern California.

Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.