Digital microphones are far from a new thing. Neumann has been developing the technology for over 9 years. Now many more companies are showing off digital microphones. In fact, it seemed the trend at AES 2010 was digital microphone technology. I used to think of digital microphones as either a fad or unnecessary. Now I believe they absolutely have their use and will eventually find their way into my normal workflow. I invite you to read on and you may find yourself a believer in this emerging technology as well.
If you aren’t familiar with digital microphones they do have a few complications that don’t exist with analog microphones. Digital microphones use a format called AES 42. This isn’t a typical AES/EBU signal and requires a device to interpret the signal to normal AES connections. If you want to invest in digital microphones it will cost you extra to accept this type of signal and there isn’t a large variety of devices capable of handling their signals yet. Prior to this years AES I thought all that hassle wasn’t worth what they might offer an audio professional. That being said, I now think that in many situations the pros far outweigh the cons.
This year AES had lots of digital microphone technology from Neumann, Schoepps, Line 6 and other companies. I also got a special presentation from Neumann about their digital technology as well, but I will talk more about that later.
Schoepps introduced a shotgun microphone that uses a microphone on the back to further reduce off axis rejection by a whopping 16dB! Obviously this is technology that traditional analog microphones can’t achieve. By reducing off axis sounds the shotgun mic is even more directional without any coloration at all that can alter the most directional of microphones.
Line 6 introduced digital wireless technology using digital microphones. By plugging in a digital microphone to digital wireless you can send full frequency content along a carrier instead of a squashed lossy analog signal. The result is, in theory, a lossless wireless microphone at a distance of up to ~300 ft. Digital wireless also send 4 of the same signal and checks them all later to be sure the signal hasn’t been altered by drops or interference!
As a sound designer this really caught my attention. By using digital lav microphones or condensors I could record sounds on location in full quality. Imagine putting a lav microphone on a skate board as a professional rides around a skate park or a remote condenser that allows you to control it’s polar pattern and pre-amplification remotely. The Line 6 tech is limited to a lav and a handheld mic at the moment, but the lavalier can also use a Schoepps capsule. I look forward to seeing where this particular tech goes.
A valuable part of digital microphones is that their signal is converted immediately and is therefore unnaffected by long cable runs. This may not make a bit difference in a perfectly wired studio, but imagine a cable run of 200 feet in a live venue or even longer in a broadcast situation. Now audio professionals can achieve full quality sound at great distances.
I was fortunate enough to attend an event sponsored by Neumann Berlin and Sennheiser USA on digital microphones at SkyWalker Sound on Sunday during AES 2010. It was here that I really got to hear how digital microphones are used by todays professionals. We also got to witness Leslie Ann Jones do a mic shootout of analog Neumann microphones and their equivalent digital microphones. It all started with an informative presentation by Wolfgang Fraissinet, the President of Sales and Marketing for Neumann Berlin, and Mike Pappas from Jazz 89 KUVO.
The first presentation was all about the Canadian olympics. All of their audio was in 5.1 including sound effects and music. Their choirs and orchestras were all recorded using Neumann digital microphones. They used the digital microphones primarily to prevent signal loss over long cable runs, but also for their sonic qualities. Their work all sounded amazing and everything they presented used only the digital microphones.
Another reason they loved the digital microphones was the extremly low noise floor they can provide. They worked with lots of stacked tracks and they said even with all faders up over multiple transitions the noise never became an issue. This was important to them because they made all of their 5.1 cues overlap without the need for crossfading. I was very impressed with their results.
The second part of the presentation involved tracking a live quartet called Quartet San Francisco. They played a rendition of Eleanor Rigby on the orchestral sound stage that sounded ABSOLUTELY AMAZING!
We then went into the SkySound control room to listen to the results. Overall I felt that the digital microphones were a bit more focused and provided a bit more clarity and high end than their analog counterparts. Most of the crowd heard things the same way. Both recordings turned out stellar with Leslie Anne Jones running the session through Millenia preamps and the Neve board.
The general consensus was that these microphones, while not a replacement for the current analog microphones, are more of a new flavor available to engineers. Digital microphones will probably not replace analog microphones, but rather give engineers a way to problem solve long cable runs, improve wireless technology, and simply give us new ways to record sound not possible with regular analog microphones.
Overall, I now understand that digital microphones absolutely have their place in professional audio. Hopefully this post has helped change your opinion about the usefulness of digital microphones. I can’t thank the Neumann and Sennheiser people enough for inviting me to such a great event. It has opened my eyes and my ears to the potential that digital technology has to offer microphones.