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Mid-side with AKG CK94

May 25, 2021
AKG CK94 (top) and CK93 (bottom) in Rode Mk1 blimp suspension

I’ve had one of the AKG Blueline mics for years. This has the CK93 capsule, which is an excellent mid-price hypercardioid SDC mic that has proved great for booming indoor (and, on occasion, outdoor) dialogue. I have also used it for music recording where I needed a narrower polar pattern than cardioid. It is leagues above my Oktava MK012 hypercardioid – so beloved by indie filmmakers – in terms of build quality, handling noise, and features (having low-cut and attenuation switches).

From time to time I’ve wondered about the other interchangeable capsules in the Blueline range and, above all, about the CK94 – the figure of eight capsule. Of course LDC multi-pattern mics include a fig 8 polar pattern and, paired with another mic, this allows mid-side recording, which I have done many a time. And, as I have posted, with a massive DIY blimp I have even got such an LDC pair outside for field recording. That said, it would be useful and, for most uses, more practical to have a compact SDC mid-side pair. The standard for field-recording pros is the Sennheiser MKH30, which, while excellent and with the advantage of humidity-beating RF technology, has the distinct disadvantage of cost: it has a street price of around £1500, and even used ones seem rare below £1000. Add another Sennheiser MKH mic (say an MKH40) and wind protection to fit and you will need to spend £3000 or more. Unlike other polar patterns, SDC fig 8s are rare, and there are few more affordable ones: ignoring the clunky pseudo fig 8s made by Oktava and Kortwich (made using two cardioids mounted back-to-back, giving a T-shaped mic), the only affordable true single -diaphragm fig 8 other than the AKG CK94 is the Ambient ATE208 Emesser. The latter, however, has a lot of bass roll-off due to it being tailored to match the off-axis response of a shotgun mic (its intended partner). Recently, boutique Taiwanese mic-maker B9Audio has produced the CM180, but it is only available direct from the maker: so this means significant shipping and duty costs need to be added to the US$749 price. Reviews are also thin on the ground to say the least.

So, with all this in mind, the AKG CK94 remains the most viable affordable SDC fig 8 for general usage (i.e. music as well as film sound). Although now out of production (AKG/Harman/Samsung appear to be phasing out the whole Blueline family and the CK94 was the first to be discontinued), at the time of writing it is just possible to find one or two new examples for sale: with the SE 300B amplifier/mic body, street price is around £600. But I’ve been keeping my eye on the used market, and was please to spot one on the Saturn Sound website (where there is a list for a grand closing down sale of mics – with some very rare examples), and – together with the SE300B amplifier/mic body – the other day I became the owner of a very good condition example: indeed, during a pre-sales check, Ashley Styles of Saturn Sound thought the capsule a bit noisy and replaced it with one he still had. All this, plus delivery in person (he has retired not so far away), for a remarkably affordable £200.

I had no concerns about the CK94 for music or louder effects recording, but, with 22dBA self-noise (a long way from the MKH30’s 13dBA) my hopes were low for recording quieter ambiences. So I was surprised how good it sounded during an initial test recording the ambient noise in the garden (in a village in rural Norfolk). You can have listen here:

I was expecting something much noisier.

In terms of rigging it up for field recording, I purchased a couple of the older style (i.e. lower profile) back-to-back clips made by Rycote (ref. no. 048460), which, unlike the new fit-any-mic clips Rycote make for MS pairs, neatly fit into a Rode Mk1 blimp and have lugs to attach to the suspension bands: the mics sit centrally and with a healthy blimp diameter of 100mm there is still plenty of air space around both mics. The CK94 has to project further forward given the location of its capsule (the centres of the two capsules should align, of course). I’ve added a DIY conn box equivalent (a clamp for the two thin cables – Sommer Cicada – that go from the mics to the DIY boompole-top XLR holder) to avoid the two heavier cables entering the blimp, so I’m there with a very nice sounding SDC mid-side rig for a very modest outlay. And, of course, I can use the AKG C94 with mid-mics other than the hypercardioid CK93: for example, my Rode NT55 mics give me cardioid and omni mid-mic options. I’ll post other recordings – including music – with the CK94-based mid-side rig in due course.

With blimp on, and showing the double XLR holder at the top of the boompole
And a close-up of the DIY double XLR holder at the top of the boompole
Camera Gear DIY Projects

This camera is not for turning…

March 25, 2021
Compact follow-focus rig with an anti-twist Arca-type plate.

The best ideas for inventions are those that turn out to have already been thought of and produced. OK, that means you can’t make your fortune, but odds are you wouldn’t make the leap from an idea hatched in the shower to a production line anyway: and, anyway, you can go out and buy the thing with none of the hassle of being the next James Dyson. This happened to me with my genius solution to feeling all tangled up and constrained by sleeping bags when camping: just imagine if the sleeping bag had separate legs and arms? Well, as you probably know but I didn’t, you can buy these already…

To the case in hand, I’ve long been frustrated how stills cameras rotate all too easily on tripods, fixed (in the loosest sense of the word) by a single 1/4″ screw and lacking the additional pin hole found on camcorders. With stills cameras then moving into video and, for cinematic focusing, then needing follow focuses, the need for anti-rotation got all the more compelling. While camera companies vie about 4k and 8k, or 10-bit and raw on mirrorless cameras, nobody seems remotely bothered to drill a hole in the base to allow a second pin to stop rotation. An L-bracket or a cage can sometimes solve the problem, but, unless you need one, they are clunky additions, making access to controls and connections much harder and losing the carefully designed ergonomics of the camera. Also, many L-brackets and cages are just not rigid enough or not fixed to the camera well enough. With my compact – and cageless – follow-focus rig for my Lumix G9 I’ve found the old problem rearing its head, with the camera sometimes gradually rotating away from the follow focus to the point that, eventually, the gear disengages. So my genius ‘invention’? Well, simply a small Arca-style plate with a ridge at the front, forming a snug fit against the front of the camera: with the G9’s flip screen there is no value in a ridge or lip at the rear. Visions of finding someone who could mill one for me proved unnecessary since, as you will have guessed, the idea has already been thought of. Oddly, though, I haven’t simply missed something common, as such plates are incredibly obscure. Arca themselves sell an anti-twist plate (the blandly named ‘Kameraplatte 40mm’) as do Really Right Stuff (the equally unrevealingly named ‘B9 Multi-use bidirectional plate’), but both are extremely pricey for a small bit of metal with a lip (€63 and $49 respectively), need an allen key to tighten, and are hard to find in the UK. And then I came across the plates made by the Colorado Tripod Company in the USA: a perfectly sized 40mm plate (they do 60mm and 85mm-long versions too) with a bolted-on lip, and, unbelievably (since their well-made kit isn’t generally cheap), available for $10 (in my case £9 on Amazon UK). It turned up today, and is a supremely well-engineered plate, and even includes miniature bubble levels: you can tighten it with fingers or a coin. I might not have made my fortune with a new invention, but it hasn’t cost me a fortune either: I just wish I’d realized, and hunted for, the solution to camera twisting before.

UPDATE 18.6.2021. Well, sadly my optimism about the off-the-peg anti-twist plate wasn’t entirely merited: after a month or so in use I found the plate still undoing from time to time: not as badly as before, but enough to be frustrating. The reason for this is evidently the slot (instead of a hole) for the screw, also common to the more expensive offerings from Arca and Really Right Stuff, which, while designed to allow fitting of the plate to different cameras, allows the screw to loosen when used with a follow-focus. Doubtless, the designers didn’t have that in mind. What is needed, evidently, is a plate with a hole rather than a slot for the screw, which, of course, means a plate designed perfectly for the camera body. So, after all, it was necessary to DIY something: I simply added an aluminium bar at exactly the right point (with some very careful sub-millimetre measurements) to an existing Arca plate and – voilà – at last I have got there: in use it has proved reliably rigid.

Colorado Tripod Company anti-twist Arca-type quick-release plate with lip at the front or rear. The detachable front/rear part with the lip (and bubble levels) is bolted on from below and further aligned by two pins that slide into the main part of the plate. Sadly, like any such lipped plate with slot for the screw (which allows it to fit many different cameras), it will still loosen under the duress of a follow-focus.
My modified Arca-style plate with the screw through a hole and an aluminium bar bolted on so as to perfectly abut the front of a Lumix G9. Not pretty, perhaps, but at last rock solid with a follow-focus.
And here’s the DIY-modified plate on the camera. I’ll probably paint the aluminium addition black in due course, but, meanwhile, it is clearer for these photos.
Audio Gear DIY Projects

Primo capsules – for lav mics and DIY

February 7, 2021
A pair of the tiny Primo EM272 omni capsules: add two wires and a 3.5mm plug and you are ready to record!

Primo microphone capsules are much-loved by the DIY crowd, especially the omni EM172 (now replaced by the EM272) capsule: it is a 10mm capsule with 14dBA self-noise. As such it offers similar scope to a lavalier (lav) mic for times when you want something much smaller than a small diaphragm condenser (SDC) mic, but has much lower self-noise: lav mics typically have around 22-5dBA self-noise, which can be pretty noticeable for many recording uses, such as ambience and nature recording. The sound quality is on a par with capsules used in mid-range handheld recorders, but, of course, once you have external mics you can be much more flexible. For example the omni mics on the much-loved Sony PCM10 are too close together for stereo, so plugging in a pair of EM272 mics allows for a proper spaced pair: you can clip those to your hat, the sides of your specs or, to look slightly less silly and to avoid your head movement giving odd shifts in the stereo image, to the sides of a bag or rucksack.

And the best thing about the Primo capsules is that they are cheap. Currently in the UK an individual bare capsule is £12.78 from FEL Communications Ltd (Micboosters): FEL/Micboosters also offers various versions (e.g. pre-soldered), other Primo capsules (including cardioid and figure 8: see below), matched pairs and, for those not into DIY, capsules already made up into finished mics – their Clippy and Pluggy models. There are a couple of other manufacturers who use Primo capsules in affordable mics, the most well-known of which is LOM in Slovakia, but I think Micboosters is the only one that also sells the bare capsules: and it is one of those great small British companies, run by the very helpful Nick Roast, who has worked as a BBC sound engineer for over 30 years.

A pair of Clippy mics

I have a pair of the Clippy mics (together with Rycote furry covers that are made specifically for them), which are useful for discreet or minimalistic stereo recordings and as lower noise lav mics for dialogue. And I have used bare EM172 capsules for what Curt Olson – who inspired my experiments – calls a ‘head-spaced parallel barrier array’, albeit in my case small enough to fit inside a Rode Mk1 blimp and with some of the mic placement attributes of SASS arrays: the circular baffles are c.90mm diameter and the mics are 160mm apart. Surprisingly effective. I’ve also used an EM172 to make a boundary mic, with the capsule set off-centre in a disk of perspex (150mm diameter and 5mm thick). Perhaps next I should buy some silicon ears (I see Micboosters sell them too) and make a binaural head with a pair of EM272s, as others have done.

Primo also make a single diaphragm figure 8 capsule (the EM283), again 10mm diameter, but this is not normally available via retailers. I noticed that Micboosters had started selling them and, as I had never heard of the capsule nor could find anything about it via the internet, I bought one for the princely sum of £19.68 for fun/curiosity. The specs are not as attractive as the EM172/EM272 and the 22dBA self-noise might be rather too high for many, but it is fine when used as part of a mid-side pair for louder sources such as music or some street ambiences. I found that the EM283 capsule needs better RFI screening than the EM172 and EM272, but that’s nothing unusual. I just bunged it in an old sawn-off shotgun mic tube for testing and, though this makes the mic unnecessarily large, it is fine – all hum eliminated. At some point I’ll get around to making a smaller housing with the fine mesh screening I have bought for the job. Not entirely sure if I’ll make much use of this capsule, unlike the EM172 and EM272 ones, but it has proved useful in an odd way: I had been thinking of acquiring an AKG CK94 figure 8 mic to provide the side mic for a mid-side pair with my CK93 hypercardioid, but was worried about self-noise (the CK94 is also 22dBA) and this convinced me that for my intended use I really do need something a lot quieter (so will need to save for an MKH30). UPDATE 26.5.2021: despite my conclusions about the EM283, I did buy a used AKG CK94 after all (a bargain came along) and its theoretically identical self-noise of 22dBA is not at all problematic. Lesson learned? That not all self-noise specs are equal! I’ve written a blog post about the new mic here.

So the final word: I’d really recommend playing around with bare Primo capsules as a cheap way to learn about arrays, and, even if DIY isn’t your thing, I’d recommend a pair of ready-made Clippy mics with these capsules as a great and very affordable alternative to a pair of lav mics for those occasions when SDC mics (and P48 power) aren’t feasible.

Primo EM272 capsules as delivered: matched pair with measured sensitivity a bit better than the published specs.
A head-spaced parallel barrier array – with the influence of SASS arrays – built to fit inside a Rode Blimp.
A boundary mic with an EM172 capsule: so simple and cheap, but better performing than so many commercial offerings.
A size comparison of a Clippy mic and a miniature lav (in this case my Rode lav). The Clippy’s EM172 capsule makes it rather chunkier, but for many uses this isn’t a problem, and it is still small enough to hide under much clothing.
Experimenting with a Primo EM283 fig 8 capsule: mounting it inside part of an old shotgun mic body.
And using the Primo EM283 fig 8 mic as the side mic in a mid-side mic pair with a Rode NT55.
DIY Projects

Speakers – exponential tapered horns

January 30, 2021

Though not strictly part of filmmaking or sound recording, ultimately playback is on hi-fi speakers (well for those not limiting themselves to earbuds!) and having something decent on which to check mixes other than nearfield studio monitors is critical. To me, speakers means DIY and I have been playing around with them since childhood: an early speaker project around undergrad days was a long-throw horn using WEM drivers (and I remember meeting the modest PA pioneer Charlie Watkins when I went to his largely one-man factory to get a driver re-coned), and then a few years later, when a thick cold meant I wasn’t feeling much like working on the thesis, I made my first exponential tapered horn speakers, loosely inspired by Laurence Dickie’s famous Nautilus B&W speakers. The rationale of the Nautilus design (and subsequent speakers using this approach) is to use tapered tubes to absorb the rearward sound produced by the drivers, to stop it being reflected back (as in a conventional speaker cabinet) through the driver again, adding unwanted resonances and colour.

The 1990s old snake speakers, with B&W drivers and that chipboard aesthetic

These first tapered horn speakers weren’t snail shaped like the Nautilus (too complex and derivative) but, rather, vaguely snake shaped, built simply out of chipboard, and had more of the WEM PA speakers: they weren’t very hi-fi at all. But modifications quickly followed. I was given some spare B&W drivers (I think for their 802s, but they are marked ‘prototype’ on the back), so modified the snakes to take them, and then some backroom boffins at B&W kindly stuck them in their anechoic chamber, stuffed them properly (I was too tentative with my wadding), added plasticine under the tweeters to take out a nasty reflection, and designed and built crossovers to suit: this might seem unusual, but I was brought up in the small Sussex market town of Steyning, where B&W’s R&D centre was located, so enthusiastic and generous research staff were thick on the ground.

I’d always meant to house the speakers in something rather nicer than chipboard, but the decades slipped by (actually over 25 years) and it took the Covid-19 lockdown for me to get round to it. Somehow the project rather developed: instead of re-housing the early 1990s B&W drivers (or, actually, similar: I had a spare set), I was offered some rather more modern and better (indeed, world-class) drivers (including metal-coned pistonic bass/mid drivers) actually designed for this type of speaker, and, again, some technical support (e.g. on crossover design and build). I’ll draw a discreet veil over which (different) manufacturer gifted them this time (those interested can probably guess), as they don’t supply for DIY use: again, these were some spares knocking around – acoustically fine, but not quite pristine looking.

Half-model for the new design

For the new speakers I decided to go for laminated plywood construction. I like the aesthetic of varnished laminated plywood sculptures and it seemed an achievable way of building a complex curvaceous shape: there would be no flat sides this time round. Also, with laminated construction I could create fairly thick and inert walls. The overall form is similar, nonetheless: a rearing snake (or a large number 2 if you want to be more prosaic) and a two-way design with passive crossovers. And the underlying principle was the same. That is, the form was defined entirely by eye and a gut feeling that the exact taper of the tube isn’t critical, so there is no scientific analysis behind it! Work began with drawing in AutoCAD and was followed by the production of a 0.3 scale half-model – shades of boat building. After sanding this so it looked right the laminated sections were each scanned on a flat-bed scanner, and then inserted into the CAD drawing to allow tweaking of the shape of the templates.

Then construction for real started, with endless hours of cutting plywood just with a circular saw and, mainly, a jigsaw: with 30 pieces of plywood per speaker I was soon cursing the frugal approach that precluded handing it all over to a CNC-equipped workshop (partly due to lockdown-derived impoverishment and partly due to the fact that I wanted to build them myself). Then gluing the plywood sections together to make half-speakers: it sounds easy, but the awkward shape and slippery glue were a difficult combination, resolved by adding a few laminations at a time and holding things in place with piles of books. Fiddlier still was making the front plywood baffles for mounting the drivers: the drivers sit in rubber O-rings with fixings via threaded bolts out of the back of the speakers, so millimetre precision was needed (achieved by spinning my router round a nail). Then back to hard graft: heavy sanding – mainly with a belt sander – to get into something near the final shape. I must have clocked up more hours with a mask on in my own garden than anyone else in lockdown. With initial sanding done it was on to stuffing the lower half of the tapered tube with woollen jumpers (almost solid at the bottom), add cables, and then, without stray bits of wool mucking things up, glue the two halves together: more wool and then – for the top part – speaker wadding was added through the bass driver hole.

Setting out paper templates, and working how to fit to the 8ft x 4ft plywood sheets
Plywood laminations cut for one half-speaker
The not-so-sophisticated gluing process: lashings of Titebond and precariously-balanced books.
The first half-speaker nearly finished, with drivers loaded. The tweeter has its own (plastic) exponential tube fitted, and both drivers are held in place by bolts through the back of the cabinet – requiring careful alignment and rubber fittings to avoid resonance issues. The interior was intentionally left with a stepped effect since sanding (which would have been difficult) would not have improved the performance.

With one speaker roughly made, it was time for loading the drivers for testing. With no access to a handy anechoic chamber this time, the garden on a windless day was the next best thing – getting away from any nasty indoor reflections. The neighbours must have thought it odd as I fed sine-wave sweeps through the speakers: aliens in the village? Measurement (bass driver and tweeter separately) was via a Dayton Audio EMM-6 measurement mic, using its individual calibration data and REW software (useful not just for measuring room EQ). The results were looking hopeful, so data was sent to the crossover designer (a renowned loudspeaker designer, so in safe hands), then the crossovers were assembled for me (using hand-wound inductors, made on a slowly spinning lathe), and the tests run again, this time with both drivers in unison: superb results, with impressive waterfall plots revealing negligible resonances and reverberation. During the to-ing and fro-ing of crossover design and build, I ground on with construction of speaker no. 2, and then both speakers were given the finer finishing sanding, crossovers were fixed, and then the speakers were treated to several coats of high-gloss yacht varnish.

Gluing the two half-speakers together: not the easiest shape…
Measuring a speaker in the garden: the poor man’s anechoic chamber.
Almost there: soldering connectors to one of the varnished speakers.

And the sound? After teething troubles with one bass driver (an elusive intermittent distortion caused by a loose connector in the driver – as I said, these were spares, and had been knocking around on a shelf for a few years) were sorted, absolutely superb! REW results indoors were exactly as anticipated and aimed for. But, more to the point, listening reveals the sound to be uncoloured, responsive, clear, with a good stereo image, and easily sufficient bass (something I was wondering about) for the size of room. At some points the complexity of utilizing the new drivers seemed daunting (compared to the old B&W ones), but, in the end, it was worth it: not only was there an aesthetic upgrade (the original plan), but an equal acoustic one. For the cost of several sheets of ply, a lot of glue and jigsaw blades, some crossover components, a tin of varnish and countless hours (which were going free during lockdown anyway), I’ve ended up with some unique-looking speakers that to better performance-wise would cost upwards of £20k. And such a satisfying feeling. Given that the mark 1 snakes served over 25 years, these ones will see me out.

Ah, I forgot to mention, though, that there is one drawback: this time round you can’t balance a mug of tea on the top of the speakers…

Audio Gear DIY Projects

Windshield for LDC mics

January 7, 2021

TIG welded cage

Sometimes, however impractical it seems, it is useful or at least tempting to get a low-noise large-diaphragm condenser (LDC) microphone pair outside. Various set-ups have been tried over the years by nature recordists, often taking advantage of a pair of the affordable and low-noise Rode NT1a mics. I have been particularly impressed by Magnús Bergsson’s recordings with NT1a mics, not least as he often runs these in parallel to Sennheiser MKH20, 30, 40, 8020 and 8040 mics: see his website at HLJODMYND – SOUNDIMAGE.

For use when I need lower self-noise than provided by my usual small-diaphragm condenser (SDC) options, I wanted a mid-side pair of LDC mics (i.e. a coincident stereo pair comprising a figure-of-8 mic for the sides and, in this case, a forward facing cardioid mic), so having a Rode NT1 (the more neutral successor to the NT1a: 4dBA) and a Rode NT2a (7dBA) to hand I have put together an oversize windshield or blimp for a vertical mid-side set up.

For better stiffness than the usual plastic, I have gone for TIG-welded stainless-steel wire (2mm diameter), with the blimp cage incorporating (isolated) spigots to fit a Manfrotto 154 stereo bar. The blimp disassembles into two halves, but, in reality, I just leave it assembled and insert the mics through the spaces in the cage. For the covering, I have gone for Rycote’s red lining cloth and Rycote long fur (all supplied by the metre direct from Rycote: amazingly helpful people there), with the usual elasticated drawstring tightly closing the side opening. The cage was built to my design by a friend of mine, who works with stainless steel wire for rolling-ball sculptures – all for a few pints of beer – and the fur covering was made by another friend with professional sewing skills.

Blimp with fur

Initial testing met expectations, not least with the better windnoise attenuation resulting from a larger diameter windshield than those usually designed with necessary compromises for boom-pole use: it’s the distance from the sound generating surface (the outer side of the blimp) that matters, with the inverse-square law applying.

Needless to say, I am by no means claiming this as a sensible/feasible option for most usage (and I have much more practical alternatives for most projects): it is heavy and I wouldn’t want to carry it and its stand (I use a Manfrotto 1004BAC) more than half a mile or so. There are, of course, many lighter, more robust and less humidity-sensitive microphone solutions that will be preferable for most projects (e.g. a Sennheiser MKH 30/40 pair).

However, this DIY approach might be of interest to anyone else was thinking along similar lines with LDCs (and there is no need to be afraid of getting large studio mics outdoors): LDC mid-side arrays are feasible for such use and it makes good sense to consider (affordable) purpose-built windshields as alternatives to shoe-horning LDC mics into undersized windshields or adaptation of less than ideal items from the local DIY store!

In action, recording musicians in the grounds of Mannington Hall

And for anyone really keen, here’s my design