December 19, 2007
Review by Joel Patterson
•Two independent 35mm capsules, both multi-pattern
•Moving capsule spins 360 degrees
•80 Hz roll-off, -10 dB pad
•TYPE: Stereo Condenser
•POLAR PATTERNS: Cardioid, omni, figure 8 (x2)
•FREQUENCY RESPONSE: 20Hz to 20kHz +/- 3dB
•MAXIMUM SPL: 147 dB (0.5% THD @ 1000 Hz)
•SELF NOISE: 17 dB
•SENSITIVITY: -40 dB
•S/N RATIO re 1Pa: 77 dB
•PHANTOM POWER: Standard 48 Volt
Those of you with your short term memories intact will recall attempts at this, such as the Studio Projects LSD2: one body housing two dual-sided LDC capsules, one atop the other, and then you can spin the top one. Avant Electronics
, true to form, has learned from these earlier efforts and concocted the CK-40
, the ultimate stereo mic for our time. Every single technical specification for this beast is primo. Starting with the tremendously oversized capsules themselves, and on and on to signal/noise ratio and you name it, it's totally, totally ridiculous.
The large "cossack-style" foam windscreen became a topic of conversation wherever I went. It has to cover both capsules, which when they're just sitting there have a look of I'm-holding-someone-on-my-shoulders anyway. When you add the tall hat, and the elegant reddish finish, it really does look like a guard at Buckingham Palace. I had it close by the vocal PA mic for a show by punkabilly queen Syd Straw, and she stopped the show, stared at it, and said, "This somehow reminds me of a very handsome black man." (If I told you what the budget for that gig was, you'd snort coffee out your nose.) The mic weighs two pounds, is that heavy? The aluminum flight case is truly a small suitcase. The shockmount is huge--it could have been a jungle gym for my GI Joe.
My studio has a set of stairs up to a skylight that opens out onto a deck on the roof. I set the CK-40, in full regalia, on the deck. The sound of the wind--not the fluttering distortion you think of as "wind noise", but the actual sound of wind, undiluted-- is not a "rattling" sound, really, but a coursing-over. Like a stream over rocks, it's a noise of "hitting," an impact with the trees that are there in the way. Suddenly, a bee has come to investigate the charms of the windscreen. I panic, down at the desk with the headphones on. Bees sound angry, just innocently flying around, their buzzing projects a nastiness and aggression. Do they really feel this way? Whereas wasps-- I've spent many a summer day nailing up siding, wasps swarming around-- hellishly hot walls they love, for some reason-- and never felt threatened. The wasps are just loping around, attending to their own business, living and letting live. Their noise is a humming, low and tranquil.
Now, call me quirky, but I get a little thrill when I hear extraneous, incidental noises that happen in the lulls of a concert: a door creaking, a page turning, someone drops their keys on the floor. When that stuff sounds real, I know the music is sounding real. Music has a way of being "malleable," when you are using gear to try to catch what's happening and recreate it, there's vast unknown lands of "sounding good" and/or sounding like it did, really, and you're free to shape it at your whimsy. In fact, there's probably a whole Heisenbergian principle at work dictating that you can't capture it without shaping it in some way. But then, all of life is like that, you alter and change your environment just by being there. Hopefully!
The day this mic arrived I got invited to attend a benefit, that evening, to raise money for a child battling cancer, so I brought it along for what I'd call super-minimalist pro bono work. I propped it on a small stand at a kind of a middling nowhere-- a fews rows back, to the side of the center aisle. Not really in the sweet spot of the PA, not really close to the stage, just planted in the midst, sure to get the evening as it happened. I set the capsules to their figure-8 patterns and rotated the top capsule 90 degrees. The results were beyond stunning. You couldn't tell there was a PA--the clarity of the singers and guitars was searing. The lead singer was overwhelmed by the, if he knew how to label it, lack of proximity effect. You could hear the eager chatter of the little kids, talking excitedly among themselves, and he had seen from the stage the closest of those kids was a good twenty feet away from the mic. When the music welled up, it filled every pore--real smooth, liquid-sounding. It sounded like a multi-track production.
Next up was a chorus singing with a classical quintet. I set the mic, both capsules cardioid (90 degrees offset again) right between the conductor's podium and the violins, cello and reeds splayed out before him. Kind of like the mic is in the middle of a football huddle. I engaged the rolloffs-- I didn't want any of the close combat to causes rumbles. This maybe did not work to the advantage of the cello--although it was deep sounding, its lows were softened, but the violin (no more than three feet away and perfectly square on the left capsule) was startlingly present. The clarinets, at the mid-point of the arc, were much more "artistically" and "musically" buffered, sounding roomy and full, and the chorus still further away was nicely "washy" and thick. But that violin, mercy. (This guy has told me of his dream to assemble a group that would play on authentic 13th century instruments, cat gut strings and all.) To just use one capsule alone, this is a mic with real photo-accurate imagery, depth and realism.So, I started to wonder if there could be any "wrong" way to use this thing?
Theoretically, this would have to be possible, but I couldn't find one. On a whim, I set both capsules to omni, again 90 degrees offset, and boomed it under the fully open lid of a piano, the mic body parallel to the floor and the capsules "facing" one toward the hammers, the other toward the narrow end of the box. I don't know if there's any rationale for this, if it's intuitive or counter-intuitive or just plain senseless and random. It sounded wonderful-- dense and powerful but teeming with detail and rich with the overlapping undertones that make piano music so dimensional and expressive. About an hour into the concert, I could see from my line of sight that the CK-40 was steadily sinking down, like an inch an hour, and left unattended would hit the strings eventually. There might be some acceleration factor I was failing to consider. Improvising counterweights is a time-honored tradition among recording engineers. Fortunately close at hand were pint-sized exercise barbells, this is the "porch room" I am in, just off the recital hall proper, which doubles as an excercise/meditation/sit-and-take-in-the-view room. I slipped a five-pounder into my Sony 7506 leatherette pouch, looped the cords, and slid it over the free end of the boom during the blur of applause when one performer is leaving the next has not yet arrived.
To give it a proper drumkit workout, I placed it right over the bald spot of a jazz drummer, pads engaged, this time angling the capsules more like 45 degrees apart. (There are dots on the mic body to precisely align your coincident angles.) This didn't really "spot mic" the drummer, as it got lots of horn section as well, but it did give a brutally honest picture of his performance, especially I noticed his technique of how we was dampening his cymbals and ESPECIALLY noticed the lushness and bloomingness of the kick sound. The thundering runs-- 16ths? 32nds?-- you could see, hear and feel it billowing, the pressure in the room fluctuating, like someone is hitting me with a pillow. There's a whole trailing, warbling rumble to a kick sound, after the initial hit, it may only last fractions of a second, but when you hear it reproduced so authentically, you go, "hey, yeah, that's right!" My experiments with mid-side technique were eye-opening. I thought, "you could train monkeys to do this, and it would work fine!" For anyone looking for a fail-safe tool to capture any audio, music, spoken word or noise with excellent mono compatibility, excellent stereo compatibility, excellent mp3 compatibility, excellent myspace compatibility-- your search is over.
This mic took EQ well. It took compression well. It took EDITING well. The waveforms had a beautiful symmetry to them, and silence was absolute. When I ran the "benefit" tracks through Digital Performer, the master limiter was clamping down peaks at -16 dB, an unimaginable squashing--yet there were no artifacts, no nothing, just the sound of a raucous, detonating musical scene. When great players are playing great, they are very much serving something, conjuring something--joy, maybe, simple as that.
One stop solution for ultra-realistic stereo recording
Multiplicity of techniques and applications possible
Pads and rolloffs cannot both be engaged simultaneously
Flight case is not configured to store mic in its shockmount
When I hear something that's been recorded "really well," it's like it TALKS to me-- there's a wealth of information being passed, communicating stuff. And the thing that's always "wrong" with a track of recorded music is the sense that YOU'RE HIDING SOMETHING FROM ME. I'm not "hearing" it like it "really was," something's missing, or warped. Over time, you arrive at these random "truths" you hold to be self-evident: high end adds crispness, definition and highlights detail, but too much can be annoying, staticy and obnoxious. And you're always caught halfway between a formulaic way of working and experimenting with something new. What you really need is a reliable workhorse that in every situation gives you truthful, up-front, "explanatory" sound. I would have said that's a fantasy-- until now.
Avant Electronics CK-40 Stereo FET Microphone
at Front End Audio