Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Aston Origin Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphone

Aston Origin and Spirit
Both the Aston Origin ($299) and the Aston Spirit ($449) have been out a while. My life intervened and demanded that I do other things. I’m back, I think, and thanks for your patience. The first Origins and Spirits, delivered just before my life left the road for parts unimaginable, were pre-production models. They arrived Pin 3 High. When I alerted the company, they told me that these were just pre-production models and the production models were Pin 2 High.

I was then sent production models, an Origin and a Spirit, both Pin 2 High. This time the Spirit worked with my Sound Devices 442 and 664 Mixers and my GML 8304 Classic preamps, but not with the mic input on my JVC HM650 camera. There the signal would waft in, stay for a few seconds and then waft out for a few seconds and repeat. It’s the only time my camera has shown such a problem. I reported it to Aston and they were very interested to find out what THAT was about. Perhaps it was something in the input topology of the camera preamp, but the Origin worked fine, so it had to be something to do with that particular Spirit. A new Spirit was sent and works quite nicely with the camera. Maybe the current requirements in the Phantom circuitry of the wafting Spirit were somehow on the hairy edge. Aston said 4mA was a good feed for the Spirit, which the JVC is capable of. My Schoeps CMC641 need 4 mA and they work quite well into my JVC HM650 camera. Go figure.

Both the Origin and Spirit are large diaphragm, externally polarized, studio condenser microphones. I’m a member of the “Brighter Is Not Better” club. These mics are not over the top bright. They’re just, well, solid. More on the Spirit later. In this review I want to focus on the Origin.

Moving On

SMT on Origin Circuit Board
It’s obvious that Aston has taken great care to do a bang up job on this mic. Per Aston’s website, they did a notable amount of listening research with double blind testing on capsules and associated PCB boards. After the larger group vetting, five final capsules were chosen after more vetting, and then they narrowed the combination down to one for each model. The Origin is solidly built and has some nice features. The Origin circuit board uses state of the art SMT (Surface Mount Technology) and everything looks quite tidy under the hood. 

Rubber-Lined Shell
The inside of the body shell is lined with a section of black rubber sheeting to reduce body resonance. A clever steel mesh and inner screen sit inside the wavy outer headgrille, providing RF and pop protection. The mesh continues across the top of the mic. 

Double Mesh Headgrille
Origin Capsule Front
The Origin features a one inch, center-terminated, large diameter diaphragm with a transformerless output. Lots has been written about how edge-termination and center-termination affect the sound of a mic. Because of the other design differences in play, the decision as to which one is better is far from clear. Aston seems to have gotten it right in how they implement the center-terminated capsule.

The Origin capsule sits on a flexible yoke. (Note the cable tie at the base of the flexible capsule post.) It's supposed to help in isolating the capsule from the frame. My Neumann U 89 i “boinked” louder than both the Origin and Spirit when directly tapped. The base of the capsule is flat and metallic. That would normally be a reflective surface, yet I don't hear any obvious reflections. Perhaps the mesh provides enough diffusion to prevent that.

Origin & Spirit w/Triad-Orbit M1-R Adapters
Both the Origin and Spirit bodies are made with a standard 5/8” threaded socket in the base to allow for mounting to a boom arm or mic stand. Unless you have adapters on your stands, boom arms with adapters, or something like a Rycote Lyre suspension mount, this limits the ease of placement for these mics. The Rycote Lyre suspension mounts are very functional, but I find they take up a lot of space and are a bit fussy for positioning LD studio condenser microphones. Placement is, well, EVERYTHING, so, what do you do? 

Triad-Orbit M1-R
Atlas Swivel Mount
I have several Atlas Sound SB 36W mic stands with triangular bases on wheels. At the end of the boom there’s a swivel mount knuckle with a four inch stub and a standard 5/8” thread. This allows mics to be positioned very precisely. 

Atlas used to make 5/8” to 5/8” knuckle adapters for smaller boom arms that have a 5/8" thread, but unfortunately quit making them some time ago. I found some very nice adapters at Triad-Orbit, a US company in Kingston, Washington. They make a wide variety of stands, arms and associated hardware. The Triad-Orbit M1-R was perfect for the Aston microphones, allowing me to attach them to my smaller DR Pro mic stand boom arms that have the standard 5/8" stub. The MR-1 provide an excellent way to position these mics so you can get them exactly where you want them.

The Origin’s 23.7 mV/Pa Sensitivity is .7 dB hotter than the Neumann TLM 103. That makes them two of the hottest mics on the planet. The Origin has a selfnoise of 18 dB-A weighted versus 7 dB-A for the TLM 103. Comparing the Origin and TLM 103 in the quiet of my studio, I could hear the difference in selfnoise, but it didn’t sound as great as 11 dB. Yes the .7 dB extra sensitivity mitigates some of the selfnoise difference, but not 11 dB worth. The shape of the selfnoise of the two mics is also slightly different. The Origin has a bit more high frequency content than does the TLM 103; a SSSS as compared to a SHHH.

I have a AA battery-powered wall clock in the studio. It ticks very quietly every two seconds. The selfnoise of the Origin almost masked the ticking. The lower selfnoise of the TLM 103 revealed the ticking quite plainly. This begs the question of how quiet a mic has to be. If you’re recording rock and roll with amps turned up to eleven, I don’t think you’ll notice the selfnoise. How did the "back-in-the-day" masters deal with a 17 dB-A selfnoise? Analog tape hiss did a great job of masking the selfnoise.

If you check out the polar response of the TLM 103, you’ll see that the front lobe stays very constant from 125 Hz to 8 kHz. I’d call it a “generously wide and uniform” cardioid pattern. Both mics getting more narrow over 8 kHz. A simple Hiss Test reveals that the TLM 103 pattern is wider around 6kHz than the Origin. Past about 25 degrees each side of center, the HF response of the Origin begins to roll off. The TLM 103 goes wider, almost to about 70 degrees with very soft shoulders. There are no awkward lobes of noise or phase anomalies at the shoulder of the Origin pattern; the highs just go away. 

As the diagrams below indicate, on the low end, the Origin begins to roll off at about 125 Hz. The TLM 103 at 70 Hz. Both mics begin to rise at about 3 kHz. The TLM 103 gets up a bit faster, hitting +4 at 6 kHz. The Origin gets to +4 at about 10 kHz. I've had more than one vocalist with excessive energy at 6 kHz when they bear down on a note for emphasis – enough so that I need to pull that energy out with parametric EQ to keep them from sounding harsh. I didn't have them here to test the Origin, but I'm guessing that I'd have to pull down a bit less.

The TLM 103 hangs on to 15 kHz before dropping to -4 dB at 20 kHz. The Origin begins to fade at about 11 kHz and drifts down at a less severe angle to 20 kHz. At the end of the day, the TLM 103 should be brighter and will have more bass. In the Hiss Test, the differences in high frequency response were negligible, perhaps because the low end of the TLM 103 was filling in more of the lower frequencies.

TLM 103 Frequency Response
Aston Origin Frequency Response
Because the Origin has a center hot spot for high frequencies, you may be able to take advantage of it by turning the mic directly toward or slightly away from the source to increase or decrease the high frequencies it picks up.

Aston Origin Polar Response

You can hear that in the video below as I check out the polar pattern and frequency response of the mic and compare it to a Neumann TLM 103.

I’ve spent over thirty years doing voicework for radio and for numerous freelance projects with a lot of critical listening. As a result, I can tell a lot about a mic using just my voice. The voice doesn’t have those upper frequencies, though, and because of that, I turn to my acoustic guitars. In this case, I used my D28s Martin. The standard D28 has a huge bottom. The D28s is much more balanced across the strings. You can hear that as I try different positions with the Aston Origin in the above video. On my MacBook Pro speakers, the low end sounds slightly overdriven due to the limitations of the speakers. As more and more work is done for small speaker playback, we need to be more careful about EQ. 

Josh Polak With The Grand J-28 LSE Martin
Josh Polak has been here recording a CD project. I was comfortable enough with my experience with both the Origin and Spirit to use them to record Josh. I had Josh play as I moved the two mics around while listening to a pair of Sony MDR 7506 until I got the right stereo image. I had the Spirit in cardioid. He used my now discontinued Grand J-28 LSE baritone Martin for several pieces. Its strings are 17-70 and I keep it tuned at least four semitones below standard E-e guitar tuning. As such, it has a huge sound. I had to pull the mics a bit farther back than with a standard acoustic six-strings to capture it properly. As shown in the picture, here's Josh playing the Martin with both Origin and Spirit mics deployed for a stereo capture. The audio file I recorded is proof that the speakers of my MacBook Pro are not worthy to play this piece because the bottom end of the Martin is just too darn big. Sounds great on my home system though. How about yours?

In The End
What we have here is an underpriced mic. The Origin is a mic that’s performing above its retail price and is well-designed enough to be used on a variety of sources. This doesn’t happen that often! Thanks again for your patience and please subscribe to this blog and my YouTube channel. Keep an eye out for my review of the Aston three-pattern Spirit. 

Stay tuned! I just got back from the AES show in NYC. Gimme  couple of weeks and I'll have video demos and other associated content. 

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Thanks to Kathy Phelps for her editing help. We are still not in agreement with one sentence. Find it and win a nickel!