by Pablo Bellinghausen –
Faced with an onslaught of low-cost, derivative products in the last couple of decades, more reputable microphone companies have sought to remain competitive whilst avoiding a decline in quality in many ways; Shure has a plant in northern Mexico they keep under close scrutiny, Sennheiser spent a small fortune in automating their production process so it could remain in Germany, and many high-end European and American brands just make stuff in-house – and charge accordingly high prices. The wildly successful Shanghai-based sE Electronics took a different route by embracing their Chinese heritage, but also hiring a team of high-calibre British engineers such as James Young, Philip Smith and Jack Munro to design their products.
The Aston Microphones team
However, the relationship between the brand and their design team ended in 2014, leaving the latter with a lot of talent and new product ideas, but no means to manufacture them. They therefore set out to see whether they could build mics in the UK at a competitive price, by stripping down all components to the bare minimum and redesigning them from the ground up.
Fast forward a couple of years, and the fruit of their labour, Aston Microphones, is possibly the most talked-about brand in the business – an incredible feat in a market saturated with budget models that all promise professional results, with wildly variable degrees of success.
Their two current microphones, the Origin and the Spirit, are large-diaphragm, side-address, true condenser models; the Origin is a transformerless, cardioid-only design, whereas the Spirit is transformer-based and offers cardioid, figure-of-eight, and omnidirectional polar patterns. They both look pretty much the same, with the exception of the much taller body on the Spirit, and its extra polar pattern switch.
The packaging for both Aston microphones is identical, and is a rather unglamorous affair; the boxes are made of corrugated cardboard, with EPE plastic foam cutouts inside. The whole thing seems to be fully recyclable – a very commendable goal – and even though the included handbook is beautifully designed, the overarching impression is of a no-frills utilitarian product rather than a premium one. Fair enough.
The packaging is utilitarian, but it’s recyclable, and you get a badge!
Unlike many competitors in this price range (and even substantially lower) the box contains neither a shock mount nor a pop filter, since technically these mics need neither – more on this later. However, we were rather disappointed that no pouch of any kind was included; the cardboard box is fragile, and even though the mic is designed to be resistant to scratches and blows, it is still susceptible to dust and humidity, so it’s best to purchase a separate bag or case for it.
The microphones themselves are very striking, in a sort of rugged, industrial way; the obvious bolts, tumbled metal chassis with dark engravings, steel knitted wire mesh, and rust-coloured waveform structure give it a very cool weathered and “steampunk” appearance which, instead of looking sophisticated, wouldn’t look out of place in a gritty Noir or “used future” film. It is quite at odds with the shiny purple logo at the front of the mics, but undoubtedly exudes an air of quality and sturdiness, in a way that flashier budget mics never would on close inspection.
When conceiving these microphones, Aston engineers did away with many of the preconceptions of what a microphone should look like, and have come up with clever modifications to the basic shapes that are emulated by most brands today – most visibly in the grille.
The basic woven wire grille basket design seen on most microphones has been improved upon before. Randomising the structure of the grille improves its pop filtering abilities and scatters reflections inside the basket, most notably in mics like the remarkable Josephson C715 and C716 models, and more recently in the Myrinx modifications, with their lignin resin fibre structure. However, as effective as these methods are (it’s hard to argue that the Josephson mics are anything but outstanding) they have so far been expensive to produce.
It really is a stroke of genius for Aston designers to have used lowly knitted wire mesh as a diffusor – truly one of those “why didn’t I think of it before?” moments. I hope they have patented this, because it is bound to show up on other designs otherwise! It is a cheap, yet very clever way to do it, even though by design the mesh is very flexible, which means it has to be propped up by some expanded metal mesh on the inside, and protected by the unusual-looking wave spring on the outside.
The Aston mics’ three-layer grille design
How acoustically transparent this headbasket is, we’re not exactly sure; the relatively simple grilles of some of the best-known mics like the AKG C414 and Neumann U47 cause acoustical reflections that show up as peaks and dips in the frequency response around the critical 6–12 kHz area depending on the angle of the incoming sound (too narrow to be visible on the smoothed-out frequency chart usually provided by manufacturers), and the more convoluted design on the Aston mics must certainly affect the sound in a similar way. Dense layers of wire also affect the sound by providing some acoustic compression and softening the top end. Then again, the scattering of reflections should definitely smooth out at least some of those resonances.
Removing the grille shows the capsule and top of the body on the Spirit
The top of the body is flat, large, and perpendicular to the capsule; this causes certain phase cancellations on sounds coming from the top of the mic. Many designs taper the body to reduce this, although many venerable models don’t, like the aforementioned Neumann U47 (and what can be more venerable than that?) and other thoroughly respectable mics. It’s however worth knowing, as it would be wise to avoid angling the top of the mic towards the source too much to prevent the problem from rearing its head.
On the other hand, one characteristic that is universally agreed upon as a bad thing is ringing on any mic component that can be caused by knocks or vibrations, from switches to the metal chassis. These can sometimes be triggered by sound as well, and can show either as a constant low-level “whine”, or as a metallic quality to the sound.
This design flaw is very common in budget microphones, but can be seen even on famous, expensive models – many engineers spend a lot of time and effort modding them to dampen those pesky resonances.
In any case, after some judicious “knock and scratch testing” on both Aston mics, it seems that all the components are correctly damped, resulting only in dull thuds instead of any ringing notes. I suggest you do the same with any microphone when testing it – you might be surprised.
The other improvement, which sounds obvious but is a rare feature in studio mics, is internal shock mounting. It is almost an expectation nowadays for any studio mic to be surrounded by an ominous spider-like mounting system, but these were actually rare until rather recently; look up any recording picture right up until the eighties and you’ll see the mic mounted directly on a stand more often than not.
Although it’s seen as a requirement nowadays, a shock mount is absent on many iconic recordings
The shock mount inside the Aston mics is quite basic, but a definite improvement over most studio models, and unless you’re recording a tap dancer, you should be fine just using the mic without an external cradle. Beware of two things, however; the first one is that the microphone cannot be angled when mounted directly, which can lead to having to position the mic at an angle when used with a boom – it doesn’t affect the sound, but the look of it might not overly impress a client! The other is that, if you do wish to get a shock mount, the large diameter of the body will mean that almost no general-purpose mounts will work – you will have to fork out for the custom Rycote model which, although fantastic quality, is a substantial investment at about one quarter of the price of the Origin.
Listening Tests: Aston Origin
To put the mics through their paces, we arranged a few vocal and guitar tests in different environments, starting in our very dry-sounding Esmono booth. Due to its reputation for being a “clean” mic, we compared the Origin with the equally transformerless C414 XLS, set in cardioid mode; the transformer-based Spirit was pitted against our Neumann U87 ai – again, both in cardioid mode.
We connected each pair of mics to an RME Babyface Pro, and recorded some clean singing, gritty rock vocals, and some rapping, just under a foot away from the mics. The tracks were captured at 24-bit, 96 kHz on Logic, and we then listened back to them on PSI Audio A21-M speakers, and Sennheiser HD25 and HD650 headphones.
The Origin and AKG C414 XLS side by side
The first thing we noticed was just how different the tonality of all four mics was. It was instantly clear that both Astons were completely different beasts to both classics, and easy to pick up on an (admittedly very non-scientific) blind test – but not in a bad way at all. They all sounded just as professional, just with very distinct “flavours”.
When compared to the C414 XLS, the Origin proved itself almost its tonal opposite; whereas the C414 had warm, “bloomy” low frequencies and a very detailed and crisp top end, yet feeling a bit scooped in the upper midrange, the Origin had less bottom end (almost making us check whether the low-cut filter had been enabled), and a slight but noticeable presence boost. Presence and high-frequency lifts can often sound harsh or metallic, but this one is smoother and at a lower frequency than average, and proved really quite pleasant and useful, helping with projection and clarity; if your vocal recordings are currently getting lost in busy mixes, this would be a fantastic mic to try. It’s almost like it’s pre-equalised for cutting through on pop and rock recordings, while keeping the sound classy and clean.
The other thing that transpired upon further listening is an interesting texture and “sheen” to the sound, particularly noticeable on sibilants. It is hard to describe, but it somehow sounds both detailed and somehow slightly unfocussed at the same time, as if the tiny transient spikes that make up micro-detail in the voice were being diffused, yet without lowering their relative volume. The overall effect is unlike anything I’d ever heard on a microphone – almost analogous to the fine grain that is captured by film photography. I suspect that this is caused by the grille design, and although it doesn’t sound exactly transparent, it’s an absolutely lovely texture – even on rap vocals! It did get slightly sibilant on some parts, but unlike on so many mics, it was a matter of seconds to deal with it with a quick EQ cut.
I suspected the presence boost and relative lack of bass could become a problem with loud or brash female vocals, so for that I devised quite a different recording scenario; I took the mic home and tested it with a very well-trained, talented pop and R&B singer, in a natural-sounding room, but as a handheld.
This tested not only the sound of the mic from up close, therefore benefiting from the proximity effect, but also both its pop filtering and shock mounting abilities. I must say, after a few takes, that I was thoroughly impressed. Although the microphone is certainly not designed as a handheld (and looked rather funny as one!) the proximity effect mostly counteracted the presence of the microphone, giving a clear, yet full sound. There was very little handling noise, and absolutely no pops. This might be partially because of the singer’s training, but it is definitely something I would not try with our C414!
Since the microphone is also recommended for acoustic guitars, I did some recordings of both a bright dreadnought and a mellow classical acoustic guitar. I compared the Origin to the (very underrated) Shure KSM137, a wonderfully clean and incredibly detailed pencil condenser. Guitars radiate sound in very irregular ways, and the microphone’s position is therefore critical. Due to its tonality, the Origin required quite a different positioning to the KSM137 – in the end it ended up a bit closer to the sound hole (about the 16th fret), angled slightly towards the bridge. I ended up with a very nice, useable sound within a couple of minutes.
The Aston Origin and the Shure KSM137 on acoustic guitar
That sheen that felt so clean on vocals ended up sounding a bit smeared on the dreadnought’s fast and clicky transients, at least compared to the KSM137. However, it wasn’t an unpleasant effect, and would help blend the track into a relatively sparse mix, with the presence boost avoiding it getting lost. It wouldn’t be my first choice for a guitar mic, but then again, neither would many large-diaphragm condensers.
The last test was to see how it works as a room mic for drums in a nice, but lively-sounding room. This is a particularly good test for the quality of the polar pattern, since an irregular cardioid pattern will sound a bit ratty at certain angles, and the room ambience will therefore be affected.
I invited my drummer over and took the Origin and Spirit to my favourite rehearsal studio, tracking in mono (sadly I only had one of each) at two different distances. The Origin was bright and clean, although lacking a bit on low-end and suffering from the aforementioned transient diffusion. I really liked what it did to cymbals up close, and would consider using it for hi-hat, but it was less impressive on the tom and snare transients. At a bigger distance, the sound ended up feeling slightly pinched and less natural than I would expect from a room mic. I played with the angling and positioning, and ended up with pretty good results, but the polar pattern definitely didn’t feel as controlled as I would have liked.
Listening Tests: Aston Spirit
As mentioned above, it felt fitting to pit the more expensive Spirit against the famous Neumann U87 for the same tests as the Origin in our booth. The mic being bigger and heavier, it caused us a bit of trouble positioning it horizontally, and I can definitely see it causing cheaper boom stands to droop. However, once all was set, we made the recordings, level-matched them, and had a listen.
The Spirit and Neumann U87 ai side by side
Whereas the Origin’s signature is clean and shiny, the Spirit has a seemingly contradictory mixture of warmth and fluffy airiness. The sonic imprint of the grille is still there, but takes on a very different dimension; the Spirit is a bright mic, but the treble is soft and smooth; the midrange is dense without becoming muddy, and the bass response is flatter than that of the Origin.
In comparison, the U87 sounded more “real”, with a bit more depth and detail, but not necessarily subjectively nicer. Harsh tones present in the more aggressive rock vocals showed up in a more subdued way than on the crisper C414, but were definitely still there; they were noticeably smoothed out on the Spirit, in a way that reminded me of certain ribbon mics.
I was intrigued by this, and got in touch with Aston to find out more about their transformer, since I assumed that was the component that was causing the colouration. I ended up on the phone with Sean Karpowicz, one of the designers, who told me that my suspicions were correct; it is apparently completely impossible to have the type of transformer of a Neumann for such a low price, but instead of going for the laminated E-I transformer one finds in most cheap models, they came up with their own custom toroidal design which, sure enough, is similar to the one found on certain ribbons. This toroidal design is much harder to manufacture properly, but alongside many other electrical benefits, it rounds transients nicely instead of distorting them (a big factor in the “cheap mic” sound), subtly compressing things in a very musical way, and in Sean’s terms, adding “mojo” to the source.
This makes the Spirit a forgiving and lush-sounding microphone; everything is wrapped in a nice “haze” that makes everything sound rather vintage, in a good way. The handheld female vocal test went just as well as the Origin (even though it did exhibit more handling noise at very low frequencies due to the flatter response), and although the recordings didn’t have the projection in the midrange the smaller mic offered, they would be easier to fit into a sparse mix, and sounded a bit more expensive. The drums and acoustic guitar tests showed this “vintage feel” more than the vocal recordings; cymbals were smooth and toms had that slightly spongy feel that is reminiscent of certain 60s and 70s classic records. On all of these tests, it was clear that some detail and depth were traded off for smoothness and density, making for a slightly two-dimensional but very flattering sound. Any brightness is very easy to dial back with EQ, with no peakiness to be found, and I would have loved to have been able to try it out with single violins or trumpets, which can often need taming on aggressive performances.
The figure-of-eight pattern felt tight and balanced at most angles, with a deep null on the sides, top, and back. The increased proximity effect can render the sound overly boomy, but the rather aggressive low-cut takes care of that quite nicely. The omnidirectional pattern was less stable, with a small dulling of the sound on the sides and top, and a strong high-frequency lift above 7 kHz. However, the overall sound quality wasn’t changed, and it worked great as a room mic for the drum kit – quite a bit better than the cardioid pattern and the Origin in this particular application, with fantastic bass and a meaty overall sound.
The Spirit sounded full and musical as a room mic in omni mode
There is, it must be said, a very low-level midrange grain to the sound on anything we tried the Spirit on, no matter the volume, and upon close listen it can be noticeable on exposed, dry tracks. However, just applying some reverb, delay or modulation of any kind successfully smoothed it over, adding weight and richness to the sound instead. This is actually an asset for any type of popular music recording, but it would show up on orchestral recordings if you weren’t looking to add any artificial reverberation later on. It which might be the tradeoff for the added “mojo” on this model, but it’s one that I’d be very happy to make in most situations.
The Aston mics have redefined what is to be expected in their price range, and are very useful flavours to have in any studio. They’re not without their flaws, but are innovative, interesting products that have carved their own niche in an incredibly competitive market by refusing to pander to it, focussing on intelligent, solid engineering instead.
The clear, present Origin is the perfect home studio vocal mic, since it can be used close up to cut down on room ambience and without much thought and still get fantastic results, helping the performance and the mix. The Spirit is more coloured, but also more versatile, and would be one of my main choices for anyone who looking for silky retro warmth without sacrificing ease of use and treble extension.
We hope this is just the beginning from Aston, and we’re looking forward to seeing what they come up with next!