DUMBO, BROOKLYN: I met microphone designer Dimitri Wolfwood and his [Ronin Applied Sciences] business partner Fenton Joseph at the Tape Op party during AES New York last fall. Joel Hamilton had arrived with them and introduced us, and Dimitri immediately took me into his world of ultimate microphone design. Before I knew it, I was swept up in his excitement about capsules and transformers, the virtues of film caps, and the sin of electrolytics.
In his introduction, Joel spoke with excitement about these guys having a new approach to tube microphone design, that – to his ears – had achieved a level of complexity and balance he’d only known from the Neumann classics.
I talked microphones with Dimitri for a while that night, and we kept in touch. After a couple more conversations, I asked him if I could demo his first microphone, the Pegasus. He and Fenton arrived at the studio just as I was setting up for a session, helped set up the mic, and then set me loose.
A Few Words For The Uninitiated…
Large diaphragm condenser (LDC) microphones, especially those powered and amplified by a tube, tend to be more subjective sound transducers. Much more than most small diaphragm mics, a tube LDC traditionally exhibits a strong personality, for which you pay to some degree in “accuracy.” However, when that personality is paired up with the right source, the recording takes on a hyper-reality that can be gripping and emotional.
Traditionally, the small diaphragm condenser, and the tradition of FET-based electronics, has been a quest for different types of accuracy. The tube LDC is the one that’s always strived for character and attitude. In so doing, they wind up being useful for a different type of application.
As an extreme example, measurement microphones have a flat EQ response from a couple Hertz to 20 kHz and beyond – but the results are often “unmusical”. A tube LDC, on the other hand, usually makes no pretense towards flat response, but rather boasts an ability to give a living, interactive response to the source, not unlike a guitar amp gives the guitar and guitarist. Accuracy really has little to do with it: the question is whether its distinct personality relates well to the instrument, like when two people meet each other.
Another side-note about tubes: Tubes have a reputation for being the choice when you want “warmth” or “good distortion.” This is a poor generalization, and one that doesn’t help us understand the Pegasus. While some tube circuits can sound very good when operating in their non-linear (distorted) regions, there are as many exceptions as there are examples. First, tube distortion is not always pleasant or warm, let alone the right choice for the application. Additionally, some tube circuits sound unusably terrible when they distort, sometimes even being a frigid opposite of what is commonly mis-described as “tube warmth.”
Second, some tube equipment, including the Pegasus, can be stunningly linear, and require as much effort to be pushed into the non-linear region as any solid-state circuit. So the choice of tubes over transistors is only in part about distortion: from the point of view of the microphone designer, it’s more about choosing a particular tradition of priorities in signal amplification.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
I tested the microphone at Vinegar Hill Sound, where I engineer and produce records along with studio owner and engineer Justin King. Our live room is about 400 square feet with 18-foot ceilings. Two walls are exposed, rough brick walls; one is drywall, and one is cloth-covered broad-band absorption. We have worked to achieve good spectral and temporal balance within the room’s natural medium-length reverb, and it is a pronounced feature of the room.
We work in Pro Tools HD 9 and use a Toft 32-channel ATB board for monitoring and mixing, but we track through outboard pre’s – API, Neve, Manley, Telefunken, Chandler – through outboard processing, and then feed directly into Lynx Aurora converters.
The Ronin Pegasus Test Sessions
To evaluate, I tested the Pegasus on various sources: voice, drum kit, kick drum, cello, trumpet, melodica, harmonica, piano, and pump organ (I will not discuss all of these). The microphones I compared it to were two tube LDC’s: the Telefunken Elektroakustik ELA-M 251E reissue and the Telefunken R-F-T AK-47; as well as mics of differing architectures: a Coles 4038 ribbon, a Telefunken ELA-M 260 SDC (reissue), a Neumann KM184 SDC, and a Shure SM7 dynamic.
The first source I tried was voice. I tracked vocals for Diamond Doves singer-band-members Nick Kinsey, Wyndham Boylan-Garnett, and Brigham Brough. Each of the three trade off singing lead vocal for each song, so we had to do the “usual suspects” mic shoot-out for each of their three different voices. This was a stark demonstration of the characteristics of each microphone. We tried the Pegasus, the Telefunken ELA-M 251E, the Telefunken R-F-T AK47, and the Shure SM7 (a dynamic mic).
What the Pegasus brought to each voice was musicality and balance: a robust low-end with formidable, but not overwhelming proximity effect; substantial body and detail in the lower-mids; a clarity and depth to the upper-mids, and an extended but well-tempered high-end that faithfully celebrated the higher-order harmonics.
The Telefunken 251E was by far the most similar example, but it had its own character that felt like a different take on the same subject; a more exaggerated proximity effect which made it a little more unruly (and more hyper-realistic), a similar depth to the lower mids, an upper-mid focus that was about half-an-octave higher than the Pegasus, and a sparkly high-end that nevertheless remained on a tighter leash than with the Pegasus. Transients were also a little more “gooey” than the Pegasus.
Neither of these two mics ever sounded like they got pushed into that resonating acoustic-distortion that lesser mics revert to under pressure. They remained open and tolerant of high sound pressure levels as well as ultra-resonant sources.
The Telefunken AK47, on the other hand, was much easier to push into its own resonance. It is a generally brighter mic with less depth and subtlety than the Pegasus, or the 251 for that matter. It has a bit of high-mid hype that can get edgy, which can be useful for pulling out nice natural distortions in vocals. As it happened, that was just what the doctor ordered for Nick’s voice, which has a gritty texture in that territory that distorted nicely with the AK47’s own grit – the two jousted together for a well-formed acoustic-electric distortion that became very flattering. But on Brigham’s Barry White-type baritone, it peeled the highs away into their own separate texture, where they laid distracting and out-of-balance. Likewise, Wyndham’s Brian Wilson-esque falsetto and soaring highs were dragged from sparkly to screechy through the AK47.
This edgy high-end raspiness also seemed to mask low-level information, especially in that range. So instead of casting a three-dimensional image with foreground, midfield and background, as the Pegasus and the 251 did, it depicted a much flatter image with less subtlety.
The SM7 suffered from some of the same problems; but what it lacked in complexity and easily-conjured resonance, it made up for with its characteristic impact and strength. It is a different type of mic that does a different type of thing; but it does it very well. The SM7 gives the transients a rougher handling that nevertheless glues the sound together in a lovely way – an inexact explosive intensity that replaces clarity and depth as the feature presentation. It can get a tiny bit boxy when people start to howl. But I have always found that what the SM7 lacks in precision sonics, it nevertheless imparts by offering the ear a robust landscape to re-imagine those lost details.