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Aston Spirit

Multi-pattern Capacitor Microphone
Published August 2016
By Paul White

UK company Aston made waves with their British-made Origin mic, and now they’re back with a classy multi-pattern model.

Aston Microphones created quite a splash with their fixed-cardioid Origin microphone, and now they’ve followed up with the multi-pattern Spirit. Like the Origin, the Spirit is designed, built and tested here in the UK, and combines selected third-party capsules with very high-quality electronics. Apparently the original spec included WIMA capacitors, but UK manufacturing company Sedgewall decided to use an even higher-spec’ed USA capacitor from COG (NPO) due to its dielectric properties and greater temperature stability. (The production version of the Origin also uses these capacitors.) Sedgwall are the UK manufacturers who build the Origin and the MunroSonic Egg speakers, and they also carry out multi-stage testing at various points during manufacture.Aston Spirit

Costs have been cut to keep the price down but, importantly, only in areas that don’t affect the sound: all Aston microphones ship in simple recyclable cardboard boxes lined with rigid polyurethane foam, rather than bulky camera cases; there’s no expensive paint job; and the body design is a simple cylinder. The housing uses a stainless-steel ‘spring’ cage structure in place of a conventional basket, so that if the mic suffers a knock, the cage deforms slightly to absorb the impact. It can then be re-centred in seconds just by rolling the mic on a flat surface, so no more dented grilles. Two thin internal posts support the cage, which is lined with a stainless-steel mesh to provide RF screening and a useful degree of pop filtering.

The cylindrical body is also made from stainless steel, with a plain ‘tumbled’ finish and laser-engraved legending so it should age gracefully. A balanced XLR and a US stand-mounting thread are inset into the base casting, and the included thread adaptor means that both European and US threaded stands can be used. This threaded mounting point allows the mic to be used without a shockmount where practical, though Aston offer a bespoke version of Rycote’s universal shockmount (with purple lyres) that can be bought as an optional accessory.

The three-pattern Spirit offers cardioid, omni or figure-of-eight patterns courtesy of a one-inch, dual-diaphragm capsule; a small toggle switch selects the appropriate pattern. A pad switch provides both -10dB and -20dB attenuation options (as well as 0dB), and there’s an 80Hz LF roll-off switch. A discrete Aston logo denotes the hot side of the mic, which features a transformer-balanced output and requires standard 48V phantom power (±4V) to run.

Specifications

The frequency response is 20Hz-20kHz (±3dB), and there’s a very gentle presence hump centred at around 10kHz in both cardioid and omni modes to add a little airy detail to the sound. In figure-of-eight mode the presence hump is at around 6kHz, but again, is nicely subtle. The lows roll off gently below 80Hz or so. Sensitivity is specified as 23.7mV/Pa (at 1kHz into 1kΩ), and the maximum SPL is 138dB without the pad switched in. The EIN of 14dB A-weighted is a little quieter than for the Origin, presumably because of the transformer output stage, so the noise floor is comparable with similar microphones and certainly low enough not to be an issue in typical studio applications.

Going purely by the spec sheet, a lot of microphones show very similar figures and response shapes, but what differentiates microphones doesn’t always show up in the numbers, especially when the frequency response curves are smoothed (which they usually are), obscuring the fine detail. I always start with a simple speech recording test, as the human hearing system very soon recognises anything unnatural in reproduced speech. After that I move on to acoustic guitars, and usually some percussion instruments too.

On Test

My speech tests in cardioid mode revealed that the mic sounds only slightly different with the low-cut filter in, and the resistance to popping is better than for many studio mics, though I’d still use a pop shield for serious recording. On my own voice the playback sounded pretty natural, with none of the obvious phasiness or honkiness you sometimes hear with cardioid-pattern mics. Handling noise is good, courtesy of the resilient capsule mounting, so you could fit the mic straight to a stand provided it was sat on a solid floor, though I’d still use a shockmount if available. Given that Aston’s Rycote mount can be adjusted to fit many other mics too, I’d definitely go with that, and Rycote’s optional clip-on pop filter is extremely transparent from a sonic viewpoint.

With just a hint of flattery to lift the ‘air’ region of the spectrum, the Spirit comes over as smooth and natural-sounding, and passes the acoustic guitar test very nicely, with no phasiness or exaggerated grittiness at the high end. At the same time it renders detail perfectly well, so don’t mistake that smoothness for dullness. If anything, the mic sounds a hint more polished than the Origin, which is itself a very nice mic, and if pressed I’d put that down to the transformer output stage (the Origin has an electronically balanced output).

Tests with percussion instruments also confirmed the mic as being capable of a full yet articulate sound that still comes across as natural. Switching patterns produces minimal tonal change, which is generally disguised anyway by the change in the level of room ambience picked up.

Given its competitive cost, the Spirit stands up well against more costly US-made boutique mics that take a similar approach in teaming third-party capsules with high-quality custom electronics. Being ‘built in Britain’ doesn’t hurt either, and while styling is a subjective matter, I rather like the robust basket design and the textured stainless steel body. The Spirit should look just as good in 20 years as it looks today.

Alternatives

There are countless multi-pattern, side-address capacitor microphones around priced to appeal to the home-studio owner, with Rode, AKG, MXL, sE Electronics, Studio Projects and Sontronics being just the first few brands that came to mind. However, Aston mics are the only mics in this price range built in the UK.

Published August 2016