As studio systems become more complex, analogue signal degradation caused by poor signal connections becomes a serious problem, especially in vulnerable areas such as patchbays. Conventional contact cleaning sprays often make the problem worse, because many use a sticky, greasy formulation which attracts and traps dust. A better solution is to use one of the more advanced contact enhancement treatments such as Tweek, Stabilant 22 or Deoxit, the last of which is under test here.
Deoxit claims to improve conductivity by cleaning away thin films of surface oxide and by preventing further oxidisation. It is not sticky or oily, and unlike some of the very expensive contact enhancers, it is cost-effective to apply by spray, though it also comes in applicator pens and as pre-soaked wipes.
For general-purpose use, Deoxit comes as a 5% solution in what seems to be an alcohol base. However, it is possible to buy a metered dispenser of 100% Deoxit as well as full-strength wipes, syringe dispensers and pen applicators. For the purposes of this review, I used the Deoxit D5 Mini Spray, which contains 20ml of 5% Deoxit powered by a CFC-free propellant. I also tried some of the wipes, which are very convenient for treating jack plugs and similar exposed connectors.
Intermittent patchbay connections are a fact of life, especially if you use budget quarter-inch jack patchbays, but wiping or spraying the jack plug with Deoxit prior to insertion cures most problems instantly. Dirty normalising contacts are a bit trickier to treat, as you need to get behind the patchbay and spray directly into the contacts, but this again brings about a rapid cure that seems to last for a long time before treatment is needed again. Other areas that benefit from Deoxit cleaning are guitar jack sockets and the phono connections on the back of DAT machines and soundcards. It may even be beneficial to treat the earth pins of your mains plugs as a low-impedance ground path is vital to effective screening.
For gold-plated connectors, Caig Laboratories have developed ProGold, which is a little more 'tweaky' than Deoxit. The benefits are similar, but in addition, ProGold claims to be able to penetrate the microscopic pores found in thin gold plating, allowing it to bond to the metal beneath, and preventing corrosion building up between the base metal and the plating. Tarnishing is prevented, and as with Deoxit, there's a full range of applicator types and a choice of 5% or full-strength solutions. Again, I tested it with a 20ml Mini Spray and some wipes. The immediate benefits are similar to those of Deoxit, and in the case of badly tarnished connectors, the difference in audio quality can be quite noticeable. ProGold could be usefully applied to gold jack sockets, gold phonos and circuit board edge connectors, although it is important not to spray any kind of cleaner in the vicinity of a capacitor mic capsule due to the extremely high impedances involved.
Given the effectiveness of these cleaners, Deoxit in particular should be a part of every studio owner's survival kit. Inexpensive sampler kits of both ProGold and Deoxit are available containing both 20ml sprays and wipes. Paul White
Deoxit starts at £6.46 for a 16ml spray of 5% solution, while ProGold starts at £10.81 for 16ml of 5% solution.
Probus Electronics Ltd, Findon, Southill Lane, Eastcote, Pinner, Middlesex HA5 2EQ, UK
+44 (0)181 866 7272.
+44 (0)181 866 2999.
Boundary Effect microphones have been around for some time now, and the standard PZMs (Pressure Zone Microphones) use piezo technology. The ATM87R, however, is a full-blown condenser mic, giving it the potential to display a much smoother top end than conventional piezo designs. The ATM87R has a hemi-cardioid (half-space cardioid) polar pattern and, as the name implies, has been designed to cope with high SPLs, making it suitable for very dynamic signals. The ATM87R runs off 48V phantom power, and has a two-position switch for flat response or low-frequency rolloff to control ambient noise, recessed underneath the mic to avoid accidental operation. A 25ft cable is supplied, with a miniature TA3F connector on the microphone end and the usual standard-sized balanced XLR male type on the other.
As with any boundary/pressure zone microphone, the symmetry and area of the mounting surface directly affects the sensitivity of the microphone at low frequencies. These microphones make use of reflected sound and need to be mounted on a flat surface like a table top or wall, with the front of the mic facing the sound source along the longer dimension of the mounting surface. Sensibly, the bottom surface of the ATM87R is made of a clingy rubber material which helps the mic to stay put and also dampens unwanted noises. Overall, the construction of the microphone is excellent, though the cable supplied, with its miniature connector, is a little flimsy.
I used the ATM87R on every session I did over a couple of weeks in the studio. On piano, used subtly, it gave a lovely warmth and sense of space without removing the stereo image of the other mics, and on drums it gave just enough of the room sound without the splashiness that can come with other PZMs. I even put the ATM87R directly in front of the bass drum on one session, getting excellent results. On flute and saxophone, the ATM87R gave such a tight sound (in a fairly dead area) that it was hard to believe a boundary microphone was being used. In a small home studio, I would think that the ATM87R would be most suited to acoustic guitars and drums -- though anyone seriously thinking about making their own drum samples would find this microphone ideal for powerful 'roomy' sounds on rock tracks, or nice tight ambience for jazz and soul samples. When recording electric guitar through an amp, the ATM87R would always be useful as a room microphone, as it responds well to high SPLs and retains a nice, smooth top end.
In all, I was hugely impressed with this mic. Boundary/PZMs have always been regarded as slightly limited, specialist mics -- but this one is different. If you are in the market for condenser mics, have a listen to these before making a decision -- you'll be glad you did! John Verity
As CD-writers become more popular, so the need to label one-off CDs more professionally grows, and a number of inexpensive labelling systems have emerged to meet that need. One such is Neato, a very simple manual system that enables self-adhesive, ink jet/laser-printable labels to be centred and stuck to the back of your disc accurately and easily.
Supplied as a boxed set, the basic Neato kit provides an alignment jig, 28 assorted plain colour labels (two per A4 sheet), a couple of inlay cards, one sheet of laser-printable clear labels and a CD-ROM containing printing templates and useful artwork. The software is compatible with both Mac and PC platforms, and templates are supplied in Quark Xpress, Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop formats, though you can make your own with any graphics program of your choice, and if you test the printing alignment on photocopies of the pukka labels, you can perfect your work without wasting any labels. Incidentally, replacement labels work out at around 10p per disc, which is pretty cost-effective. Each sheet includes two rectangular labels that can be stuck on the outside of jewel boxes if you don't want to make a complete inlay card.
The mechanical part of the system is ridiculously simple -- there's a circular plastic base with a hole in it, and a hand-held centring jig onto which the CD being labelled is placed. After printing, the label is peeled off the protective backing and placed face up on the base. Next, the conical end of the centring jig, onto which the disc has been threaded, is placed in the centre of the label. You then simply push down. Generally, this results in a perfectly fixed, properly centred label with no air bubbles, but I have found that the labels tend to curl pretty badly when they're peeled off the backing. This doesn't usually affect the labelling process, but in severe cases, it can affect the centring slightly. When the labels are properly applied, they're claimed to be sufficiently well balanced to be used with high-speed CD-ROM drives
Neato's system is very cheap, it's easy to use and the end result looks very professional. Replacement stationery is also sensibly priced, but the company do need to look at ways of making the labels curl less, and it would also be helpful to include templates for other common programs, such as Claris Works or Microsoft Office. Despite the minor niggles, though, this is a nice little system that makes your one-off CDs look very professional indeed. Paul White
Keyfax's Twiddly Bits soundware has a very respectable track record in the market of producing MIDI files for general use by programmers and writers alike. You are supplied with a 3.5-inch floppy disk containing bundles of short phrases, drum patterns, fills, and chord progressions ready to be loaded into your MIDI sequencer, either as a springboard for your own song ideas or so that you can sneakily pass off the competently performed series of solos and keyboard licks as your own playing. Volume Nine in the series, Jazz, takes four main instrumental styles associated with jazz performance (Drums, Bass, Electric and Acoustic Pianos) and supplies you with tons of short MIDI files containing versatile phrases, loops and grooves.
As the wonderful demo song file shows, this release covers an astonishingly wide range of jazz tempos and styles, from cheesy ballroom to cool latin and frantic acid jazz. It is also clear that the programmers and performers used on this release have an enviable understanding of jazz expression, rhythm and harmony, which they have translated smoothly into the often stilted and musically tepid domain of the General MIDI module.
In most cases, the phrases are played in C, leaving you with plenty of scope to transpose the parts to fit your track, and most usually work out being between two and four bars long. The phrases are naturally designed to be used in connection with a GM module or soundcard, and in this context they work fine; however, it's when you use them with more exciting sound sources, such as a sampler or dedicated synth module, that their real musical potential is unlocked. The bass lines are of particular note in this respect, and are all tightly performed (via a real MIDI bass guitar) with just the right amounts of pitch-bend, modulation and expression. Fused with a great acoustic bass multisample, they would probably convince even jazz purists that they were listening to the real thing.
The laid-back, almost sloppy electric pianos are equally impressive, and are played with loads of thick chordal movement and sensitivity, and both the electric and acoustic piano solo phrases simply ooze attitude. I can imagine these latter files in particular will be real life-saver for the less technically able player looking for an inspirational bolt of realism in, say, the middle eight of a track.
The drum patterns, though very convincing, occasionally suffer from sounding as if they have been quantised a little too tightly. That aside, the selection of drum performances is authentic and, of course, offers the user the chance to tweak and add any elements that you feel might be missing on the original files.
Finally, even the sleeve notes are faultless; each file is listed with appropriate harmonic and stylistic information, as well as a few tips on how to place the parts within a track and ideas on possible sound types. With such an immaculately performed and logically put together soundware product, anyone looking for a touch of jazz inspiration can't possibly lose. Paul Farrer