Universal Audio’s Sphere microphone modelling system is well known for emulating classic mics — but that’s not all it does.
In this Sound On Sound exclusive video tutorial, we find out how the Sphere’s unique special powers can be brought into play when miking a drum kit.
00:00 - Intro
01:17 - Sphere LX & DLX
02:07 - Using the DLX as a stereo mic
03:02 - Modelling to emulate different overheads
04:21 - Changing the polar pattern after the fact
05:06 - Turning an SM57 into a figure-8 mic
07:02 - Controlling proximity effect independently of polar pattern
07:39 - Off-axis correction
10:06 - Using the Sphere mics with UA Unison preamps
11:48 - Tracking a whole drum kit with 6 Sphere mics
This SOS video is kindly sponsored by Universal Audio.
Hello, I'm Sam Inglis and I'm the Editor In Chief of Sound On Sound magazine. About five years ago I reviewed a modelling microphone called the Townsend Labs Sphere, which I liked very much. Universal Audio liked it so much they bought the company and it's now called the UA Sphere microphone. A lot of people have done shootouts comparing the Sphere with the mics it models, like Neumann U47s and AKG C12s, but modelling isn't all it does.
And in this video we're going to dive into some of its other features that maybe go a bit under the radar.
We're at Half Ton Studios near Cambridge and we're going to be checking out the Sphere using the house drum kit with our extremely patient drummer, Amy. Amy plays in a great band called the Baby Seals who you should go and listen to immediately after watching this video.
Earlier this year UA introduced the Sphere LX which is more affordable and smaller than the flagship DLX. They both work in the same way and both of them have two outputs, one for the front of the capsule and one for the back. These come out on a Y cable and get recorded to a stereo track in your DAW.
And then the actual modelling is handled using a plug-in. So why do we need to tie up a second preamp input to record the back of the mic? Well, the Sphere doesn't just model the tone of other microphones, it also models their behaviour. So if the original mic has omni and figure 8 patterns, the Sphere plug in can model those by combining the front and back signals in different ways.
But, recording the front and back separately allows the Sphere plug in to go way further than that. So for one thing, you can actually use the Sphere DLX mic as a stereo mic. You put the mic side on to the thing you're recording, and then it essentially behaves as a pair of back to back cardioid microphones.
That's not a setup most of us use very often. So let's see how it sounds when we set it up as a room mic. One of the great things about this is that we can still use the mic modelling even in stereo.
Of course, if you have two Sphere mics, you can do any kind of stereo technique you like. I've set the overheads up as a standard spaced pair, but the fun part is that if we record them dry and then use the plug-in to decode it later, we get a lot more flexibility at mixdown. Maybe once the guitars have been tracked I feel like I need something brighter to cut through?
No problem. I can just switch to a different mic model.
I can even put the Sphere plug-in into dual mode, which allows me to blend two different mic models. Maybe I need some of the brightness of the C12, but I don't entirely want to lose the weight of the 4038. Maybe I'm just terminally indecisive and incapable of committing to a decision.
Just as importantly, We can also change the polar pattern at mixdown. If I want a bit more room in the overhead sound, I can nudge it towards omni. If I want a bit more focus, I can push it in the other direction. I could even automate that so that we have a tight sound in the verses that opens up when we get to the big chorus.
Okay, so we're not recording jazz here, so we're going to need some close mics. Now, a lot of people like McDonald's, a lot of people drive Fords. A lot of people like a Shure SM57 on the snare drum, and the Sphere microphone can emulate an SM57. Great! I can use something that cost me a thousand pounds to recreate the sound of a hundred quid mic.
What's the point? Well the SM57 is not a multi pattern mic, it has a fixed cardioid pattern, so it rejects sound quite well from behind, but less well from the sides. And drummers don't often put the rest of the kit right behind the snare drum. Usually we've got the hi hat on one side and the rest of the bits off to the other.
So if we want maximum rejection of the rest of the kit, we actually don't want a cardioid mic on snare. We want a hypercardioid or even a figure 8 mic, which means not using an SM57. Unless we're using the Sphere SM57, because the Sphere plugin allows us to turn the SM57 into a multi-pattern mic. We can keep that lovely, crispy, donkey SM57 tone on the snare drum, but turn the pattern dial towards figure 8 and hopefully get rid of some of that annoying hi hat spill.
Does it work? Watch the video...
Now you might be thinking, yeah it works, but also the tone of the mic does change when it's switched to figure 8. And actually that's what you'd expect. Figure 8 mics have more proximity effect than cardioid mics, so if you use them close up you'll get more low end. No problem, because one of the unique features of the sphere mic is that it lets you dial in the proximity effect independently of the pattern.
So if it gets a bit boomy in figure 8, we can just turn the proximity control down.
Now spill is a fact of life when you're micing drums. You're always going to hear all the drums in all the mics, to some extent. And quite often, the problem isn't the level of the spill, so much as the tone of the spill. Directional mics have a flat response for sound coming from the front, but the rejection from the back and sides is better at some frequencies than others.
So not only do your tom mics pick up cymbal wash, they pick up a very coloured and unpleasant version of that cymbal wash. Case in point, the Sennheiser MD 421. A very popular tom mic because it sounds great on toms. Very unpopular cymbal mic because cymbal spill from the sides and back sounds pretty bad.
If we use the Sphere version of the MD 421, we have the option of doing what we did on Snare and changing the polar pattern to minimise that spill. But we're not going to get rid of it altogether.
So is there anything we can do to make that spill sound less bad? Well, yes there is. I'm going to switch the plug in back into dual mode, but that's not because I want to blend the 421 with another mic. It's because dual mode gives me access to another feature called off axis correction. The idea here is that I tell the plug in how far away the cymbals.
And now I have a second polar pattern control. The main pattern control is now really adjusting the tone of the mic effectively, because a lot of mics do sound different in cardioid than they do in figure eight or omni. This second control is the one that's actually changing the pattern, and it's no longer modeling how the real mic responds to sound arriving from the back or sides.
It's trying to give us the flattest and most neutral version of that spill. And even if we don't change the pattern you can hear how the tone of the spill changes as we toggle off axis correction in and out.
And when we're tracking drums it's not only the choice of mics that influences the sound. Obviously there's the drums and the drummer and the room and the time of day and whether you're standing on a delay line but there's also the mic preamps. When you're tracking with the Sphere mic, it's important to use the same type of preamp for the front and back, and to have the gain set exactly the same.
So you set the gain appropriately for the front capsule, and then you match that setting for the back. When recording drums, a lot of people like to push their Neve or API or SSL preamps a bit to add some colour into the sound. And there's nothing to stop you doing that with the Sphere mic. In fact, if you're tracking through UA's own Apollo interfaces, you have the option of using their Unison preamps, which emulate these classic preamps.
So let's try putting our kick and snare mics through a few different Unison preamps, and see how that works with the Sphere modeling.
When you're tracking with the Sphere, you also have the option of using the plug in either in your DAW,
The big plus of using it in Console or in the mixer in UA's Luna DAW is that there's almost no latency. So if I want to put some of the drums into a cue mix for Amy, that would be the way to go. I could even switch the Console or Luna into record mode and commit the mic modelling during tracking. In this case I'm not going to do that because I want to end this video with a little experiment.
We've managed to get together not one, not two, but six UA Sphere microphones, which must be some sort of a record. And I reckon that's going to be enough to record an entire drum kit with just Sphere mics. So we'll turn off the unison preamp modelling and we'll track the drums clean, and then we can see just how much we can change the sound of our recorded drum kit only by varying the modelling settings and a few other things within our DAW.
Thanks for watching.
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