ASTON MICROPHONES STARLIGHT SMALL DIAPHRAGM CONDENSER
Starlight pinpoints your sound with laser accuracy and three different voicings.
Review: Preshan John
With the Origin, it was a droppable headbasket. With Starlight, it’s a laser pointer. Trust Aston Microphones to add a peculiar touch to its first small diaphragm condenser.
There’s not much about Starlight that holds to convention. Sure, it’s a pencil condenser, but whichever angle you turn it, there’s a refreshingly new element. Up top, there’s the black hump housing the laser. Down back, the tumbled steel chassis that’s now become a trademark of Aston mics is tapered like the shroud of a ray gun. At the very front it a sintered head basket. Basically, loads of ball bearings tethered together to form an incredibly durable, yet porous material. AKG used to do it years ago, and Eric Valentine’s Undertone Audio console has a top sheet of the stuff, but it’s a rarity in microphone design these days. It’s a random configuration, so presumably any diffusion should be equally random, reducing head basket resonance.
The Starlight isn’t all about lasers and raygun looks from the ’70s. It’s also got a three-position Voice selector on the body. It’s one of four switches that line the body — the others include a two-stage high-pass filter, two-stage pad (-10 and -20dB), and the laser’s on/off switch. The mic feels solid and is fatter than an NT5 or KM184.
It’s a fixed-cardioid transducer, and Aston hasn’t alluded to providing any swappable capsules in the future. Apparently the stock capsule was selected in the same method employed for Origin — a process of elimination by blind-testing multiple capsules with over 50 top producers.
At 15dB EIN, Starlight’s self noise comes in a squeak high by today’s standards. Signal-to-noise ratio is 79dB A-weighted (94dB SPL) and you won’t blow its capsule until you hit an enormous 150dB SPL with the 20dB pad engaged.
Starlight is available as a matched stereo pair, and if you purchase it as such, you get two nifty Rycote shockmounts and a stereo bar included. The plastic stereo bar doesn’t feel very resilient but it does the job fine. Little rulers on either side help you set up the perfect ORTF or NOS configuration. Standard dynamic mic-style clips are also in the packaging along with a helping of screw converters. Oddly, the Rycote shockmounts are threaded with a smaller 3/8-inch hole, which requires an uncommon thread adapter if your stands don’t already have the smaller screw at the tip of the boom. A minor inconvenience, but you might want to carry some adapters with you.
TONE OF VOICE
The option to change the mic’s voicing is a really useful feature — it’s like getting three mics in one. Aston says this comes “courtesy of some very fancy front-end filtering between the capsule and PCB.” There are three options to choose from and the most obvious sonic change occurs in the high frequencies. Modern is the brightest (solid bump between 6-12kHz), Vintage the dullest, and Hybrid in between. Exact rolloff amounts are shown in the manual. I left it on Modern for the most flat and natural sound, but switching over to Vintage brings a ribbon mic vibe that works perfectly on hi-hats, guitar amps, brass, and other top-heavy instruments you need to tame. Just a heads up, switching voices while the mic is gained up will result in an almighty boom and potentially terminate client relationships if timed poorly.
Small diaphragm condensers excel on a variety of sources, not the least of which is acoustic guitar. Typically I look for detail, natural but not overpowering bottom end, firm mids, and un-hyped highs. Starlight instantly proved itself a beautiful match to my Martin acoustic. The amount of low end reproduced makes it sound a lot like a large diaphragm mic and you’ve got to keep its LF-prone response from taking the reins by backing away a little. Setting the Voice switch to Modern opens up the top end without sounding zingy. The full-bodied tone of the guitar remained intact in the context of a mix, only requiring some filtering to tidy up the lows.
A pair of Starlights rocked on drum overheads, especially on the Vintage voicing for thick-sounding cymbals and hats. Again, I can’t overstate how handy it is being able to change the sound of a mic three ways before it ever hits your DAW. Compared to a pair of ADK TT tube mics Starlight pulled the focus toward the meatier midrange, emphasising the thump of the snare and decay of the kick and toms. The ADKs sounded more open and lively, shifting attention to the sizzle of the hats and stick-y attack. Interestingly the small-diaphragm Starlights picked up noticeably more low end than the large-diaphragm ADKs.
“Similar to the Origin, tracks recorded with Starlight don’t seem to require a heap of treatment… if there’s ever a mark of a good microphone, that would be it”
At the end of the day, whether it’s a $100 mic or a $5000 mic, they’ll each probably have a role to play. Hearing when to use them is half the battle. Having three voice settings meant I spent less time worrying about which mic to put up, and more time dialling in the right sound. If you don’t have the right mic, you’re often reaching for corrective EQ to get rid of unwanted frequencies and put yourself in the ballpark. Most of the time I’d solo a Starlight track and do hardly anything at all. When it came to mixing, the tracks respond very nicely to processing, though most of the time just a little tweak was required to make it sit right.
The laser deserves a mention. You know when you’re setting up drum overheads and you think you’re pointing them at the snare? Well, it’s surprisingly easier to miss than it seems — lasers don’t lie. How much does this affect the sound? It’s probably not enough to warrant a re-record, but it is another indictment on relying on your eyes when making music.
While I like the concept of a laser pin-pointing the mic’s direction, the one thing it can’t judge is distance — which I feel would be far more useful. You can have the laser targeted at precisely the same spot on a pair of hi-hats, but a few centimetres forward or back will make a substantial change in sound. Perhaps a distance readout like a builder’s laser could feature on the next iteration. Whaddaya reckon Aston?
If you believe strongly in mic position repeatability, you can achieve it with stereo miking configurations like XY, ORTF, NOS, or wherever the mics are next to each other and angled. Nail the position, mark the spots on the instrument, and next time you’ll be able to get the exact same distance and angle by matching both laser pointers to the markings (provided you recreate the identical distance/angular relationships between the two mics). That’s getting deep into geek territory and I’m not sure everyone takes such a scientific approach to recording.
STAR OF THE SHOW
Like the Aston Origin which AT reviewed last year, the Starlight has a certain character that’s hard to compare to another microphone. It’s a raw and authentic sound that errs on the side of truth rather than flattery. But it manages to sound polished at the same time. Similar to the Origin, tracks recorded with Starlight don’t seem to require a heap of treatment. And if there’s ever a mark of a good microphone, that would be it.
I want to call Starlight a dark mic, but I won’t. It is less sparkly than other ‘industry standard’ small diaphragm condensers, and with a whole lot more low end response than you may expect. It sounds bigger than its size. Besides the sound, my absolute favourite feature is the switchable voicing. Three mics in one? I’ll take it.
The laser has its place as well, especially for drum miking. It’s up for debate as to how much it’ll improve the sound of your mixes, though it will help mimic repeated mic positions with greater accuracy. Overall, the laser has very little to do with how much I like this mic.
Price-wise, you’ll pay a bit more than double for a Starlight than a Rode NT5. While I love my pair of NT5s, they don’t have three switchable voicings, two HPF options, and a two-stage pad built in, not to mention a laser. Let’s shoot to the upper-class standard — a Neumann KM184 costs nearly twice a Starlight. Like the NT5, the Neumann doesn’t have built-in bells and whistles like the Aston does. So Starlight definitely gives you a lot for the price. Plus, of course, it delivers the kind of high-quality results you’d expect from a professional studio microphone.