ASTON ORIGIN CARDIOID CONDENSER MICROPHONE
You’ve probably already heard — there’s a new microphone brand in town.
Review: Preshan John
This is no anonymous ‘soft launch’, Aston Microphones is going hard. The British company is excited, and it has a story to tell.
Aston’s founder, James Young, was a co-founder and Global Sales and Marketing Director of sE Electronics, who also had his hand in the design of the original Reflexion filter. In 2015, James and some mates decided to go solo, birthing the Aston Microphones concept and philosophy.
One year later the team has made solid progress. Not only have two microphones and a ‘new-and- improved’ reflection filter been designed from the ground up, but the gears have promptly been cranked on worldwide distribution.
Still, in a crowded microphone market, folks won’t throw their money at you unless they’re convinced a product has X-factor: something special, different, unique. So what sets an Aston microphone apart from the rest?
NOT ANOTHER MIC BRAND
For a start, it’s clear that James wanted the mics to have a place with the big names. To get a seat at the table and acceptance by the industry he devised a stringent development process based on repeated blind listening tests with acclaimed British engineers. More than a PR push, James is adamant he placed faith in these golden ears to be the final arbiters of the mic capsule and PCB design choices.
Secondly, Aston isn’t a British company with Chinese manufacturing — no, every Aston microphone is actually hand-assembled in the UK. And you can acquire one for under $600. While China’s QC has certainly improved, it’s still a big deal when you can buy a product that’s made entirely in-house.
“Expectations were high, and the Aston Origin proved it’s got the goods”
AT was sent the Aston Origin for review; the first to arrive in Australia.
The Origin is a fixed cardioid, transformerless condenser microphone. There’s nothing unusual about the specs, though some may consider the self-noise of 18dBA high by today’s ‘race to the bottom’ standards. An 80Hz high-pass filter and -10dB pad can be engaged with the two switches on the side. The mic is smaller than you expect but has a decent weight to it.
There’s nothing shy and retiring about the industrial design of the Origin. The outer grille features a wavy honeycomb pattern that’s designed to warp under stress. During a phone conversation with Young, he asked me to smack the mic against a table. Since he made the mic, I obliged — ignoring my fear of single-handedly dispatching the first of its kind in Australia. As I struck the headstock on the edge of my desk, the network of metal reinforcers bent to absorb the shock, skewing the top half of the mic. James then prompted me to knead it back into shape, leaving it no worse off than before. I’ll let you decide the usefulness of this design trait, but one thing’s for sure — your Neumanns and T-Funks won’t take blows as gracefully.
Another quirky design feature is the mic stand mounting thread that’s drilled directly into the base of the Origin. Nice as it is to not lug around a shockmount, I’m yet to be sold on this idea. The direct mounting means the mic becomes a rigid extension of the stand’s boom arm, sacrificing the rotational and angular adjustments possible with a mic clip or shockmount. Positioning the mic becomes awkward, and making fine adjustments often means moving the entire stand. Some kind of threaded adapter with a pivoting joint would be a welcome inclusion to the mic’s packaging. However, Aston does provide the option of purchasing the mic with a Rycote shockmount.
The stainless steel body undergoes a four hour ‘tumbling’ process with other bits of metal shrapnel, giving it an industrial, heavy duty-type look. A very fine random-weave metal mesh lines the inside of the metal protector wires, which is supposed to double as a pop filter. It works reasonably well if a singer keeps their distance, but any closer than six inches and I’d recommend using a dedicated external pop filter. If the stainless steel mesh does get gunky from plosive shrapnel, it can be removed and washed under a tap. Neat.
There’s also internal shockmounting to keep the capsule isolated, which is why the mic can be screwed directly onto a stand and not suffer the negative auditory effects of acoustic coupling. While the mic does a decent job ignoring floor vibrations, you’ll still end up with a ‘thwumpf ’ if you knock the stand.
SOUND IT OUT
The Origin performed admirably during my time with it. Here’s its very first spin — a standard, 12th-fret acoustic guitar recording.
Next up was alto sax. Saxophones are complex instruments, and it took a fair effort finding the sweet spot for the Origin; with the instrument varying substantially between a rounded or anaemic tone, depending on these subtle adjustments. Up against a pricier BeesNeez Oliver tube condenser the Origin sounded slightly thin, though its high-mid presence provided a nice push forward in the mix. It was prone to harshness when the sax really growled though, so the Oliver was my pick.
By contrast, the Origin more comfortably held its own on vocals. On a female singer, the result was a very natural vocal tone with plenty of warmth and weight; but not at the expense of a commanding mix presence. The mic’s ability to handle a large dynamic range also impressed me — the tone was close and intimate for the whisper-quiet lines, but maintained body and fullness when the singer belted it out. The vocal track sat in the mix with ease, only requiring some compression and saturation to sweeten it. Rarely do I feel like I’m happy with the sound of a recording without even a smidge of EQ, but the little British mic proved such a scenario is indeed possible for under $600.
Next up was a Steinway grand that lives in Ballarat’s Wendouree Centre for Performing Arts. It’s a magnificent instrument in an acoustically underwhelming hall, nevertheless the Origin delivered clean and balanced results about three feet from the strings with the lid open. And because we love a good shoot-out, the Origin was pitted against our favourite affordable condenser — the thriftier Rode NT1, which has become something of a standard. The Aston came out sounding slightly clearer, with a transparent and extended top end; whereas the NT1 had a more enveloping low mid response that drew you in. It’s worth noting that the Rode required about 5dB less gain than the Aston.
But by far the stand-out experience I had with the Origin was the way it handled acoustic guitar. Impressed with the mic’s performance after that initial video, I multi-tracked a few acoustic guitar takes in a better sounding room. It was like a match made in heaven. The mic yielded a delectably balanced recording that sounded rich, polished and delicate all at the same time. Hearing the guitar tracks sound so ‘finished’ without even a touch of EQ was just stunning.
The Origin was given a whirl on plenty other sources too — percussion instruments, a guitar amp, male vocals — proving it’s a great all-rounder.
As a final test, I used the Origin as the sole microphone for an entire song with around eight tracks. It doesn’t take long for any nasties in a mic’s response to expose themselves when stacking up multiple EQ-less tracks. Yet with each new layer tracked with the Origin, the overall mix gained more finesse and clarity — something I haven’t experienced before. It’s a great feeling recording a whole song with one mic, and bragging to your audio mates that there isn’t a single EQ plug-in in the session.
The Aston Origin’s motherland is evident in its refined sonic signature — like a tweed-clad Englishman sipping an Earl Grey. To translate, the Origin’s recordings are presented with a beautifully creamy frequency response that’s entirely inoffensive — no lumpy low mids or sharp, grating highs.
In saying that, neither is it a boring sound — the Origin certainly has character for a transformerless mic. It’s difficult to conjure up a ‘sounds like’ example, because it really does have its own thing going on. It mellows out zing on brighter sources, but remains detailed and airy on vocals — what you’d expect from a quality condenser. That ‘expensive’ sound comes by way of its three-dimensionality — that unmistakable quality that feels like you can hear into the recorded track.
This British startup is onto something special here, and I suspect the more I use Aston mics, the more they’ll impress. Expectations were high, and the Aston Origin proved it’s got the goods. Get your hands on one — you won’t be sorry.