SONY C100, ECM 100U & 100N HI-RESOLUTION MICROPHONES
It’s been 25 years since the C800G, but Sony’s latest 50kHz-capturing microphones have been worth the wait.
Review: Craig Field
The sleeping giant has woken. Sony has finally released new studio microphones, its first new studio-specific designs in over two decades.
So why now? Is it just having a corporate mid-life crisis, reminiscing over the golden days of mics like the C37? Or was Sony’s revered C800G thermo-electrically cooled tube microphone (released 25 years ago) just too hard of an act to follow?
To understand the reasoning behind Sony’s new microphones, we perhaps need to dig deeper into the guiding principles of Sony’s entire audio vision. Unlike other manufacturers racing to the bottom. Sony Music doesn’t just support Hi-Res audio, it’s built an entire eco-system around it. It makes Hi-Res audio players, both for home and portable, it makes some very nice-looking signature series Hi-Res players and a range of Hi-Res audio headphones which have a frequency response from 4Hz-120kHz.
There’s actually no universal definition for Hi-Res audio, though generally speaking it is uncompressed audio delivered in a higher bit rate and sampling rate than CD quality; 16-bit/44.1k. Typical Hi-Res file formats would be 24-bit/96k, 24-bit/192k or 1-bit DSD or DXD.
It’s polarising, and I could open a can of worms. Briefly, there is a mathematical theory called the Nyquist Theorem. You probably already know it, but it says if the highest frequency component (say in Hertz) for any given analogue signal is fmax then to adequately reproduce that signal in the digital domain the sampling rate must be at least 2fmax. If your sample rate is 44.1kHz, like a CD, the maximum frequency component it could reproduce would be around 20kHz, which is the top of the human hearing range. Or a few kHz above for many. It’s why CDs use a sampling rate of 44.1kHz. On the bit depth side, it’s linked to dynamic range.
Now, why would you need to go any higher than 16-bit/44.1k? Well, there’s a case to be made for having a longer slope to your anti-aliasing filter, which a higher sampling rate affords; there’s also intermodulation distortion; quantisation noise; and loads of other things you can obsess over once you crack the seal on this particular can.
The takeaway is that a higher sample rate and higher bit rate yields a greater frequency range and larger dynamic range. Whether you can hear it is up to you.
SONY’S NEW CLASS
Sony has a big stake in the Hi-Res audio market, manufacturing sound systems for listeners to enjoy Hi-Res recorded works means it supports Hi-Res content creation by labels. That support led it to recognise a possible weak link in this high-end audio chain. It’s no longer file formats or playback systems, it’s the capturing device itself.
While interfaces, DAWs, plug-ins and even some digital monitoring systems have embraced this rarified air, microphones have rarely bothered to focus on anything humans can’t hear.
Sony wanted to do something about that, and has created three new Hi-Res-capable transformer-less microphones: the C100, the ECM100U and the ECM100N.
I had the opportunity to try these microphones out in my Blue Mountains studio, where the C100 arrived in a very sturdy plastic protective case accompanied by a purpose-built shock mount. At first glance it looks like a standard side-address large-diaphragm condenser, but inside holds a rather unique snowman-like dual-capsule design. The 25mm bottom diaphragm is designed to capture a response range of 20Hz to 25kHz, while the smaller 17mm capsule on top captures 25kHz to 50kHz.
The microphone is very well built and incorporates some of the anti-vibrational design of the C800G microphone. It’s not a large microphone at all, which is a great advantage in studio work. The C100 has three available polar patterns: omni, cardioid and figure eight, accessed by a firm switch mounted just under the logo.
The first instrument I recorded with the new C100 was an acoustic guitar. I recorded the guitar with the microphone in cardioid and pointed slightly towards the lower edge of the bridge. In cardioid the microphone is very focused. However, the guitar was being tracked solo so it didn’t afford a great deal of insight regarding off-axis or rear rejection. Using a Maselec preamp, the guitar sounded very clear and clean. The image was quite focused but never felt unreal or too forward at any point. I went on to record violin and uke with the C100. All the recordings were airy, open and true, without a definable mid presence or peak.
My studio is very focused on piano recordings and we are fortunate enough to have one of the finest concert grand pianos in Australia, in our main room. It’s always a good test for any equipment, be it microphones, preamps or monitors. It was here that I really put all three new microphones to the test.
For a look at Craig’s hybrid Decca Tree setup and Blumlein positions, check out this video filmed during the sessions.
TRIO OF TESTS
I had a trio of some of Australia’s very finest players coming in for nine days of recording. We were recording new modernist compositions from Australian/New Zealand composer Alan Griffiths with concert pianist Nicholas Young, violin played by Dominik Przywara, and orchestral musician George Yang on cello.
Sony didn’t have enough production models available to send a complete kit to me at the time of recording so I miked the concert grand with my own studio microphones. I used the C100 alongside a Brauner VM1 on the cello, both in cardioid as it was in the same room as the piano. The violin was isolated and mic’d with both Sony ECM 100U (cardioid) and ECM 100N (omni) smaller condenser mics, as well as a vintage 1974 Neumann U47.
One of the challenges I most enjoy when recording instrumentalists is they intimately know the colour and nuances of their instruments and how they should sound. Once we were finished tracking, we all sat together to listen to the new microphones.
The Brauner VM1 is a fantastic microphone. It’s a modern design that’s also valve. I don’t think we can sincerely compare apples to apples, but after a few listens all of us chose the C100 in cardioid over the Brauner. The Brauner is superb but the C100 actually seemed more open, with more space around the instrument. The cellist, George, played with great passion and strength, and the C100 held the accuracy and SPL of this ferociously played cello, whereas at times, the Brauner seemed to be ever so slightly gathered in the 1.5kHz region. This could likely be corrected with a little more distance from the source. We could have chosen either recording but used the Sony for the final mix.
The violin sounded so sweet through the Neumann U47 and custom-built Giles Audio valve preamp. The mic is in mint condition, so rich and musical. You’d be hard pressed to find a geezer who wouldn’t think that combo of virtuouso violin-playing and vintage mic sounded great. However, we all chose the Sony ECM 100N omni. Its detail, ability to handle the extreme highs of the violin, and overall accuracy in capturing the dynamic range and intensity of the playing was outstanding. The cardioid we had in the room sounded good, but was possibly not in the correct position and distance from the violin for it to be in the running. Again, we could have used the genuinely beautiful Neumann recordings, however, all our ears immediately gravitated towards the Sony.
THIS TIME IN STEREO
The following week I was back in the studio recording a classical pianist and violinist. By then I’d received an additional C100 to try a Blumlein setup on the piano, which is ideal for that genre of music. On the violin was an augmented Decca Tree setup I have used a number of times in my studio for classical violin recordings. I had a pair of the ECM 100N omnis in a close stereo spaced pair with the ECM 100U (cardioid) as the centre forward-projecting microphone. The way I use this array is still in the equilateral triangular shape, but I move the inner cardioid microphone to focus on capturing some of the atmosphere from directly above the player. It’s slightly off axis and not pointing perfectly towards the violin, which takes some work to get right. Too much here or there and the image is out and the violin moves from left to right. Get it right and it sounds extremely natural and the violin seems to inherit a space rather than be the centre of an image.
The C100s performed exceptionally well, netting a little wider image than previous microphones I’ve recorded with. I really took my time with the setup and felt I had the right length of note for the space and music being recorded. The definition in the lower bass notes from the piano was exactly what you could hope for when recording an instrument like this. The microphones easily handled the huge range and sound pressure of the concert grand; you could not hope for a more transparent and lovely image. My homemade mongrel Decca Tree worked well too. The violin can at times be very hard to capture as a sound recordist. It can also be quite a subjective sound; it’s a good idea to listen well and ask the violinist about their preferred elements of their instrument.
Last year, my studio was involved in a very large project where we had almost 24 weeks of continuous violin recordings and mixing/mastering. Needless to say, I have some experience with the instrument. Another joy of this array is that when placing an accompanying instrument, you can very subtly place the image slightly to the left or right depending on how it naturally sits to your ear. This gives a very realistic and true positioning of the instruments, even though they are recorded in isolation, in two separate rooms, with two different atmospheres.
The two smaller Sony microphones utilise the 17mm diaphragm from the C100 design, and work in the range of 20Hz to 50kHz. There would appear to be no real points in that frequency range where anything is particularly exaggerated, though the cardioid is obviously quite different to the omni. These are both sensational microphones. The challenge of capturing the very upper register of the violin was effortlessly overcome with both designs and the silkiness of those higher frequencies was a real joy.
To sum up, I must say that recording with all three members of Sony’s new High-Res series of microphones was a great success. They seem to have limitless openness when capturing sound sources and I doubt any instrument would be too hard for them. The C100, I believe, is a very interesting design and a studio all-rounder. I did not get to try it on vocals but the way it captured the stereo image of our studio’s concert grand was, in a word, stunning.
NEUMANN VS SONY
Mastering engineer and tech guru Dave Askew helped fill out the picture of what the Sony mics are actually capturing by comparing Craig’s piano recordings using a stereo pair of Neumann KM84s versus a pair of Sony C100s . As you can see, there’s barely anything going on above 20kHz or so on the Neumanns, yet there’s a remarkable extension to the Sony sound. For a better look at Dave’s process, let him walk you through his comparison in a video at youtu.be/wzDAijS3nJc.
Is High-Res the future of music? I’m not the person to answer that, though I sense many of us who have been working in this industry for years can sense we are still a little in the wilderness. What is apparent, though, is a huge sense of nostalgia in the recording industry, perpetuated by re-releases of classic equipment, both in hardware and software emulations. This might reveal a longing for a time when we knew where we were heading, or perhaps a lack of imagination. Either way, Sony has made three modern designs for the modern era of sound recording and whether you’re sold on Hi-Res audio or not, they’re still great mics. We should all be thankful for a new sound, a new song, a new day.