Soundfield microphone review

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Soundfield microphones

One piece of equipment that has been a consistent part of the Reelsound Mobile from the very beginning is the Soundfield microphone and while its not the only microphone I use, it's pretty well first out on every recording session. The Soundfield has been around for about 25 years in various guises and is arguably one of the most natural sounding and versatile microphones in the world. The first Soundfield was developed by the National Research Development Corporation and Calrec Audio based on the work of mathematician Michael Gerzon and formed the heart of an incredibly accurate surround sound system known as Ambisonics and though the format never really caught on, the Soundfiled remains one of the most versatile stereo mics ever made.


The basics of Ambisonics is that the Soundfield microphone contains 4 separate capsules arranged in such a way that the engineer can record the whole sound environment around the microphone; above, below and behind as well as in front. The microphone houses 4 separate coincident capsules arranged in a tetrahedron which all contribute to what the Soundfield designers called the B Format signal. This consists of 4 streams of sound information around the microphone: The W stream is the omni information, the X stream front and back information, The Y stream left and right information and the Z stream up and down information. What's important to realise is that all 4 capsules contribute information to the separate streams and this 4 channel B Format signal runs from the mic in a special multicore to the microphones control unit. This unit enables the microphone to be remotely configured in any possible mono or stereo microphone configuration, the direct/ambient sound balance between front and rear can be changed and the stereo width can be adjusted, all without having to physically move the microphone...But there is much more to it than that because if you record the B Format signal to 4 separate tracks you can play these back through the unit back in the studio and have complete control of the mic in post production, spinning it through 360 degrees if you want or looking straight up or down.
While the microphone isn’t used very often to record ambisonically it remains one of the most versatile and beautiful sounding stereo mics available today and in many ways it's the perfect mic for mobile recording for a number of obvious reasons.
Firstly is the ease with which the engineer can get a great working stereo picture of the band or choir from one microphone position. If you want to use it as a stereo mic the controls allow you to easily configure the mic into any pick up pattern, alter the stereo spread from mono to 180 stereo and figure of 8 and also add in a controllable amount of the room ambience. Positioning is vital and moving the mic just a few inches can make a big difference but very often the Soundfield positioned correctly in front of the performers is all that’s needed: and of course if you record the mic onto 4 tracks in B Format then all the stereo adjustment can be done in post production back in the studio. No other microphone can do that.
Next up for the mobile is the ease with which the mic can be suspended across large halls. I have a very simple home made suspension rig that hangs the mic vertically from light mountaineering shock cord which I tie off at each end with key clamps. The mic automatically drops vertically and faces forward and the whole setup is simplicity itself compared to hanging a stereo pair of mics. All you need to do is press the invert button on the control box and it configures the outputs automatically and of course if the mic is pointin slightly off centre then by recording the mic in B format you can adjust it's pick up pattern in post production back in the studio.
Another great trick with the Soundfield is to record the four outputs in B format onto 4 tracks and then back in the studio run them back to create your ideal stereo picture of the choir or band and record that onto a stereo track, Next wind the tape back and run the whole thing again but this time with the mic set to omni or just the back of the mic open to create another stereo track highlighting the ambience. hey presto your own phase perfect reverb that you can add to the original stereo. Now that’s magic!
Finally another benefit of the Soundfield’s Mid/side stereo output is that the stereo recording is mono compatible and this is especially important for broadcast and film production applications.
All in all then a brilliant mic with a multitude of applications. Superb for single point stereo recording but also a fantastic tool in the studio. stick one infront of an acoustic guitar and weep!........JR

When we finally managed to get the Soundfield into the studio I though it would be the answer to all our prayers- here was one of the worlds most expensive and well thought of mics, so it must sound good on anything. Interestingly I grew to love it and hate it in about equal measure! Very early on I used it on a girl singer called Vicky Clayton who was a fantastic singer with a great voice, I put the mic up about 4 feet in front of her and it was a stunning recording, even though I say it myself. I was listening to it recently and the vocal sound, flat with a little reverb was just beautiful. So I started using it on other singers and it just scared the life out of me. On ordinary or poor singers (we do get a few in Fairview) it was just too detailed and highlighted all the inadequacies in their voices. With singers like that you really need something a bit more forgiving. Also you have to adopt a completely different strategy when using the Soundfield because the idea of it is to capture the whole sound environment and I found myself constantly putting the mic further away from the singer, sometimes 4 or 5 foot away. Really I suppose that Fairview is probably too small for the mic to get the best out of and there is no doubt that when I've been out on the occasional mobile and heard what its capable of it just has to be the best one point stereo mic around......JS

Microphones and recording 2008. Soundfield Microphones