By Doug Young
In the world of recording, microphones have a lot in common with guitars—both come in many different flavors, and we often attribute near-mystical qualities to certain legendary models. And, like choosing a guitar, understanding what makes a particular mic unique and selecting the right one for a task is part of the art of recording. Unfortunately, if you record at home or operate a small studio, you may not have access to a large mic collection, let alone high-priced classics or vintage mics. However, by applying modeling techniques—an approach that has been successfully applied to guitar amps for quite a while—some relatively new products promise to provide virtual access to a wide range of mics in a cost-effective way.
The Sphere L22 microphone system from Townsend Labs is one of the more recent entries into mic modeling. Townsend combines a large diaphragm mic, specifically designed for the purpose, with software plugins that work together to mimic the sound and behavior of a diverse collection of microphones. In addition to modeling specific microphones, the L22 offers other benefits to acoustic guitarists due to its low self-noise and extraordinary flexibility. The L22 allows you to change many aspects of the sound—after your tracks have been recorded—by selecting different mic models as well as manipulating various fundamental mic characteristics. Adding to its flexibility, the L22 can also be used as a single mono microphone, a mono blend of two different mic models, or as a stereo mic.
The L22 comes in a small but sturdy case that stores the mic along with two different mounts (shock and non-shock versions) as well as a special mic cable. The hefty large-body mic looks impressive and modern with its matte-black finish and LED lights that illuminate a pair of back-to-back cardioid capsule through a silver mesh grill. The LEDs indicate when the mic is powered and also support a calibration mode, but can be disabled if desired. The provided cable splits the five-pin connector on the mic into a pair of XLR outputs, which must both be provided with phantom power, one output for each capsule.
The L22’s software takes advantage of the separate capsules to produce the different mic models and enable other features. Whether you use the mic in mono or stereo, the L22 requires two channels with phantom power, and should be recorded to a stereo track. Townsend provides two downloadable software plugins, one for mono emulations and another that processes the L22 as a stereo mic. A very detailed and informative online manual includes suggestions for recording guitar as well as guitar with vocals along with a wealth of information about using the system, and the behavior of microphones in general.
A Collection of World-Class Mics
The L22’s ability to model other microphones is the feature that is easiest to describe, and its most obvious selling point. Once you place the Townsend plugin on a track recorded with the L22, you can change the sound—after the fact—by simply selecting a different mic model. The current models include large and small condensers, dynamic mics and ribbon mics, covering a lot of ground from modern classics to vintage mics. Townsend leverages the dual capsule design of the L22 along with its signal processing software to match the characteristics of each mic, including frequency response, polar patterns (including variations by frequency), off-axis response, proximity effect, and so on.
It’s difficult to know if the L22’s models truly sound like the real thing—unless you work in a very well-equipped recording studio you are unlikely to have access to many examples of the microphones being modeled. What is obvious, though, is that each mic model sounds different, often subtly, but sometimes in more dramatic ways, so at the very least, the L22 provides a variety of sounds to work with.
While the modeling features of the L22 are impressive, the L22 offers much more. The way the L22 allows you to manipulate the mic’s fundamental characteristics even after a track has been recorded may be one of the most useful features to guitarists, especially those who record at home or in smaller studios on tight budgets. The plugins allow you to alter the mic’s polar pattern, the degree of proximity effect (the tendency for mics to boost the bass when close to the sound source)—even how the mic is rotated about its axis. These features are available whether you choose to apply a mic model or use the direct sound of the L22. You can even blend two different models at the same time, and tweak the characteristics of each individually, in both stereo and mono modes.
The system also allows you to configure mics that don’t exist in the real world—if you’ve always wanted a hyper-cardioid SM57 or an omni ribbon mic, for example, the L22 can deliver. The system also provides some advanced features that may help reduce bleed between multiple instruments or minimize the impact of room acoustics by enabling polar patterns that are uniform with respect to frequency—something that doesn’t occur with traditional microphones.
If all these options sound intimidating, it’s also worth noting how educational the L22 can be. Unless you have spent a lot of time using different types of mics, you may not fully appreciate how off-axis response, proximity effect, or different polar patterns affect the sound. Everything becomes quite clear as you bring up the Townsend plugin and twist knobs while listening to your recording. The graphical display in the plugin also provides useful feedback—for instance, you can visually see how polar patterns change as you switch between mic models, since each mic is somewhat unique even within similar categories.
In the Studio
I checked out the L22 primarily by recording solo fingerstyle tracks and spent most of my time exploring the stereo mode. You could use a pair of L22s to support most common stereo mic placements, but using a single mic in stereo mode produces a sound that is similar to a standard XY setup. A dedicated stereo plugin supports similar features as the mono version, but the stereo plugin allows you to apply separate models to the left and right sides of the stereo image.
I was able to eliminate one concern about the L22 fairly quickly—the mic sounds quite good by itself, even with no software involved. So even if the company were to go out of business or failed to keep the software up-to-date, the mic would remain quite usable. In stereo, the sound was big and full, with a good stereo image, even before activating the plugin.
Of course, recording a track with the L22 is just the starting place—from there, the plugin allows you to fine-tune in seemingly endless ways. In addition to switching between the various mic models in matched or mis-matched pairs, all of the adjustable parameters of each model allowed me to tweak the tone in ways that I wouldn’t be able to do with EQ alone. The L22 has so many possibilities for tone-shaping that decision paralysis can easily set in, but ultimately, there are plenty of good sounding options, and few wrong choices. As a ribbon mic fan, I was especially taken by the recognizably smooth sound of the Coles 4038 model, both as a stereo pair and as a single ribbon paired with a condenser model.
The ability to fundamentally change the mic’s characteristics after the fact can be a great time-saver for small studios, and might allow you to salvage a track captured in a less-than-optimal way. The system doesn’t eliminate the need to properly place the mic, but it does allow you to fine-tune and experiment more easily. For home recording, being able to change the mic sound after the fact can make the challenge of wearing multiple hats—performer, producer and recording engineer—a little less stressful.
Real or Modeling?
The L22 isn’t exactly a budget item, and you could certainly purchase a pair of quality conventional mics for the same cost, but it would be hard to match the L22’s flexibility or range of sounds. The L22 would be a great first mic for a new home studio, making it possible to access different types of mics—along with their associated techniques—that would otherwise require a larger (and more expensive) mic collection. But the L22 could also expand the options available to more experienced musicians and studio engineers who already have a few good mics but want to round out their collection, or who value the ability to tweak the mic’s behavior after recording.
Modeling is often somewhat controversial and it’s easy to be skeptical of claims that a single mic can duplicate the sound of a high-end, more expensive mic, let alone an entire collection, at a fraction of the cost. But regardless of how closely the models match the mics they strive to emulate, the L22 is easily capable of producing professional-quality recordings, while offering a degree of flexibility that might change the way you think about microphones.
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Dual-capsule large diaphragm condenser microphone. Stereo output. 5-pin XLR to dual XLR cable. Continuously variable polar pattern from omni to figure-8. Max SPL: 140dB. Self-noise: 7 dB-A. 48-volt phantom power. Output impedance: 200 ohms. Software plugins: AU, AAX, VST, UAD on Mac OSX 10.9+ or Windows 7 SP1+. 8.9×2.5 inches, 1.7 lbs. List: $1799, Street: $1499.