TOWNSEND LABS SPHERE L22 MICROPHONE MODELLING SYSTEM
Need a vintage mic, but don’t have the money and can’t choose which one? Just get a Sphere and make your mind up later.
Review: Greg Walker
What’s your dream microphone? Is it Neumann’s legendary 1950s valve U47? Perhaps it’s a vintage AKG C12 or the old Abbey Road favourite, the Coles 4038 ribbon mic. Then again you might prefer a sweet Neumann U67 for bass and guitar cabs, or an imposing U49 for silky yet powerful vocals. Hmm… this is getting tricky. It’s probably best if you procure them all, just to cover your bases. What do you mean you don’t have a lazy $70k laying around? You can only scrape together around two grand, huh? Alright no problem, I’ll get all those mics plus a few more tasty models for you, and I’ll make it so you don’t need to commit to one until after you’ve done the recording. Sound good? Read on.
ONES & ZEROS
Until we’re all dreaming songs into a collective digital ether, there will likely be some analogue componentry retained in the audio signal chain for the next hundred years — even if it is just the silicon in your audio interface.
Every year, as the digital domain advances, an analogue-less world becomes ever more probable. Originally, the attention of digital developers was focused on modelling or emulating signal processors. Whether it was an EQ, dynamics or effects unit, they would manipulate audio already in the system. Guitar amp emulations were similar; though they required a front end to capture the guitar signal, only a few companies were concerned with building their own hardware. More virtual instruments hit the market — whether via sophisticated sampling techniques or modelling, tape machine modelling and a keen focus on saturation.
It naturally led to preamp modelling, but to model a preamp’s behaviour properly, you needed a fixed starting point. Focusrite’s Liquid Channel was a start, but it was still ‘hardware-only’, it didn’t give all the flexibility of digital. Universal Audio and Slate took on the challenge and each built their own preamp as a known baseline to layer the character of vintage preamps over. Of course, there are some functional discrepancies like max gain, but it’s more about sonic aesthetics.
With those preamp foundations established, we’re moving into the last bastion of analogue acquisition; the microphone. Slate began with its Virtual Microphone System, but with just a single diaphragm it lacked the ability to more adequately model the polar patterns, off-axis response and proximity effect of various microphones.
Townsend Labs has a different approach. The company was founded by Erik Papp and Chris Townsend, industry heavyweights with lots of previous hands-on experience at companies such as Avid and Summit Audio. Townsend Labs’ first product is the Sphere L22 microphone system which aims to trump previous microphone/DSP hybrid offerings with the ability to adjust all those features lacking in Slate’s model, even after tracking. It can also leverage the UAD platform to lean on its DSP for reliable real-time performance. With two diaphragms, the Sphere can even create genuine stereo images and run in dual mono mode to create unusual hybrids (for instance using the front capsule in U47 mode and the rear one in SM57 mode). There is a tasty collection of vintage mic emulations to choose from and more in the pipeline from Townsend Labs so let’s see how it all fits together.
PAINT IT BLACK
The Sphere ships in a pro-level lockable black flight case, and inside there’s some thoughtful add-ons including a (bonus) simple swivel mount in addition to a full-blown suspension mount. There are also spare suspension elastics — always a good thing! The suspension mount does it’s job well and I had no sag issues with it during testing, though being a large mic and mount combination, there are tighter places it doesn’t want to go (just like a real U47!).
The Sphere L22 is a large, hefty microphone and is actually quite traditional looking with it’s matt black cylindrical body and silver mesh capsule cage. The small decorative markings around the bottom of the capsule head are somewhat unusual and initially made me think (wrongly) that the capsule could perhaps be rotated on it’s body to achieve different polar settings. Round the back a two stage (-10dB or -20dB) attenuation toggle switch and another for placing the mic in calibration mode are the only other controls onboard. My main disappointment with the Sphere hardware was the extremely short three metre stereo microphone cable supplied. I found it a little irritating that my first experience with this modern marvel was digging out some spare (and carefully matched) XLR extension cables just so I could place the mic in the middle of my recording space. The stereo cable itself is not particularly confidence-inspiring either, being very lightweight and using inferior grade connectors. A little more money spent here would have made the whole package feel more professional but everything functioned as it should. Speaking of matched cables, the Sphere system is very carefully calibrated and requires matched preamps running at equal gain. To ensure absolute preamp matching I ran it straight into the first two (identical) mic preamps in my UA Apollo rig.
When I first sent phantom power to the L22 I was somewhat taken aback to find four bright white LEDs light up in the base of the capsule. An unusual and bold aesthetic move by Townsend Labs and not really my thing, but at least I always knew when the Sphere was receiving 48 volts! My Sphere software plug-in of choice was the UAD one (it also runs on VST2, VST3, AAX and AU formats). The software was quick and easy to install and it was with some curiosity that I fired up the GUI for the first time.
There are 11 microphone models on offer, including all the mics mentioned above as well as Neumann’s U87, AKG’s C451 small diaphragm condenser, and the humble Shure SM57 dynamic. The remaining three options are based around the more unadulterated Sphere mic sound itself, including a flat frequency response ‘measurement microphone’ setting. Each mic is rendered in the plug-in GUI for simple navigation.
The main plug-in has single and dual modes, both working on stereo files. In single mic mode there’s a stepped control for selecting between nine polar patterns — from omni through to figure-8 — on all mic models. A continuously variable control allows you to back off or emphasise proximity effect, which — in combination with a three step high-pass filter and choice of microphone models — allows for some serious tone shaping. Perhaps the most innovative control parameter is the axis control which can be dialled from 0 to 180 degrees to create a sense of off-axis distance where required. Other plug-in controls can reverse the direction of the mic (making the rear capsule the front and vice versa), reverse phase and adjust rear capsule and overall output gain. A large central oval meter in the GUI shows the polar pattern response of the capsule’s signals in real time. It graphically shows how the adjustments to the controls affect their behaviours which is a nice touch. A long bar meter at the bottom helps keep tabs on overall output gain.
This smorgasbord of tonal effects is, however, just a taste of what’s to come when you engage the ‘dual’ button. In this mode the GUI changes to provide two separate sets of controls for the two capsules, allowing for the selection of two different mic behaviours and more complex axis response, capsule time-alignment and proximity effect manipulation. A second plug-in option named Sphere 180 delves into the realm of true stereo recording and offers similar controls to the ‘dual’ mode with added options for stereo width and panning. Calibration is achieved via the ‘setup’ button where any simple recording will enable the Sphere software to automatically match the input levels (with the mic’s calibration switch engaged), and you can also manually trim the rear capsule output level. All plug-in modes also make use of an ‘import’ function so previous Sphere settings can be imported across sessions and between most DAW platforms — quite an important feature if you want to move your Sphere recordings between studios, given how complex individual settings can get.
IN THE ROUND
I had the Sphere mic at my studio for the best part of a month, and in that time I used it on lots of different sources and in quite a few different roles. Initially I gravitated (as you do) towards the expensive large diaphragm condenser models and got some nice results on acoustic guitars, vocals and bass. The modelling of the valve condensers in particular has a midrange thickness to the sounds and interestingly, while some sounds weren’t overly convincing when soloed, they tended to work well in real-life mix situations. They certainly weren’t clinical or lacking in mojo and the variety in tonal signatures amongst the mic models delivered many useful options. The U49 emulation leant some great tones to a sparkly guitar line, the U87 gave me nice solid male vocal tones and the C12 did it’s high-end sheen thing on some female BVs. On a great young R ’n’ B singer the U47 setting was absolute pop dynamite, with just the right amount of grit and clarity. As I used the Sphere more I also found nice uses for the Coles ribbon emulation on strings and percussion (two of my favourite ribbon mic applications), as well as the occasional context for the more modest 451 and 57 tones on things like guitars and keyboards.
The whole paradigm of this mic-plus-plug-in system positively encourages tweaking and auditioning with its numerous parameters, so tinker I did. The proximity and filter controls really help dictate the way a sound sits in the mix and I found them very useful. The axis control was sometimes handy for pushing a sound back a little in the soundstage and getting it to find its own little corner in the mix — especially on things like backing vocals and secondary guitar lines. Exploring the choice of nine polar patterns on a U87, running a ribbon mic in omni or an SM57 in figure-of-8 mode were all new experiences too. Running the L22 in stereo mode revealed extremely realistic and useable stereo imaging and this mic could be a real secret weapon on all kinds of room and ensemble recordings. At times I doubted the authenticity of the mic modelling and felt I heard a bit of midrange murk in some of the sounds, but at other times the Sphere tones really shone. When I couldn’t quite find the sweet spot despite copious amounts of tinkering, I was often surprised to find I really liked the pure Sphere mic sound in it’s own right. Sometimes I’d even just grab the front capsule track and dispense with the plug-in altogether. The direct mic has a nice balanced tone to it and works well on a bunch of different sources, so keep that in mind if you’re looking into the Sphere as a possible studio purchase — it’s a very capable mic even without all the DSP add-ons.
LINE ’EM UP
After using the Sphere L22 for a few weeks I was starting to get familiar with its strengths and weaknesses but I was still curious to see how close the emulations were to the real thing, so I set up a couple of shoot outs with the originals to get a clearer picture. I don’t own a U47 or a U67 but do have a nice ’70s-era Neumann U87 with a clean bill of health from tech guru Rob Squire, so that was my first guinea pig. I lined up the two mics as close together as possible and, after adjusting for the L22’s far greater input sensitivity, did some strummed acoustic guitar tracks straight out front about three feet away. When listening back there was a certain similarity in the midrange sonics but also some distinct overall differences.
My U87 had a more airy top end and a fuller bass register whereas the Sphere seemed to emphasise more frequencies in the low midrange and had a more closed-in sound in general. Applying a bit of third party EQ I was able to match the sounds pretty closely but it still wasn’t a perfect fit. While bearing in mind my mic is over 40 years old and no two vintage mics will ever sound the same, I nevertheless was a little disappointed the U87 emulation didn’t come a little closer to convincing me. Switching to a much more recent example of the Shure SM57, I plugged an electric guitar into an amp and placed both mics about one and a half feet out from the speaker cone. This time the similarities were much more apparent, with the Sphere’s tonal balance and flavour giving a very close resemblance to the 57’s bite and thump. In fact, I preferred the Sphere’s sound on the slightly dirty ’50s style blues guitar sound I had dialled in. The 57 sounded pretty good but the Sphere delivered some extra heft to the bottom end that worked a treat.
USE YOUR ILLUSION
After lots of tracking, testing and pondering I was left with complicated feelings about the Townsend Labs’ Sphere. On the one hand there’s a lot to like about a mic that can offer so many different flavours, quite apart from the world of post-tracking tweakage it opens up and the creative possibilities therein. There’s also the bonus that the mic sounds good in its own right when the emulations and DSP are put aside. My experiences working with the mic were mainly good and sometimes great. I tracked several pieces of music using only the L22 that I was extremely happy with. On the down side there’s a couple of slight negatives to be considered. The first is that the emulations don’t always sound as great as they could. The forward midrange quality to some of them doesn’t quite match my experiences with the originals, and my shoot-out at least partially confirmed this observation. Those buying the Sphere in the belief that they will effectively be buying every second great vintage mic ever made need to lower their expectations a little. While these are not precisely the sounds of complex precision-engineered microphones built 40+ years ago, the emulations are nevertheless valuable tools in the studio and the whole package offers massive bang for buck potential from one relatively modest investment.
The second negative is more of a process-orientated one and may not apply to everyone reading this review. Experiences in the studio over many years have taught me the value of decision making, and I’m generally looking for ways to commit to sounds and performances as early as possible in any session. Having a tool like the Sphere opens up a whole new can of worms in terms of auditioning sounds and tweaking them both before and after tracking. If a tool like this falls into the hands of someone (you know who you are) who finds it hard to make up their minds and needs to keep tweaking things ad infinitum, it could be a match made in hell. I can see scenarios where the desire to alter vocal and key instrument sounds towards the end of a long production or mixing process could have detrimental knock-on effects and potentially unravel other sounds built around them. On the other hand there are certainly situations where the mic-plus-DSP approach could be a huge help. If you only have a vocalist for an hour and don’t have time to audition half a dozen mics the Sphere could be your best friend.
The software is deep and rewards lots of experimentation but this doesn’t always need to be done on the artist’s time. It can give recordists more control of sources captured in less than ideal recording spaces. The mic modelling selection is good, though hopefully we’ll soon see upgrades with more (Sony and Telefunken models are imminent and might I suggest RCA, Sennheisser and some dirty cheap ‘effects’ mics too), while on the cosmetic side you’ll either like the fairy-lights-in-the-mic look, or not.
For those keen to investigate the Sphere system further I recommend checking out the Townsend Labs’ website where you can find pre-recorded files and a free software download to check it out for yourself. The Sphere L22 has certainly raised the stakes, bringing in a DSP microphone system with a raft of fresh features at a very competitive price-point while giving the audio industry a pointer as to what the future of microphone technology may look like.