Microphone Simulation Plug-in
by John Krogh, Keyboard Magazine, September 2000
Classic and modern microphone simulation with virtual tube mic preamp.
Let's face it: Most of us will never own every piece of gear on our wish list. This is especially true where rare and vintage gear is concerned. But with the current crop of modeling products, both hardware and software, we can get very impressive simulations of those hard-to-find (or tough to afford) treasures at a fraction of what it would cost to own the real deals. Over the past few years we've reviewed a number of modeling instruments and effects, but until now we've never reviewed anything that attempts what Antares Microphone Modeler does at least not as a software plug-in. (Roland has included microphone modeling technology in their stand-alone digital multitrack recorders for a while now.) Why? Because until now, there hasn't been anything like Mic Modeler.
Before you write into our Letters column complaining that Keyboard should focus on what it does best keyboard technique and technology and not cover microphones, I'll say up front that this plug-in is an invaluable tool for just about any musician, engineer, or producer who records with computers. So let's get started.
What Is It?
The idea behind Antares Microphone Modeler is simple: You can take a mono track recorded with one microphone say, an Audio Technica 4033 large-diaphragm condenser and make it sound as if the track had been recorded with another microphone, such as a Telefunken U-47 or an Earthworks Z30x. In theory, the plug-in allows you to have a much bigger mic collection than you might otherwise have.
What's going behind the scenes isn't simple, though, and I won't pretend to understand it all: Basically, the sonic characteristics (including those from low-cut filters, wind screens, or various selectable patterns, depending on the microphone) of a variety of mics were analyzed and modeled. Once you've specified which microphone was used in the recording of a track, the plug-in will remove the characteristics of that type of mic from the audio in effect, neutralizing it. Mic Modeler will then apply the characteristics of whatever target microphone is selected to the audio. You're given the option to add simulated tube saturation distortion from a virtual tube mic pre. All of this happens in real time, so you can use it while recording to help you find the sound you're after, or during mixdown once everything has been recorded.
Truth in Advertising?
If you've done much recording with microphones, you know there's no single factor that determines how a track sounds when it's committed to tape or hard disk. Many factors such as the size and shape of the recording room, the kind of mic preamp used, the density and material of the walls, where a mic is positioned in relation to a sound source, and so on, play a part in what eventually makes it to tape, so how can it be possible that this plug-in does what it claims to? In truth, Mic Modeler won't make material that's recorded poorly sound great. And Antares is the first to point out what you can realistically expect from the plug-in in its user manual. No, you can't buy a $19.95 mic at Radio Shack and make it sound like a several-thousand-dollar vintage tube mic. For Mic Modeler to deliver, you need to use material that was recorded with a "reasonable quality mic" (their words) in a controlled environment. For example, if there's background noise in your original audio file, you won't be able to remove the noise by choosing a target mic with excellent off-axis rejection.
Additionally, say you actually do own a vintage tube mic. Will a track recorded with a Shure SM57 sound just like it was recorded with your classic beauty if you use Mic Modeler? Most likely, no. Even though two mics might be the same model, it doesn't mean they'll sound identical. According to Antares, "There's no guarantee that the mic we modeled will be identical to your source mic or to a specific mic you want to model. In the case of some well-known classics, we've provided multiple models of the same (but sonically differing) mic from different sources."
As part of the review, I set up a test to see just how close Mic Modeler could get to simulating different mics we had in our mic closet. I chose four mics: a Shure SM57, an Audio Technica 4050, an AKG 414B, and a Rode Classic II, then set them up in a row approximately in the center of the tracking room. The mics were brought in on four channels of a Spirit Ghost 32-channel mixer using phantom power supplied from the mixer for the AT and AKG mics. We brought in Bay Area singer/songwriter Essence (who was on loan to us from RCA Records and her producer, Bill Bottrel) and had her sing the same two phrases one soft and intimate and one more aggressive into each of the mics while we recorded her into Pro Tools running at 24-bit.
During the session, I wrote down her approximate distance from each mic as well as their specific settings. Then I processed each track with the plug-in to create modelled versions so I could A/B the original tracks with the modeled results. Could I create nearly perfect recreations of the original tracks using Mic Modeler? Not really. Some tracks sounded close to the originals, but I wouldn't say they were nearly identical.
However, I was able to easily enhance the already good recordings into great-sounding tracks by experimenting with different models, proximity settings, tube saturation, etc. My ears were my guide, which in a practical sense is really the point with this plug-in. It proved to be an amazing and powerful tool to quickly enhance any mono source I could throw at it. I was even able to take a vocal track originally recorded with a standard Shure SM57 and turn it into a pretty compelling lead vocal. To do this, I decreased the proximity on the source mic, then chose a mic I knew to have a warm, murky tone a Telefunken U-47. Next, I increased the proximity of the target mic to remove even more unwanted low rumble, and added a touch of tube saturation.
One disappointment: Automation isn't supported in the MOTU Audio System version of Mic Modeler, and since I auditioned all the audio files using Digital Performer, I wasn't able to automate the proximity parameter to simulate how I would have liked Essence to back away more from the mic when she hit her belted notes.
Besides the obvious or conventional applications, I discovered other uses for this plug-in: For example, processing samples and audio recordings of MIDI programmed tracks using the plug-in's tube saturation and proximity parameters, both of which I tweaked to add extra presence and attitude to the original material.
During the review I discovered columnist Jeff Rona also uses the plug-in. He had this to say: "During the mix of my most recent film, The In Crowd, my enginer, Alan Meyerson, asked me to hear what he did to the string tracks with Mic Modeler. He played me an A/B comparison of the strings, and it was obvious that the one processed with the plug-in sounded much better. It's becoming one of my favorite plug-ins to make everything sound more vibrant and interesting."
Producer/engineer Billy Gould echoed this idea: "I see the plug-in more like an EQ of sorts. If I'm mixing something and a sound doesn't seem to be fitting in with everything else, Mic Modeler can be a great way to bring in a new color to work with. The proximity effect can be a cool way to add a little bottom, for example. The cool thing about this plug-in is that the tonality changes with the strength of the signal, so it's like a dynamic EQ of sorts, which is definitely a bonus for hard disk recording, where things can tend to sound flat and one-dimensional."
There's very little to complain about with Mic Modeler. It's incredibly easy to use, and, provided you've spent some time auditioning mic presets so you know what to expect, you can get very impressive results without wasting a lot of time tweaking. Will you essentially get thousands of dollars worth of microphones in one plug-in? I wouldn't say that. The models provided with Mic Modeler are, to my ears, essentially detailed EQ presets with which to experiment. What it provides musicians and producers is an amazing sculpting and sweetening tool. This fact, and its sheer ease of use, earn it a Key Buy.
I found myself pulling it out for all sorts of material not just vocals but strings, drums, sampled Wurly, you name it. Mic Modeler never ceased to amaze me. But don't take my word for it. You can download a fully-functional 10-day trial version for free at www.antarestech.com. You owe it to yourself to check it out.
Pros: Sound quality. Easy to use. Dozens of useful mic models. Excellent tool for re-equalizing or sculpting pre-recorded or live tones. Hybrid virtual mics can be created using Preserve Source function. Additional mic models can be downloaded for free.
Cons: No VST Windows version. Can only be used on mono audio signals. Can't automate plug-in parameters in MAS version.
$599 (TDM) $399 (Mac VST, MAS, RTAS); $299 (DirectX)
# of mic models - 98
Audio input - mono
Controls - source and modeled mic, proximity, pattern, low-cut filter, tube saturation distortion, input/output levels, preserve source bass/treble
Copy protection - challenge/response
With its easy-to-understand interface, Microphone Modeler makes it easy to jump in and experiment with its settings. From the Source Mic drop-down menu on the left you can specify the mic you're using to record with. The Modeled Mic drop-down menu on the right is where you choose the target mic. Below each main menu are two smaller menus, Low Cut and Pattern, that are greyed out or available, depending on the options of the selected mics. Here, my target mic model is a Neumann U 89i, which includes selectable patterns and low-cut filters. I've selected the hyper-cardioid pattern and a filter cutoff frequency of 80Hz, and I've added a bit of tube saturation.
From the Preserve Source region you can choose to pass the low- or high-frequency information from the source audio through without processing it in the target mic model. This way you can create hybrid mics that combine the bass characteristics of one mic and the treble characteristics of another.
At the top are two proximity knobs that let you specify how close the instrument or voice is to the source and target mics. Signals recorded very close to a directional mic exhibit extra bass or boominess. If your original audio track is a bit boomy for your taste, you can help correct this by setting a tighter distance for the source mic, which will "trick" Mic Modeler into thinking the signal has more low frequencies than it actually does, so when the signal is "neutralized," the audio that gets processed by the target model will be less boomy. Now this is what I call "fixing it in the mix."
Technical editor John Krogh is sitting on pins and needles waiting to hear if his recent demo track a one-minute orchestral piece will be accepted for a forthcoming Chrysler television commercial.
Evo™, Auto-Motion™, and Solid-Tune™ are trademarks and Auto-Tune®, Antares®, AVOX®, Harmony Engine®, and Mic Mod® are registered trademarks of Antares Audio Technologies.