Studio Insider–March 2012

Studio Insider #168 March, 2012

MacWorld iWorld 2012

I recently re-visited San Francisco’s Moscone Convention Center for the annual MacWorld conference, now called MacWorld / iWorld. The expo/conference is much smaller than in years past, and many manufacturers I used to catch up with have now stopped attending the show. However, I did see good new products and technologies, which I’ll tell you about. I also noticed a refreshing spirit of entrepreneurship that wasn’t as apparent among the jungles of 3-story high, ½ acre sized imposing displays from major parties like Apple, Sony, HP, Canon, etc. This year’s event seemed more like a people friendly trade show, with lots of busy and creative folks eager to explain their wares and ideas to the large and varied audience. And it wasn’t just candy-cane cases for iPods, iPhones, and laptops.

Audio stuff

Most of the audio products I saw were iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch – centered. Sonoma Wireworks was showing their GuitarJack, a small interface for electric guitar or dynamic microphones that plugs into the 30-pin connector at the bottom of an iPhone, and allows the iPhone to record and/or amplify an electric guitar or dynamic microphone that’s plugged into it. Sales people at the company’s booth said that it will work great with Apple’s GarageBand software, as well as with most third-party audio recording apps and their own suite of applications. I saw an immediate benefit for my daughter Katie, who is constantly on the road with her band Old Man Markley. She could use something like this to record scratch tracks for tune writing, using only her instrument (fiddle or guitar) and a cable connecting it to the GuitarJack (along with a pair of headphones, of course). Katie likes to use GarageBand for tune writing/practice recording, and something that would allow her to plug an instrument pickup into her iPhone and make it sound good would be really handy for her. (Christmas is coming?!) Sonoma Wireworks was selling the GuitarJack for $119 at the show, slightly discounted from its normal price. If you’re interested in this tool, just be aware that it doesn’t accept condenser mics unless they are self-powered. GarageBand for the iPhone, iPad, etc., costs $4.99.

One way to get good quality audio into a laptop computer (like Katie’s MacBook) is to use a USB microphone. Several manufacturers are meeting this need with various levels of quality, and Blue Microphones was at MacWorld again this year with USB mics and a device they call the “Icicle.” It connects any traditional microphone (with or without phantom power) to a computer via the USB port. Because ProTools software now accepts input from virtually any interface, this would allow Katie to record her fiddle, guitar, or vocals directly into ProTools on her MacBook for convenient on-the-bus multi-track recording. She already uses it to record into GarageBand.

A company I hadn’t seen or heard of before, mic-W, was showing a collection of miniature mics designed to be plugged into the iPhone’s mini headphone jack. There were omni (picks up from all directions), cardioid (picks up from one direction only) and lab “measurement” microphones, all of them condenser type. They come with a neat metal case slightly longer than two wine corks, which protects the mic and can hang from a key chain (for the dedicated nerd). They even make a “splitter” that allows you to plug a microphone and headphones into your iDevice. I am skeptical of technology that forces me to use a manufacturer’s proprietary software and that won’t work with existing software, so I tried one of mic-W’s small mics plugged into my iPhone via their splitter, while my iPhone was running a popular audio recording program called “FiRe.” The audio from their microphone made it into the iPhone just fine, but the headphones wouldn’t work simultaneously. So that one is a “wait until next year” for me. I was also interested in their lavalier mic, which was about the size of some of the best ones made by Shure, AKG, Countryman, DPA, and the other major mic manufacturers – ½ inch long by about 1/8 inch wide. Lavalier mics are really essential for good field recordings for documentary work. The mic-W lavalier was attached to a thin but stiff cat-whisker like cable, but couldn’t be disconnected from the cable for attachment to other interfaces (think wireless), so again I passed. What do you do if your cable is damaged, or if you need to connect to a different type of plug or jack? So if this company can make a few changes to these innovative products, and make them bullet-proof for users who need them to perform reliably, they’ll have some hot stuff in the future.

Monster Cable had a booth this year, selling expensive boom-boxes to amplify iPhone and iPod music, but they wouldn’t work with my phone (always in a protective case) and they wouldn’t work wirelessly. The company is still trying to convince a gullible public that ones and zeros, when passing through expensive cable, somehow sound better than ones and zeros passing through well-designed inexpensive cable. They always seem to find enough believers to cover the costs of their information campaign.

Castiv, a Quebec-based company, makes clips to hold an iPad, iPhone, or iPod on a microphone stand. According to their promo, $35 allows you to conserve valuable counter space in your kitchen while you walk around the mic stand in the middle of your kitchen floor, carrying dripping lettuce from the fridge to the counter. I only saw black plastic units, so if your kitchen is decorated in pink, or in some other modern color scheme, you’ll have to shop elsewhere.

If you’d like to watch NetFlix movies (or other video entertainment) on your TV while streaming or playing them on your iDevice or computer, then check out the “im.play.” The unit streams audio and video from iPhone to your old-school TV, without need for wifi. The device manufacturer doesn’t have a good website, though, and the information I was able to find online after MacWorld was no more helpful than what I saw at the booth on the exhibits floor. In keeping with the theme I saw repeatedly at this year’s show, ideas and innovation were running well ahead of marketing and public relations, with plenty of fun and useful products being shown by people whose skills didn’t include good communication.

Sennheiser, who sell their own and the high-quality Neumann microphones in the U.S., had a booth that included a sales desk from Guitar Center. They were showing and selling several different models of headphones, from noise-cancelling to the trusty HD-280s that we use in the studio. I compared one set of their noise-cancelling phones with the HD-280s, figuring that the background noise level on the exhibits floor might be comparable to what I’d experience on a plane or at the Las Vegas airport. It seemed like the traditional HD-280s were better at blocking out the background noise. They were selling sets at $70, deeply discounted from the MSRP of $199, and well below most stores’ $99 price.

I took the opportunity to talk with one of the Sennheiser reps who knows their microphone line well, and asked him about a mic I’d first learned about a couple of years ago at a Neumann mic event up at SkyWalker Sound in Marin County. The MKH-800 Twin ($3200) is a high-end professional condenser mic with a great feature: the pick-up pattern of the mic can be varied infinitely from extreme cardioid to full omni directional or figure-eight, and anywhere in between, after the recording is made. This is accomplished by sending the signal from both sides of the mic’s capsule to separate recording channels, so that they can be combined in various ways during mixing and editing. This is often the stage of a recording when a discerning engineer might say “now that I’ve got these three guitars recorded, and the ambient sound of the mandolin section figured out, I wish I could re-record that fiddle with more of the room sound.” This is a big deal. $3200 might seem stiff, especially when your local music store dealer can sell you a ‘world-class” Chinese-made microphone for $50.00, but when you compare the price to other top professional-level microphones, it seems really accessible. Fiddle recordings especially would benefit from this technology. Sennheiser is now releasing an accessory that converts this microphone’s output to digital, so if you’re looking for a high-quality, forward-looking signal capture device, see if you can get your hands on one of these and try it out.

Fun stuff outside of the audio world

Several companies were selling add-on lenses for the built-in cameras on i-Devices. Telephoto, wide-angle, and fish-eye lenses were the most common. But I would hesitate to spend $200 for lenses that I would have to screw on or clamp on to my iPhone, when the shot I’m after is about to disappear. And for about the same amount I could buy a full-featured small digital camera with superior optics and interface. But as the built-in cameras in these iDevices continue to improve in resolution, user experience, and optical quality, these small, portable accessories might prove attractive to some users.

On the iRoad

Since I enjoy long distance bicycle travel, I was intrigued by some great-looking devices that allow the iPhone to be mounted onto a bike’s handlebars securely, with a quick-release button for easy removal and re-attachment. Before Marty and I left on our Gulf Coast bicycle trip last year, I ordered a device to do this, but after looking closely at its flimsy design and materials, I opted not to install it. This year’s offerings are in a different league, so check out products from Germany’s Herbert Richter (available in the U.S. through TESSCO) and Quadlock.

Several companies are making external solid state drives (thumb drives) designed for iDevices, and external batteries that allow iDevices to function far longer than what they can do with their internal batteries. Sanho (www.hypershop.com) had a slick set of offerings for iDevices and Apple laptops. Solar Components, a California company, makes a solar charger for iPhones. Approximately 6 x 9 x 1 inch thick, the charger could sit on your picnic table or bicycle rack and charge your iPhone. It takes about 8 hours to fully charge a phone however, and weighs slightly over a pound. This might be something to add to your emergency preparedness kit.

If you need a number of external disk drives to store your audio/video/imagery projects and data, or for putting together a RAID system, or for backing up your data on separate disks, you might look at the small metal enclosures for multiple drives from Sans Digital. They allow you to insert bare disk drives and then plug the enclosure into your computer’s USB, FireWire, or eSATA ports. In Q3 of this year they will introduce new enclosures that work with Apple’s blazing new technology for interfacing drives, monitors, and other devices, called “Thunderbolt.”

It seems that smart phones and tablets, with their small size and touch/gesture support and wireless access to the internet and phone networks, are supplanting laptop computers for many peoples’ mobile computing needs. While I’m still all thumbs when it comes to texting and writing with my iPhone, it’s plain to me that these small devices are heralding another big change in our work patterns and methods. The MacWorld/iWorld show demonstrated that there are many innovators hard at work now, coming up with useful ways to take advantage of the easy portability and massive computing power in these tiny devices.

Joe Weed records acoustic music at his Highland Studios near Los Gatos, California. He has released six albums of his own, produced many projects for independent artists and labels, and does sound tracks for film, TV and museums. He recently produced “Pa’s Fiddle,” a collection of 19th-century American music played by “Pa” Charles Ingalls, father of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the “Little House on the Prairie” book series. Reach Joe by calling (408) 353-3353, by email at [email protected], or by visiting joeweed.com.