Roswell Pro Audio is a relatively new microphone company that has been making a name for itself with a range of affordable, yet highly-praised line of mics, priced from $300 to $1260. After hearing their audio demos on Soundcloud, I reached out to the company founder, Matthew McGlynn, for an interview about not only Roswell, but also his microphone database site, RecordingHacks, and Microphone-Parts.com, where he sells DIY microphone kits.
– Hi Matthew. Can you tell me about how you got started in the audio industry?
Sure. I’ve played drums most of my life and was in a cover band in college. We gigged quite a bit, and saved up enough to buy a console that we carried around with a trunk of cables and gear for our shows. I also started collecting microphones at that time, though I knew nothing about recording techniques. My kick mic was a Beyerdynamic M380, which is a collector’s item now, and the snare mic was a Beyerdynamic M422, which I still like a lot. I also ran the PA for the nightclub on campus, and would handle sound for the regional bands that came through the area.
Years after I’d graduated and moved to California, digital recording was just taking off. I bought an Audiomedia II, which was an early two-channel sound card from Digidesign for Mac, and I later moved on to the Digi-002 Rack. I remember feeling like that product was revolutionary; it doubled my inputs to four and had four additional channels that could be used with external pre-amps, plus the optical input that gave an additional eight. I later bought a Mackie 1604 console so I could sum my tom mics to a stereo pair, as well as my top and bottom snare mics to a single channel, and bus them into the Digi 002. I was also buying more gear during that time, especially microphones. I’d buy mics until I ran out of channels to plug them into, and then I’d have to buy a module with more inputs, like an eight-way Presonus pre-amp. In my mind, I needed sixteen mics to track my drums properly, and I tried all different ways to do it, all whilst keeping notes on placement and distances. This gave me a lot of opportunities to compare mics and pre-amps, which really served as the basis for what later became RecordingHacks.
– Can you tell me how RecordingHacks came about?
I started RecordingHacks in 2008. You can think of it as the Wikipedia for microphones; it’s a database of descriptions and specifications for many different mics, plus a collection of reviews and mic shootouts. As a consumer, I got tired of having mic manufacturers tell me things like, “Our newest mic is based on a vintage German design and is the best mic ever on vocals, guitars and 20 other sources “. But when I opened their product to examine the components, I’d find the exact same parts as in other cheap microphones from different brands; in other words, different companies are selling you the same mic. So with RecordingHacks, I wanted to cut through the marketing hype to show people what’s actually inside the device. Many of the entries, especially the ones for low-end gear, come with detailed descriptions of the circuits, as well as information on which other mics use the same circuits or capsules.
– How were you able to build up RecordingHacks when the website made no money in its early days? Was it hard to build interest for your site?
RecordingHacks wasn’t designed to make money, and the first version of the website didn’t even allow advertising. My model for that was a subscription magazine called Consumer Reports, which does reviews and tests of all sorts of products – electronics, tools, appliances, etc. They didn’t accept any advertising in order to avoid questions about their integrity, and I wanted that same level of objectivity. We’ve all seen reviews in audio magazines for a certain piece of gear, followed by another page with an ad for the exact same unit, and people sometimes question whether the review was honest or just another means of advertising the product. I do know people in the publishing industry whose reviews are honest, but I also know of readers who are skeptical of reviews because of ads, and I didn’t want that to happen with RecordingHacks.
I built up the site by going to trade shows and introducing myself to microphone manufacturers, who opened up to me about their products. It was nearly a full-time job that made me no money, but I think all the effort reflected in the content, which helped the site become successful.
– Can you tell me about the kind of readership that RecordingHacks attracts?
Audio engineers and people shopping for microphones are regular readers. Many people keep the site bookmarked so they can quickly read about whatever mic comes across their attention. I’ve also had several gear reviewers tell me that they use RecordingHacks to research the mics they’re reviewing, and I get occasional corrections from people who design microphones for some of the popular companies.
– As someone whose knowledge of microphones and recording gear is extensive, can you talk about the level of importance that a mic has in a signal chain?
In my opinion, the microphone is the most critical part of the recording signal chain because of its role as a transducer, which is a device that converts energy from one form to another – in this case from acoustic energy of a sound wave to electrical energy in a cable. In most cases, transducers offer the greatest opportunity to affect the quality of your sound. I’ve done tests where I listen to the same sound source through various mics, pre-amps, and converters, and I found that the farther down you go in the signal chain, the less impact a change in device has. I’m not saying that you can’t hear the change in a converter, but it’s often fairly subtle, and the same is true of pre-amps. I find microphones to be different though. Changing a microphone will often alter the tone of the recording in a way that most people can hear right away. You’ll find the same thing in the home stereo industry. I suspect that most casual listeners will not hear the difference in the quality of amps, but most people would hear the difference in quality of speakers, since they function as transducers.
I have a lot of people who come to me and say, “I have a microphone, a pre-amp and a converter, and I’d like to improve my signal chain. Which one of those should I upgrade first? “. In most cases, the answer is “the microphone”, because if your microphone doesn’t compliment your sound source, then even a high-grade pre-amp won’t fix the problem. Also, whilst inexpensive pre-amps generally sound pretty good in the bottom half of their gain range, this is not true of inexpensive microphones. They often sound compromised, such as having a high noise-floor, a thin bottom-end and a harsh top-end. So if you look at a bedroom producer’s signal chain, where he might have a $99 USB pre-amp and a $99 condenser mic, I’d say that he’s being held back more by the microphone than the pre-amp.
– But the recordings that people make in their bedroom aren’t used as the measuring stick for quality mainstream music, at least not until recently. The popular music of the 20th century was made by the likes of Michael Jackson and Coldplay, who recorded in well-equipped studios, whereas the EDM songs that top the charts today come out of people’s bedroom setups. So if we change the criteria of quality from today’s EDM to the pop music of 20 years ago, then perhaps your statements about the viability of cheap pre-amps doesn’t hold up?
Well, I don’t really know anything about EDM, so I can’t comment on that, but the source of popular music has absolutely shifted, and the reasons for that have more to do with the Internet than with the quality of cheap recording gear. For most of our history, recorded music became popular through radio play, and the only way an artist could get mass exposure was by having access to the marketing machine of giant media companies. But that changed with the birth of the Internet and the launch of platforms like Youtube. At the same time, recording gear has gotten cheaper, and the quality of cheap recording gear has gotten better. Those two trends work well together: the market is flooded with inexpensive digital recording gear that enables artists to produce recordings at home, and everybody with Internet access has the ability to reach an enormous audience.
With regards to the viability of cheap pre-amps, I’m quite sure that a cheap microphone can ruin a track in a way that a cheap pre-amp cannot. A bad-sounding mic plugged into a $50,000 pre-amp is unlikely to sound good because the cheap mic can ruin a track in a way that a great pre-amp cannot fix. But none of this means that inexpensive microphones are necessarily bad; the SM57 is a $90 microphone and it’s probably used on 80% of the records in anyone’s collection. So I wouldn’t agree that inexpensive gear can’t be used to make great records. I think it’s much more about the performance of the artist and expertise of the recording and mixing engineers. I recently had a conversation with John Rodd, one of the guys in LA who tracks large-scale orchestral music for film scores. He said, “People always ask me what microphone to use, and I just shrug my shoulders and say, ‘A good one‘ “. He didn’t say you need a $3000 Neumann mic, and I’m inclined to agree with him. That Neumann mic might sound good on some sources, it’s not guaranteed to always sound great on everything.
People always ask me what microphone they should buy, and I’m like, “Which ones have you already tried, and which ones did you like? Which ones didn’t you like? “. If a person can answer those kinds of questions, then I can better identify their needs. But if they say, “My voice is a baritone ” or “I sing-rap “, then it’s harder for me to help them, because each voice is different, even within a single tonal range or genre.
I also think it’s critical to remember that the quality of recorded music is not always about the gear; God knows we’ve all seen studios with amazing gear that still manage to produce unimpressive recordings.
– That’s true. I’m mainly playing devil’s advocate here, but also, I’d be interested to see any artists that are making acclaimed music using only $100 gear.
I understand what you mean, but I’d hate to discourage an artist from doing what they love by suggesting that they need a $10,000 mic to be taken seriously. Instead, I would suggest that each artist finds what sounds good for them.
Here’s the problem with many sub-$200 microphones: they have a frequency response that’s bright and overhyped in the top-end, which sounds unflattering on most sound sources, especially vocals. If you do an acoustic sweep test on that kind of mic, you’ll see a sharp bump between 8 kHz – 12 kHz, which is not a pleasing sound on most sources. But once you get into the $300 range, it’s easier to find products that start to sound good. Roswell Pro Audio makes a microphone that costs $300, and based on feedback from thousands of customers who say they love it on a variety of sources, I can say that the mic sounds good. So $300 is a good place for me to draw a line in the sand as a price threshold for buying quality gear. But even then, I wouldn’t say that there’s a minimum requirement of gear that an artist needs in order to be taken seriously.
– So after working with RecordingHacks for a while, you later started making your own mic kits, correct?
Yes. Working with RecordingHacks led me to create do-it-yourself mic upgrades through a company called “microphone-parts.com“, which we later shortened to “MicParts”. It’s become a useful source of mic parts for people who aren’t afraid to build or modify their own gear. For example, you could buy a cheap mic for less than $100 and put a new $150 capsule into it, which would give you the sound of a $500 mic. So DIY is a good way to build a studio affordably, although I caution people that it’s not for everyone. I occasionally get customers that don’t care about building gear, and only want to save money. They make terrible DIY customers because they’re impatient, they lose faith easily, and don’t read the instructions. If they make a mistake halfway through the soldering process, they give up and look for someone else to bail them out. But if you’re not that type of person, then DIY is the way to go.
– How successful has MicParts been as a business?
More successful than I assumed it would be. I thought only a tiny fraction of engineers would want to solder things together, but I was wrong. The site has been fairly successful within the DIY industry. We started off selling only large-diaphragm capsules, but we now sell circuit upgrade kits and all-inclusive mic kits. I believe we were the first to offer an all-inclusive microphone DIY kit with good documentation, which is one of the reasons we’ve been successful.
The value proposition of DIY gear is that the customer spends a few hundred dollars on the kit, but the finished product outperforms commercial alternatives that cost three to ten times more. We’ve also created kits that are modeled after mics like the Telefunken Ela M 251, the KM84, and the Schoeps CMC 5, in an attempt to give people a way to build a respectable gear collection affordably.
– Given the unexpected success of DIY, why do you think more people don’t go that route, and instead buy expensive mics from popular brands?
Some people aren’t willing to take the risk of soldering, which is why they pay for finished gear that comes with a warranty; they can always return it if they change their mind. You can’t do that with DIY. I always tell people, “If you’ve never soldered anything, don’t buy my kits. You’re better off starting with something cheaper, just for practice “. There’s a company called learntosolderkits.com, and they sell kits for $15 designed to teach soldering skills. Start with that, and then come back and buy a DIY microphone kit later.
Other people prefer to buy finished mics because of their re-sale value. They know that a Neumann TLM 103 is going to be worth 80% of its value if they decide to sell it a week later, whereas a DIY mic probably won’t fetch them more than what they paid for the kit.
– You’ve said in the past that many budget mics use cheap components, and MicParts offered people the chance to switch out those parts for better ones. What are these cheap components? Can you elaborate?
Let me be more specific about that. For much of the past ten years, many cheap condenser microphones that were manufactured in Asia all followed the same recipe: they all contained a circuit that was based on the design of the Schoeps CMC 5, or a capsule that was based on the Neumann K67; usually both. Those components were chosen by factories for low-cost reasons. The CMC 5 is a design that doesn’t require a transformer, which is critical because transformers are expensive and labor-intensive to make, and they don’t sound good if you build them badly. A designer looking to cut costs can build a Schoeps-style circuit for only about $3 worth of passive components, and the performance is relatively good. The K67 capsule is harder to master, but is currently being manufactured at a rate of hundreds per day for an equivalent cost of around $15 per capsule. So by combining those two components for a total cost of around $40, any company can make a microphone in China. And if you make 10,000 of them, the factories will lower the prices even more. This is why certain vendors can offer “Stupid Deal of the Day” promotions to sell a mic like the MXL 990 for $49. To be fair, that’s a decent starter mic at a very affordable price, but I doubt it gets used much on Coldplay records, to reference an artist you mentioned earlier.
One of the problems with the combination of a K67 capsule and a Schoeps-style circuit is they don’t sound good together. That particular capsule needs in-circuit corrective EQ to sound balanced, but the cheap implementation of the Schoeps circuit doesn’t adequately provide that. This is why many cheap mics end up with an overly bright and thin sonic character. Fixing that problem is partly about upgrading to superior components, or finding a capsule-circuit combination that produces a more balanced sound. We’ve had customers return $1900 mics to the store after spending less than $500 to build a better-sounding one from an MXL 990 and components from MicParts.
By the way, there’s a popular falsehood in audio forums that if you change out the capacitor or some other ¢50 component, you’ll be able to unlock a wealth of signal quality from your mic, and it’ll sound like a U87. That’s not true at all; there is no magical capacitor change that will transform the sound of your microphone. Only changing the capsule can re-voice your mic like that.
– But shouldn’t we distinguish between companies in the West who design sub-par microphones and the Chinese factories who manufacture them? If the mic companies gave better specifications to the factories, wouldn’t they build better mics?
I don’t think that mic companies deliberately design sub-par products. I believe the most common explanation is this: certain companies with little experience in designing microphones are approached by factories that want to do business with them. The factories offer the company a catalog of items that have already been designed and can be manufactured at a competitive price. So the company flips through the catalog, points at the microphone on page 21 and says, “I’ll take 1000 of those. Just paint my logo on it “. So it’s not that the company specifically asked for an inferior product. They mainly want to sell a microphone, but didn’t know how to design it, and so they trusted the factory to make something that would sound good, and the factory is happy for the business.
Shure and AKG absolutely design their own mics. They don’t do any of the things I described above. Even though Shure makes some of its products in China, it designs the hell out of them. You can pick up their mics after dropping from six feet onto concrete and they still work fine. The level of robustness in their product design is unprecedented, and I give them a lot of respect for that.
Are some mic companies incompetent? I would say “no”; but perhaps they’re in a different business than you believe them to be. Take MXL as an example – I respect them because they put recording gear into the hands of people who otherwise couldn’t afford it, but for a long time, MXL wanted to be the “$99 Microphone Company”. The fact that they were successful with that was frankly astounding. They were able to buy microphones from China in such volume that it drove the retail price low enough for outlets like Guitar Center to sell several of their models for well under $100. Granted, those microphones don’t sound very good by professional standards, but they were absolutely adequate for hobbyists.
– But if a “mic company” markets themselves as being serious about audio quality, yet are happy to sell cheaply-made $49 mics, couldn’t that be seen as disrespectful? One of my friends who runs a boutique pro audio store once said to me, “Don’t confuse my work with what Guitar Center does. I run a pro audio store, and can answer most of the technical questions my customers ask me about the gear I sell. Guitar Center is a music store that passes itself off as a pro audio one – it’s largely staffed with people who aren’t obligated to have an in-depth understanding of their products. Many of them are failed musicians and bedroom producers who work at the store because they can, but the services they offer aren’t on the level of what a pro audio store should be “. That makes me wonder if mic companies aren’t doing the same – passing themselves off as something they aren’t.
I know people who work at music stores that are technically knowledgeable about audio, and so I wouldn’t throw them all under the bus as a group. I do love a genuine pro audio dealer, but I think it’s a perfectly natural progression for someone to start from a position of ignorance and progress towards understanding. The first pair of microphones I used sounded terrible, but I didn’t know any better, and so I bought them. I was acting on bad advice from someone who didn’t know better either. But with time I learned what a good mic sounds like, and I started RecordingHacks to help relieve people of that kind of ignorance. People always have a spectrum of options to choose from, whether they’re buying audio gear, a washing machine or a car. At least Guitar Center makes a lot of options available to people, and I find that hard to criticize.
With regards to mic companies that make cheap mics, I’ll just say this: they’re trying to serve their customers. But I’ve had company founders lie to me about their products, which is perhaps more in line with what you’re talking about. I had one founder insist to me that he’d designed a particular microphone from scratch, but when I compared it with competing products, I find them to be identical, and all of them were made in Shanghai. Companies led by people like that tend to not last very long.
– One last question about MicParts: if the business of selling DIY mic kits has been successful for you, why aren’t the bigger mic companies trying to acquire your company so they can scale it for a global market?
Because part of the magic of DIY mics is their low price tag. If a bigger company were to buy MicParts and try to scale the business for a global audience, they would have to advertise, shoot demo videos and get celebrity endorsers, all of which is expensive. So they would go from selling DIY kits at bargain prices, to being yet another expensive mic company. Our mics are inexpensive because we don’t do those things. Although we have famous users, we don’t have celebrity endorsers who get paid to say nice things about us. But Greg Wells uses our mics, and Rob Schnapf just bought a kit from us recently. We don’t do any print advertising either. A half-page ad in Tape Op magazine costs $1200, and we’d have to sell a lot of mic kits to pay for that.
The other factor is distribution. To scale any retail business, the manufacturer would have to work through retailers, and perhaps also distributors. Distributors typically ask for a 50% discount from the manufacturer, even when buying in bulk, and retailers want 20% – 40%. So my $350 mic kits would have to cost $700 because the consumer now has to pay for all the markups. A major reason why our kits are affordable is that we don’t have retailer or distributor margins, and we sell directly to the consumer through our website.
– Let’s talk about your latest company, Roswell Pro Audio. Can you tell me about that?
Sure. After several years of work with MicParts, I took the best of those products and developed them into finished commercial microphones, which I now sell under the brand name of “Roswell Pro Audio”. I’d learned a lot from my DIY work with things like capsule testing, circuit modifications and parts upgrades. I also knew the sonic difference between things like using a 50 millimeter mic body versus a 60 millimeter one, and a three-layer grille mesh versus a two-layer one. So my team and I applied that kind of knowledge to the Roswell product line to build unique mics at different price points.
We try not to make “me too ” products. A lot of companies release mics that they claim are Neumann U47 clones, but believe me, if it doesn’t have a Telefunken VF14 tube inside, then it’s not a U47. Also, the U47 wasn’t made in China for $89, so that should be an immediate red flag. Roswell Pro Audio certainly draws on vintage mics for inspiration, but we build our products by combining components to create unique new designs. Hence the Roswell slogan, “Science, Not Fiction”, because we’re trying to create something new that fills a unique niche.
– What was it like in Roswell’s first year, when you had to create relationships with dealers and market the company?
I had relationships with dealers already, thanks to my work with RecordingHacks. Going to trade shows for years had brought me a network of people that I could lean on for introductions to other dealers. For example, Vintage King does a lot of business for us, and my relationship with them came about through industry connections from trade shows.
Other aspects of starting Roswell were more challenging, but I’ve learned that such things are just mysteries that need to be solved. Some of them are generic, like figuring out how to do payroll and sales tax, whilst others are specific to the industry, like sourcing certain audio components. We keep a fairly staggering list of components on hand, and we’ve had to figure out how to source a lot of boutique-quality parts economically. There’s no handbook for that.
(Below: A live recording using only Roswell microphones)
– Can you tell me about Roswell’s different mic models? Let’s start with the Mini K47.
The word “Mini” refers to the size of the mic, whilst the “K47” refers to the capsule design. The original K47 was invented by Neumann in the 1940s, and was used in arguably the most famous vocal mic in history, the U47. The innovation of the Mini K47 is that it combines the K47 capsule with modern electronics in a simple form factor. So the mic is lightweight and easy to position. Also, the Mini K47 has a high output level, meaning it’s happy to work with an inexpensive pre-amp. It doesn’t require much post-processing either on most sources, so you don’t have to be an expert mixer to make it sound good. Obviously, no mic sounds good on every source, but we’ve had people report great results on a large variety of sources with this mic. Piano and overheads are two of the most commonly-cited favorite sources, with guitar cabinets coming in third place. But it also sounds good on mandolin, acoustic guitar and steel guitar. Room mics are another great application. I wouldn’t use it on a kick drum or snare though, as it’s too sensitive for that.
– When you rattle off such a large number of recording sources, don’t you think that you sound like the mic companies you mentioned before, who say “Our new mic sounds great on guitar, bass, drums and 20 other sources ” ?
Yeah, I do worry about that, but I’m actually quoting my customers here. I shouldn’t be the guy who claims what his mic sounds good on, but I can report what my customers say to me. Here’s an example: Jimmy Heffernan is a well-known steel guitar player in Nashville. He didn’t own a Mini K47, but whilst doing a session at someone else’s studio, it was used to record his guitar. He liked the sound so much that he emailed me the next day and said, “I love this mic. I want one, and I want to be a dealer “. To my knowledge, that mic had never been used to record steel guitar, but I now tell people that it works for that because a famous Nashville session player loves it, and he sold it to others who also love it on steel guitar.
Here’s another example: The guy who later became Roswell’s Director of Sales initially reached out to me because he had tried a pair of Mini K47s on his piano, and his jaw dropped. He contacted me and said, “I usually spend an hour fighting with the mics, pre-amps and compressors to get the sound I want. But with these mics, I only had to adjust the position once, and they sounded great “. So now the Mini K47s are his go-to mics for pianos.
The examples are endless: Ross Hogarth uses the Mini K47 as his drum room mic. For some people, the drum room is something you blend in sparingly with the rest of the kit, but for Ross it’s the main part of his drum sound. He now relies on the Mini K47 so much that he asked the engineer at Sunset Sound to buy a pair for himself, just in case Ross’ pair wasn’t available when he booked the studio. I’ve never used the Mini K47 on drum rooms or pianos myself, so these words are based on the testimony of my customers. So to answer your question, yes it’s a risk to say what I say, but it’s not my testimony that matters, but rather what other people are saying.
(Below: A single Mini K47 on grand piano)
– Would you say the Mini K47 is a colored mic? Also, how do you keep its price so low at $300?
You can’t use a K47 capsule and not have any color, since it’s forward-sounding in the upper-mids. So the mic has a bump in the 4 kHz – 5 kHz region. That bump complements drum overheads, piano overheads, guitar cabs and certain types of vocals, so it’s a very useful coloration.
It’s a challenge to keep the price so low, and to be honest, we don’t make much money off the Mini K47. The market is very crowded at that price point, but we think of the mic as our calling card. It’s a way for us to build brand recognition and it’s worked very successfully in that regard, since almost anyone can afford it. So it’s become our best-selling mic, and we keep the price artificially low, even though we lose a lot of its profit margin.
– The Delphos is another mic that Roswell sells, and it’s priced at $900. Tell me about that one.
The Delphos is a mic that was designed to sound neutral, yet still have a characteristic tone to it, which is a difficult combination, and a lot of engineering went into achieving that. When reviewers first heard it, they said it sounded like a vintage FET mic, which I take as a compliment because we’re not using a transformer or a circuit that’s normally associated with a “vintage sound”. So the Delphos offers a nice tonality without coloring the sound, which is why it’s become a favorite vocal mic from many producers.
Coloration in a mic is usually created by the capsule, which is represented by bumps in the frequency response graph. Another source of color could be harmonics. In general, even-order harmonics sound good because they’re in key with the fundamental frequency, whilst odd-order ones generally aren’t in key, and sound less appealing. The Delphos doesn’t use any of these methods of coloration, and the response is fairly flat up to 10 kHz, but through careful component selection we were able to make the mic sound full anyway.
– What led to the recent release of the Delphos II?
The Delphos II introduced several upgrades, with no change to the price of the mic. The first Delphos had cardioid and omni pickup patterns, to which we’ve added a figure-eight. We’ve also given the mic a bigger-sized body, which was partly a design choice. The mic’s DC circuitry has been completely redesigned too, because we found ways to create a more stable power supply while reducing the ultrasonic noise within the circuit. But we kept the audio circuit of the original Delphos largely intact.
– You offer the Mini K47 as a matched pair, but not the Delphos II. Why is that?
That’s really just a packaging decision. We can definitely make matched pairs of our other studio mics too, upon request. We understand that certain musicians, like pianists and drummers, want matched pairs because it gives them superior spatial imaging in their recordings, but some manufacturers limit their matching specifications in a way that makes no sense to me. Some only match within the range of 300 Hz – 8 kHz, which leaves a lot of room for audible differences between such microphones. When we match mics, it’s to within 0.5 dB in sensitivity and 1.5 dB in frequency response, from 50 Hz – 15 kHz.
– I heard that the Delphos mic used to be called the “Aurora”? What led to the name change?
For a brief time, we had a microphone called the “Aurora”. It was picked up by Vintage King, and they did a large email blast about it. But another company already had a product called “The Aurora”. It wasn’t a mic, but they still weren’t happy about us using a similar name. They claimed to have a trademark for “Aurora”, which I believe was false, but I didn’t have the budget to fight them in court and preferred to spend my resources on making microphones rather than arguing about product names. So I abandoned the name, though at no small cost, since we already had hundreds of mics with “Aurora” printed on it. But we took that opportunity to upgrade the product’s features. The Aurora had a matte-black finish that was less appealing than what the Delphos now has, which is a four-stage enamel paint finish. We also did some internal upgrades and tuning changes to the Delphos, which ultimately became a better product than the Aurora.
– Your final studio mic is the Colares, which is priced at $1250. Can you talk to me about that one?
The Colares was designed to be a big-sounding vocal microphone, and is inspired by the Telefunken Ela M 251. Unlike the 251, our mic doesn’t have a vacuum tube unit. I wanted to make something that has the same character as a tube microphone, but without the complexity and expense that comes with it. I could have just built a tube mic, but not at a reasonable price, and so I aimed to deliver the same quality of tone with a solid-state circuit.
The quality of sound that a good tube circuit delivers is due to the creation of even-order harmonics, and there’s a way to create those in a solid-state circuit, although it requires careful component selection. Some people who spend too much time on audio forums assume that the only thing you need to create that sound is to buy a certain transformer – that’s not true. There are things apart from the transformer that also define the sound of a tube mic. So for the Colares we used a special capsule, a particular model of JFET, carefully selected capacitors, and a specific transformer, all of which contributed to the sound we were after.
I wanted this mic to sound big and bold, which is a sound that’s hard to get, especially for bedroom producers that work on a budget. Typically, they’d have to spend $2000+ on a certain type of tube mic to get a 251-type of sound. Unfortunately, a $600 knock-off that says “251” on the front won’t get the job done. A legitimate 251-esque sound costs a lot of money to achieve, unless you can find a way to do it without the tube and power supply.
(Below: Vocals and guitar recorded through a single Colares mic)
What are some of the challenges in making good tube mics today?
Well, the challenge with tubes is that all the good vintage ones are gone. The ones you can buy on eBay are rejects from someone who already went through his collection and picked out the good ones. So then you have to find modern tubes, some of which are okay, but it still involves a selection process; someone has to plug them in, warm them up and listen to them. After the good ones get picked out, you then have to condition them for 72 hours or more, to make sure they don’t die two weeks after the customer buys them. So a legitimate tube mic has all of that cost built in, whilst cheap tube mics don’t, which makes them a risk to buy.
Rather than make a tube mic, we wanted to focus on a solid-state one that offers a similar type of sound, but I started to think that the big sound of the Colares might be too much of a good thing, so I built a saturation control into the mic. When you engage the pad switch, it not only lowers your output by 10 db, but it also lowers the harmonic content by 12 db – 14 db. So you can add 10 db of make-up gain in your pre-amp, which gives you a cleaner version of the same sound, with less harmonics.
– When I listen to your Soundcloud audio demos of the Mini K47 and Colares, the difference between the mics are considerable. The Mini K47 may sound considerable when compared to other mics in its price range, but in a vacuum, the Colares outperforms it. So why does Roswell spend so much marketing and promotion on the Mini K47, rather than the Colares?
No one mic is the best for every source. If you record a band and put the Colares on every single instrument, from the guitar and bass cab to drum overheads, vocals and acoustic guitar, I think your mix engineer would cut your throat (laughs). Anyone who works as a mixer knows that there’s a limited amount of sonic bandwidth in any mix; the kick drum often fights with the bass guitar, and if the bass guitar is a five- or six-string then it starts fighting with the low registers of the electric guitar. The synthesizer probably fights with all other sounds because it can cover the whole frequency spectrum. People who mix pop records with pianos in them will tell you that they roll off everything from the mids downwards, and if you ever soloed the piano track, it would sound terrible. All you hear is the upper-mids and high end, and it doesn’t sound like a piano anymore. But in the full mix it sounds great because it cuts through. If you’re recording a small jazz band, then maybe you can get away with putting the same mic on bass, guitar and drums, but generally, if you use the same mic on every source in a dense mix, you risk saturating certain bands of frequencies where that microphone peaks. Typically, you’ll get better results if you use a variety of different mics, so that no single range of frequencies is over-emphasized.
Regarding the Colares, it was designed to make a source cut through a mix because it generates a large amount of second-order harmonics, which can make a source sound bigger and more present without needing more gain. So Roswell’s goal is to make different-sounding microphones for different sources.
I guess I’m not aware that we’ve consciously decided to put a marketing emphasis on the Mini K47, but that mic is like the gateway drug for potential Roswell customers; if they buy it, chances are they’ll come back and buy a Delphos and a Colares later. So in that sense it’s probably smart to spend a bigger piece of the marketing budget on the Mini K47.
– You’ve said earlier that the Mini K47 sounds good even with a cheap pre-amp because of the high output levels it generates. Can you explain that a bit more?
Sure. If you need a large amount of pre-amp gain to get a workable signal from your mic, then the pre-amp has a lot of opportunity to improve or degrade the sound. It’s generally true that inexpensive pre-amps sound good up to a certain percentage of their gain stage, but if you turn the gain knob past 60% or so, the pre-amp starts to sound noisy and distorted. For the vast majority of home recordists, this is a perfectly fine trade-off, because they can buy a $99 USB pre-amp that sounds great at low gain levels. So because Roswell mics have fairly high output levels, they minimize the need for high pre-amp gain, which would have been unfavorable with a cheap pre-amp. Also, we’ve built great tone into the microphones themselves, so there’s no need to buy a boutique pre-amp to sweeten the signal chain.
– Can I ask what some of Roswell’s biggest challenges have been thus far?
Our challenges mainly come from being a new company. We’ve only been around for five years, whereas many of our competitors have been around for fifty years, and it’s hard to compete with the brand recognition they have. Another thing that works against us is that we’re not pretending to make vintage clones. If Roswell just claimed to be making a U47 clone, then our mics would be way easier to sell, since everyone wants a U47, and a lot of unsophisticated customers want to believe you can buy one for $600. They don’t understand all the compromises that have to be made to bring a $600 tube mic to market. I can’t even bring a $600 tube mic kit to market, much less a completed mic. So we’ve created that challenge for ourselves, but we’re okay with that.
– Thanks for the interview Matthew. What’s next for you guys? Roswell doesn’t sell any dynamic, tube or ribbon mics. Do you have any intention of doing that?
In five years time, Roswell will most likely have a much wider product line. We started with solid-state condenser mics because they’re the most widely-used microphones in most studios. It was the best way to release a product that people could use right away at a reasonable price. No-one else makes a mic like the Mini K47, although some people have tried to copy it and failed. We intend to make tube mics as well, and we have a couple that have been designed, though not yet released.
I can’t share specifics about any future plans. If I do, I’ll have to spend all of my time managing customer expectations. But I can say that Roswell and MicParts have multiple new microphones in the pipeline, at various stages of development. One of my favorite things to do is to design new mics, and I’m blessed to be able to do that for two different companies, so I plan to continue, and there will be a long series of mics coming out from both companies.
(Below: A pair of Delphos’ and Mini K47’s each on piano)