Aston Microphones Spirit by Arthur Stone
That's the Spirit: The Spirit is an award-winning large-diaphragm condenser (LDC) microphone from Aston Microphones Ltd. It features a high-pass filter, pads and 3 polar-patterns. Priced for low mid-market it's a few steps up from budget-mics and possesses some of the capabilities of high-end mics.
The specs suggest the Spirit is a flexible and sensitive mic – not the quietest in terms of self-noise but certainly respectable (U87 ballpark) and acceptable for normal studio sound pressure levels. The hardware itself is first-class, well-engineered and innovative. Built to last a lifetime.
The Spirit is designed and manufactured in the UK and it does embody local engineering tradition whilst pushing things forward and not relying on design cliches. Whilst Aston is itself a newish company, it's team has extensive experience in the pro audio field, and it's stated ethos is to bring new and unique products to a crowded generic market.
The Spirit LDC is the second mic in Aston's catalogue: following the fixed-cardioid Origin (reviewed by Dowsed here on Gearslutz). The Starlight advanced pencil mic is Aston's third mic and Gearslutz looks forward to reviewing it in the coming weeks. Aston also manufacture the Halo reflection filter and that review will be published next month.
Spirit in the Sky: The etymology of the word 'spirit' has it's root in the word for “breath” as far back as early Proto-Indo-European languages. The appropriateness of the name Spirit for this particular microphone is furthered in the context of Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica, in which the last paragraph makes a distinction between 'spirit' as a form of subtle matter rather than gross matter. This correlation between material form and subtle matter is evident in the Aston Spirit: somehow it adds something more to the purely electro-mechanical process...it adds mystery. It almost felt as if I was raising my voice in a cathedral.
In use (Beach test): I took the Aston Spirit mic, a Sound Devices 702 portable recorder and a mic stand to the beach for an outdoor tracking/testing session. Flying blind, with no monitoring besides the Sound Devices level meters, I tracked acoustic guitar (Martin D15) and vocal. I tracked first with the Spirit in omni on guitar and a DPA 4066 omni-headset on vocal; then with a 4066 taped to the guitar body underneath the 12th fret and the Spirit in cardioid mode on vocal.
The standout points on reviewing the audio were: how good the Spirit sounds in the pocket; source-mic position is important; and, ambient sound is captured beautifully.
In the first take the Spirit's omni mode captures a nice balanced level with no proximity effect, even though I'm swinging the guitar round like a wandering mariachi. The omni mode is quite forgiving of source position but lacks the presence of the cardioid and figure-of-eight.
The cardioid mode is less forgiving of position, as heard in the second take and this is clear as I move in and out of the cardioid field. At the end of the second take, as I move in and out, the depth and potential of the Spirit is clearly heard.
I thought the Spirit captured the background seaside ambience well and I'd use it for soundscapes; it should also pick up the sound of a good room well (and it did).
After a first use I realised the Spirit had some soul.
In use (Home-studio test): I used the Spirit mainly with the Halo reflection filter in a variety of patterns, I liked omni which had a slightly compressed vibe within the semi-confines of the Halo, and cardioid for a more conventional sound. I tested on: vocal; spoken word; acoustic guitar; amp'ed lapsteel, electric guitar and bass guitar; hand drums; and percussion.
Initial use showed that the Spirit worked well on a variety of the usual studio sources in addition to vocals. Again, I was impressed with the Spirit, nothing remarkable stood out and it captured the character and liveliness of source well and without fuss or drawing attention to itself.
Referring to the Spirit's frequency/dB chart we can see a range of voicings:
In all a lot of ground is covered and with the pads and 80Hz high-pass filter there is flexibility for a range of sources and situations. Indoors the switch legends became difficult to read but the positions can be easily learnt so not really an issue with familiarity but an occasional/first-time user may need a magnifying glass.
There is a learning curve: the specifics of how the polar patterns and bass proximity responds to given situations but this is just a function of the mics flexibility and sonic architecture. It is deep and responds to reverb wonderfully. Personally, as a singer, I think this mic would add to my confidence and encourage me further; it is neutral but imparts a richness and subtle character.
The audio files below were tracked via the Spirit into a BAE1073mpf preamp>RADAR Studio A/D>Propellerheads Reason DAW; one set of files are dry, the fx files are passed through the Softube Console 1 (E-series channel)>U-He Uhbik A reverb>Softube Tape>Ozone Maximizer and rendered to 44.1/16 WAV.
Spirit of the Radio: The polar patterns have great voicings but need to be learnt. The figure-of-eight pattern is reminiscent of old radio - small and far away but still present. The omni is smooth and elegant and nothing jumps out although it will pick-up a bad-sounding room in terms of bloom, mud or boxiness but no points lost as that's a room issue and not the Spirit. Don't shoot the messenger. The presence dip in omni mode should also be noted.
The cardioid pattern is a little narrower than some of the fixed cardioid mics I've used, so more care with placement is needed.
Physically the Origin is slightly shorter than the Spirit but both share the same design features; the Origin is fixed cardioid and has an electronically-balanced output whereas the Spirit is multi-polar and has a transformer-balanced output. That difference, even with the Spirit in cardioid mode, is evident in the Spirit's slightly-grainy harmonic character albeit very, very subtle. The Origin sounds cleaner, fresher and perkier in comparison, and as Dowsed noted, it needed a coloured preamp to bring out the bottom-end. The Spirit is more full-bodied even with a clean pre; in fact, I prefer the Spirit with a clean pre; it really shone with the more neutral Sound Devices 702 preamps where the Spirit's subtle character and tonality stood out on its own. Very beautiful. With overly-coloured pre's, some dilution of the Spirit's character may happen, if pushed.
Dowsed likened the Origin's character to industry standards. I can't compare the Spirit to particular high-end mics as I've never used those brands personally; it does have the mojo I would expect from those brands. Perhaps more important is how it sounds. Rather than make comparisons to mics in my own collection or other brands, I'd prefer to say: that's the Aston Sound (more than a 'poor man's 87'). I did check the Gearslutz/Sweetwater Mic shootout and the Spirit does sound very similar to a U87i , in terms of initial character at least. I'm sure differences in character emerge with familiarity (I hear some already in the low-mids) – to me it sounded more like a Chandler-Manley cross, but listen for yourself.
Smells Like Teen Spirit: I think the Spirit is a great mic for the DAW age: the voicings (tweaked with polar-pattern, placement, HPF and pads) are well-suited to the DAW with the transformer harmonics being added at source. All that's needed is a clean pre in the sweet spot and even a modest or budget interface can do this well nowadays.
Aston innovation creates convenience too: no need for a pop-filter or suspension. In a vibration-free environment it's a great all-in-one. I didn't do vibration tests and didn't notice any artifacts in normal use (wood and carpeted floors, foot-tapping, movement, etc.). That said, as a long-term Rycote user, Aston have good deals on mic suspension for more demanding acoustic environments.
Aesthetically, the Spirit has what I'd describe as a 'minimalist steam-punk' vibe; but, the wave-form head also protects the capsule area and the chaotic 'random weave' wire tames the consonant pops and sibilant sss's effectively – so it's not just show but function too.
It'd be presumptuous of me to offer advice without knowing the readers needs, experience and budget but I wish I'd had access to an affordable mic with the Spirit's sonic capability when I started audio engineering. With the pads, polar patterns and filter, the Spirit will cover a lot of applications very well; a great flexible mic for the sonic toolkit.
Sound quality: 5/5 This mic really perked my ears – it has something special in there, with time I could have learnt to exploit that. The subtle character of the Spirit reminded me of the Manley Reference mic (in the Gearslutz-Sweetwater mic comparison) with a hint of Chandler. Close in character to the U87i too. OK. not making direct comparisons, but it gives an idea of flavour. I think it'll work on a wide range of genres and material.
Features: 5/5 Everything you'd need to capture a great recording. Choice of polar patterns, pads and a HPF; also inbuilt pop filter and internal suspension. Despite the absence of the traditional 'cats-cradle' style of microphone mounting, the Spirit's internal suspension worked very well. Aston also offer a Rycote Lyre suspension system and this is something I have used with other mics for a few years now and I'd recommend one especially if vibration is likely when recording.
Bang-for-buck: 5/5 The Spirit is spot on, a great mic for the money; in terms of voicing and character, a step at least above even similarly-priced mics. I did get the impression of an expensive sound, one that I would associate with more expensive microphones. As always shop around for best value and bundle deals.
Ease of use: 5/5 The Spirit nearly lost a point for unclear legends indicating the switch positions on the mic body: 4mm etched symbols on semi-reflective silver. I guess it's OK once memorised but easy to make mistakes (as I discovered). It seems a shame to pick on this, but you the reader need to know, as does Aston need the feedback. The visual identity problem is compounded when the Spirit is mounted in the Halo as it restricts the light as well as sound waves.
Long-term, I think the general aesthetic is so pleasing that I could live with it. Despite the need for attention when positioning switches or learning polar-patterns I think the Spirit's tonal flexibility outweighs any potential lost points.
In good Spirit: Word is that musician Noel Gallagher has been complimentary about the Spirit; I really understood his enthusiasm when I tried it. There's something special in the Spirit's character and voicing. If it's good enough for Noel (and a multitude of fellow recording artists) then, at the price, its an accessible bargain.
As a Gearslut I appreciate that the microphone and its attributes have common ground that, whether pro or hobbyist, we can all appreciate. The Aston Spirit is not an engineering solution – it's an audio engineering solution; designed and appreciated by audio engineers.
It's refreshing to experience something 'designed by committee' – in this case, a panel of industry experts – actually working so well. The whole package – the 'Aston experience' if you like, has a well-thought out quality feel. Tough enough for the studio and beyond but still having a delicacy of form; and this extends to the sonics too.
In addition to my recommending the Spirit, I'd like to congratulate the team at Aston Microphones Ltd. Definitely a mic-manufacturer to keep an eye on; in James Young's words: “...I’d like Aston to be the British equivalent of Neumann in their heyday: iconic, must-have products, sought after on a reputation gained by excellence...” That's the Spirit!
Credits and References:
Spirit - Aston Microphones
Neumann U87 reference data
Sweetwater Mic Shootout
Gearslutz-Sweetwater Mic Shootout thread
Gearslutz Aston Origin review
MusicTech interview with James Young
Photos used with permission from Aston Microphones Ltd.
Additional photos by Arthur Stone