Aston Microphones Starlight by Arthur Stone
Into the Starlight: The Aston Microphones Starlight is a small-diaphragm condenser microphone: the design, high-quality build and components allow for several voicings and filters to manipulate the captured sound at source. A unique feature of the Starlight is it's laser which allows the end fire positioned diaphragm to be 'aimed' at the source with pinpoint accuracy; more importantly, the laser sits on top of a decent professional quality microphone.
Various beta versions or prototypes of the Starlight were filtered through a panel of audio industry experts before the final design was settled on. Specific attention was paid to the voicings, also low noise floor and low distortion. Some mics are the product of an inspired (or possessed) individual; others have a more constructivist origin and judging by Aston's gear, the panel-of-experts system is working.
Price: Stereo pair with Rycote suspension kit £699; Single £349
The laser can elicit two responses: it's a gimmick to sell mics and not really useful; or, the laser is a useful device that extends the microphones capability and utility. My initial reaction was to be suspicious (either as something which might affect sound capture negatively, or, less-likely given Aston's reputation, a gimmick) but in practice the laser is a genuinely useful feature that not only assists the engineer through pinpoint positioning and subsequent improved sound capture, but also it can assist in replicating a previous session e.g. one could photograph the laser positions for later recall. On a more superficial level the laser is also a talking point. It's fun. It's novelty will bemuse clients/artists and perhaps break the ice (but not literally due to it's modest power).
Before proceeding to the mic review I'll just add that the Starlight's laser does not emerge as a long beam (like Star Wars or Glastonbury Pyramid) but merely as a pinpoint (1cm x 1cm @5m) of red laser light on the surface it is aimed at. Standard health and safety applies; don't play with cat's, etc. - not a toy!
My God – it's full of stars: The Starlight mic is a beautifully-engineered object: both stylish (from the near-future) and robust. Talking of stars, Tristan at Aston Microphones mentioned a similarity to the KM184 microphone in fact he said someone 'preferred' the Starlight. Bold.
My initial reaction was: well Tristan would say that – it's just marketing hyperbole or confirmation bias, but the MusicTech reviewer did prefer the Starlight on overheads. Still a 9/10 review though!
Starting (wrongly) from the premise that KM184's exist in a variety of conditions and the commenters had 'bad ones' I tried to balance the equation I had been presented with (which had to account for both subjective opinion and objective facts) in order to write a fair and balanced review for you the reader, Aston and for my own integrity.
Ascertaining the truth was hindered by a lack of physical KM184 and having never used one. I turned to the Gearslutz and found a thread: Neumann KM 84 / KM 184 SHOOTOUT!!!
The shootout is beautifully done by guitarmax_99 (thanks mate!) and compares the Neumann KM184 and its replacement, the KM84. A clear favourite emerges during the thread poll but the comments note favourable qualities in both mics e.g. the 84 is articulate and the 184 warm. I hear the difference between these mics in the Starlight's Vintage and Modern voicings – with a hybrid mode inbetween (which perhaps captures the favourable qualities of both).
I mentioned balancing an equation and the co-efficient is the observation and reporting from KM84/184 users. Whatever the truth, to my ears, I hear the similarity between the Starlight and both the 84 and 184 but I also hear 'the Aston sound' a pleasant plate-like air also present in the Spirit microphone. I think Neumann users could describe differences but it does serve as a guide to the Starlight's character.
I'm gonna make you a star: “Sintering is the process of compacting and forming a solid mass of material by heat or pressure without melting it to the point of liquefaction.” Source: Wikipedia
OK, for us, this means that tiny brass spheres are melted together to form the mic head/capsule cover without losing their own individual shape or integrity. As the sintering process allows control over the uniformity of porousness, this allows control over the sound passing through it and also how the sound behaves inside the capsule head. Sintering also provides good mechanical strength and in the absence of internal supports the sound design can be further manipulated internally.
With the capsule head unscrewed the internal workings were revealed; the membrane is located in the sintered head material – front facing. This confirms Aston's reputation as innovative and committed to engineering excellence. The main body of the mic is the same tumbled stainless-steel as the Origin and Spirit.
Laser beams inside my brain: The laser dot itself is red (650 nanometre wavelength) and has a spot size of 1cm x 1cm at 5m distance. Positioned flat onto a surface it is clear even in bright sunlight but positioned off-axis at an oblique angle the spot is dimmer and blurred and disappears in bright sunlight but is visible with overcast light or curtains drawn. In darker environments the laser is clearly visible. Another factor affecting visibility of the laser dot is the surface material it is reflecting from. For example, the dot can disappear into the weave of an amp fascia but is bright on a flat reflective surface. The dot was clearly visible on the glossed Sitka Spruce body of a Taylor 414ce acoustic guitar but hardly visible on the matte Ebony fingerboard four inches away.
The quality of the 48v power supply can affect the brightness and visibility of the laser: a firewire-powered Focusrite Saffire Pro24DSP provided enough juice for one strong laser (when testing a stereo pair) but when both lasers were switched on the brightness dimmed so much that visibility was a problem in a sunlit room; this might also have implications for the Starlight's performance in a stereo pair. In fairness to Focusrite, an external power-supply should alleviate the issue and it was not an issue with a single Starlight or one laser at a time.
The Sound Devices 702 fully-powered the stereo-pair resulting in bright laser dots clearly visible in bright sunlight.
Due to the flexibility of the Rycote mounting hardware (which has a spongy suspension), I found it difficult at first, to match both laser points symmetrically. With practice and understanding of the control vectors it becomes easier to manage and position the laser dot perfectly.
Laser-level: The published specs show that the frequency plot is remarkably level from 150Hz to 5kHz; beyond these frequencies the Starlight's different voicings (Vintage/Modern/Hybrid) affect the spectrum of response. The discovery here is that although the 150Hz-6kHz is flat, that flatness sounds different for each voicing given the sonic tilt of the different voicings – not just simple EQ presets but active, induction filtering prior to the preamp. The Starlight is not just a mic with different-sounding bass or treble; it's more like 3 different mics and capsules. When you factor in the 3 pad positions ( -20dB/-10dB/0dB) and 3 filter positions (Off/80Hz/140Hz) then that's a lot of tonal variation for a small package and relatively small cost.
The materials and build quality is superb. The switches too have a lovely smooth mechanical firmness. The only slight let-down in operation are the (ironically) laser-cut legends next to the switches: the 2mm dark grey legends are clear in good light at the right angle of view but disappear in bright light or in shadow. This was less of a problem on the multi-polar Aston Spirit due to the left-centre-right orientation but the Starlight has 4 switches with 11 available positions in an inch and a half (40mm) line. Although it is compact rather than cramped there is still potential for set-up errors (which will usually occur in a busy session). Personally, given the Starlight's pluses, I could easily live with the legends even if I make the odd error.
Enter the LaserDome: With the mic powered by 48volts and the laser switched on a series of square(?) wave harmonics are present at the DAW input – even with no mic pre gain. Three options: sample it; vary the power supply to control pitch; or, turn off the laser prior to recording. I was relieved to know that nothing had broken when I became aware of the noise. Humour aside; this is something to be aware of and as Aston recommend – turn off the laser before recording. It could be easy in a busy session to record the laser. Looking at you Electronic Instruments forum!
As well as operating as a traditional stereo-pair I was able to 'target' exact positions on amps, drums, guitar, room. I think the Starlight will work on most sources; from what I hear the clear, bright sound will sit well in a mix without too much processing – for example, I don't hear sibilance or harshness and the source is well-defined and articulate.
In addition, to solo artists, engineers, producers and remote applications I can see the Starlight's sonic attributes and laser being of use for film/video, stage and conference use.
In conclusion, after a short review period, I think that the Starlight is a super microphone and a bargain in terms of its material integrity and potential in many applications. If someone doesn't make a hit record with the Starlight I will eat my hat.
Bang-for-buck: 5/5 Solo mic or stereo package 5* although the stereo kit has everything needed apart from cables and mic stand. The Rycote mount is very good quality and not a cheapo ABS-style hodgepodge.
The Starlight will work on a variety of sources which adds to its utility and value.
Ease of use: 5/5 The Starlight is easy to use: point-and-shoot. The design and feature set, the quality of build, assists the workflow. The mounting hardware is quite flexible and springy so it may take a short time to adapt to exact positioning e.g. moving 1cm @2m; it's easy to get the laser aim on target and then the hardware springs back a cm or two off target – but I did start to adapt and found precise positioning easier with use. Solo musicians may need to adapt to pre-positioning instruments in the prime spot for targetting with the laser.
Sound quality: 5/5 I can't really make many comparisons with the mics others have named as similar-sounding e.g. KM184 but it is consistent with both the KM84 and 184 in vintage and modern modes with hybrid having qualities of both. Modern mode is quite bright but not harsh or sibilant. I liked all voices on acoustic guitars and my own vocal – sung and spoken word. I suspect the Starlight will make any source sound great.
The off-axis response is smooth and balanced and it portrays a good balance between source and room (off-axis).
Features: 5/5 The stereo kit is excellent: the mounting hardware is premium-engineered and more than acceptable for this price-bracket and I have no real criticism. The whole kit is lightweight. Windshields and separate mounting brackets are included in addition to the Rycote stereo mounting system.
I think Aston took a risk in adding the laser; naysayers might dismiss it as a gimmick but the real risk is that it overshadows the Starlight's sonic and ergonomic excellence. However, as I quickly found the laser is damn useful, and it is a real evolution of mic technology.
Credits and references:
Sintering - Wikipedia
Starlight - Aston Microphones
Aston Starlight First Review - Laser Guided Accuracy
Photos used with permission of Aston Microphones Ltd.
Additional photos by Arthur Stone