AKG Lyra by Arthur Stone
Introducing...the AKG Lyra: The Lyra USB microphone/interface is part of AKG's new 'Content Creator Series' aimed at a new generation of users familiar with gaming, videocasting, comms, etc. - in addition to making music.
AKG suggest the Lyra as suitable for mobile/field recording, and also web conferencing and VOIP. So, how does the Lyra fare with the more traditional home-studio roles as a mic, preamp, and interface?
In mythology, Lyra repesents the lyre of Orpheus, an instrument that produced sound so beauiful it could charm inanimate objects like "trees, steams and rocks" and could even "quell the voices of the Sirens."
The AKG Lyra aka C44-USB, has a hard act to follow...
Price: £150 approx.
First Impressions: The build-quality is good: tough plastic body and metal-alloy stand. I've seen mic stand attachments of similar build-quality costing as much as the Lyra.
The low centre-of-gravity means a solid, stable base. Stylistically, the Lyra base section reminds me of the anglepoise lamp in that it has a timeless chic that will still look good decades later: in a 50's living room, a 70's boutique, a spaceship console, a beach, a field, or on your desk. It is also a nod to the large RCA ribbon microphones and AKG's C414. The AKG designers have done a great job especially given the stable base, positional flexibility, portability, and robustness.
The physical controls (continuous rotary dials for headphone and preamp level; notched rotary switch for mic pick-up position; backlit push button mute) are good quality. Everything feels tight and smooth with no gain-bunching on the dials.
Underneath the mic body, a mini USB2.0 port connects to your device; and also a 3.5mm stereo mini-jack output for headphones. Although it is theoretically possible to connect the headphone out into a powered loudspeaker/monitor system I would not recommend this (nor does AKG); the issue is feedback (into the mic) and possibly ground loops as the Lyra is bus-powered. In this case, AKG made a good decision to stick with headphone out only. The headphone output is the round-trip signal: mic>device>headphone out (rather than the wet/dry control of many interfaces); in practice I noticed no latency or glitches, and although latency is device-specific, most new devices have enough power to work seamlessly.
In Audacity DAW I was able to select a separate output to a studio monitor rather than the Lyra so there is some degree of flexibility in terms of workflow and potential connections.
Smooth as butter automatic install. System requirements say Windows 8 and above but I also ran on W7 with no issues. YMMV so rely on the manufacturers requirements.
On the W7 (and W8) PC's the drivers showed as separate mic and headphone drivers. I found this was an issue with DAW's that look for a single audio driver so, for example, I couldn't use Propellerhead Reason as I had to choose either driver.
The Lyra comes bundled with Ableton Live Lite and this allows for separate I/O drivers.
In Use: Plug-and-play. Easy. The controls are intuitive for those users with the basics of audio gear; there are clear instructions for newbies.
What is remarkable is the idea of a (tracking) studio-in-a-box: mic-array, preamp, and analogue-to-digital converter.
Normally I use a range of separate high-end units; one reason is the audio-quality, also the range of applications e.g. mic with vocal, or mic'd guitar amp, or bass DI, or synth DI plus mic'd PA track.
To be clear, the Lyra is not competing with this high-end gear in terms of audio-quality; and it'd be unfair to expect that at 1/100th of the cost. I think from a high-end perspective the Lyra is more of a basic prosumer interface, even compared to something like the UA Arrow, although the mic array is very well implemented.
That said, mojo is king; the Lyra is not going to 'hold anyone back' in terms of it's sonic capability but it does have sonic limitations that separate mic and preamp and interface, do not have. Like most gear, there's a sweet-spot and if the user finds this (through luck, trial or error) then the Lyra does have charm. Thankfully Lyra's physical design on the rotating stand makes it easy to position.
For me, the Lyra suited that vocal and acoustic guitar-style, 60's - 70's folk, and also journeyman blues - a homage to the tape-recordings of Alan Lomax - in terms of subtle voicing: clarity, warmth, detail. A couple of audio examples: a solo acoustic guitar (Taylor 414ce) and vocal/guitar (Martin D15). The first is a mp3 in the FRONT position; the second is a WAV in the FRONT + WIDE position.
So the Lyra has a little character. It is quite a flexible mic too; the polar patterns work as intended for a variety of roles. The character and polar effectiveness changed when mounted onto a mic stand as this allowed more air and less object reflection and resonance than the desk stand; the Lyra is sensitive to what you stand it on.
In general, the Lyra mic has a solid, tight bass; smooth top-end; nothing floppy or saggy; reminiscent of earlier, grander microphones (e.g. RCA); characterful but still quite clean.
The headphone amp (at 16 Ohms impedance) sounded a little bit restricted, less open than higher-end monitoring but was less fatiguing than even some mid-priced gear. Not a reference headphone sound but not cheap-sounding either. I tested with AKG K702's and a couple of earbuds and levels were OK and on the safe side (which is good); some headphones might lack level.
Adaptive Capsule Array: Four fixed capsules are angled to cover 360 degrees; the position selector enables the capsule array to be directionally-sensitive (rather than the capsules rotating mechanically). Clever stuff.
AKG use other terms such as 'internal element overload protection' - which I assume is some kind of limiter. AKG also say: "Lyra automatically reduces noise and improves signal levels for optimal performance' - so, despite the lack of info about this tech, I'm guessing it's an in-built compressor/expander.
There is also a built-in shockmount suspension to protect the capsule from vibration but care should be taken not to vibrate the mic body itself (the sound of which can give the Lyra a slightly boxy character) especially when mic stand-mounted.
Hexagon Logic: The metal-alloy basket enclosing the microphone capsule array is perforated with hexagonal holes. The Aston SwiftShield review covered the benefits of hexagonal design in-depth: it is structurally strong, mechanically-efficient, and distributes air-pressure evenly across its surface - this reduces pops and ss’s without muffling the audio as traditional cloth popshields can. AKG describe this as a 'diffuser.'
In practise, there was no danger of sibilance or plosives: the combination of onboard electronics and filter design produced a good clear signal - this ease of use is a strong plus.
A Newbies Perspective: Recently my associate Ian the Pirate enquired about a microphone for his guitar (a heavily-relic'd Spanish-style acoustic from the charity shop). He also wanted to record soundscapes of the sea.
The Lyra seemed perfect for the task: a portable self-contained recording rig, bus-powered from an attached device. The polar patterns would suit a variety of environments. The Lyra would be able to record speech and song too. Although the Lyra is not a weatherproof mic it can work indoors or outdoors like any other mic if care is taken to protect the gear.
If the Lyra is used for music-recording and placed in a good position in the room then, with the polar-patterns, it's possible to get decent results.
A Critics' Perspective: Set-up (and familiarity) is crucial to getting the best of the polar-patterns given that the room can affect the recording adversely too...so a little experience or experimentation will bring the best out of the Lyra.
I noticed that the surface I placed the Lyra on impacted the sound: an empty cardboard box underneath the Lyra resulted in a slight cardboardness in the recording. So a solid, calculated position will get the best.
One issue was the body sound; this is evident when handling. Although the build quality is good, the plastic of the body readily transmits sound and, once heard, I could hear a little of that character in the recording too - even when no handling was taking place. Not sure if the body shell is resonating sympathetically with the recorded signal adding boxiness to the recorded sound. This was less of an issue recording more distant sources e.g. over a metre/3ft.
The polar-patterns make the Lyra suitable for group recordings bluegrass-style with a central omni mic that the performers gather round and self-mix by distance of source to mic. Although not omni, the Lyra's wide stereo setting covers a 320 degree field in good detail.
Style over content? Rather than a low end mic in high-end clothing it's fair to describe the Lyra as having great design and build for a budget mic. Well thought-out and genuinely useful features.
The Lyra isn't a high-end mic either (although it may superficially appear to be) even in comparison to similar-priced mics the Lyra's performance isn't exceptional (like for example, an SM57 through a good preamp) and it has more character than a clean, true mic.
Unlike most other mics in the price-range, the Lyra has a built-in preamp,a analogue-to-digital converter, headphone output with associated software control for volume; four polarity patterns; and a built-on stand of great quality. So, in a nutshell, it's difficult to make a direct comparison between lower-cost mics and the Lyra which is essentially a complete recording package.
This all-in-one format has advantages and disadvantages. On the surface the concept might seem more appealing for novices, creators, pod/video-casters, and gamers, than traditional studio territory but the all-in-one interface does segue well with studio peripheral uses e.g. related-media, remote non-critical recording, second/home studio use.
Where the Lyra falls a little short (for music recording) is in the desktop position: the rear position is likely to be facing a wall or desk furniture and these reflections from the rear might adversely affect the sound with incoherence, muddiness or resonance. It's a bit hit and miss, not so much of an issue on a clear desk with the Lyra a metre from the wall, but something to be aware of. Newbies will get the best from the Lyra by experimenting with position.
Conclusion: An all-in-one microphone, preamp, and converter - plus headphone amp. Polar-patterns on the mic. USB powered and data transfer. All for £150. Reasonable quality for the price.
It makes creative recording easy for beginners or small-footprint recordists who don't want to commit to a traditional audio interface.
Can AKG's Lyra charm the Sirens like Orpheus's lyre? Yes, in the sweet-spot of source and room positioning.
Sound quality: 4/5 Don't be put off by the score. Find the sweet-spot. Characterful rather than clean. Good range of tonality availability based on mic patterns and proximity/preamp gain; but also easy to get good results quickly.
Ease-of-use: 4/5 Easy to use effectively but that doesn't quite get the best from the Lyra.
Features: 5/5 Multi-pattern mic; preamp; converter; headphone amp. Small, compact footprint.
Bang-for-buck: 5/5 Fair. Good value. Entry to music-making. Great utility mic.
Credits and Links:
Images used courtesy of AKG; additional images by Arthur Stone.