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Straight Ballin', or Just a Gutter Ball: Acoustic Treatment at the Mic

I am thinking about buying the [foam sphere that surrounds the mic], but I am seeing very mixed reviews. I remember your name on a post about them a long time ago but I can’t remember if you said they were good. I searched for the post but I did not find it. I am sorry asking you to repeat yourself but what do you think about it?
Sincerely,
Darrell

 

Hello Darrell,


You’re right, this is something I’ve commented on quite a bit, because I have very strong feelings about it. I often speak about value, where I will criticize products for being overpriced or overrated. And I’m sometimes critical of specific aspects of a product design. But out of respect for differences in taste and opinion, I rarely flat-out condemn a product. This is one of those times where I break that rule.


The [foam sphere that surrounds the mic] is absolute snake oil. It. Doesn’t. Work. Neither do any of its clones or other similar products. It doesn’t work, because it can’t work. It isn’t a matter of taste, it’s a matter of physical laws. Don’t you find it interesting that the [foam sphere that surrounds the mic] is a fairly recent product? Isn’t it odd that no one thought to create it sooner? Well, they did. Similar techniques have been attempted for decades. They were just never produced and marketed, because they didn’t work either. The only difference, is how much easier it is to trick home studio owners, than actual studio owners. 


Some years ago, there was a rumor that using a green marker on the edge of a CD would improve the sound. It was so widespread, people had their own favorite brands, each one convinced their choice was better than the others. A couple companies even released their own brand of markers, with ink supposedly formulated specifically for CD sound quality. The process was called “greening”, and the so-called audiophile-grade markers were expensive. This was all possible because the average consumer had no understanding of digital technology, and companies took advantage. We now know it was all horseshit. Aside from turning the edge of the CD green, it did nothing.


We have something similar happening here. Acoustics is a tricky subject, and home recordists simply don’t understand enough to see the absurdity in the product. In fact, some audio engineers don’t either. Being able to use the equipment well, doesn’t necessarily mean understanding how it works under the hood. And that’s okay, but when horseshit begins to spread, it’s the responsibility of those of us who do know, to share that information. 


Much earlier in my recording journey, I tried similar approaches. Most solutions were homemade, but there was one commercially-available product, long before the [foam sphere that surrounds the mic] hit the market. None of them worked. Don’t get me wrong, they all did something. But it wasn’t a beneficial something, nor a solution to any problem. It seemed to me, they often made things worse. I now understand why. While it’s important to me to share the reasons for people not to waste their time with homemade ideas, it much more important to me that people don’t spend their money on a commercially-made product that doesn’t work. Let’s face it, most people who buy this product, don’t have a lot of extra money lying around. If they did, they wouldn’t be seeking an alternative to proven solutions. I know what it’s like to save and stretch for every studio expense, which is why it’s personally offensive to see a company take money from people, who could really do something beneficial with that cash.


So why doesn’t it work? The basic reason is, you cannot treat the mic for a problem that doesn’t occur within the mic. Reflections are a byproduct of the room the mic is in, not the mic itself. The common thought is by placing the mic into an absorptive apparatus, it will create separation between the mic and the space. And that part is somewhat true, actually. But the part that’s missing from that logic, is the sound source is still in the space. To capture the source, the mic must also capture the space where the source exists, along with any noise and reflection. 


It gets even more complex than that, though. Almost always, a directional mic is used for VO. Most of the time, mics used for voice, have a cardioid pattern. That means they are designed not to pick up sound from behind the mic. Without any treatment, they reject sounds that originate from the rear of the mic. The cardioid pattern relies on sound waves entering the back of the mic, to create the directional pattern. I won’t go too in-depth with that explanation, but the important part is, if the back of the mic is blocked, it will become omnidirectional, which picks up from all directions. When the back of the mic is blocked by the [foam sphere that surrounds the mic], the mic can actually pick up more reflections, than if nothing had been used at all. 


Naturally, both the manufacturer, and those who have paid the steep price to be driven by confirmation bias, will insist their observations disprove electroacoustic principles. Along with that, will be poorly-controlled sample comparisons and anecdotal testimony. One side effect of packing absorptive material around a microphone, is the loss of high frequency detail. This can create the impression of reduced reflections. However, if EQ is then used to balance the audio back to the proper response, the reflections will return, and then some. Not only will the reflections exist, but interference in lower frequencies will also be present, as well as phase-smearing, from the otherwise unnecessary additive EQ.


As for the samples, it’s easy to notice the difference in proximity between the [foam sphere that surrounds the mic], and the open room. Proximity, alone, can be used to reduce reflections. The comparison is unfair, because the conditions are not equal. Moving closer to the mic will significantly reduce the perception of reflections, with or without the [foam sphere that surrounds the mic]. In a more controlled test, where proximity is measured to be the same, perceived benefits of the [foam sphere that surrounds the mic] dramatically diminish. 


I don’t find any similar product to be suitable for serious VO, but there are a couple of specific products that have some value, under specific conditions. The ISOVOX 2, for instance, is a pole mounted box, designed for the mic and the performer’s head. It does solve the problem of keeping the mic and voice in the same isolated space. Unfortunately, due to the size and rigidity, it sounds like recording in a box. It reduces outside reflections, at the expense of creating inside reflections. It also does block a significant amount of outside noise. Depending on the exact recording situation, it may have some value under certain circumstances, but for most people, there are more affordable options that will work better.


The sE Reflexion Filter is the other device worth mentioning. Despite the suggestion from the product name, the Reflexion Filter isn’t effective at reducing reflections. It is, however, as a baffle for unwanted sound from a specific point. That has some value in a music recording situation, for instance, to reduce bleed into a singer’s mic, when the band is performing in the same room. It will only reduce the bleed by a small amount, but that may be enough for better control over the mix. In a VO setting, however, they have little use.


So there you have it. I am positively opposed to any product that claims treatment around the mic as something even remotely close to a substitution for treating the space. In every consultation I’ve done where one of these devices has been present, the sound was immediately improved by removing it. Save your money for now, and if you want to discuss some options for your space, let me know.


Emmett

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