Home > About Us > News & Reviews > Field Test - The Holophone - Surround Professional puts the unique microphone though the paces

Field Test - The Holophone - Surround Professional puts the unique microphone though the paces

by Bobby Owsinski

Last issue we talked about the latest in surround miking; the Holophone. While it's one thing to read about a piece of gear, it's quite another to actually use it yourself. Plus, since the demo material that I'd heard didn't involve any source material that I was used to, I was especially eager to find out just what the unit would do recording instruments that non- classical engineers encounter during a typical session. Not only that, I wanted to try to use this mic in a close-up fashion as well as in the ambient field, something that even inventor Mike Godfrey hadn't yet tried. So I scheduled an informal get-together with Godfrey and his Holophone at Front Page Recorders to see what would happen.

In case you missed the "First Look" article on the Holopohone, here's some details on the unit. The Holophone is actually an entire system rather than just a microphone. The focal point of the system is a 7.5 by 5.7-inch fiberglass epoxy ellipsoid that looks something like a giant teardrop. This ellipsoid holds seven Sennheiser MKE2-5 omnidirectional microphone elements; five in the now standard multi-channel fashion with the front center element at the tip of the teardrop, plus one on top for height and an element internally mounted in the ellipsoid for the LFE. The mic elements from the ellipsoid can either be connected to seven Sennheiser UHF wireless transmitters that can be worn around a belt by a person holding the ellipsoid, or wired directly to a custom designed preamplifier control module (we used the wired version).

The 2 U, 19" rack mount PCM-7 control module provides several functions unique to surround sound. There is the prerequisite front panel gain trimming for all seven channels, a built-in headphone amplifier with channel selection for monitoring each channel individually, and a 10 turn precision pot that enables the height channel to be precisely mixed into the remaining channels. Then there's the seven LED status indicators arranged in a cluster that represent the physical location of the microphones, with the brightness of the LED's correlating to the sound pressure level of its respective microphone.

The demo took place at Front Page Recorders Studio A, which is equipped with a 64 input SSL G+ and a fine selection of analog and digital storage mediums to choose from. In this case, we decided to record the performances on DA-88 for ease of playback (and interchangeability) later on. The monitor system consisted of five Tannoy AMS-8's along with an M&K MX5000THX subwoofer. Even though we had a sixth AMS-8 available for the height channel, we weren't able to devise a way to actually get it in the air (there's a need for a new product here), so we ended up using a considerably lighter NHT M-00 raised approximately four feet above the mixers head. Monitoring was controlled with a Martinsound MultiMaxx utilizing the 7.1 configuration in order to accommodate the monitoring of the height channel.

Because of the constraints of time and non-standard connectors (some really hard-to-find mini-DIN's connected to the mic elements of the ellipsoid), we were only able to use the PCM-7 control module for microphone amplification (but I sure would be curious to hear it some time with a compliment of Neve's, API's, Avalon's, Hardy's, or the like).

FIRST UP - Acoustic Guitar
We started with Latino Bluesman Beto Lovato playing a Yamaha acoustic/electric guitar and singing at the same time with the Holophone placed about three feet in front of him with the unit pointing midway between the guitar and his mouth. Although the guitar was not a great sounding acoustic instrument by any means, the realism surprised us all. It actually sounded better that it did in the studio. Without using the usual buzzwords like big, full, warm, etc., the best thing that I can stay that it was REAL! And when he sang along, it was even better; just like being there with him only bigger.
After another take with some different level settings, we asked Beto to walk around the mic as he played and sang. Again, what we found was a true sense of spaciousness as he did about three minutes of 360's. This didn't sound like audio trickery at all, it was just a clean representation of a musician moving in a soundfield.

On the Holophone demo tape sent to me, there were no examples of anything close-miked, so I was most anxious to try the unit on a guitar amp. Beto cranked up his Tele into a nice silver-faced Super Reverb and we started with the Holophone placed about 6 feet back from the amp. What initially struck me was the low end that the mic reproduced. One of the toughest things to capture is the low end of a guitar amp, but the Holophone did it very well indeed. Not hyped, just the natural bottom of the amp. We then moved it 12 feet back and the response was, of course, more ambient as the Holophone heard more of the room, but still full and detailed.

As an experiment, I stuffed the mic directly into the cone of one of the speakers just to see what would happen with this sort of typical placement. Even though the mic pres of the PCM-7 glowed on overload (there's no input pads), it still sounded great and again, what bottom.

We then moved the Holophone into the piano room and placed it about 6 inches away from where the high and low strings cross. For Rock and Roll, the results were amazing. Clear and in your face, yet natural; sounding just like the Yamaha C-7 that it is. But, for solo piano aficionados, this placement is probably a little too close so we then moved the mic away in steps until the correct balance of piano to room was achieved. What we did notice was that stereo and mono compatibility was not as good as the mic was moved back from the source, though.

But what I most wanted to hear was the Holophone on a set of drums. We set the unit 4' in front of the kit about 4' high and sat back as session drummer extrodinaire Ronnie Ciago went through his paces. Wow, what a sound! And the kick was huge. And all this from just one mic no less. Essentially, the balance was the same as if your head was placed 4' in front of the kit. We then pushed the mic back a bit to get more room, and that worked as well for that Bonham type of open, ambient sound.

As an experiment, we then placed the mic behind drummer about 7' high. This seemed to get a great balance of everything except the kick, which seemed a bit distant. This would probably be my first choice for placement, however, with a separate mic on the kick since a tremendous sense of depth was achieved by this placement. We also lowered the mic to just over right shoulder of the drummer, and while this worked pretty good in terms of balance, we lost a bit of the depth that was so appealing with the mic placed higher.

We tried a lot of different percussion setups during the session. Usually the Holophone was just placed 3 or 4 feet from the player and he would play the mic with the particular instrument. What was particularly cool was when playing assorted hand percussion items, he ran his hand with the instrument around the mic. This actually didn't sound as artificial as it would seem. Pretty neat, in fact. On Djembe and whistle, once again the low end was magnificent and the contrast between it and the highs of the whistle once again brings the word "real" to mind.

Finally, Mike Godfrey himself played percussion on one side of the unit with Ronnie Ciago on the other in a version of dueling percussionists. In this case, not only did you feel the sense of spaciousness but also true placement of the players in the room. A very impressive grand finale.

In every case the Holophone exceeded any expectation that I had for it. Up close or in the ambient field, it not only worked but worked well. All that being said, I do have some overall observations.

1) The low end - The Holophone gets the biggest, most natural bottom I've ever heard from a microphone. One of the trademarks of engineers is their ability to record low end, and each one has their own set of tricks and techniques. The Holophone seems to do it for you automatically. I'm not quite sure how the LFE element on the mic (which is located inside the ellipsoid) actually works, but the resultant low end is huge without seeming artificial. I'd buy one just for this alone.

2) Downmix compatibility - Downmixing to stereo or mono was quite good; excellent even, depending upon the placement. The closer the mic was to the source, the better the downmix.

3) Electronics - As I stated before, we only got a chance to use the included PCM-7 mic amp/controller unit and never had the chance to experiment with other popular high quality mic amps. That being said, the PCM-7 performed very well under all the conditions that it was exposed to. It was both quiet and free from any noticeable colorations and sounded pretty good even when overloaded. An input pad and a phase reversal switch would be nice in the production version of the unit, though.

4) The Height Channel - Of all the unique features that the Holophone provides, perhaps this is the best. When we couldn't find an immediate way to place a height speaker in the air, we were forced to use the Height Mix function that allows you to dial in some of the height mic back into the main five. This proved to be most satisfying, maybe even better than using a discrete speaker/channel! While just a bit (10% or less) goes a long way, the added sense of realism that results from this addition has to be heard to be believed.

I've listened to the tape that we made of the session many times since and each time I marvel at the detail, clarity and overall realism attained by this unit. And, not only would I like to have it for all my surround sessions, but all the stereo ones as well (even though they're few and far between these days). The Holophone is truly the next evolution in microphones. Now just imagine consoles and storage devices needing 7 times as many channels as a result. For more information, contact the web site at www.theholophone.com.

This article written by Bobby Owsinski appears in the December, 1999 issue of Surround Professional magazine, pages 64-67.