While Great Britain's legacy of recording gear manufacturing is rich, it's mostly been devoid of condenser microphones. Although many historic capacitor mics have roots in Germany or Austria, they've been manufactured in Eastern Europe, Australia, Japan, China, the United States... but not the UK, until now.
Aston Microphones, a newcomer started by two of the original founders of sE Electronics (who left the company in 2014), is proud of the fact that its Origin microphone is made entirely in the UK, save for the capsule. Like many microphones in (and even well above) this price bracket, its center-terminated (Neumann-style) capsule is of Asian origin. Aston rigorously hand-selects the capsules it receives, and the company claims that only about 20% of the capsules make the cut.
The Origin is transformerless, fixed-cardioid, and equipped with a 10 dB pad and high-pass filter. Two distinctive features are immediate: the striking, variegated appearance of the tumbled steel body; and the innovative head-basket.
Attempting to address the perennial problem of the easily- dented mic grille, the Aston eschews the traditional multi-layer wire-screen entirely. The Origin's grille consists instead of a fabric-like knitted stainless steel mesh completely surrounded by a large protective wave spring. (Picture an undulating, flat leaf-spring wound into a spiral.)
In addition to serving as a mild plosive filter, the inner layer is flexible like fabric and therefore immune to denting. The wave spring exterior is actually designed to deform if the mic is struck or dropped. You can flex it in hand, displacing it a few mm in either direction before moving it back to its original position. The steel mesh is a type commonly used to damp resonances in industrial applications, and by design should mitigate the head- basket resonances typical of wire-screen designs. I wondered about potential diffraction around the wave spring, but had no way to test empirically whether it was an audibly significant factor in the mic's sonic signature (as head-basket geometry almost always is). Clever, innovative and durable, the design of the mic's grille is arguably the most innovative aspect of the Origin.
While a plus, an integral threaded stand mount on the bottom of the mic didn't prove advantageous to me in terms of positioning; I elected to use a universal shockmount. At any rate, the threaded portion is made of softer zinc (as opposed to the steel used on the rest of the mic's body). Being the picky sort, I asked Aston about this, envisioning potential damage from cross- threading, and was assured that the threads are cut in a way that makes cross-threading unlikely, and that literally thousands of units have been shipped without a single issue. Still, prior experience has biased me against threaded zinc. When I mentioned this to an Aston representative, I was assured that, though unlikely to fail due to the better-engineered threads, the entire zinc plate could be replaced free of charge if necessary.
When designing the Origin, Aston consulted 33 producer/engineers in a series of blind tests, polling for consensus on various attributes. The voicing that Aston ultimately settled on is relatively neutral in character, but quite good (especially considering the mic's price) when contextualized within the larger FET condenser pantheon.
After a few days to get a feel for the mic, fellow engineer John Davis and I set up a comparison with several more expensive FET condensers at the Bunker Studio on a variety of sources. It was instructive to put the Origin head-to-head (literally!) against three of the most time-tested FET condenser designs — the Neumann U 87 Ai, the Neumann U 47 fet, and the AKG C 414B-ULS. Because the Origin and U 47 fet are fixed cardioid, we kept the U 87 and C 414 in cardioid mode for all tests.
Amped with our Neve 8058's console preamps, the Origin held its own impressively on almost everything we tried — bass drum, upright bass, acoustic guitar, and male vocal — when mic'd close on-axis. Overall impressions were that the Origin's lower midrange was more robust (but a bit less focused) than the U 87's, while being more defined and somewhat less murky in that register than the C 414's. Bottom end extension and "thump" didn't quite match the U 47 fet's on upright bass or outside kick drum, but the Origin performed acceptably in both applications.
The Neumann condensers (especially the U 87) distinguished themselves with superior integration of the critical midrange. By comparison, the C 414 presented male vocal as a bit hollowed-out, with bass and high treble seeming slightly disconnected from one another. On the Origin, there was likewise a hint of a sibilant upper- midrange characteristic that felt a trifle detached from the mic's very flattering representation of the lower fundamentals. Its "hollow zone" was higher in frequency and narrower-band than the C 414's, but the Origin did make pick attack on our acoustic guitar feel slightly forward from the body of the instrument, and did betray a touch of sibilance on this male vocal. Still, the Origin fared well.
To investigate diffuse field performance (wherein reflected sound predominates over direct sound) and off-axis character, we moved our battery of FET condensers first on-axis back about 10 ft, and then at arbitrary distance across the room about 110 degrees off-axis from a few sources. I wanted to see if I could get a feel for how the Origin might perform when placed at a distance or suboptimally (as if picking up spill from an unintended source). Prior subjective experience has given me the opinion that superior sound in the diffuse field and good-sounding bleed are often more elusive in inexpensive condensers than acceptable on-axis performance. Instructively, the four microphones sounded much more different from one another when positioned farther back, and more different still when arbitrarily off-axis.
Both distance and simulated "bleed" into the U 87 sounded predictable and smooth — most coherent with its close, on-axis behavior of all the mics tested. The C 414 was a bit darker than I might have anticipated in these positions, while the U 47 fet seemed to attenuate low end more than presence frequencies when moved back and rotated axially. Switching to the Origin, a touch of narrow-band upper-midrange harshness seemed to creep in with distance, and for the first time, I felt I had begun to perceive a subtle lack of intangible smoothness and dimension present in the more expensive mics. Rotating the Origin about 110 ? off-axis, its best attribute — the prettiness of its low-mids — was attenuated greatly. This was its least flattering orientation, one I felt might have been the first real betrayal of its lower price point, but still far from bad.
Keeping perspective, the fact that we could keep a straight face when auditioning a $250 condenser mic against time-tested industry standards costing 5-15 times as much suggests that Aston just might be onto something here. Bringing the mic into my home studio for a few weeks to work on new music from soulful indie artist Adesuwa, I kept the Origin set up as a sort of "utility microphone" so that I'd always have a mic available to record a fresh idea quickly. I recorded acoustic guitar, suspended cymbal overdubs, electric guitar, and many other sources with it in this capacity, and in all cases, the tracks recorded with the Aston will make the record. In fact, its rugged durability and neutral sonic character make the Origin quite ideal for use in this capacity.
With its damned-solid performance and its three-year replacement warranty, the Origin represents an impressive value. While it might not outperform a U 87 on a guitar at ten paces facing weirdly sideways, it's quite likely to outperform most of its direct competitors in value-for-dollar.