When working in studios all the time, using a plethora of gear, and getting comfortable using certain expected pieces of equipment, it's sometimes difficult to feel genuinely excited about something new; I'm not jaded, but I view the things I use on a daily basis as tools rather than new audio gifts. The Townsend Labs L22 Sphere Microphone System is, in my most humble opinion, truly Exciting (with a capital E); this new technology promises a world-class mic locker for less than $1500. Classic and/or vintage microphones are classics for many reasons – generally for their sound and versatility as proven over and over again throughout the years. These individual classic mics can also be incredibly expensive to purchase and require regular (and sometimes constant) maintenance to remain at their best. What if you could have a locker full of these mics without the need for maintenance, with the ability to swap out which mic you use on a recording AFTER the tracks are laid down? This is what Townsend Labs set out to achieve with the L22 Sphere System.
True to its name, the Sphere "system" is just that: first, it's a large-diaphragm condenser mic with two pads (-10 and -20 dB), and a switch for On (operating as a mic) or Cal (to calibrate the mic when using preamps with continuously variable gain). Rather than the expected 3-pin XLR output, the L22 has a 5-pin XLR connector that uses the supplied cable terminating to two male XLR connectors – one for each diaphragm (front and rear). The second part of the system is the Sphere plug-in, available in VST, Audio Units, AAX, UAD, and (just recently), AAX-DSP formats.
The L22 on its own is an extremely capable microphone. It has incredibly low self-noise (7 dB -A), can handle up to 140 dB of input before clipping, and due of the modeling occurring after-the-fact (outside of the microphone itself) has über-tight tolerances on both diaphragms. I've been impressed with the sound of the mic on its own from the first time I put it up on a stand – tons of headroom, incredibly even frequency response, and a neutral yet very musical tone. I would have no issue using the L22 on its own without the plug-in for a vocal, in front of a guitar or bass amp, as a front-of-kit mic, etc. It's just good kit. The mic ships with a shock mount, an additional swivel mount, the aforementioned XLR Y-cable, a dust cover, and a hard case to safely hold everything.
So yes, you get a great mic, but where this whole "system" business gets really interesting is when you track or mix with the Sphere plug-in. The plug-in (the Townsend Labs folks have a patent for the Sphere process!) is included as part of the purchase, and if you use one of Universal Audio's UAD interfaces, Townsend Labs offer a voucher to add the plug-in to your users' UA account. At the time of writing, the plug-in included 20 mic models: Neumanns (U 47, two U 67s, two U 87s, and an M 49), AKGs (C12, four 414s, C451), a Telefunken ELA M 251, a Sony C-800, a Coles 4038, a Shure SM57 and SM7, and two RCA 77-DXs. Sphere v1.4 adds ten more: a German bottle mic model with three capsule options, a commissioned model of the Soyuz 017, two models of the Sennheiser MD 409, three models of the MD 421, one MKH-416, and two AKG D12s. When loading an instance of the plug-in, you choose either stereo-mono or stereo-stereo plug-in widths; this is because of both outputs on the mic being captured by a stereo track from which the plug-in can derive all possible polar patterns on a given model. The mono output instance of the plug-in opens with the modeled mic on the left side of the UI (a U 47 by default). There's a central column where the pattern is chosen (with patterns present in the original mic glowing a light-blue), a three position high-pass filter, a knob to adjust the amount of off-axis positioning you'd like the mic to have (after the recording!), and a bi-direction Proximity control to increase/decrease the proximity effect of the model on the recording. On the right half of the UI, there's a large blue-green polar-pattern display that updates according to the chosen pattern, and a live-updating yellow trace that shows the direction and amplitude of the signal. Underneath this display are a polarity switch and a Rev button that swaps the front and rear capsule. Clicking the Dual view button on the bottom of the UI opens a second mic model on the right-hand side of the plug-in, and now you can blend a second model with the first while adjusting its alignment independently. Want an AKG C12A and a Neumann U 67 on a vocalist at the same time? Now it's easy!
Another unique property of the Sphere system is when using the mic 90 degrees off-axis from the source you are recording; print it to a stereo track or monitor through a stereo input and place the Sphere 180 plug-in on it. Now you have a stereo recording made with one mic, on a single track. WHAT IS THIS VOODOO?!?! In this case, the plug-in looks at each capsule and treats them as left/right sources. On the plug-in, you gain pan controls for each capsule as well as a Width control. The Off-Axis Correction parameters can be used to help compensate for the fact that both capsules are 90 degrees off-axis when used to make a stereo recording and help rebalance the frequency response.
In my time testing the Sphere system, I used the mic and plug-in as a drum overhead in stereo, drum room (both mono and stereo), front of kit, on guitar amps, acoustic guitar, and vocals. Many times, I would put up another mic next to the L22 in order to compare the modeling to the original (if I had one on hand). Comparing software models of a vintage mic to an original vintage mic are going to be like comparing two actual vintage ones – they are never going to be the same, but the intrinsic character of the mic will be obvious. I was able to compare the L22 mic/Sphere models to an original Telefunken-badged U 47, a Neumann U 67, my Soundelux E47 (which I generally prefer to all U 47s I put it up against), a Pearlman TM-47 (with NOS EF 12 tube), an AKG C414 B-ULS, a Shure SM7 and SM57. I wanted to compare it to my friend's Neumann M 269c, but it was having maintenance issues – told you this could be a problem! With the tube condensers, there were times I preferred the original and other times I preferred the Sphere model, but at no time would I have been disappointed with the Sphere model if that's what I was given as source tracks. The models are incredibly detailed and actually possess the character of the source mics. Townsend Labs have modeled the non-linearities and harmonics of the originals, and this absolutely translates to the output of the mic/plug-in combo. To put the L22 above my drum kit, record a stereo track and instantly change between a pair of Neumann U 67s or Coles 4038s as stereo overheads is a brilliant luxury! I did prefer my physical Shure SM7 and SM57 to the models, but these really are far away from the mics I would choose to have modeled (because I can afford them!) – the big tube condensers and rare/expensive ribbons are where the L22 and Sphere plug-in really shine.
Using the UAD and AAX-DSP versions of Sphere, you can monitor through the plug-in while selecting different mic models with almost-zero latency if you have the appropriate hardware. I loved the ability to change the model using the AAX-DSP version when tracking a vocalist in order to get them singing into a mic they best responded to for the performance, and then later being able to switch to a different model in the mix if I felt the first choice wasn't the best for the sonics needed – this is an amazing gift to a mixer! I could also switch to the UAD version when mixing to run on my UAD Satellites [Tape Op #83] if I was running out of HDX DSP power. All versions of the plug-in performed perfectly.
As if all of these features weren't mind-blowing enough, Universal Audio offers two packs of additional microphone models – the Bill Putnam Collection and the Ocean Way Collection. The former has nine models from Bill Putnam's original mic locker and includes an additional Neumann U 47, two Telefunken 251s, an AKG C12A, an RCA 44-BX, a Sony C-37A, and even a Shure 545. The Ocean Way Collection comes from Allen Sides' [#106] personal collection and has twelve additional mics (a Neumann M 50, U 47, KM 53, and KM 54, plus two AKG C12s, an RCA KU-3A, and more). If you have UAD hardware, this is a no-brainer add-on.
As I mentioned at the beginning, this technology is truly exciting stuff! Townsend Labs have taken the nascent world of microphone modeling and moved the bar to a height others will have difficulty scaling. If you're skeptical about this system, or processing audio in this fashion, you really owe it to yourself to demo the L22 and Sphere plug-in to see what the future is all about. Highest recommendation!