In 2019, I reviewed the Townsend Labs L22 Sphere mic [Tape Op #133] and raved about its versatility and innovation. Universal Audio acquired Townsend Labs in 2021 and has rebadged the L22 as the Sphere DLX; this renamed model is nearly identical to the original L22 (the DLX has a single -20 dB pad rather than the -10 and -20 dB pads of the L22) and continues to be a powerhouse option in the mic modeling arena. UA has also introduced the Sphere LX, which uses the same modeling technology and is $500 less expensive than the DLX – perfect for adding the sounds of an entire world-class mic locker to your collection for a thousand bucks.
The Sphere LX uses the same 1-inch dual-diaphragm capsule as its big brother and has an incredibly low self-noise of 10 dB. The LX lacks the -20 dB pad of the DLX, so it may not be the first choice to try close on a snare drum, but with a maximum handling SPL of 145 dB, you could probably get away with it in front of all but the heaviest hitters. Like the original L22 and the DLX, the LX has a 5-pin XLR output and includes a 5-pin female to dual 3-pin male XLR cable; this is 10-feet in length compared to the DLX’s 25-feet, so you may need to extend the LX cable with a couple of mic cables. This dual output requires the LX to be recorded to a stereo track in your DAW, capturing the front and rear diaphragms simultaneously thus allowing for the pattern of the mic model to be changed post-recording. Want to hear how a figure-eight pattern cuts down the bleed from the side of the mic when you realize the guitarist was bleeding into the vocal tracked with the LX? Easy!
Since the goal is to capture the most realistic possible output from both capsules, having a pair of mic preamps that can be precisely gain matched is important to get the best out of the Sphere mics. I ran all of my tests with the LX using Metric Halo ULN-8 mkIV preamps that have .5 dB precision digital control over their analog inputs. The Sphere LX also has a “CAL” calibration switch just under the head basket to enable this mode in conjunction with the Sphere plug-in to calibrate the rear capsule input level to the front (UA provides very detailed instructions on their Sphere support pages).
Now that I’ve mentioned the Sphere plug-in, this is a great time to talk more about its integration with the mic hardware; the two are fully designed to work as a system and the plug-in is included when the mic is registered using UA’s latest UA Connect app. The plug-in is available as Apollo DSP for UA’s Apollo interfaces and satellites, AAX DSP for Avid’s Carbon and HDX cards, and is available for native AU, VST, and AAX versions as part of UA’s recent foray into host computer-based processing. Mic models are chosen from the plug-in, but it offers so much more than just choosing the model of microphone. Along with selecting the pattern, you can also choose the mic axis orientation, filtering, and variable proximity effect. Where the DLX provides an option to record with the mic capturing from the side of the capsules to then be processed as a “stereo” mic, the LX allows for two mics to be blended from the same source. Using the single LX capture on a guitar cabinet, for example, you could then blend between a Shure SM57 and a Neumann U 67 from a single instance of the plug-in, while having control over the mix, as well as alignment, of the mics. A new addition to the Sphere plug-in is the “IsoSphere” section, which incorporates models of isolation products like the sE Electronics Reflexion, Aston Halo, Kaotica Eyeball, and even a vocal booth model.
There are 20 included microphone models in the LX plug-in; ten of these are large-diaphragm condensers which include original and modern Neumann U 87s, a U 67, Sony C-800G, plus two AKG C414s and a C12. Also included are two small-diaphragm condensers (AKG C451 and Sennheiser MKH 416 shotgun), six dynamic mics (the usual suspects: SM57, Sennheiser MD 421, Electro-Voice RE20, AKG D12E, etc.), and one ribbon model of the Royer 121. I would have liked a couple of other ribbon options, and would sacrifice one of the large diaphragm condensers and one dynamic model for something like an RCA 44 or Coles 4038 to have been included.
In my original review, I wrote of how brilliant I thought the L22 sounded on a variety of sources and the Sphere LX certainly doesn’t disappoint either! Even without the modeling aspect of the plug-in, this is an excellent sounding microphone – if it wasn’t good in the first place, no amount of processing would suddenly make it shine. Acoustic guitars sound incredible with the LX, and having the ability to change the pattern to omni or change the proximity effect to fix poor placement can be a lifesaver on a great take. Guitar amps translated exactly as I hoped, and having the dual-mic capability in the plug-in let me experiment (after recording the amp) with using one or two mics. I love using this mic as a “front-of-kit” mic – about 2 meters in front of the drums, angled slightly at the floor in front of the bass drum. This eliminates some cymbal splash into the mic and gives a full picture of the drums. Changing mic models and experimenting with different compressors opens up a whole world of sounds, and can create a really explosive drum tone on its own or when blended with other kit mics. My favorite discovery was how well the mic worked when recording pedal harp. Even though these look like the largest instruments in an orchestra, they are acoustically incredibly quiet, and I’m always on the hunt for lower-noise mics and preamps to capture them. My usual mics for this application are a pair of Neumann TLM 170R or Ear Trumpet Labs Delphina into the aforementioned Metric Halo preamps. The Sphere LX completely held its own and was possibly a couple dB quieter than the Neumanns. The tone from the LX was also a perfect mono capture of the harp. And, yes, I tried it on snare drum and I kinda don’t want to take it off the stand! Having a U 67 and SM57 on my snare drum is not something I’d try on most drummers (from an insurance standpoint), but the sonics don’t lie, and if I can get there using the Sphere LX, dammit, I’m going to!
Measures were taken to help keep the cost of the Sphere LX down. It includes a soft zippered carrying case instead of the DLX’s hardshell one. The LX has only a swivel-mount that threads on the bottom of the body, rather than the DLX’s shock mount. The DLX plug-in also includes 38 models to the LX’s 20, but they are all fantastic. The place where no compromise was made is the sound of the microphone, and here I can find no fault. I’m really happy to see UA keeping this mic's family and the innovations alive and expanding!