Simon Allen puts his doubts aside and finds the latest release from Sontronics holds its own even against more expensive options.
British microphone design company Sontronics is now in its 10th year and has built an extensive range around one guiding principle: to design ‘task-specific’ microphones. The company’s success story is built on build and sound quality along with reliability, but at surprising prices thanks to the fact that its products are built in Shanghai to founder Trevor Coley’s exacting specifications.
However, with a wide range of microphones already in its catalogue, where will this latest addition sit in terms of both application and sound?
With this in my sceptical mind I was very keen to get my hands on one. I wanted to find out if the Aria is really able to compete with well-known classic microphones as it is suggested.
On the surface
There is no hiding the fact that the new Aria looks great. Its design pulls on styles that instinctively suggest its purpose and level of quality before you even turn it on. The satin and chrome finish coupled with the shape and size give this microphone a very attractive retro look.
The Aria comes equipped with two styles of stand mounts: a simple clip and a cradle. While the finish of the microphone is of very high quality, the suspension mount is just as spectacular. All too often cradles are poorly designed, but the Aria’s is well thought through and built with strength.
Like most valve mics, the Aria uses its own power supply unit, which is built very well, and offers a -10dB pad and a 75Hz high pass filter. There is also a blue LED to let you know when the tube has warmed up for optimum recording results, which is great.
Completing the package inside its neatly presented flight case is a good length custom cable with screw connectors to run between the PSU and the mic itself.
If the Germans built this microphone then yes, you would expect a slightly higher refinement of the engineering of some components, but to be honest, not by much. Considering the price and what you are getting, this is definitely Sontronics’ best build quality to date, to a level of which it should be proud.
Beneath the exterior
The Aria has been predominantly designed as a vocal microphone and has a fixed, single cardioid polar pattern. It features a 1.07in gold edge-terminated capsule. Following the capsule is the tube itself, for which Trevor Coley, the founder and designer from Sontronics, specified the well-used ECC83 from Eastern Europe. Coley is not only proud of this choice, but he personally selects which valves actually get used in each microphone, as he reports that each one differs a little.
Another component that Sontronics is proud of is the power supply unit. The manufacturer has installed a high-quality, medical-grade mains electricity filter to ensure a pure and interference-free supply. Normally, you would expect to have a slightly lower noise to gain ratio with valve microphones, which is the case here too. However, the Aria is better than many classic valve mics and it didn’t concern me on any of the recordings I made while testing it. If you wanted to mic something more ambient, then this possibly wouldn’t be the best choice.
There has been a lot of development around the Aria, and it shows. The microphone has been on the drawing board for about three years with some fairly important individuals involved over the last 12 months of R&D, including PJ Harvey, Paul Epworth, and several Abbey Road engineers. They all now own an Aria and are strong advocates for Sontronics. There is pedigree associated with the microphone already and I think it’s well deserved.
Initially, I used the microphone for several vocalists, both female and male, at Woodbury Studios. In direct comparison with some other microphones of significantly higher value I found negligible but pleasing differences. I was really impressed by this because it’s as if Sontronics has unlocked the secret to a great vocal microphone, which I didn’t expect. I have to admit that I had my doubts, but it wasn’t long before I realised the significance of this release.
With the female vocalist there was less noticeable difference between the microphones but the male vocalist highlighted some key benefits of the Aria’s valve. The valve really was allowing the harmonic content to shine through in the way that you would expect to hear from classic valve microphones worth several thousands. The response was very smooth with a slight presence lift, but not quite in the sibilance territory.
Looking at the extremes: the high end, like with most of Sontronics’ mics, isn’t over-emphasised but is in fact slightly tamed. I think because there was already so much clarity and detail in the sound, thanks to the valve, there wasn’t the need to look to the ultra-highs for more detail. At the low end, there was a lovely warmth and richness to complete a full-bodied sound, but it wasn’t too much at the same time. In fact, the result was very close to a finished mixed vocal and there wasn’t much treatment needed.
I should point out that in direct comparisons it was hard to pinpoint the Aria’s tone when the mics were in ‘solo’ mode. The sound was just as I would have expected from a more expensive vocal microphone. I’m also reassured that there isn’t anything about the sound that is out of the ordinary. As soon as you hear the microphone within a mix however, that is when its character starts to be more obvious.
Along with the silky highs that come through, the presence in the mids and its low-end depth, you also really start to hear the valve come into its own.
When in many situations an unprocessed vocal could be lost in the mix, the Aria was as clear as day with the detailed harmonics coming cleanly through. This is where I believe the Aria doesn’t just match other microphones of higher value but really starts to impress. Anyone who records with the Aria will probably find that their dry signal won’t need much work at the mixing stage, achieving an easy placement of vocals in the mix.
We’ve spoken a lot about Sontronics’ ‘task-specific’ design method and how great the Aria sounds on vocals, but when you look at the mic’s specifications on paper there is no reason it can’t suit other applications too.
I used the mic on a lot of different instruments and in different placements to see what else I could achieve. Firstly, I used the Aria as a room mic for an electric guitar cabinet which I might do normally with a valve mic. Electric guitar room sounds can vary hugely and often either need additional processing or clever mix placement, but again the Aria captured a very clear sound which worked well in the mix.
I also put the microphone through its paces with Paul Clarvis, one of London’s best session percussionists. We ended up using the microphone on everything from shekeres and bells through to the low end of cajóns and an orchestral bass drum. We were both very impressed with the microphone. Nothing seemed to find a pitfall of the microphone or overload it in any way and the sound was prominent and clear. I really hope others start to realise the potential with this microphone and don’t just keep it for vocals as there are many applications where it sounds great. Although I haven’t had the chance yet, I understand that there have been reports of the microphone sounding great on cellos, which I can quite easily believe.
I wasn’t quite prepared for the results from this microphone. To be honest, I had my doubts. However, the Aria doesn’t just match what very expensive microphones achieve, it also shines a little of its own magic when inside a mix. It is a very versatile microphone that not only suits male and female vocals but other applications too. Due to its incredible price point, I think this microphone is a great choice for the growing market of home recording or small project studios. These smaller studios will also benefit from the mic’s almost ‘ready-made sound’ where you don’t have large-format analogue consoles or expensive recording chains. This is a modern take on a valve microphone, which is ideal for the digital age. A great British product!
Simon Allen is a full-time sound engineer and record producer. After a stint as senior engineer at City Studios in Cyprus where he headed up the new music studio, he can now mostly be found at Woodbury Studios in Hertfordshire.