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Learn what binaural recording is.
Is it worth the price tag?
My honest review of the results below.
What is a Binaural Microphone?
A binaural microphone creates a 3D sound effect that is difficult to replicate with just two microphones in stereo. Essentially the aim is to recreate the sound as a human would hear it in order to give the sensation of actually being in the room.
Binaural mics are great for creating an extra depth that, when listened to in stereo, gives the listener a much more immersive experience that simply setting up two stereo mics can’t.
Although great for recording orchestras and choirs, it isn’t common to see a binaural mic in a typical band recording session.
Also, if you’ve followed any of the recent ASMR phenomena on YouTube you will probably be familiar with a binaural microphone.
Neumann KU100: Review
The Neuman KU100 is one of the leading binaural microphones on the market at the moment. Its unique design is intended to do much more than simply look like a human head, but actually recreate sound in the same way that a human head and pair of ears does.
The head itself has an omnidirectional condenser microphone in each ear, distanced apart so that if a sound is heard by the right ear, there is a slight delay before hitting the left ear. The higher frequencies will also be lessened in the left ear due to the density of the head and vice versa.
In this way, the head is able to mimic how our own ears respond to sound in an extremely accurate way and this is what sets it apart from recording with two microphones in stereo.
We were lucky enough to get our hands on one recently and decided to put it to the test.
We hit the studio with Manchester, UK, band The Mards for the recording of their new EP and trialled the head as they tracked new single ‘Runaway’.
Our aim was to compare the performance of the Neumann KU100 against a standard drum overhead microphone setup.
It felt a little odd at first to be pulling a large, grey, human head-shaped bit of kit out of the box to set up for recording.
The mic itself is unsurprisingly very heavy, it’s definitely worth investing in some heavy-duty or weighted mic stands if you are going to purchase one.
In this comparison, we used a pair of Coles 4038 ribbon microphones for the drum overheads which were run through an API preamp and Empirical Labs Distressor.
The KU100 was recorded dry with no compression applied.
Although this, in theory, makes a comparison review a little more difficult, due to time restraints in the studio we weren’t able to set up an identical signal chain or swap out the KU100 and overheads into the same position.
The mic can be mounted from underneath or from above.
For this example, we mounted the mic from underneath and positioned it facing the drums roughly where our head is, as if to mimic a listening position.
One of the most interesting things about the KU100 was how it changed our mindset when it came to positioning the microphone.
Normally we’d be thinking about polar patterns, measurements from the snare, phase alignment and more. This was all taken into account as it should be but we found ourselves thinking more of where a human would be stood in order to achieve the most natural sound and this in itself was quite liberating when setting up.
The mic can be either be phantom or battery-powered, no doubt to ensure suitability for foley artists or sound designers who want to record outside of a studio.
We had read beforehand that in order to get the most immersive response we would need to monitor the KU100 with headphones.
Whilst this would no doubt have made the listening experience different, it was still immediately obvious using studio monitors that the stereo field appeared much more ‘natural’ sounding than we were used to with overheads but also added a lot more depth that is quite hard to describe!
When A/B’ing with the overheads there was a noticeable difference, but we did find that the binaural head offered more in terms of added quality to the sound, and as such isn’t something we would be likely to use as a replacement for overheads but more as an additional mic to add depth.
The response in terms of clarity was impressive and we found no need for a pad when gain staging. Thankfully the microphone wasn’t as sensitive to volume as our own ears are when stood in front of a drummer!
Once we began tracking a rough take was recorded to warm up and we were able to compare with and without the KU100.
It certainly made a difference – adding the mic to the mix gave a certain fullness that the overheads didn’t provide themselves.
We found no harshness or overpowering high end that can come when boosting overheads but this is probably down to the positioning of the mic, rather than frequency response.
We’d loved to be able to try this method in a larger room as the way the KU100 blended with the rest of the drum microphones gave it more of a ‘room mic’ feel and would probably add even more to the tone with a larger sized room or natural-sounding reverb.
Overall it felt that the KU100 added a certain texture that we wouldn’t be able to recreate with a matched pair of stereo mics. We quickly got used to the sound with the signal blended in and it was certainly noticeable when it was removed.
We were definitely impressed with the KU100 in this recording session. Although not a ‘go-to’ mic for studio productions in a typical band setup, there is a lot to be said for using a binaural recording to add an extra quality to your recordings.
This isn’t to say that the KU100 would always be a suitable overhead replacement, however.
We’re huge fans of the Coles ribbon sound and can’t see ourselves swapping them out for a binaural mic anytime soon, but we can see ourselves getting our money’s worth with a KU100 or any binaural mic for that matter.
That said, it would be interesting to hear how the mic performs on a less rock-orientated recording. This mic is great for big sounding rock productions but whether it would be as impressive for more minimalist, or even quieter, drummers is certainly something to consider.
Priced at a hefty $7,000 you’ll definitely want to consider your options before taking the plunge, but if you have the available cash and are looking for a really interesting way of adding depth to your mixes, it could certainly be a valuable investment.
Overall though we’re very impressed with the KU100 and whilst initially there was a novelty side to its usage, it became obvious that this microphone could really have a place both in band recording sessions as well as sound design.
Whilst the price isn’t exactly cheap, it definitely provided a unique quality to our drum recordings and is definitely something we’d love to use again.
A big thank you to The Mards for allowing us to test the KU100 in their recording session. Follow them on Instagram @themardsband or on Facebook.