Monday, October 27, 2008

A Review of the Fishman SoloAmp

When I told my buddy Richard Malcolm about the new Fishman SoloAmp he asked, "How are you going to get any exercise if you don't haul a lot of heavy equipment up and down stairs?"

To give Richard his due... if you're a working musician and the only exercise you get is hauling sound equipment then the new Fishman SoloAmp isn't for you. The SoloAmp is an all-in-one sound system designed for the gigging singer-songwriter. It weighs about 25 pounds complete and comes in a padded gig bag with wheels on one end. You can load in and set up for a gig in about 5 minutes without breaking a sweat.

The Solo Amp utilizes linear array technology to pack a lot of sound into a compact package measuring about 6" x 6" x 40". The speaker array consists of six specially designed 4" drivers and a single soft dome tweeter. This sits on a single collapsible stand that is included. The downloadable manual tells you to place the SoloAmp behind you and to one side. The front of the SoloAmp features a two channel mixer. If you are a singer-guitarist you'll play into one channel and sing into the other. The mixer includes, digital reverb, phantom power, phase reverse switches, and notch filters for feedback control. The rear of the SoloAmp provides an output for a guitar tuner and a monitor output which can be used as a send to another SoloAmp in case you are working as a duo with another musician also using a SoloAmp. There are also effects sends and returns for each channel in case you want to use external effects. 

I'll admit that I was skeptical when I ordered my SoloAmp. I had read a couple of positive user reviews on the internet and had talked at length with Fishman's Customer Service Manager Frank Padellaro. I've also had experience with Fishman products in the past and have found them to be of professional quality. Nonetheless it just doesn't seem possible that something so compact and portable could really put out enough sound to fill a room.

The first place I set up my SoloAmp was in my photography studio. I set up the amp according to the instructions and started playing and singing. In a few minutes there was a big smile on my face as I called up my musician neighbor Frank Farentino to come over and give me a reality check. In short, the SoloAmp works as advertised. It reproduces the full range of guitar and vocals and distributes the sound evenly throughout the room. When Frank arrived I put him in the performer's seat so I could move around the room and listen from various locations. The sound level was constant throughout the room and there were no hot spots or dead spots. At first the sound was a little bright for my taste but it was easily tamed with the tweeter control on the back of the amp. Now that I've put in a couple weeks of playing time I find the sound of the amp has opened up and smoothed out a bit--not unusual with brand new speakers.

Any working musician knows that the real test of gear is how it performs under real world conditions at an actual  gig. So I scheduled an afternoon concert at the PD Bean Coffeehouse here in Santa Fe. I've performed there before and thought it would be a good test for the SoloAmp. When I arrived and set up the SoloAmp Dan, the owner, asked if I wanted him to turn off the refrigerators. Apparently he was concerned that the compact SoloAmp wouldn't be heard over the ambient noise generated by his kitchen appliances. I told him to leave everything as it usually is. 

When I sat down and started to play and sing Dan's eyebrows went up and he smiled. I asked if he could hear me OK and he said that it might be a little louder than necessary. I turned the volume knob down to about 8:30 (7:00 is off completely). Customers around the room all indicated that they could hear fine and that the sound was good. 

One of the customers present that afternoon was Michael Kott, a virtuoso cellist. Michael is classically trained but his musical taste spans several galaxies. Michael offered to sit in on viola so I gave up my vocal channel and plugged his viola in. For about an hour we jammed out on various modal patterns and folk melodies. We could hear each other perfectly well and according to other folks present the sound quality and the music were both to their liking. It's obvious that the SoloAmp delivers what the folks at Fishman promise and that it has plenty of power and headroom to spare for small and medium sized rooms. That includes most all of the hotels and bars here in Santa Fe.

Next came the ultimate test of any sound system--breaking down and loading out quickly. At closing time Dan announced that he need to get out fast so that he could pick up his tax forms and get them to the Post Office before they closed. In a few minutes I had the SoloAmp and stand in the gig bag. Michael grabbed my guitar and mic stand which left me with one hand free to unlock the back of my trusty Subaru. If you've ever worked bars or cafes you know how it is at the end of the night when the staff are ready to go home. If they have to wait while you pack up and load out they will remember it forever. With the SoloAmp it's never going to be a problem. Oh how I wish this marvel of a sound system had been available back in the days when I was gigging five nights a week and working those tiring doubles on weekends! 

I love my SoloAmp. It makes gigging so painless that I'm going to start playing out more often. The folks at Fishman understand that it's all about music... not gear. The gear should make things easier for the musician.The SoloAmp does just that. They've hit a home run this time. 

The Fishman SoloAmp is available from most major music retailers at a street price of around $1,000.00 U.S. You can get more info about the SoloAmp and other Fishman products at their website at

Monday, October 20, 2008

Review: Telefunken USA's New ELA M 80 Dynamic Microphone

During the past twenty years I've tried most of the popular stage vocal mics including offerings from Shure, Beyer, AKG, and Neumann. In every case I found myself giving up the "better" mic and returning to my old standby the Shure SM57 with the optional windscreen. When you're singing in bars, hotels, and cafes the Shure mic gets you through the four set nights. It's presence peak cuts through the ambient noise and lets you get across without singing yourself hoarse. However, it's a compromise. The low end is soft and you don't get the clarity and detail that you hear on good recordings made with large diaphragm condenser mics.

Recently I was reading at mic guru Klaus Heyne's microphone forum and I noticed an ad for the new ELA M 80 stage microphone from Telefunken USA. Despite my loyalty to the venerable SM57 I'm always interested in trying something new. The ELA M 80 is advertised as a dynamic mic which features the clarity and mid-range resolution of a high quality condenser microphone. So I contacted the good folks at Telefunken USA and a week later I received my review sample of the M 80.

I won't keep you in suspense... the M 80 is a wonderful mic. It's new and it's unique in my experience. It has a lovely clear, sweet midrange which has a bit of that 3D quality that one finds in only the very best microphones. The proximity effect is toned down compared to my SM57, but the bass extends lower and is solid and tight. It handles my bass-baritone low notes just fine. It's pickup pattern is a tight cardioid pattern which eliminates feedback without introducing the nasty off axis coloration that I've experienced with super-cardioid mics. As you go off axis with the M 80 the sound stays consistent until you reach the null point. Achieving this kind of performance is a delicate balancing act and the folks at Telefunken deserve kudos for their success.

I thought it would be interesting to get some other opinions on the ELA M 80 so I took it down to my local music store on a Saturday afternoon and let a couple of local musicians try it out through the store's PA. For comparison we used a Shure Beta 58. We auditioned the Beta 58 first and I could tell by their attitudes that the guys didn't expect to be impressed by the newcomer. When we plugged the M 80 and demoed it you could see eyebrows going up and eyes bugging out. The M 80 was the favorite. It wasn't even close.

Now let's look at the build quality of the M 80. In short, it's built like the proverbial tank. It's solid, weighty and feels like it will take anything you can dish out. This is obviously a mic that is designed to withstand the rigors of the road. Judging by the advertising, Telefunken USA is targeting this mic at young rock bands who want a mic that cuts through in a dense mix and is as sturdy and roadworthy as the classic mics. The mic comes standard with a silver grill and there is an optional package available which includes a black grill which some folks will prefer for video use. Personally, I like the silver grill. Also worth noting is that the body of the mic has a rubber coating which ensures that it won't slip out of your hands. If you've ever dropped a mic, you'll appreciate this feature. The M 80 looks like it could probably survive a drop, but chances are that you won't put it through that test. 

How did the designers achieve this level of performance in a dynamic mic? First they designed a capsule which features a low mass diaphragm. Then they had transformer maven Oliver Archut design a custom output transformer. The result is a mic which gives you a generous helping of high resolution sound without the harshness and artificial presence of most of the condenser mics designed for stage use. In fact, I found that the M 80 sounds great with minimal eq. Fitting it into a mix couldn't be easier.

It's not a perfect world and live sound always involves compromises. My only criticism of the M 80 is that it exhibits a slight sensitivity to handling noise. Since I play guitar and sing with my mic on a stand that's not an issue for me, but if you are a singer who hand holds your mic you may have to use a little care to avoid unwanted noise. It's a small trade-off when you consider the mic's sensitivity and tone. My only other criticism of the mic is the packaging. The M 80 comes in a colorful red and yellow tube picturing a firecracker (scroll down to my previous post to see this in a photo). I understand that this mic is targeted at rock and rollers. The packaging is aimed at that group. I'm a middle aged folkie singer-songwriter. So my taste in packaging and graphics is a bit more traditional. In the photo above I put the M80 next to an old Telefunken vacuum tube box. The packaging for the ELA M 80 has a bit of the retro flavor of the original Telefunken graphics. Let me just say that this mic is not only for rockers. It's a great all around mic.

The M 80 retails for $239.  While that's considerably more than the SM57 and SM58 it's about half the price of a Beyer M88. Considering it's quality, the M 80 is an excellent value. I feel that no one should buy a mic based on a review or recommendation. The only reason to buy a mic is because you have tried it yourself and you love it. That said, I bought the review sample and it's now my vocal mic of choice for live performance. I expect it will also be put to use in my project studio. You can use this mic anywhere you would use an SM58 or SM57 and where you want clarity and well defined bass. That includes guitar amps and snare drums. The ELA M 80 can be purchased directly from Telefunken USA or from one of their dealers.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Preview of Upcoming Reviews

Just a quick post to let folks know what to expect in the next week or two. I've just received a review sample of the recently released Telefunken M80 dynamic mic and will be posting a complete review here very soon. You will be able to read about this exciting new mic and how it compares with some of the classic mics. Coming soon.

Also, I'll be reviewing the Fishman SoloAmp which in August won a "Best in Show" award at the Nashville NAMM show. This innovative compact sound system is designed especially for singer-songwriters by the folks at Fishman Transducers. I'm still waiting for my SoloAmp. This new product is in such demand that I couldn't get a review sample... so I bought one and am waiting for delivery. The SoloAmp uses linear array speaker technology to make a compact sound system optimized for voice and guitar. It weighs in at about 25 pounds and sets up in just a few minutes.  By placing it behind you on stage you hear what the audience hears while the sound is evenly distributed throughout the audience. Reports from musicians who have already received a SoloAmp are positive. Stay tuned to read more about it here soon.

Also planned for the coming weeks is a review of the Fishman Aura Acoustic Imaging Pedal. This digital processor allows you to recreate the sound of an acoustic guitar played into a microphone in a recording studio... live, on stage and without the feedback problems normally encountered when trying to mic an acoustic guitar on stage. I've read mixed reviews by consumers. Some of the reviews are extremely favorable. So I'm eager to try the Aura pedal for myself to see how it works in conjunction with Fishman's new SoloAmp.