UPDATE: 11/27/2017 This article has been updated to reflect the addition of AMBEO mode in the Zoom F8 and Channel Linking in the Sound Devices MixPre6/10.
It’s been about three weeks since I first got my Sennhieser Ambeo and I feel first impressions have worn off and I now have my head wrapped around what the Ambeo/F8 combo really is all about.
First the Zoom F8 is the smallest professional recorder with an “Ambisonic mode.” (FOR AMBEO MODE CHECK OUT THIS BLOG POST)
The feature showcased in the video above is only available on the Zoom, Zaxcom, and Sonosax recorders. Grouping your gain controls to a single knob is
not currently possible on any current Sound Devices except for the MixPre 6/10 or Tascam recorder. The Zoom F8 also gives you a digital readout of your gain settings on its main screen if you like. Ambeo Mode automaticly sets this up for you and lets you record FUMA and AMBIX directly in the recorder.
The Zoom F8 also gives you the ability to dual record a backup of each capsule at a lower level on tracks 5-8 or a completely different ambisonic format. This is perfect for when rehearsals and the real take don’t go exactly the same. Speaking of rehearsals, so much of doing production audio for VR work is to set a
nd forget. With the F8 you can use an iPad to have complete control and VU meters in real time during the rehearsals. Yes, the Sound Devices MixPre3 and MixPre6 have Wingman, but Wingman doesn’t let you control anything other then metadata.
But the most important aspect of why the Zoom F8 is perfect for VR work is something rather small, like 1/4 in size. The Zoom F8 features a 1/4″ 20 threaded hole in its all metal chassis making it SUPER easy to clamp and mount onto all sorts of VR camera rigs. What most people don’t realize is when it comes to VR you have a VERY small spot under the camera to hide gear. In this small footprint the camera department has to hide batteries, WiFi routers sometimes, possibly a Teradek Sphere, cables, and on and on… Well we also have to squeeze our gear into whats left which means no audio bags, no harrasses or crazy setups. So when your barebacking your reorder having a built in mounting point is HUGE help.
So we like the Zoom F8 but what about the Sennheiser Ambeo, Why do I like that microphone more then the rest?
Sennheiser AMBEO – http://amzn.to/2Bv5tXE
Simple… It offers balance outputs. Remember when I said everything is tucked under the 360 camera, hidden away from sight, well… so are your cable runs and those often can be inches away from things like 2.4Ghz WiFi antennas, 2.4Ghz Teradeks, or your own 100mw Lectrosonics TX you may be using to listen to the front capsule to monitor the recording. The last thing you want is to run unbalanced cables next to transmitters. The Tetramic is unbalanced, only Sennheiser, Sound Field, and Oktava offer balanced outputs. And well… the Sound Field is CRAZY expensive and very hard to justify owning given that VR is still a very niche market. Your gear needs to turn a profit or you shouldn’t be purchasing it. And the Oktava…. well… good luck trying to purchase four matching capsules from that run down Russian factory. There are many stories out there that Oktava substitutes electrical components in and out of its circuits based on what they can get shipped to them and what they have in stock in the factory. When your spending over a thousand dollars for a single microphone, you want to know it was built right.
That said the Sennheiser Ambeo is not the cheapest VR microphone on the market. In fact it sits between the unbalanced microphones you don’t want and the very expensive Sound Field microphones hobbist or VR newbs really shouldn’t be buying. The honor of cheapest VR microphone goes to Zoom with the Zoom H2n at $150.
Zoom H2n – http://amzn.to/2hXZbY5
But the H2n is not a tetrahedral array of capsules giving you a sphere of audio information. And thats the key, what separates the tetrahedral aligned microphones from things like a Deca Tree array for surround sound field recordings is that it also gives you height information.
The build quality of the Ambeo is that of a Electrovoice RE50. It has a thick body that Sir Mixalot would write a song about. It’s a microphone that feels solid and sturdy. This does mean the rigging hardware needed for it can’t be some cheap Chinese friction arm you bought from Cowboy Studio. You will want to purchase a bending arm that can support some weight. But you should be buying the stronger rigging gear anyway.
Crab Clamp With Microphone Threaded Mount – http://amzn.to/2BsZHpm
The last thing you want is the origination of “front” of the microphone to shift over time. If it shifts it will ruin the post production editors day as they now have to keyframed the spatial alignment during a take. Alignment drift is a good way to lose clients!
I also know there are people who doubt just how good these Ambisonics microphones sound and how accurate they are at reproducing a full 360 sphere of audio information with just 4 capsules… well know that it just works. This is where learning about Ambisonics gets very technical and becomes a problem. I could in this review talk about A-B conversation and how the field recordings is considered A-Format and then you use a VST plugin from your microphone manufacture inside your DAW to turn it from 4 waveforms into a 360 audio sphere of pure data…. but I can’t. The issue is anything I write about when it comes to post production decoding of the A-Format will be so quickly out of date this article would be pointless. Just 2 months ago you couldn’t even view your 360 video inside of Protools when you keyframed point mics in a virtual sphereical space but now you can. My friend @BenAdams teaches VR audio to IATSE 695 and is consistently updating his power point monthly because of how quickly new plugins are coming out and updating features. If you are interested in doing post audio for Ambisonics I highly suggest joining the Facebook 360 Spatial Workstation group.
So if your still reading this that means you really are curious about this new emerging video/audio market. Well let’s break down cost.
- ~$1649 Sennheiser Ambeo
- ~$150 for a Pelican
- ~$150 for flexible rigging hardware for both the microphpne and recorder
- $999 Zoom F8
- Optional $200-600 for iOS device
- Optional $60 Reaper 64 DAW
- Optional $498 EUR Harpex-X Plugin
And that’s it! It’s not the cheapest thing in the audio world to try out but when it comes to getting the right audio that matches the head tracking movements in VR video players, ambisonic microphones are the correct method for doing it. If you are a mild hobbist I suggest buying one of those twin lens cameras at Best Buy and pairing it with a Zoom H2n. If you are a production company wanting to impress clients by offering good VR, I suggest hiring someone who owns an ambisonic audio kit like the one above.
Next month I will do a blog post about that will be an introduction into recording audio for VR. Oops… haven’t done this yet.
Andrew Jones is a location sound mixer based in Los Angeles. He started in the TV and Film industry in 2004. You can email him at Andrew@HoldForSound.com