The research and design process for pro-audio products is one of the most meticulous aspects in the creation of any brilliant idea. Companies can spend months and even years building and testing prototypes, sourcing parts, deep-diving into tech land and nerding out over select components to create the best possible product for the market. However, there's often one area in which pro-audio companies tend to underestimate the importance of when designing new gear, and it might even be the most important aspect of the product itself: the people using it.
Aston Microphones' daring new Element project aims to change all of that. The UK-based audio technology company spearheaded by founder James Young has been at the forefront of microphone design since releasing the Origin back in 2016, and have gone on to garner industry acclaim for their growing range of innovative microphones - all of which are designed and constructed in the UK. Aston are also known for employing the services of a select group of musicians, producers and engineers called the Aston 33 to help provide input and feedback in the sound design stage, which has since grown into a panel of 600 industry professionals.
It was this concept that sparked the idea behind the design of the Element; a product Young refers to as being the world's first 'People's Microphone'. While the physical design of the microphone itself has already been signed off on, Aston are testing unknown waters by enlisting a group of anonymous musicians from all around the world to engage in a voting process to finalise the sound of the Element - a world first for any pro-audio product of this nature.
Aston have gone to painstaking lengths to ensure the project runs as intended, and to make things all the more transparent, the entire project is also being peer-reviewed by a number of studio magazines in the US and UK, making sure that every aspect in the ambitious design process is legitimate. It's quite accurate to say that the world of pro-audio has never witnessed a project quite like this, and by all means, it could be a revolutionary process for the industry.
With the Element expected to arrive in Australia some time this October, we spoke with James Young of Aston Microphones to find out about everything that went into the Element campaign to gain a better understanding of just how important this project is to the world of pro-audio as we know it.
Tell us about yourself, James! What are your own musical origins? How did everything lead to what we now know as Aston Microphones?
James Young: “I’ve never been asked that before! My musical story started when I picked up a guitar when I was seven years old. I started writing songs almost immediately, and I’ve been writing and recording ever since. I’ve actually got an album coming out soon that I started working on after meeting a bunch of the producers we work with through Aston. That's definitely a perk of the job, but it goes to show that I'm still pretty deep into my music still!
“That’s also how I eventually came to do Aston, although it was a bit of an accident... I actually trained as a zoologist majoring in gerontology (the scientific study of old people) at King’s in London, and decided I didn’t really want to be in a lab testing old ladies urine samples for the rest of my life, so I walked into a music shop and started selling gear, and that was that. Then I just progressed onwards doing retail and distribution, which led to me setting my own distribution company up.
“In 2002 I got involved in sE Electronics with my business partner Phil Smith, where we were doing all the design, sales and marketing. Then one day in 2014, we flew in for a regular business meeting and got told that our services were no longer required, which taught us an important lesson to never have contracts based out in China. We lost everything, and actually had to put the company into administration, which was a really tough time. Throughout all that, we had this huge outpouring of support from all of our contacts here in the UK, who were all saying ‘You guys did great, go out there and do it again’, and this time, we chose to do it in the UK.”
I don't think I've ever spoken to a zoologist who runs a microphone company before! Let's talk about the Element: for a company like Aston who are still quite new to the industry, it's such a radical experiment to be pushing out. How did the idea for the Element come about in the first place?
“Well, there's two main driving factors: first, it was through reaching out and talking to people in the industry about it, and the other comes down to the new technology we've recently developed. When we sat down originally to design the Element, it was a very different process to the rest of the microphones we’ve made. It was driven by the capsule design, which is not normally how it’s done for us.
"Our chief designer who designed the Stealth model - he’s a proper mad professor bloke who lives on a little island in Scotland - came to me a year and a half ago with the idea for the capsule. I can’t actually tell you what it is just yet, but I can confirm that no one has ever made a capsule quite like this before. It’s not what you would classify as a condenser, it’s not what you would classify as a dynamic and it’s certainly not a ribbon, which are the only three categories there are for mic capsules! It’s a kind of hybrid between the three, so technically speaking, what you end up with is something that performs like a condenser, but is as robust as a dynamic and it also has the projection of a dynamic - you can use it on stage just as well as you can in the studio, even though it sounds like a condenser microphone.
"It also has ribbon-like qualities to the way the diaphragm works: of course, the midrange of a ribbon microphone is renowned for sounding really natural, and that’s what you get with this mic. It’s like the best three bits of each capsule, rolled into one. So we thought ‘How can we actually do this?’, and we figured that more than ever, we needed the input of as big a cohort of people as possible to direct the raw sound of something into something which everyone will be comfortable with.”
A lot of your previous work with Aston has been roadtested by people working in the field prior to its release. Can you tell us a bit about the Aston 33 Panel, how it's evolved, and how their input assists in the design process?
“You're right; all of the sounds of our products have been designed by a panel of some of the top audio professionals in the business, including producers, engineers and artists. We started with 33, and now we’ve got about 600 people on that panel. No other company works that way, and it’s a hugely important part of how we get our products to sound the way that they do.
“For the Element, we decided to expand on that idea by hosting an online voting platform, where we go through the same process of having guitars, male vocals and female vocals recorded by a bunch of competitor’s microphones, as well as our own, but we don’t tell the voters who they are voting for other than ‘here’s some audio, what do you like’. From that raw data, we also get subjective data points as well, where we start to see a trend towards what it is people like and what it is they don’t like, and then we can tailor the sound of the microphone to what they like. Nobody has ever done that before in pro-audio - I like to think we’re ahead of the curve a bit!
“The voting process itself is also really simple: it’s just a drag and drop system on the back end of our website. We gather information about how they’re listening to each example, just to get rid of all the kids listening on their earbuds or laptop speakers, and then you can download each stem in batches to listen to in whatever DAW software you use.”
It's a pretty ambitious move to get so many people involved. Did you ever feel like the Element project would struggle to get off the ground and fail to become a reality?
“It was certainly scary, but we’ve never thought about whether something could be a reality or not, if I’m being honest. We’re moving so fast, that if we’d stop to think about it, we’d have probably never done it! It has been a bit scary to be so open about the design process, and of course, it’s all being peer-reviewed by the press to make sure we’re not cheating with anything.
"In fact, in the first round of voting, the Element didn’t do very well - although we didn’t expect it to, because it was simply the raw sound of the capsule, and we deliberately didn’t want to get it right on the first try. With Round Two, we’ve made some big leaps in terms of what the mic sounds like, so we’ll see how everybody responds to how it sounds this time!"
Can you detail the processes you're going to to record each example of the audio from the Element and your competitor's microphones that voters are hearing online?
“It was very important for us to remove as much bias as possible, so we've been very transparent about everything that we've been doing the whole time. For the first round of voting, we found a studio who had nothing to do with our company at all and hired their facilities and a couple of artists and an engineer to do the session - in fact, we didn't even attend that session.
"We gave the engineer and the artists some very clear instructions on what to do. There were six microphones used in the first session: five different products from our major competitor brands, plus our first prototype, and each mic was mounted on the exact same stand with an identical pop shield, cable and shock mount for each microphone. We also taped the distance between the mic and each source, so our artists could just move from one to the other to make sure everything was as controlled as possible.
"After it was all recorded, we normalised the tracks to make sure it was all at the same volume, and of course, that highlights where some microphones are noisier than others, because if you have to lift the volume you'll hear the noise lift as well. But that's an important reality of buying microphones. We're very, very painstaking about how we do that, and the whole process is being peer-reviewed by magazines, so they're able to see whether we've been cheating or not!"
You mentioned before about how you didn't expect the Element to go well in the first round of voting. Were there any other things that have really taken you by surprise throughout this process?
"Hey, if we'd somehow stumbled upon the secret to the world's best mic in the first round of voting, I wouldn't have been complaining, I can assure you! But the point for that was to let people hear the raw sound of the capsule, because it's so different to anything that's been done before, and we wanted to highlight that against the sound of the other mics. That really came out in the tests: it was very clear about what people liked and what they didn't.
"From the competitor mics, it was really interesting. I’ve seen countless A/B tests in the sub-$1000 microphone market over many years and in many situations, so it would surprise a lot of people that the brand that you’d expect to do the best because they're more expensive or have the oldest heritage always come up at the bottom, and the cheaper mics always end up on top. We had a literal exact reversal of pricepoint for the stuff they preferred: from. 2,500 people the most expensive microphone we used was right down the bottom, and as we went down in price, the microphone did better and better. It was really weird."
That's quite interesting. What's been the overall response from the public and others in the industry towards the Element? Are you expecting other pro-audio companies to jump on the bandwagon with similar ideas in the near future?
“Well, we got 2,500 people that have already registered and voted in the first round alone and have already created such a huge sample size, so we’re very happy about that.We’ve had a lot of people on social media saying that it’s a brilliant idea and that it’s typically Aston thing to do, but I think it’s an important thing to do, to give buyers a voice like this.
“It’s also not like people are just clicking ‘like’ to vote for what they want: this is 2,500 people downloading files and auditioning them and voting, so it’s an entire process in itself. This is not a ‘here’s three versions of our products, choose which one you like the best’ or ‘here’s an interface, choose what features you like’ - that’s safe. Anybody can do that. We’re live, and putting our microphones up to our competitors products when they’re not yet developed, and while the public is watching us, we’re trying to develop the microphone to make it sound better than the others. I don’t think anyone will be following suit; I think it’s really bloody stupid of us to be honest!”
It's the stupid ideas that always seem to work the best though! In terms of consumer demographics, who have you really created the Element in mind for? Is it more of a microphone for the studio, or can it be used by performers as well?
“It’s definitely for the singer-songwriter market, because it’s very versatile and we’re voicing it specifically for that. But if you voice something for acoustic guitars, it’s going to sound pretty good on most stringed instruments, and likewise for vocals, so I wouldn’t limit it to that market. The fact that its versatile enough to be used live and in the studio is going to give it very wide appeal, and it’s not complicated either - as long as you’ve got phantom power, you can plug it in and get a good sounding mic."
Finally - what's next for Aston after the Element lands in stores? Have you got any other crazy ideas in the pipeline?
"We’ve always got a number of ideas that we’re working on in the background. I can tell you that we’re working on some acoustic stuff, and we don’t yet have things like a stage dynamic, a ribbon mic and a tube mic so there’s still things we don’t have in our range that other companies do. We also do have dome projects that are typically Aston in that they really push the boundaries in what’s possible with mic technology - stuff that’s never been done before in terms of capsule design and performance. Watch this space, I suppose!"