Earthworks Audio

Earthworks Audio

A Pro’s Point of View

Jim Merod

23 August 2002

I gained my introduction to the extraordinary audio universe of David Blackmer in the late ’80s. I was searching among several high-end audio stores for my first CD player. One-box units were standard then and I had no understanding of the complexities and complications that would soon emerge in the world of digital sound reproduction. Perfect sound was here forever and all of us could junk our vinyl albums and prepare ourselves to repurchase them in the much more convenient, terrifically ‘better sounding’ 16-bit digital disc format. 

Ah, yes … the world was generous with heady new audio horizons. My job, at that moment, was merely to locate the best sounding CD player from among a small gaggle of boxes arriving on the market. 

I held off buying a unit until I was convinced that I had found something worth listening to for a sustained while. After several visits to audio outlets within easy reach, I came across a seemingly knowledgeable salmon who wanted me to put a grand down on the soon-to-be-in-production laser vinyl player. I, too, could be the first on my block to have a digital-based analog machine — a device so space-age intense with gaudy innovation that only a select few hipsters were chosen to put upfront bucks on the new device.

Because I loved my vinyl albums dearly, as I still do, and because this bloke worked his rear off to convince me that I was the perfect candidate to help him usher in the mind-boggling new world of vinyl playback via laser tracking, my gaze was temporarily diverted from the real source of audio joy resting within reach. 

There were two of them, in fact. The first was a pair of Dahlquist DQ-10 speakers that were being blown out at a genuine bargain price. When I heard them at length (in the process of scoping out CD players) I realized they were a tremendous upgrade from my Klipsch speakers. They became part of the sound chain I relied on for several years. The second jewel momentarily obscured by the sales hustle was a dbx DX-5 CD player, a mighty sound reproduction engine in a modest box sporting four somewhat understated, wholly innocent knobs on the face panel. 

Little did I realize at the time that I was face to face with one of David Blackmer’s benign, yet truly evil little creations. The DX-5 blew away higher-priced Nakamichi and other one-box units . . . and gave the willing audio enthusiast a handsome set of controls to tailor sound: a remarkably effective “ambience” control; a variable attenuation “soft” compression control; and a “digital impact audio recovery” [DAIR] control, a two band signal processor that added sonic wallop to musical transients. The fourth knob sets the volume for its headphone jack (a very useful feature, indeed).

Other useful functions made the DX-5 a marvelous one-box companion: time display; a sub-index repeat control so that any place on and any portion of a disc can be auditioned repeatedly; and more . . . but the finest aspect of Blackmer’s devilish little gizmo was its extraordinary musicality. The unit just flat out made great sound, music that did not fatigue the ears or destroy attention.

I’ll put that virtue in the present tense, as well, since I still use the DX-5 as an armchair auditioning tool for any number of audio-related tasks. David Blackmer’s splendid musical craftsmanship has stood up for more than fifteen years of weekly use. The unit still gives me pleasure with a nearly unrivalled ease of use and breadth of functional flexibility.

All this is by way of introduction to EARTHWORKS, perhaps David Blackmer’s finest legacy. He has many achievements worth celebrating. 

Alas, we lost David on March 21st of this year . . . a loss that may not have been recognized as widely, for example, as the loss of a pop cult vocal star or sports hero. But, for me, the work that David Blackmer accomplished in his lifetime continues to have an impact on the world of music.

Of all the ways Blackmer’s legacy influences our audio present and future, the EARTHWORKS line of microphones and recording instruments is the most significant. The company is in the excellent hands of David’s son, Eric, a man who fully understands the value of the work he carries on – a man who respects the delicate nature of well-recorded music and who knows how to push the sonic envelope toward greater degrees of musical enchantment.

I feel fortunate to call upon two sets of Earthworks microphones in my recording efforts: a near-matched pair of TC30K omnidirectional microphones and a pair of 
SR-series condenser mics. One of them, the SR-71, has been superceded by the SR-77, but both of these microphones have wonderful tonal neutrality with gobs of sonic “reach” (a term I use to designate the ability of a mic instrument to command a large and appropriately-scoped musical field). All four of these microphones are glorious. They are each characterized by the Earthwork trademark: signal flatness with huge sonic impact, delicacy and detail.

I’ve read reviews that suggest that Earthworks microphones are somewhat “dry,” a term that may not be intended as derogatory but a term that, nonetheless, does not do justice to the exquisite capacity of these microphones to capture sonic nuances and musical magic.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. Awhile back I had the opportunity to record a small group of superior musicians with minimal miking … an occasion that I enjoy a great deal since it places a premium upon immediate musical intimacy. Too often the aim of a recording session is to cram as much sonic information as possible (or so it seems) into the available sonic (instrumental) envelope. One’s entire set of gear, in such circumstances, governs the extent of one’s creativity. In contrast, it is a joy to have the chance to focus essentially or solely on microphone choice and microphone placement as the central sonic-shaping logic.

For this occasion, I chose three microphones: the Earthworks omni pair (TC30k) in a wide-angle Ortophon spread for the fundamental sonic capture, with a single Earthworks condenser, the SR-77, as a spot mic on the guitar. There is much to be gained from such a simple array and a great deal to give one pause, too. The crucial choice, after microphones are selected, is placement of mic-instruments. I think of microphones as organic extensions of human ears: quite literally, ears we can put more or less where we’d like them to be – with all that entails in emotional, physical, and psycho-acoustic sensitivity.

I set the omni pair where I felt the total body of ambient information would not overwhelm or blur the immediacy of first order transient impact. I placed the single SR-77 where it had the greatest chance to “hear” the innate bloom of the acoustic guitar. The merging of such sonic streams with a minimalist mic-preamp was, at that point, straightforward and without complexity.

This arrangement allowed the greatest possible “coloring” or “filtering” or “shaping” or sound and music by the microphones themselves … each of these terms in some way a derogation of the results that I expected – and achieved.

First, Earthworks microphones have a remarkable way of getting out of the way of anything they record. Their sonic flatness and neutrality are forms of transparency. I expected to hear, on monitoring, a “large as life” sound. That was precisely what I received back. I was never doubtful that the Earthworks would somehow intrude upon the “big sound with an immediate dynamic kick” that I wanted to achieve. A good part of success here, of course, had to do with the signal purity of the three-mic mixing preamp. It did its job perfectly and, thus, allowed the TC30Ks and the SR77 to do their work with ease and impressive clarity.

Anytime, each time, that I’ve called on any of my four Earthworks microphones, they have met or exceeded my needs and expectations. In many years of carrying these mics with me across country and using them under all sorts of difficult sonic conditions. I have never had a single fluff or failure of any sort from them. They are, as I frequently tell colleagues, “work horses.” They do their jobs perfectly every time. They capture music with every loud THWACK and each subtle SWOOSH held lovingly within an ambient whole that always seems much greater than the sum of its many (sometimes conflicting) parts.

When and if I have the opportunity to audition the new Earthworks Sigma 6.2 monitors and/or the critically acclaimed LAB series of mic-preamps (as well as their SR69 vocal mic), I will report here what I’ve found. I expect to discover there what I’ve lived with all these years from the four Earthworks instruments that have made my work easier: sonic clarity at an advanced degree of musicality and ease of use as well as durability… precisely that combination of attributes that David Blackmer built into the handy, bulletproof DX-5 disc player that has kept me happily engaged for fifteen years of use.

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