The 360° microphone that’s no joke5 September 2016
Polish company Zylia has designed a microphone/software combo that records your band – then separates the instruments into individual stems. Rob Speight wonders how…
When is a microphone not a microphone? When it is 32 microphones. But this is not a lame joke. Enter the AudioImmersion microphone from Polish company, Zylia.
Even though this product has not even hit the shelves yet, it is beginning to catch the eye of wily techie types. Looking somewhat like the ‘remote’ that Luke Skywalker battles on the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars Episode IV, the AudioImmersion is no less full of technology and innovation except it can’t fly and doesn’t have lasers — yet!
Aimed initially at performers who want to record their rehearsals, the premise for how to use the microphone is a simple one; place in centre of room, connect to computer via USB 2.0 cable, boot proprietary software and hit record. On completion of the recording it is sent to Zylia’s servers where some their technicians wave algorithms at the data and subsequently send back isolated stems of each and every instrument that was playing in the rehearsal.
Say co-founders Piotr Szczechowiak and Tomasz Żernicki: “We specialise in audio processing and although based in Poland we have offices in Demark and we are setting up a new one in the USA. The main markets for the product will be the USA, UK and Germany. We wanted to create a device that was a single microphone to record all instruments in the band simultaneously without having to spend time setting up a lot of microphones and a mixer.”
Szczechowiak was forthcoming about the quality of the processed audio: “Of course, it’s not super studio quality, it’s not supposed to replace recording in a studio. But, it’s something in the middle of recording rehearsals with a smartphone and recording with a full microphone set-up.” The recording itself is completed at 48kHz, 24-bit resolution but the intense processing naturally degrades some of that quality.
Although the AudioImmersion contains 32 physical microphones, that is not necessarily the number of individual instruments it can record simultaneously. Szczechowiak continued; “What the device and the system is doing is that it actually senses the instruments. So, it knows the direction that the instrument is coming from and based on that, and some advanced processing algorithms, it can actually extract the instrument from the mixture.” Żernicki gave more detail: “Actually we have an unlimited number of virtual microphones but for practical purposes we can extract six to seven instruments at a time.”
The complex processing uses, among other things, SPL, delay, room reverberation and phase to calculate the position of each instrument, and in addition, uses other audio voodoo to separate instruments in similar frequency ranges. Szczechowiak explained the recording process in more detail; “Basically we have two modes of operation. You can set up the virtual mics manually by using the software and just listening, but the main mode will be the automatic mode. It senses where the sources are by looking at the audio. You start recording and you play each instrument first for about five seconds so it calibrates and knows where each instrument is. Then you just need to remember not to move the position of each instrument during the session.”
The audio returned from Zylia’s servers are standard mono tracks that can be placed into your favourite DAW, or other formats such as a basic stereo mix. “We have many options so we can produce different outputs. We can do a lot of things because we have virtual mics! So, lets imagine you set up two virtual mics in a hall or even a 5.1 configuration. You can then do whatever you want. This functionality of the virtual microphones gives you such great flexibility when compared to a static set-up because you play in software (retrospectively) with your microphones, not with physical devices. It’s kind of a game-changer,” Szczechowiak says enthusiastically.
This kind of technology would seem perfectly suited to the tidal wave of virtual reality gaming and movies that are about to engulf consumers in the coming 12 months. “We get a lot of questions around this topic,” explains Szczechowiak. “When people see this microphone, some think it should be able to record in 360 degrees and, of course, it is possible as we have a lot of microphones. We can also record in third-order Ambisonic format. So, yes, if you would like to use it to record audio for cinematic VR you can do that.”
The final version of the microphone and processing package will ultimately be a subscription model, although basic processing will be included. Extra features will be paid options. “The reason we are doing it this way is because the calculations that have to be performed for separation are pretty intensive…” begins Szczechowiak.
Żernicki interjects: “This is only part of the truth. If you are a sound engineer you probably want to play around with it but when we did a test with a lot of musicians we found that they don’t really care. They just want to press one button and automatically have the result. The best scenario is that they can just record and after the rehearsal each member of the band gets sent their own personalised tracks. We have spent a lot of time with musicians and we incorporate all of their feedback, so even though this product is engineered by us, it is designed by them.”
The AudioImmersion will be available to order from September as part of Zylia’s KickStarter campaign with the first shipments being available in the first quarter of 2017. “The campaign is to help us get some hype around the product and also to raise some cash to help us with the first batch of production,” Szczechowiak reveals.
Maybe Zylia should go for the ‘flying with laser guns’ option: now that would be a KickStarter campaign no one could resist!
Pictures: Top: When one mic is 32 mics… Last: The Zylia team, including Tomasz Zernicki (front row, left) and Piotr Szczwchowiak (front, right)