Broadcast and video production technology evolves over the years to keep pace with emerging operational techniques. The microphone market has seen some of the most dramatic changes, as engineers and broadcasters have demanded ever more discreet but effective mics. The growing use of digital SLR cameras and smartphones by programme-makers – from young YouTubers to independent film directors to mainstream TV – has created both a new way of working and a challenge to mic manufacturers to provide good quality sound at an affordable price in a small package.
Among the companies actively addressing this emerging market is MXL Microphones, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary with the introduction of a range of mics compatible with mobile phones and tablets. The Mobile Media (MM) series was launched at the NAMM Show in January, and is part of MXL's efforts to not just tap into a new user base but also expand and extend its existing range to cover a broad sweep of applications.
Not that Perry Goldstein, director of sales and marketing for MXL Microphones, thinks manufacturers are necessarily the best arbiters of how and for what their products will be used. "It's never really good to judge a product in that way," he says. "No matter what people think something will be used for, they will be partly right but mostly wrong. The market decides."
MXL was established by Leonard Marshall, founder of Marshall Electronics, the producer of LCD monitors and racks, Mogami cables and connectors and digital signage systems. His ambition was to create a good studio condenser mic at an affordable price, with the ultimate aim – which might have seemed overly ambitious back in 1994 – of taking on the dominance of Neumann but for a quarter of the price.
"He was probably thinking that it would be mostly musicians that would buy something like that, but there was also demand in broadcasting from people doing voiceover work," Goldstein says. The 2001 condenser mic established MXL in the market and led to a range of condensers and tube mics for both the MI sector and broadcast. The company also moved into live sound and field recording, more recently diversifying with USB devices and web conferencing systems.
That diversification has continued with its products for mobile recording. Over the last few years, DSLR cameras have reached a level of picture quality and pricing that they are being used by aspiring, semi-professional and professional film- and programme-makers. The weak point was the onboard sound, but mic manufacturers stepped in with small shotgun mics to sit in the flash hot shoe. MXL is part of this with the FR-310 electret condenser, but Goldstein observes that equal, if not greater, demand for better audio to go with pictures is coming from those using their iPhones or Android devices to produce films and TV shows.
"Once upon a time, you had phones that could take pictures, but while there are professional cameras out there as well, people are discovering they can shoot a movie on their iPhone 5," he says. "These are now competing with point-and-shoot cameras and professionals are using them. These devices create stunning video; however, the audio recording capability is limited. So, we [had] a target market in mind and created a full line of mics that plug into the 3.5mm mini jack, which makes them compatible with most phones and tablets, regardless of operating system."
To make the MM Series more attractive to the professional sector, MXL has worked on the impedance of the shotgun, wireless and boundary mics in the range, so that they work at mic level. This, Goldstein says, is attractive to potential users but he admits that, initially, he and his colleague misjudged who some of them might be. The somewhat surprising truth was revealed at the end of June in Anaheim during VidCon, billed as the event for people who love online video.
"We thought it would be 20- to 30-somethings, like college students and so on," Goldstein comments. "But there were seven to 16-year olds there as well and they were all looking for something to connect with their phones so they could record and do conference calls. This is a young crowd that recognises they need better audio. And they're aspirational – they're starting with phones but many either also had DSLRs or were planning to move up to them."
Another sector where smartphones are becoming widely used is radio reporting, and MXL is looking towards this for ongoing expansion. Among products for radio, as well as other sectors, will be a re-working of a previous MXL product – but the new four-mic Mini Mixer will, Goldstein says, be the size of an iPhone and offer both electret audio and USB capability.
Goldstein adds that the company is planning to raise its profile in Europe, where he acknowledges it is still more known for its MI products than broadcast or new media. "Europe is a harder nut to crack," he says, "because of the likes of Neumann and Sennheiser, but it is up to us to do that. The European market is really important and we have a full line to offer, including the mobile devices range."
Concluding that the key is being able to offer something the competition can't, Goldstein returns to MXL's experience at VidCon as part of its current inspiration: "What we learned there was the real users are the children. There were 14-year olds who have their own IPTV channels, selling advertising and everything. We have to start thinking about the future and who our market is, which looks like being these children who are just starting out. I'm just astounded at their level of professionalism and we have to tell this generation growing up who we are."
Main picture: MXL Microphones MM-VE001