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Happy 6th birthday or why I love my Soundman OKM II binaural microphones

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008 | field recording | 18 Comments

I was looking through an old diary from 2002 the other day and noticed that on Thursday 3rd October I ordered my pair of Soundman OKM classic II binaural microphones. I got the set with the a3 preamp which costs extra than buying the mics alone. The whole lot came in at £150.18 which was quite an extravagance for me at that time. A quick look at DACS their UK distributor shows that they are still selling for the same price as 6 years ago. 

I distinctly remember being fairly underwhelmed when I received my purchase in the mail a few days later. The all plastic construction of the mics and the pre-amp was more in keeping with a microphone one tenth of the price of the OKM’s. The mics looked for all the world like a really nasty set of 80’s in-ear headphones and the Pre-amp looked especially delicate and I was concerned that I’d break something fairly soon. 

After this fairly lackluster opening my opinion began to change when I started to test them out. The OKM’s are designed to fit into the ear, their capsules pointing outward. Worn like this sound arrives at the microphones in more or less the same way it arrives at your ears which is a technique known as binaural recording. Because of the physical design of the human ear sounds coming from different directions all sound slightly different to us. Sound coming form behind us for example is filtered through the back of the ear and sounds more muffled than sounds emanating from directly in front (try it by clicking your fingers around your head if you don’t believe me). The OKM’s pick all this up really well with an especially good bass response. I have heard criticism of harsh treble and weak lower mids with the OKM’s but I have never had any problems in these areas with my set up. 

The tiny size and semi-concealed nature of these microphones makes them excellent for field recording where a larger mic may be cumbersome, distracting, or not practical. Recording while riding around on a bicycle springs to mind. Of course you don’t have to wear the mics in your ears, in the time I have had mine I have become quite adept at holding both in one hand and rotating the capsules by rolling their cables between thumb and forefinger to get the desired stereo spread. The mics can also be attached to a dummy head (or any head sized solid object) for recordings where you want a rock solid stereo field. I recently did this for a drum recording where I found that I could not keep my head still enough while playing the drums. 

I think my favorite thing of all about the OKM’s is that they are so easy to carry around and use. Within 15 seconds they can be out of my bag, plugged into my recorder, levels set and ready to record. I’ve captured so many fleeting moments this way that I’m sure I would have missed with a more complicated set-up.

I used to use the OKM’s with a sony mini-disc recorder which sadly died and was replaced by a sharp mini-disc recorder which also died eventually after one to many drops. Both machines gave excellent results although recordings of very quiet sources showed a fair bit of pre-amp hiss. I replaced my dead MD’s with a Zoom H4 recorder which was really horrible and I stopped making field recordings for quite a while as they sounded terrible! Recently I picked up a Sony PCM-D50 which has totally rekindled my love for field recording. It’s solid, dependable, economical, and has proper knobs and switches for all the important controls. The D50’s preamps are much better than in my old mini-disc recorders and they make the H4 sound like a bad joke. 

Despite my initial concerns about the OKM’s build quality they have lasted 6 years without any problems at all. Sounds I have captured using these mics have appeared on all of my albums and have serverd to inspire me to listen to everyday things in new ways.

Here are a few of my recordings – you might try using headphones to listen as it’s the only way to hear the proper binaural effect.

Chimes recorded at quite high gain and played quietly

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The police over Hackney – Perfect summer afternoon

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With the microphones jammed down the back of my fridge

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Drums recorded from the players perspective

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Take care,

Leafcutter John.

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