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Panda Studios Microphone-changing robot

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012 | by


If you’ve ever run back and forth 30 times into the live room to adjust the mic position on the guitar cab, you’ll really appreciate seeing Sam Pura’s microphone robot, “the Intern,” at Panda Studios in Fremont, CA. Read on for Sam’s story of the robot’s genesis.

Video by Evan Henkel.



I started in the “music industry” as a guitar player. When I started recording, my redeeming quality was the ability to get great guitar tones. Over the past 9 years of recording, I’ve tried new things every time I record. The point is the get better sounds today than I did yesterday. I’ve tried new mics, EQs, preamps, phase alignment tools, amplifiers, speakers, guitars, pedals, picks, etc. I went through absolutely every aspect of guitar tone and tried to develop better sounds each day. Still, I was unhappy with my guitar tones.

I started to try digital modeling. Softube’s Amp Room was the first I had a positive experience with. Although I wasn’t impressed with the amp sounds, and determined Amp Room wouldn’t work for me, the ability to move a microphone’s placement in the application was a huge breakthrough. I started to think, what if I had a robot that moved the microphone around the speaker for me?! The idea never went further than some “what if?” conversations over beers.

Kruspe's mic robot, photo by musicradar.comFast-forward to 2010. Rammstein develops amp modeling software with Native Insruments, and demonstrates that their guitarist Richard Z. Kruspe has not one, but two microphone robots. [click photo at right to see more, via musicradar.com] I was immediately so frustrated that this product didn’t exist, and that it looked like it would be $20k to make.

Then Eric Valentine posted about his robot, which looked extremely simplified compared to Richard’s:

At that point, I assumed the robot couldn’t be that complicated and that I could just find some parts online and build it myself. I mean, the real way to get anything done is to “Do it yourself,” right?!?! … Wrong.

I showed both videos around and spent literally over a year trying to explain to my electronics friends why a robot was necessary to my workflow. They just didn’t understand the concept and I continued to get nowhere. I spent the entire year trying to do it myself, and I failed. I’m too busy making records to learn robotics.

Kerry GouldI got to a point where I would jokingly ask each band I would work with if they happened to be robot nerds. Eventually Kerry Gould (@k38g on Twitter) who plays drums for the band Troubled Coast was excited about it enough to say “That’s awesome! I can TOTALLY build that!” Kerry is a web programmer and insanely smart. He immediately was tossing back ideas like making an iPhone app as a controller, that could save locations as presets. I was like, “Ok, it’s more than obvious you understand why I need this, so let’s work this down to the cheapest price point possible and start incorporating these ideas as we go.”

We had to research how to make the most efficient and cheap robot possible, because every possible solution was not cheap. I came to the conclusion that going Up & Down is the same as Left & Right [in terms of the mic's position relative to the speaker cone --Ed.]. So, eliminating vertical movement solved a number of problems, and cut down the cost. Creating a robot that moved left and right over the cone, and back away from the cone, essentially covers all miking possibilities. We decided to just do these two forms of movement, and get a working prototype happening. (Adding a Pan/Tilt control, to enable variable off-axis miking, is something we’re still working on.)

Joystick controller for the Intern robotSo here we finally are with the first working model. It’s currently controlled by a joystick, but we plan to change that to arcade buttons for better precision. The way it works is I hook up 2 XLR cables to my Tie Lines and connect the joystick in the control room. The controller requires a 9-volt supply and that’s it. It’s made of two sliding rails controlled by two servos. It might sound simple and inexpensive, but it’s really not; it took Kerry three months to find the right components, and then seven more to get them working together. The prototyping process hit many roadblocks, and required many changes of components. The finished model alone cost over $500 in parts, and is what we determined to be the cheapest solution possible for two axes of movement.

SM57 on guitar cab, courtesy the microphone robotIn the video, the guitar is a Jazzmaster into an Orange AC30, Avatar Cab with Celestion Greenbacks miked up with a transformerless SM57 (set slightly off-axis). When it moves across the speaker, it’s either pointing off axis toward the dust cap, or away from it. That way we have a few more options than if the mic was just on axis.

Finding the perfect spot to mic on that speaker can be extremely time consuming. It can be too harsh, or too thick, or not have enough clarity in the note definition. But all I had to do was choose a great amp tone and guitar combination, and then play with the microphone position via The Intern while monitoring the guitar riff in the mix. The result are really awesome. I’m always struggling to get clarity from guitars without a harsh bite, and it is clear from this demonstration that changing the mic position is a very powerful technique and more drastic than an EQ.

3 cabs at Panda StudiosAt this point, the goal is to build three robots for all three of the tracking rooms we have here at The Panda Studios. Also because we do our live performance recording called The Waiting Room, having a robot on each guitar and bass would be the dream. From there, hopefully we’ve got the product developed enough to be able to take orders and create robots for all my studio buddies (and anyone else who wants one), and offer some warranty in case anything happens.

Sam Pura owns and runs a recording business in Fremont, CA called The Panda Studios. He grew up in California and graduated from Ex’pression College of the Digital Arts in Emeryville, CA. Since then, he has been successful at producing albums for bands like The Story So Far, Heavy Heavy Low Low, and Basement UK. Sam also produces the live performance web TV called “The Waiting Room” which premiers on Alternative Press and has featured various bands including Touche Amore, Polar Bear Club, Title Fight, Man Overboard, and Balance & Composure.

Read more about Sam and The Panda Studios in this interview at AltPress.

Posted in Studios, Technique, Video | 14 Comments »




14 Responses to “Panda Studios Microphone-changing robot”

  1. Cam Dunn

    July 19th, 2012 at 4:58 am

    Consider this the first order! I NEEEEEED one of those!!!

  2. Maurizio Pinna

    July 22nd, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    is possibol buy this robot ?? i’m very very interessed !!
    thanks you very much !!
    Maurizio from italy

  3. Michael Pulsford

    July 22nd, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    Nice, an X-Y plotter with a mic instead of a pen! Cool idea.

    As for rotation: would it work to use something like an iRobot Create as a base? They’re about $120 IIRC, and the remotes aren’t expensive either. There’d be the added advantage, if it worked, of range: you wouldn’t be limited to the size of the X-Y bed

    Main question I guess is how much weight, and at what height, one of those little robots can safely move around..

  4. Michael R

    July 24th, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    Congratulations,

    I have been building one myself, a 5 axis solution, x-y-z axis as well as pan and tilt. .

    Some of the major challenges are definitely money, torque/power to hold the weight of a microphone and the axises the particular motor and gears need to move and hold in position.

    I would love to hear more about cost, availability, etc when you feel you are ready to bring it to market.

    My requirements were I wanted to be able to support an RCA77D or similar heavy mic at the far end of the range which can get very challenging and tends to up the $$$$.

    Good luck.

  5. Sam Pura

    July 29th, 2012 at 5:59 am

    Hey we put up a page to sign up for our mailing list and receive more info as we progress. Prototype 2 is almost done. More info soon!

    http://robot.thizzery.com/

  6. Alex DeLuca

    August 4th, 2012 at 11:31 am

    This is very fucking cool. Consider me signed up for one.

  7. Paul

    November 6th, 2012 at 6:11 pm

    If you’re willing to mod your own servos and use a smaller x-box style joystick, you can build this for about $250. We just finished ours and it works like a dream! Major props to Sam for using XLR cables to transfer signal. Brilliant!

  8. mike deasy

    September 21st, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    great stuff
    how do I get a set of plans?
    did you video the construction?

  9. Andre Steenkamp

    September 23rd, 2013 at 9:00 am

    Did it not occur to him to try using the latest Lego Mindstorm to do this? I’ll be making one in the following months, will post results.

    Probably won’t be as sturdy, but I can guarantee that it’ll be up and running alot faster…

  10. matthew mcglynn

    September 23rd, 2013 at 9:08 am

    @Andre, send me photos of your Mindstorm mic bot, please! :) I’d love to show those on the RecordingHacks site.

  11. Nick

    November 8th, 2013 at 9:13 am

    You just found your fortune I think. If you could produce these and sell them at an affordable price point, every project studio in the world would buy one.

  12. Mike Bolenbach

    November 8th, 2013 at 9:20 am

    sign me up for two. :)

  13. Cam

    November 8th, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    If you got that robot a nice looking plastic cover (just to make it look presentable) you could easily sell that. As an audio engineer myself I’d be more then willing to buy one!

  14. Chris

    October 26th, 2014 at 7:59 am

    Hey dude!

    I am currently researching ‘MicBots’ for my Honors project in university. I would love to chew your ear off about your research so far, as well as possibly help contribute to research involving adding pan/tilt/preset and recall abilities as these are ideas I have been toying with in my aims to build on what is already out there. So far I am at the very beginnings of my research, so any pointers in the right direction would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks for your time.

    Chris.

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