Road-Testing Zylia's Magic Ball: Will It Really Revolutionise the Music Industry?
Two years ago, the prototype of a single microphone that does multi-track recordings was introduced to the public, and caused an international Internet sensation. Now, Culture.pl, which dubbed the device a ‘magic ball’ due to its remarkable functionality, has finally received a commercial version of the ZYLIA for tests. Here’s what we found out…
‘Can’t wait to use one’, ‘Sound so good this device’, ‘(…) Pretty darn cool!’ – these are some of the comments our readers posted below the article The Magic Ball That Will Revolutionise the Music Industry from November 2015. Well, Culture.pl is happy to inform that the wait is over and it appears the revolution has officially begun. The magic ball, an ingenious recording device named ZYLIA, has left the prototype stage we described and is now a functional product that’s going to be delivered to its lucky first buyers (backers of the device’s Indiegogo campaign) this November. But does the device put its money where its mouth is?
Just call it a mic
Just like the prototype, although much prettier now, the ready ZYLIA is a spherical microphone array that can simultaneously record sounds coming from multiple sources onto separate tracks. If you’re unfamiliar with the intricacies of music recording and that sounds a bit unclear, the following example should help.
You place the ball-shaped mic on a table, on one side a guitarist sits down, on the other a vocalist. You press record and the two play a song together. After you press stop, thanks to ZYLIA you can not only listen to the recorded song, but also to the guitar and voice separately. Before ZYLIA came along, you couldn’t really do this using just one microphone. Sure, people tried to isolate certain frequencies or edit single mic recordings in other ways to obtain a similar effect , but the results weren’t necessarily satisfactory - more than one mic was required at the end of the day. Thanks to this Polish product, that’s no longer the case.
The 4-inch sphere, made of ABS or metal (depending on the edition), actually houses 19 microphones – that’s why it’s learnedly called an ‘array’. But don’t hesitate if you want to simply call it a ‘mic’, the makers themselves sometimes describe it like that. The separation of sounds coming from different sources is made possible by the software that governs the device’s functioning. Not to get deep into technical lingo let’s just briefly quote the Poznań-based producers:
The technology behind ‘the extraction of sound sources’ is a technique developed by our internal R&D department. We use a combination of spatial filtering (beamforming) and blind sound source separation.
Sounds pretty complicated… but probably not to Tomasz Żernicki, the tech brain behind ZYLIA , as he has a doctorate in digital audio processing.
From prototype to product
The mic has to be used in conjunction with a computer, connected via USB. Once the thing is up and running, a light band around the circumference of the sphere begins to glow –blue when the mic’s idle, and red when it’s working. That’s a nice touch. Overall, the aesthetic design of ZYLIA is top-notch, and there’s been a huge leap compared to the plastic prototype from two years back. But, of course, changes weren’t only introduced to the microphone’s appearance. Here’s what Dr. Żernicki has to say about the product’s development:
Since the presentation at the AES convention in 2015 we’ve made the transition from prototype to product, meaning that even the smallest details have been perfected and that we’re ready to manufacture our microphone in any quantity desired. (…) Also we’ve taken into account the comments of our first users and beta testers – nearly a hundred artists and engineers. That led to the creation of the ZYLIA Studio app which lets you record music rehearsals in studio quality and the ZYLIA Studio PRO plug-in that lets you manually control virtual microphones (…).
At the apartment
I decided to run two tests with ZYLIA, one at a private flat with one of my friends, and one at a recording studio with a sound engineer. The objective of the first was to check how the mic performs when you record a casual rehearsal with it, while the second trial was to determine whether it’s fit for serious studio work.
At the apartment I met up with Jacek Jędrasik, member of the now-defunct urban-folk band Projekt Warszawiak that enjoyed a spell of popularity a few years back. Together we unpacked the ball from its elegant box. Inside we found the mic attached to a stand that lets you stably place it on a flat surface or screw it onto a standard microphone stand. Other than that, there’s a USB cable and two info leaflets. The fact that you don’t get a lot of stuff in the box is definitely positive. You don’t have to wonder ‘Oh what’s this for?’ or ‘Where does that thing go?’
Instead, you just plug the mic into your computer and are almost immediately ready to record. You need to download the software to your computer beforehand, but that together with the installation takes no more than a couple of minutes. When we opened the ZYLIA Studio app we were glad to discover it to be highly intuitive, with a neat, user-friendly graphic layout. Setting up a recording session works really smoothly – you choose the instruments you want to record from a list, and then let the mic map how they’re positioned in the space around it through a process called ‘calibration’. It involves each instrument playing solo for eight seconds. And then… you’re ready to go.
Here you can listen to the effects of our test. Jacek played the ukulele and sang a little (it is his voice you can hear toward the end of the recording), I played the acoustic guitar. Track one is a mix of both tracks, track two is the guitar isolated from that recording by ZYLIA Studio, while track three is the isolated ukulele.
As you can hear, there is some bleed on the solo tracks, meaning you can partially hear the other instrument that’s not supposed to be there. Nevertheless, the solo tracks as they are let you make meaningful adjustments to the proportions in the mix – you could easily have more of either the ukulele or the guitar in it. Changes like that can be made using the ZYLIA Studio software. The app also lets you spread your tracks across the stereo panorama and export both the solo tracks and mix as audio files – these are all very useful features. After we were done with the test, I asked Jacek about his impression of the ball:
A very intuitive machine, that goes both for the hardware and the software. But I think that professional musicians and sound engineers would appreciate better track separation or less bleed. Still, this is the first version of the product so I believe it has a bright future ahead of it. At the moment I think it’s perfect for bands wanting to quickly record their rehearsals. Also it seems to have a great potential to be used in various avant-garde projects. One could picture thousands of intriguing, out-of-the-box uses for this machine in the broadly understood field of audio art…
For the studio test, I went to Warsaw’s Quality Studio where I met with Piotrek Marek Szumski, a sound engineer who works with some of the best musicians in the country. He’d already heard of the magic ball and was quite curious about it. His first impulse was to use it to record a single instrument: a grand piano (certainly an out-of-the-box use, like Jacek had mentioned). The idea was to find out if ZYLIA could record the piano’s bass and treble registers onto separate tracks in one take. The ball was placed closely above the piano’s strings. Below you can hear first the mix, followed by the bass and treble separately:
Piotrek achieved what he wanted to – he could split the registers into separate tracks and move them across the stereo panorama. The bleed didn’t seem to bother him, and he complimented the quality of the recording’s sound.
Later we checked how the mic might record an acoustic guitar and piano playing together. This time we followed the advice given in the manual: that the distance between each sound source and the ball should be about 1.5 metres (that’s also how the earlier recordings with Jacek were made). Here are the results, in the respective order of mix, piano solo, then guitar solo.
As you can see, there’s much less bleed than in the apartment recordings. This may have been due to the better sound conditions of the professional studio space this time round, or by some other factor, like Jacek's occasional singing during his ukulele performance, which could’ve somehow misled the software which had been set for recording two string instruments, not a voice. Regardless of the reason, the level of bleed in the latter two tracks is very, very low. When you consider that we’re talking about a single take recorded by one mic simply standing between the pianist and guitarist, the effects of the track separation seem nothing short of amazing.
However, Piotrek pointed out that the recommended distance of 1.5 metres between the sound sources and microphone causes the mic to pick up a lot of room sound, something that might be problematic, especially to those who like to work with a clear microphone signal. Piotrek also expressed some concerns about the USB connection, but seemed to genuinely appreciate the sound of the recorded guitar and piano as well as the way the magic ball looks:
The design and workmanship are just wonderful. If you like futuristic forms you’ll definitely appreciate ZYLIA’s look. When it comes to its functionality it may not be ideal for regular studio work, mainly because of the connection. It connects via USB so you need to make an aggregated device to be able to use other microphones simultaneously with this microphone. From a professional standpoint, the connection is quite important.
But I have to say that for a band that rehearses frequently or is preparing to go into the studio, ZYLIA can be highly beneficial because each musician can isolate his part and work on it. You can also record a very decent demo with it, for example when you’re looking to apply for a festival. The recordings we made show that the microphones inside the ball aren’t of poor quality. When you take that into account, the price becomes intriguing, it is relatively low and attractive.
A segment of its own
The basic version is priced at $599, while the pro one costs $200 more. The hardware, a.k.a. the magic ball, is the same in both cases – the difference lies in the software. At the studio we only managed a brief look at how the Studio PRO version works (which is still in development phase) but it seems that it has a lot more to offer than its simpler counterpart.
For example, it lets you break up a recorded track into the 19 constituent tracks captured by all of the mics hidden inside the ball. It also lets you set up any number of what the producers call ‘virtual microphones’ which let you creatively alter the sound of the recording. What’s really intriguing about this concept is that this can be done live or during post-production. But we’ll have to wait until the pro version is finished to be able to truly say whether it’s worth the extra buck or not.
Overall ZYLIA seems, for want of a better expression, a really, really cool thing. Most of the people who encountered it during my tests liked it right from the start and were drawn to it. Not only because of its design but also (or chiefly) because of its functionality – the idea of making multi-track recordings with a single mic is rather appealing. And it does seem that this concept has been implemented successfully – in the right conditions, ZYLIA makes good on its promise to break up a layered recording into separate tracks. Indeed, there’s always some bleed, but its low enough for the separated tracks to be perfectly capable of being used as mixing material. Also, the general quality of the registered sound is high.
Bear in mind that the audio snippets in this article are taken straight from ZYLIA Studio and weren’t edited elsewhere apart from adding fade-ins and outs. This approach was chosen purposefully to present the raw sound of ZYLIA. One could easily take these recordings to a whole different level in post-production, something that’s typically done with sound material captured by traditional mics e.g. when somebody’s working on an album. Having said that, making a low-budget album using ZYLIA doesn’t seem like something unthinkable. It’s definitely fit for making demo tapes and recording rehearsals.
Maybe it can’t compete with the best microphones out there, used for recording sound of outstanding quality, but those are either in a completely different price range or dedicated to specific types of sounds and therefore much less versatile – ZYLIA is in a different segment. It’s actually in a segment of its own, as there doesn’t seem to be anything quite like it out there. It’s fun and creative. Also the high intuitiveness and almost plug-and-play ease of use are big advantages. Not to mention the mobility offered by the device – equipped with just a laptop (Mac or Linux) and the ball, you can record almost anywhere. And yes, the producers are working on a version that’ll connect to a tablet.
The only problems I encountered during testing occurred during the calibration process – sometimes mapping all of the instruments taking part in a recording wasn’t possible. But it turned out this was caused by a malfunctioning USB cable – not a big deal, nor the ball’s fault.
Among the many praises the magic ball has received, there’s one that seems to be fitting as an ending. Earlier this year ZYLIA was officially chosen for the Best in Show panel at the NAMM music trade fair in Nashville, one of the most famous cities in the world when it comes to music. One of the panel, President of A&G Central Music Robert Christie, said:
You can make a circle around the microphone, and you can get a really good recording with just one microphone. Once you've got that recording, the software does its magic, and breaks it into individual tracks. This will give you a multi-track recording that sounds fantastic. One microphone, one cable and one computer. It's really cool.
Author: Marek Kępa, October 2017