Review – The Kaotica Eyeball
If you record in a less than ideal acoustic environments, you might find it easier to achieve consistent vocal sound using the Kaotica Eyeball. Read this to learn more.
by Per Lichtman, May 2014
The Kaotica Eyeball (http://kaoticaeyeball.com/) is small, light and even “flame retardant” ball and pop screen that you slide onto your mic. Kaotica sells the device direct online only for $199 USD and bill it as giving the sound of a vocal booth anywhere you take it. They also go into a ton more detail about the specifics of that on both their site and their packaging. With that in mind, I tested the Eyeball from February through May to find out whether this was the silver bullet that vocalists and VO performers had been waiting for.
An Eyeball on Singers
First of all, in less than ideal acoustic environments it’s much easier to achieve a smooth and consistent vocal sound using the Kaotica Eyeball. The worse the acoustic environment you are recording in is, the closer the vocalist gets to the mic and the louder they sing, the bigger the difference will be between recording with the Kaotica Eyeball and without it. I would also like to mention that the manufacturer’s suggestion of recording the vocalist two or three inches away from the pop-filter isn’t the only way to go: I got some great results with the vocalist right up against the pop-shield for an increase proximity effect (though the trade-off is a less effective pop-shield, of course). More on this in the voiceover section.
By audibly reinforcing the sound of the vocalist and reducing the level of the external early reflections and reverb, the Kaotica Eyeball lowers the impact of the space the audio is recorded in. Sure enough, vocals sound smoother and more consistent since the frequency response is far more predictable inside the Eyeball than in less than in haphazard acoustic environments (like most offices, bedrooms and kitchens, for example). It worked equally well when handheld as when mounted on a microphone stand, making me curious what the results would be like on-stage (assuming the visual of a large ball wasn’t a distraction). I did not a have occasion to test this during the review period, however.
When performing loud, dynamic vocal lines without the Kaotica Eyeball in an office, I would normally hear the room ring out at certain parts as particular notes, vowels or consonants resonated more than others – especially during the accents in a line. When that would happen, the size of the room used and its deficiencies could sometimes be difficult to mask, even with EQ and reverb. But with the Eyeball, similar performances sounded far more consistent, without the strong unintended peaks and valleys in the resonances. It certainly had a lot more of the sound of a small vocal booth – even when the space was adverse enough to still intrude a bit, it still felt like a vocal booth but more like someone had left the door of the booth open a bit to a less ideal space. In other words, the product does pretty much exactly what it says it will and what it’s supposed to. This is extremely useful.
Eyeball for Voiceover
Of course, when most people hear “vocal both”, one of the first things they think of is voiceover work, and since I started writing the review, I’ve literally been recommending the Eyeball to all of my friends that do voiceover work but don’t have a professional vocal booth available. Honestly, short of building a vocal booth, this really is every bit as as good as I’ve ever heard it get. Voiceover artists: if you want to shift the focus from a sub-optimal space to the quality of your performance, this would be the very next thing I’d get after a decent microphone. The Eyeball is also far more effective than some of the guerilla techniques indie engineers often have had to deal with in the past (though it can of course be used in combination with them). If every home recording that showed up on YouTube or Vimeo or as a podcast started using the Eyeball with a condenser mic, the Internet could be a much more pleasant place to listen to.
As mentioned earlier, feel free to experiment with recording your voiceover artist right up against the pop-shield: the proximity effect can often be very pleasant, even with the less effective role the pop-shield can play at that distance.
Compatibility with Different Mics
I tested the Kaotica Eyeball with a variety of mics and converters, as well as playing back on several different playback systems. When the recordings were properly setup, the differences were clearly audible across the gamut, but one of the most useful tests was with a multi-pattern microphone with rather low self-noise. When I hooked up the Rode NT2A (one of the least expensive tri-pattern mics I’ve enjoyed using) I found that Eyeball not only worked well with a cardioid pattern pick-up, but also with omni and figure 8. Rooms that normally had no hope of working well in omni mode suddenly became viable when the Eyeball was used. Not only did Eyeball omni vocal recordings give less of the room tone than omni recordings without it, they often gave even less of the original room tone than cardioid recordings without the Eyeball.
The Kaotica Eyeball was compatible with a wide range of microphones – especially after I got over my initial timidity about stretching the hole in the foam to let larger microphones in. It worked well with everything from sub-hundred dollar dynamic cardioid microphones to premium boutique large diaphragm condensers, like the Telefunken ELAM 251-E. But of course, some things were impractical. Finding shotgun mics small enough to fit in the Eyeball was a challenge and even when I did, the results were less than ideal – so I would rule shotgun mics out. Obviously, there’s no practical way to take advantage of the Eyeball using things like the internal mics on cameras, camcorders, smartphones, laptops and desktops but if you were planning on using one of those for your recordings, you would be well served to start by getting a better microphone anyway.
Getting Specific – “Rough” Testing
So far I’ve talked mostly about the differences in qualitative rather than quantitative terms, so let’s analyze the results of some of the recordings for a moment. For my “acid test” analysis, I paired the Kaotica Eyeball with a much older, inexpensive audio interface (the M-Audio FireWire 410), used the interface’s onboard mic pre with phantom power, a long generic microphone cable and hooked up the Rode NT2A microphone in a noisy room with a computer running open chassis and a door open to a kitchen with a loud refrigerator. The room was untreated, elongated, messy and full of loose things, like plastic and metal, strewn about. In other words, the only friendly face the Eyeball had in the room was the low self-noise of the NT2A. At $399 street-price, it’s a bit more than some hobbyists will spend on a microphone, but it’s the least expensive multi-pattern microphone I’ve found so far that performs well and my guess is that cardioid results with the single pattern Rode NT1A at $229 street would be just as good, with the microphone’s lower self-noise.
The vocalist performed a short excerpt from Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” three or four times with each microphone pick-up pattern with the Kaotica Eyeball than did the same for each of the three patterns without, all at a forte to fortissimo dynamic in a chest voice. The results were then analyzed both using objective measurements and by ear. Be aware that in many scenarios the numbers would be more pronounced than in this test and this should be considered a worst case scenario for this type of performance.
Background noise was changed in character (subjectively, it was less harsh and distracting) with a more even frequency distribution across the spectrum. No attempt was made to denoise, but the average RMS noise level was reduced by 1.5 to 3dB in many of the test recordings when the Eyeball was used. The voice sounded more rounded and reinforced, early reflections were de-emphasized and the word “thing” in particular stopped sticking out in the line so much – a word that originally stuck out. In the case of the cardioid pattern recordings, the peak level in the vocal recording was roughly 4.4 dB louder than without the Eyeball. With the omni pattern, the difference in the peaks was roughly 8.0 dB. The figure 8 pattern had peaks roughly 8.3 dB louder. Across all patterns, the Eyeball greatly reduced early reflections, tail and the general room influence on the sound. Using the Eyeball made a bigger difference in neutralizing the room than switching mic patterns: the figure 8 and omni pattern recordings that used the Eyeball emphasized the sound of the room even less than the cardioid recordings made without the Eyeball.
Subjectively, the combination of a figure 8 pattern with the Eyeball resulted in a very robust sound that would be my first choice for voiceover recording while the omni pattern with the Eyeball was a good choice when proximity effect wasn’t a desired and a more neutral frequency response was preferred to a fuller sounding low end. Neither pattern was normally practical in that recording space, due to the exposed sound of the less than ideal acoustics. The cardioid pattern responded largely as expected, with a frequency response distinct from the other two: a bit more bite than either, less neutral than the omni and less low-end emphasis than the figure 8. In other words, about what you would expect without the Eyeball.
Additional Info for Voiceover Recording
Using the same setup as for the singing test, the voiceover recording test (performed at a moderate level) was conducted using figure 8 only. When the Eyeball was used, the noise level was roughly 1.5 dB quieter, while the peak vocal level was at least 2.9 dB louder in the first section a 4.4 dB improvement to the de facto S/N ratio. In other sections of testing, that ratio increased to 4.91 dB.
Subjectively, the tone was rounder, less distracting and closer to recordings made in a professional VO environment when the Eyeball was engaged than when it was not. As mentioned earlier, this is pretty much as close to a “must-have” for voiceover recording in a less than ideal environment as you can get, once you’ve got a decent microphone.
Let’s assume that you aren’t using a low-cut filter on your mic or input chain. If you find that using the Kaotica Eyeball gives your vocal a darker sound than you’d like, here’s an EQ approach that may help. Try a band cut near 90 Hz and applying band boosts at either 3 KHz or 10 KHz (or both). Typically, 1.5 to 3dB adjustments in those bands did the trick, at least on the male vocal recordings I used the analysis portion of the review. As a general note, smoother spectrum when using the Eyeball makes a good EQ starting point for beginners since there is much less likely to be anything “distracting” standing out in the high mids or highs than without the Eyeball. The Eyeball’s ability to de-emphasize the character of the room has a big impact on the effectiveness of using reverb as an effect in the mixing process, making it much more flexible. The voice becomes much easier to place pretty much anywhere: I found it easier to use external reverb to control how distant or far away the sound appeared with the Eyeball than without, since there was less of an environment “baked in” to the sound. This was true both with convolution and algorithmic reverbs.
You Can’t Have Everything
As great as the Eyeball is, it can’t make “everything” better. I had originally hoped that it would do more to decrease the overall noise level in regards to things like fans and computer noise. It turned out to be better at reinforcing the sound of the vocal and neutralizing overall room acoustics. The effectiveness of the product declined the further away the sound source was from the Eyeball, and the reinforcement seemed to work best with vocals, so the Eyeball is primarily limited to vocal recording (though the marketing never claims otherwise) and yielded little improvement in my limited percussion and foley experiments.
Of course, Kaotica never marketed the Eyeball to address the things mentioned above, so it’s not surprising that nothing came of my tests … but it was worth looking at, nonetheless. And I shouldn’t put too fine a point on the noise issue: on one track I used it to multi-track a female vocalist into double-digit numbers of concurrent voices and was able to use the results in a busy mix without noise reduction. I didn’t run a control test, but using the Eyeball we were even able to keep tracking while a helicopter flew by without the background noise getting too far above the pre-existing noise floor. Handy indeed!
So Who Needs A New Eyeball?
If you’ve been reading carefully, you probably know what I’m about to say: if you’ve got a decent mic but a less than ideal acoustic environment, then the only question is how much vocal recording you do. Because pretty much anyone that does a lot of vocal recording and has a couple hundred dollars to spare should be looking at this product. On the other hand, if you’ve already got a great vocal booth, you probably don’t need this. If you have a highly desirable acoustic environment that you prefer to use, you probably don’t need this (unless you want an additional sound option for VO). If you don’t record a lot of VO or singing, you probably don’t need this. Now for all the rest of us … this should pretty much be the first thing you get for your vocal recordings after you’ve got your first good mic hooked up. It’s really that simple.