Looking at most existing studio microphones, like those above, I can't help but feel that they were designed by an engineer and sheathed by an industrial designer. Maybe that's because manufacturers assume that there just isn't much for a designer to do here; the technological innards of a microphone are well-established, as is the form factor. But Germany-based design firm SMAL begs to differ, and feels the lack of design attention is an inertia-based oversight.
"Besides improvements on a technical level or the type of connection, microphones still look, feel, and are built the same as they used to be," the company writes.
"They never really evolved in the last decades – simply because they didn't need to." SMAL chalks that up to the enduring system of studios themselves, where trained audio technicians are the ones working with the gear. But now, they reckon, modern-day content creators--DIY musicians, podcasters, YouTubers, game streamers--who don't have a headphone-wearing sound engineer advising them through a glass window, could use a pro-quality microphone more in tune with their needs. And design can help.
Thus they've designed the Jester microphone, which addresses what they consider a glaring flaw in modern-day microphones: The complete lack of visual feedback where levels are concerned.
Being caught up in the heat of the moment when recording a gaming session or live broadcasting, the sound recording quality often does not live up to what today's microphones are capable of – simply because there is a lack of feedback about how your live recording actually sounds to your audience.
The Jester Microphone has some smart guiding features built-in, giving constant visual feedback about the recording status and quality, to make sure the recorded live performance comes across to viewers exactly as intended.
For example, the 360° light distributed through the translucent shock mount structure indicates whether or not users have the perfect recording position for optimal quality, by changing its color in real time.
I'm not entirely sure if this is an improvement over keeping your eye on the sound levels on the monitor; I'm thinking specifically of eyelines, because the light is located at the bottom of the mic, where I might not be inclined to naturally look. However, if you were recording in a darkened room, as depicted in their press photos, I suppose the color changes would be more obvious.
The area up top is reserved for another important visual feedback cue: The illuminated mute button. My experience with studio microphones is limited, but with the few that I've used, I've always been surprised that mute notification was relegated to a tiny red dot that wasn't always easy to see. I think SMAL's approach is a welcome improvement.
Additionally, SMAL took the approach that "the workflow and the digital tools content creators use today [warrant] getting rid of redundant physical controls and connectors. The two remaining touch-sensitive 'quick control' surfaces on top of the Jester Microphone can be freely assigned with the functions that are needed, and are large enough to allow fast and precise control.
I'm somewhat wary of this, as an old-fashioned person that prefers physical buttons on the object itself--I find other arrangements, particularly touchscreens, always give me a cognitive disconnect--but I suppose I'm not the target market, and the people that they studied are. "Starting from foundational research and product testing, we quickly went into interviewing and observing real streamers," they explain. "Analyzing the use, workflow, and the different parts of the microphone itself led to insights about opportunities for innovation."
An area that SMAL has addressed pretty niftily is the shock mounts. They've done away with the standard wrestling-ring-crossed-ropes approach, and instead integrated a technique we'd seen flirted with in digitally-fabricated furniture designs:
The shock mount of the Jester Microphone is completely rethought – the 3D-printed flexible structure is now directly integrated into the body, and therefore absorbs unwanted frequencies even better.
The skin of the microphone is a fabric woven in a similar way that modern sneakers are – being more flexible where it needs to move with the shock mount and being denser where it needs to integrate pop-filter capabilities.
The overall design results in a fusion of the aesthetics of high-end audio equipment and lifestyle products – which is a perfect match for the target group.
The Jester has been submitted to the iF Design Awards, and you can check out more of SMAL's work here.