Music, Audio, and Other Illnesses

The Sound of Microphones

Specifically, Neumann LDCs, or Large Diaphragm Condensers.

You know how they sound. Everybody knows how they sound. They’re the most ubiquitous recording mics there are. But just in case:

You know those glorious RCA Living Stereo recordings? Mostly Neumann U-47s and M-49s. You know those guys The Beatles? Neumann U-48s were their vocal mics.

We’ve grown to love the sound of these mics over the early years of recording — so much so that we think that’s how things actually sound.  But of course they don’t. They’re “realer than real”. I’ve actually come to think of them as approximating how we wished things sound.

Many years ago, I had an email conversation with the great recording engineer Tony Faulkner, who bought many of the Neumanns from RCA when they stupidly sold them off. I recall him telling me that he favored M-49s and M-50s, although he bought one of RCAs U-47s. He had many occasions in which he put it on a soloist, only to have them fall in love with “their sound” afterwards. The quotation marks aren’t there just because that’s how Tony put it; they also signify his enjoyment of the musician falling in love with the tone of themselves as heard through the ultra-romantic U-47.

The M-49 is considerably closer to reality than the U-47, but both enjoy a highly “enhanced” upper-midrange. And when used as a vocal mic, or for example close-micing a ‘cello, you can get quite a beautiful sounding proximity effect from them (this is a bump in the lower-end sound of a microphone, resulting from being near a source) — think Sinatra. Do you think he sounded like that? It’s a bit (well, a lot) like lenses and photography. But when we can see something looking different than we know it to be, it’s obvious.

The first mics I bought were a pair of Tim de Paravacini’s The Mic[1]. (These were called Darth Vader’s Razors at Bill Bottrell’s studio.) Tim designed them around the Pearl (nee Milab) dual-rectangular capsule. The capsule was intended to move the resonant frequencies up out of the upper-mids and to the high frequencies. Coupled with Tim’s hand-wound transformer (as big as your fist), you have a formidable mic. As the opportunities came along, I bought some old Neumanns and a couple of AKGs. One of these AKGs, an early 70s C-24 (a 2-channel mic), went to Tim for him to do his treatment on. An AKG is generally a brighter mic than a Neumann. Originally the C-24 had a single tube inset into a circuit board and an inadequate transformer. What Tim did was to remove the 6072 tube, reduce the size of the circuit board, and fly two miniature AC701 tubes off the sides of the board, opening up a lot of real estate in the mic for one of his real transformers. The effect was to add an at least an octave on the bottom end and to smooth out the top end. It’s still ultra-real sounding, as in a bit too real, but not as “hyper” as before. David Bock [interviewed in Copper #10-–scroll to page 8–-Ed.] has called my C-24 “the best sounding mic in LA”.

At some point in the last twenty-years, I introduced David Bock to George Cardas, and together they cooked up a variation of Tim’s mics — the Bock 5Zero7. What this has, unlike David’s more typical round-capsuled mics, is an oblong capsule, essentially doing Tim’s rectangular capsule one better. I plan on getting a pair. Don’t know if I’ll have any call to use them, but they should be had.

The 5Zero7, naked.

[1] Along with his unbelievable 824M microphone amplifier and his one-inch 2-track recorder — the most outrageously beautiful analog sound there is.