One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Paul McGowan’s Favorite Microphones and Their Uses

One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Paul McGowan’s Favorite Microphones and Their Uses

Written by Paul McGowan

When it comes to high-end audio, we can all agree that there's a huge obsession with which pieces of gear sound the way we hope for. Some of us prefer the warmth of tubes, while others like the openness and clarity of solid-state. Or, there’s digital versus analog. And, don't get me going about loudspeakers, where we're talking about night and day differences in sound: electrostats versus dynamics, open baffle versus closed box, planars and ribbons versus cones and domes.

In the recording arts we see the same divisions and strong opinions, but not so much for electronics and speakers as for microphone choices. And microphones are all over the map. Ribbons versus condensers and dynamics, phantom-powered, FET or vacuum-tube-amplified, capsule types, and the list goes on forever.

We here at PS Audio and Octave Records have our favorites for each application. For blaring horns, we like the warmth and dynamics of ribbons. For the delicate overtones and speed of string plucks we prefer large-capsule condensers. To capture the snap and crazy dynamics of a snare drum, we turn to dynamics.

The lists of microphones and the opinions of recording engineers are endless.

Sound familiar?

When we first started Octave Records we invested heavily in microphones (and they, like high-end audio, are expensive). We acquired the classic Neumanns, Sennheisers, AKGs, Telefunkens and so on. And then we played with them for endless hours as we learned to assign the best microphone to the best applications.

Over time, winners began to emerge – our go-to favorites.

Over the course of this article, I'll wax on about a few of the ones that matter to me the most. Had I the time, it'd be fun to compare them side by side and let you hear the differences, and maybe at some point I'll get off my keister and actually do that.

This would not be an easy task, because when we are in the studio we are chewing through a musician's time and energy to make a recording. Adding layers of microphones to experiment with would only get in the way. My hope is that at some point we might find a willing musician with time on their hands and a willingness to participate, but most of them have lives and gigs to go to. Studio time is used to make their music, not keep us audiophiles happy with our experiments.



The sound of Neumann microphones is way more open, airy, and transient-rich than any dynamic transducer. I cannot imagine a recording studio worth its salt that doesn't have at least a few of the classic Neumanns at the ready.

And while Neumann was the company that introduced the condenser mic (there were others too, but Neumann is credited with bringing them to market in a big way) it wasn't until a year after my birth that they rose to stardom as a brand.

Their leap to fame occurred in 1949 with the introduction of the U 47. It was the first microphone to offer a switchable polar pattern (omnidirectional or cardioid), and its warm, clear sound made it a favorite among recording engineers and artists alike. The U 47 was famously used by the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, and countless other musicians, securing its place in recording history.

In the 1950s, Neumann continued to innovate with the development of the M 49 and U 67 microphones, which introduced new levels of versatility and fidelity. The U 67, in particular, became renowned for its smooth sound and flexibility, making it a staple in studios around the world.

The 1960s saw the advent of the Neumann KM 84, the first microphone to utilize 48-volt phantom power, and later, the U 87, a standard that is still in use today. The phantom power supply innovation eliminated the need for external power supplies and made microphone setup simpler and more efficient.

So much for history. Now, let's dive into today's use.

When we started Octave Records we of course had to have available to us all the classics that were regarded so highly. So, we acquired Neuman U 47s, 67s, and 87s and began to learn their characteristics.

All three are great microphones, but we soon found ourselves returning again and again to one in particular. The U 67. This microphone captured, like no other we have ever used, the transient and harmonic information of instruments. From woodwinds, to guitars, to cymbals, nothing even comes close to the sound of the U 67.



A Neumann U 67 microphone with power supply.


Which got me curious. Why? Was it the diaphragm? Each of the three uses the same "planar" type diaphragm I earlier described, so it might be that but…

A closer look shows me something really revealing: the built-in amplification system. In both the earlier U 47 and 87, FETs are used, while in the U 67, a vacuum tube is employed.

This, in my opinion, is one of the biggest reasons this microphone kills every other microphone we have in stock (for these applications). 

Does that mean that vacuum-tube microphones are always better? No. We also have a collection of vacuum-tube condenser microphone knock offs to the Neumann and none even approach its sound.

Just like hi-fi, it is the artful blend of all the innards that make the magic.



Telefunken is another German stalwart.

Telefunken was a German electronics company founded in Berlin in 1903. Originally named Telefunken Gesellschaft für drahtlose Telegraphie m.b.H., the company played a significant role in the development of radio and broadcasting technology. Before World War II, Telefunken was a big consumer brands company making televisions, radios, and of course, microphones.

In the 1960s, Telefunken merged with AEG (Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft), another prominent German electronics company, to form the conglomerate AEG-Telefunken which, sadly, is no longer with us today. 

The microphone I am so in love with is a stereo microphone. The Telefunken AR-70 is a legendary microphone manufactured by the company in the 1950s.

It is a stereo microphone with two large-diaphragm condenser capsules mounted in an adjustable 90-degree X/Y stereo configuration. This design allows for phase-perfect stereo recording without the need for multiple microphones.


The Telefunken AR-70 stereo tube microphone.


Most important to me is its ability to accurately and easily handle the Blumlein microphone technique, named after the inventor of stereo, Alan Blumlein.

Born on June 29, 1903 in London, England, Alan Blumlein's journey into the world of engineering led him to his groundbreaking invention: stereo sound recording, a concept that revolutionized the way we perceive audio. In the early 1930s, he introduced the "Blumlein Pair" microphone configuration. This setup features two microphones that have a bi-directional or “figure eight” pickup pattern, with the mics positioned 90 degrees from each other.

In my experience, the two best microphones that employ the Blumlein technique are the AKG C24, and the Telefunken AR-70. Octave Studios owns both, but my preference is the Telefunken. Its warmth, accuracy, and richness are unmatched by any other stereo microphone I have ever used.

The AR-70 is my favorite microphone for capturing the beautiful tones of Octave Records’ Steinway grand piano. Never heard anything come even close. 

The only downside to it is also its upside. It captures everything from the piano -- and also the room it is being played in. This is great for a piano recording, but not so great if in the same room there are other instruments like drums being played. Then, I have to resort to another microphone, a Gefell.



You may have noticed that in my look at the microphones we use at Octave Records, the two I've focused on first are both German. In fact, Germany makes some of the best microphones in the world. Today's post is about another German microphone, one that is not so expensive and yet is an amazing-sounding transducer:

The Gefell M 930.

As noted, the German company Neumann makes my favorite overall microphone: the U 67. Born out of the creative genius of Georg Neumann, the company began in 1928, and quickly became synonymous with great microphones.

The rise of Neumann as a company was not a walk in the park. Not after what happened to Germany after World War II. In the tumultuous years following the war, the division of Germany left the Neumann company split between East and West. In East Germany, the company continued under the name Microtech Gefell, founded by Georg Neumann's former employee and childhood friend, Dr. Erich Kuehne.

Which brings us to the Gefell M 930 large diaphragm microphone – designed, crafted, and built with the same philosophies as the Neumann large-capsule U series.



A Gefell M 930 cardioid condenser microphone.


The Gefell M 930 is renowned for its warm, natural sound, and low cost. Where a modern U 67 vacuum-tube microphone can be purchased for about $8,000, and a vintage U 67 for $30,000, the FET-based Gefells can be bought today for about $1,200 each.

These are amazing FET microphones that sound far better than Neumann FET versions. In fact, in side-by-side comparisons on captures of instruments ranging from woodwinds to pianos, the M930 sonically outperforms the Neumann FET-based U 87 all day long.

Sometimes, lower-cost and better-engineered products can beat their brethren. All it takes to find them is a good set of ears and an open mind.


Header image courtesy of Asbaghipour.

This article is based on a series of Paul’s Posts from March 2024.

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