While most of us live nearly on the bleeding edge of tech in relation to digital recording tools, our industry, somewhat ironically, celebrates large diaphragm condenser (LDC) microphone aesthetics and designs that were first unveiled well over a half-century ago. Typically called “clones” in pro-audio circles, such microphones can range between strict recreations of rare antiquities to brand-new makes/models that borrow key looks and/or sounds from proven transducers of the past.
“I’m of two minds when it comes to ‘clones,’” shares Lynn Fuston, veteran recording engineer and author/producer of the 3D Audio CD Series that objectively compares microphones, preamps, converters and more. “On one hand, I adore my Bock 251 and can’t justify the expense of an original ELA M251, but I also admire designers who innovate and create original mics. Creating a mic with a name that doesn’t end in 87, 47 or 12, however, is far riskier and not always rewarded in our industry.”
Somewhat like our modern use of the term “organic,” the literal definition of a “clone”—n., an identical recreation of an ancestor—doesn’t accurately explain the range of available vintage-style mics today. “In my opinion, there really are three camps when it comes to clones: the re-creators, the imitators and the ‘look how cheaply we can copy it’ camp,” explains Fuston. “I have experience with all three. In the first group are manufacturers like AEA and Telefunken, whose commitment to faithfully remaking American and German classics of the past is indisputable. Then there those who build imitations paying tribute to the classic designs, offering excellent quality with modern technology and cost savings thrown in, like Peluso and Advanced Audio. Finally, there are those who continue to shock us by the value they can offer by building products at unbelievable prices. The fascinating thing is that I can’t fault any of them; I own and use mics that fit in all three categories.”
Meanwhile, Fuston notes his appreciation of brand-new designs, too. “I do wish that our industry was more open-minded and welcoming of really unique non-clones like the Chandler Limited REDD, Audio-Technica AT5040 and Brauner VMA,” he offers. “[These are] excellent mics that don’t sound like, nor are they numbered like, their revered microphone ancestors.”
Nearly a decade ago, the latter approach was chosen by Brian Loudenslager, founder of Lauten Audio, in his designing and building of brand-new LDCs. “I spent years consulting with many brands in pro audio, helping them to add microphones to their product lines,” he explains. “It wasn’t long before I realized that very few of the companies were submitting their own designs, but rather wanted the OEM manufacturer to ‘invent’ the design for them. As a result of this, the market was getting the same-sounding microphone in various shapes and sizes, but under different brand names.”
Compiling a team comprised of recording engineer Mike Terry and theoretical physicist/EE Dr. Charles Chen as well as his brother Weilin, who had been the lead engineer for a large microphone manufacturer for his entire career, Loudenslager began work on Lauten’s first four original designs.
“Together we started to create that original sound Lauten has now become known for,” says Loudenslager, specifically noting the Oceanus LT-381. “Since we were an unheard-of brand, it didn’t get much attention, but was and still is a unique microphone. I wanted something very open and three-dimensional yet soft in character; it was a counter-trend to the many extremely sparkly and bright microphones hitting the market. This Oceanus had several unique features: a mono amplifier via a pentode tube, a transistor phase splitter for concentric signals, then output through a dual-triode tube rather than a transformer. This created a very unique microphone amplifier circuit.”
Regarding aesthetics, Lauten has an intentionally different look. “I always wanted our products to look like classic microphones, but with our own unique flair in the design,” Loudenslager continues. “You can only do this if you are creating the designs yourself. You can’t pick bodies off a shelf to save costs. I literally take out a pencil and paper, and sketch the designs that are then submitted to our engineers.”
Based in South Windsor, CT, the aforementioned Telefunken Elektroakustik is a prime example of the passion within the high-end LDC ‘clone’ sector. It is “a labor of love… a flame rekindled among family and friends working together,” tells Toni Fishman, who launched the company 17 years ago when he acquired the rights to the name and diamond logo for use in North America, originally conceived by Telefunken Gmbh of Germany. “It all started from a endless passion for classic microphones, vintage tubes and unique recording equipment. Since that time, we have taken a ‘no corners cut’ approach to reverse engineering and process engineering. We have made the investment to find, train and teach our team to build valuable tools for sound collection; sampling the finest microphones ever made, taking them apart, and repairing and restoring [them] led to this reality.”
“We can look back now at the last 50 years and see that many of the same advancements in our society that have provided us a greater quality of life and ubiquitous access to technology have not always fared so well in the world of audio recording,” wisely observes Ian Cluggish, microphone technician, Telefunken Elektroakustik. “The sole fact that vacuum tube gear is still in high demand corroborates this. We know that some aspects of the vintage mic designs must always and will always remain faithful to the originals—things that have a direct and profound impact on the sound, which we would not presume to change. We still use NOS (new old stock) vacuum tubes when available, we have audio transformers built by the original manufacturers, and gold still remains the capsule diaphragm coating of choice. However, the modern development of materials and material processes gives us a leg up on the engineers of years past in that we can build our mics with a higher level of consistency and reliability.”
Telefunken Elektroakustik’s flagship Diamond Series—recreations of 50-plus-year-old classics—is a good example of ‘clones’ featuring materials and manufacturing techniques not present in the originals. “For components, we are able to select 0.1 percent tolerance precision resistors and sonically superior capacitors to improve upon the original design without changing the circuit,” tells design engineer Ryan Loftus. “Certain rubber and plastic materials are available today that have a much longer life cycle without breaking down. For machining, our manufacturing facility is located in a region with highquality machine shops working in the aerospace and medical fields. Because of this, we are able to machine critical parts to extremely tight tolerances, resulting in consistent and accurate parts.”
Also key to the Telefunken Elektroakustik process, explains director of Operations Alan Venitosh, is putting their passion into more direct action. For example, his team often hosts live performances from touring bands in the same room as their microphone production. Called ‘Live from the Lab,’ “The concept is that we have developed a work space that allows our microphones to be designed, built and tested all within a recording studio and sound stage environment,” he explains. “Touring and local musicians are the test subjects, and our staff are the audio scientists in the name of research and development of our products.”