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Technology feature: Modern microphones and vintage favourites

Nostalgia reigns when it comes to older microphones, which remain popular among engineers despite their expense, yet new technology is contributing some interesting changes to the hardware

Nostalgia reigns when it comes to older microphones, which remain popular among engineers despite their expense, yet new technology is contributing some interesting changes to the hardware, writes Mike Hillier

While Shure Inc celebrated the 50th year of the SM series – which stands for “studio microphone”, incidentally – in 2015, the celebrations continued into 2016 with the golden anniversary of the SM58 (pictured) – the “world’s most popular microphone”. The 58, and the SM57, which preceded it, remain the dynamic microphones to beat for many applications, and are still considered studio essentials by many engineers.

Tuomo Tolonen, Shure’s Pro-Audio Group manager, believes this popularity is as much down to the technology of the SM series, as the versatility and durability of the microphone. “The Unidyne 55 [which was introduced in 1939] was a breakthrough in dynamic mic technology that ultimately led to the development of the SM58 and SM57; the technology was so successful, it ultimately became the blueprint for all unidirectional dynamic mics on the market today.”

Despite the success of the SM Series, Shure isn’t resting on its laurels, and earlier this year launched the KSM8, a dual-diaphragm dynamic microphone, which the company believes improves the microphone response by eliminating the ‘proximity effect’. “The second diaphragm sits within the rear-entry airflow, which enables us to tune and control proximity effect in a way that���s never been done before. This unique diaphragm placement – combined with reverse airflow – is what sets the KSM8 Dualdyne apart from other dual-diaphragm mics.”

Heil Sound (based, like Shure, in Illinois in the US) has a different approach to improving the sound of its microphones, using large diameter dynamic capsules, as opposed to the more traditional large-diaphragm condenser capsule. According to the company’s founder, Bob Heil: “Heil Sound has brought new technology to the microphone industry with our large diameter dynamic microphones. We figured out how to ‘tame’ the large diaphragm with wide frequency response and… brought that design into our PR series. Bringing superior sounding wide response microphones exhibiting perfect vocal articulation. On top of that, we have designed microphones with -40 dB of rear and side rejection.”

Whereas the SM57 is famed for its ability to be placed in front of nearly any instrument, UK-based Sontronics has been working on microphones designed for specific tasks. Trevor Coley, managing director of Sontronics, sees that “there is an overwhelming need for microphones that deliver great results quickly and with as little post-processing as possible. Over the past six or so years, we have been developing microphones that are application-specific – models such as Delta and Halo for guitar amps and the DM-series condenser mics for drums – and this has been a revelation. These mics deliver instant gratification and allow the engineer/producer/artist to get on with making music rather than finding the ‘right’ sound.”

Other manufacturers have also voiced microphones for specific tasks, particularly drums and percussion. Audio-Technica’s new ATM230 (pictured) is a hyper-cardioid dynamic microphone voiced for tom/drum-miking applications, while the AE2300 is a cardioid dynamic microphone, with a more generic “instrument” voicing, but has a low-pass roll-off which has been specifically designed to remove the harsh fizz at the top-end of an electric guitar cabinet.

Despite the plethora of new microphones, vintage microphones and their clones continue to be popular among engineers. Shuta Shinoda (Ghostpoet, Alexis Taylor) has a particular love of unusual vintage microphones. “My favourite is the RCA 44BX, it has a strong mid-to-low end character, and while it doesn’t sound great for every voice, it seems to choose the singers by its own will, and that’s why I love it. I also have an STC [4021] ‘ball and biscuit’ mic, which has only one real use. I place it 10-inches from a wall and crank up the mic pre and compression for a crunchy drum room sound”.

In fact all the engineers PSNEurope questioned picked out a vintage microphone as their favourite. Brendon Harding, studio manager at Red Bull Studios, London, chose his Neumann U 47 FET because “you can use it on everything from kick drums, to vocals to trombones”, while Slau Halatyn, owner of Be Sharp Studios, New York, picked out his Microtech Gefell UM-70 collection: “I have five of them and, if I were starting over again, I’d buy as many as I could find. The fact that it’s multi-pattern makes it versatile in the studio. The M7 capsule in the UM-70 is not at all hyped and some would probably consider it fairly dark in comparison to what’s typically found on the market these days.” There is a lot of appeal for vintage microphones, but the price and scarcity, especially of some of the more famous models, is enough to push them out of the league of many studios. To fill this potential gap, many clones of popular vintage microphones are available, and engineers seem very happy to use them alongside or instead of the originals.

James Aparicio (These New Puritans, Factory Floor) says: “I do love a tube U 47 and the modern remakes of it, like the Wunder Audio CM7 and Flea47, they sound great too me on almost anything.” Brendon Harding also has a Flea47 (pictured): “I have never A-B’d my Flea47 with a U 47 but I know that the Flea sounds great, even if it’s not necessarily the same as the original. If a mic has a nice story and is a decent price I don’t mind paying for an old mic, but I’m happy with a new equivalent if not.”

Aston startin’

James Young, managing director of newly launched Aston Microphones, believes that one of the reasons we remain so obsessed with vintage microphones is the character they exhibit. “Old mics are not always better by any means, but what they DO have in spades is character,” says Young. “Even within a model, say, a [Neumann] U 67 for example, you won’t find two the same, because the capsules age differently, the mics have been repaired and refurbished several times.”

Sontronics’ Coley notes that “whilst in many cases vintage mics do sound wonderful, they can often be quite a handful in terms of self-noise and ongoing [upkeep]”, and that maintenance is getting harder as parts become obsolete or even prohibited. “Many of the materials used to make them, such as lead solder and cadmium, became outlawed in Europe by the RoHS (Removal of Harmful Substances) legislation in 2006.”

Having split from a long association with sE Electronics, James Young brings two major Aston Microphone offerings to the party: the Origin fixed-cardioid large-diaphragm condenser and the Spirit multi-pattern large-diaphragm condenser. To ensure these microphones have their own unique character Aston worked closely with a hand-picked selection of British engineers. “We used the novel approach of working with 33 top producers and engineers from the UK on designing the sound of our mics right from day one,” explains Young. “By working [this way] we were able to get a sound no amount of engineering geeks could.”

Sontronics is also taking the British home-grown approach with its latest microphone, the Mercury, a variable-pattern large-diaphragm valve condenser microphone, designed and developed in the UK. Trevor Coley: “The mic has been through rigorous testing and development with top producers and engineers, including several at Abbey Road Studios, and has also been previewed at a couple of recent music shows and the response from everyone who’s used it has been absolutely incredible. It’s a big step up for us, as it has been created using the highest grade components available”.

Systematic approach

The Slate Virtual Microphone System is an attempt to offer all of these different mic flavours within a single microphone. This system comes with two microphones, the ML1 large diaphragm condenser and the ML2 small-diaphragm condenser, as well as a two-input microphone preamp with it’s own A-D convertor. The signal is then manipulated by the VMS plug-in after the fact to enable you to quickly switch from one microphone model to another, and from one preamp model to another.

The Slate Virtual Microphone System is not alone in providing this kind of a microphone system. The Townsend Labs Sphere L22 (pictured) is a dual-channel large diaphragm condenser microphone, to be used with any third-party preamp and interface combination. The L22 differs in that it always records a stereo signal, enabling the software to combine the two signals to not only change the voicing of the mic, but also the pickup pattern after the fact. And while these two hybrid hardware/software systems represent the cutting edge of microphone modelling, it’s worth noting that Antares first launched their Microphone Modeler in 2000, and have recently brought it up to date with the Mic Mod EFX plug-in. This software only package does not require a specific microphone for the input, but instead asks you to select which microphone you are using, and uses spectral shaping to make that sound like the microphone you wish.

Slate Digital founder, Stephen Slate believes these types of systems will one day replace conventional microphones. “Today, people have become accustomed to exploiting digital technology which can offer more possibilities, and this is what the VMS tech accomplishes. If one has the option to use a microphone with one sound versus a microphone with limitless sounds, the option seems obvious. It’s similar in my opinion to the recording process going from tape machines to DAWs.”

This has obvious benefits for some engineers, but isn’t a view shared by all engineers. Tony Draper (pictured) (Rival Bones, Natalie McCool) likes to know the sound the microphone will give him before he puts it up. “I like to use the [Telefunken] ELAM 251 because it exhibits a natural compression. That means I need to spend less time fiddling with compressors. You could probably make other microphones sound like an ELAM, but it would require significant amounts of time. I’d much rather throw it up knowing that the sound that comes out the first time I open the channel is the exact sound I want to record”.

Every studio’s microphone collection is different, and every engineer has a different favourite for almost every task, which helps to show the variety of tools on offer. Slau Halatyn, sees that as all part of the process: “I think that, early on, people try to get the tools that others are using for the sake of confidence. ‘OK, if so-and-so is using that mic, it must be great. I’ve got to get myself one of those’ type approach. Once you acquire some of those mics, you start noticing the vintage stuff and those become sort of a badge of honour. I think the more experienced you become and the better you get at slinging mics, the less that kind of stuff matters and you realise that you can record anything with virtually any tools at your disposal. By that point, of course, you’ve invested untold thousands in vintage mics.

“I open the mic closet virtually every day and reach for the same mics,” continues Halatyn. “It’s great to have options, and I’m fortunate to have those options, but I know that I could get by with a lot less. To me, there are undoubtedly some essentials. Rather than thinking of brand names and models, I’d sooner consider breaking things down into types of mics. For me, it’s essential to have a few multi-pattern condensers for general use primarily for vocals. I’d certainly prefer to have a couple of small diaphragm condensers for instrument miking, like guitars and percussion. A good pair of ribbons, in my opinion, are indispensable for drum overheads and guitar amps. Finally, a few rugged moving coil dynamics come in handy in all kinds of situations. All of us would love to own as many of each type of mic as we can afford (and sometimes, as we can not afford).

“But,” he concludes, “I believe it’s more important to have a balance of microphone types before acquiring too many of one type.”