Austrian Audio deliver a 21st Century take on a famous ‘pencil’ mic design.
Austrian Audio are a young company with a 70‑year heritage. When AKG’s long‑established Vienna headquarters closed, the core design team regrouped and founded a new business. Their aim was to take a fresh look at classic AKG designs, not with the aim of recreating them, but as inspiration for original models. Through the application of an engineering‑led approach, the new company hoped to update these designs to modern standards of consistency, noise performance and so on.
This process began with AKG’s ‘brass ring’ CK12. Introduced back in the ’50s and used in legendary mics such as the C12 and ELA M 251, this large‑diaphragm capsule is renowned for its sound, yet also notorious for its inconsistency, difficulty of manufacture and tendency to lose tension with age. Austrian Audio successfully tamed these production challenges without compromising the essential qualities of the design. The result was the CKR12, which was paired with modern transformerless electronics and a distinctive new headbasket design to create the excellent OC818 and OC18 microphones.
For their second trick, Austrian Audio have turned their attention to the world of small‑diaphragm mics, and once again, they’ve taken a ‘classic’ AKG model as their starting point. I’ve used inverted commas in that sentence for a reason, though. The classic status of the CK12 capsule and the mics that used it is indisputable, but I’m not sure you could quite say the same about the inspiration for Austrian Audio’s new pencil mic.
As befitted one of the largest mic manufacturers in the world, AKG didn’t just make large‑diaphragm capacitor models. They also produced numerous moving‑coil dynamics and an extensive modular range of small‑diaphragm mics (see box). The early models were valve‑based, but it was the CMS series of solid‑state mics based around the C451 and 452 bodies, launched in 1969, that would prove an enduring success. The vast majority of CMS bodies were paired with the CK1 cardioid capsule, and the resulting ‘C451 Comb’ became ubiquitous in European broadcast and studio environments.
Just as the C414 has long been locked in a deadly rivalry with Neumann’s U87, however, so the C451 faced off against the Neumann KM84. The Neumann was always the more expensive mic, and in the years since both models were discontinued, the price differential has grown and grown. Today, you could easily pick up half a dozen C451/CK1 combis for the price of a single KM84 — and that’s not entirely down to the whims of fashion. Although the published frequency response for both mics is almost identical, they sound noticeably different. The KM84 has the characteristic Neumann richness and forward quality in the midrange, whereas the C451 is thinner, with a tendency to be edgy at the top end. There are well‑known engineers, including Alan Parsons, who say they’ll happily use KM84s for any and all instruments, but I’ve never heard anyone say the same about the C451.
The 451’s mixed reputation probably isn’t helped by the hard lives that many examples have led, but there’s more than a grain of truth in it. Mine get used mainly for spoken‑word recording, and although I’ll occasionally put one up as a snare close mic, it’s rarely my first choice in music recording roles. I also feel that the older CK28 cardioid capsule offers a more likeable and musical sound than the all‑conquering CK1. Nevertheless, it’s this stalwart of the ’70s and ’80s that Austrian Audio have taken as the jumping‑off point for the design of their latest studio mic.
Their fresh take on the CK1 capsule design is dubbed the OCC7. If the published photos are anything to go by, its geometry and structure are similar to those of the CK1, but once again, Austrian Audio have taken advantage of the potential for improvement offered by modern materials and manufacturing techniques. The diaphragm is made from polyethylene napthalate (PEN) rather than the more conventional Mylar. Since the newer material is, apparently, more durable and more resistant to heat and tension loss, it has allowed Austrian Audio to make the diaphragm thinner than usual, at 3µm rather than the more typical 6µm.
AKG’s CMS range was a modular system: capsules could be unscrewed from bodies and swapped around, and accessories such as extenders, attenuators and knuckle joints could be introduced between capsule and body. This has obvious advantages but is also responsible for some of the C451’s negatives, as the mics used a very fine‑pitch thread which is easily cross‑threaded or damaged by over‑zealous unscrewing. It also meant that the capsule was exposed and thus vulnerable to impact damage.
Austrian Audio have, therefore, chosen to make the CC8 a fixed‑cardioid microphone. Internally, the capsule is still screwed into the body, but it’s protected from would‑be unscrewers and impacters by a robust external housing. This makes the body of the CC8 quite a bit thicker than that of the C451; it’s more of a crayon mic than a pencil mic. It’s only available in one finish, a matte grey that should help it to remain fairly unobtrusive.
The original C451 and 452 bodies were transformer‑balanced, and some included a three‑position high‑pass filter, but none had built‑in pads; these were additional components that had to be screwed between the capsule and the body. The CC8, by contrast, is transformerless and includes both a second‑order (12dB/octave) high‑pass filter that can turn over at 60Hz or 120Hz, and a pad that can introduce 10 or 20dB of attenuation. This gives it the ability to cope with enormously loud sound pressure levels: a maximum of 156dB SPL is quoted, though the specifications don’t say what level of distortion is reached at this point.
Like the original C451, and unlike AKG’s current C451B, the CC8 is a true capacitor design, not an electret mic. It requires 48V phantom power, drawing less than 3mA. Nominal impedance is quoted as 275Ω, and sensitivity at a very workable 15mV/Pa. Self‑noise is quoted at only 16dBA, which is more than respectable for a small‑diaphragm mic.
First impressions of the mic itself are very favourable. It’s chunky, very solidly built, and finished to an extremely high quality. As on many pencil mics, the pad and filter switches are recessed to prevent accidental operation. Something pointy like, er, a pencil is needed to adjust them, and they move easily and decisively when you do so. The CC8 ships with a simple but robust clip and a basic foam windshield, all housed in foam cutaways within an expansive fabric carry case. It’s nice to have this, but I have no idea why it needs to be so huge — it’s even bigger than the black vinyl cases that old AKG mics used to be sold in.
The CC8 is also available as a stereo set, which comes in a smart attaché case with a stereo bar. This is a nice bonus, but if you can’t stretch to the stereo set now, there’s nothing to stop you adding a second CC8 further down the line and using them as a pair. One of the benefits of Austrian Audio’s stringent production tolerances is that all CC8s are matched to within ±0.5dB (at 1kHz), so in theory, there should be no further need for pair matching.
You don’t get an individual frequency response chart for each mic, but Austrian Audio’s website displays both an on‑axis frequency plot and graphs showing how the polar pattern varies with frequency. These measurements show the frequency response to be completely linear below 3kHz. Above this point two small bumps are visible, with a 2dB rise at 5‑6 kHz and a 3dB peak at about 15kHz, before a fairly steep roll‑off kicks in above this (I wonder if the additional housing around the capsule has an influence here). Austrian Audio claim a ‘best in class’ off‑axis response, and the polar plots look pretty good in this respect. The response is recognisably cardioid from 250Hz up to about 3kHz; a hypercardioid tail begins to develop from 4kHz up, while the pattern at 125Hz is less directional.
Over the years, I’ve accidentally acquired quite a few bits and pieces from the AKG CMS range, including three C451 bodies, three CK1 and two CK28 capsules, so I was interested to see how the CC8 would compare. Mindful that my 451s might have strayed from the true path over the years, I began by rigging the CC8 alongside all three of them, and recorded various sources including a drum kit, acoustic guitar, and bad folk singing. None of my CK1 capsules quite sounded identical, but there was certainly a family sound in evidence, and one I actually liked more than I’d remembered. The expected high‑frequency emphasis was present, but on a drum kit with heavy, dark‑sounding cymbals, it wasn’t obnoxious. The bottom end was tight and snappy, and while the midrange felt a bit anonymous, it didn’t present any nasty qualities.
The CC8 both did and didn’t share this family sound. It was audibly different at the bottom end, which seemed quite a bit more prominent than on any of my C451s. It was also different at the top, where it was more subdued, cleaner and less ‘sizzly’. All three of my C451/CK1 mics sounded more similar to each other than any of them did to the CC8. Yet for all that, the new mic somehow had much of the same character, if that’s the right word. Or, to put it another way, it sounded more like a smoother, darker C451 than it did like anything else. This was borne out when I swapped out the CK1s for my CK28s, and again when I compared the CC8 with a KM84 and with an old Calrec 2050. In comparison, all these other mics threw the focus more onto the midrange, bringing out the 2‑4 kHz region and with it the crack of a snare drum or the rasp of my strained vowels.
With massive headroom and comparatively good noise performance, the CC8 is an extremely versatile mic...
It was a similar story when I compared the CC8 and a KM84 as close mics on snare. As long as you can trust the drummer not to hit it, the KM84 is pretty much the perfect snare mic: it fits in the smallest spaces, it has a lovely clean off‑axis response, and with the 10dB pad engaged, it saturates just enough to add some welcome ‘chunk’. The CC8 proved to be a nice snare mic too, but in a rather different way. Thanks to its additional headroom and transformerless electronics, it delivers a noticeably cleaner sound and, once again, came across as being a little mid‑recessed in comparison — or perhaps, on another day, you’d say it made the KM84 sound mid‑forward.
All in all, then, I think that Austrian Audio have fulfilled their goals with the CC8. The lineage of the C451/CK1 is apparent, but the high‑frequency edginess that sometimes characterises that mic is gone. Bass response seems fuller, and there’s a clarity and cleanness to the sound that you won’t find in older transformer‑based models. And although its slightly shy midrange can make it sound less rock & roll than some rivals, it certainly isn’t sterile. With massive headroom and comparatively good noise performance, the CC8 is an extremely versatile mic that is equally happy close‑miking a snare and capturing delicate string sounds.
AKG produced small‑diaphragm capacitor mics from the 1950s onwards. The early models were valve‑based and included a small modular microphone called the C60, based around the celebrated Telefunken AC701 miniature valve. This was later superseded by the C61, which used a 7586 ‘Nuvistor’ instead. Both could be used with either the CK26 omnidirectional or the CK28 cardioid capsule and, unusually, both were ‘cathode follower’ designs, which gave them rather low output levels and, some say, a distinctive sound. Contemporaneously, AKG also made the C26 and C28, somewhat larger microphones that concealed the same capsules beneath an outer grille. These underwent three fairly major revisions during their lifetime. The A and B variants used a 6072A valve in a circuit very similar to that of the C12, while the C28C’s electronics were more reminiscent of the C12A, again using a Nuvistor.
When the solid‑state Condenser Modular System was launched in 1969, the omni and cardioid capsules were updated to form the CK2 and CK1 respectively. The CK1 also saw duty inside the CK5, a capsule assembly with a mesh cage and internal shockmount designed for live vocal use, while the CK1S version added a built‑in presence boost (yikes); the C33 and C34 stereo mics also employed variants of the CK1 capsule. The CK3, 8 and 9 were, respectively, hypercardioid, short shotgun and long shotgun capsules, with a later update introducing another omni capsule called the CK22, which had more protection from wind noise. The uncommon and desirable CK4 is a figure‑8 head that uses the later ‘nylon ring’ version of AKG’s CK12 large‑diaphragm capsule, while the vanishingly rare CK6 appears to house a CK1 and a CK2 side‑by‑side within the same housing as the CK5, allegedly offering switched figure‑8, cardioid and omni pickup.
All of these capsules, including the older CK26 and CK28, are freely interchangeable (except in the stereo mics), and can be attached to any of the compatible bodies. There were two basic types in the CMS system, the difference being that the C452 was compatible only with 48V phantom power, whereas the C451 could tolerate phantom supplies from 9V to 52V. Both came with a choice of DIN or XLR connectors, denoted by the letter C and E respectively, while the suffix B indicated a three‑position high‑pass filter.
Some time in the ’80s or early ’90s, the C451 and 452 were replaced by the C460, and the original CMS capsules by the ‘ultralinear’ CK61 cardioid, CK62 omni and CK63 hypercardioid capsules. These are still available today, along with the current transformerless C480 body. AKG used to make an adaptor ring called the A60 that allowed the older capsules to be attached to the C460 and C480, but this appears to be discontinued.
However, that’s not quite the end of the C451 story, because AKG also make a mic called the C451B. Apart from having a pad built in as well as a high‑pass filter, this looks very much like the old C451/CK1, and is claimed by AKG to have the same sound. I’ve never directly compared the two, but it should be noted that the C451B is in fact a different design which is not modular and uses an electret rather than a true capacitor capsule.
Austrian Audio were kind enough to pass some of my questions about the CC8 to Christoph Frank, the company’s Senior Acoustic Engineer. The older AKG mics have a reputation for being inconsistent, and he confirmed that this was an issue they’d encountered during their attempts to design an ‘improved’ CK1‑style capsule. “For vintage mics, there hardly is any ‘original’. If you measure 10 mics from different studios, you will most likely end up with 10 very different frequency responses. And that is typically only the 1m response, not even the nearfield response! We had the chance to get their ‘best’ C451s from friends and customers and tried to find out what they had in common. This is definitely the silky top‑end paired with actually quite neutral mids.”
AKG did a lot of work to develop pre‑polarised or electret capsules to the point where their performance can match those of ‘true’, externally polarised capacitor mics, and were the first manufacturer to successfully design a large‑diaphragm electret capsule, as used in mics like the C4000. The current AKG C451B is, likewise, an electret mic. However, Christoph says this approach was not an option for Austrian Audio. “Electret capsules can lose sensitivity over decades and the whole charging process has a very steep learning curve — so for us as a small company who want to produce their capsules in‑house, the true condenser capsule is the only way to go right now, even if we would save some bucks on the electronics as the electret capsules don’t need a high‑voltage supply.”
Having designed their new capsule and electronics, Austrian Audio then went to great lengths to ensure their own mics wouldn’t suffer the same fate. “Our best‑in‑class measurement system — the so‑called Aurora Test System — and testing process is the key point. We test here in Austria 100 percent both of the capsules and the finished microphones, and the CC8 is again calibrated like the OC818 and OC18 to ±0.5dB. My experience is that most big and established audio companies do it like this, whereas Far East suppliers most only do random sampling, meaning a big quantity of the mics is untested.
“What’s interesting is that some of the very high‑price ‘boutique’ manufactures don’t test at all besides a listening test — but testing is an essential part of process control, meaning you can see trends of part quality already before they start influencing the product quality. With our test system, we can check the frequency response and sensitivity as well as other parameters from every microphone we’ve ever built, starting with the first OC818 years ago. That goes down to the level of detail of which capsule is inside that microphone and what was the frequency response of the capsule alone when it was built. This is extremely helpful to identify and improve quality, which is a constant process in our production and development.”
So what’s next? “Having a SDC capsule was one of the very early requests by our customers — even before we actually had any!” concludes Christoph. “Now that we have a good platform we can work on products where we see need on the market, like the OC707 which will be arriving later this year, bringing a studio sound on stage as it is necessary in the days of streamed live concerts with less chance for post‑production.”
The world is not short of small‑diaphragm capacitor mics! One obvious rival is AKG’s own C451B. At around the same price you could also consider the Warm Audio WA‑84, Beyer MC930, Rode NT5, Shure KSM137, Oktava MK012, Audio‑Technica AT4021 and more.
- Very nicely made.
- Clean, clear sound that is reminiscent of the old C451/CK1 but without the scratchiness.
- Can accommodate huge sound pressure levels.
- Any two CC8s can be considered matched for stereo use.
- Midrange can feel a touch subdued on some sources.
Once again, Austrian Audio have used a classic AKG design as the starting point for an excellent original product.
CC8 £359, CC8 Stereo Set £719. Prices include VAT.
Sound Technology +44 (0)1462 480000.