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Buying A Vintage-inspired Microphone

Classix Nouveau By Sam Inglis
Published March 2021

Most of us will only dream of owning a collection of vintage valve mics such as this!Most of us will only dream of owning a collection of vintage valve mics such as this!Photo: Hannes Bieger

Everyone loves classic microphones, but few of us can afford them! We survey the hundreds of modern recreations on the market, and explain what to look for when you’re choosing one for your studio.

Now that original Neumann and AKG valve microphones have become unaffordable, modern manufacturers have stepped in to fill the gap, offering clones and vintage‑inspired models at all price levels. In this article I’ll take four of the most iconic studio microphones, and explain what to look for in mics that claim to be authentic copies. How close to the sound of these revered classics can you hope to get without spending a five‑figure sum?

The Neumann U47

Neumann’s U47 is probably the most widely copied valve mic of all.Neumann’s U47 is probably the most widely copied valve mic of all.The most famous of all studio microphones, the U47 is famed for its rich, thick, detailed midrange. Only 5000 or so U47s were made, and original examples can fetch five‑figure sums, so it’s no wonder that modern manufacturers have tried to recapture its magic. Have they succeeded, and is there any reason to spend thousands on a ‘boutique’ recreation when you can buy a mic with ’47’ in the name for well under £1000$1000?

Three of the most important elements that contribute to the sound of a capacitor microphone are the capsule, the electronics and the transformer. In the case of the U47, the capsule is arguably the easiest of the three to recreate. The M7 and K47 capsules used at different times in the original production run are both still made, by Microtech Gefell and Neumann Berlin respectively, and affordable Chinese copies are also widely available. Pretty much every mic that is “inspired by” the U47 thus uses a derivative of the original capsule design, though of course the accuracy of these can be quite variable.

The U47’s BV08 transformer was developed by Neumann from a design created by the West German state broadcaster, and is quite intricate. Budget U47 copies typically use generic transformers, but boutique manufacturers such as AMI and Beezneez have produced painstaking copies of the real thing. The real stumbling block is the impedance converter. The U47 used a unique and long unobtainable valve called the VF14, operated way outside its design parameters. There is no other valve that can be straightforwardly substituted, so in effect, it’s not realistic to market a U47 copy where the electronics will perform exactly as they do in the original.

Character Witnesses

Arguably, then, there’s no modern mic that can be considered a perfect clone of the U47. But there are many, many mics that claim to offer the same sound character. At the most affordable end of the spectrum, you’ll find mics that pair a K47‑style capsule with generic valve electronics. It would be optimistic to expect them to sound identical to a U47, but there’s no reason they can’t sound good or offer comparable warmth, at least when used on‑axis for close‑miked vocals. Warm Audio’s WA‑47, for example, features a custom K47‑style capsule and an AMI transformer, paired with an ECC83 valve, while Advanced Audio’s CM‑47 uses a 6072A valve and a capsule that’s described as a hybrid between the K47 and later K67.

Further up market, Golden Age Premier’s GA‑47 features a custom replica of the BV8 transformer and an EF800 valve. Again, the capsule employed is a K47/K67 hybrid. Telefunken USA’s TF47 is a U47‑inspired mic that uses their “historically accurate” BV8, paired with a K47‑style capsule and a circuit based around the EF732 valve. Peluso’s 2247 is also marketed as a U47 recreation at around the same price, as is ADK’s Z‑47.

The next step up in price gives you access to American, Australian or European‑made capsules, usually handmade in small quantities rather than mass‑produced. Pearlman’s TM47 uses the company’s own US‑made K47 derivative with a choice of valves, though it dispenses with the U47’s omni pattern. Based around their own ‘K7’ capsule, Beezneez’s BU47 goes the other way, offering nine selectable polar patterns, while Lawson’s L47MP II features an M7‑style capsule handmade in Nashville, and infinitely variable pattern switching. Cathedral Pipes also make their own M7‑style capsule for their Notre Dame, while other boutique U47‑alikes include the Bock Audio 407, Wunder CM7S and Wagner U47, along with Heiserman’s forthcoming H47tube and the Flea 47 Vintage and Next. Finally, Telefunken USA’s flagship U47 is a visually meticulous recreation of the original that uses an M7 capsule and correct circuitry, albeit with their own “drop‑in replacement” rather than a true VF14.

The U47 lineage also survives in the catalogues of both Neumann and Microtech Gefell, though neither company makes a direct recreation. Microtech Gefell’s UM92.1S uses the M7 capsule, while Neumann offer the M147, a mic which, they say, “brings back the classic sound of Neumann’s tube mics of the 1950s”. In this case, the K47 capsule feeds transformerless valve electronics designed to make the mic less noisy than old designs. Neumann have also reintroduced the FET 47, a later K47‑based solid‑state mic.

There’s no modern mic that can be considered a perfect clone of the U47. But there are many, many mics that claim to offer the same sound character.

The Neumann U67

Neumann learned their lesson from the VF14 when designing the U47’s successor, and there are no parts in the U67 that can’t be replicated today. Neumann themselves reintroduced the mic a couple of years ago and it remains a current product. If it’s within your budget, it’s hard to argue against the genuine article! If not, fortunately, there are many more affordable alternatives.

So popular has the U67 become that Neumann recently reintroduced the model.So popular has the U67 become that Neumann recently reintroduced the model.The U67 used a newly developed capsule called the K67, which is perhaps the most widely copied design of all time. Whereas earlier capsules had a broadly flat frequency response, however, the K67 has a strong treble pre‑emphasis. This is tamed in the U67’s electronics and transformer, which are unusually complex for a valve mic. Be warned that some copies have used the same capsule style with simpler electronics that don’t provide the same de‑emphasis, and as a result can sound harsh and over‑bright. Hopefully, this should be apparent from published frequency responses.

Warm Audio’s new WA‑67 is billed as an affordable yet accurate copy of the Neumann classic. It uses a K67‑style capsule and EF86 valve, and is claimed to offer a “faithful recreation” of the original circuit. Peluso’s P67 is likewise advertised as a “faithful tribute”, though in this case the more affordable EF95 valve is used. Advanced Audio’s CM67se uses a K67‑style capsule with a 6072A‑based valve circuit that is said to offer more headroom than the original. At a somewhat higher cost, ADK describe their Z‑67 as being “based on” a less common version of the U67 called the M269. This was developed for German broadcast and used a specialised miniature valve called the AC701k, which is now almost as rare as the VF14. What capsule and valve are used in ADK’s mic is not stated.

There are quite a few affordable valve mics that bear obvious similarities to the U67 even though they aren’t advertised as direct copies. The ever‑popular Z5600a MkII from sE Electronics is one example, pairing a K67‑type capsule with more conventional valve circuitry. Mojave’s highly regarded MA300SN also employs a K67‑style capsule, and although its electronics are different from the U67 design, they too were designed with the aim of reducing “shrillness and high‑frequency distortion artifacts”.

Finally, there are even some solid‑state mics that explicitly take the U67 as their inspiration. These include Neumann’s own TLM67 and JZ Microphones’ Vintage V67.

The AKG C12

Unlike the U47, AKG’s C12 contained no unobtainable electronic components. The 6072 valve is still widely available, and the Haufe T14/1 transformer remains in production, although it isn’t cheap. In this case, the biggest challenge is to match the sound of AKG’s “brass ring” CK12 capsule, a highly complex design that was always resistant to mass production. Get it right, and you can hope to enjoy the airy, exciting sound for which the C12 (and related mics such as the C24 and Telefunken ELAM 251) are famed. Get it wrong, and you’ll experience a sharp‑sounding tizzy harshness that is the antithesis of the real thing.

The same Chinese factories that produce K47 and K67 copies also make capsules that are marketed as “CK12 style”. These resemble the AKG capsule visually, but take one apart, and you’ll find that they are usually K67 copies with the termination point moved to the edge to make them look like a CK12. The differences between the two designs are not trivial. With a capsule that doesn’t have the correct internal construction, you’re unlikely to get a mic that performs like a C12 or ELAM 251 in all applications, though it might still have a broadly similar on‑axis response for close miking.

The most affordable mics that properly recreate the CK12’s unique capsule geometry are Austrian Audio’s cardioid OC18 and multi‑pattern OC818. These look nothing like a C12, are not valve mics, and don’t have an output transformer, but they were developed by ex‑AKG engineers with the C12 as a reference, and there’s a strong argument that capsule design outweighs all other design factors. You could always record them through a preamp with valves and/or transformers if you want to add some saturation. If the general sonic character of the C12 appeals, you might also want to investigate Sontronics’ much admired Aria valve mic, which is not intended as a clone but has an edge‑terminated capsule and a sound character that is balanced and ‘airy’ rather than mid‑forward like the U67.

Explicitly C12‑inspired valve mics are available at similar prices, but you’re unlikely to get a true CK12‑type capsule. Avantone Pro offer their CV12 in two versions. Both use the 6072A valve, but while the basic CV12 has a K67‑based capsule, the CV12 BLA features a “CK12 styled” capsule. Warm Audio again have a keenly priced contender in the WA‑251, which is based on the ELAM 251 and employs “a variant CEK‑12 backplate as a basis, which overcomes manufacturing limitations of the original CK12 capsule”. Advanced Audio make both the CM12se and the CM251; neither is claimed to be a clone of the original, but both use a capsule called the AK12 that is said to match the frequency response of the CK12 to within ±2dB. Peluso’s P12 is explicitly “styled after” the C12, while Mojave’s MA‑1000 is a modern interpretation of the ELAM 251. Finally, Telefunken USA make the TF51, described as a “fresh take” on the C12/ELAM design but still using the 6072A valve and a Haufe transformer.

The Telefunken ELAM 251 was one of several highly prized variants on the C12.The Telefunken ELAM 251 was one of several highly prized variants on the C12.To get a mic that uses a handmade ‘boutique’ CK12‑style capsule with the correct backplate and chamber design, you’ll usually need to command a bigger budget. The exception to this rule is the surprisingly affordable, cardioid‑only Beezneez BC12, which uses their own recreation of the CK12. Manley’s Reference Gold is not a slavish recreation of the C12, but is a valve mic that uses a CK12‑type capsule made by Josephson to Manley’s specifications. Lawson’s 251 uses the same body and electronics as their L47MP II, but with a custom CK12‑based capsule. The Bock Audio 251 is another updated design, this time inspired by the ELAM 251 and using a CK12 recreation made in Germany. If authenticity is paramount, Telefunken USA’s Diamond series includes painstaking copies of both the C12 and the ELAM 251, using their own handmade CK12 copies and new Haufe T14/1 transformers. Upton Microphones also make replica C12s and 251s which are accurate down to fine details, and Beezneez’s Tribute 5 and Tribute 2 are “faithful tributes” to the same mics.

Once again, there is also an ‘official’ successor to the C12, in the form of AKG’s C12VR. Described as an “enhanced” version of the C12, this too uses the 6072A valve paired with a CK12 capsule. However, the CK12 used in this design is the more recent ‘nylon ring’ version, which is rather different from the original.

The RCA 44

The RCA 44 was a physically imposing and very costly ribbon microphone that remained king of the jungle from its introduction in 1932 until it was superseded by the new generation of capacitor mics in the 1950s. Its design, like that of most ribbon mics, is essentially very simple, but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily easy to copy. In a ribbon mic, a thin strip of corrugated metal foil is suspended in a magnetic field; when sound causes the strip to vibrate, a small electrical signal is generated. A transformer then acts as impedance converter, stepping up the output voltage and allowing it to drive a long cable. The principle is the same in an RCA 44 and the humblest budget ribbon, but the devil is in the detail.

King of ribbon microphones: the RCA 44.King of ribbon microphones: the RCA 44.Many factors influence the exact sound of a ribbon mic. Among the most important are the geometry of the pole pieces that flank the ribbon, the thickness and tension of the ribbon itself, and the quality of the output transformer. High‑quality ribbon mics such as the RCA designs use very thin ribbon material that is hard to work with, and offer very precise control over the tensioning of the ribbon. They also employ very good quality transformers. Budget ribbon mics typically use cheap transformers with poor low‑frequency response, and lack quality control when it comes to the all‑important ribbon cutting and fitting.

The only manufacturer making exact replicas of the RCA 44 are AEA, who started servicing the originals back in 1976 and launched their own recreation in 1998. The passive AEA 44C is 100 percent faithful to the original, while the active A440 offers 18dB hotter output and the 44CE, though functionally and sonically identical to the 44C, is less costly to produce because of its simpler cosmetics. The RCA 44 design also informs that of AEA’s 84‑series microphones, which are designed to offer a more modern take on the same classic sound.

Although it’s not visually identical to the RCA 44, the Stager SR1‑A obviously draws inspiration from it; like the 44, and unlike most modern ribbons, its magnets are made from Alnico‑V rather than stronger rare‑earth metals. RCA heritage is also evident in Cloud’s 44A and JRS‑34P, the name of the latter paying homage to Jon R Sank, another pioneering RCA mic designer. Neither is a straightforward copy of the 44, but both are intended as modern interpretations of the design. Another manufacturer taking forward classic RCA‑style designs through the use of new materials and techniques are Ocean Way, with their RM1‑B long‑ribbon microphone.

More affordable ribbon mics rarely copy the 44’s form factor directly, as a mic that large is inconvenient to position and expensive to manufacture. However, the basic design is usually pretty similar, and there are many affordable mics that have a broadly similar tonality. You can pick up generic Chinese‑made ribbon designs for under £100$100, but these are likely to have feeble transformers and poorly fitted, over‑thick ribbons, so perhaps represent a false economy. A better option might be something like Sontronics’ Sigma 2, an active ribbon mic designed to have a ‘vintage’ tone.

Modelling Microphones

Slate Digital’s VMS introduced the idea of mic modelling to the wider world.Slate Digital’s VMS introduced the idea of mic modelling to the wider world.Laboriously copying the design and construction of a 60‑year‑old original might, if you’re lucky, give you a mic that sounds like a U47 or C12. But getting it spot on will be expensive, and valve mics are also bulky and inconvenient, requiring separate power supplies and multipin connectors. What if a phantom‑powered, solid‑state microphone could be made to emulate those vintage classics?

That’s the idea behind modelling microphones, and three systems are widely available. First to market was Slate Digital’s Virtual Microphone System, followed by Townsend Labs’ Sphere L22 and latterly Antelope Audio’s Edge microphones. All of these work on the same basic principle: sound is captured from a clean source microphone with a low noise floor and a known frequency response. Equalisation and other processing is then applied digitally to map the frequency response of the source microphone onto the measured response of a U47, C12 or whatever other model the user has chosen. A modelling system doesn’t only emulate a single vintage mic, but a whole locker full of classics, and because the emulation is usually applied using a plug‑in, the user can change his or her mind after the fact.

Townsend Labs’ Sphere L22 does more than simply model classic microphones.Townsend Labs’ Sphere L22 does more than simply model classic microphones.The Slate VMS remains the most affordable of the three systems. The emulation is applied using a native plug‑in, and the basic bundle includes emulations of the U47, U67 and C12, among others. Various add‑on packs are also available as cost options, including a tasty selection of mics sampled from the collection at Blackbird Studios. At present, however, the only source microphones available are fixed‑cardioid models, so the VMS cannot accurately model other polar patterns, nor capture some of the differences in response that nominally cardioid mics tend to exhibit.

In Townsend Labs’ Sphere system, the signals from front and rear capsules are captured separately and recorded to a stereo track. This is then processed by a plug‑in, which is available both in native formats and as a DSP processor for the UAD and AAX platforms, and output as a mono signal. The Sphere can thus model any first‑order polar pattern, and also the ways in which real‑world mics tend to deviate from the ideal.

Antelope Audio’s Edge Go is the world’s only USB modelling mic.Antelope Audio’s Edge Go is the world’s only USB modelling mic.As with the Slate system, a good selection of mid models is included as standard, and more are available as expansion packs, including an officially licensed collection from Ocean Way Studios. The Sphere plug‑in also includes some very interesting options for modifying the proximity and off‑axis behaviour of the mic that go well beyond simple emulation.

Antelope Audio’s Edge range contains no fewer than four microphones. The Edge Solo is a fixed‑cardioid model, while the Edge Duo has dual outputs like the Sphere to permit polar pattern and off‑axis response to be modelled. The Edge Quadro takes this a step further, mounting two dual‑output capsules next to one another to model any Blumlein, X‑Y or other coincident stereo array.

With these mics, the emulation is once again applied using a plug‑in, this time available in native formats or as an FPGA processing option on Antelope Audio interfaces. However, Antelope also make the Edge Go, a bus‑powered “studio in a mic” with built‑in digital processing and preamp. Once again, the emulations on offer include all the classics.