I recently posted something on Twitter that seemed to strike a chord, judging from how many retweets it seemed to generate. I said, “Sorry for the generalization but, microphones are to audio engineers what shoes are to women.” It’s an analogy that seems to work on several levels. Well, you can say I have a mic fetish but, I say, “What good engineer doesn’t?” I think I should start my own brand of esoteric, boutique mics called Fetish and the flagship model can be The Stiletto. (Shhh — don’t tell anyone. It’ll be our exclusive little mic.)
There are some mics you don’t necessarily reach for all the time and there are the work horses. You’ve got your Manolos of the mic world like the Neumann U 47 and then you have your 9 Wests like the SM57, MD421 and fat Heads.
So, in my search for the “black pump” of tube condensers, I happen to call Dae Bennett (Tony Bennett’s son), owner of bennett Studios (http://www.bennettstudios.com/news.html) in Englewood, New Jersey. I had heard some good things about the Audio-technica AT 4047 and, specifically, that it was used on all of the vocals on Tony’s “Duets” album. Now, I know it’s not a tube mic, but I was considering buying it but simply had to confirm that this mic was used on all of the vocals on that album. I had my doubts because I know that some of the vocalists on that recording like Sting and Stevie Wonder happen to use the Sony C800G a lot of the time. Dae confirmed that the AT 4047 was, in fact, used on all of the vocals except one. Turns out, what I heard was true — Bono always seems to use a Shure SM58 Beta in the studio.
Anyway, during our conversation, Dae mentioned the Apex 460 (http://www.apexelectronics.com/products.asp?cat=21&type=1&id=74). I hadn’t heard much about the mic so, when I learned that someone had modified a pair for him, I was intrigued and began researching the mic. I was amazed at the differences of opinion this mic caused.
I wish I had known about RecordingHacks.com (http://www.recordinghacks.com) at that point. It probably would have saved me a lot of surfing time. Matthew McGlynn does an amazing job with his Microphone Database (http://recordinghacks.com/microphones). It has tremendously useful links to the manufacturers’ web sites, spec sheets, owner’s manuals, etc.
At a certain point, I found Dan Richard’s side-by-side comparison (http://www.studioreviews.com/m16-460.htm) of the R-F-T Telefunken M16 and the Apex 460 on StudioReviews.com (http://www.studioreviews.com). Turns out that, apart from three resistors, the mics are identical. Of course, the $1,400 price tag for the M16 seemed a little steep as compared with the $229 cost of the 460. Telefunken re-released the mic as the M16 Mark II with the same price tag but allegedly upgraded components.
So, further research revealed that the Apex 460 was just a rebranded Alctron HST-11A (http://www.alctron-audio.com/encpShow.asp?id=70) which is a Chinese-made multi-pattern tube condenser that seemed to appear under many names including Nady and Carvin, among others. There seemed to be a number of modifications that some folks were doing like transformer swaps, changing the capsules, capacitors and tubes. There were some guys like Dave Thomas, whose company, Advanced Audio (http://www.aamicrophones.com), offered highly modified versions of the HST-11A and branded them with their own names like the CM12 (http://www.aamicrophones.com/tube_mics/cm_12.htm). In some cases, third party “mic moders” were using the Peluso CEK-12(http://www.pelusomicrophonelab.com/capsnmnts.html) as an upgrade from the stock capsule. Further, I discovered that Peluso themselves offered a similar mic known as the P12 (http://www.pelusomicrophonelab.com/P12.html).
All of these mics were essentially based on the legendary AKG C 12. Not being in a position to justify the cost of a vintage C 12, I found the Apex 460 at Full Compass Systems (http://www.fullcompass.com/product/314911.html) for only $181 at the time and ordered several. I compared the stock 460 to a pair of 460s I had modified by one of Dae Bennett’s friends. The moded mics were ever so slightly darker but, apart from that, all of the mics, even the stock models, sounded quite nice.
I always wanted to compare the moded 460s to an AKG C 12 so I called Chris Dunn at DreamHire (http://www.dreamhire.com) and he personally dropped one off at the studio – not because I’m such an important client but, rather, most likely because I’m literally down the street from them since they’ve moved to Astoria (woohoo!).
These shootouts almost always reinforce what I’ve come to realize: the great Neumann and AKG mics of yesteryear were absolute marvels and achieved an enormously high standard even 50 years ago — a standard that is still strived for today. At the same time, there are plenty of new mics today that technically out-perform the vintage offerings. Thing is, almost none of those mics sound like they did the day they were made and many of them have been so heavily modified and repaired that, for all intents, they’re practically new mics.
I don’t know if I would ever buy a vintage U 47 or C 12. i mean, it would be great to own a piece of history, yeah, but in almost every shootout, I’m reminded that the vintage models, as nice as they are, aren’t necessarily the winners and are sometimes, quite frankly, the losers. I think I’d rather invest a little less money in a contemporary mic like the Peluso 2247LE (http://www.pelusomicrophonelab.com/22 47 LE.html) and be content owning an extraordinary, modern microphone. People will always covet the historic Neumann, AKG and Telefunken mics and they’ll always be collectors items for some. I’ll always respect and revere them but I think I’ll stick to, umm… the black pumps.
background music for this episode is by Sarina Bridget Bach from her debut album, “All Except One.” Recorded by Slau at BeSharp, June 6, 1999.
Sarina Bridget Bach – piano, Patience Higgins – tenor sax, Jesse Andrus – tenor/soprano sax, Hugh Fraser – trombone, Steve Roane – bass, Richie DeRosa – drums
Additional excerpts from: Joel Weiskopf, Marty Mabin, Libby Richman and Carlo Barile, Vinny pedulla and Slau.