Progress was made in microphone technology during the 1960s. Those bulky, unreliable, hard-to-use, internal vacuum tubes were replaced with compact, bullet-proof, child's-play transistors.
The problem was though that some of the sound quality was lost.
Where transistor mics can sound clean and accurate, vacuum tube mics have warmth and sparkle.
And although there are plenty of modern vacuum tube mics on the market, somehow the old originals like the AKG C12 and the Telefunken ELA M251 have magic too.
But it is almost impossible to get your hands on either of these incredible mics, so are you condemned to a lifetime of working with second-best?
The answer is no - you can buy a modern replica of the venerable AKG C12 that is accurate down to the last detail possible, given that there is no time machine available to help get hold of many of the original parts.
Telefunken USA is a company set up specifically to recreate these mics of old. And it seems that they are doing quite a good job of it.
Firstly, what is the difference between the original AKG C12 and Telefunken ELA M251? The answer is that they are very similar mics, both made by AKG. The Telefunken brand is more commonly found in the USA.
The model we have on test here is the Telefunken ELA M12F, which is a recreation of the AKG C12. We compared it against two original C12 microphones owned by Abbey Road Studios.
Firstly however, we need to put some perspective in place. There are two questions you should ask yourself...
Whether this mic sounds like a C12 is a point that can be dealt with very easily...
Q: Shall I tell you a mic that doesn't sound like a C12?
A: Another C12.
In reality, these mics are old. Very old in fact, and it wouldn't be reasonable to expect two examples to sound identical.
The two original C12's tested for this review did in fact sound different. One was about 3 decibels louder than the other and also rather brighter. They both did have the characteristic 'C12iness' that you would expect, but they were definitely not the same mic. They both had a tendency to overrun from 'warmth' into definite distortion.
So what you really should expect, at best, from the Telefunken ELA M12F is that it has the 'C12iness' that you want. It won't sound the same as any individual C12, simply because the C12 you compare it to will be old, and its sound quality will have 'matured'. (Consider 'matured' as potentially a synonym for 'degraded'.)
What you will definitely appreciate about this microphone is its air of real quality. From the moment you take the mic out of its casket you will, believe me, be in a state of awe compared to ordinary mics.
The musician you are working with will be impressed to and without doubt give a better performance than they would if the mic were less impressive.
Setting the Telefunken ELA M12F on its stand is a little trickier than a normal mic. The M12F has a multipin connector that fits into its dedicated stand mount. This has a captive cable that connects in turn to the power supply/pattern box.
If you remember the original C12, you will also remember that the power supply and pattern box were separate units. You can buy a modern replica of this in the form of the Telefunken M12V, which also features a "new old stock" - as they call it - tube and original AKG CK12 capsule. Of course, you will pay more for this version.
The M12F uses a modern power supply/pattern box, which should not have any significant effect on the sound. If you want a vintage-style power supply, then the Telefunken ELA M12 (no 'F') will fit the bill.
Once on the stand, and everything is fully tightened up - due to the weight of the mic - then you are all set to go.
Having listened carefully to this mic on male and female vocals and acoustic guitar, I can say that it definitely sounds different to both of the C12's I compared it with. But I expected that and I don't see it as an issue.
However, with regard to the essence of the C12, which stays intact whether one example might be a little louder or brighter than another. I would say that the M12F captures this exceedingly well. The slight tendency of the original C12's towards 'over-warmth' was not apparent.
So, it's time to choose - do you want a genuine AKG C12, or a Telefunken ELA M12F replica?
Well, if you can wait for a C12 to come onto the market; if you can afford the massive price tag that it will have, and if you can accept that it might not sound quite like any other C12, then buy a C12. Don't forget to factor in maintenance costs for such an old mic.
But if you want an excellent microphone at a not-too-unreasonable price, that is modern, most likely reliable, and has a very strong flavor of C12, then buy the Telefunken ELA M12F.
(By the way, you will find that people who own genuine C12's will say that their mic is incomparably better than the M12F - well, they would say that, wouldn't they? If they have tested the two mics head to head like I have, then they might be justified in their opinion. The individual example that they possess might indeed be in very prime condition.)
Telefunken USA is doing a great job and this product is an excellent addition to the market!
The audio from this test, with video footage of the Abbey Road session, is available as part of the Audio Masterclass Music Production and Sound Engineering Online Course.
By the way - did I say that this is a rather expensive microphone?
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