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Is your vintage tube microphone a classic? Or worthless scrap metal?

So you won a vintage tube microphone on eBay. It cost you $10,000 or more. But did you buy a classic, or something that should have been thrown on the scrap heap years ago?


There is no doubt that many of us aspire to ownership of a real, genuine vintage tube microphone.

Something like the Neumann U47, Telefunken ELA M251 or AKG C12 would do nicely.

Even though all of these microphones are now more than 40 years old, there is something timeless in their sound quality.

Some say that there is no modern mic that can match them.

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The trouble is that these vintage microphones are in short supply. Anyone who has one isn't going to sell it anytime soon.

But every so often, one of these precious mics comes onto the market. Perhaps the owner went bust, or sadly passed on.

And there it is on eBay. You see it, you want it and you bid for it.

... And you win it!

It cost a lot of money, but you are now SURE that you have the best microphone in the world and nothing can hold you back.

But hang on a minute... are you all that sure?

What you have is a microphone that is more than 40 years old. When you are more than 40 years old yourself then various body-parts will start to deteriorate and fail. It's the same with microphones.

If the mic you bought had been stored in perfect conditions for all that time, then it might indeed be as good as the day it was made.

But, perhaps it is the mellowing over time that makes these mics so desirable. Maybe such a mic has to be used to develop its characteristic tone.

However, as much as microphones are used, then they are also abused. Forty years is a long time to suffer abuse such as the spray of water and saliva that vocalists tend to emit when they put their all into a performance.

Maybe over time the diaphragm degraded. Perhaps it was changed. Perhaps the whole capsule was changed.

And what about the vintage 40+ year old vacuum tube inside the mic? Even if it is in good condition, it surely isn't going to sound the same as when it was new.

And perhaps it has been changed, perhaps for a non-original model, or perhaps someone has fitted a transistor replacement. It can be done.

So what you have really bought is...

A whole load of (expensive) doubt.

You don't know whether your microphone really is a fine example of one of the best mics in the world, or whether it is a worn-out has-been that should have been scrapped or broken up for spare parts.

But there is one way you can find out - compare it with another similar model of the same mic, preferably one from a respected studio that maintains their microphone collection carefully.

And indeed this is something we did recently. We compared two examples of the Neumann U47, together with a selection of other microphones, vintage and modern, at Abbey Road studio.

The two U47's did indeed sound VERY different to each other. One sounded great, the other was mind-blowing.

I would like to be able to play the tests here, but to be honest this session cost us a shed-load of money. We do have the results available at a reasonably low cost though, which hopefully will contribute towards our next test session.

If you would like to hear how the Neumann U47, and 13 other mics, vintage and modern, really sound, then take a look here. There is a preamp test too, and the whole session was recorded in multi-camera video.

Having had the opportunity to hear amazing mics over the course of many years, there is one solid conclusion I have come to.

That is to choose a mic that sounds good to you, regardless of what anyone else says. Spend time listening to as many mics as you can and build up a small collection of mics that please you, then select the one that sounds best for the particular singer you are working with on the day.

By David Mellor Thursday November 30, 2006