Vocal Mics

Finding the right mic for vocals can be one of the most critical decisions made in the recording process. The human voice is an incredibly unique instrument, capable of the most detailed nuances, crisp consonants, and warm buttery tones. Yet, who are we kidding, every voice is different and there’s never a one-size-fits-all answer to the question, “What mic should I put in front of the singer?”

In his interview with Tom Brooks (Page 22 this issue), Alan Parsons names three legendary vocal mics: the Neumann U47 (Frank Sinatra, James Taylor), the Telefunken ELA-M 251 (Celine Dion, Bruce Springsteen, Christina Aguilera), and the AKG C12 (Tom Petty, Mick Jagger, Meghan Trainor). All of these mics have been used on best-selling records since 1949 (the birth of the original U47).

These classics are all large diaphragm condenser mics which are, in general, cleaner and more detailed with flatter frequency response allowing for minimal coloration of
the sound.

Unlike dynamic mics which operate using an electromagnet and wire coil or a ribbon mic which uses moving-coil and magnet mechanics, condenser mics use a tiny gold membrane placed close to a metal plate that creates a capacitor. Condenser mics pick up more detail than dynamic mics in general, and for that reason are more prevalently found, at least for vocal recording, in studios.

What sets each of these mics apart is purely a matter of hardware (though some people get emotionally attached to one over the others based on reputation or a particular artist). The U47’s super-cardioid pickup pattern is what made it popular for artists like Frank Sinatra because it does a really good job of rejecting off axis sounds. When Sinatra recorded his vocals live in the same room as the big band, the U47 would reject the sound of the band and capture more of Sinatra’s voice.

The story of the Telefunken 251 starts when Neumann ended its contract with Telefunken for distribution. Telefunken then reached out to AKG in the hopes of making a mic that would replace the U47 after it phased out. Telefunken went and stuck AKG C12 parts in what would become the ELA-M 251. The differences come in the internal wiring and available pickup patterns. The 251 features three selectable polar patterns on the body of the mic itself while the C12 has nine patterns switchable on the power supply. This is responsible for the slight variations in sound between the two differences that, while miniscule, are enough to allow both of these mics a spot on the podium for definitive world class vocal mics. You will always find slight variations in any microphone that has lived and worked for forty plus years; but generally the 251 has a pronounced proximity effect providing a slightly richer low end for male voices while the C12 has a silkier high end.

While these three vocal giants are indisputably the best tube condenser mics in their class for recording vocals, the price tag of $10,000 and up for a vintage original can be a challenge.

Fortunately, there are excellent sounding ‘new build’ versions of these mics from Wunder Audio, Bock, Slate, and others for a fraction of the vintage price. With the variety of vocal mics available, it really comes down to what sounds good on the source. Michael Jackson is known for his love of the Shure SM7, a large diaphragm dynamic mic that costs around $500. Others swear by Neumann’s U87, the U47 FET, or even a TLM or AKG 414.

Ultimately, when it comes time to capture the sound of an amazing vocalist, be sure you are capturing it on an amazing microphone. Don’t be afraid to experiment–you never know which microphone might just be “the one” for
your singer.

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