Anyone that's been in audio production for a number of years will remember that all important moment in their past when the time was right to invest in that first expensive "Pro" studio microphone. This is a right of passage that many of us share.
Microphones come in all shapes, sizes and prices - in this article, The Pro Tools Expert team share their first studio microphones. Were these first microphones any good? Does anyone in the team still use their first microphones? Read the article to find out.
AKG C414 XLS - Dan Cooper
My first "pro" microphone purchase was the AKG C414 XLS. I purchased this on finance when I 17 for £750. At the time, my recording skills had developed enough to warrant such a big purchase, however, my friends ribbed me quite a lot about purchasing such an expensive microphone as they were spending less money on buying their first cars - even if they were scrap buckets.
The main reason why I chose the AKG C414 was because I was familiar with them. I used C414s a lot when I was studying at the BRIT School. I remember a C414 hitting the ground very hard without breaking, so that was a pretty big selling point to me, reliability.
To this day, 13 years on, I still use this very microphone daily. I know it's strengths, I know it's weaknesses... Why do I use the AKG C414? I can work quickly and consistently with it as I have done for over ten years now.
SE Electronics SE2200 - Mike Thornton
I had to think long and hard through all my microphone purchases to answer this question properly. In my very early days,back in the 1970s, I bought a number of low cost electret condenser mics with fixed cables, and even went as far as fitting XLR sockets in the bodies to make them more 'professional' adding a phantom power option so I didn't have to use the internal battery in them. Next up were a pair of Shure 545 mics, which were a poor man's SM57.
Later on, I acquired an eclectic collection of secondhand mics including some Calrec CM50 bodies with a selection of extension tube and capsules, a Sennheiser 406, 2 x 416s, some SM58s, and a Sennheiser 441, all of which I still own, but my first proper studio mic was an SE Electronics SE2200 large diaphragm condenser mic. Up until then I had always rented in large diaphragm mics, usually AKG C414s.
The SE2200 is still is a central part of my mic collection and the mic I turn to for vocal and instrumental recording work and the musicians that have used it, including some well known multi-instrumentalists who have been blown away by the sound from the SE2200.
I also have a number of SE Electronic mics including a pair of SE1000 fixed cardioid large diaphragm condenser mics, a couple of SE2000 condenser mics, an SE Mini, which was a voiceover/radio presenter mic and a pair of SE1a pencil condenser mics.
AKG Solidtube - James Ivey
My first what one would call "studio only" mic was an AKG Solidtube. I ordered it, fresh out of university when I got my first job working for a pro audio sales company. I think I paid about £900 for it and had also just ordered a Yamaha O3D digital console and my first Mac, a G3 300MHz..
The Solidtube was a kind of hybrid mic with, on paper at least, a clean condenser top end with the warmth of a 12AX7 valve. It sounded good to my ears at the time but as my recording experience grew I found that this fixed cardioid pattern mic was a little limited to louder material as the internal self-noise was not as good as some other mics I was borrowing (like the Neumann TLM103). On one vocal recording session I remember getting a better tone from a good old Shure SM58 and not using the SolidTube at all.
The pad switch on the side of the mic died about 3 years into owning it and I never bothered to get it fixed.
I sold SolidTube on eBay about 6 months ago in its box with shock mount and cable and I think I got about £200 for it even with the dodgy pad switch.
What did I learn from this? Microphones need to be tested and listened too. They are not all the same. The SolidTube came out in a age long before vast range of Russian made condensers that are available these days making testing and listening even more important than ever.
Neumann TLM 103 - Peter Barter
Graduating and subsequently leaving an audio college with top facilities and an extensive microphone collection can be a bit of a hard landing for most aspiring audio engineers. Just when you get a taste of the 'good life' you're soon back at square one longingly staring at your empty microphone cupboard. Where do you even begin? I knew when I was doing my research that I wanted a quality 'all rounder' that could be used for music and post production applications like VO or ADR. Resale value has always been a factor for me as well when buying hardware so I decided to 'Go German'.
I had used the Neumann TLM 103 whilst in college and had always been attracted to its crisp and intelligible top end frequency response. Brand new it was a bit out of my price range however, so I began searching on Ebay to see what was available. £450 later I was the incredibly proud owner of a mint condition TLM 103 with a proper shock mount and box.
Now if you read some of the popular audio engineering forums you may be led to believe that this microphone is the worst thing to ever happen in the history of recorded sound however I strongly disagree. I think one of this microphones strengths (and perhaps weaknesses, depends on how you view it) is that due to its incredibly clean sound and low self noise you get a completely unflattering and uncoloured representation of what is being recorded (which isn't always what you want!). It will also highlight exactly what sound your preamp brings to the table for better or worse.
I'm still using this microphone regularly for the majority of vocal recordings I do and am never surprised when I see it in other professional studios - I'd never want to sell it and when paired with a good preamp the sound is very, very good.
Neumann U87 - Alan Sallabank
I was lucky enough to start my professional career at a facility which owned two of these beauties, which were even fed through Neve 51 Series mic stages, so I guess I was spoilt. The U87 is a marvellously versatile mic, and when teamed up with a great pre-amp, sounds absolutely lovely. It was only when I moved to London, where bizarrely kit investment wasn't as high, that I discovered that if you team a U87 up with a less than capable pre-amp, it can sound appalling, suffering from a high noise floor and distortion.
I've never been in the position of having to record music vocals with a U87, but I can say that they are brilliant for voice-overs, foley recording and even ADR. I know a lot of people subscribe to the "match the ADR mic to the location mic" theory, but I've found that location mics can be entirely unsuitable for recording ADR due to their pick-up patterns. Often you can get good easy to match ADR using a good quality cardioid. The rest is down to performance and how the recordings are treated in post.
I would love to own a U87 of my own, but for the moment I've had to settle for a Rode NT1A.
Neumann TLM103 - Julian Rodgers
Like Peter my first "proper" mic was the Neumann TLM103. This is one of the better examples of my approach to buying gear. In my past life as a tutor of aspiring engineers I have advised a lot of young people in a hurry to buy gear and I've always told them to first buy the cheapest they can find which will do the job, and after that buy the best they can afford, but importantly, if you can skip the first step then go straight to step two! That's exactly what I did.
Like Peter I bought my TLM103 second hand with a shockmount and wooden box (shouldn't make a difference but I'd be disappointed if I had a cardboard box). I bought it probably 17 years ago and it's still my go to condenser. Ignore anything you read to the contrary, this is a wonderful mic. Obviously it is cardioid only but if you think it lacks mojo (it is very clean) then do as I do and pair it with an 1073. If you need even more vibe then introduce some valves into the signal path...
Would I buy one again in 2017? Probably. There are some amazing alternatives which are as good but nothing better in the price range of a good, used, example. The thing these have over the popular, cheaper alternatives is that they can be bright without being harsh. I don't know what makes condensers "sweet" but these qualify. Mind you, I have since bought a few nice ribbons...