The Les Pauls and Strats of the Microphone World
I've been talking to a lot of people lately end-users and designers over the past several years. A lot of it's been about microphones, mic preamps and sound. And I've been doing a lot of listening. What started off as The Listening Sessions in the fall of '02 has become one of the largest and most extensive independent project in the audio-recording industry for testing, comparing and reviewing microphones and microphone preamplifiers. Somewhere along the way I stumbled on to something: A metaphorical way of comparing the classic large condenser microphones with the classic electric guitars which works as an extension of the in-progress graph to describe the sonic characteristics of microphones.
There's no perfect science to any of these types of descriptions or flowery adjectives. And there's no perfect science to music and music recording and production which are all essentially artforms. But wine, beer, cigar, and perfume circles have developed languages that at least allow them to communicate in something resembling a common language. Language is symbolic and by its very nature the description is, of course, not the thing itself. The map is not the territory. But still we use maps as tools to move through unchartered territory. And, in that way, maps and languages have an inherent value.
Using the Les Paul and Stratocaster to establish some tonal differences that can be commonly identified, we can move into the world of microphones where we see the same opposing and complementary designs in two classic mics, and all their later incarnations and knock-offs, from another pair of iconic companies: The Neumann U47 and the AKG C-12.
The famous Gibson Les Paul, introduced in 1952: Most musicians are familiar to some degree with the sound of this guitar. It's got a fuller-bodied fat sound. Initally with single-coil P90 pickups, and then in 1957 replaced by the hum-cancelling 'humbucker' pickups. The humbucker pickups give a warm, darker tone. The Les Paul also has a thicker body and neck, and a "thicker" sound.
Contrast the Les Paul to the Fender Stratocaster, introduced 1954. The Strat is the just the opposite of the Les Paul. The body and neck of the original Strat are thin and streamlined. The guitar is lighter. The sound of the Strat is thin and depending on the settings can sound much brighter than the Les Paul. The three single-coil pickups on the Strat are famous for their "bite."
"In many ways the Fender Stratocaster is the antithesis of the Gibson Les Paul style guitar. The first thing I notice when I sit down to play a Strat-style guitar is the fantastic body shape it's just a perfect fit. The Strat typically has a scale length of 25.5 inches which is considerably more spaced out than the Gibson. While a Gibson has the warm humbucker tone, a vintage Strat tone is thin and sharp, almost cutting."
Although there have been some electric guitar models that have come and gone, and many guitars that are always in the background that are used for their special and peculiar qualities such as Rickenbacker, Gretch and Vox the Gibsons and Fenders have remained the truly classic guitars ever since their introduction. And even many of the newer guitars that have become successful are still founded on the groundwork made by Gibson and Fender.
Of course there are some variations; There is the Broadcaster which became the Telecaster, the Jaguar and other models of Fender guitars, and some of the ES hollowbody models with Gibson, as well as the SG and other models but there is not a single Fender that sounds anything like a Gibson, and there is no single Gibson that sounds anything like a Fender. They are in two opposite, equal and complementary camps.
The first microphone developed in the modern era was the U47 made by Neumann and branded under the Telefunken brand label. [ Telefunken was a distribution company. They did not manufacturer their own products. ] Here is a mic, like the Les Paul, that has a thick, full sound and with a trademark velvety "sheen" across the high-mids. The body of U47 is a thick and fat.
The Neumann U47 was a forerunner to the Neumann U67 which later led to the development of the Neumann U87. All these mics have a similar tonal quality to a Les Paul, in that they tend to be colored and thick with a soft top-end. Just as the Gibson Les Paul and all its relatives have that big, warm, round tone so, too, does the U47 and all its incarnations through the Neumann U87 introduced in 1967, and subsequent Neumann microphones.
Neumann history information available at gefell-mics.com/gefell_history_1.htm. The Telefunken badge was on the U47's sold outside of Germany until 1959 when Neumann put their own badge on the U47. Telefunken wanted another high-end large condenser microphone to sell. So they went to AKG in Vienna, Austria. AKG had developed the C-12 in 1953, so they weren't exactly starting from a standstill. What AKG came up with in 1960 for Telefunken was the ELAM 250 and the ELAM 251.
The C-12 and the subsequent ELAM 250 and ELAM 251 and all future offspring are the Stratocasters of the mic world. Total opposites of the U47 family. The ELAM's were more neutral in tone, and brighter, and not nearly as soft and smooth as the U47. The body of the C-12 is thin. The AKG C-12 was a forerunner to the Telefunken AKG-manufacturered ELAM's which later led to the AKG C-12A which led to the C 412 and then to the AKG C414 introduced in 1971.
Just as the Stratocaster and all its relatives have the clear, neutral, bright even "biting" tone that "cuts through" so, too, does the C-12, ELAM's and all their incarnations through to the modern-day 414 models.
Nearly all of the other microphone manufacturers that have come along have developed in one or the other of these classic lines of mics. The most common mic line that has been followed is the more neutral-sounding line of AKG, and can be found in large condensers made by such companies as Audio-Technica and Shure. Audio-Technica was really the first brand that introduced affordable large condenser mics with the AT4033 and AT4050 in the early '90's. Until then it was mostly a matter of paying big bucks for Neumann's and AKG's or sounding like an amatuer making demos. The AT mics were essentially the microphone equivalent of Japanese-made Fender Strats.
At the same time in the early '90's the Rode Classic was the first "affordable" mic inspired by the Neumann U47 line of mics. The Early Rode mics were essentially the microphone equivalent of Chinese-made Les Pauls.
And so the mic market continues. And just like the guitar market, there are many copies of varying degrees of quality of the Neumann and AKG line of microphones. MXL is mostly going after the Neumann/Les Paul sound. You can see Studio Projects going after the Neumann/Les Paul sound with their C series, and the AKG/Strat sound with their B series. Rode is mostly Neumann/Les Paul. ADK makes mics in both lines. Companies like Soundelux, Peluso, Korby, Wunder, Telefunken USA work in both lines.
And just like the guitar market, there are now those who feel that there are companies today who are producing better guitars than the current Gibsons and Fenders. And there are certainly mic companies today who are producing overall better mics than Neumann or AKG albeit at a price. And there is also that segment of the market who, quite understandably, feel that the best mics and best guitars are the vintage originals made in the 50's and 60's by Neumann, AKG, Gibson and Fender which is reflected in the prices of vintage instruments and microphones especially Strats, Les Pauls, U47s, U67s, C-12s and ELAM 250/1s.
There were also Russian mics that developed independently. There are some mic companies, such as DPA (B&K) and Earthworks, who have the goal of neutrality and transparency. And that line of sound "philosophy" actually comes from the world of measurement microphones. But those mics are another story for another time. Just as there are also the Steinbergers and Parkers which take a totally new and modern approach to guitar design.
What this information attempts to provide is another way of understanding the sonic characteristics of microphones, and a language to better communicate towards finding for the right tool for the job. As with any art, no matter what you want to make as your art, any real understanding of it has its grounding in the classics.