A Guide to Hidden Gem Vintage Microphones

It’s difficult to argue with the notion that the classic, vintage microphones from yesteryear have a certain unidentifiable “something” that sets them apart from their modern successors. Take a look through the microphone cabinet of many mid-­to­-high level studios, and you’ll find treasured examples of the Neumann U47, AKG C12, RCA 44B, and countless other rare mics with hefty insurance values. Producers, engineers, studios, and musicians will often opt to employ these decades-old tools that most non-musicians might think of as antiquated, obsolete technology.

But when you get down to it, as other types of equipment have advanced greatly over the last hundred years of recorded sound, very little has changed with regard to microphone design since the invention of the condenser/capacitor microphone in 1916. A large number of newly ­produced models go to great lengths to approximate, or even “clone,” the components, circuitry, and tonalities from these old mics.

Another certainty is that most of these classic microphones are not exactly budget-friendly. As with anything else that tends to be old, rare, and desirable, the price of vintage microphones has been steadily climbing for years with no end in sight. Still, there are a number of off­-the-­beaten­-path mics from the golden age that are quite affordable and hold court with the best of them.

RCA BK-5A/BK-5B

It was the 1950s, and movies and television shows about the “wild” American West were numerous and popular. Engineers for RCA, a multi­faceted company which had just kicked off their new television department, were dissatisfied with the performance of the era’s ribbon and condenser microphones when it came to high-­SPL situations—because what would an old Western be without loud gun shootouts?—and the BK-5A and BK-5B models were born.

Acoustically baffled behind the ribbon, and protected up front with multiple layers of cloth and perforated metal, these are unidirectional ribbon microphones that can withstand the blast of .38 caliber blanks fired from just a couple feet away.

Fast­-forward half a century to find music producers and recording engineers scooping them up for cheap and repurposing them as secret ­weapon guitar amp mics, where their focused tone mixed with the ability to take an absolute beating level-wise make them an ideal tool for the job.

The BK-5s are entirely different animals from the significantly more well-known 44B and 77D models, though perhaps a little more “application-specific,” but their durability and vintage charm make them an absolute steal at a fraction of the price.

It’s worth noting that although the BK-5A and BK-5B look identical from the outside, the latter has an extended frequency response at both ends.

Neumann KM85i

A long-time staple for orchestral and acoustic recordings thanks to their clear and natural sound, the Neumann KM8x series of microphones can be found in just about every major studio and scoring stage -­­ often half a dozen or more of them under one roof. Essentially, the KM85i (“i” designation simply means it has an XLR connector, typically for export to North America) is the same microphone as the widely ­loved and more expensive KM84i, but with a built-­in bass rolloff.

While this makes the microphone less useful in distant applications, the KM85i’s integral high­pass filter actually comes in handy as you move the microphone closer to an instrument or voice.

Proximity effect is an acoustical bass­ boost inherent to directional microphones as they move closer to the signal source, which makes the cardioid-patterned KM84i a bit too bottom­-heavy when used as a close mic.

The KM85i, however, sounds clear as a bell at closer distances, arguably making it a better choice for snare drums (engage the ­10dB pad to avoid ugly distortion - or don’t), acoustic guitars, and any other sound that benefits from having a microphone within spitting distance.

Microtech Gefell MV692/UM70

The events of World War II sent Georg Neumann and company packing from Berlin to the sleepy town of Gefell, a rolling green sprawl spared from the dire conflict just 200 miles southeast. An old textile mill was quickly repurposed for the continued production of Neumann’s line of condenser microphones ­­- a then­ budding technology which, no, they did not invent.

The Neumann company eventually moved most operations back to Berlin in 1948 after the war ended, but the Gefell factory maintained the machines, tooling, and processes to make, among other things, the famed M7 capsule.

Generally loved as a do-­it-­all utility microphone, the later-­era Microtech Gefell MV692/UM70 is a staple in major recording studios around the world. A nod to the company’s modular designs of the 1940s-­60s, the MV692’s solid­state body accommodates several screw­-on capsules.

All are useful in their own way, but the MV692/UM70 combination (with M7 capsule, as in the five-­figure-­fetching Neumann U47 and M49) was the most popular, and is especially desirable due to its multi-­pattern versatility and remarkably smooth tone. Does it sound like a U47? Of course not, but it doesn’t have to. Its inviting timbre, small physical footprint, and the ability to change character and application with different capsules gives this microphone a purpose and personality all its own.

Though many originals were not set up to accommodate 48­-volt phantom power, by now, most have been updated by Microtech Gefell or seasoned technicians to be powered like any other condenser you already own. Do note that these vintage beauties were briefly reissued in 2010, and also have a non-­modular counterpart - simply named UM70 - as well as a modern transformerless sister model, the UMT70S.

Beyerdynamic M500

As vintage ribbon microphones go, the Beyerdynamic M500 is something of an odd duck. It’s small, light, and quite high in output level.

Voiced with an aggressive high frequency bump and with laser-like directionality from the hypercardioid polar pattern, you can pull this microphone back off the source a bit and still have a balanced sound including high frequencies and great rejection of other instruments or amps blaring elsewhere in the room.

These qualities make the M500 a phenomenal spot mic for horns, guitar amps, drum overheads, and acoustic instruments. The integral pop­-filter also makes it usable as a handheld vocal microphone, something you’d not want to try with almost all other ribbons.

Being that they’re not quite as well­-known as the sonically similar M160 model, you can generally find these mics for notably less money.

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