The venerable AKG D12 is one of those mics I hear about a lot but don't see in person very often. I've borrowed a few from friends, and each one sounded very different. Plus, hilariously, each time I described the previous loaner mic to the current one's owner, I was told, "That one must be broken. They don't sound like that." Hah! Actually, AKG made a number of design changes to the D12 and D12 E over the years, and who knows which version anybody has heard or considers the gold standard. Not to mention that some D12s have been around for over 60 years! So I think the reality is that, like U 47s or KM 84s, there are a lot of different ones out there, and only the most seasoned veterans can say which ones sound like the good old days.
Another thing you often hear about the D12 is that it's much better than the more recent AKG D112. Nobody seems to publicly like the D112 — it's supposedly "too scooped" or "too ticky" or what have you. I avoided owning one for years because it seemed like such a standard-issue mic, and I wanted to be different. Then five years ago, I mixed a record that was tracked in Croatia, and the kick drum was exactly what I had always wanted to hear. What could this mic be?! I asked for a few session photos to puzzle it out, and sure enough: D112. I bought one the next day and learned my lesson. Now I'm not ashamed to say I like the D112 a lot. Compared to most modern kick drum mics — like the Audix D6 — it doesn't sound all that scooped and hyped (a friend and I used to joke that the Sennheiser e 602 has a single sample built in), and it sits real well in aggressive drum mixes. That said, there are times when I want that 400-600 Hz body, and little to no tick. These are the times, and the reasons, that I've borrowed vintage D12s. Which finally leads me to the D12 VR.
Made in Austria, the D12 VR is a sturdy, rectangular, large-diaphragm dynamic mic intended for bass drum applications. VR stands for "Vintage Reissue," but this mic is quite different from the original D12, both in appearance and implementation. For starters, it offers four operating modes. In passive mode without phantom power, it is an ordinary dynamic mic. With phantom, an active filter engages, and an illuminated switch on the microphone body selects one of three EQ curves. All three curves scoop out some midrange; in addition, the leftmost position boosts low-end, and the rightmost position boosts both low and high-end. The idea is to provide a number of possible sounds, from "vintage" to "modern" (those are kick drum codewords for "neutral" and "ticky") with a single mic. Each mode illuminates the switch with a different color, which is neat, although a little surprising to see on a mic at first! And all four settings use an output transformer, which AKG's website describes as the "original C 414 transformer."
I have used the D12 VR in a lot of sessions, with great results. First, with Kevin Army producing, I engineered for Sharkbite owner Ryan Massey's new band, The Sunset Shipwrecks. We wanted a timeless old-school rock vibe — drums and amps together in the live room, Teles and hollowbodies, high-waist jeans, etc. I put the D12 VR inside the kick, next to a Beyer M 88 (try it! — rad kick mic). Placing the D12 VR inside a kick is much easier than a mic like the D112; the XLR connection is still at the end of the mic's stem, but the stem pivots
90° to point straight back. Brilliant! One funny gotcha — Sharkbite's Trident TSM has always-on phantom power, so I had to use an external preamp to not have phantom and get the passive mode I wanted. Anyway, both mics sounded great, but we preferred the D12 VR on most songs. It had some beater tick, but its presence peak was a lower frequency than the M 88's, and it was thicker in the low-mids. I found that switching modes on the mic was too slow to spend time doing during a session — once the mic is deep inside a kick, it's tricky, and running back and forth to the live room while the drummer pounds out whole notes... vibe killer, man. I can't take time to shoot out mics much with a band in the room anymore. I prefer to test gear on my own time and know what I'm expecting in session.
So the next week, I had my friend Sean Boyles bring a few small kits to my studio, where we could experiment without the pressure of a working session. We tried the D12 VR and a couple of other go-to kick mics, on Sean's 24'' Ludwig Vistalite and 20'' Slingerland kicks. Passive and red (mid-scoop) modes were my favorites for big, defined rock kick drums. The blue mode is the tickiest, most "modern" sounding — though that added brightness also means more cymbal wash. Sean's little 20" Slingerland drum has incredible low-end extension, and it sounded insane through the D12 VR in green (bass-boost) mode. So much bass! I ran the signal through an SPL Transient Designer with the sustain cranked, and whoa, TR-808 land. Love it. Compared to an Electro-Voice RE20, the D12 VR never sounded as flat or "pillowy" — even in passive mode, the D12 VR still had a midrange dip like a "kick mic," and it felt like it extended an octave lower than the RE20. Compared to a D112, the D12 VR was similar in some ways... but classier? In passive or mid-scoop modes, its vibe was similar to the D112's, but its presence peak was much less nasty, and the cymbal bleed sounded less phasey. The D12 VR sounded like you moved the D112 into the right place, if that makes sense. We also quickly tried the D12 VR on floor tom, and it did fine. The bleed didn't sound great, like an MD 421 or other dynamic, but some of the settings provided a nice "pre-EQ'ed" thing.
Ryan's band returned to the studio a few weeks later, but I couldn't make this session, so Ryan and Kevin shared engineering duties. Ryan again used the D12 VR, but in a Subkick-like role. He selected green bass-boost mode and placed the mic just outside the resonant head. It worked great, and I'm pretty sure he has borrowed the D12 VR for every session he's done since then. "Thanks! I need to buy one of these really soon!"
Finally, after all this, I recorded a new LP for my own band. We play lumbering, slow, noise rock, and I wanted huge, natural drum sounds. On our last record, I used a D112 for kick, but this time, I wanted more girth and less snap, so I tried the D12 VR in red mid-scoop mode. I am super happy with the results. When I mixed, I EQ'ed in a little 3 kHz, and that sounded great too.
Ignore the D12 part of its designation; as far as I can tell, this mic has pretty much nothing to do with its namesake. It may not be the perfect mic for "vintage" bass drum sounds, and at $499, it's pricey compared to most other purpose-built kick mics. But it's a really good mic. I bought my review model.