The first time I heard the Soyuz SU-017, it was facing backwards. A singer was wailing away into the wrong side of its cardioid-only pattern, and it wasn't half bad. It actually sounded pretty focused and musical, despite its accidentally reversed capsule — maybe a bit weird sounding, but good enough that a roomful of engineers and producers didn't notice it was facing away from the singer, longer than anyone would care to admit.
I was at an intensive mic shootout at composer Richard Gibb's Woodshed Recording, a beautiful, innovatively designed, solar-powered studio on a gorgeous piece of property in Malibu, CA, next to Point Dume. With tons of natural light, scenic views, and great gear, the place was packed full of mics, singers, and a crowd of folks with long, storied careers in music recording, who all just sort of missed the fact that the SU-017 was doing a wonderful job capturing the sound reflecting off the iso room's wall.
The event was cosponsored by Vintage King, and mics from Bock, Flea, Wunder, Telefunken, Audio-Technica, and Aston were presented. Also included were the tube-based Soyuz SU-017 (owned by Woodshed) and its FET-based counterpart, the SU-019. Eight mics were set up in pairs, and singers of different genders and genres moved from mic to mic, singing the same verse and chorus of a song. The resultant recordings were then compared blindly. It was really, really fun, and a bit exhausting — but completely illuminating — to hear the differences between all these mics on varied vocalists. I was really pleased to take part in that day. People were cool, Richard is an awesome host, and my ears learned a lot.
Even in that room of experienced engineers and producers, the SU-017 sounded so rich and musical backwards, and it took a little while for everyone to realize that there had been an issue in setup. The mistake took the SU-017 out of the running for blind comparisons later, but I was still impressed. The FET SU-019 also hung in against all the other contenders. It sounded natural and extremely flattering on every singer, regardless of style or delivery. The experience made me want to hear the SU-017 correctly, so I arranged a demo loan of the mic for myself. I can now say that I've had a good amount of time with this hand-made, large-diaphragm tube mic, and it's been wonderful.
One part classic "bottle mic," one part Victorian starship, with a sprinkling of Constantin Brâncu?i's Bird in Space (Google it), the SU-017's cream body with polished brass fittings, orbital-space-station–like shockmount, and water-drop–inspired detachable capsule, will either be your thing visually, or won't. But fixating on its looks will make you miss just how musical and stunning the SU-017 sounds. Straight up, it's just a fantastic mic. It's wonderfully constructed, and its harmonic balance makes everything it captures sound exceedingly musical. Plus, this mic gets along with EQs wonderfully. While on the expensive side of everyday mic purchases, the SU-017 is a great value for what you get — not just for its sonics, but also for the thoughtfulness in build. This mic will surely hold up to everyday, intensive studio use, for years to come.
The Soyuz factory is located in Tula, Russia, where a long tradition of precise machining exists in the city. A wonderfully soothing series of videos on the Soyuz website shows off a combination of kitschy, late-afternoon classroom spirit, and a fascination for clean-rooms. The videos immerse you in the Soyuz manufacturing process and culture. Each mic also ships with signed cards that include the names and photos of the mic's assembler and tester. My particular mic was assembled by Olga Andreeva, blonde and smiling in her photo, and tested by Vladimir Seleznev, the company's head mic designer, charming in your favorite math teacher sort of way. These cards serve an overall aesthetic of hand-built and bespoke construction with a focus on exacting detail. Machining as much from scratch as they can in house, Soyuz takes special pride in the manufacture of their own K 67–style capsule, repeatedly touting their lathe, repurposed from a Kalashnikov factory that can cut with a tolerance of 2 microns.
The body design and layout is based on the Golden Ratio, to minimize acoustic and mechanical resonance. The internal circuitry is properly minimal, wired point-to-point, and it features Soyuz's in-house-wound custom transformers and a 6G1P tube sourced from a Russian factory that's been producing them continuously since 1962. The overall build is exquisite, and each part feels lovingly machined and completely thought through. The one caveat to this is the flaw that led to issues during the aforementioned shootout. The front of the capsule is hard to distinguish visually, and during disassembly or reassembly, the body shell can easily rotate 180°, placing the badge in the wrong spot relative to the capsule orientation. You can therefore find yourself singing into the backside of this cardioid mic. Luckily (or not), it sounds much better than it should that way. You just need to pay attention when putting the mic back together after showing someone how lovely the interior build is.
The mic ships in a beautiful wooden box with a 5 meter, multipin cable and an overbuilt shockmount with spare elastics. The shockmount is lightweight, but heavy duty enough to last forever. It's a great design — a little on the large side, but easy enough to use. I was happy to find the shockmount has a solid gripping clutch that doesn't feel like it's going to strip with daily use. Thankfully, standard Neutrik connectors are used for the cable, mic, and power supply; and any esoteric elements of the design are meaningful, without detracting from the everyday functionality of the mic.
Speaking of everyday use of this mic, one word comes to mind: humanist. The SU-017 seems to expect the best and appreciate the sweetness in every sound it captures. It is maybe the most lifelike and tonal microphone I've run across in some time. The mic's harmonically rich and detailed highs felt like a brand new palette to explore, with an inherent sweetness and musicality that can really help strident sound sources. I'm so used to hearing the myriad examples of "presence lift" in classic mics that immediately read as "records" and not "recordings," so initially, the SU-017 seemed maybe a tad gentle. But using the SU-017 over time, I was struck by its easy naturalism. An unhyped treble — but not dark. Warm low mids — but never too boomy. Clear and open — without being penetratingly hi-fi. Furthermore, the SU-017 takes EQ beautifully, as was exhibited during my first long-term run with the mic.
My friend Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith was working on her newest record, and in conversation, I discovered that she was having difficulties tracking her vocals. She had auditioned more than a few mics, and nothing was quite connecting. Her music incorporates a Buchla Music Easel, several other analog synths, and her densely layered, pitch-shifted vocals. There can be a real struggle for the higher harmonics in everything to come across properly. Vocal top end is often sacrificed to keep the structure of the synth interaction. I brought the SU-017 to her space, set her up, and checked in a few days later. She was ecstatic at the sound of the SU-017, saying she had bonded with the mic and felt that it brought out strong performances. In examination of the tracks, her vocal layers weren't fighting the synths and horns, and everything was interacting easily. Also, one of the benefits of the SU-017's clear top end was that the stack of pitch-shifted and processed vocals sounded much, much better, with fewer artifacts.
On other projects, I found the SU-017 to be great on acoustic guitar, with the mic gently accentuating pick attack and harmonics, and the lower-midrange glow of the mic bringing out bassiness, but never taking over. On various percussion instruments, it was detailed but never harsh; and tracks recorded through it sat easily in the mix, without me having to chase levels on small speakers. It brought out articulation on piano, without any stridency; and complicated chord voicings never seemed cluttered. I didn't get a chance to use it on drums, but I can see it excelling on cymbals. And musicians consistently commented on how much they loved the sound of the SU-017 in headphones and on playback.
Of course, in its main habitat, the SU-017 was always flattering and natural on vocals, especially with doubled melodies and multitracked harmonies. It's really just stunning on vocalists, and it naturally captures the low resonance of a chest vibrating without any additional work — something that I struggled with for a long time and would use two mics to record properly.
If you're working with aggressive music, I can see wanting to EQ in more top end, but you can go ahead and crank away, because the SU-017 doesn't seem to suffer as much from the ubiquitous resonances that jump out of other condenser mics. I'd love to pair the SU-017 with heavy distortion; it would be easy to sculpt and EQ just what you need.
There were a few comments from musicians on the visual aspect of the mic; like I said before, it will either be your thing, or it won't. I was initially lukewarm towards the visual design, but thrilled with the sound. What's important is that I came to love this mic. Its flexible musicality begs using it on any sound source you can get in front of it. With Soyuz's focus on build and value for your money, I think it's a good candidate for "modern classic" in every sense of the words, and surely you'll start seeing the SU-017 in recording situations everywhere, alongside or in lieu of the better-known favorites of today and yesterday.