Having conquered various classic preamps, EQs, and compressors, Warm Audio now takes on a different sort of hardware beast, the Neumann U 87 large-diaphragm condenser mic. And not the modern U 87 Ai, but the vintage U 87, which was Neumann's first solid-state replacement for the U 67 tube mic. Component modifications and a return to K 67 capsules in the post-1986 "A" models improved SNR by 3 dB and raised sensitivity; and the A models were supposed to sound identical to the earlier K 87–equipped versions to boot. Still, many users still prefer the tone of the older models, and this was the sound Warm Audio was after.
The Warm Audio WA-87 comes in a well-padded wooden box. A shockmount is included, as well as a separate mic clip for those close-in situations which the bigger shockmount just can't slip into. Also included are spare elastic bands for the shockmount. One thing to appreciate about Warm Audio is the attention to these small details, rather than the "penny wise and pound foolish" philosophy, which always seems to come back and bite the customer. Like trying to find shockmount bands late at night, or having no choice but to slide a large shockmount into a small space, drunken drummers be damned. While Warm Audio has gained plenty of experience sourcing and working with resistors, vintage tantalum capacitors, and custom-spec'd CineMag transformers, none of their previous units required mic capsules. So, after testing the commercial offerings available and pricing boutique capsules, Warm Audio decided to develop their own brand — Lens Kondensator. These are appropriately spec'd, yet are still capable of being produced in the numbers Warm Audio desires without asking for a customer's first born. Their LK-87-B-50V capsule is a dual-backplate, dual-diaphragm, four-wire terminated affair. Each diaphragm is 1" in diameter, gold-sputtered, and 6 micron thick, just like the original K 87 on the early Neumanns. (Interestingly, Warm Audio's website also lists a CK 12–style capsule, the Lens Kondensator LK-12-B-60V, and a corresponding WA-14 mic that utilizes this all-brass capsule.)
I was in the middle of voiceover work when the test unit arrived. U 87s (all models) are well-respected VO mics. I already had a Microtech Gefell M 930 transformerless LDC [Tape Op #45] set up. The Gefell is very balanced — almost a "what you hear is what you get" mic that doesn't seem to overly emphasize any frequency range. It is very discreet in size and precise in sound, and cuts through music beds and other VO hazards with ease. I hung the Warm Audio mic upside down above it, with windscreen tops almost touching. It was easy to hear the difference between the two mics, although each delivered a nice, balanced tone. The WA-87 was less sensitive, and I had to crank the gain up on my TASCAM UH-7000 preamp [#103] several dB. Less obvious, but a more serious difference, was the body and weight brought out by the Warm Audio. Besides some transformer-induced thickening, the frequency response of the WA-87 in cardioid and figure-8 modes is flat up until 3 kHz, then rises until 5 kHz, before dropping off again. The resulting "hump" is below most sibilance frequencies, and the upper highs remain clear without any edgy buildup. On male VO, this hump helped add a hint of authority, while the highs sounded somewhat smoother than the Gefell's. Both mics sounded excellent, if different, once they were gain-matched through the clean TASCAM preamps. Getting closer to the Warm Audio also brought out a really solid proximity effect with full, yet controlled bass. It made me sound like a professional... well, almost. I never found an older U 87 for direct comparison, but if a vintage one sounds anything like how the Warm Audio made me sound when I snuggled up to it, I understand why it is prized for VO.
At The Kitchen Studios in Dallas, TX, owner John Painter and I tested the WA-87 against the newer U 87 Ai, and the Warm Audio held its own. The Neumann thickened up the sound more than the Warm Audio and seemed to hump at a lower register. Generally, this made the Warm Audio mic sound leaner and more defined, much the same way the transformerless M 930 was leaner and cleaner than the Warm Audio, if less muscled. At first blush, the U 87 Ai's heft on male vocals added nice excitement and provided a great rock and roll vibe through a Tonelux preamp. The WA-87, not so much. But once we engaged the Tilt EQ on the Tonelux, we coaxed a brighter sound out of the Warm Audio which was better suited for modern production. And one thing quickly became apparent — the WA-87 takes EQ really well. Maybe because the mic captures such a nice, balanced sound by itself, it seems you end up cutting or adding to more of the sound in the room, rather than anything the mic emphasizes. Then we plugged both mics into a classic rock and roll chain — a refurbished Neve 1073 preamp/EQ module and vintage LA-2A compressor. Here, the Neumann's low-end thickening worked a bit better for bass, and as a front-of-kit mic, it killed. The "excitement" we heard on vocals made for a perfect drum sound — forget multi-mic'ing, you could just cut and print in mono with the U 87 Ai. But on other instruments, both of us picked the Warm Audio. It was a skosh better on electric guitar, while the capture of an acoustic guitar was almost as good as the Neumann was on drums. On a continuum, the WA-87 was to the U 87 Ai as the clean M 930 was to the WA-87 — the Warm Audio's thickening being about smack dab in the middle between the other two, and neither too thick nor too clean. Which in many cases is exactly where you want to be — not adding much to a heavy, transformer-based chain, while providing a taste of excitement to a clean one.
Back at home again, I got to play with this chain interaction more. For a female vocal — which oscillated between almost spoken-word and sung — I routed the WA-87 into a Rupert Neve Designs Portico II Channel [Tape Op #82], with its compressor set to feed-forward and fast attack and release, and the de-esser working a bit at around 7 kHz, and then on into a Warm Audio WA-2A compressor [#114], which was slow with lots of saturation. The sound came out gorgeous — and thick, even if the mic wasn't. The WA-87 let the rest of the chain do its magic and didn't add to or get in the way of the sonic picture. I had trimmed the bass in the Portico II's HPF, so all that was really left to do was automate volume and pick an appropriate reverb for the song. Tastes great but plenty filling — with the vocal floating right over the music with minimal sibilance. Of course, this chain wasn't as bright as with many clean preamps (like the aforementioned TASCAM), but the resulting highs were smooth and easily massaged with EQ.
Warm Audio's first mic replicates the value that the company squeezes out of its rackmount hardware. The WA-87 provides all the amenities that might be missing on a lower-cost mic, like selectable patterns, an 80 Hz HPF, a −10 dB pad, and included accessories. And it held its own against the more expensive Gefell and very expensive Neumann mics, even outperforming them at some tasks. So, while the affordable Warm Audio WA-87 may deliver a decidedly middle-of-the-road sound, that sound is still detailed and 3D, just like what you would expect from a higher-cost, top-shelf LDC.