You can talk about Neumanns and Sonys, but probably the number-one condenser mic in modern studios is the venerable AKG C 414. Every pro studio I know seems to have a pair for overheads and stereo work; and plenty of project studios use one as their main mic. But when talking about the C 414, one is actually talking about an entire family of differently voiced mics, like a family reunion where forgotten cousins all help celebrate grandma’s hundredth birthday. Who are all these mics? The C 414 is descended from AKG’s 1953 C 12 tube mic, which is famous for its brass-ring, dual-backplate CK 12 capsule (among other excellent attributes). The CK 12, with its twin edge-terminated diaphragms, is a highly complex capsule and one of the hardest to manufacture. It has a top end that’s not just extended, but sweet to boot. It made for a different, yet complementary tone to the earlier, Neumann M 7 capsule mics. With the C 12, and the Telefunken-commissioned Ela M 251E, AKG became the “other” European mic company, and the second-leading purveyor of condensers worldwide. The long-bodied C 12 eventually morphed into the squat, trapezoidal C 12A nuvistor-tubed mic, which led to the similarly shaped C 412 FET-based sibling, whose shapes are still recognizable today in the C 414. The C 414 first appeared in 1971, and the C 414 EB was introduced in 1976. The EB continued to utilize the brass CK 12 capsule until, without any warning or change in nomenclature, AKG changed the capsule to a cheaper nylon version. Over the next 40 years, more models of the C 414 kept the design current with changing recording technologies and tastes. Depending on how you choose to differentiate them, there are at least a dozen versions of the C 414 out there, and AKG continues to manufacture two. So, when someone says, “That doesn’t sound like a 414.” You gotta ask, “Which one?”
For Warm Audio, the correct answer was the “original” C 414 EB with a brass CK 12 capsule. Of course, nobody makes that exact capsule these days — not even AKG for its C 12 VR reissue. And certainly not for a workhorse-priced mic. So, Warm Audio set about producing their own edge-terminated brass capsule based on a variant CEK-12 backplate, putting the capsule in a chunky, C 414–like body, which, when taken out of the shipping box, is a bit bigger and about as heavy as a “real” C 414. This new mic is called the WA-14, and like other Warm Audio products, it’s priced affordably, at $499.
Along with the mic, your purchase includes a rigid mount, as well as a shockmount with spare suspension bands. Sorry, no wooden box like for the WA-87 [Tape Op #119] — just a pouch in keeping with the mic’s working-class ethic. The shockmount is plastic, but it’s sturdy, and it works right-side up as expected. Upside down, the extended tangs (larger than those on the C 414) at the bottom of WA-14’s XLR jack catch on the thumbscrew clamps, even if they are only slightly screwed in. Therefore, the mic will literally hang from the shockmount after a slight turn, even if it isn’t tight. Having dropped a condenser before, I appreciate this extra safety feature to help save me from myself.
The WA-14 shares the C 414 EB model’s 0, −10, and −20 dB pad settings, as well as three of the four original polar patterns, missing only the hypercardioid setting. Current C 414 models have no less than nine pickup patterns. Unlike the C 414 EB or modern AKGs, the WA-14 has no high-pass filter.
The WA-14 looks the part and may have the right components, but how does it sound? In three words, I like it. It sounds how a mic should sound, or at least how I think one should — thick and full, with a smooth top end, and bass that seems to reach down forever. The sound is contiguous, as if all the frequencies belong together, which is hard to describe but easy to hear. The WA-14’s “presence” seems a bit higher in frequency than that of many mics; higher and lighter than the WA-87’s, or of the various AKG C 414 mics we tested. For the most part, the Warm’s presence wasn’t a distraction, though it might accentuate sibilance on some voices. Usually, it ever so slightly enhanced the sound, and we used the mic on a ton of sources — literally, since that list included a freshly delivered, backbreaking upright piano. (That is how the piano mover described the weight, anyway.)
At The Kitchen Studios in Dallas, owner/engineer John Painter and I ran the usual suspects through the WA-14 and a modern C 414. Male voice, electric bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar — all sounded at least as good, if not better, through the WA-14. During our tests, I inadvertently learned that the WA-14 takes loud signals like a champ. Going from a quiet voiceover immediately to an amped bass, I didn’t get around to resetting the Neve 1073 preamp level before the first lick. When I saw the thick, flattened waveform appear onscreen, I feared for the worst, but the recording simply sounded saturated from the 1073, without distortion from the mic. Clearly, the WA-14 can handle plenty of bass and volume.
The WA-14 also got used on various sessions as the primary mic. For a country band, it was excellent in that capacity. It worked on acoustic guitar (in normal as well as octave-up tunings) and was perfect for the tone of a Fender Telecaster through a Fender Twin, capturing just enough bite. This wasn’t the band’s first recording rodeo, and they loved the sound they got from the WA-14 on their respective instruments, especially the singer. Hey, if it keeps the client happy! On the vocal, John remarked it sounded like a good dynamic mic, but with better resolution.
At Wire Recording in Austin, owner/engineer Stuart Sullivan has his own vintage AKG C 12A mics, and he rustled up two C 414 EBs (one with the CK 12 capsule). First, he matched levels — the three FET mics had greater output, with the Warm having the most level. Then, in a separate room, the assistant spoke and played, while trying to keep the mic positions and performances as similar as possible — not the most exacting test, but he didn’t tell us which of the mics was which. We ended up preferring the Warm on two of the four sources, by consensus. On snare, the lows were excellent on all the brass capsules, but the WA-14’s high presence helped to, well, distinguish the highs. On banjo, ditto. For male voiceover, the C 12A had that tube sparkle, which just worked. The piano was more problematic, what with trying to shoehorn four mics around the same spot. The C 12A came out ahead, but the other mics sounded good, especially considering the placement situation. Wire Recording has a huge live room, so Stuart was also keen on checking the WA-14 nulls for old-school recording of the band, live in a single room. Everyone was impressed at how precipitously the sound dropped off-axis in both cardioid and figure-eight modes. We also found the rear of the figure-eight pattern brighter than the front — not enough to interfere with face-to-face performance, but enough for a choice in voicing.
I’ll confess that I love the Warm Audio WA-14, and I did even before that last shootout. Most of what I had heard or read about the brass capsule had to do with its articulate top end. In use, I could hear the detail in the highs, with no hint of harshness that some similarly priced LDCs can have. But it was actually the bottom end that was incredible to me. Recording a “keyring test” in a treated room with the WA-14, I could “feel” all the dead air below the tinkling in the track. And my New Old Stock piano from 1900? The WA-14 captured how overwhelming the bottom end sounds in my small room. Sometimes, it isn’t how good a mic sounds, but how well it captures everything, including the flaws. I don’t think my piano mover is going to be happy.