The boutique microphone landscape was very different 16 years ago, when I bought an original Soundelux Microphones U99 in 2001 — serial number 017. It was my first multipattern large-diaphragm tube condenser. With sketchy vintage dealers offering very few options, buying a high-end tube mic back then was a tricky affair. I knew I needed a solid instrument to bring more fidelity and focus to the recordings I was making. I was traveling a lot, recording in larger studios, and then dragging what little gear I owned into homes, rehearsal spaces, and other makeshift spaces. The mic had to be reliable and work in many situations, and I hoped to make the right choice if I could find something affordable. Fortunately, David Bock was already there in that landscape with Soundelux, hand-building and tuning designs with the knowledge of what made a classic a classic. I had researched Soundelux and David Bock, with his many years of experience maintaining the vintage mics that filled the lockers of busy studios, and he was just starting to build new ones that referenced those venerated stalwarts. I knew the U99 was based around the Neumann U 67, my favorite mic then and now. Trust me — prices were going up on old Neumanns even then. Buying new would mean higher reliability, and the U99 was just within my reach. I didn't quite have the cash, but stretched and went for it. It was one of the smartest things I've ever done.
The results were immediate and I kind of fell in love. The U99 became the heart and soul of so many recordings — the inspiration on vocals, the spine of drum tracks, the angular shimmer and jangle of guitar amps. It just worked, never complained, and was always ready to go. And it was my mic. I've continued to admire the authority of old Neumanns and appreciate their ownership from a distance, but I never felt disadvantaged by their absence when I got back to my own spot. Like the U 67, the U99 is a flexible general-instrument mic — killer for close-mic duties, which is a critical trait considering I was in odd, unfriendly sounding spaces a lot of the time. (I'm probably describing my old boing-ey Living Room in Northampton, MA, more than anyplace else!) Well rounded, full and forgiving, exceptionally flexible to a fault, the U99 was used on everything; and with it, I managed to make a life out of recording. I owe quite a bit to that mic and David Bock's thoughtful musical design.
Today, my U99 is still in constant use, and I was thrilled to hear that some years after the original Soundelux Microphones company was shut down, Bock's revitalized Soundelux USA was reissuing what is undoubtedly one of my favorite microphones. I'm happy to report that this new version lives up to that legacy of great value, build quality, and exceptional sonics, while bringing several new features that help extend the fluid positioning that has been my experience with the original U99.
The new Soundelux USA U99 ships with a custom-made power supply featuring a fully variable polar-pattern control, a six-pin cable to connect the microphone, and a threaded shockmount. It is still built around Bock's take on the K 67 capsule, is paired with a large custom transformer and NOS tube, and now has several tonal-shaping switches not found on the original version. The original was already a phenomenal close mic, but these new additions greatly expand the mic's usable placements and tonal colors. With the original mic, I learned to dial in different polar patterns to control the lows, but this new version has a welcome −20 dB pad and a high-pass rolloff, so such concerns can now be easily remedied without having to change the pickup pattern.
I reviewed the Bock Audio 195 [Tape Op #84] back in 2011, and the new U99 features a "Fat" switch introduced with the 195. In practical use, engaging Fat increases the amount of low end, and utilizing Fat together with the pad makes the U99 a fantastic choice for bass-leaning sources and guitar amps. The U99's low end is already generous and particularly harmonic, so sources with an abundance of lows tracked with this switch engaged can exhibit a great deal of musical motion that seems to translate well, even on smaller speakers. The tonal-shaping options continue with a three-position switch that lifts or attenuates treble, and a Hi/Lo switch that essentially shifts the high-frequency personality of the U99 upwards or downwards a bit. In a world of virtualized modeled mics, all these switches don't radically reshape the voice of the U99, but they do provide significant advantages during placement that may have you reaching for less processing on the tracks. I generally like the highs flat or attenuated with the mic set to Lo, which makes the mic feel more U 67–like.
With the tone switches set appropriately, I compared the old and new U99 mics on upright piano. The two were each set up as a mono room mic — placed side-by-side, just above player's head level. After adjusting slightly for gain, the similarity was shocking. Panning the two mics hard left and right, the mono image was strong and stable — up and down the keyboard. This similarity diverged as soon as I started diving into the multitude of tone switches, and I was able to adjust the new U99 for greater high-frequency extension and increased sensitivity to midrange. On subsequent recordings of acoustic guitars, percussion, and vocals, I used the tone switches to bring out a pleasing level of detail, especially when recording at greater distances, without the U99 ever sounding strident. Like the venerated U 67, it always seemed to remain open and musical.
Layered vocals are always fun to record, but problematic resonances in the mic or source pile up really quickly. I tend to switch mics to get the harmonics to interweave nicely with the lead vocal. With that in mind, tracking doubled female vocals with the U99 was a joy, bringing out desirable upper-octave effects and luscious feathery highs. Once again, like my old friend, the newer reissue became the heart and soul of the track.
In day-to-day use, the recessed tonal-shaping switches, while a thoughtful addition, are a little tricky to access quickly when the mic is in position. They were something I generally tended to set when initially prepping placement, and then I resorted to mic position and pattern tweaking to tailor sounds once in place. When learning how these options change the U99's response, I'd say just keep a small screwdriver close on hand and you'll be fine, as there are a ton of possibilities — almost too many! Committing to a sound during mic placement is always important for me, because I generally don't reach for a ton of EQ during tracking if I can fix what I need through mic choice and a quick repositioning. The U99 is a fantastic mic for that approach, and I did run into mic placements, especially at greater distance, where the ability to call upon more treble brought additional focus, while the mic's low self-noise meant that I could easily compress its output to bring out more detail.
16 years later, but it's still the same story: The Soundelux USA U99 is a lot of microphone for the price. You're getting an everyday workhorse, designed by someone with a lifetime of experience, and built in a shop that's cementing its legacy by turning out incredible tools for recordists. With all of its flexibility, this mic is a great value. You could buy two for below the cost of what is becoming the upper range of bespoke tube mics these days.