Yes, I'm with you. Do we really need more Neumann U 47 and U 48 clones in the market? Apparently the Slovakian company FLEA Microphones thinks so, and has produced a pair of solid-state mics that they claim sound like the tube stalwarts among the holiest of grails in the vintage mic collection world. I was curious to hear them since FLEA has a solid reputation for harnessing vintage German and Austrian magic with their tube Neumann U 47, Neumann M 49, and AKG C12 clones.
Out of the box, I was immediately disappointed with two related issues. The first is that I am highly critical of spider-style shock mounts. Any microphone that still comes with a contraption utilizing elastic bands (that can break) and jutting elbows of metal (that hinder exacting placement) gets a couple points off in my book. (Having said all of that, these feel like above-average-quality versions of this style of mount.) Second, the sturdy and beautiful wooden box that holds the microphone doesn't have room for the shock mount inside. Any included protective carrying case should have room for all of the components that come with the microphone, in this reviewer's opinion. The lack of space for the shock mount meant that when dragging the mics around for testing at various studios, I had to keep them in their enormous cardboard boxes, which was bulky and inconvenient. These are petty gripes, I'm aware, but they did color my impression of the product and I feel compelled to share them with you, dear reader.
The microphones themselves have the right look and feel to inspire confidence with both engineer and musician. They have good heft, and it is nice to not have to deal with a bulky cable and power supply, since they both possess regular XLR connectors and take standard +48V phantom power. The differences at a glance are that the head grille on the SUPERFET 47 is shiny chrome while the SUPERFET 48's head grille is matte. Also, the little selector toggle for the polar patterns is cream and black on the 47 and yellowish and red on the 48.
Functionally, the differences between the two mics are simple. The 47 sports cardioid and omni polar patterns, while the 48 is cardioid and figure-8. When in cardioid mode, FLEA reported that the two mics should sound identical, and while testing I confirmed that for myself, I could not distinguish between the two mics when I set them up side-by-side in cardioid on a number of sources.
Since the FLEA mics are marketed as being more sonically similar to their Neumann tube counterparts than FET microphones, I tried them first on vocals. My initial impression on a deep-voiced male vocalist was that the mic was extremely dark. I felt like I had to boost a ton of high end and cut a bunch of low end to get the presence and definition I wanted. I quickly realized that the mic has a pretty serious proximity boost, and if I asked the vocalist to just back off the mic a couple of inches, I got a much more even sound. Still, I had to boost a lot of highs and ended up getting a sound that worked okay in the mix. However, once the high end was boosted, I did have more issues dealing with sibilance than I do with other Neumann U 47-type mics I regularly use. Michael Coleman, another engineer at Figure 8 Recording, had similar issues, and felt like he couldn't use the mic on male vocals at all due to its boominess. However, as a counterpoint, Figure 8 Recording engineer Sam Owens had this to say: "Overall it is darker than I expected, but that said, it's a great option for vocals. I ended up loving how the vocal sat in the final mix after several stages of compression and EQ. (Male vocal, breathy)". I trust both of these guys' ears implicitly, so clearly the mic will work for some vocalists (or engineers) and not for others. Personally, I had an easier time with the mic on female vocals. I had already discovered the pronounced proximity effect, so asked the great Katie Von Schleicher to sing just a little bit back from the mic and ended up with a clear, beautiful, open sound (which still needed some lows cut and highs boosted). When she really went for it, I had to scoop a little bit out of the 1.5 to 3 kHz region, but I think that would have been the case with any other mic in front of her powerful pipes.
For instrumental recording I didn't find an instrument I didn't like tracking with the SUPERFET mics, except one: upright bass. I found the sound too flabby and indistinct, at least on that particular bass/player. On everything else (grand piano, acoustic and electric guitars, drums, percussion, Farfisa organ, and saxophone) I thought the microphones did a fantastic job. Standouts were acoustic guitar and drums. My notes contained phrases like "three-dimensional," "excellent sense of space," and "wide, balanced frequency response." The pair as drum overheads gave me an extremely solid picture of the whole kit, greatly reducing the need for close mics on the toms (or snare!). Cymbals sounded natural and balanced and never harsh. Using one as a front-of-kit mic in cardioid, again I felt like I had a really beautiful, balanced picture of the whole drum set, even in mono. From Sam Owens: "It sounded amazing in front of the kick drum – its overt darkness helped deal with cymbal bleed and other harsh drum realities that can be a headache when using a condenser two feet in front of the resonant head." At this point an educated reader may be thinking what I was – these mics might actually be closer in utility to a U 47 FET than to a tube 47. (I think you may be on to something...)
Having the different patterns on the two mics was certainly handy. I found myself scheming which mic I'd use on an instrument in order to be able to try the figure-8 or omni patterns out. Omni sounded great on acoustic guitar and also helped reduce the proximity effect a bit when I wanted the mic really close. The figure-8 pattern was great for bringing an electric guitar room mic into a bit more focus, whereas omni in the same position would have given me a little too much of the room. I do think if I only bought one of the mics, I'd choose the SUPERFET 47, since I already have a bunch of mics which sport figure-8 patterns (including ribbons, of course), and I liked the flatter response of the omni pattern. If you're doing a bunch of simultaneous duo vocal recording, or regularly need the off-axis null properties of a bidirectional mic, the SUPERFET 48 may be more up your alley.
To summarize, there is no doubt that these are great sounding, well-built mics with very little self-noise. However, as with any piece of gear, they have their strengths and weaknesses. Ironically, the SUPERFETs' biggest weakness in my opinion was where you often hear real Neumann U 47s shining the most – as a vocal mic. On almost every other source I loved them and can recommend them wholeheartedly as excellent all-purpose microphones.