When I was close to finishing this review, I began to realize that it's not only just scraping the tip of an iceberg, but it's bound to open a can of worms, and many people will disagree with at least some of the conclusions I've drawn. So, take this for what it is: my experiences and my opinion. I've made an attempt to throw in a few more informed opinions (which may add to the confusion). So in the end, remember there's no right or wrong way to make records and that picking microphones is a very personal preference. -JB
Ask anyone who's ever owned, and really come to know, a truly great sounding vintage Neumann, AKG, or Telefunken mic, and they'll tell you that there's some indefinable magic in the all-too-rare great ones. In my case, it was a Neumann U 67 that just sounded amazing. Every engineer who used it in my studio commented how it was one of the best sounding U 67's they'd heard. It had a really magical midrange and upper top end that just wasn't there in other mics. I had the mic on loan for over ten years, but I eventually had to give it back. (You can hear this mic on just about all the lead vocals on Nedelle's A Republic of Two and Jackpot's F+.) I went on to audition several U 67's and eventually purchased one of them. It sounds good-really good in fact-but it, along with all the other vintage and new mics I own, just doesn't have that special something- that extra 3%-that the previously borrowed U 67 has. This is one of the problems with buying vintage microphones.
Neumann Mic and Capsules
While I was looking around on broker and auction sites, I stumbled acrossa CMV563 with M7, M8, and M55K capsules for $1500 on a buy-it-now auction. The M 7 is cardioid, the M 8 is figure-eight, and the M 55K is a small diaphragm omni. Given that U 67's go for $3000 and up, it seemed too good to be true: a tube Neumann with not one, but three interchangeable capsules! I should mention at this point that every microphone and capsule in this review (except of course the referenced U 67) uses a "bayonet" style capsule-mounting system developed by Neumann that allows quick interchangeability of capsules (except for the M 55K capsule which threads directly onto-and only onto-the CMV 563). This system predates pickup-pattern switching on more modern condenser mics like the U 67 and U 87. However, not all CMV 563 mics and M-series capsules are bayonet-mount, so be aware of this while looking for mics and capsules. (Note: The M7, M8 and M9 also came in the "s" version (M7s, M8s, and the M9s) which screwed directly onto the CMVs (but won't fit Blue or Red bodies) and did not need the bayonet mount. The Neumann CMV 5 and RFT series bottle mics also use the bayonet capsules, but the 563's seem the most common.)
Anyway, back to the story at hand. I was at the second TapeOpCon in Portland, OR talking to tube guru (and hardcore surfer) Scott Hampton of Hamptone (www.hamptone.com), and I mentioned seeing the CMV 563 on eBay but not bidding on it because it was in Slovakia. I'd heard about eBay scams; no way was I sending $1500 to some country halfway around the world! Scott, however, set me straight, "That item is from my good friend Milos! He's great people! He gets those mics all the time. You should email him, and see if he has another set." So I did-and he did-and about $1900 or so of purchase price, shipping fees, wire transfer fees, and custom fees later, I had the mic and three capsules. The mic sounded amazing, especially with the M 7 capsule. This is the cardioid capsule that is related to the U 47 capsule, hence the CMV's designation as the poor man's 47. See Tape Op #46 for an excellent article on these capsules by David Bock as well as the cover photo of one of my M 7 capsules. The $1900 microphone, in fact, sounded better than the $3300 U 67 I had bought. I liked the CMV so much I sought out another one to make a pair. It took me a few months to track down another bayonet mic, this time with a small-diaphragm, omni M 9 (but no M 7) capsule for right around $1500 in the USA. A month or so later, I found another M 7 capsule for around $300. I now had a pair of vintage Neumann tube mics for about the same amount of money that my one vintage U 67 cost! I was stoked!
But, within a month or two, both mics started developing problems. First, one of the next-to-impossible- to-find five-pin connectors just fell apart into pieces one day. Luckily, it was the output connector, and I was able to replace it with an XLR jack. (I would recommend this anyway; it makes the mics easier to handle and gives you one spare connector in case one breaks in a more critical place.) The mics run on 220 V, so you'll need a step-up transformer. These will break or just stop working as well, but luckily, they're only about $8 each. Then, just about every other session, an engineer would bring in one of the CMV's with a "this mic doesn't work at all" or "it's intermittent" scenario. Long story short, I sent the mics out to another great mic tech, San Francisco engineer, Kevin Ink <firstname.lastname@example.org>. Kevin replaced another sketchy five-pin jack with an XLR and generally cleaned things up. The mics seemed to work better but were still occasionally intermittent. I finally sat down and extensively tested both mics with every capsule I had (six Neumann and four Blue) and determined that one of the M 7 capsules consistently worked with only one, but not the other, body. I labeled the body and capsule as such, and this seems to have finally solved the problem. I mention all of this as a way of explaining that it's not always easy to deal with vintage gear, especially mics. On this point, Scott stresses very strongly to keep the mics extremely clean. He always uses isopropyl alcohol and Q-tips to clean the mic and capsule contacts.
Before I move on to the Blue and Red mics, I want to give an overview of some of the mods that both Scott and Kevin recommend. Scott recommends replacing and/or adding three capacitors. First, add a low ESR (Effective Series Resistance) 25 V electrolytic cap of at least 100 μF in parallel with the 1.5 kΩ resistor off the transformer to ground, with the negative lead tied to ground. Then remove the transformer lead that goes to the cathode of the tube, and tie it to ground. This removes most of the feedback from the amplifier circuit. It's important to use a low ESR capacitor for this to work properly. Most people find the mic sounds a bit more open with the feedback removed, although there are some advantages, technically, to having it in place. Next, replace the 0.68 μF electrolytic capacitor (from plate to transformer) with a 1-2 μF polypropylene cap, and the 1000 μF cap (from capsule to grid) with a high-quality, audio-grade polystyrene cap. According to Scott, these two caps are crucial to the sound and noise floor of the microphone-the 1000 μF probably the most influential, being directly connected to the capsule/tube input. Total cost is around $5. Kevin recommends replacing the capacitors too, but he also advocates replacing the transformer with a higher-quality transformer from former Telefunken employee, Oliver Archut (www.tab- funkenwerk.com/x-former.html) and having the capsules re-skinned. (The transformer is about $300, and re-skinning will set you back $450-$650.) Two other options Kevin mentioned are a replacement 117VAC power transformer (also made by Oliver) that eliminates the need for the step- down wall wart and new cabling. "A high-quality cable-I prefer Mogami-can improve reliability, and sonically, the original East German stuff is kinda bunk." I have yet to do any of these mods though, as I really liked the sound of my mics the way they are. Kevin claims these two mods, especially the capsule re-skinning, will put the mics on par with a U 47. I'm currently having Kevin re-skin my U 67 capsule as I don't really like the way it sounds anyway, so look for a report on this in a future issue.
In a another note that illustrates the vast number of opinions on these mics, Scott mentioned that he prefers not to replace the transformer or re-skin the capsules unless they're really damaged. "Why replace what's working" is Scott's opinion, while he adds that replacing parts may degrade the value of the mic, as many people are very leery about buying something vintage that has been modified in such a significant way, even if the seller claims it's better. Scott also states, "No matter how good the re-skin job is, I don't think an M 7 capsule will ever sound as good as a CK 12 in the Ela M 251, or the later K 47 in the U 47. Even the most pristine M 7's I've heard still pale a bit in comparison to an average sounding CK 12. The M 7 is great-don't get me wrong-its just not as good-sounding a capsule (in my opinion, based on owning all three, and having built them into different mics over the last decade), which may be why a C 12 sells for $6-8000, and the CMV for less than $2000."
In a final counterpoint, Kevin adds "I obtained a CMV 563 in the mid 1990's and was very disappointed in the sound. I tried everything. I recapped it, tried alternate capsules, power supply, tubes, high meg resistors, the works. When I installed one of Oliver's transformers in my mic, the sound went from being a bit telephoney to have the qualities I have heard in an older U 47 with a M 7 capsule. Some stock East German Neumanns sound great and some have that wimpy sound mine had. When I replace the transformers I also return the mic with all the removed components so that they can be returned to original if desired. Some people would argue that changing the circuit as Scott and I have described is a drastic alteration of a vintage mic, my feelings are that all of these changes he and I have made to these mics are for the better. The original components have fallen out of tolerance with age and often inferior components were used due to availabity issues in the former East Germany. I would also add that you should avoid handling the internal components of a condenser mic, the oils in your skin can have dramatic effect on the circuit, on many vintage mics (Sony, Neumann) the circuit boards are lacquered to protect the components from contamination. You can use alchohol and swabs to clean the circuit when you finish repairs/mods. I only recommend reskinning a capsule when it has lost tension or has begun to make noise-at that point you have no other choice, and cleaning is almost always met with disaster. A great deal of the sound of a mic is the capsule, and I agree that a CK12 capsule is about as good as it gets, but I would also note that the circuitry in a C 12 vs CMV or U 47 is totally different, particularly the method used to polarize the capsule. The AKG method of polarization is my favorite and sounds great on cheaper capsules."
Ultimately you'll have to make up your own mind by deciding what sounds good to you.
Once I had the CMV bodies, I was talking to Skipper Wise at Blue, who told me that all the capsules they make for their top-end Bottle mic will work with the CMV. He was also nice enough to loan me a set of his capsules for the better part of a year for this review. See www.vintagemicrophone.com for a complete description of all the Blue capsules. The range of capsules is quite extensive, and in conversations with Skipper (who always gives credit to his partner Martins Saulespurens for much of the electronic engineering and capsule design), he will often say that "90% of microphone design is in the capsule." The eight Blue capsules have been designed and voiced to reference popular vintage capsules, and after using them alongside my vintage Neumann capsules, I'm inclined to agree. All the capsules sound fantastic, but one incident in particular was the most revealing. Tape Op contributor and Millennia Media marketing assistant Ian Mills Swanke was in my studio working on a project. His boss, John LaGrou, was nice enough to loan Ian some of his vintage mics for the session, including a beautifully-kept U 47 tube mic. John wasn't able to pick up the mics for a few days after Ian had left, so he let me use them in the meantime. The next day, another Tape Op contributor, Henry Robinett, was in the studio doing a session while yet another Tape Op writer, AJ Wilhelm, and I were hanging around. When Henry was done, we all thought it would be fun to throw up the U 47 and A/B it to the CMV 563 with both the M 7 and B7 capsules. Remember, the M 7 capsule is a precursor to the U 47 capsule, while the B7 capsule was designed to emulate the U 47 capsule. We recorded some examples and then carefully volume-matched them. The similarities between the $5000+ U 47 and the $1500 CMV and Blue combo were pretty astonishing. Both mics sounded great. With the M 7 capsule, the CMV had a similar character in the midrange and top end to the U 47, but the bottom end on the U 47 was much fuller and more extended. With the Blue B7 capsule, it was almost impossible to tell the two mics apart! It was eerie! All three of us were in agreement on what we were hearing and were pretty blown away. I've done a lot of mic comparison tests over the years, and I've never heard two mics sound this close to each other; it was as if they were the same mic! As Skipper says, the sound is in the capsule, and after this test, I was a believer.
I was so impressed with the B7 capsule that I eventually bought a pair of them. I also bought a B6, which emulates the AKG C 12, and a B4, which is a Perspex sphere pressure omni capsule and emulates the Neumann M 50. All of these capsules have seen extensive use in the studio by me and lots of other engineers, and the praise for them is always very positive. (B6, B7 $650, B4 $750 direct; www. vintagemicrophone.com)
When I sent my CMV's to Kevin, Skipper was nice enough to loan me one of his flagship mics, the Bottle. This $5000 mic is the top of the line Blue mic and is hand-made in Latvia. The design, like that of the U 47, Ela M 251, and CMV, is simple, with a very minimal signal path. (It was only later mics like the M 269, U 67 and U 87 that had more elaborate and complex preamp sections in the mic.) Every component in the Bottle is the best available, and the mic and power supply are completely over-engineered. Furthermore, the thing is huge-the biggest mic I've ever seen. This mic is not inexpensive, and it's not for everyone, but it does significantly up the ante on the bayonet-mount capsule mics. I wasn't able to use the mic myself, but Tape Op contributor Eric Broyhill was in the middle of recording an album for the Low Flying Owls and was pretty upset when I told him that we had to send the CMV's off. He was using them with the M 7 and B7 capsules for the lead vocals and acoustic guitar respectively and was stoked on the sounds he was getting. He suggested that he might have to cancel the sessions if I didn't have the CMV's. I asked him to try the Bottle mic in lieu of the CMV's and to let me know what he thought. I figured comparing the tracks already recorded with the CMV's to new tracks recorded with the Bottle would be a perfect test for the mic, keeping in mind the capsules would be the same. It wasn't a huge surprise that he thought the Bottle sounded better than the CMV's. In Eric's words, "It had a more creamy smoothness, shaved off a bit of the transient response, but still had an extended top end. It smoothed out the sibilance and was more even." On the acoustic guitar, Eric said, "This is the safest bet ever on acoustic guitar. No matter what kind of guitar or where it was in the room, it sounded really, really good." (MSRP $4999; www.bluemic.com)
By now, I hope I've made my point. These capsules-all of them-sound great. But dicking around with vintage gear, especially gear with non-standard cables/connectors and power supplies at non-standard voltages can be a hassle. I was pretty stoked when I saw the Red (made by Blue) Type B bodies at last year's NAMM show. These bodies allow you to use any of the bayonet capsules without needing a power supply, as they're phantom powered. Oh yeah, they're brand new too and work perfectly with all the capsules. Bonus! Suffice it to say that since we picked up a pair of Type B's, I almost never see the CMV's out in the studio anymore. The capsules are in constant use, but almost always on the Red bodies.
Finally, just as this review was going to press, one of the first Red Type A bodies showed up via FedEx. On a quick examination, the Type A and Type B bodies look identical but they're completely different microphones. The only exterior clue is the seven-pin XLR jack on the Type A as opposed to the Type B's three-pin XLR. The biggest differences are inside however. The Type B uses a balanced, discrete, Class-A, transformerless preamp section. The Type A uses an EF-86 tube and is transformer-balanced. In its basic design, the Type A is very much like the CMV 563 but more solidly built and without the quirks of being vintage. The Type A mic we got to test used a Cactus power supply, but the production run of power supplies will be built in the same housing types as Blue's very cool, space-age looking Robbie mic preamps, which will ensure that we don't mistake them for the vintage supplies or the rather generic supplies from China on a lot of our other tube mics.
Finally, engineer Robert Cheek and I spent a whole morning doing listening tests on the different bodies, using a pair of B7 capsules as a reference source. Comparing the Type A and Type B, we were surprised to find that the Type B seemed to have a fuller range, with an extended bottom that the Type A didn't exhibit, while the midrange and top end were very similar. Next, we compared the tube Type A to the Neumann CMV 563 and were again pleasantly surprised at the results. The Type A had a nicer, extended top end that the CMV lacked. All the bodies sounded great, but it was interesting to note how good the least-expensive solid-state body from Red sounded and how well Red's tube body fared against the vintage Neumann.
(Type A $750 direct, Type B $450; www.vintagemicrophone.com)
Whether you're just starting a mic collection or adding on to one, these bayonet-mount capsules and mics are pretty damn cool. Starting out, you can get a Type B with the Red Lollipop capsule for only $700. Later, consider adding a vintage Neumann M 7 capsule. Next, try some of the Blue capsules. Maybe you'll eventually want to take on a complete vintage CMV, or maybe you'll opt for a nice new Bottle. The cool thing is that as you add capsules and bodies, nothing is rendered obsolete-you're just adding more flavors to your mic locker. -JB