Monday, September 19th, 2011 | by matthew mcglynn
I had the pleasure of borrowing both the mono Manley Reference microphones recently — the Reference Cardioid and Reference Gold. These mics have been selling consistently for over 20 years, which should tell you something about their appeal. They are both modern-day classics.
To hear them in action, I arranged a test on the most complex, detailed, and nuanced instrument I could think of: the human voice.
Here is a video of voice artist Mark Keller performing both a narration and a commercial sample into the Manley mics, as well as the Bock 195, the MXL Revelation, and Mark’s own Telefunken U47. (Enable HD playback for highest-quality audio.)
Read on for details about the session, and access to the original audio files…
We ran all the mics through a Manley VOXBOX preamp. The compressor, de-esser, and EQ were all disabled for all microphones. We adjusted preamp gain to produce consistent input levels in Pro Tools.
(When testing microphones, we typically prefer to use a more neutral preamp, but the studio’s Millennia Media pre wasn’t happy on the day of this session. That’s not to say that anybody complained about using the VOXBOX, a completely phenomenal piece of gear — one that is actually part of Keller’s standard VO signal chain.)
The session took place in Loudville’s big live room, rather than in a booth. As a result, if you listen carefully you might hear some ambient sounds from Loudville staffers going about their business, or the HVAC system running on a different floor.
All the tube gear was given time to warm up prior to use.
Audio was recorded to Pro Tools HD through Digi 192 converters at 16-bit, 44.1 kHz. (Full-resolution audio files can be found below.)
Narration Voice Test
Mark provides the voice for Shark Men, from National Geographic. This sample is an excerpt from a recent episode:
Commercial Voice Test
Mark read the intro from a recent episode of Loudville’s monthly concert broadcast show, Off the Record (view the trailer for Off the Record here).
Listen blind to all five microphones below:
[Download a ZIP archive of all the original audio files.]
About the Microphones
My original concept for this test was to put the Manley tube mics against a Bock Audio 251 or 507. The 251 has a CK12-style capsule, like the Manley Gold, whereas the 507 has, more or less, the amplifier circuit of the U47.
We were on a tight schedule, though, and the only Bock mic available was the 195 — a fine microphone by any measure, although arguably a bit out of character for this lineup of tube mics. We were happy to have it, though, and I am compelled to point out that the 195 shares a K67-style capsule design with the Reference Cardioid and MXL Revelation. It also has a seriously gigantic output transformer.
Summing up the topologies of the microphones in this lineup:
|Telefunken U 47||K47||Tube||Yes|
|Manley Reference Cardioid||K67||Tube||Yes|
|Manley Reference Gold||CK12||Tube||Yes|
|* We don’t intend to suggest that the capsules in any of the contemporary mics are precise duplicates of the Neumann K67 or AKG CK12 capsules. Rather, this column simply suggests the style of the capsule employed within each mic.|
We had five premium condenser microphones, one of which is the legendary U47. They all sounded really good, and if you had any of them, it wouldn’t hold you back from recording voice or just about anything else.
But, let’s split some hairs. I’ll note my impressions, and invite you to comment too.
(Despite the MP3 links and video player above, the best way to compare these microphones is to download the WAV archive and import all tracks into your DAW. This allows direct comparison of a single phrase across multiple mics.)
Most of the K67-based mics are a little hot on the ESS sounds for my taste. One exception is the Bock 195 in “Fat” mode, which seems to balance out the high end.
The CK12 capsule, like the K67, has a natural high-frequency lift. But I don’t find the Manley Reference Gold at all sibilant on these clips. In fact, on a first blind listen, I thought the Gold was actually the U47 track. These two have the most similar high ends of all these microphones, with the Gold being just a bit brighter.
The Fat/Norm switch on the Bock 195 is pretty neat. The effect is subtle, but wonderful. It seems to warm up the voice without obviously EQ’ing it. The additional low-end warmth balances out the higher frequencies.
I hear HVAC noise on all these clips. We couldn’t kill it during tracking, but we did monitor it to make sure it was consistently on for every take. So, each mic recorded the same ambient noise… and it sounds nearly the same on all these. The one exception is the MXL Revelation, which seems to add a thin layer of white noise on top of the HVAC.
In summary, for this voice I could use either Manley, the Bock 195, or the U47. I’d put the Bock 195 in “Fat” mode, and maybe dial down some high-frequency EQ for the Reference Cardioid. The Gold and U47 both sound very balanced and smooth already.
The self-noise on the Revelation is catching my ear on this clip. After compression, it would be worse. For a louder source, the noise wouldn’t be a problem, but on this application I’d reach for one of these other mics first.
The commercial sample has a very different sound. Mark gave a louder delivery, in a higher register, and I think it was a really useful test because it challenged some of these microphones.
Mark’s voice is pitched up, and to my ear would benefit from a different EQ curve than most of the K67-based mics provide; they come across as thin and sibilant. To be sure, preamp or downstream EQ could balance out the sound of any of these mics. Or perhaps a commercial session might call for this sort of bright, cutting sound. But I’m not sure I’d want to listen to more than 30 seconds of it.
For example, the phrase: “the bessst mic websssite on the planet” sounds piercing and untamed on the Ref Cardioid, 195/Normal, and Revelation. The 195/Fat, Ref Gold, and U47 sound more restrained, in a good way.
The U47 and Reference Gold are both great here. The U47 has a little more weight in the low-mids. The Gold is a bit more open on top, although not as open or clear as the 195/Fat. I would be happy to use any of these three mics.
But now I really want to hear the Bock 251 and Bock 507 against the Ref Gold and U47. “Tune in next time!”
Didn’t you do this once before?
In fact, yes — Mark Keller did a commercial demo through the U47, the Revelation, and the dual-tube SE Electronics Gemini II. We have audio and video of that test, too, right here: Tube Mic Voiceover Test.
I love to read what other folks hear in these clips. If you’ve taken the time to listen, please drop a comment to share what you heard.
This test could not have been possible without the help and cooperation of numerous people. Special thanks to Chris and the gang at Manley Labs, and Brad Lunde and his team at Trans Audio Group for the gear loan, to Mark Keller for fantastic vocal performances and the use of his million-dollar studio, to Mathew Trogner for engineering and video editing, to Josh Petersen for capturing video, to Beth Fenn for ongoing support.