As an audio professional, how many times have you been asked, “If you were stranded on a desert island, what mic would want with you?” Well, that old chestnut keeps coming around again and again. Putting aside the fact that your desert island has no electricity, or storage medium, or speakers or a dozen other importune factors.
OK, it’s just another way of asking for your favorite studio microphone, right? As if your life depended on it.
For some, their favorite mic has remained their favorite since the day they blissfully discovered it. I know folks who, once they heard a 251 or a U47 or an M49, have never looked back. Others of a more practical nature would heartily come ashore with an SM57.
My first love affair was with a Neumann M 269.
It was the German version of a U67, with an AC701 tube instead of the EF86. I had been recording James Taylor and decided to rent a couple of mics to test. I remember sitting in the control room while James sang into the 269. The sound was spectacular. After patting myself on the back about how good everything was sounding, I realized that it wasn’t me at all. The dirty little secret I stumbled onto was this: Record great singers and musicians with great mics, and voila, you’re a genius.
I bought that mic then and there. It was my “James Taylor” mic, my “Lou Gramm” mic, my “Carly Simon” mic and a host of others. It remained my choice for vocals until my mic collection grew from a half-dozen mics to well over a hundred.
As the collection grew, I also came to realize that many of my favorite mics were great for some things and not so great for others. Big, open, large capsules worked great on many things, but as my sessions got bigger and bigger, I found a new love in the Schoeps CMC 5, especially on anything orchestral.
Gradually, I began moving from vintage 47s, 67s and C12s to newer mics from companies like Audio-Technica and Sanken. On Broadway sessions, where the entire album has to be recorded in a single day, the reliability and dynamic range of these mics allows me to get up and running in minutes without worrying about crackles, distortions and clipping. From the ’90s onward, I began to rely more on specialized new mics for large sessions. I was no longer looking for a mic that did everything well—just something that worked for the task at hand.
So it was with a fair amount of surprise when I first heard the Audio-Technica AT5040 and subsequently the AT5047. Could this be a mic that was “great” on everything?
To my ears, I had never heard anything quite like it before. There was a clarity and uniformity of response that seemed to make it the ideal mic for almost anything … anything where you could place a rather large microphone and shockmount, anyway. (The AT5040 has, by the way, one of the most effective and elegant shockmounts ever.)
But what most amazed me was what I can only describe as its ability to intensify “emotion”—so much so that I call it my “emotion mic.”
How do it do what it do?
Most professional condenser microphones are based on decades-old technology. First was the Large Diaphragm Condenser (LDC), like the CMV, U47, M49/50, C12 and so on. Each based on a large circular capsule, these mics exhibited great low-end response and a rising high end beginning around 2 or 3 kHz. They sounded great, especially on voice, but due to their capsule mass, they exhibited slow transient response; that mass made it difficult to start and stop accurately.
Along came the Small Diaphragm Condenser (SDC) mics, like the KM84, the Schoeps CMC and the AKG 451. These “pencil mics” each had a much smaller circular capsule, and consequently responded much quicker to voltage changes. Transients were great, but they just didn’t have the low-end warmth or extension of the LDC.
Sanken and others tackled this discrepancy by creating condenser mics with two capsules: one large and one small. By internally crossing over from the large to the small, an effective solution was reached. I have a half-dozen Sanken CU-44 microphones based on this design; it was an elegant solution, but still based on standard technology.
It would take a young designer from Audio-Technica, Shioto Okita, to throw out the old and revolutionize microphone development. He knew he needed a large capsule for depth and harmonic content, but he also wanted that capsule to respond immediately to transients. And, oh yes, be robust enough to handle 140 dB or more of sound pressure.
His solution: four small rectangular capsules with low inertia, combined in a network to provide the effective area of one large “super capsule.” The brilliance of this design became evident when he found that, unlike the circular capsules, the rectangular capsules no longer exhibited the same resonance that skewed the response of the LDC, resulting in a smoothness in the midrange that has to be heard to be believed.
Elliot Scheiner says, “The sign of a great mic, like the AT5047, is when you record without any EQ. You get exactly what you want from the mic without having to find out where the mic is deficient. An even better sign is realizing you’re still without EQ when you’re mixing. The AT5047 is that mic.”
Al Schmitt has this to say: “We put it on a male singer in France, and as soon as I pushed the fader up, we all were astounded at how great it sounded. There were 16 engineers there and they all wanted one.”
Getting the picture?
Or Chuck Ainlay: “I was packing up today from a tracking session at the studio and I grabbed my 5047 to take home with me in case I had an overdub to do. It got me thinking—out of all the mics I have, I picked this one because it’s the one mic I really could use to record almost anything, and it would sound awesome.”
Now that may not mean much to you on a synth pad, but on a vocal … it can be something special. And believe me, I have a lot of mics I love and would never part with, but this one is different. This one I would want with me if I ever get stranded on that island.
Multiple Grammy-winner Frank Filipetti’s credits include Number One singles including Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” and “I Don’t Want to Live Without You” (which he also produced), Kiss’ “Lick It Up” and The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame.” He’s worked with acts ranging from Korn and Fuel to Barbra Streisand and Elton John, and has also produced, recorded or mixed albums for Carly Simon, George Michael, Dolly Parton, Rod Stewart, Luciano Pavarotti and James Taylor, among many others.
METAlliance • www.metalliance.com
We are the METAlliance. We banded together in 2005 (along with our late, great co-founder Phil Ramone) with the dual purposes of mentoring through our “In Session” events to pass on to the next generation our decades of experience, and of working together to convey to the audio professional and semi-professional our choices for the highest-quality hardware and software, shining a light on those companies that can and do produce products worthy of consideration. Our mission: to promote the highest quality in the art and science of recording music.