It's easy to get jaded about microphones today. You can't swing a dead cat without hitting another new condenser mic. And the constant din of "just as good as" in the marketplace is loud enough to rattle the fillings in your tightly clenched teeth. However, poke your head above the clamor, and the mic population thins out. That's where you'll find mics like the Brauner Valvet.
UNDER THE HooD
A dual-pattern (cardioid/omni) tube mic, Valvet is priced at $2,695 with suspension, power supply, cable and metal roadcase. Removing three Allen-head screws that lock the outer housing to the internal chassis, I looked inside. The German-made Valvet has a dual, large-diaphragm, pressure gradient condenser capsule featuring a Siemens EF 86 vacuum tube and an LL1577 Lundahl output transformer. The hard plastic base of the capsule is disc-shaped, with a hemispherical nipple. A crescent-shaped cradle attached to the top appears to help provide shock isolation for the metal capsule.
Each backplate of the capsule has 108 holes drilled into it. Those and the ten through-holes are plainly visible because the gold-coated membranes are extremely thin. Construction quality inside the mic is solid and clean. The printed circuit card in the body of the mic has perhaps the fewest components I've seen.
The circular headgrille has a flat open top and uses a double mesh metal grille that is very open in appearance. The custom mic suspension uses six elastic bands and an inner semicircular cradle that the mic snugs into. The connection between the mic and the cradle looks a bit disconcerting, but the cradle holds the mic quite firmly and at the same time allows it to be rotated for positioning. A lever on the suspension-mount pipe thread allows the mic to be tilted and then locked into place.
The separate power supply has three toggle switches: one changes the pattern from cardioid to omni. Another flips the polarity of the signal, and a third turns the supply on and off. A trendy blue LED indicates power. on the back side are connections for the multi-pin cable to the mic, a mic level output and a standard IEC power jack. All power is provided by this power supply, so phantom power is not required. Brauner lists the specs in a minimalist manual. Self-noise is 13 dBA, in omni or cardioid. Signal-to-noise is 81 dBA in cardioid, and sensitivity is 28 mV/Pa. Frequency response is listed as 40 to 22k Hz, -3 dB. Maximum SPL is 142 dB (0.3% THD). The manual notes directivity as omni and figure-eight, which is perhaps a cut-and-paste error from another model, as the Valvet is cardioid and omni. Switching between patterns with the Valvet merely creates several gentle, low-level "whumps."
If I were to write a two-word review of Valvet, it would say: "Instant Airband." Although it's a tube mic, the Valvet isn't the sort of tube mic that gives that slow, soft, smokey sound. This is the mic to use to get that intimate, down-the-throat R&B ballad vocal. If the vocalist has polyps, you'll be able to count them. Make sure your vocalist doesn't have any mouth noise problems. Valvet will not ignore them.
I had a first fling with the Valvet at Flite Three in Baltimore. Going through their API console, the brightened Valvet, combined with the API edge, was very unflattering on male vocals. Acoustic fingerpicked guitar, on the other hand, sounded quite nice. This experience again emphasizes the importance of matching the right mic with the right preamp for the specific job. My guess would be that the Valvet, given its high-profile personality, would be better matched with more neutral preamps like the Millennia Media and Benchmark.
Back at my studio, I set up a Neumann TLM103 side by side with the Valvet in cardioid and, using a pair of GML mic pre's, ran to left and right inputs of my orban Audicy workstation. The GML are recognized to be mostly neutral. Positioning myself between the mics and trimming the Valvet back a few dB to match the TLM103, I recorded a piece of narration. on playback I was surprised to find that, although the Valvet track was brighter, the difference wasn't as great as I had expected. The Valvet wouldn't be my choice for V/o work with a sibilant voice, nor would I grab it to beef up a thin voice or instrument-this mic has other uses. on ballad vocals where sibilance is low and there are few hard consonants, the Valvet will raise the vocal into that intimate, rarefied "air space" that a lot of people seek these days.
On fingerpicked guitar, my Martin D28S sounded very "airified." Somewhat old, medium bronze strings sounded newer. Every nuance and flaw, especially those with an edge, were quite audible. Switching to a D'Andrea medium flat pick resulted in the sort of sound you might look for when tracking an acoustic guitar for a rhythm part that needs a bit of bite to be heard through a mix, but there was too much pick sound for solo work. I would imagine the Valvet would be equally revealing on nylon or gut strings, providing finger squeaks were minimal.
Considering Valvet's preference for higher frequencies (and, by the way, quite a bit of sound makes it to the capsule through the top of the headgrille), I wasn't surprised that minor movements of the mic or source resulted in noticeable tonal variations. Got nasty reflections in your room? You'll hear them. At a distance of about 2.5 feet in my moderately damped space, the openness of the Valvet translated into being able to hear more early reflections. The TLM103, while not as bright, sounded more direct and didn't hear the room as much. Like most large capsule condensers, get a source a bit too far off-axis and you'll hear some strange artifacts.
In the dreaded key jangle test, the TLM103 splatted a bit more than the Valvet. Even more interesting, the spectra of their splatter was quite similar. I would have expected a noticeable upward shift in the frequency of the key noise with the Valvet.
To my ears, the one thing this mic doesn't deliver is the "meat" of heavy midrange. That's not a condemnation. It's just obvious that the mic wasn't designed to do that job. The proximity bass hump is, of course, more present in the cardioid mode than in omni. You'll get some meat in cardioid, but as you close in, there's less air to diffuse the high frequencies and they become more apparent as well. Although I did not have an actual curve to compare this mic to others, to my ear the Valvet curve reminds me a bit of the AKG 414 curve: respectable bottom, lesser mids, sizzle on top.
But whether in cardioid or omni pattern, the net effect of the Valvet is comparable to someone opening the drapes and letting the light in. Without making any direct comparisons, I had similar experiences with the Neumann M149 and one of the Manley cardioids. If your complaint is that everything sounds too dark (and your hearing is okay), the Valvet will definitely brighten things up. Just make sure you know what you're getting yourself into. If your studio has low ceilings and only minimum absorption and diffusion, you will hear the ceiling and wall bounce as you pull the mic back. Push the mic in too close, and the highs may be excessive. The Valvet performs much better in a properly designed big room with high ceilings and a proper combination of diffusion and absorption. I'd like to have the opportunity to use a pair of Valvets for a coincident omni orchestral recording in a nice hall. Maybe next time.
Brauner Microphones are distributed by Transamerica Audio Group, 2721 Calle olivo, Thousand oaks, CA 91360; 805/241-4443; fax 805/241-7839; www.transaudiogroup.com.
Reach Ty Ford at www.tyford.com.