The Brauner VM1 tube condenser microphone garnered a lot of praise when it was introduced in 1994 because of its deft marriage of subtle tube sweetness, remarkably low self-noise, open/revealing sound and impeccable construction. The original VM1 didn't sound like a vintage tube mic; rather, it was a stunning example of the accuracy and nuance that can be achieved using an innovative, contemporary tube-based transducer design.
At AES 1999, Dirk Brauner met Klaus Heyne (of Corbett, Ore.-based German Masterworks). Heyne (who has modified and tuned innumerable vintage mics for top recording studios and Grammy Award-winning artists for more than 20 years) and Brauner forged an agreement to build a new high-performance “super mic.” After a period of design, experimentation and extensive field trials, the VM1 KHE possessed a modified VM1 capsule design, modified VM1 circuitry, a different head grille, a different power supply, and a special cable between mic and power supply.
Hand-built in Brauner, Germany, and hand-tuned at German Masterworks in the U.S., the result is a phenomenal microphone that retains its precision pedigree and oozes with primal appeal. Find a sturdy door jamb to stand under, folks — the new VM1 KHE is going to rock your world!
FLIGHT TO QUALITY
The VM1 KHE ships in a lockable aluminum case. Also included are a shockmount, windscreen, and external power supply and connecting cable. (The windscreen may be discontinued in an effort to keep the price stable in the face of unfavorable exchange rates.) Every piece of the system showcases superb craftsmanship, and a five-year parts-and-labor warranty is included. The system lists at a whopping $8,700 (user price is $8,199.99), making the VM1 KHE the world's most expensive microphone.
The side-address mic body is roughly two inches in diameter and 8.7 inches long. It's quite heavy, weighing two ounces shy of two pounds. In fact, the mic — fitted with its weighty suspension and windscreen — proved to be too heavy for my workhorse AKG mic stands in some applications. For example, placing the mic at the end of a long boom arm (with the arm aligned parallel to the floor) caused the boom arm to slip. Vertical placement never caused any slippage, but this mic needs an extra heavy-duty mic stand for the most flexibility in positioning. The good news is that its heavy body won't resonate, adding unwanted coloration to the sound source you're recording.
The VM1 KHE is beautiful. The brass body is nickel-plated, and the head grille for the dual-diaphragm capsule is domed at the top to prevent internal standing waves from ruining the party. Its 27mm (about 1⅛-inch) diaphragm is 6 microns thick. A single EF 86 tube sweetens the deal.
The mic connects to the supplied PS1 KHE external power supply via a special, RFI-rejecting, 7.5-meter cable fitted with Tuchel connectors. All polar-pattern adjustments are made from the power supply, and a switch is provided to select between two different directional modes. One mode disconnects the rear-capsule side to provide a fixed-cardioid pattern with 4dB improvement in signal-to-noise ratio. (Brauner maintains that this mode avoids a loss of clarity inherently caused by remote pattern control of a mic.) The cardioid-only mode was optimized for close-miked vocals, but it sounded superb on many instruments, as well.
The second directional mode allows for infinitely variable adjustment of the polar pattern — using a knurled rotary knob — from omnidirectional through wide-cardioid, cardioid, supercardioid, hypercardioid and figure-8 patterns, serving up intermediate patterns along the way. A front panel LED glows red in cardioid-only mode, and glows green when in multipattern mode. Lower your monitor feed before switching modes because moving the switch will produce an audible pop.
No mic roll-off or pad is provided for the VM1 KHE — in keeping with Heyne's goal to create a mic with “the most direct path and the least amount of componentry between capsule and output.” You won't need to pad the VM1 KHE in most situations, anyway — the mic handles 138dB SPLs for a conservative 0.3% THD. (Most mics' max SPL specs are rated at 0.5% or 1.0% THD.)
In addition to the AC power switch, an 8-pin Tuchel mic connector and an XLR audio jack out on the rear panel of the power supply, you'll find a three-way ground-lift switch, which does not compromise the safety-earth connection. One switch position lifts the signal ground, another switches the XLR's pin 1 to earth (“hard” ground), and the third position couples the signal ground via a capacitor (“soft” ground).
The VM1 must be secured to the supplied suspension mount in order to place it on a mic stand. This shockmount is essentially a cylindrical tube that floats on an elastomer suspension inside a concentric ring. The VM1 KHE is secured by turning two integral rings that close around the mic. This arrangement takes some getting used to, and mic setup/take-down requires a little more time, but it dependably safeguards this delicate instrument. A lever angles the suspension mount through approximately 180° of rotation.
The VM1 KHE's custom windscreen attaches to the suspension mount with two screws. This, too, is more time-consuming than most “slip-on” designs. The windscreen has nylon fabric stretched over an acoustically transparent, stainless-steel mesh grille. It encircles the mic 360° on a horizontal plane without touching it. I found the windscreen to be fairly effective at eliminating plosives while maintaining transparency.
Looking over the supplied specs, the VM1 KHE exhibits only 9dBA self-noise in cardioid-only mode, which is quieter than any other commercially available tube mic. Multipattern modes produce 11 dBA of self-noise and a robust 28mV/PA output (sensitivity), regardless of the pattern chosen. The mic's frequency response is stated as 40 to 22k Hz, -3 dB.
I compared the VM1 KHE to my Lawson L47MP tube condenser, an admittedly unfair comparison considering that the Lawson costs less than a quarter of the VM1 KHE's asking price. But the A/B comparison to the well-known L47MP will give you some idea as to how the Brauner mic sounds.
Imagine adding some top-octave boost to the L47MP, tightening up the bass, clarifying the low mids and offering faster transients, and you've got a rough idea as to how the VM1 KHE sounds. It is much more articulate, open and revealing of subtle nuance, resulting in a more 3-D sound. The bottom end is just as big as that produced by the L47MP, but much more focused. The VM1 is also much quieter and considerably more sensitive than the L47MP. Keep in mind that while the L47MP is an incredible mic for the money and one of my favorite mics, it just can't compete against a sky's-the-limit, no-compromise design.
The VM1 KHE's cardioid-only mode exhibits a highly uniform off-axis response and consistent sensitivity out to 45° to either side of 0° (on-axis), allowing a vocalist to move around a lot without adversely affecting the captured timbre and levels. Off-axis response is also uniform in omni mode, with the exception that close-miked sources arriving at 90°/270° suffer from a mild acoustic shadow effect caused by the head grille's structural reinforcement. The figure-8 mode offers excellent off-axis response and null-point rejection.
The VM1 KHE sounds phenomenal in cardioid-only mode. Male and female lead vocals were detailed, round, open and warm, with a big and unobtrusive bottom. The mic's HF reproduction is especially noteworthy, and not even the slightest bit spitty or smeared. The VM1 KHE is articulate in the sweetest way imaginable.
Recording flute with the VM1 KHE in cardioid-only mode — in combination with my Universal Audio 2-610 mic pre and LA-2A compressor — I was floored by the track's striking realism, depth and nuance. This signal chain offered the perfect balance of warmth, clarity and detail.
Recording bowed and pizzicato violin in cardioid-only mode, this time using my Millennia HV-3 mic pre and the LA-2A, the sound was warm, smooth, pretty, full-bodied but clear, and brimming with detail and nuance. The depth was astounding, and the highs sweet and richly textured. The VM1 KHE is hands-down the best mic I've heard on violin.
The VM1 KHE proved its superior transient response on a hand drum track, recorded in cardioid-only mode with the HV-3. The highs were prominent without sounding the slightest bit glassy or smeared. And the low end was faithfully reproduced.
I'm not a huge fan of the sound of figure-8 mics on lead vocals, but a bi-directional pattern is often needed for isolation purposes when recording a singing instrumentalist. The VM1 KHE sounded more open and articulate than any other mic I've heard in this application.
In an industry where every new product is routinely proclaimed as the best thing since sliced bread, the VM1 KHE lives up to the hype. The mic's performance completely fulfills what one would hope and expect it to achieve, given its lofty price. The VM1 KHE offers a bigger-than-life sound more often associated with vintage mics, but somehow manages to retain the superior noise performance, coherence and high-frequency extension that only rigorous modern engineering methods and componentry can produce.
Few people can afford to spend over $8,000 on one mic. But if I ever get a windfall, I will not hesitate to buy the VM1 KHE. Simply put, the VM1 KHE is the overall best-sounding and most versatile mic I've had the pleasure to work with, and it's worth every dime.
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Michael Cooper is a Mix contributing editor and owner of Michael Cooper Recording in beautiful Sisters, Ore.