MULTIPATTERN TUBE MICROPHONEIf you can actually afford a vintage tube microphone, you'll be lucky if it contains all the proper parts. Often, the condition of the diaphragm is less than desirable, and the cable may have been shortened, possibly unbalancing the original design. Finding replacement tubes can be a chore. For this and other reasons, a plethora of independent companies are now producing new tube microphones. Many try to emulate the old favorites, but few succeed.
Soundelux entered the microphone market five years ago, starting with large-diaphragm condenser microphones. The U95 Multipattern Tube Microphone was the first tube model the company made, complementing two FET models already in production. The U95 relies on a 6072 tube, which is now becoming scarce, so Soundelux redesigned the mic. The U95S, substituting an EF86 tube for the 6072, was nominated for a 1999 TEC Award. (By the way, if you purchased the U95, don't worry about replacement tubes as Soundelux has a good supply of the best 6072 tubes available.)
While creating the U95S, the Soundelux design team got some new ideas about how to build an even better capsule. Now, combining these ideas with suggestions from U95 owners, Soundelux has produced the U99 Multipattern Tube Microphone ($2,499, including power supply, cables and carrying case). Also based around the EF86S tube, the U99 has a 1-inch diaphragm made of 6-micron Mylar, coated with gold and aluminum. In answer to customer suggestions, the U99 has a continuously variable pattern selector (the U95S features a stepped pickup pattern switch). The U99 has also improved upon the performance of the U95 in the areas of maximum SPL and dynamic range. The U95 has a brighter top end, but the U99 has beefed up the 80 to 160Hz region by 2 dB, partially a result of a larger output transformer.
The microphone arrived in an Anvil-type briefcase, complete with an engraved plate stating the name of the mic. Packed neatly in foam were the mic (serial #91), AC cord, power supply and a spider-style shockmount that fits many other mics. A snap-in-place panel creates another storage area in the upper half of the case, and this is where I found the six-pin mic cable. There is also room in the compartment for an additional cable or two.
Setting up the mic is simple: connect the mic to its proprietary power supply via the six-conductor cable and use a standard XLR cord to connect the power supply to your preamp or console. The power supply has a knob for pickup pattern selection, which is continuously variable from omnidirectional through cardioid to bidirectional (figure 8). I found that if I moved the knob quickly, the signal dropped out temporarily, but if I changed the position of the knob slowly, in small increments, the signal remained uninterrupted.
MICROPHONE CHECKMy first chance to use the mic was for a live broadcast at the Palms Playhouse in Davis, California; Chuck Prophet and Stephen Yerkey performed one set each for a live broadcast over KVMR. I chose to capture the room with an M/S pair of microphones near the back of the audience, using the U99 as the "M" in the Mid/Side pair with an AKG 414B-ULS in bidirectional mode as the "S." Setting the tube mic for cardioid, I faced it toward the stage.
Soundelux recommends letting the mic and power supply warm, up for at least half an hour before actually using it, and I followed this recommendation for all recordings. Also, for each test, I hung the mic upside, down, as is often done with tube mics, so that the diaphragm could remain at a stable temperature, below the heat of the main body of the mic.
The U99 imparts a certain smoothness and, as one would expect, warmth. While recording the Palms Playhouse concert, there were times when I felt I'd rather listen to the microphone through my headphones than to the live sound. When I returned home with the 48kHz recording, playback was impressive. Listening to just the mono U99 track, I could hear each instrument detailed in both high and low frequencies. The kick drum sounded clear and moved significant air. High frequencies were represented accurately without excessive brightness.
Based on this first tryout, Stephen Yerkey and I chose the U99 over other microphones for tracking lead vocal on his new album. Stephen's voice is capable of extremes in terms of both dynamic range and pitch. The Soundelux mic picked up every aspect of his performance. While it sounded very natural, there was a pleasant lack of high-frequency mouth noises (lip smacks, sibilance), and there seemed to be a heightened focus in the midrange.
In cardioid mode, the mic is very directional, with good off-axis rejection, and omni mode picks up a large room nicely, with a realistic picture. We tried some vocal takes with Stephen singing into one side of a bidirectional pattern, which was also very pleasing. The U99 complemented Stephen's vocal qualities, and at the same time, gave an impression of a comparatively flat frequency- response curve. Each pickup pattern we tried exhibited an extremely low noise floor. Plus, the output is high enough that you don't have to add too much gain (and thus noise) with your preamp.
Normally, I prefer small-diaphragm condenser mics for acoustic guitar, but I tried the U99 on an overdub session and was very impressed with the results. Usually I put a small mic about a foot from the twelfth fret, angled in toward - but not at - the soundhole. Starting with the U99 in that position, it seemed as though the tone wasn't quite bright enough. This surprised me, because I've often found large-diaphragm condensers to be unusable on some guitars, as the sound is often too bright and reveals every string squeak and movement of the performer. But by placing the U99 slightly closer and higher, I was able to record an acoustic guitar overdub that easily found its own place in a fairly thick rock mix.
HIGH STANDARDS EXCEEDEDWhen creating the U99, Soundelux was aiming at less of a bump in the high end, a flatter midrange, better bass response and a lower noise floor in comparison to the U95. The designers have more than achieved their goals - the U99 captures the natural warmth of a performance without an overexcited top end.
Soundelux has really created a great vocal mic. Of course, different vocalists prefer different mics, but the U99 stands a good chance at pleasing everybody. This mic brought out the best qualities of every voice I tried. The improved midrange lends itself to voice reproduction, and the high frequencies are not laden with too much sibilance. Although $2,499 might seem like a lot to pay, it is a fraction of what a vintage might cost. And the U99 is more predictable, more readily serviceable, and you may well prefer its sound to that of the old favorites.