Audio / Buying Guide

A Guide to Classic Studio Gear: Microphones, Volume I

The art of recording, perhaps more so than almost any other gear-based creative pursuit, manages to be firmly rooted in its gear history, even while moving forward. While there are countless new, innovative, and impressive modern designs that capture the imagination of pros and hobbyists alike, a large chunk of the gear in almost any studio can be seen as a blast from the past, especially when you take into consideration modern reproductions or plug-in emulation of timeless circuit designs. In this series, we are going to take a look at some (but by no means all!) of the classic gear that is so often lusted for, fawned over, and copied, as well as how it attained its status. What better place to start than the first stop on the chain, right after the talent: the microphone.

When you talk about iconic studio-staple microphones, it is hard not to first think of the humble, yet omnipresent Shure SM57. This handheld dynamic mic has come to define what we mean when we say “studio workhorse,” with many engineers boasting that, in a pinch, they can make a great-sounding record with just a few SM57s. While the 57 will make do on just about any sound source, it is truly at home in front of guitar and bass cabinets, as well as on snare drums and tom toms. It has helped shape the sound of those sources on countless recordings, from basement demos to multi-million dollar albums, since its first release, in the mid-1960s.

Perennial standby: the Shure SM57 -LC

The 57 boasts a very high SPL rating, meaning it can withstand close-miking extremely loud sources, with a frequency response that keeps it well suited for vocals and speech (famously being used by every American President since its release). Aside from its sound quality, the 57 is infamous for its incredibly sturdy build, making it popular in live sound reinforcement, as well as the studio. Thanks to its comparatively small price tag, you will be hard pressed to find a studio, professional or otherwise, that does not have a few SM57s. Many engineers will attest to it being the first “real” mic they bought.

As the 57 serves as a typical first mic, its cousin, the SM7, also from Shure’s dynamic mic family, has earned its place as a “step-up” mic. Similarly, it has found its home in the mic locker of your typical pro or project studio. Released in the mid-’70s, the SM7 (now up to model SM7B) quickly found favor in broadcasting, especially radio, where it is still used to this day. However, studio engineers were quickly turned on to the mic, which while commonly used on guitar cabinets and drums, is most popular as a vocal mic. Infamously used by engineering legend Bruce Swedien to record some of Michael Jackson’s vocals on Thriller, the SM7 (and its offspring the SM7B) found favor among a generation of vocalists. It has often been the go-to mic for many rock and heavy metal vocalists, such as Anthony Keidis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and James Hetfield of Metallica, often over much more expensive options.

No discussion of classic studio gear would be complete without discussing legendary GmbH Neumann. You could easily write a book on the impact and legacy of Neumann, so we will keep it to some of their greatest hits, if only for the sake of brevity. Defining the concept of a “German microphone,” and helping set the benchmark for all condenser mics, Neumann’s history dates back to the late 1920s, but its most iconic entry did not arrive until the 1960s: the U 87. A multi-pattern large diaphragm condenser considered by many as the be-all, end-all of vocal microphones, the U 87 (and its current production incarnation, the U 87 Ai) features a similar capsule to Neumann’s very popular U 67, but with FET circuitry, as opposed to the U 67’s tube design.

Neumann U-87 large diaphragm condenser mic

Over the years, the U 87 has found frequent use not only on vocals in just about every genre of music, but on stringed instruments, orchestras, guitar cabinets, as room mics, drum overheads, and even on tom toms (if you trust the drummer enough not to accidentally hit it). The mic has been used in some capacity on so many recordings since its introduction, it would be shorter to list albums on which it hasn’t made an appearance.

Another classic from Neumann is the U 47 fet, which was recently re-released by the company. It is a FET version of the legendary tube U 47 vocal mic (which, while no longer in production by Neumann, can be obtained from Telefunken). For many engineers, the U 47 fet lives on the outside of the kick drum or bass amp. A U 47 fet in front of an Ampeg B-15 bass amp helped define the low end of many classic Motown records, its contribution second only to the playing of James Jamerson, of course.

Neumann U 47 FET microphone

Even though they have been enjoying a recent resurgence in popularity, ribbon microphones never completely went out of fashion in professional recording. Historically, early broadcast radio relied heavily on ribbon microphones, which as their name implies, have a ribbon element for sound capture. Contrary to many modern ribbon mics, vintage examples are extremely delicate, as strong SPLs can easily damage the ribbon.

One of the most treasured classic ribbon mics is the RCA 44-A. Introduced in the early 1930s, it was designed to serve as either a vocal or instrument microphone. Due to its delicate ribbon element, the 44-A (like many other ribbon mics in general) is typically placed at a distance from the source, allowing more room sound and ambience in. To this day, engineers prize the 44-A (and its many clones) for its “vintage” sound. It can be used on a variety of sources, notably vocals, pianos, and as a room mic.

The Coles 4038 is another ribbon mic typically found in studios around the world. Introduced in the mid 1950s, the 4038 is more robust than the 44-A, with its favored applications being drum overheads, outer kick drum, and brass instruments. Impressively, the 4038’s production has remained essentially unchanged to this day.

Coles 4038 ribbon microphone

Needless to say, this article by no means presents a complete list of classic microphones! In this ongoing series, we will shortly pick up where we left off in this piece, as well as expand to some of the many other elements of recording gear. In the meantime, we would love to hear about some of your favorite classic mics, so feel free to chime in and record your thoughts in the Comments section, below.