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Tube Mics & Preamps; Who Needs 'Em?

Posted: Wed Apr 25, 2018 7:22 am
by mojobone
Posting this here, cuz the question came up in chat on last Monday's Ask Michael Anything, and we weren't really able to answer in depth cuz it's such a broad subject. I'll provide some links and take questions. First up, the four basic food groups of mic preamps: ... eamp_Smart

There a very important bit there about what changes the sound the most; in descending order, it's musician, instrument, microphone and preamp.

These classic preamps are available in 19" rack, 500 series and as software from Waves, Universal Audio and others, the UA 610 hardware version is the only one to feature an actual tube and it's not available as a 500 series module due to power requirements, but a couple of boutique manufacturers do make high-voltage vintage style tube preamps for the format. UA also has a Twin-Finity preamp that allows a continuously-variable blend of tube and solid state and a two channel version which IIRC is called the 710.

The article lays out the situations that might call for one of these preamps over another, but IMHO, you don't necessarily need a tube preamp, because thousands more hit records were built using solid state preamps. OTOH, if you want to sound as smooth as Bing Crosby stealing Bob Hope's gal, a UA 610 and a vintage RCA-style ribbon mic might just be your oyster.

Re: Tube Mics & Preamps; Who Needs 'Em?

Posted: Wed Apr 25, 2018 9:23 am
by TheRealPatrickAdams
Thanks Mojo, I didn't realize what a huge can of worms I opened when I asked that question! I know that there's a ton of different options, but I was just looking for advice from those more experienced in the chat room and from Micheal himself.
I'll read these links and keep on studying!

Thanks again!

Patrick Adams

Re: Tube Mics & Preamps; Who Needs 'Em?

Posted: Wed Apr 25, 2018 1:33 pm
by Len911
yeah it really is a can of worms,lol! Maybe what you are looking for is practical advice? One thing you spoke about was a budget of around $1,000, for both mic and preamp. I would take a look at this mic for $1295: ... microphone

I have one of the multi pattern cousins of this mic, and when I use it I don't use a preamp, it has such a hot output. That can save you the cost of a preamp. I have an API preamp I use on non-tube mics.

I'm not at all sold on tubes over solid state. I once had a Neumann M149. I bought it cheap after they first came out because people were disappointed it didn't "sound like it had a tube". Things used to have tubes before they invented transistors, lol, so really the engineering of the product is more important than it's components alone. Bing Crosby didn't have much choice,lol, but Frank Sinatra did and eventually settled on a Telefunkin! But who knows what they might choose today?

Re: Tube Mics & Preamps; Who Needs 'Em?

Posted: Wed Apr 25, 2018 6:01 pm
by mojobone
Yeah, microphones might be the larger worm container, and that's why I wanted to continue the convo here on the forum; there's so much more to know than 'find a good singer and put them in front of a good mic', though at the most basic level, that's all we try to do.

Mics come in two basic flavors, dynamic and condenser with subsets of large diaphragm and small, either side of about an inch, abbreviated LDC, SDC, LDD, and SDD. The diaphragm is a membrane that's part of a motor that translates air vibrations into an electrical signal. Dynamic mics have permanent magnets and condensers require an external power source from a battery, phantom power or a dedicated power supply. As far as I'm aware, only condenser mics are available with tubes and tube mics in particular tend to have external supplies.

Beyond that there are some specialty mics that are useful, if not essential to recording music. It's difficult to make generalizations about mic types, because there's a range of voicings for every type; for instance, my Gauge ECM87 condenser is based on the vintage studio staple Neumann U87 fet, (the current version is the U87AI) a famous studio condenser, but it sounds nearly identical to my Audix OM5 stage mic which is a dynamic mic also voiced to sound like the vintage Neumann. Today, there may be as many as a thousand microphones available for purchase, so maybe we should approach from a different angle; which mic is best suited to your application. You asked which tube mic to buy and I believe you probably should have one in your arsenal, if you're a professional or a serious hobbyist, but it maybe shouldn't be your first mic, depending on what you're gonna put in front of it and the space you're in.

That space and its reflections are as critical as the singer or instrument because the first consideration is distance; you're balancing a source with its room reflections, and as Jimmy Page pointed out, distance makes depth. If the source sounds amazing in the room, by all means include the room, unless your intent is for the sound to burst forth from the speakers, in which case you'll want to get in close. But as you get in close, the low end starts to swell and bulge with proximity effect, which is exhibited by all directional microphones, and soon, in the case of a vocalist, P-pops, fricatives and mouth noises can start tearing your head off, there's a ripping sound whenever the singer parts her lips; with a sensitive condenser and a powerful preamp, you can hear the singer blink, you can hear a semi change gears on the interstate six miles away. Conversely, if you're too far from the source, you'll play hell getting rid of the room, and if you apply compression, you'll be compressing the room and exaggerating its natural reverberation, possibly further washing out the source. If you don't get the distance right, you're going to spend lots of time editing out a lot of stuff you never intended to capture in the first place. There are tools to deal with all that, but at the dawn of the era of recorded music, distance was all there was to work with.

The next consideration is the style or genre of the music you'll be recording; in most pop, rock and country, vocals are generally miked pretty close, but there are exceptions; one singer I worked with had power, dynamics and soul on an Aretha level, but was so loud she collapsed the capsule of every mic I put in front of her and she had a horrible habit of eating the mic; coming from a musical theater background, she wasn't really conscious of the fact that she was distorting the preamp, the limiter, the mic capsule and possibly the very air itself. I ended up giving her a dynamic mike to smear her lipstick on, while the mike that was active was a good six feet away. I've had similar experiences with opera singers who tend to have tremendous control over pitch and timbre but seem unable to give an intimate performance; a great natural singer may have no concept of mic technique. When they asked Elvis if there were any young singers on the horizon that put a scare into him, The King did not hesitate, the answer was "That'd be Roy Orbison, ma'am." Take a minute or a week to go check out Roy's singing; he sounds tremendously powerful, soaring dynamics, incredible range and technique, but it turns out technique was critical in his case, cuz he had no power whatsoever; they brought in clothing racks to surround him, isolating Roy and the mic from the band, just so they could get enough signal. But that was the 50's; they were using low-output ribbon mics, and the preamps of the day were neither as loud nor as clean as today's.

Vocal timbre is another important consideration; some voices are scratchy, hoarse or sibilant. Buddy Guy's late brother Phil had an enormous natural presence peak that could cut through the smoke and din of the gnarliest blues joint; that worked great on the gig, but might have been a problem in the studio, where he could sound really harsh; many condenser mics have a lift in that part of the frequency spectrum that can only make the problem worse, so if you sound like Joe Cocker or your singer does, a condenser mic might be the last thing you'd want. If you can find some isolated Michael Jackson vocal tracks on Youtube, you'll note that there are lots of rhythmic interjections in his delivery, so much so, he appears to be beatboxing between sung phrases. The prescription for these situations is a large diaphragm dynamic mic, like the Shure SM7B, Electro-Voice RE20 AKG D112, Audix D6 or similar. Ask around and folks will tell you those first two are broadcast mics and the last two are for kick drum, but here's a good spot to dispel some myths; there's no such thing as a 'drum', 'vocal' or 'instrument mic. There's no perfect mic, there's only what works for a given source.

Re: Tube Mics & Preamps; Who Needs 'Em?

Posted: Wed Apr 25, 2018 9:18 pm
by mojobone
Whoo, that was a lot to plow through; if you're still with me you're probably still wondering what mic to buy, and here's where we run up against the concept of versatility; there are mikes that are great at one thing and mics that are good at lots of things. There's an old saying; "The fox has many tricks, the hedgehog has but one; one good one." If you're in a great room, almost any mic will sound good and work as intended; a bad room can have all sorts of sonic anomalies that can wreck even the most expensive microphones, so I'll suggest that your first mic should be a dynamic mic, cuz they're way less grabby-they tend to favor the source over the room, and most recordists just starting out aren't working in the greatest rooms. You can buy a quality dynamic mic for way less money than acoustically treating a small room; small rooms are the worst, for reasons that are...beyond the scope of a forum post. Condensers are sensitive, but sensitivity can be more a bug than a feature, where the room ain't righteous.

Ideally, (or eventually) you'll have enough microphones to deal with any situation, but if you're doing rock in an untreated room, your budget is limited and you'll be recording multiple live instruments, the most cost-effective mic you can buy is a Shure SM57. Mics costing three or four times as much often are unable to beat it on snare and amp cabinets, and with a clean, hot preamp you can pull a very tough tone from a flattop dreadnought acoustic guitar. It's not most engineers' first choice for toms, kick drum or drum overheads, but it can and does work, with a little forethought, the right preamps, and maybe some EQ. Check out Sufjan Stevens' first four albums; no other mics were used. The Shure SM58 is also a worthy choice for vocals, it's the world's #1 stage mic, and the very same mic Bono used on those classic U2 albums. It also picks up instruments just fine, it has the same capsule as the 57.

If you have a problem voice or if you work with problem singers, the next step up is the Shure SM7B; if you don't, the EV RE20 or Audix D6 are outstanding choices for kick drum, hut you can skip 'em if you'll be using sampled drums. The next level would be an LDC, but depending on your room, you might want to get a mic isolator like the SE Electronics Reflection Filter. If budget allows, a multi-pattern LDC can take you a long way; the most versatile and affordable choice here is the Lauten Atlantis, which is a real desert island choice, but if it suits your primary source better, you might want to look at Mojave or Peluso or various clones of vintage LDCs in the $1K range. Once that's covered, I'd recommend a matched stereo pair of SDC pencil condensers for stereo miking of acoustic instruments. The SM 57s mentioned earlier can handle toms, miscellaneous percussion and brass, so the more the merrier. Once you have all that covered, you're ready to buy a tube mic.

Re: Tube Mics & Preamps; Who Needs 'Em?

Posted: Wed Apr 25, 2018 10:25 pm
by LamarPecorino
Great advice as always, Mojo! :)

Re: Tube Mics & Preamps; Who Needs 'Em?

Posted: Wed Apr 25, 2018 11:18 pm
by Len911
Picking up room sounds is perhaps as much or more to with polar patterns as much as amplification. dynamics are mostly cardioid and hyper cardioid and have no internal preamps. A preamp is probably more critical for a dynamic mic than a tube mic that generally comes with it's own power supply which needs a higher voltage to operate the tubes. A fet condenser uses the phantom power supply of a preamp. A tube outputs a higher signal than both and doesn't use phantom power.

Also a tube isn't inside a tube mic for distortion like maybe a guitar amp.

A dynamic mic is often used on a lot of loud instruments that don't need much amplification such as a guitar amp,lol.

you could also make the case I suppose that a preamp is more critical when using dynamic or ribbons because they do output such a small signal. Just because the mic is a hundred dollar mic doesn't mean it sounds the best on a hundred dollar preamp.

A flatter mic without a "presence bump" will also sound warmer if not darker, actually more natural/ neutral. the presence bump is primarily so singers can hear themselves while singing with the music and not eq'ing the music while singing.

Re: Tube Mics & Preamps; Who Needs 'Em?

Posted: Thu Apr 26, 2018 3:15 am
by TheRealPatrickAdams
I guess I need to just start experimenting with the few mics I have on what sources I'll be working with.
2 Shure beta 57
- those came as a set
- 990 is a large condenser and 991 is a small
I got those a few years back as a budget set to use with a tascam 4 track cassette recorder.
Recently picked up an AKG 120 with my new mac mini setup but have yet to really start experimenting with any of that.
For me it's time and my room where I record. It's our office/ guest room/my daughter's room when she comes to my house/studio.
Working on a set up at my friends and musical compadres house in his basement, when we each get some time.
So I probably have more than enough mics to get me started, but I was wondering about where I might be headed in the future as far as mic and preamp.
This is great help guys, and good motivation for me!

Re: Tube Mics & Preamps; Who Needs 'Em?

Posted: Thu May 31, 2018 11:51 am
by Razor7Music
Hi all

I'm replying back to the original subject on pre-amps.

I just wanted to add that being a long time producer, at the onset of digital recording I was concerned about loosing warmth. I thought a tube preamp would return some of the warmth.

Right or wrong, good or bad, noticeable or undetectably, I've always use a tube pre-amp for all vocals or analog instruments I record.

I just stick with the inexpensive ART brand.

Never A/B a solid state signal flow to my tube preamp, but that's how traditions sometimes get started. It's how it started for me.


Re: Tube Mics & Preamps; Who Needs 'Em?

Posted: Mon Jun 25, 2018 3:50 pm
by mojobone
Hey, as long as it sounds good, that's great! People get hung up on minutia, when the fact is, you're nowhere without a great song, arrangement and above all, performance. A tree is just a tree; a forest is something to be experienced; the minutia aren't unimportant, they're part of the whole, but if you don't look at the big picture, you'll likely miss your target.