This is the story of two of my prized possessions: a Neumann U47 FET and valve U67. But no, this is not just another story of how good old Neumann microphones sound. It’s a meaningless rave about how they’ve accompanied me throughout at least half my recording career.
I guess it was about 17 years ago that I bought my first Neumann… a U47 FET. This brilliant mic was once owned by the legendary Billy Thorpe, and even now, every time I use it I imagine him singing into it, though I’m not sure if he ever did… perhaps it just sat in front of the kick drum during its tenure at Sun Studios in Sydney, who knows.
The 47 FET is a classic mic in more ways than one. Above all else it sounds superb – always has – but it’s no showpiece, that’s for sure. It’s been ’round the traps, shall we say: knocked about fairly mercilessly throughout its lengthy recording career. It’s missing part of the grille structure and once looked like the dark side of the moon before I eventually took it apart and gently panel beat it back into shape – sort of.
I’ve owned lots of mics over the years but this fateful addition to my collection really brought home to me the power and advantage of a high quality microphone over run-of-the-mill ‘equivalents’. I quickly fell in love with it, and it has been with me at almost every recording session since. It’s taught me a great deal about sound, and contributed to countless recordings in ways I could never calculate in dollars and cents. In many respects it’s had a greater influence over my audio career than anything else.
But sound engineers are polygamists when it comes to microphones, and I soon grew to covet another legendary mic… actually, two. The first of these was the iconic Neumann U47 long body. This mic is arguably the quintessential vocal mic, if not for its sound capture then certainly its appearance. Recognisable to studio engineers and grandmothers alike, I’d wager this microphone has been on more album covers than any other in history. I’ve used them often – most recently on Paul Kelly’s <<Spring and Fall>> album for vocals – but never owned one myself. One day this may change…
The other mic I coveted was one I do now own – the classic Neumann U67. This is without doubt one of the most exquisite mics ever manufactured on planet earth. In many ways it’s every bit as good as a U47… which is probably the main reason why I’ve never been quite prepared to fork out big bucks for one.
I came across my 67 quite by chance when a friend of mine returned from New Guinea with a pile of gear he’d acquired from a radio station in Port Moresby.
One night, amid a haze of smoke and drawn out conversations about street crime, Neve consoles and humidity, out of a drawer appeared a dusty, but well preserved U67.
Even though I was well sick of the passive smoke and endless conversation about audio equipment by then, I perked up considerably when the 67 appeared.
“Is it for sale then?” I asked my mate Richard.
“Yep, if you want it, it’s yours,” he mumbled, between drags on his Horizon cigarette.
“Okay, well let’s do it then, I’m in.”
After a quick chat about the price, that was that. Like a drug deal for audio dweebs, the transaction was swift, and before I knew quite what had happened, I was the proud (and somewhat shocked) owner of a classic valve Neumann microphone. (That same night I also agreed to buy what is now my favourite stereo compressor – a Neve 32254e. I must have robbed a bank the night before to have been able to afford them both. I’m glad I did.)
But no sooner had I left the building riding high on the excitement of these rare purchases, than another friend of mine who was also there that night, Rick O’Neil – who’s also well known for dealing in Neves and Neumanns in dodgy warehouses – brought me down to earth.
Like human rust converter, Rick’s blunt appraisal of the servicing and restoration work I’d have to do before any of the gear would function up to spec quickly turned my euphoria into mild dread, as I was forced to contemplate thousands more on top of the initial purchase price.
But I wasn’t deterred, and as it turned out, Rick was wrong… which happens quite often actually.
Everything worked beautifully and since I’ve owned them, there have been almost no servicing costs up until very recently. The capsule in the U67 was in fantastic condition back then, and remains so to this day…
Which leads me to the present, and a recent experience I had with both the 67 and the original protagonists of this story.
I recently had it serviced and repaired by Gunter Wagner, one of the world’s most well respected Neumann repairers and restorers. Actually, he’s so much more than that. From an Australian engineer’s perspective, he’s a massive cultural asset who arguably knows more about these old mics than anyone else in the world.
Gunter serviced the Neumann, which had for far too long been beset with a storm in its noise floor that had rendered the mic unusable. I had put it away with the expectation that in time, I would see Gunter and hand over the mic for a full service. But time wore on and the mic sat in the drawer.
Rick was convinced the 67 needed a new capsule, and reprised his scare tactics of yore about the costs involved in fixing it. I wasn’t so sure. But to his credit it was Rick who flew the microphone from Melbourne to Sydney and personally drove it to Gunter’s place so that I wouldn’t have to put it in the untrustworthy hands of a crazy courier.
When Gunter tested the mic, turns out the valve was kaput and a burned-in replacement quickly brought the mic back to life; Gunter adding the comment that, “This U67 is one of the most superb sounding I’ve ever come across. Better even than mine!” He also magically repaired a dent in the mic that had come courtesy of a trip to BJB Studios many years ago – never again.
Rick, however, remained resolute that the capsule should be replaced, and in a flurry of emails and phone calls I quickly became the bratwurst in the sandwich about what to do.
Gunter argued forcefully – as only he can – that replacing the capsule would be akin to replacing the engine in a car when there was nothing wrong with it… what would be the point of that? Rick thought otherwise. But in the end I went with Gunter’s advice and left the capsule alone.
Anyway, now it’s back, and wow… this mic really is incredible. I think I’d almost forgotten how amazing it is. Words don’t do it credit: it’s dense, pristine, thick and smoother than Lindt chocolate.
But now the 47 FET is playing up… noisy, in a different way to the 67. This time I’m driving up to Sydney myself to hand it over to Gunter for an overhaul. I won’t be asking Rick for advice this time… it will be too confusing, and may just cause a meltdown between the two know-it-alls. I’ll go with Gunter’s professional appraisal and be excited to get it back in near-perfect condition. It will be good to get both these beauties running on the same session again… just like old times.
There is no moral to this story… no lesson to be learnt. I just hope that during your time in audio some of you guys and gals will develop a relationship with gear that becomes as rewarding as mine has been with these old mics.
’Til next month then.