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Vintage microphones are many studio owners’ most prized possessions. Their rich history, glorious sound and vintage cachet make them the crown jewels of any studio gear list. But what exactly makes vintage mics so special? In this article, we’ll break down some of the most iconic vintage microphones and the best alternatives to hold you over until you’re able to complete your collection.
Before we get started, it’s worth outlining exactly what constitutes “vintage” when it comes to microphones. Engineers and collectors will give you many opinions, but for the purposes of this article, nothing that started production after 1990 will make the cut. That’s still a broad range, so we’ll focus on the most beloved classics from the golden age of recording technology.
A microphone’s age is one indicator of how sought-after it is for collectors, as many become rarer over time. But not all older mics sound great, and many producers are in search of models from every era. For that reason, we’ll be sticking to microphones with a strong reputation for great sound in the studio.
Throughout the history of recorded music, there have been countless pieces of gear, but only a select few have withstood the test of time. Check out our Pro Audio Hall of Fame to learn more about these legendary pieces of recording equipment, including classic compressors and preamps, as well as many of the mics on this list.
When it comes to recording equipment, vintage microphones are some of the most priceless tools available. That said, many engineers work for years before welcoming a vintage mic into their collections. While hunting for the perfect vintage microphone to add to the locker, many engineers use modern recreations of the classics. We’ll include some authentic alternatives with every vintage mic on this list.
With the basics out of the way, we’d like to introduce you to our picks for the ten best vintage microphones and their top recreations.
Let’s kick this list off with the most highly prized vintage mic—the Neumann U47. Considered by many to be the blueprint for large-diaphragm condenser mics, the U47 sound has defined many of the most iconic vocal performances of all time. It’s known for its unparalleled richness and full-bodied tone that peaks at just the right frequencies for the human voice.
First manufactured in the late 1940s, the U47 quickly became a studio staple. Its legendary status persists today and original units sell for tens of thousands of dollars. For studios on a budget, there have been plenty of excellent recreations over the years. Some of our favorites include:
The AKG C12 developed a legendary reputation in recording circles despite a smaller production run spanning 1953 and 1963. With an estimated 2,500 units in circulation, its rarity and outstanding tone make it another holy grail of vintage microphones.
The internals of the C12 changed often during its production history, so there are distinct variations among vintage units. Even so, the richness of its deep low-end and natural highs can be heard in many examples, including those with the coveted Haufe T14/1 transformer. If you’re looking for a modern take on the C12 check out these options:
What image comes to mind when you think of a vintage microphone? For many, it’s the classic radio mic from the golden age of broadcasting—the RCA 44BX. This 1930s-era mic design shines wherever traditional recording techniques are required. Mono overheads and retro vocals come alive through its rich lows, smooth mids and silky highs. For today’s engineers, ribbon specialists AEA produces an excellent series of 44-style mics that capture the distinctive sound and feel of the originals.
Neumann’s mid-twentieth-century designs are sought-after for their different sonic qualities. The U67 was created as the successor to the U47, but it brought its own unique flavor to classic studio recordings. Its enduring legacy is a smoother, smokier top end that’s a great match for bright instruments and strident voices. Check out these modern options to get the U67 sound:
The ELAM 251 is among the rarest and priciest vintage microphones out there. Based on the DNA of the AKG C12, the 251 was produced by the Viennese mic builder for Telefunken in the 1950s. The new design brought together the best of the C12 formula with the Haufe T-14/1 transformer, 6072 vacuum tube and revered CK12 capsule. Despite its clear link to the C12, the ELA M 251 has inspired generations of engineers with its own unique tone.
Small diaphragm condenser mics have the unique properties of consistent polar pattern and excellent transient response. One of the most beloved vintage models is the FET-based Neumann KM84. Known for its faithful sonic reproduction, the KM84 is a favorite among classical music recordists. But it’s equally well-suited for any situation where fidelity is a concern.
The original era of microphone technology was linked to the needs of early broadcasting companies in Europe and the United States. In response to the popularity of the RCA 44BX, the BBC sought to develop a cheaper alternative with their own specifications. Often considered the premier choice for drum overheads, the Coles 4038 has a smooth and flattering sound with tons of fatness and body. First built by the BBC in the 1950s, the 4038 model has never actually ceased production. It’s one of the rare cases where the modern version can trace its direct lineage to the originals!
The C414 was the FET-based evolution of AKG’s earlier C12 design. Known as a studio workhorse for its adaptable sound and variable polar pattern, the C414 is an essential in any mic locker. There have been countless iterations of the 414 over the years, but many engineers single out the 70s-era EB model for its smoother, more neutral top end.
As FET technology began to take over the pro audio world, Neumann’s engineers made yet another update to their microphone formula with the U87. The transistor electronics and redesigned capsule of the U87 lend it a different sound that’s equally revered for vocals, drum overheads, acoustic guitars and more. It was widely used for pop and rock vocals throughout the 70s and 80s on hundreds of beloved records from the classic album era. Here are some modern takes on the U87:
Most of the mics on this list so far have been flashy large-diaphragm condensers or ribbons. But there are plenty of vintage dynamic mics out there worth considering. For example, the AKG D12e was one of first purpose-built mics to catch on for capturing the punch and low end of a bass drum. While its more neutral tone may be considered tame by modern standards, the D12 is responsible for many of the old-school kick drum sounds from the classic era of recording.
Interested in buying one of the vintage mics mentioned above? Check out our guide to buying vintage microphones to learn everything you need to know about buying a vintage mic from Vintage King and check out our world-class collection of vintage microphones (updated weekly) to find the perfect piece of gear to add to your collection.