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Neumann has been a household name in the pro audio industry pretty much since there’s been an industry. Today, the German company (founded by Georg Neumann in 1928) is known primarily for high-end condenser microphones like the U 47, U 67, and U 87; but they’re also responsible for several technical innovations that have advanced the industry by leaps and bounds.
The company’s Neumann Originals campaign celebrates that long tradition by highlighting landmark inventions like 48 volt phantom power, showcasing celebrated mics like those mentioned above, and shining a light on their rigorous R&D efforts and strict quality control. In a uniquely German fashion, the campaign invites us to marvel at Neumann’s accomplishments without giving any secrets away. It may seem boastful, but it’s easy to take for granted some of the advancements they brought to the industry, many of which have directly led to the development of technologies you use in your studio every day.
So don your lab coat, step into the clean room, and travel with us back to 1928, when it all began.
In 1928, Georg Neumann GmbH introduced its very first product: the CMV 3. Known colloquially as the “Neumann Bottle” due to its bulky form factor, this landmark design employed a completely different method of capturing sound than existing designs which utilized carbon granules, metal ribbons, or magnetic coils. Instead, it used a thin moving diaphragm and a fixed backplate to turn sound waves into an electrical signal based on the change in capacitance between the two elements.
Another distinguishing feature of the CMV 3 was its interchangeable capsule system, which provided different directional patterns for use in different situations. Although unorthodox for its time, this design proved both versatile and economical. In fact, the Neumann Bottle was so successful that nearly 70 years later it would influence a more modern take on the “bottle” concept by another manufacturer.
Before the U 47 and the rest of Neumann’s legendary microphones came an innovation that made all the rest possible: the level recorder. Georg Neumann knew that in order to develop audio equipment with consistent, accurate performance, he first needed a reliable way to measure signal levels. If he could develop a machine to record audio signals as mathematical data, he could use that data to calibrate equipment to achieve repeatable results.
Neumann’s level recorder was an electro-mechanical device similar to a seismograph that transcribed input signals as a continuous graph on a long roll of paper. The device used a logarithmic scale to measure amplitude levels in an easy-to-read format, a standard that is still used to measure decibels today. The level recorder took the guesswork out of electroacoustic measurement, paving the way for Neumann’s company to design high-performance microphones and disc-cutting lathes.
First introduced nearly 75 years ago, the Neumann U 47 remains one of the most popular microphones in history. Distributed internationally under the Telefunken brand, the U 47 has lent its legendary tone to greats like Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Aretha Franklin, Miles Davis, and countless others.
This model improved on the CMV 3 in many ways; most notably with its built-in switchable polar patterns. Rather than utilizing interchangeable capsules, the U 47 combined two condenser diaphragms facing opposite directions. With only one turned on, the mic exhibits an omnidirectional pickup pattern. When the rear element is engaged, everything it picks up is subtracted from the front signal, effectively reducing the mic’s rear sensitivity and creating a cardioid (heart-shaped) pattern.
In addition to its switchable polar patterns, the U 47’s refined electronics and other design improvements helped cement its place in music history. The now-legendary VF 14 vacuum tube produced by Telefunken reduced the size of the microphone and provided an impressive signal-to-noise ratio that would not be matched for many years. With an almost ruler-flat frequency response except for two gentle bumps around 3 and 10 kHz, the U 47’s crisp, musical tone makes any vocal or instrument seem to come alive and jump out of the speakers.
Although the U 47 still remains a technological marvel, Neumann quickly one-upped themselves with the M 49, the first microphone to offer a continuously variable polar pattern. This functionality allowed engineers to dial in the perfect balance between omnidirectional, cardioid, and bidirectional patterns, making it easier than ever to control the amount of room ambience in the signal.
Better yet, the M 49 could be remotely controlled from the power supply unit, which allowed the operators to adjust the sound from the control room while listening to the result in real time. This made it a natural choice for orchestral recording sessions where mics were often suspended high above the players. The M 49 remains a highly sought-after vintage collector’s item to this day, although Neumann recently reissued it as the M 49 V.
Always seeking to improve consistency and accuracy in the design and manufacturing process, the Neumann company developed the pistonphone in 1956. This humble little device employs a mechanical piston driven at a specific cyclic rate to generate sound pressure at a consistent frequency and amplitude. Using this reliable, known factor, Neumann’s engineers could calibrate microphones with a tolerance of just one-tenth of a decibel from 20 to 800 Hz.
Constantly aiming to improve upon perfection, Neumann upped the ante again in 1960 with the U 67. This model featured an updated K 67 capsule that allowed for more precise tuning and has since become one of the most replicated capsule designs of all time. Additionally, the U 67 offered all three popular polar pattern options of the U 47 and U 48 (cardioid, omni, and bidirectional), making it more versatile than its predecessors. For extra flexibility, Neumann also added a switchable 100 Hz high-pass filter and -10 dB pad. These utility features made the mic suitable for recording everything from orchestras and vocals to rock and roll drums and guitar amps—a true workhorse of the studio. In 2018, Neumann reissued the legendary U 67 with great success.
In the 1960s, when transistor-based condenser microphones began to replace tube-powered designs, it finally became feasible to power them from a common source without dedicated power supplies for each mic. However, without a universal standard for power distribution, many studios had to come up with their own custom solutions. While this worked as a stopgap measure, the lack of standardization meant that plugging in the wrong microphone could damage it severely. As usual, Neumann saw an opportunity to come up with a fix.
Inspired by a concept used in some telephone systems of the time, Georg Neumann developed a consistent way to distribute direct current to microphones over the same wires used to transmit audio signals, settling on 48 volts as the standard. Because the same voltage is applied to the positive and negative conductors, there is no potential difference between the two signals, and the power becomes effectively “invisible”—hence the name “phantom power.” Next time you flip that little switch on your interface or mixer, thank Neumann.
After ceasing production of the U 47 in 1965 due to the critical VF 14 vacuum tube being discontinued, Neumann needed a new flagship studio microphone. In 1967, leveraging recent advances in solid-state electronics, the company designed the U 87 around a field effect transistor (FET) circuit. This allowed the U 87 to deliver the same standard of high-fidelity sound and extremely low noise without the weight, complexity, and warm-up time of a tube microphone.
Just like the U 67, the U 87 includes cardioid, omni, and bidirectional polar pattern options as well as a switchable high-pass filter and pad. And, thanks to the advent of phantom power, a studio could conceivably use a U 87 on every track in a session (as many often did). With its legendary tonal profile, robust quality, and useful features, the U 87 has become an enduring studio favorite for all types of instruments, vocals, and even voiceover. Neumann has since reissued it as the U 87 Ai.
Neumann’s “Dummy Head” microphones were the first to capture true binaural sound. Photo by Georg Neumann GmbH.
Although it didn’t truly catch on in the music industry until recent years, spatial audio saw rapid development back in the 1970s. While British researchers were developing Ambisonics, other individuals were experimenting with bespoke systems for creating three-dimensional soundfields. However, they all relied on complex multichannel decoding and playback methods that simply weren’t practical for everyday use. Only a stereo solution had a chance of actually being adopted by engineers and audiences.
Building on concepts like the ORTF technique and the Jecklin Disk, which attempted to capture sound the way our ears hear it in the real world, Neumann developed the KU 80 “Dummy Head” in 1973. Consisting of an anatomically accurate model of the human head with microphones mounted in the ear canals, the KU 80 was the first system to accurately reproduce the head-related transfer function (HRTF) that allows us to perceive three-dimensional sound with our ears.
Neumann would continue to improve on this system with the KU 81 in 1982 and the KU 100 in 1992. With its ability to capture lifelike binaural audio that plays back accurately on headphones and loudspeakers, the KU 100 has become somewhat famous in audio engineering circles due to its popularization by engineer Tchad Blake. To hear the KU 100 in action, throw on your best headphones or in-ears and listen to From the Caves of the Iron Mountain, an experimental excursion by Tony Levin, Jerry Marotta, and Steve Gorn which was recorded by Blake in an abandoned mine.
Over the years, Neumann continued to innovate, refining their processes and compiling a vast archive of technical documents dating back to the company’s founding. Using this wealth of experience and technical know-how, Neumann has gifted the world with many more “originals,” including the U 47 FET, TLM 103, and KM 184, to name just a few.
Today, the company has branched out into other studio products with their KH Series monitors, NDH Series studio headphones, and the new MT 48 audio interface. We don’t know what they’ll come up with next, but you can bet it will be original.