Gear Icons: Neumann U87

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Gear Icons: Neumann U87

Neumann U87
Words by Andy Lloyd-Russell

There are only but a few names in pro audio that hold such esteem as Neumann.

The brand’s legendary line of microphones literally pathed the way for recorded music, from the release of their first commercially available mic – the CMV 3, right through to the most modern TLM line of condensers. But there is one particular mic in their family that holds a particularly special place in the history of recorded music. Whilst some may argue the Neumann U47 represents the holy grail of microphones, the release of the U87 in the mid-late 1960’s brought with it a golden era of record making – rightfully earning this large diaphragm condenser the badge of one of the most iconic microphones of all time. 

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In the decades before the release of the U87, the line of Neumann microphones was already enjoying enormous success. The now legendary U47 released in 1949 introduced switchable polar patterns, alleviating the need to physically swap out capsules. This innovative new design employed the use of two opposing diaphragms housed within the head gasket providing omni-directional and cardioid polar patterns (with the later released U48 providing Cardioid and Figure-8 patterns). The U47 also introduced a vastly improved signal to noise ratio with its compact VF 14 vacuum tube and of course the legendary M7 capsule helped make up its iconic sound. It’s very even and smooth frequency response with a gentle lift in the upper mids and top end was superbly suited to vocals, allowing them to be more easily present in the mix. Becoming synonymous with singers such as Nate King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, The Beatles among countless others, the U47 is one of the most revered microphones ever made, having created a mythical like stature around it, as well as a vintage price tag to match! 

Neumann U47, U67 and U87

Following the enormous success of the U47, the U67 released in 1960 quickly became the new workhorse of the studio realm, at least for the Neumann name. Offering three switchable polar patterns (Omni, Cardioid and Bidirectional), a 100Hz high pass filter and -10dB pad, “the new and improved” design also featured a new capsule – the K 67. This vacuum tube powered iconic of course still required as external power supply for operation but this was soon to all change. 

The “U” family of Neumann microphones took a major a turn in 1967 with the release of the U87 – Neumann’s first solid state FET transistor microphone. Having released their first solid state microphone the KTM only two years prior in 1965 as well as having also introduced a reliable common means of powering condenser microphones in the now world standard 48V phantom power, it seemed Neumann were spear heading innovation and pathing a new trajectory for microphone design soon to span decades. 

Designed to replace and essentially sound just like the U67, the U87 did (and still does) in fact have a character all of its own. With its FET (field effect transistor) electronics, this new model of mic was more reliable, easier maintain and service and helped alleviate some of the saturation and inherent distortion characteristics of its vacuum tube based predecessor. In an era in which recording engineers were absolutely determined on reducing the amount saturation and distortion within their recordings (and the equipment that helped captured them), it’s exactly these idiosyncrasies of vintage equipment that is so revered in a vast amount of music making today – with countless saturation plugins trying to emulate many of the things engineers at the time were trying to eliminate – oh the irony, but I digress. 

Not only was the U87 indeed more reliable and easier to keep running in the high demands of studios at the time but was also very affordable. This allowed studios to keep several on hand – a trend of the U87 which has lasted over the years. Producing fantastic sounding results on pretty much any sound source and being adopted for recording in multiple genres, the U87 quickly populated microphone lockers across the globe. Having been so widely adopted, it’s no surprise (more or less unavoidable) that it went on to shape the sound of popular music for decades to come. A new era of large diaphragm condenser microphone had indeed been born. 

I mentioned character before and the U87 certainly has a sonic character all of its own. Not exhibiting the same type of saturation of its predecessors (a la U47 and  U67 which were as mentioned vacuum tube designs), the U87 could be described as quite a “mid forward” mic, and certainly darker sounding than the lions share of modern condenser microphones – particularly older U87 models. U87’s (or at least the one’s I’ve personally had the pleasure of using) just have a vibe. Sounding polished without being over the top, professional and expensive but not bashful, there’s just something natural and organic sounding about them. Certainly not just a one trick pony, versatility is worthy of mention, being comfortable and producing desirable results for numerous sound sources including vocals, guitars, strings, piano, overheads or even as room mics. Aside from its sonic character, its overall design is one of versatility too. Variable polar patterns including cardioid, omni directional and bi-directional, -10dB pad and an incredibly flat frequency response up until a smooth boost which starts at around 5kHz and starts to slope back down a little after 10kHz make it all that more desirable. 

Going through several era’s, the current U87 Ai model (originally released in 1986), many will argue sounds quite different to older U87 models, with its higher output and brighter overall character. But nevertheless, it’s the U87 as a whole that’s shaped the sound of countless hit songs and why these microphones remain so incredibly popular. 

Having become ubiquitous with number one hit songs, being used on literally countless records and by iconic artists including the likes of Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, Jeff Buckley, Ed Sheeran and many, many more it’s arguable that no other microphone has had a bigger influence on the sound of recorded music. Its reliability and workhorse like attributes continue to make it a go-to mic for many an engineer and producer of today. It’s no wonder why countless other mic designs have taken such deep inspiration from this absolutely iconic microphone. A legend and true icon of the recording studio. 

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