A brief history of the beautifully expensive microphones that often go unused!
Late night talk shows have long been a staple of American television which has filtered its way through televisions around the world. The sets of these shows are somewhat formulaic and often involve an unnecessarily large studio, with an appropriately, and also unnecessarily large studio mic sitting on the desk in front of the host.
These microphones hark back to the golden age of broadcast, but they are there more for ornamental purposes with most hosts today getting their audio feed from a worn lapel or lavalier mic hidden in the blazer collar.
We run you through some of the most popular late night talk show hosts and the microphones sitting atop their desk.
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Johnny Carson pioneered the late night talk show with the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson popularising the format. Airing for almost 30 years, one of the mainstays on the show from 1970 to 1981 was the beautiful Shure SM33 ribbon mic which was presented to him by Shure themselves.
The presented microphone featured the inscription, “Johnny’s Mic… Not Ed’s (sidekick Ed McMahon)… Not Fred’s (executive producer Fred de Cordova)”. Former crew member Stanley Sweeney said “of the two SM33s I know of that were used on the show, a nondescript one was stored and the other one with the distinctive etching was used on a daily basis”.
The usable microphone was sold at auction for US$50,787.50 in 2005 and has since been discontinued.
RCA DX 77
One of the more prominent late night presenters, David Letterman surpassed his late friend and mentor Carson as the longest-serving late night talk show host in American television history hosting 6,080 episodes. The microphone on Letterman’s desk was an old RCA DX 77. A classic ribbon mic in every sense of the word, this mic was also initially used by Johnny Carson and is easily one of the most iconic microphones to exist.
It was a replacement for the original microphone given to him as a gift from the NBC crew when he left the network. A couple of years after making the move to CBS, the original microphone was stolen.
The host of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno for just shy of 20 years is now better known as one of the greatest car collectors and enthusiasts, but cutting his teeth as the iconic late night talk show host was where he gained most of his notoriety.
Earning a spot on Leno’s desk from 1999 onwards was the KSM32 studio condenser microphone which uses an electret capsule design and transformerless output. Leno then followed in Carson’s footprints and upgraded to a Shure SM33.
AKG C414XLS Custom Red
Conan O’Brien is another icon in the late night talk show world and was commissioned to take over from Letterman after his departure from NBC. The former Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons writer has remained on the screen since, along with his mic.
Custom made for the lanky redhead, O’Brien’s Red C414XLS is interesting in that unlike many of the mics in this list, it is undoubtedly turned on, with O’Brien regularly using it for a whole manner of sight gags and effects. One recurring gag involves O’Brien knocking it over in frustration whenever a joke fails to land.
Jimmy Fallon is one of the most known late night talk show hosts at the moment for the games he plays with his guests, as well as his formidable history in television and film, notably Saturday Night Live.
He previously used a standard AT4050 multi-pattern large diaphragm condenser microphone, but then switched to the Limited Edition silver version later on for its striking looks. A switch on the microphone body provides access to three polar patterns: cardioid, omni, and bidirectional, although the feature is rendered obsolete with its lack of practical use.
SE Electronics SE 4400A
Surprise, surprise, another Saturday Night Live writer found their way to the late night talk show scene as Seth Meyers hosts the latest instalment of Late Night with Seth Meyers, a news satire talk show.
The microphone on Meyers’ desk is an SE Electronics SE 4400A, a vintage-inspired large-diaphragm multi-pattern workhorse with a hand-crafted capsule that excels at nearly any miking application. The mic is supported by an AT8601 desk stand and has been a mainstay since the show’s 2014 inception.
Carpool Karaoke Bluetooth Mic
Corden quickly gained a reputation for venturing outside the norm and immediately leaving the comfort of being behind the desk, famously sitting in front of his desk, and driving around with stars for his ‘carpool karaoke’ segment. The Bluetooth mic features a built-in long-lasting rechargeable battery, lights that pulse and sync with the music, and a quick wireless connection to the car’s FM tuner or via AUX cord.
While he doesn’t actually use this mic per se, late night host James Corden does lend his name to this little consumer handheld number, designed to bring his famous ‘carpool karaoke’ segment to life. In that case, maybe they could have used the mic for ‘Cats’.