Swimming against the tide of assembly-line condenser microphones, German designer Dirk Brauner has been patiently introducing his handmade tube mics to this country for the past couple of years. The Phantom C is Brauner's newest offering, as well as his first solid-state condenser. Tuned specifically for use in studio-vocal and voice-over applications, this cardioid mic uses discrete FET (field-effect transistor) circuitry similar to that found in the Brauner/SPL Atmos 5.1 miking system, combined with a hand-built, large-diaphragm capsule.
Clearly a precision unit, the Phantom C has a chunky, old-fashioned heft to it. Both the mic body and the permanently affixed shockmount boast a satin nickel finish, in contrast to the black finish on the attached swivelmount. The Brauner logo and “Phantom C” designation are handsomely engraved on the on-axis address side of the housing.
In case you missed the references, “Phantom” refers to the fact that this is a phantom-powered mic and the “C” denotes a cardioid-only polar pattern. Brauner's U.S. distributor, Transamerica Audio Group, indicated to me that a variable-pattern version, the Phantom V, is in the works.
The Phantom C boasts excellent technical specifications (see the table “Phantom C Specifications”), including low self-noise and high SPL handling. The unit's specs place it securely in the top ranks of high-output, low-noise mics for the digital age.
As with most premium mics, accessories are part of the appeal. In this department, the Phantom C doesn't disappoint. Its 9-inch-square carrying case is a cut above the competition, with a classy, brushed-aluminum look, rounded corners, a metal latch, and sturdy hinges. Interior features of the case include a pouch for documents, cables, and so on as well as extra-dense foam rubber cut precisely to grip and protect the valuable contents.
The cleverly designed and very sturdy shockmount is another classy touch. It consists of two concentric, C-shaped cages: the inner one snaps to fit — very snugly — around the mic body, and the larger, outer cage suspends the inner cage by six rubber O-rings. This leaves the front of the mic unobstructed, aiding close placement of a pop filter.
An all-metal swivelmount is attached to the rear strut of the shockmount, and the strut also rotates to allow side-to-side angling of the Phantom C. Despite the fact that the mic, after being snapped into place, cannot be moved within the shockmount, once the assembly is attached to a boom stand the mic can readily be angled in any direction, which aids positioning in tight spots.
C ME, HEAR ME
During sessions at the Guerrilla Recording studio, I scrutinized a pair of Phantom C mics on an assortment of vocalists. As you would expect from hand-built mics, there were some differences in frequency response between the two demo units (more on this later), which were numbered 87 and 88.
In general, I found that the Phantom C's presence boost is prominent and centered at a higher frequency than is the case with many other vocal condensers I've encountered. For a non-tube mic, it also exhibits significant warmth in the low mids around 300 Hz. Together, these factors serve to make the mic sound less sibilant, more pleasant, and just plain “bigger” on a variety of singers than many other vocal condensers.
However, on vocalists that don't need a presence lift — “airy”-sounding female singers, for example — the Phantom C's tailored response curve can sound too breathy or overly crisp in the lip-smack range (around 8 kHz). For the same reason, it can also sound slightly raspy on gravelly or overexerting male singers.
On a session with songwriter Ed Reiter, a throaty, country-inflected singer (I think of him as a grittier version of Chris Isaak), the Phantom C's presence boost worked like a charm to bring out enunciation and detail without sounding overly breathy. From the moment Reiter stepped up to the Phantom C, I knew its big, robust, signature sound would suit his voice perfectly.
As Reiter relaxed into his vocal duties, he hit the Phantom C with some very high SPLs. The mic never overloaded. Moreover, it maintained its commanding sound even with above-average amounts of limiting from a Langevin Dual Vocal Combo preamp. To combat a noticeable stridency in Reiter's full-voiced expression, I tried switching to the other Phantom C on hand. That mic (number 87), which I had come to hear as the “softer” of the two, served to tame some high-end raspiness, and also conveyed a smoother tone in the upper midrange. As a result, Reiter's passionate vocal track made it to the final mix with only minimal EQ.
C WHAT I MEAN
Overall, the Phantom C's round and crisp character seemed most well suited to male voices. My studio partner Bart Thurber, who used the two Phantom Cs on a few male rock vocalists, praised the mic in this application, describing it as “smooth, with a lot of character.”
My experience using the Phantom C on female singers was more hit-or-miss. At best, the mic complemented lower female ranges, balancing ample tone with its trademark incisiveness. A classically trained female background singer on Reiter's project sounded good on both Brauner mics, taking on a mellow '70s timbre that blended perfectly with the male lead, thanks to the Phantom C's abundant warmth. The Phantom C also worked its magic on violinist Carla Kihlstedt's debut CD, Two Foot Yard (Tzadik Records, 2003), gracing a dense track on which Kihlstedt's whispered vocal had to compete with a potent palette of drums, accordion, and strings.
In some cases, though, the Phantom C's forward high end removed it from the running, usually prompting me to reach for a much mellower transducer. For example, singer Vanessa Lowe's first reaction after singing a few lines into the Phantom C was straightforward: “I can't stand the sibilance,” she said. Actually, in that instance I hadn't found the Brauner's high end to be unbearable — but it was obviously not the best mic for Lowe's breathy style. (According to Brauner, since my tests the Phantom C has been further improved and retuned and now has an overall bigger response, resulting in an apparent reduction in brightness.)
C IT THROUGH
Beyond its intended function for vocals and voice-overs, the Phantom C proved it can also earn its keep doing other duties around the studio. For example, I got superb results using the pair on a Hammond organ part, amplified through a Motion Sound KBR-M rotating speaker. Due to differences in the sound of the two mics, some EQ was required to provide a balanced stereo image (the two channels were panned hard left and right in the final mix). But the organ track had presence to spare, and I was impressed by how the subtleties of the part carried through to the final full-band mix.
During tests on acoustic bass, Japanese shakuhachi flute, bass drum, saxophone, and other sources, I was always pleased with the Phantom C's detailed sound, as well as its unusual ability to maintain presence, warmth, and focus at distances of 1 foot or more. These qualities are a testament to Brauner's expertise as a mic builder and should also make this microphone a fine choice for acoustic guitar, percussion, and piano.
I gained additional insight into the Phantom C's sonic signature from standard loudspeaker tests. First, I compared the two mics by placing them side by side 20 inches in front of a full-range monitor in an acoustically dead room. I used Blue Kiwi and Monster cables to connect the test mics to a pair of Grace 101 preamps, and auditioned the sound through two channels of a Soundcraft Spirit board and Tannoy PBM-8 monitors. I used a 1 kHz tone to match the levels of all mic pairs. Once the pairs were matched, I used a variety of mixes to evaluate the frequency response of the mics.
Between the two Phantom Cs, it was immediately apparent that one of the two mics (number 88) had more bite in the upper mids and thus tended to highlight instruments such as trumpet, electric guitar, and snare drum in a mix. This same mic also had a fuller low-end response, and generally sounded hotter on a range of music sources.
Next, I swapped the XLR connectors on both mics to confirm that the sonic differences had originated at the microphones. Indeed, they had. However, the output levels of the two mics were very closely matched, as was self-noise.
Returning to test tones, I found that the two mics, when matched at 1 kHz, rarely matched exactly in other frequency ranges. I noted differences of 2 dB or greater in the high frequencies — 10 kHz and above — as well as at 200 Hz. Of course, these mics are not intended for use as matched pairs in stereo recording, and I am not evaluating them as such. But in light of the significant differences I heard, selecting one representative mic for comparison testing became an issue. After some deliberation, I chose the hotter-sounding of the two mics (number 88) for continued testing against a selection of mics from the Guerrilla Recording vault.
Up against an AKG 414 B/ULS, the Phantom C had much clearer upper mids and highs but seemed a bit sibilant. Low-end response was light compared with the 414, especially in the range of electric bass guitar. However, I should add that that particular 414, a favorite of mine for recording electric bass, has an atypically dark sound. Self-noise was comparable, and the Brauner's output was about 10 dB higher than the 414's.
The next comparison — with a Neumann TLM 103 — showed the Brauner to be competitive in terms of certain specs: output and noise levels were closely matched. The low-end contours of the two mics were similar, though I found the Neumann to have a more solid punch in the bass and kick drum range. Again, the Phantom C sounded a bit sizzly in comparison, and it emphasized some unpleasant buzziness in a muted trombone passage. (Although I have often recommended the TLM 103 as an excellent all-around studio mic, it is too bright for my taste on some vocalists.)
In an attempt to find a match for the Brauner's distinctive and “toppy” tonality, I tried a few other mics before discovering an unexpectedly close mate: the Manley Reference Cardioid mic. This zippy $3,000 tube condenser can, in my experience, propel even the most mush-mouthed vocalist to the foreground of a mix. In comparison, the Brauner evidenced truer mids and lows and sounded quite warm and full. But it also came across as a bit harsh and metallic sounding compared with the Manley's smooth upper midrange. Engaging a 3 dB low-shelving cut on the Brauner made for a very close overall frequency match. The Manley had an astonishing 10 dB — higher output level, but the Phantom C was about 3 dB quieter in terms of self-noise.
COME C ABOUT ME
The Phantom C is a boutique microphone with a price tag that reflects its handmade heritage. Its cost may keep it off the shopping lists of budget-conscious engineers resigned to choose from a growing number of under-$1,000 European mics. But among those with an eye (and ear) for quality, this solid-state Brauner has a lot of things going for it. The shockmount, classy case, and flawless build quality of the Phantom C are significant selling points, not to mention Brauner's reputation as an uncompromising, quality-first designer.
The Phantom C is all about character; it is not a “flat” mic in any sense of the word. For that reason, it can't be expected to be a cure-all for every vocal-recording challenge. Even the world's priciest mics aren't perfect for every voice out there, after all. But the Phantom C's robust midrange and up-front attitude impressed me, even if I didn't always embrace its high-end sizzle (which Brauner has reportedly toned down a bit). I'd be happy to have a Phantom C in my mic closet to pull out for male voices, rockers, rappers, and any other singer in need of a little extra cutting power. And over time, I'm sure I'd find other instrumental uses for this fine microphone.
Myles Boisenis a guitarist, producer, composer, and head engineer and instructor at Guerrilla Recording and The Headless Buddha Mastering Lab in Oakland, California. He can be reached by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Phantom C Specifications
Elementpressure gradient transducerDiaphragm1", 6µ, 24-karat-gold sputtered MylarPolar Patterncardioid (fixed)Frequency Response20 Hz-22 kHz (±3 dB)Dynamic Range134 dBMaximum SPL142 dB (@ 0.5% THD)Sensitivity28 mV/PaSignal-to-Noise Ratio86 dBSelf-Noise8 dBAPower48V phantomDimensions6.38" (H) × 2.00" (D)Weight1.36 lb.
large-diaphragm condenser microphone
AUDIO QUALITY4.0VALUE4.0RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Very flattering for many male vocals, especially rockers, rappers, and anyone in need of a little extra cutting power. Precision, handmade European quality. Low noise and high output. Well-made carrying case. Quality shockmount included. Also useful for nonvocal applications.
CONS: High-end presence boost can be excessive on breathy or raspy singers. Noticeable variation in frequency response between two test units.