I play in and record an indie rock band, and when we started our second CD in my basement project studio, we needed to make some gear choices that’d help capture our vintage-rock energy. So when I got wind that the Soundelux e49 large diaphragm tube mic and the Drawmer 1968 Mercenary Edition dual-channel compressor were up for grabs, vintage gear snob that I am, I jumped at the chance to put this chain through the ringer.
THE PLAYERS . . .
Soundelux has built its reputation on replicating many of the classic studio mics that are no longer in production, as well as having developed an impressive line of unique mics of their own. The e49 falls into the former category, being ostensibly a reproduction of the venerated Neumann M49.
So does the e49 really sound like the M49?
Well, having used both mics I’d say: not entirely.
Will you care?
This mic has a character of its own that just screams “classic tube mic,” and presumably that’s what you’re looking for if this mic interests you. And to that end? It delivers. With none of the hyped high mids or “presence bump” of many of today’s mics, this mic is probably NOT the best mic for modern dance-pop vocals. Think rich, creamy, full-throated and meaty. In many ways it has the sonic character of a ribbon mic, yet with all the openness and extended top you’d expect from a high quality large diaphragm.
Drawmer, meanwhile, has long been associated with quality compressors. According to Fletcher at Mercenary Audio, who was a design consultant on the 1968, it’s based on Drawmer’s 1969 circuitry (on which he also consulted) and is sonically nearly identical. However, the mic pres were not included, which enables the 1968 to fit into a rack space. Space saving was a primary concern for Fletcher, who like many engineers these days, carries his own mobile rig to lots of different locales. This makes shipping charges a big concern for this vagabond class of engineers. My own band also sometimes records at remote locations if we find a room that has a sonic character we like — so the compactness of the 1968 appealed to me, too.
. . . IN ACTION
We cut right to the chase in testing this chain: recording vocal tracks. I often like to compress vocals quite a bit going into an A/D converter, but I don’t like to hear the compression. If I want “character,” I usually prefer to add it in the mix. Give me transparent compression going in, please, even if there’s a lot of gain reduction.
Our singer is a low tenor and his voice can sound reedy if he’s recorded with a mic that has too much high-end presence. I was hoping the e49 would bring out some sort of naturally pleasing resonance in his voice. We weren’t disappointed. The sound was open, intimate, and detailed at all frequencies, the top end very natural sounding without being hyped. And I was astonished at how much compression I could apply with the 1968 without being able to hear it at all. So far, so good. (Aggressive rock singers should be very pleased with this chain, but it worked equally well for mellower music and female vocals.)
The one caveat when using this mic at close range for vocals is that the grille, like the original M49, is very open. The capsule being as exposed as it is can make it very prone to sibilance. A pop screen is a must at close range, and even then, I had to apply a de-esser in the mix to many of the vocal tracks. At a distance, though, this disadvantage turns into an advantage, as the more exposed diaphragm can capture more detail from distant sources, as we were soon to find out.
Drum tracks were next. We had a need for a decidedly Bonham-esque sound on a couple of tunes, which meant recording in a reflective room and compressing the crap out of the room mics. So we set up the drums in an untreated cinder block garage and moved the mobile rack out there.
The 1968 features a unique “BIG” switch, which basically applies less gain reduction to the fundamental low frequencies. We found this extremely useful for the drum tracks, as extreme amounts of compression ordinarily tend to reduce the low end and also make the compressor work harder overall. This can make tracks with a lot of low-end content sound small and boxy. Hit the BIG switch and that all goes away. This switch is also featured in the Drawmer 1969, but it can only be applied to both channels, or none at all. With the 1968, you can use it independently on either channel. This was very handy as we found that the BIG switch helped immensely when applied to the e49 as “near room” or “front of kick” mic. But with another microphone placed farther out in the room, it was better to apply the compression to all frequencies.
In any case, for it being so transparent on the vocal tracks, the Drawmer gave us all the “instant attitude” we needed for the drums. You want that “When the Levee Breaks” drum sound? If you can’t get it with this chain, well, I can’t help it if your drummer’s not Bonham. The e49 also performed wonderfully in this application, capturing the thick, aggressive tone of the drums across the whole frequency spectrum. The e49 also has dual shock mounting — internal, as well as external — which makes it less prone to picking up unwanted vibrations from a hard hitting drummer.
And we even used the Drawmer in a more conventional fashion on kick and snare too, on other tracks where such extreme compression was not called for. It delivered in that context as well. The 1968 definitely lives up to its billing as a versatile chameleon, transparent enough to strap across a stereo mix at one moment, aggressive enough to melt your face off the next.
From there, we were gaining enough confidence in the e49 to start trying it out on lots of other instruments. On a Leslie cabinet it was astonishing. An organ through a Leslie is often a difficult instrument to record and capture accurately, often requiring at least two mics, but the e49 alone had no difficulty at all — we just stuck it about halfway up the cabinet about five feet away in a sort of halfway point between cardioid and omni (the e49 has a fully sweepable pickup pattern), and the character of the Leslie came through in all its richness. Instant goosebumps. We also loved the e49 on a horn section, even though we had access to other mics more typically used for horns. Djembe and other percussion were fantastic with this mic too. In fact, our standard miking technique for this record quickly became “throw the e49 in front of it and hit Record.”
Surprisingly, the only application for the e49 that I wasn’t wild about was electric guitar. It wasn’t bad when used as a second mic, placed at a distance from the amp in conjunction with a close mic. But there are still other mics I’d prefer for this application. It’s quite possible that it would do well on modern hi-gain amps, which I didn’t try. But for some reason, it didn’t quite do it for me on my vintage Fenders and Ampegs. Acoustic guitars, on the other hand, sounded great with the e49, although I never did manage to dial in a compression setting that I liked on acoustic using the Drawmer; I preferred recording with no compression.
Bottom line: If it’s classic sounds you’re after, it’s hard to do better than this chain. You probably wouldn’t want the e49 to be the only large diaphragm condenser in your locker, as it definitely has a sonic signature that differs from many others in its class. And as for the 1968, you can vary the amount of “character” as much as you like: It’s a true workhorse compressor in a small space. This chain helped us capture the vibe of our music without ever getting in the way, and that’s about all you can ask of any audio gear.