Travels of a Vintage Microphone Junkie – Part 1

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in March 2001, contributed by then Senior Editor Bill Park. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

Those of you who have read my posts on the discussion group know that I like my gear in two flavors. My computers and audio apps and much of my outboard gear are newer. I like the advantage that modern technology brings to the table in terms of electronics, simpler signal paths, and cleaner, low-noise circuitry.

When it comes to guitars, guitar amplifiers, and microphones, I like the older stuff. I have piles of it, and I just bought some more.

Why Not Vintage Outboard Gear (Yawn…)

Yes, I know that it is cool today to buy vintage outboard gear, and I understand all of the mythology that follows that train of thought. Not to be too cocky about it but sorry boys, been there, done that, and have the t-shirt to prove it. Last year at about this time I finished divesting myself of over 15 years of accumulated vintage rack gear. I had some also-rans, but I also had some real gems, like a pair of Urie 1176 and four dbx 160x compressor limiters, 2 Yamaha Rev 7s,an SPX-90, and four old Orban parametric equalizers. But I got rid of them. Why? Because I got tired of the sounds. Yes, I said that I got tired of the sounds.

Adding to the problem, I was not happy with the quality of the older outboard devices. They were made in a different time, for a different kind of recording than what I do, and different performance specifications. They are not clean enough and not quiet enough for my needs.

It is also inevitable that these older devices eventually need costly maintenance from qualified engineers. Sure, caps and resistors were not so hard to find, but some of the older solid-state parts were getting harder and harder to locate. In some cases, parts had been “potted” to prevent reverse engineering. Even though most people know what these silicone pots contain now, some just aren’t available, so when they need replaced the choices are limited, and expensive. Or you choose to go with a modern substitute and change the character of the piece. At which point, I have to ask why I have it if it doesn’t sound like what it is anymore?

While on the subject of ‘Qualified Engineers’ let me say that most of the guys in my area who know how to accurately replace parts and repair serious vintage gear have retired or found other, more lucrative work. Just like their tape deck repair counterparts, there just isn’t enough work for them in most United States cities outside of Nashville, New York City, and LA.

Another problem with using outboard gear of any vintage in conjunction with a DAW is the sheer number of conversions required to do so. Routing everything to outboard devices and back in to the computer was creating multiple A to D and D to A conversions, which are bad things. Eventually, I noticed that my clean, quiet recordings were getting more than just the treatment of the outboard effect, they were getting muddy, gritty, and noisy, and it was almost like listening through a screen or thin cloth.

Why was I putting all this money into high tech recording options, when the end result of all this input was being disguised? The advent of Waves, TC, and the other high quality plug ins, and the increase in the computer’s ability to handle multiple plug ins made my decision easier. I decided that it was time to dump the old gear, and get new microphone preamplifiers and compressors that either had no sound or had a specific coloration designed today for today’s recordings.

Out With the Old and In With the New

Great idea. So I dumped the old outboard gear and replaced it with a bunch of new stuff used mostly as input devices, and a new bunch of computer plug ins. Life is good, and I am pretty happy with the changes that I have made. (Okay… truth be told, I kept an old JBL microphone preamp. It may not get used very often, but I had to keep at least one vintage piece, didn’t I?)

So Wither the Old?

I did get tired of the same old sound of the same old outboard gear. But there were a couple of categories of older gear that I never got tired of. Like I said above, old guitars, old amps, and old microphones really seem to retain their charm for me.

Garry Simmons picked up a nice dual-tube large diaphragm microphone a few months ago. I thought that it was a great idea, and that it was time for me to get a new microphone, too. We share microphones back and forth, and our collections really compliment each other. I was considering a Korby large diaphragm piece. I would like a couple of DPAs. A newer Soundelux was calling my name. Even a couple of AKG 480s wouldn’t hurt, although I have a few very old AKG 451s. They might not be as quiet or have as much low end as the newer AKG 480, but the 451 will do the same job adequately for my purposes.

I have a few newer inexpensive microphones, and I have even picked up a pair of the Oktava 012s and an Oktava 219, which are really low-budget options. I was looking at the newer offerings, and trying to decide what route I wanted to take. Honestly, I probably don’t need any microphones at all, but gee fellas I’m kinda running out of room to put old guitars and amps.. Besides, I just wanted a new texture, a new color to add to the old paint box.

I cruised through some of the auction sites, and I considered a pair of Neumann 184s. Again, I pretty much have that area covered, but it never hurts to add another layer of quality to the microphone cabinet. Then I ran across something that looked very interesting to me. A fellow had listed a pair of AKG C28c microphones, guaranteed to work, sans power supplies.

I do a little research. I know what a C12 is and I know what a C24 is. (It’s a stereo C12, in case you don’t know.) But I’m not familiar with the C28. I send out a few emails and start to gather information.

There are a couple of different versions of the C28, and there is also the C26, which is an omni version of the same microphone. I found references on the 28, 28b, and 28c. There is probably a model A out there somewhere, too. The 28 and 28b have tubes, and the 28c has a Nuvistor. No one seemed to have anything bad to say about any of the available models. A number of high-visibility studios list them in their inventory. I’m getting emails saying things like, “This is the best cello mic in the world.” I find it listed as the microphone used to record Eric Clapton’s vocals on the “Pilgrim” album, in conjunction with a Beyer M-88. (By happy coincidence, I own a Beyer M-88.) Eddie Offord used them on Steve Howe’s guitars when he engineered the early Yes albums, like “Time And A Word”, “The YES Album”, and “Fragile”. The general tone of the emails that I received was, “If you can get them, get them. You won’t regret it.”

These particular microphones were offered without the power supplies. I can see where this might be a deal breaker for some people. Fortunately, this was not much of a problem for me. I have mentioned before that Mike Masur, who is the fellow who designs the power supplies for Tracy Korby’s microphones, is a friend of mine. I contacted him about power supplies, and he said, ”No problem. Get the mics.”

A couple of days later he calls again. “ Tracy says to be sure to get the mic-end connector, because they are hard to find, and can be expensive.”

Me, “What do you mean, expensive.”

Mike, “ $400 each.”

Me, “Mamma!”

The auction ends, and I am the high bidder. But I have not met his reserve price, so the auction is effectively a wash. By this point I’m a little excited about the possibility of owning a pair of these microphones. Taking the initiative, I contact him via email to ask him what he wanted to get out of the pair. If he was being realistic in what he wanted, perhaps we could do a deal privately.

Long Distance

He was thinking of a figure that was a little higher than the figure that I had in mind, but we did some negotiation. Eventually we came to a figure that was mutually agreeable. The microphones did indeed include the cables, so that was no longer an issue. But… the seller was in Australia, and I am in Pittsburgh. Now, I don’t know this fellow at all. But from the emails that we exchanged, I felt that he was trustworthy. Meanwhile, I am kind of an open book… I’m very visible on line and have a lot of exposure through various involvements and trade organizations. If I ever tried to rip anyone off, the whole world would know about it in no time.

In order to make this deal happen though, I have to send my money to Australia and hope that the fellow sends the microphones, in the condition that he says that they are in.

This is less of a leap of faith for me than it might seem at first. My initial impression, via e-mail, was that I was dealing with a gentleman. In my various on-line dealings, I have only been ripped off 4 times. The first was the first guitar I bought on line, and it was my fault. I didn’t read the description carefully. I got what was advertised, but not what I thought that I was getting. The second time a product was misrepresented. The seller cheerfully refunded my money, took the product back, re-listed it correctly, and taught me a lesson, all at the same time. I had cried ‘rip-off!’ before talking to him. I should have gotten back to him immediately when I realized what he had sent me. I didn’t know that he fully backed what he sold. Where he should have said, “screw you, idiot”, he handled the business the way that it should have been handled. I was embarrassed, and a little smarter for the experience.

Those were both a couple of years ago. The third and forth times were blatant rip-offs that happened just before this Christmas, and are probably in the hands of the Postal Inspector as you read this. I am filing charges. These have nothing to do with musical instruments, though. Fortunately, the folks who buy and sell musical instruments and equipment still seem to generally be an honorable group of people.

I trot down to the local Post Office and ask for an international money order to Australia. Well, there’s a problem with that. Australia does not accept United States Postal Money Orders, so the USPS can’t generate one for that country.

I go home and send email to the seller. I tell him the story, and I tell him how the domestic money orders have “Domestic Use Only” printed on them. He goes to his bank to check it out, and gets back to me a day later. He assures me that his bank will cash them. His banker said so.

Money… Is a Drag

I trot back down to the Post Office and get the domestic money order together, and mail it to Australia. Mail to Australia is slow. Very, very slow.

The seller finally gets the money order and takes it to his bank, where he is told that they can’t cash it. Why? Because it says, “Domestic Use Only”. This was the same banker that told him to go ahead and get the money order. (sigh…) He sends it back to me.

We rack our brains trying to find an acceptable way to get the money to him. A good friend went to Australia, but I missed her by a couple of days. I tried Western Union…YIKES!!!! I asked the opinions of a few Auzzies touring here. Various schemes fell flat or cost too much. Geesh, how hard can it be to transfer money between countries?

I checked with my bank, and they suggested an old-fashioned wire transfer. Gosh. How much? $37. Darn, we should have done this to start with! I checked with the seller, and he was willing to split the transfer costs with me. I get some bank info from him, take it to my bank, and within a couple of hours he has his money, by international direct deposit. Can’t beat that!

Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells

So now the microphones are on their way to Pittsburgh…. in the middle of the Christmas mailing season. The package has to traverse the Pacific, hit our west coast, and hopefully not get lost in the shuffle during the biggest package delivery season of the year. The seller and I both thought that I might not see the microphones for a month or more. Last year at the same season I waited six weeks to get a package delivered to Pittsburgh from Columbus, Ohio…. a four hour drive.

But, pleasant surprise… they arrived on December 26th. Well packaged, and with the original cables and original AKG factory boxes, these things just scream “I’m SOOOO Cool!” and they don’t even have power supplies yet.

So What Are They?

From what I have been able to figure out so far, this model microphone is the daddy of the 451, therefore the granddad of the 460 and great-granddad of the 480. It looks like a giant 451 on steroids. Each one is about an inch around, and about seven inches long. It requires a power supply. The cable connector to the power supply is huge, with a lot of blades. Very industrial. The mic end connector is a large screw type, with six pins, but in spite of these differences it looks very similar to our current XLR. The microphone serial number is stamped and inked on a flattened part of the threads.

Removing the windscreen reveals a capsule head the same size as a standard C capsule from a 451, but not exactly the same in appearance. It does not have solid protection over the diaphragm, because it is used under the large screw-on windscreen. It is clearly marked CK28, and shows the capsule pattern, and has a separate serial number from the microphone.

I remove the windscreen from the second one. It has a capsule that looks exactly like the capsules in my 1970s vintage 451s. But this capsule does not have any markings on the outer capsule body like the standard CK capsule would have. No logo, no capsule designation number, and no pattern shape embossing. But it does have the protective slotted metal over the diaphragm, indicating that the basic form was planned to be used in an external situation as well as hidden behind the windscreen as it is on the C28. More on that later.

I send an email out to AKG requesting information. Karl Peschel from AKG support got back to me very quickly, and offered to gather what little C28 information that he could find and ship it out to me. Isn’t it nice that a company with no profit motive for supporting their old products thinks enough of that product and their current users to respond in such a fashion? Thanks, Karl.

I send an email to the seller, informing him of the differences between the microphones and asking him if he has any information about this. So far I have not heard back from him, but I know that he is out of easy email communications for a while.

Money… Is a Drag

I trot back down to the Post Office and get the domestic money order together, and mail it to Australia. Mail to Australia is slow. Very, very slow.

The seller finally gets the money order and takes it to his bank, where he is told that they can’t cash it. Why? Because it says, “Domestic Use Only”. This was the same banker that told him to go ahead and get the money order. (sigh…) He sends it back to me.

We rack our brains trying to find an acceptable way to get the money to him. A good friend went to Australia, but I missed her by a couple of days. I tried Western Union…YIKES!!!! I asked the opinions of a few Auzzies touring here. Various schemes fell flat or cost too much. Geesh, how hard can it be to transfer money between countries?

I checked with my bank, and they suggested an old-fashioned wire transfer. Gosh. How much? $37. Darn, we should have done this to start with! I checked with the seller, and he was willing to split the transfer costs with me. I get some bank info from him, take it to my bank, and within a couple of hours he has his money, by international direct deposit. Can’t beat that!

Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells

So now the microphones are on their way to Pittsburgh…. in the middle of the Christmas mailing season. The package has to traverse the Pacific, hit our west coast, and hopefully not get lost in the shuffle during the biggest package delivery season of the year. The seller and I both thought that I might not see the microphones for a month or more. Last year at the same season I waited six weeks to get a package delivered to Pittsburgh from Columbus, Ohio…. a four hour drive.

But, pleasant surprise… they arrived on December 26th. Well packaged, and with the original cables and original AKG factory boxes, these things just scream “I’m SOOOO Cool!” and they don’t even have power supplies yet.

So What Are They?

From what I have been able to figure out so far, this model microphone is the daddy of the 451, therefore the granddad of the 460 and great-granddad of the 480. It looks like a giant 451 on steroids. Each one is about an inch around, and about seven inches long. It requires a power supply. The cable connector to the power supply is huge, with a lot of blades. Very industrial. The mic end connector is a large screw type, with six pins, but in spite of these differences it looks very similar to our current XLR. The microphone serial number is stamped and inked on a flattened part of the threads.

Removing the windscreen reveals a capsule head the same size as a standard C capsule from a 451, but not exactly the same in appearance. It does not have solid protection over the diaphragm, because it is used under the large screw-on windscreen. It is clearly marked CK28, and shows the capsule pattern, and has a separate serial number from the microphone.

I remove the windscreen from the second one. It has a capsule that looks exactly like the capsules in my 1970s vintage 451s. But this capsule does not have any markings on the outer capsule body like the standard CK capsule would have. No logo, no capsule designation number, and no pattern shape embossing. But it does have the protective slotted metal over the diaphragm, indicating that the basic form was planned to be used in an external situation as well as hidden behind the windscreen as it is on the C28. More on that later.

I send an email out to AKG requesting information. Karl Peschel from AKG support got back to me very quickly, and offered to gather what little C28 information that he could find and ship it out to me. Isn’t it nice that a company with no profit motive for supporting their old products thinks enough of that product and their current users to respond in such a fashion? Thanks, Karl.

I send an email to the seller, informing him of the differences between the microphones and asking him if he has any information about this. So far I have not heard back from him, but I know that he is out of easy email communications for a while.

Off to See the Wizard

I take the microphones out to Tracy Korby to get them checked out and brought back up to factory spec. I always enjoy going to Tracy’s place. His worktable is covered with some of the coolest microphones in the world. Shipping boxes from some of the most famous studios in the world are stacked in the stairway, some coming in, and some going out. Rows of power supplies are ‘burning in’, as are a couple of Neumann 47s. There is always a ‘Hitler microphone’ or two under repair. Mike points to a strange box, about two inches by four inches by six inches, with two big pointer-style knobs on it. It is the remote pattern selector for an old AKG over-and-under stereo microphone.

Most everything on the table is in for modification, repair, or update. There is one strange AKG microphone with a large perforated gold windscreen sitting on a wire metal tripod stand, and a gray cable that looks like zip cord, leading to a DIN connector. It looks as if it is about to take off for Jupiter or Mars at any second. Tracy had just acquired it. As I move a handful of C-12 bodies to make some room on the table, I wonder if he wants a roommate, and if his wife Nadine or the kids would mind. There are so many toys here that I cannot take them all in.

I show Tracy the microphones. He laughs and points at the far end of his worktable. Sitting on the table is a C28 that belongs to Lenny Kravitz. In a box by my feet are two C28s from the Record Plant in LA. Lenny’s microphone has the very neat long thin extension tube with a capsule mount on the end, like I’ve seen in photos and films of later Beatles recordings. I remember this mic in particular as being used on Paul McCartney’s vocal for “Hey, Jude”. If I’m not mistaken, I think that it is all over the “Let It Be” film.

“Do you see a lot of AKG C28s?” I ask.

“No” he replies. “Almost never.”

But now there are five of them in his shop, and he had worked on two others recently.

I show him the differences in the capsules. He agrees with my assessment that it is likely that the second, CK1-type capsule is original and meant to be internal because of the lack of markings on the capsule’s exterior surface. He also suggests that the pair of C28s that he had recently worked on also had one of each type of capsule, and that the owner might want to trade to end up with matching capsules. Since I already have three 1970s vintage CK1 capsules on my AKG 451s, I would be very interested in making such a trade. We are speaking a couple of days later, when he says, “Oh, your capsule should be arriving in a day or so.” So the other fellow wanted to make a trade and end up with matching capsules in his mics, and now I will have matching capsules, too. He will have the old style reminiscent of the CK1 capsules, and I will have the old style CK28 capsules.

I discuss power supply options with Mike. I am not looking for anything fancy. We decide that the best course is to build the supplies set to provide the factory specified power to the microphones. I was offered the option of having both supplies in one chassis, but I chose to keep them separate. This may not be as neat in usage, but it allows more flexibility. It also allows me to loan one to Garry and still have one here, should that situation arise.

I ask Tracy’s opinion of the microphone. He said that it is a very full-bodied microphone for a small diaphragm condenser. With the windscreen in place it is a good microphone for vocals. Roy Orbison used the C-60, a similar microphone, for his vocals. Tracy said that it is a good all-purpose microphone, and that he uses it as an overhead microphone, on snare drum, acoustic guitar, etc. I asked him about the extension tube, like the one on Lenny’s C28 and in the Beatles films. I thought that it might be very cool to get my hands on one. I was always impressed by that ‘look’ on the Beatle videos. Tracy has never seen one for sale, so my chances of getting one are slim.

Buying used microphones is not for the faint of heart, and it is not necessarily cheap. It would certainly have been easier to just go to a store and buy a new microphone, and from the amount of money that I will have invested in this pair, it could have been quite a nice microphone.

Besides the costs of the microphones themselves, there is the expense of international shipping, money transfers, new cables, new power supplies, and the cost of having the microphones brought back up to factory specifications. On top of that, I have done a lot of running around and spent a great deal of time on getting this together. The payoff for me is to have a neat pair of vintage microphones with a unique sound and a great history.

Come back next month, by which time I hope to have gathered some more information about the mic from AKG, have the custom made power supplies on line, have the mics back from Tracy Korby, and with any luck, I might even have gotten a chance to record something with them.

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