What can we learn from this photograph?

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of Record-Producer.com.

Monday April 23, 2018

First some background... The singer is Caterina Valente and the photograph is on the front of the sleeve of her 1963 album Caterina Valente Strictly U.S.A. (London LL 3307). Here's the full pic...

So what does this fifty-five year old photograph tell us that is still useful today? Actually quite a lot.

The microphone is a Neumann M49 or M50, which we would now consider to be vintage but could only have been twelve years old at the time at most (Neumann's website gives the date of introduction as 1951). Since the M49 and M50 can only easily be distinguished by a red or white dot above the Neumann badge on the front, which we can't see in the photograph, then we can't tell which mic it is. Or can we...?

I'm going to stick my neck out and say it's an M49. My reasoning for this is that the M49 is a multipattern mic with two pressure-gradient capsules offering omnidirectional, cardioid and figure-of-eight patterns while the capsule of the M50 is a pressure transducer offering only the omnidirectional pattern. Since a pressure-gradient capsule has a warmer sound close-to and the cardioid polar pattern is more appropriate for vocals, then surely this mic is an M49. If I'm wrong, and you know for sure that I'm wrong, please let me know and I'll edit in a correction.

Both the M49 and M50 microphones are vacuum tube models. We know that simply because Neumann didn't make a transistor microphone until 1965, the KTM and, well, if you open up an M49 or M50 you will find a tube inside.

So if you like the sound of the vocal though a Neumann M49, then you will probably like to have one for your own studio. Can't afford one on the vintage audio market? (Me too.) Well buy a modern large-diaphragm vacuum tube microphone. There's a good range to choose from.

So that's the mic. What else can we see?

Well, look at how the mic is mounted and positioned. The mic seems to be suspended from the ceiling. That's efficiency for you - no setting up mic stands and positioning the mic - it's already there ready to go. And no worries choosing which mic to use. That's the studio's vocal mic and that's where the singer always goes.

As for positioning, this is classic. The mic is above the singer pointing down at the mouth. This is a great place for vocal tone and minimizes the often-muddy chest resonance. Since the mic is out of the direct line of fire of the breath, then a pop filter isn't necessary. And look how far away the mic is (further than common modern practice). If you like this vocal sound, then you should experiment with distance.

I'm not finished yet. There are the studio acoustics to consider.

In the background we can see tiles. These would be plaster tiles that combine fibers for sound absorption. You don't see them so often now, but they work well and, in my opinion, what sound does reflect from them sounds natural and normal in comparison to foam tiles which are usually too thin to be effective when used on their own over a hard surface. They are on the ceiling too. Whether they wrap all around into a booth I don't know.

One more small point is the music stand, which clearly is very substantial compared to typical modern stands, and even to the well-known Rat range of music stands. Anything that can give a singer confidence is useful in the studio, and a stand that is solid, not wobbly and not at all likely to fall over will work just fine.

Oh, and notice that Caterina is actually singing from either the lyrics or the music. So she hasn't learned the song. That's OK though, she's a professional and she can do that well. Less experienced singers should ideally learn the song by heart so that they need neither music nor lyrics.

One last point... You'd like to hear an example, wouldn't you? So here it is. Musically it's old-fashioned of course. But it is always interesting to connect a recording to a microphone and learn more about how the combination sounds. I've edited together a few sections of the song that demonstrate the range of the mic. You can listen to the whole thing on Spotify and the usual outlets. The song is Never Will I Marry by Frank Loesser.


Bear in mind that there is some reverb, probably from a chamber rather than a device, and the recording is subject to all of the other distortions present in 1963 from the microphone preamplifier through to the vinyl stamper, and through to my record player.

One more thing... Perhaps my example doesn't show Caterina at her best. How about this...?

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