There are few unquestioned superlatives in any field of human endeavor. Stones fans will argue the Beatles’ supremacy. Guitarists endlessly debate the relative merits of Stratocasters versus Les Pauls. When it comes to microphones, though, you can seriously suspect the capability of anyone who talks down the Neumann U87. A fully-equipped professional studio without a U87 simply isn’t a fully-equipped professional studio. The mic is that good.
So, if it is the ultimate, why aren’t all mics modeled after it? Why do those fully-equipped professional studios have mics that aren’t U87s? Mike Senior wrote a succinct description in Sound On Sound magazine in 2008 as to why the U87 and mics of its stature have such a universally high level of performance. You can read his comments here, but in essence it comes down to something like this. The U87 may not be the perfect microphone for every voice and situation, but it will never produce the worst reproduction either. Some mics will completely succeed at certain tasks, say miking a bass drum or matching a gravelly baritone voice. In other placements, maybe drum kit overheads or a lilting soprano, the results sound like mud pushed through oatmeal. Regular mics usually have good, bad and ugly applications. The U87 typically has good, better and amazing as its equivalent levels.
Bottom Line: If this mic is in your price range, buy it NOW! You will love it.
Setup and Usability
A studio large diaphragm condenser mic, the U87 connects via a regular XLR cable and requires 48V phantom power. That’s about where it ends in terms of things it has in common with other mics. Well, I suppose that’s not true. You still set it up and adjust it the same way. Sound still goes in and signal comes out, but man, what a signal.
This is the classic mic for vocals of any sort. As mentioned above, it is unlikely the U87 will produce an unusable sound. It will never sound wrong, only less right than some mics in particular situations. That’s okay, because you can count on it giving you a reasonable benchmark. If you have several good vocal mics, you can compare with the U87 and know that, if you prefer the sound of another mic, you’re working with a pretty good sound. If the U87 is your only mic, you’ll always be working with good sounds.
First, a bit of a caveat. Connecting a U87 to a $100 USB interface will not do the mic justice. You will still get sounds that rank with the best you’ve created, but the interface itself will limit the quality of your signal chain. The route sound takes from open air to hard drive undergoes a number of changes, from air pressure to mic signal to digital conversion, and so on. Each step along the way has an influence on the final outcome. If you think about that signal as water going through a hose, imagine stepping on the hose at the part that represents a cheap interface. Squishing the hose restricts the amount of water going through it, so no matter what’s going on before your foot, only the restricted flow is happening after it.
With that out of the way, the U87 simply captures sound with a level of detail and fidelity that is astonishing and very musical. Where many cheaper condenser mics have issues with sibilance and harshness in upper frequencies, the U87 is simply smooth as silk. In my experience, if you do experience too much “ess” sound from a singer, back them up just a bit or rotate the U87 slightly and leave your de-essing plug-in alone.
This quality makes the mic a fantastic choice for drum overheads or for use in a Glyn Johns four-mic drum setup. Try a U87 on a bass amp for both thump and detail. Horns? Sure! A pair of U87s is all you need for most classical music setups in a good hall, from quartets to full orchestras to solo vocalists and choirs. Acoustic guitars love U87s as do pianos. A personal favorite of mine is U87 on the top horn of a Leslie rotating speaker cabinet with an Electrovoice RE-20 on the drum.
I will confuse you now. The U87 is not my favorite microphone. That distinction goes to another Neumann, the Neumann TLM 103. My preference there is likely emotional. I prefer it to the U87 on my voice. However, I pretty much reserve it for a vocal mic. It doesn’t have the same universal range that the U87 does and probably 50 percent of the time when I’m recording a vocalist I haven’t heard before, I will choose the U87 to the TLM 103 for them. When I’m in the same room with both these mics at the same time I feel happy. Very, very happy.
I’ve called the AKG C414 my desert island mic, and I stand by that, as it has great flexibility in terms of tailoring its response on the mic. Is it a better mic than the U87? Which of your children do you love the most? Give me a U87, a TLM 103 and an AKG C414 and I still won’t be able to score a #1 hit single, but my flop will have some really good sounds on it!
When it comes to build, the U87 is where it’s at. Again, this is the standard to which all other mics bow. It has the glow. Hold one in your hand and every caricature about German engineering becomes real. Machining is flawless, weight is impressive. The switches and selectors are solid. This mic is the epitome of craftsmanship.
I found only one 1-star review I could take with any credibility and that was a user who got a counterfeit U87. This is a reminder to check sources before you buy. If there’s an unbelievable deal to be had, there may well be a reason not to believe it. At $3,200 street price, many budgets will eliminate the U87 from consideration, and that’s understandable. When I was considering the rating for this review, I thought about the cost/performance ratio of the mic and I couldn’t think of a compelling argument to call this mic expensive. One reviewer called it “the gold standard” of mics. He’s not wrong. People who think that there’s no difference between a U87 and any number of mics in the under $500 range are entitled to their opinion. But they are wrong.
If you can, get one. It may not end up as your favorite mic either. However, you will come to count on its versatility. Combine the Neumann U87 Ai Condenser Microphone with a preamp such as the Focusrite ISA One and you have a signal chain very similar to that used by a zillion and one hits from the late 1960s to today. To hear a U87 in action is to believe. This is the real deal.
If you’re looking for a Neumann U87 clone, then I recommend the Miktek CV4. It’s priced lower (about half), but is surprisingly high quality for a Chinese knock-off.(/span>
Do you think the U87 is an overpriced, over-hyped waste of money? Yes, you’re wrong, but share why in the comments below. In the subjective world of good sound, there’s so much to learn and so many approaches.
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