Please listen to the sound file first, before reading the article below.
It’s the dream of many voice over artists: to own the holy grail of microphones, the Neumann U87.
I don’t have that kind of money laying around in a corner of my studio, and even if I did, I don’t think I would spend it on a U87. Why not? For one, I think this magnificent microphone has become a bit of a status symbol and I don’t really care about my status. A Rolex is a magnificent timepiece, but a Seiko is just as accurate.
In fact, I have tested many microphones that cost about a tenth of the price of a U87, and they all perform well in the voice over booth. Let’s be honest: as VO’s we’re only recording one voice in mono. Not a symphony orchestra in AIFF, spatial audio.
THE RODE TEST
Take a popular mic like the Rode NT1. You can buy a kit including shock mount and pop filter for $228. It has an extremely low self noise rating (4.5 dBA) compared to the U87 Ai (12 dBA in cardioid). It does not have the pads and multiple patterns you’ll find on a U87, but does the Neumann sound $3,472 better?
Of course this depends on your definition of “better,” and there’s the problem. I honestly believe that the more money you spend on a microphone, the smaller the increases in sound quality are going to be. It’s the law of diminishing returns.
Now, if I were to record a voice over with the NT1, will a client ever come back to me and say:
“I think you’ll sound so much better on a U87. Why don’t you try that microphone instead?”
To be honest, I think a client is much more likely to disapprove of the audio if there’s too much echo or ambient noise in the recording. Or the neighbor’s dog, fleeing from a leaf blower in a wicked thunderstorm.
So, rather than invest in a $3700 microphone, I’d say, spend most of that money on improving your recording space.
THE IMITATION GAME
But what if you’ve done all that and you still lust after a U87, and you don’t have the money to buy one? Don’t you worry, because there are plenty of boutique businesses that will build you a U87 clone. Companies like Stam Engineering. For $990 you can get yourself a very decent imitation.
Of course you can always build your own clone like so:
And then there’s this guy named Ian in Brooklyn. His company GoToToolz sells cloned mics on eBay at a ridiculously low price. Get this: he has a 100% positive feedback rating! I had to find out more.
I ordered the GTZ87+ with an RK47 capsule upgrade and paid $218 (incl. eBay discount) with super fast free shipping. It even comes with an XLR cable, a plastic shock mount, and a simple wooden box. Some of my colleagues on Facebook looked at the photo of the mic and thought I had bought a Neumann U89i. But at a little over two hundred dollars, this must be a piece of junk, right?
Well, you be the judge. Listen back to the recording at the top of this blog post. Yes, it’s the GTZ87+. The only things I did in post was to convert the file into an mp3, and apply a subtle noise filter.
Let’s forget for a moment that this clone is supposed to emulate the U87. As I said, I don’t have a genuine U87 to compare it to, and neither do your clients when they hear your audio. Do you even know what you would sound like using a U87?
Now ask yourself: is the sound I recorded with this microphone sellable, or are my clients going to be appalled thinking I’m a total amateur?
DARE TO COMPARE
Perhaps we should raise the bar a little higher, and see how the Brooklyn clone stacks up to the most expensive microphone I own, the Sennheiser MKH 8060. Yes, I know…. it’s comparing apples to oranges (condenser versus shotgun) , but it’s the best I can do, and we might learn something about what you get when you pay more money. The 8060 retails for $1500, by the way.
I recorded the following text with two microphones, and did no editing in post (just mp3 conversion). Can you tell which is which? Here’s microphone 1:
And here’s microphone 2:
Which one did you prefer, and why? Which one sounded more expensive? Before you look at the answer below, take a moment to think about it.
The first sample was the GTZ87+ and the second one was the MKH 8060. By the way, if you didn’t get it right, don’t feel like a fool. When I listen to microphone comparisons on YouTube, I’m often at a loss and I’m sure I’m not the only one. A lot comes down to personal preference and brand recognition anyway.
Although each microphone you just heard has a different sonic signature, one of the biggest differences for me, was the noise level of the clone. This mic does not come with a spec sheet, so we’ll have to use our ears. Next up, you’ll hear a second of noise of the fake U87, followed by the 8060. You’ll probably have to turn the volume way up to be able to hear it clearly. This means it’s not as bad as it sounds.
You can turn your volume down now.
So, the clone is definitely noisier, but with some Izotope noise reduction magic, the script sounds like this:
When I posted a blind comparison between the Sennheiser and the Neumann clone on Facebook and Instagram, most people were able to pick out the more expensive microphone, although quite a few thought the clone was the better mic.
Now, here’s an interesting conclusion: the determining factor was not so much the microphone itself, but what the talent was using to listen to the audio samples. Those who were listening on their cell phone speaker or ear buds, had a hard time distinguishing between microphone A and B.
Isn’t that ironic? I just invested in an expensive Sennheiser shotgun microphone, and the one thing I cannot influence determines how people perceive it!
So, what have we learned so far? Number one: fake sounds pretty fabulous for a little over two hundred bucks! The microphone certainly looks and feels the part. Nothing says: this is a cheap knockoff. It’s not overly sibilant, and it doesn’t have an over the top proximity effect either. It doesn’t pop easily, but I would recommend using a pop filter, if only to protect the mic from your saliva.
Remember that my U87 clone came with an RK47 capsule (the one you’d find on a Neumann U47 microphone used by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, and the Beatles). So technically, it’s not a pure U87 clone.
If you want to hear a comparison between a real U87 and one from GoToToolz, click here for a video Mike Pachelli recorded this year. Even if the top end on the Brooklyn clone sounds thinner, I think you could use EQ to compensate for that. But no matter how close a clone can come to the genuine article, it’s still a fake. It doesn’t matter if you slap an imitation Neumann logo on it.
I mean, look at the internals of each microphone. The one on the left is my clone. Do keep in mind that the real U87 has three pickup patterns, a -10 dB pad and a high pass filter. My microphone only has a cardioid pattern.
The word “clone” suggests an identical copy, a replication of the original. That is a very high bar indeed.
I can’t speak for the other clones I mentioned at the beginning of this article, but I think evoking the U87 name is ultimately a sales gimmick. It gives interested shoppers a frame of reference. GoToToolz Ian in Brooklyn calls his rendition “a U87-style” microphone. If I were writing advertising copy for his business, I would say “U87-inspired” and leave it at that.
Let me end by coming back to my very first question, which I think is more relevant. How do you think the Brooklyn U87 imitation sounds? To my ears, it may not sound like a $1500 microphone, but it doesn’t sound like a $218 microphone either. It sounds way better, at least in my studio and on my voice.
In fact, I like it so much, I’m keeping it in my mic locker, and I might buy even more clones from Ian in the future. At this price point, why not?
And speaking of Ian, click here for an interview with the man behind the mic!
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