Stephen Bennett tells AMI why these new offerings from Warm Audio are far from your average ‘clone-type mics'...
What’s this you say? Not another review of some ‘clone’-type microphones! But before you move on to the article detailing the lengths that location recordists will go to when trying to capture the sounds of sharks devouring seals, bear in mind that the microphones under review come from quite a special place.
Warm Audio is the brainchild of engineer Bryce Young and the company is renowned for their recreations of classic recording gear such as the EQP-WA equaliser and the WA76 and WA-2A compressors (the latter two reviewed in Audio Media International)-I’m sure you can work out which particular vintage hardware they are based on by their model numbers. Meticulously designed and constructed - Warm have something of the whiff of an obsessive artisanal company about them - these hardware processors sound as close to the originals as makes no odds, but at much lower cost. The condenser microphones under review, the WA-87 (pictured right) and WA-14 (pictured left), have also been designed with a couple of classic models in mind.
On opening the packaging it’s clear that care has been taken in the construction and presentation of the microphones and both feature the excellent CineMag transformers to help add to that vintage mojo. In fact, the quality of the engineering made me realise how far we’ve come since the days when the only way to afford a decent sounding large diaphragm condenser microphone was to source some obscure, poorly finished, Russian military model and smuggle it into the country inside some bags of cocaine. Both microphones come in nice wooden boxes with useable shock-mounts.
The WA-87 is, as you may suspect, based on the venerable Neumann U87. Physically, it’s very similar and dismantles in the same way, revealing a neat circuit board full of discrete components and the aforementioned transformer. The microphone features three polar patterns - cardioid, omni and figure-of-eight all selected by a front facing switch, while the rear features a -10db Pad and an 80hz High Pass Filter. Both microphones require phantom power and appeared immune to accidental removal of the XLR cable during use with power on - something that my vintage microphones do not like me doing at all.
The WA-14 is also based on a vintage model, in this case, it’s the AKG 414 and Warm have chosen as inspiration for their microphone one of the most desirable versions - the CK12 ‘brass’ capsule EB model. According to Warm, the LK12-B-60v capsule in the WA-14 is a reproduction of a later AKG CK12 design that “overcomes the limitation of earlier versions while delivering the sound so sought after by audio recordists.”
Creating a reproduction of the CK12 is no mean feat - it was one of the most complex capsule designs ever manufactured, according to microphone guru Ashley Styles and is the reason why AKG switched to a ‘teflon capsule’ half way through the life of the 414 EB - so Warm are to be applauded for even attempting a recreation. The physical aspect of the microphone itself is more ‘414-like’ than a direct copy of an EB and again features sliders to choose between cardioid, omni and figure-of-eight patterns alongside a -20 or -10dB filter, though both located on the front face in this case. The WA-14 isn’t as easy to take apart as the WA-87 so I didn’t attempt it, but the view of the brass capsule surround through the mesh grille looked promising, as did the general quality of the finish of the microphone.
You can have too many microphones, said no audio engineer ever."
The specifications of both microphones are detailed in the manuals at www.warmaudio.com -including frequency and polar patterns - alongside some nice illustrations as to which application you may put them to use. But you know that really isn’t what is important in a microphone - it is the way it captures a selected sound source that can make it something you really want to use in your recordings.
To test the Warms against various versions of the objects of their inspiration, I used both microphones on a session alongside my trusty ‘80s ‘battery compartment’ U87, a 2015 manufactured U87i, a modern AKG 414 and my 1970s vintage ‘brass ring’ 414EB. As I might with my Neumann and AKG microphones, I used both the U87s and WA -87 on vocals and overheads, while the 414s and WA-14 handled almost everything else including a bit of mid and side action.
The sonic character of my vintage and modern U87s is pretty similar, with the latter tending to a slightly brighter sound - a difference which I’ve always attributed to the amount of tobacco and alcohol sprayed on the capsule of the older microphone by a previous (famous) owner. The Warm’s overall tonality definitely leans toward the vintage U87 - not surprising given the capsule design and its transformer - so it turns out my old 87 is on the button after all! While there were audible differences in the sonic nature of all three ‘87s when pointed at the same source, I’m not sure I could really pick out which were my Neumanns or the Warm on drum overheads in a blind test. But on both the male and female vocalists I recorded, I definitely preferred the vintage Neumann and the Warm every time - It’s inevitable that this kind of preference will be source dependent, but it demonstrates that the WA-87 is an admirable performer.
The modern AKG 414, while being an excellent and versatile microphone, is so different from the earlier CK12 brass-capsuled versions it probably really should have had another model name. It’s an excellent all-rounder and its low noise and extended frequency response is well suited to capturing those sounds destined to appear in earbuds, games consoles and TV speakers. Like the WA-87, the WA-14 was, predictably, sonically closer in character to the vintage 414 - but what I didn’t expect was just how close the sound was.
I tried some stereo and M-S recordings with vintage and Warm microphones and the differences were less than when using than my pair of ’80s U87s as a stereo pair. The lovely light and open upper frequencies were there as was the ‘richness and clarity with Warmth’ - which is the reason I love my EB so. Recording flute and violin, I had to keep checking which was which microphone, the only real sonic indicator being that the Warm’s background noise is considerably lower than the older 414. The Warm’s had no issues with overloading on any of the typical use that such microphones may be put to in a recording session, although I didn’t use either on the bass drum - I eagerly await the WA-47 FET for just that application.
“You can have too many microphones,” said no audio engineer ever. Almost every microphone has a use even if it’s to just to decimate a perfectly nice noise for artistic reasons. The Warm microphones lie in what is, today, the mid-price bracket between re-labelled Chinese models and those produced by the established and artisan companies. It’s a competitive area, but I believe the Warm microphones are up to the challenge. The WA-87 is an excellent performer that sits sonically somewhere between the modern and vintage Neumann models while leaning towards the latter. The WA-14 is the hero of this particular review though as it captures extremely well the general characteristic of the most sought-after of all AKG 414s - the remaining examples of which go for head-swimmingly high prices these days.
- -10db Pad (WA-87)
- 80hz High Pass Filter (WA-87)
- Both mics come in wooden boxes
- Shock-mounts included
- -20 or -10dB filter (WA-14)
RRP: WA-87 £599 ($790) WA-14 £499 ($658)
Stephen Bennett has been involved in music production for over 30 years. Based in Norwich, he splits his time between writing books and articles on music technology, recording and touring, and lecturing at the University of East Anglia.