Lives for gear
Joined: Nov 2007
Location: Cleveland, Ohio
1987 update of the U87
The story of the Neumann U87 is complex, following the Neumann company from its 1960s success, trouble and turmoil through the 80s, its later purchase by Sennheiser, with the corresponding reorganization and emergence as a global brand. Every twist and turn along the way has made its mark on the U87's design and sound. Further confounding things is the unrelenting hype surrounding the U87 series; in fact, one can almost estimate the real world experience of any would-be audio engineer that's spent more time reading marketing hype than making albums by how loudly and proudly they declare the U87 as "the best mic evah!" Consequently, it has also become fashionable as of late to bash the U87 (or at least its latest incarnation, the U87ai), which misses out on the qualities of this microphone. The focus of the review is on the 1987 revision, the U87a.
Much like a family of English monarchs the Neumann company have had problems concerning succession.... replacing the expensive to manufacture, popular U47 was always going to be a nightmare for the company but they managed to (mostly) do just that in the form of the U67, debuting in 1960. Advancements in technology led to the U87, a solid state version of the 67, just seven years later. By all accounts it did okay as a microphone being a bit less expensive than the U67; the obnoxious and overhyped reputation of the U87 had not taken hold, and so prices were reasonable. What you got for your money was a professional, bright sounding and versatile microphone. So studios stocked up on U87's and before you know it U87's were found all over the place in great number. More than one famous session feature entire drum kits mic'd with U87's on toms, front of kick.... all over the place. And why not? For the money they sounded pretty good.
Herein lies the problem of the U87 everything is a zero sum game--unless you have an unlimited budget; in other words, every dollar you spend on equipment could have been spent somewhere else; if you drop 4k on a microphone you have to ask yourself: "what else could I have gotten for that lump of cash?" Because of its pre-hype affordability U87's were a good microphone at a decent price with the Neumann name attached to it. It's certainly comparable to its at-the-time rivals the AKG 414 series (ULS, B-ULS), but with a brighter, less neutral character to it that makes it good for certain applications... but maybe not as good in others. Because of the price, U87's were probably the best microphone a project or local studio could reasonably afford through the 70s and 80s; as a common microphone in fair quantity in larger studios it often gets mentioned as being used on albums ranging from The Clash to AC/DC. Add in the Neumann name and its history of pivotal microphone design and the exploitation of that name by crass corporations in the 90s and you have a fair assessment of how hype around the U87 series got rollin'. Keep in mind this is a fairly different mic from the U87 that would have been used on records prior to 1987; remember, you are not buying the same mic used by Mutt Lange to track guitars on "Back in Black." What you have is something closer to the modern U87ai than the classic version of the microphone, which is something you need to consider about this mic.
So let's take a look at the U87a and see what it does. As mentioned earlier the U87a was designed to address some of the shortcomings of the original; consequently it has a 10db higher output and 3db lower noise floor. Most important to keep in mind is the capsule changed significantly, moving the U87a pretty far away from its ancestor, the U67. Overall, compared to the original 1967 version, the U87a has a brighter, faster, quieter and more "modern" feel to it. The versatility of the original is still present, with a classic choice of polar patterns (omni, cardioid, figure 8) and an onboard 10db pad. All very delightful.
In use the U87a has a bright, present and occasionally strident sound on some sources. There are a few applications the U87 absolutely shines on: guitar cabinets, where the bright character can work wonders on relatively midrange instruments like guitar that can benefit from a little less woof and more sparkle. Overheads are another popular position for U87s, as once again the top end of the mic can be flattering on cymbals and drums. Although it seems insane now, due to the overinflated price, but U87's have historically been pretty popular choices to put on toms as well.... just watch for cymbal bleed. Vocally the U87a is a hit-or-miss affair, often best on singers needing a bit of clarity and air, that don't have sibilance problems in their vocalization (the U87a and especially U87ai tend to "grab" onto sibilance and make problems worse). Overall it's a pretty solid performer in many different roles and its top end can be quite nice most of the time.
But at the end of the day, as U87-anything fetches ludicrous sums on the market, you have to ask yourself if it's all worth the price compared to similar microphones? Considering you can often find two similar quality and response microphones with identical feature sets for the same amount of money as well, I have to suspect they are not worth it. The "bang for the buck" for U87a's, or any U87 for that matter, has to be among the worst choice in the modern recording world.
Bottom Line: quality condenser microphone overshadowed by its own historical legacy, hype and a generation of gullible, insecure recording engineers. It's a good microphone--by all means when you come across them at a studio use them, and use them well--but when it comes to spending your own money at today's prices? Forget about it... it's just not worth it in the grand scheme of things.