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Mann M21: Only One Purpose

There has been an epidemic of home studios popping up over the last eight or so years, maybe because it’s so hard to get a gig in a live band? So home recording is all the go, and along with it is a flood of accessories; enter the Brand X Re-Badged Chinese Studio Microphone.

These large-diaphragm Chinese studio-style microphones are so cheap and common these days that some music mags will send you one if you subscribe. For that price you can use them for a million household uses; paperweight, rolling pin, tea strainer, steel guitar bottleneck, punter flattener, novelty hip flask? Just about anything except recording music accurately. Even if you find a good one, chances of finding a second good sample for a stereo recording is almost impossible. Not to mention the fact that they age faster than a drunken ‘good’ idea.

Some of them benefit from a generous advertising budget, with many extravagant claims that some of these new model U (Bute) 89 look-alike microphones “are just like German one that cost $XXXXX”. Or sound better, or match the $500 mixer of the same name or have a special story about being made by Pixies in LA, and were endorsed by the roadie who strung Prince’s guitar… There’s no end to the hard sell.

Before the Stampede There was a Man(n) with a Plan

The first Mann Microphone appeared around the early 90s, and to the casual observer there is nothing to separate the Mann brand from the endless pile of cheapo’s around now. The Mann brand has never been particularly publicized or marketed, it has just produced a very small collection of specialist products; many models had a total production of less than one hundred units. Despite the low profile and small production, they have still developed quite a dedicated band of followers. Not just in Oz, but Europe, USA, all over the place.

Mann M21

The basic idea behind Mann was a ‘cottage industry’ approach to making some specialised products not available on the market at that time. There were virtually no tube microphones on the market in the early 90s and the audio output transformer had been out of fashion for many years in favour of the technically quieter, (but dynamic range reducing), solid-state differential output. The tinkerers at Mann decided that some of these old and forgotten technologies needed an encore.

The other priority was to make a relatively low cost microphone where every sample is an exact duplicate of every other sample. In other words, no need for matched pairs. You can buy another one next year and it will be not only sonically the same as your present sample, it will be measurably identical.

This challenge proved to be almost impossible for tube microphones. Mann found they could be made to sound almost identical, but there would be big differences once submitted to a test in an anechoic chamber. As they age, the differences will probably increase. The only way to deal with this impediment to uniformity is… What’s that song? “Money changes everything?” That’s why the Neumann U49 is so expensive. And, in a really top-line studio, you will hear the difference. People also forget the other reason for the switch to FET solid-state microphones, reliability.

Hey, back to the real world. Mann is not trying to make a cheap version of an ‘L’ series microphone. What Mann does make, is a stunningly good studio microphone with all the desirable characteristics of the up-market studio models.

Another big difference between the expensive and sonically uniform, and the bulk-manufactured cheapo’s, is the quality of the diaphragm capsule. The big ‘N’ brand and other established studio names throw away a lot of capsules in the production process. Uniformity is the name of the game. When you have a gold coating that is one micron thick on a very thin Mylar membrane, stretched at exactly the correct tension across a small area, they are all going to vary a little. Quality is the window of acceptable performance. The cheap mic’s have a panoramic window (360 degrees), the expensive ones a slit.

Even though Mann would not be considered an expensive microphone, attention to detail is easily possible–without huge cost–in a small production run. The point to bear in mind is all Mann microphones are made in very small production runs (less than 100 at a time), and a lot of parts end up in the bin for not fitting within the performance window.

This especially applies to capsules. Mann microphone capsules are carefully selected to conform to a very strict set of parameters. The gold coating on the diaphragm of a Mann condenser microphone is only a few molecules thick – that’s why it’s almost transparent, under the right light. This makes the microphone particularly sensitive but means that many capsules are rejected during the assembly process.

Another impressive accomplishment is the robust nature of the Mann microphones construction. The M21 is designed to go into the real world of location recording without the padded road case. If it does fall of the stage into a mosh-pit or it gets rained on in a tropical deluge, they are easy to repair locally, without great cost. Even if it is terminally damaged the moderate cost means you won’t have to give a funeral. (See the first paragraph for alternative uses).

Since They Have Been Infiltrating the Market for a While Now, What Do People Say About Them?

Greg Clark (Billy Thorpe’s studio and live production guru) says, “I used the M21 on some of Billy’s lead guitar tracks and both Billy and I like it a lot.” There will be more from Greg Clark in a later edition of Filter, on the very interesting subject of analogue pre-amps and funky ways of that ‘killer’ guitar sound.

Dave Dwyer (ex-1927) has a drool-fest home studio and he likes the M21, claiming, “I couldn’t believe how good this microphone is for the price. I had no particular expectations for it and comparing it with my very expensive…(name withheld)… I reckon it was better”. (Editors note: Calm down Dave, in some countries people have been crucified for saying such sacrilege!).

"Well I suppose I could buy a familiar-brand name, but not after I used this", commented Nigel Kentish, Recording Officer at The Faculty of Music, Newcastle University. "We used the Mann for a month on a variety of applications from PA applications to serious recording. We mainly use the Mann as a spot microphone, everything from recording Slava Grigoryan at a Musica Viva concert to voice-overs and instrument spotters.

We could go on but we would rather hear from you. Mann owners, we know you’re out there! Send us some pictures of your gigs. Filter is on the hunt for the Mann!

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Mann M21

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