The Cult of Mic: Cultish Audio Tech Through the Years

Written by Russ Johnson

Travel Editor Russ Johnson has had a parallel career as broadcaster and voice over talent. He explains how microphones, some classics, have achieved rock star status.

Have you used any of these microphones?

Whether it’s a shiny new fishing lure or that one camera that’ll make you feel like you shoot like Ansel Adams, we are all material girls and boys in some way. But what interests me are the odder cult followings — specifically, the folks who live for a good mic.

Display of Antique Microphones


Voice actors, singers and recording engineers always searched for that Holy Grail of microphone that will fix popped Ps, hissy S sounds, wind blow back and deliver rich, clear sound.

So when I saw a table of vintage microphones on display at a recent open house at the California Historic Radio Society recently, I knew I had to share.

It featured a Western Electric Double Carbon like the one used to broadcast Warren G. Harding’s inaugural address in 1921, huge ribbon mics – RCA 44s and 77s – the staples of the broadcasting and the recording industry from 1930s until the 1970s.

The 1950s vintage RCA 77 is the trademark mic of Larry King and David Letterman.

Glenn Beck projects his rants into a 44DX, introduced in 1932, retreating from the modern but retro-looking Blue microphone that was his signature of FOX.

Long before David Sedaris and the thin and edgy NPR sound dominated the waves, the so-called Voice of God styled radio announcer was in fashion. That guy — it was almost always a guy — would be looking for a rich bass response. He needed a mic that’d give the reediest voice an air of gravitas.

Come to think of it, at a radio station where I worked as a teenager, there was an adult soprano who demanded an RCA 44. Then he geared the speed up of a tape recorder to make his voice lower on playback.

Back then, announcers mugged — or “chewed on” these mics — that meant they’d get as close as they could to get them to bring out the bass and make their voices sound bigger.

And to make their stations sound louder, radio engineers compressed audio dynamics. The effect was the amplification of breath and mouth noises to make some of these mic muggers sound as if they were breathing through scuba gear. Such so-called Swiss Army RCA mics would mount on booms for television production and they showed up in music recording a lot, too.

A few engineers still cling to them. A British company makes a modernized RCA 44 with a list price of $2,800.

In some 30 years as broadcaster and voiceover talent, I have made friends with some of these devices and enemies of others.

As I have a naturally deep voice, the old ribbons made me sound as if someone had thrown a blanket over my head. An old acquaintance, an A-List voice over talent with monster pipes refused to record unless he used his own microphone, an AKG 414, which made what existed of his high notes sizzle. He carried it around in a little velvet bag.

Sinatra with Neumann U47Some purists demand a classic, warm sound from their microphones just as audiophiles prefer vinyl records and tube audio gear. An original Neumann U47 vacuum tube mic, introduced in 1949, now commands as much as $10,000. The U47 was Sinatra’s favorite, the Beatles recorded with it. But now there are many knockoffs and look-alikes, often made in China and Russia. One called The Flea, handcrafted in Solvakia, has become a new cult hit and commands a price of $3,600. I have heard a test of it and it is amazing.

The industry standard for many years has been the pricy Neumann U87, the workhorse of broadcast and recording studios. My everyday mic is a much cheaper Neuman BC104, which I like better.  Now studios are using a highly-directional shotgun microphone to make that in-your-face sound you hear on movie trailers. The Sennheiser 416 has replaced the ribbon mics of old to create that voice of urgency and authority, now concentrating more on the sizzle than the boom.

Of course, if you are a podcaster, you probably don’t want to add power supplies, which the pro mics require, or pre-amps and equalizers (which have a cult following of their own), and you don’t need to process your voice into a presence that will rise above apocalypses or car chases. There are many reasonably-priced microphones that can make almost anyone sound decent. TWIT podcaster Leo Laporte swears by the $300 Heil PR-40. It is a dynamic or moving coil microphone, a design that debuted in 1931 with the Western Electric 618 electrodynamic transmitter (the round one in the picture). Laporte, broadcast vet that he is, knows how to lean into the mic, mug it and stretch out his vowels when he means business.

The Electrovoice RE20, introduced in the 1960s, is the standard for talk show hosts. Rush Limbaugh plays his like a stage prop. The off the shelf model costs about $400. Limbaugh’s is gold-plated. Yup, microphones aren’t all about reproducing sound, they are also very much about ego and style.

Find the dulcet tones of my voiceover demos at For, I’m, ahem, Russ Johnson.