BEES NEEZ STUDIO SERIES
The nametags might look a little homespun but the sound quality of these Australian mics more than compensates.
Text: Greg Walker
I hadn’t heard of BeesNeez before I received three tasty looking valve mics in the mail for review. To my surprise, a quick browse online revealed they were manufactured by hand in Australia amongst the green hills of Kyogle, in northern New South Wales by Ben Sneesby – a man who’s clearly passionate about his microphones.
Like so many boutique mics on the market, BeesNeez microphones originally came about as an extension of Ben’s mic repair and maintenance business. The range now includes a Producer Series of entirely hand-made, high-end, no compromise big-budget mics and the more affordable Studio Series (The James, Jade & Arabella models) reviewed here.
All BeesNeez mic capsules are made in-house and fitted with ‘burnt in’ (as opposed to burnt out) New Old Stock European and American tubes. The philosophy here is to take elements from some legendary designs (most notably the Neumann K47 capsule), experiment with different configurations of high quality components and throw a few new design elements into the mix for good measure. Ben makes it clear that these microphones are not clones per sé, but new variations on some classic themes. The Studio Series mics (with their unusually personable names) ship with heavy-duty power supplies, generous seven-pin microphone cables and rugged suspension mounts.
The BeesNeez name is simply engraved on a steel plate screwed to the front of each mic, adding a slightly homespun touch to their otherwise professional looks. The cursive-style branding almost makes the mic look like you won it at an under 12s footy presentation!
An impressive nine polar patterns are selectable from the power supply giving a wide range of sonic options, and the mics travel in rock-solid aluminium flight cases. BeesNeez also offers a customised capsule tuning service for an extra fee, allowing customers to specify the kind of tonality they’re seeking.
All three BeesNeez mics reviewed here have a robust look about them, with good (not great) build quality allied with classic brushed silver and powder-coated cream finishes. Being large diaphragm mics with conspicuous silver grilles, they have a strong visual presence and pretty much beg to be sung and played into – so let’s look at each mic in a little more detail and see how they performed in the studio.
JAMES, COME HITHER
At 21cm long and 5cm in diameter, the James is a large, long bodied microphone that bears some physical resemblance to the old Telefunken ELAM 251 shape, though that’s where the similarities end. Behind the grille is a 34mm single backplate BeesNeez K47b capsule similar to the Neumann K47 capsule. The main differences are that the capsule is hand-lapped and utilises a spacer, and also that the hole size, configuration and depth are different – design aspects that the BeesNeez website credits as determining the mic’s forward-sounding midrange. The tube is European NOS and can be seen glowing gently through a transparent slit window on the front of the mic. The point-to-point wired circuit includes paper in oil and film capacitors and a Cinemag output transformer. Interestingly, the James features an ‘SRO’ (Sibilance Roll-Off) switch that gently filters off higher frequencies starting at around 3kHz as well as a more standard –10dB pad. In recording sessions I found the James to be an eminently usable and versatile mic. I first tried it on acoustic guitar overdubs where it produced a nice clear tone from my battered old Tama (yes it’s a Tama guitar!). Afterwards I put it through its paces on violins, percussion, vocals, mandolins and sundry other instruments during further extended overdub sessions. On vocals I found its sound to be warm and slightly saturated without excessive ‘tubbiness’ but capable of cutting through nicely without any trouble at all. Overall, I was impressed by the way the sound of the James worked in the mix, having a nice tonal balance and none of the glassy harshness in the upper frequencies that some valve mics exhibit. The SRO feature worked well enough – in a subtle way – but I didn’t find the mic to be at all ‘essy’ in the first place, so this feature didn’t get used much. The thing I particularly enjoyed about the James was its ‘valveness’, that is to say, it has a definite valve thickness and tonality without being too coloured. The mic also boasts good signal-to-noise performance and is versatile enough to be a real workhorse in the studio.
The Jade is a larger barrelled microphone than the James (18cm long and 6cm in diameter), with a cream powder coating complementing the expansive silver grille. The Jade uses a hand-made replica of the Neumann K47 capsule (again, differing slightly in that it’s hand-lapped) paired with a military-spec’d NOS American Raytheon vacuum tube and Cinemag output transformer. A more stripped back approach here means the Jade has no attenuation or roll-off options – what you hear is what you get.
BeesNeez claims the Jade has a harmonically rich tone and a very linear frequency response, though no measurement charts have been published. In any case the Jade also performed well in the various recording duties I put it through, with a slightly thicker more coloured sound than the James, which leant itself to big upfront vocals and meaty guitar and drum sounds. The Jade does what a good valve mic should do, which is to slightly magnify and enrich the source to produce a very musical result that rides sweetly in the mix. I’m not a fan of valve microphones that are too clinical and clean (seems to miss the point a bit) so I enjoyed the Jade’s bolder colouration. It gave a warm density to stacked violins and backing vocals and also produced some nice detailed drum room sounds, which were eminently useable. Where the Jade really stood out was on lead vocals, being thick and creamy while still retaining a nice clarity. Perhaps not so much of an all-round performer but fantastic on the big stuff with that extra bit of tube attitude – very tasty!
Last but not least in the Studio Series is the more expensive Arabella. It uses an identical body to the James and also features a similar sibilance reduction filter (this time rolling off above 6kHz) and a –10dB pad, but this model sports a powder-coated finish which helps distinguish the two mics. Internally, the Arabella steps things up with a K47c capsule (using the traditional and more time-consuming hand manufactured dual-milled diaphragm), a Telefunken EF12 tube and a larger Cinemag 2461NICO transformer.
In use, the Arabella was the most refined sounding of the three mics, with a sweet top end and plenty of mid-range grunt to back it up. Once again the tonal balance of this microphone was very pleasing to the ear but it seemed to have a degree more silk to go with the gusto of the other two models. Room-miked drum sounds came out clear and detailed, percussion sounds were crisp and sweet and guitar amps fat and gutsy.
Vocals and violins in particular sounded really rich and smooth through the Arabella. At times it sounded as though the signal had passed through some gentle high-quality compression (a beneficial by-product of the valve and big transformer combination), something that most users would find pretty welcome during long hours of tracking I’d imagine. As with the other models in this series, the Arabella seems able to cope with a wide range of recording duties and I see no reason why this mic couldn’t be employed as an all-round studio workhorse with excellent results. To my ears its sound is slightly less ‘valvey’ than the other two but the Arabella’s refined top end makes a very powerful argument in its favour and perhaps explains the difference in price.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
The BeesNeez Studio Series microphones impressed me a great deal. They’re relatively affordable, aren’t afraid to wear their valve hearts on their utilitarian steel sleeves, and cover a lot of the main recording bases with ease. The quirky ‘Sibilance Roll-Off’ feature seems somewhat unnecessary but would get a work-out now and again no doubt, though some might prefer the more standard bass roll-off, but this is a minor quibble. More to the point, having an impressive nine polar patterns to work with is very handy indeed (I generally liked it dialled in somewhere between cardioid and hypercardioid but also enjoyed the near-omni position for letting a bit of extra room creep in), and the –10dB pad is always useful.
Having had the pleasure of recording with the BeesNeez valve microphones over the last month or so, I’ve got to say it’s great to see a small Australian company getting into the hand-built boutique microphone game and doing it with such aplomb. When you consider the quality on offer here and the relatively modest pricing from a local company (not to mention the buzz that’s starting to gather momentum on overseas gear forums around these mics) it’s hard to imagine BeesNeez being a secret for much longer.