BRAUNER PHANTHERA — AudioTechnology
Some mics are known as ‘all-rounders’, the Phanthera, meanwhile, is more of a specialist.
Text: Michael Carpenter
The last 15 years has seen an out and out explosion in the large diaphragm condenser microphone market. Where, not so long ago, the choices were somewhat limited and financially out of reach of all but the pro end of the burgeoning project studio scene, these days ‘LDCs’ come in all shapes, sizes and price ranges. So how do we know which are the good mics and which are the special ones?
Brauner microphones have slowly and steadily been making their mark all over the world and the Phanthera is one of the more recent releases from this relatively new German microphone manufacturer (only 15 years old!). More and more frequently, the Brauner name is popping up in magazine articles and forums as a mic manufacturer to watch. And the company is going about it the right way – by putting great, contemporary products into the marketplace and letting the sound quality speak for itself.
The Phanthera is a phantom powered, fixed-cardioid, large diaphragm condenser that uses a FET amplifier and output transformer. The microphone has no pad or low frequency roll-off switches, housing instead attenuation switches inside the mic. The product information states that the Phanthera is “impressive proof that a phantom powered non-tube microphone can sound amazingly close to a real tube microphone.” Certainly a big statement. And while the audio world still seems enamoured with the power of the word ‘tube’, I was more interested in how well this microphone functions in working sessions.
FROM THE BOX TO THE SESSION
The microphone comes in an extremely sturdy nickel-plated brass case – an impressive start. And the general awe continues when you open the case. This microphone is striking. It looks and feels extremely robust, and contrary to popular theory that people only want familiar looking microphone designs, this microphone looks distinctly ‘Brauner’. The black grille against the stunning brushed silver of the body makes for a welcome change, offering a style that would distinguish itself in any microphone locker. The next impressive feature is the shockmount, which may be one of the best designed and most functional shockmounts I’ve ever worked with. Using a C-shaped elastic suspension system, the microphone fits snugly in its claw-like grasp and never feels like it’s in any danger of accidentally falling from a great height. And to add to its brilliant functionality, the shock mount swivels horizontally, making it ever so easy to position. Full marks to Brauner for thinking about the whole microphone package, as the shockmount alone adds significantly to its functionality. The mic also ships with a five-metre high-quality cable – a nice touch.
The first opportunity I had to use the Phanthera was side by side with a Mojave MA-200 condenser that my studio partner has been leaning on quite heavily lately. Recording an excellent female vocalist with a wide dynamic range and a bit of grit to her voice, we were struck initially by the level coming off the Phanthera. This is a loud microphone, and choosing the right preamp was critically important. We then noticed how similar the two mics sounded. I’ve always considered the Mojave to have a lovely airyness, and the Phanthera matched this easily [its frequency response runs out to 22kHz]. We decided that both mics sounded fantastic on this singer, with the Phanthera having a bit more of a clinical (in a good way) detail in the top end, and a slightly more substantial low-mid response – but certainly a good start. We repeated this test with a more ‘rock’ female singer a few days later, and the results were similar. The Phanthera seemed to handle the bigger notes a tiny bit better, but there was no right or wrong answer there.
Next, we had a few days of drum tracking, and the Phanthera was employed as a mono room mic, about three metres in front of the kit at head height, facing downwards towards the drums. I was extremely surprised at how well this fared. Many large diaphragm condensers have failed miserably in this application, drowning in a virtual wave of high midrange cymbal wash. The Phanthera handled the volume easily and remained honest and extremely detailed, capturing the cymbals effectively while maintaining a good sense of balance between cymbals, drums and the room. These were some of the most useable and effortless mono drums room sounds we’ve recorded. Adding a dash – then a lot – of compression via a Distressor didn’t scare it either, and the sound remained balanced and, yes, detailed. Nice one.
Next up, as we began the overdub process, the mic was put into position for acoustic guitar recording. For acoustics, I’ve recently become used to an extremely reliable chain using either my ‘desert island’ mic, the Audio-Technica 4050, or a Peluso 2247LE, into a Universal Audio M610 mic preamp, then into the ubiquitous 1176. Putting the Phanthera in front of the Gibson J50 acoustic was quite a shock. This mic is loud, and the UA610 struggled to cope with its output. Once the level was brought under control, I started to get a feel for the microphone. It’s extremely honest, and I found the mic struggled a little in this application. It got a little too strident in the high mids and exaggerated the top end of several acoustic guitars a little too much for my liking. I had to move the mic around to find its sweet spot, but I eventually got something worthwhile (that subsequently came up beautifully in the finished tracks), but it was a bit more work than I’m used to, and I didn’t find this to be one of its stronger applications. I will add though that it did appear to have an extremely wide dynamic range – again, it seemed extremely detailed and worked more effectively on quieter picked selections than on bigger strumming styles. The Phanthera is also ridiculously quiet (Equivalent Noise is 11dB) – I had to turn the preamp gain up significantly before noticing any hiss or noise at all from the mic itself. This would certainly make it appealing for voiceover work or a whisper quiet singer.
Next up, I tried it on a male voice. This particular male voice has one of the sweetest tones you can imagine. His voice always sounds clean and clear, so I was interested to discover how a clean and clear mic would sound on him. The results were, somewhat surprisingly, a little underwhelming and dare I say, characterless. It all sounded fine, but didn’t sound ‘special’. It had a little too much air about it, and the consensus was that we needed a mic with a bit more grit for this singer and this material. (We finally settled on a Shure SM7 for the job – quite a different mic!) However, I will counter that by mentioning that I used it for my own vocal overdub several days later. My voice is relatively clear but hardly clean, and it tends to get quite built-up in the midrange. Not on the Phanthera. This was one of the most pleasing results I’ve gotten recording my own vocal, and got me thinking that, like many high quality tools, you need to match them with the right application. More on that in a second.
To round out our tests, I put the Phanthera on our crusty studio upright piano. Here it really shone. We have a tendency to mic this poor old broken upright with low quality mics, and heavily stylise the sound with compression and EQ, as if to apologise for its beaten up tone. The Phanthera told the upright’s story beautifully, capturing every creak, and flattering the piano in a way many of our other LDCs don’t. In front of an AC30 guitar amp at moderate volume, the mic was excellent. Not all condensers can handle guitar amps, but placing this one several feet away, and with an external pad employed, the mic took the amp in its stride. While it did sound great by itself, adding an SM57 up close really balanced the tone, and gave us lots of sonic choices.
HORSES FOR COURSES?
In reviewing this microphone, I think I learned a critical thing about microphones in general. Sometimes the difference between a good mic and a truly special mic isn’t related to its versatility. I love the AT4050 because it sounds good/workable/consistent on pretty much everything. I know when I get stuck, I can put that mic up and get something that works well. But I think what makes the Phanthera truly special is that it sounds amazing on some things, and just not quite right on others. The AT4050 never really sounds amazing. Are you following me? The Phanthera is, nevertheless, a versatile microphone, and getting to know it, and matching it to the right source through the right preamp, will get you results that will put you into another league of engineering and creative choices. Personally, I prefer a bit more ‘character’ in my microphones, but I know many engineers who are seeking absolute truth from theirs. The Phanthera is certainly one of the more honest and pleasing sounding microphones I’ve come across. Priced at $2986, this microphone will not necessarily be the choice for the project studio owner looking for an all-rounder, but for the engineer looking for a great, reference-quality microphone they can trust, the Phanthera may tick all the boxes.