Review: Soyuz SU 011 & SU 017
How do you make a ‘vintage’-sounding mic without cloning an original? Soyuz shows us how.
Review: Christopher Holder
There are loads of engineers out there seeking the timeless tone of mics like Neumann’s U47 and U67, with one caveat — it has to come at a fraction of the cost of an original. Boutique manufacturers have jumped at the chance to try and fulfil this sizeable gap with more or less accurate clones of various classic designs. With big margins to be had below inflated vintage microphone prices, there’s not much to lose.
Brands like Bock, Peluso, Mojave, Wunder, Lauten, Flea, ADK Zigma and Australia’s own Beesneez, even Rode with the K2, have done a wonderful job of bringing great sounding, quality tube microphones to market at comparatively affordable price points. And they’ve all captured at least some classic vintage tone magic. But has anyone really nailed it? It’s a hard question to answer as it’s nigh on impossible to pin down the exact sound of a 60-year old microphone in the first place. Certainly no one who owns a $12,000 original U47 is going to say a modern mic worth a third of the money sounds just as good. Hang on, actually there is someone who’s saying pretty much that, and his name is Nigel Godrich.
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE
Mr Godrich’s enthusiastic quotes lead the line in Soyuz’s promotional material and this is no mean feat as he rarely features in the media, preferring to let his production credits (Radiohead, Beck) do the talking. In short, he loves the Soyuz mics. When comparing the large diaphragm condenser SU 017 to his favourite vintage U47, he finds them to be in the same very desirable ballpark. It’s a massive tick of approval for Soyuz.
The new Russian company is based in Tula, a town about an hour south of Moscow that lays claim to having the oldest continuously operational microphone factory in Russia (since 1931). Soyuz’s mission statement is simple: build great sounding hand-made tube microphones based on the classic designs of the mid-20th century. Hardly a novel approach in this day and age but when I opened the boxes of the SU 011 and the SU 017 small and large diaphragm models things started looking a little different, and it was hard not to be impressed.
For starters, these mics look sensational. Soyuz has abandoned the cookie cutter chassis these clones usually come in for a classy combination of old-school machined brass and cream enamel. The Russian logo lettering lends an extra touch of cold-war retro cool. Both mics exude quality above and beyond what we’re used to seeing from the majority of mic manufacturers these days. Soyuz even ensured the body’s length relative to its width conformed exactly to the golden ratio!
Somewhat disappointingly there’s no sign of flight cases. The cardboard shipping boxes contain stylish cream-coloured ‘brick’ PSUs, 5m connecting cables and, in the case of the SU 017, a well-made, cream enamelled suspension mount. Fortunately, the mics themselves nestle in lovely magnetically-locking cherrywood cases with felt interiors and leather padded yokes. They smell nice too.
NEED TO KNOW
Soyuz SU 011 & SU 017
SU 017 LARGE DIAPHRAGM CONDENSER
The Soyuz SU 017 uses the ‘lollipop’ form more commonly identified with Neumann designs like the CMV3 and CMV563. At 226mm long and 55mm wide the Soyuz is a fairly large microphone and weighs in at 950g, requiring a sturdy mic stand. This design allows capsules apart from the standard cardioid (omni and figure 8 are in the pipeline) to be interchanged using the same body. For my review I had a cardioid capsule featuring a hand-tuned, one-inch gold-sputtered diaphragm. This design is based on the dual-element design of the classic Neumann K67 capsule (found in the U67 and U87) and shares that model’s back plate drilling pattern.
The tube used in the SU 017 is a 6G1P pentode that roughly equates to an E95F or 6AK5W in the west. Thoughtfully, Soyuz has included an extra tube to delay the pain of sourcing spares internationally. The combination of this Eastern tube, an in-house custom wound cylindrical transformer and a simple point-to-point hand-wired layout help deliver an SPL rating of 120dB SPL and equivalent noise rating of 20dB (A-weighted). The mic operates at 270Ω impedance and there are no bass roll-off or attenuation switches here — what you see is what you get.
Nestled amongst the packaging was an individualised measurement sheet. On-axis the SU 017 displays a gentle rise between 30Hz and 80Hz, then is pretty smooth up to a gentle 1dB boost between 1kHz and 4kHz with a larger 3dB rise centred at 5kHz. Then another 3dB rise that peaks around 12kHz before steadily tapering off further up. Off-axis response shows a big drop around 62Hz and another big scoop around 1.5kHz before rising back up at around 6kHz.
A rather quaint inclusion is the hand signed cards of both the assembler and tester including their photographs (in my case Olga and Vladimir). It’s oddly reassuring to know they both look like kind people. It’s also worth noting that the SU 017 is not a straight clone of any vintage mic. Rather it borrows elements from a number of designs including Neumann’s U67 while mixing in some homegrown ideas of its own.
Soyuz even ensured the body’s length relative to its width conformed exactly to the golden ratio!
With the Soyuz SU 017 up and running on some sessions I soon realised I could rely on it in a wide variety of applications. For a start, the mic performed beautifully on a range of voices. On a fairly quiet male folk singer the extended warmth of the low end and the sweet airy highs combined with some subtle but very nice euphonic colouration in the upper mids delivered a great, ready-made result that sat in the mix effortlessly. On female singer-songwriter Lisa Richards, who has a powerful voice with a lot of upper midrange presence, the SU 017 delivered a beautifully nuanced picture of her tone and character without ever getting edgy or harsh.
This mic has a pronounced proximity effect and, given the absence of any bass roll-off filter, I found I was positioning singers slightly further away from the capsule (up to three or four feet) than I would with some other mics. Having said that, the results were outstanding and the extra distance also served to minimise vocal artefacts such as popping and sibilance. I never felt the need to use a pop shield or place a de-esser on any of the vocals I recorded using this mic.
The SU 017 also worked beautifully on guitars, bringing out the feathery texture of a strummed 12-string acoustic and the earthy thud of a thumb-picked six-string part. On electrics it really shone, lending that lovely tube colouration to bright Fender and thicker Gibson tones. I also used the SU 017 as a mono drum overhead with great results. The mic does begin to saturate at higher volume levels and although the transition is entirely musical and useable, the colouration may not suit every style of music and taste.
Finally, I put the SU 017 on my old double bass, about four feet away and aimed halfway between the bridge and the top of the fretboard. The results were sublime; plenty of sweet bottom end but also a nice clarity and airiness in the top end of what can sometimes be an overly dark instrument. Another thing I noticed was how well numerous recordings of the SU 017 sat together. Very little EQ was required on anything and the tonal balance was spot on while being very sonically pleasing.
SU 011 SMALL DIAPHRAGM CONDENSER
The SU 011 is a chip off the old block in many ways. Again the build quality is exemplary and I love the cream and brass look; in particular the ‘prison bar’ brass grille at the head of the cardioid capsule. The cherrywood case has extra storage spaces for alternative capsules (hypercardioid and omni as well as a -10dB attenuator are planned). This pencil condenser comes with a basic clamp-style mic clip in cream enamel and its PSU is more or less identical to its larger brother’s.
The SU 011 uses a sub-miniature 6S6B tube made in 1986 that was sourced from ‘dead stock’ courtesy of the former Soviet Union. It has slightly better noise specs than the SU 017 and operates at 120Ω with the same 120dB SPL handling. As far as pencil condensers go it is quite small at 26 x 123mm and weighs only 130g, but it looks the business on a mic stand. The included measurement sheet shows a gentle roll-off below 150Hz and peaks at 4kHz and 13 kHz, before rolling off above 16kHz.
PENCIL IT IN
I initially used it on a lovely Martin small body acoustic guitar and the results were sensational, giving me a great balance of body and airy clarity. By virtue of the mic’s proximity effect I was able to dial in the amount of bass required, moving the SU 011 in and out before settling at a distance of about three feet. This sound became the bedrock of an entire album and I was stoked with the result.
At one stage during a session I swapped it for my trusty old AKG 451 just to see what the difference would be. The 451 sounded more than adequate but I immediately missed the extra sweetness in the top end and the subtle valve colouration I was getting from the Soyuz. Needless to say I quickly swapped back. The SU 011 worked beautifully on a number of acoustic instruments and I got great tones on six and 12-string guitars, cello as well as electric guitar and percussion. My last test of the SU 011 was on snare drum about four inches above the edge of the rim and the Soyuz was fantastic, delivering plenty of wallop and again that sweetly detailed top end.
Overall I was very impressed by the Soyuz microphones. They have the tonal characteristics I look for in quality tube microphones; they’re warm but not dull, detailed without ever getting harsh, but above all, super musical. They look great and are versatile while doing the core jobs such as vocals and guitars with real finesse. There are a few minor gripes such as the lack of flight cases and bass roll-off or attenuation controls that would further increase their utility, but all in all the Soyuz mics are some of the highest quality and best sounding microphones I have come across in a long time. Unfortunately the effect of the current exchange rate is going to push them well above the budget of many prospective buyers but for those who pull the trigger, the Soyuz sound will provide a lot of joy for a long time to come.