Review: Universal Audio Bock 187
A U87-inspired modern microphone that’s unashamedly not a clone.
Review: Greg Walker
Owning a classic vintage mic isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. I know a lot of engineers and producers who, despite their love of vintage Neumanns and AKGs, have sold them off due to persistent maintenance issues and one too many unexpected fails during sessions.
My vintage Neumann U87 has spent more time on the repair bench than on a mic stand in the last five years and it’s a source of frustration that regularly piques my interest in what’s happening in the world of Neumann clones and reproductions.
When it comes to re-issuing classic audio designs, the names Bock Microphones and Universal Audio pack some serious punch. These two leading brands in their respective fields have teamed up to revisit and revamp some classic Neumann microphone designs with impressive results.
PATH WELL TRAVELLED
The classic microphone reproduction path is a well-worn one, to put it mildly. I’d argue that there’s as many, if not more, large-diaphragm condenser clones and ‘inspired by’ models in the current marketplace than there are genuinely new designs. Given all this, Universal Audio has made a smart move in teaming up with David Bock. Bock has an enviable place in the reproduction pecking order, with his company’s carefully sourced components and ‘hand-assembled in the US’ ethos making them one of the go-to’s for those who want to spend serious but not ridiculous money on microphones that take you a long way towards the sound of the originals. Aided and abetted by Universal Audio’s technical and commercial clout, this collaboration seems to have been a fruitful match.
There are three new mics that cover something of a holy trinity of Neumann classics: The UA Bock 187, 167 and 251 are reproductions of the Neumann U87, U67 and Telefunken ELAM 251 respectively. The mics are hand built in UA’s custom shop and while the new designs draw heavily on the original’s circuitry and component design, there are noticeable differences in the new mics that take advantage of modern technology and expand on the classic models’ tonal palette.
The Bock 187 sent to me for review is the most affordable of the three new mics and is a FET-based large diaphragm condenser very much inspired by the Neumann U87. I’m very familiar with this old mic’s sound having owned one for many years, so I was keen to hear what this new mic could do both in terms of matching the U87’s sound and adding new features.
The new mic has three main obvious differences:
The most noticeable is the retro light khaki body colour. It brings to mind the era of old 50s appliances, bakelite knobs and tail fins (and vintage Pultec EQs). After some initial uncertainty I found this colour really grew on me. The other UA Bock offerings have their own bespoke colours too and you’ll want to like them as the price of entry is non-trivial.
A second difference is the body shape. Where the old U87s sported a tapered cylindrical body topped by a slightly angular head basket, the Bock 187 keeps to a regular cylindrical shape with a silver head basket crowning the khaki body. It is a smaller mic as well (around 20mm shorter and a little narrower). Interestingly, it is noticeably heavier than my vintage U87 despite the older mic housing a battery compartment as well as all of the regular electronics (most original U87s were fitted with battery housings to aid in mobile recording situations).
Finally, there are some major differences in function, starting with the fixed cardioid pattern of the Bock. The Neumann U87 also offered figure-8 and omni polar patterns, and the lack of these does somewhat limit the applications and coverage of the newer model.
The Neumann’s high-pass filter and attenuation pad are matched by the Bock but it also has one extra trick up its sleeve: a ‘Fat’ switch changes the mic’s voicing and delivers a more weighty, bottom-heavy tonality. This feature really does offer something different and gives the 187 a modern twist. Unlike the large toggle switches and clear front-of-mic polar pattern indicator on the U87, the Bock utilises rear-mounted micro-switches that require a pen nib or small screwdriver to operate, meaning nine times out of 10 the mic needs to be moved around to adjust settings. The small legending along with the black micro switches make setting changing and status checking considerably more than a matter of a quick glance.
Opening up the mic reveals another difference. An oversize Cinemag transformer takes up a large portion of the internal chassis space and there are many signs of a quality build, including the tidy internal layout and even the heft of the brass ring that holds the body cylinder in place.
With a maximum SPL of 125dB and a quoted distortion figure of 1%THD the Bock can cope with most sources without raising a sweat, and the relatively flat frequency response (±2dB from 20Hz-16kHz) underlines the mic’s versatile voicing. The Bock ships in a tasty wooden storage case and comes with a simple but effective swivel mount. The mic also comes with associated UA Apollo channel strip presets which can get you up and going with appropriate settings on a variety of sources.
NEED TO KNOW
Universal Audio Bock 187
I decided to do a shootout between the Bock 187 and my vintage Neumann U87 … the results were intriguing
VOTE FOR THE VOICE
The U87 was and is a studio favourite because of its great tonal balance and versatility. Unlike its tube-driven siblings it derived its goodness from the then-newly introduced FET circuitry, presenting a controlled low end and midrange with a clear and detailed voicing in the top end (sonically think transformers instead of valves). In the 70’s and 80’s many studios sold off their old valve U47s and U67s in favour of the new FET model and the U87 became the studio vocal mic of choice through those decades and beyond. To see if the Bock could compete sonically with my venerable U87 I put it through its paces during a busy month of sessions.
The Bock’s first job was on a female backing vocal session and the mic delivered a lovely controlled result with airy highs, balanced midrange and (where required) a nice touch of magnification in the bass register thanks to a useful proximity effect. The tracks sat in the mix effortlessly and required little or no processing, although I found the Bock did pick up quite a lot of sibilance (easily tamed with a touch of de-essing).
A subsequent lead vocal session with powerhouse Melbourne singer-songwriter R.W. Grace confirmed my impression of the Bock 187 as a wonderful vocal mic. The subtly flattering, yet well balanced, tone is indeed reminiscent of the Neumann U87. The Bock sits vocals beautifully in the mix and the results on both male and female vocals take EQ and compression extremely well. It’s easy to achieve both natural, unaffected presentations and more hyped, processed sounds that place the voice front and centre in a pleasing way. I tried a variety of tube and solid state preamps and the results always impressed both me and the singer.
Moving onto instrument recording I found the Bock to be an excellent all-rounder. On piano and acoustic guitar, the mic is detailed yet warm and true. Strings and percussion sound lively but controlled with the top end being quite responsive to nuanced performances. Both double and electric bass greatly benefitted from the Bock’s combination of solid low to midrange tone and, once again, that detail in the top end. Ditto with guitar amps where power and clarity were both readily on tap. On drum overheads, I found the Bock picked out some frequencies on my kit that were less flattering, and I would probably choose other mics over the Bock in this application, at least in my room. This was my only slight reservation in an otherwise excellent time with the mic.
ACE OF BASS
It’s worth mentioning here that the ‘Fat’ switch on the back of the mic is well worth exploring. The top-end character of the mic doesn’t change but rather the lower frequencies are boosted between 10Hz and 400Hz lending the Bock a different personality. The difference is quite noticeable but not overwhelming and I found this to be a great feature. Extra bottom end on sources like bass guitars, kick drums and even certain vocals are certainly a very handy option. The Fat setting is also great for tracking overly bright instruments and naturally sitting certain sources further back in the mix. The ‘two mics in one’ moniker can sometimes seem like a bit of a cheap sales strategy but in this case it greatly widens the user’s options when problem solving or looking for tonal variety.
SOMETHING COMPARES TO YOU
Last but not least, I decided to do a shootout between the Bock 187 and my vintage Neumann U87. I generally find that acoustic guitars and vocals display a mic’s personality more than just about anything else so I did some tracking of the above with the mics side by side through a pair of Retro valve preamps. The results were intriguing: both mics sounded great and tonally they were very similar, especially in the overall framing and textural presentation of these complex sounds. The U87 has a certain silkiness about the upper frequencies that the Bock doesn’t quite reproduce, while down low the U87 has a tad more mud where the Bock stays a little clearer. In other ways the two mics are very well matched; sibilance and proximity effect are almost identical. The differences are really quite subtle and in my view UA and Bock have done an impressive job of capturing the tonal footprint of the classic Neumann while bringing its sound into the new millennium.
In a crowded marketplace the UA Bock collaboration brings both tradition and innovation into play, and if the Bock 187 is anything to go by, the entire range is well worth checking out for those chasing vintage tones with modern convenience. Best of all, the 187 won’t die on you mid-session (as my Neumann has done many a time) and doesn’t need regular servicing or exorbitant, hard-to-source part replacement. The asking price is competitive with other Neumann clones in the large diaphragm condenser format, with the quality of the build and the sonic performance of this microphone undeniably at the upper end of the scale. Add to that the advantage of a second voicing, and the Bock 187 is definitely one to investigate with its musical tone and versatility major plusses while starring in the all-important vocal role.