Skip to main content

Tube mics vs FET mics- what difference am I going to hear?

Member for

21 years
Yes, I know that strictly speaking this question belongs in the mic forum, but there appears to be many fewer readers/posters there.

I see that some microphone companies make tube mics. I am well aware of the overwhelming preference of guitar players and audiophiles for tube amps, but does the analogy cross over into mics? Just what kinds of differences might one expect from a tube mic? And is there anyone here who prefers their sound over FET mics?


Member for

19 years 9 months

Davedog Tue, 01/01/2013 - 22:36
jnetsings, post: 398437 wrote: I was really hoping you would answer his question with something descriptive about the sound differences between tube vs FET mics.

Well, its an old thread almost two years old.......If you want some advice and informative descriptions and have a question why dont you start your own posts and see what comes up. Waiting around for someone to answer a post that old is like watching the paint dry......

Member for

15 years 11 months

RemyRAD Wed, 01/02/2013 - 16:39
Well this is an old thread, I'll talk about this again.

The difference between FETs and tubes is one will have a cleaner sound with more dissonant odd order overload artifacts. A tube will give you a clean sound, slightly higher noise floor, smoother and more musical sounding even order harmonic distortion artifacts that are more musical sounding as they happen in real life and odd order harmonics do not. But that odd order distortion artifacts you get from a transistorized microphone can actually give you a little more of an aggressive sound. Whereas the tube microphone, like the tube itself, will give you a softer and rounder sound.

I have three very fabulous, very collectible, antique German condenser microphones. One is the predecessor to the current transistorized Neumann U87, the tube 67's. I grab at the transistorized 8795% of the time over my just as fabulous 67's. And most announcers like the sound of that 87 and will work on anything else not even a 67.

I've also got plenty of beautiful tube microphone preamps and I prefer my Class A input, A/B output transformer coupled transistorized preamps over my tube preamps 99% of the time.

So while we all know that good rock 'n roll guitar is usually performed through tube amplifiers, it's to get that sound. And they've already gotten that sound and we don't need to add to that. We want to capture that with the same kind of aggressive sound quality as the performance. So no reason to want to soften that up with more tubes.

When I recorded some 1930s/40s crooners at the Corcoran Art Gallery, I brought out the tube microphones and the old ribbon microphones which all went into modern transistor preamps and not my tube preamps. Had I not used the tube microphones and the ribbon microphones, I would have more likely used the tube preamps? Only because I wanted to go after that particular nostalgic sound with those nostalgic 1930s/40s Americana songs. But those particular scenario sessions are rare in comparison to the rock 'n roll, jazz, gospel, symphonic, operatic stuff I normally record. Besides, I also wanted that authentic look of these old crooners behind that RCA 77 DX on stage. So I really want that noticeable nostalgic sound, I won't even grab for a tube condenser microphone but a passive ribbon microphone. Because those have a classic smooth high-frequency roll off that you'll recognize as soon as you hear it. It's much more obvious sounding than a nice new clean tube microphone delivers today without Telefunken German-made tubes. Chinese tubes do not sound like Telefunken tubes. Russian tubes do not sound like Telefunken tubes. And popular guitar amplifier tubes don't sound like Telefunken tubes. And as far as I'm concerned, modern-day tube microphones are a complete crapshoot. And I don't like the sound of Chinese tubes. They're empty sounding like it's in a vacuum... and while it's in a vacuum, it shouldn't sound like it's in a vacuum or vacuum cleaner. LOL. Now if you're spending $3200 for a new modern tube microphone, you're likely to get something not too horrible? As they may have some NOS (new old stock) Telefunken or some other classic good sounding tubes? But each and every tube, even from the same manufacturer of the same type, can sound vastly different from each other. Consistency and quality control, no longer exist. And where transistor microphones offer a very high level of consistency and quality. Even though I discovered that the $3300.87 uses the same general-purpose replacement FET transistor you can get from Radio Shaft here in the US for $.98. And I know that to be true as a highly experienced old-fashioned maintenance techie having repaired those microphones with a $.98 exact replacement transistor. Now that transistor might cost 25 or more dollars if it is a selected and tested transistor? But this $.98 transistor, with my test bench equipment, test it out identically to the one installed by the factory in another working 87 I had to compare it to. And so there is no real reason to spend $3300 on a microphone, you know has a $.98 transistor in it. There is not $3299.00 of additional componentry used in the manufacturing of that $3300 microphone. It is however, certainly handmade and precision tested by fine German craftspeople and that's what you're really paying for. And just because a cheaper condenser microphone might sound better because it has a height high-frequency response, does not equate to better when you listen to the recording.

And that's the difference between tube versus FET condenser microphones. It just comes down to using the right tool for the right application. And, where, because this is art, it's up to you to decide what tool out of a selection of hundreds of tools that you could use to accomplish your job with, that you have to choose from.

Given the possibility that you are looking to purchase your one and only single microphone and want the best one, don't purchase any tube or transistor condenser microphone. No... you put a $100 SM58 and then you'll have something that sounds like a $3300 FET fine German condenser microphone. And I'm not kidding, not in the least bit. But then you'll have to decide whether you want to plug that into a transistor, tube or integrated circuit chip microphone preamp. It's a never ending process.

And this carries through right down through everything else in the signal chain. And where, say, if I make a live recording and get to use my fabulous sounding API and Neve microphone preamps, I might mix it down in the computer? Whereas, if someone presents me with a recording they want me to mix and it was recorded on any other run-of-the-mill console, I'm likely not to mix that in the computer? Instead, I'll generally pass that through the multi-track hard disk digital audio recorder analog outputs and do an analog mix on the old 1970s all transistor Neve analog audio console. Because if I don't do that, it will just have this empty, thin, crispy, crunchy, metallic cheap sound to it.

If I had a guitar track that had been recorded direct from the guitar without a tube guitar amplifier, I certainly wouldn't first grab at a tube cabinet emulator plug-in, in software. No. Instead, I'd probably drag out my old vintage tube microphone preamps, saturating the input transformer, overloading the tube and compressing the crap out of that with my old transistor UA/LA-3's possibly daisychaining the two together. Before I would waste my time with the plug-in because I practice the art of recording and mixing. I don't practice the science of playing video games. I'm not saying that I don't use plug-ins, I absolutely do. But I want to create the sound I hear in my head. That's a lot different than dropping your two bits in an cranking the handle and getting a pink gumball when you really wanted a blue one. And maybe, just maybe, like a one armed bandit, if you drop enough quarters in, you're likely to get that blue gumball at some point?

So why would I want to use a sample or a plug-in? I'm one of the guys that makes those samples and creates those plug-ins. I'm doing it since before we call them samples and plug-ins. And while I also learned and was mentored by a master and I like to follow in the same tradition. I don't find a need to constantly being in a contest to see if we can all keep keeping up with this state-of-the-art stuff then who can boast who's got the best and the newest. It all depends what your business plan or creative direction takes you in? Some people look at making a recording has a profit motive business potential. Other people just create art and hope that other folks enjoy their art. And they don't necessarily make a living at it even if they could, since their parents taught them they should have a real job. And if you're like most people, he frequently create a couple of smaller versions of yourself and your career directions and motivations will become skewed and warped. So you're either an artist or you are supporting your family.

I've probably made the right decisions? There are no little Remy's running around in my life. Never will be. I'll get another cat. You'd think they were made in China as they only seem to last between 8-15 years on average, even with proper preventative maintenance. And that gets me angry because because I've already had three have spent a lot of money on the maintenance.

Maybe I should get a cockatoo or three next time? I don't know? Sounds too kinky?
Mx. Remy Ann David

Member for

8 years 8 months

jnetsings Wed, 01/02/2013 - 19:17
Wow, now that's a little more than I hoped for but thanks. This was quite helpful. This may be an old thread, but this question along with a hosts of others are constantly in need of addressing by folks like me who are novices at sound mixing. I am a musician who writes, directs, and sings concerts in church ministry. This is where my talent lies and where I chose to spend my education dollars not to mention my calling. Now, I find myself in a new area of interest: recording and mixing. I am probably not going to go back to school for the basics, so I will use my years of experience to help navigate and search for information in this new area. Thanks for your time Remy.

Member for

15 years 11 months

RemyRAD Thu, 01/03/2013 - 01:51
I'm glad you found that modestly helpful. I don't know what I'm talking about because I only do it. And it sounds like you're going in the right direction in your life. Much better than a godless heathen like myself. You can do well in contemporary Christian music. Don Moen did pretty well, after he worked with me. Yolanda Adams did well, after I recorded her. God may smile on your poor soul. And since he is banging you on the head and telling you to do this, I think ya have the rapture? And you are doing God's work that will bring peace to others, goodwill towards others and hopefully a fat bank account that will allow you to bring more good music to God's children.

How much does a babysitter charge you these days?
Mx. Remy Ann David

Member for

19 years 9 months

Davedog Mon, 11/15/2010 - 18:13
Apples vs. green apples. The source is the most important part of any recording, be it vocals, guitar, horns, drums, etc etc etc....

I guess that a really detailed explanation would involve knowing a bit of history about electronics and the development of different protocols over the years. First. When 'tubes' were being used exclusively, there were no transistors. The engineering that went into gear with tubes at that time was bent on getting the cleanest and clearest sound possible with the architecture and the technology available. This was prevalent throughout recording, instrumentation, sound reinforcement, movie playback etc....The byproducts of some genius's figuring out that if you overdrive certain types of tube circuits you get a new fangled thing called distortion wasnt all that popular especially in the technology of studio gear, mics, boards, tape machines, etal. Which is kinda ironic in the sense that all this old technology is so highly prized because it adds a certain type of distortion to a signal that solid-state and digital simply cannot achieve.

I digress.

In choosing a tool to record a source with, its elementary that an engineer/recordist have some idea what a particular piece is going to perform like.....even though you dont really KNOW until you nickle and dime a certain piece to death......and in making a choice, having this knowledge, the intention of the choice is realized with the results desired.

F*^k I am long-winded tonite....shhheeesh...

As to your question....FET vs. Tube in ALL things audio, the better the quality of gear the larger the difference in sound between different styles of gear. A cheap tube mic with a half-assed power supply, a rebranded tube from outer Slobovia, a Chinese capsule and diaphram made by the quarter millions, and cheap low grade components, is certainly going to sound like crap next to a U87 Neumann.

So, in conclusion, I dont think you'll notice much of a difference until you hit a certain level in quality. BUT if I were to recommend a tube mic under a grand, I'd go with Audio Technica 4060, or an ADK Area 51 TT. Both of these are sterling mics. Better than a mic of equal quality and price??......Naw, different......but at least you can tell the difference easily.

Member for

21 years

Member Mon, 11/15/2010 - 18:26
:-) I appreciate the reply, and perhaps I should have been more precise in outlining the parameters I had in mind, those being two mics of respectable quality, of similar architecture other than one being tube and one being FET.

For example, I am considering an SE Z5600A II, which sell for about $850 and appears to have good reviews. I was wondering if a tube mic like this is actually going to impart something "tubey" to my sound.

Member for

12 years 9 months

dvdhawk Mon, 11/15/2010 - 19:51
jmm22, post: 356796 wrote: Yes, I know that strictly speaking this question belongs in the mic forum, but there appears to be many fewer readers/posters there.

This is in no way meant to be harsh, but I've seen you apply the 'fewer readers/posters' theory on a couple of occasions now, and it's not really accurate. Microphones are not as broad a topic, so naturally there are fewer viewers at any given time. The (# Viewing) shown on the given forums is indisputable, but the fact is the same professionals and moderators that answer your questions in the Pro Recording / Pro Audio / Pro DAW sections, will see and answer your questions no matter where they're posted. Those that moderate and contribute answers read all new posts by clicking the "What's New" tab above. In fact, the forum mods all have specialized knowledge in the areas they moderate - so that improves the quality of the responses you'll get.

Your questions are very welcome here, and you're certainly free to do as you please (unless you tick of an administrator), but I believe it would be best for everyone if you put the posts in the proper forum. Many of the questions you're asking belong in the Home Recording / Budget Gear forums. And I think the responses you're getting would be a great benefit to other inquisitive newcomers that are here reading/lurking to educate themselves - but they're less likely to find the information if the topics aren't in the right place.

If you didn't get a response immediately, it means either A) your questions is too vague and someone knowledgeable on the topic barely knows where to begin answering it. B) they could help, but see a short answer isn't going to do the question justice, and time doesn't permit for a full explanation or C) the professionals that could provide a thorough and thoughtful answer were probably out making a living doing the things that you're hoping to learn.

Best of luck, keep the questions coming.

Member for

21 years

Member Mon, 11/15/2010 - 20:49
Thanks for the remarks. You make some interesting points, but from a purely probabilistic or logical perspective, and based my participation in many diverse forums (some, but not all music or audio related) I must respectfully disagree. In fact, if it were my forum, I would be inclined to fold at least one or two of the much smaller categories into larger ones, so as to boost overall traffic. As an avid reader, I can report that there are whole forums here I have not even glanced at, in spite of the fact that they may contain interesting content.

The categorization of equipment, ideas, and the complex interactions the two can be very difficult. For example, no one could argue the fact that the SM57 will be found in pro and amateur settings, so how does one decide whether the question belongs in mics, pro studio gear, home recording, or even somewhere else? I have calculated the placement my questions as best as I can, and could make a fair argument for each possible deviation from convention on a point by point basis if necessary. I also think I can justify those occasions if I have taken some liberty with the categories that exist, by trying to phrase things in a way that should elicit interesting responses and a broader or perhaps informal dialog, although oddly, the latter occurs very infrequently, present deviation excepted ;-)

I sometimes preface my questions with the obligatory disclaimer so as to head off the ticking off of a moderator :-) While I will remain a novice at recording for some time to come, I am much more confident in my observations regarding the overall flow of readers and potential responses, and how we parcel out our limited attention in these kinds of venues. Additionally, I think these kinds of observations are sometimes best made by new or practically external observers.

Member for

13 years 6 months

TheJackAttack Mon, 11/15/2010 - 21:20
Manufacturers make tube mic's today for several reasons. 1) They are still manufacturing proven performers from the glory days of tubes 2) Guitarists and the partially informed are so self convinced that a valve (tube) imparts something more desirable than a transistor. Then you throw in those for transformers and those without. And then "colorless" preamps versus "color". Basically it all boils down to G.A.S. and the majority mindless herd's inability to actually use their own ears to make a decision.

Gearslutz is like that. There is lots of good information to be had over there but the often feral pack mentality is nauseating when most of the pack that attack have never used the gear being talked about and many haven't even done pro audio.

DVDHawk got his post correct. Nearly 100% of the moderators and other most helpful posters answer posts by the "New Posts" link up above. There are many moderators you haven't heard from yet because they only monitor their own forums.

Member for

21 years

Member Mon, 11/15/2010 - 22:04
Hey, no problem dvdhawk. Given my obvious technical knowledge limitations (at present) I am glad to have the opportunity to dialog in any way.

John, based on your new information that there are yet other moderators I have not heard from, I must make another observation. has more moderators per member than any other forum on the internet :smile: Which is ironic, because moderators are typically implemented to ummm... moderate, i.e., cut off the rude, malicious, or profane posters at the knees. It is ironic, because in my time here, I have yet to see a single exchange between members that would remotely warrant "moderating." It is a breath of fresh air really. It is apparent that the term moderator means something a bit different at, and this goes a long way toward explaining your large roster.

So, can I be a moderator too? :cool:

Member for

19 years 9 months

Davedog Mon, 11/15/2010 - 22:11
jmm22, post: 356805 wrote: :-) I appreciate the reply, and perhaps I should have been more precise in outlining the parameters I had in mind, those being two mics of respectable quality, of similar architecture other than one being tube and one being FET.

For example, I am considering an SE Z5600A II, which sell for about $850 and appears to have good reviews. I was wondering if a tube mic like this is actually going to impart something "tubey" to my sound.

Well, like I said, quality is quality no matter the price. And at a certain level, the DIFFERENCE in tube vs. FET will become apparent. The SE mics are good mics. I dont have a lot of listening experience with most of the line and not the one you speak of at all, but their pedigree and quality control seem to indicate a decent mic for the price.

Also, as I was trying to suggest, as a recordist, you have to choose the tool you think is best suited for your project and for the level of completion you intend for it to follow.

This is a whole subject unto itself.......splain: A LOT of songwriters/artists become enamoured with recording their projects, certain that they will package and release the next Dark Side Of The Moon in a short time. AND they'll do it at home with just a few tools at their disposal.
Then they discover how frickin hard it really is to get great sounds and getting them to work into an arrangement that invites the listener to play it over and now the GAS sets in and the search begins for that perfect piece of kit to put them over the top..........But what about the incomplete task that they started on?

These days its almost easier to simply put together a decent DAW and songwrite until the songs themselves stand alone without benefit of 'tubes' or high-end this or that......and then take it to a studio and really record something that you know is right.

But having a nice budgeted studio that a person can operate without losing the house or the transportation device can be a joy.

So having a nice mic, tube or not, is always a good thing and ,chosen carefully, is one of the parts that wont lose money as quickly as other parts. For what you are doing, a really good mic is imperative. Something that does voice as well as acoustic instruments. Does it NEED to be a tube device?

Absolutely not. Can it be? Yes, most definately.....just dont think that cheap tube crap is better simply because an ad says so, or that its better because theres this general trend circulating amoungst the half-truths on the net that a tube makes a whole lot of difference.

Member for

13 years 6 months

TheJackAttack Mon, 11/15/2010 - 22:12
We haven't had to "moderate" in almost a year with maybe two exceptions. Things are pretty civil around here. Civil really isn't my specialty and I have to work on that. I'm more of a hate and discontent plug 'em between the eyes at 800 meters kind of a guy.

There are one or two mod's for each different forum. Usually those mod's specialize in those areas. I can only "moderate" actual posts or move them from my forums. There are a couple of super mods that have more universal control and access. Basically, I have the time available to check on the new posts pretty frequently as do a couple others. Summertime however and I'm too busy to do more than a drive by once in a while and other folks pick up the slack.

Member for

21 years

Member Mon, 11/15/2010 - 22:40
Very interesting and informative post Davedog, particularly as it relates to songwriters/artists who travel down the road of self recording. I guess I fall into this category, but there are no illusions here. I know that recording is very difficult, and thus I have complete respect for the art of the recording engineer.

My recourse to self recording is rooted in pragmatism. I am a prodigious music writer (at least in quantity) who is much better at writing than performing. I also have no natural musical talent (it did not help that I started playing guitar at the relatively late age of 16) and thus I have to work very hard and quite regularly to sound competent. Realistically, I can only hope to furnish some music if I have the luxury of recording on my time, alone, and without the pressures of performing in a real studio.

There are things that might give me an edge at self recording, and they are ferocious self criticism, and the patience to try as many permutations as necessary to render something that works well. Of course the former might prevent me from releasing anything, but I am enjoying the process of learning the art of recording nonetheless.

Member for

13 years

soapfloats Tue, 11/16/2010 - 01:07
This place operates a little differently than the typical forum.

Some topics/headers see little action, but randomly blow up.
Also the involvement of our wise moderators (and non-moderators).

They've got the job b/c their value to our community has been noticed for some time.
IMHO, we're lucky to have them, and this site, for those reasons.

/end thread derail...

John hit on the crux of your question - it's about "flavors". Which you like and which are right for the job.
I like color, tubes, and transformers. Unfortunately I own too few in actuality.
There's plusses and minuses to all gear.
The only way to know when to use what, is to do it.

The folks here can point you in the right direction, but ultimately you have to experiment, and learn your gear and learn to trust your ears.

Member for

18 years

Jeemy Tue, 11/16/2010 - 10:33
Guitarists and the partially informed are so self convinced that a valve (tube) imparts something more desirable than a transistor.

In the case of guitar amplifiers this is true, no? In the case of microphones, both tubes and FETs impart something that the other cannot, but of more importance is the surrounding circuitry. Whether one gets more bang for the buck at cheaper levels in transistor or tube mics, I'd hazard transistor.

My general attitude when picking things off the shelf in a rush is that in a tube circuit the response to dynamic change (slew rate) is lower; resulting in (if the circuit is good) a smoothed dynamic approach, perhaps translating to more warm and fuzzy; whereas an FET is faster to respond, more accurate, detailed and crystalline, for want of better adjectives.

The Z6500 certainly has some good reviews and the usual 'I am a seasoned pro and its all I use'-type comments in its marketing, I had I believe a SE3600 or 5600 for a few days and it had a really unpleasant sonic signature so I sent it back.

I'm always happy to try cheap alternatives and sometimes they are good and stay, sometimes not. I do think that its a bit pot-luck sometimes, either there is bad QC and therefore 'good' and 'bad' batches of the same mic, or the cheaper mics inconsistencies sometimes are cancelled out by the untreated home studios' frequency anomalies!

Really if you are looking to put down $850 on a mic your retailer should allow you to try at home and return 'as-new' if not satisfied.

If you are looking to outlay $850 on a mic because its $1000 at the retailer and $850 online with no means of returning it; I wouldn't be able to bless the purchase of an SE microphone, and in fact I will never take a chance on mics like that - I either buy new and reputable, or second hand if I can go and test.

I think most here including myself would suggest a Rode K2 is a purchase you are unlikely to regret.

As regards the positioning of this thread, I don't mind it being here for now but it will probably get moved to Microphones when it quietens down!

Member for

21 years

Member Tue, 11/16/2010 - 11:27
Thanks for the reply Jeemy. It is interesting to see you are from Edinburgh, birthplace of James Clerk Maxwell, arguably the greatest contributor to the knowledge of phenomena that underlies virtually everything used by the recording engineer. Einstein only had two pictures of other scientists on his wall, JCM and Michael Faraday (another "electrician" of sorts.) Apparently, at one time a picture of Newton also hung there, but fell one day and was never put back.

I concur entirely with respect to being able to either trial mid priced mics, or buy from a retailer with a good return policy, to avoid being saddled with something one does not like.

It is worth noting that most of the good reviews are for the Z5600A II, which has a few upgrades from the older Z5600, which is likely the one you tried, unless it was a 3300 (they never made a 3600) which is an FET mic. Did the mic you tested have its own power supply?

Member for

18 years

Jeemy Thu, 11/18/2010 - 19:30
Yes it had a power supply. But I don't think honestly it was a 5600. Or a 3300. I don't want to publicly go for or against a company. Just as I said before, if you want to lay down $900 on a non-industry-standard mic with good marketing but zero feedback on, buyer beware. Good feedback here has never let me down and thats something I can say with certainty and definitively.