Field Test: Telefunken Ela M 251

Oct 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Mark Cross

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The original Telefunken Ela M 251 microphone has quite a history. Telefunken originally contacted AKG in 1958 to develop the 251; the resulting design incorporated the same CK12 capsule, 6072 tube and T-14 transformer as the AKG C 12 mic.

AKG settled on two models: the Telefunken 250 and 251. The two-pattern 250 was designed to compete with the Neumann U47, originally developed by former Telefunken employee George Neumann, and the 251 was developed as a direct replacement for the AKG C 12.

Through the years, many A-list engineers and collectors have responded enthusiastically to these gems and have created a trend for acquisition, as well. The Wall Street Journal published an article in the 1990s on the original Telefunken Ela M 251, describing it as one of the best overall investments of the 21st century.

Toni Fishman of Telefunken USA recognized this and decided to develop a reissue. His business first developed identical replacement parts for vintage 251s. A chance meeting with Allen Sides in Nashville resulted in Sides telling Fishman that there was one particular mic in his collection of more than 20 vintage 251s that was consistently used by Joni Mitchell for many of her classic recordings. Unfortunately, there was a small fire in the studio in which this mic was being used, and the 251 was damaged. Sides agreed to sacrifice the mic so that Fishman could literally raise the capsule from the ashes to validate a schematic for use in the development of a world-class reissue: the Ela M 251.

Visually, Telefunken USA's Ela M 251 ($10,000) is identical to the original, right down to the silver logo. The body measures approximately eight-and-a-half inches long and two inches in diameter. It features the familiar three-position, sliding polar-pattern selector, and the mic connects to the power supply unit via a Neutrik 6-pin XLR-style connector. The power supply unit features an on/off toggle switch, a red pilot light and a fuse holder. The old European A/C power cord has been upgraded to a standard IEC socket and removable cord. Every mic is hand built to order, and each 251 is a direct result of more than 200 man-hours of labor.

IN THE STUDIO


In application, the mic was a pleasure to work with. It comes in a vintage-style, humidity-controlled tweed briefcase with form-fit slots for the mic case, cable and power supply. I first used the mic to record a rhythm section; specifically, as an overhead for tom fills. The mic truly shined and captured the performance while complementing the sonics of the instrument in the room. The drum's definition was clear and precise. Later, I recorded an acoustic guitar on the same piece of music. The guitar sounded absolutely wonderful with great personality and color, leaving very little need for compression or equalization.

On another session, I placed the mic above a snare drum that was hit with blast sticks. Again, this backbeat performed in a small room sounded glorious and instantly became the basic rhythm track for the master. I then used it to record additional percussion, including tambourine, djembe, shaker and bass drum. Similar to the drum experience from the previous session, the mic captured the performance, while allowing the instruments to really speak in the track. In both situations, the 251 was sent through a Universal Audio 2-610 mic pre and sent directly to a hard disk recorder. Occasionally, the chain included a Universal Audio LA-2A limiter. Despite any additions, the 251's airy, sonic softness added depth to the recordings.

Next, as an overdub, I used the mic to record a Takamine six-string steel guitar and a classical nylon-stringed guitar. I set the mic to a cardioid pattern and placed it about a foot from the 12th fret. Occasionally, I placed it further away to add a little depth to the sound. Again, the results were stunning.

I should state that I had an original 251 available at the session and often used it as an alternative to measure performance. In all tests, the new Ela M 251 sounded as good as, or better than, the original.

Next, I used the mic to record a vocal, with an LA-2A placed in the chain for some subtle compression. The voice sounded awesome. When the original 251 was used for comparison, you could hardly tell the difference between the two. The brilliant top end along with its full bottom took the vocal performance to a higher level. Finally, I used it to record a violin and harmonica to complete the session. Here, the mic really brought out the tone of the violin with a soft clarity that complemented the mix.

CONCLUSION


Telefunken USA's Ela M 251 is an incredible mic. In every application, it never let me down. From the subtle guitars to the abusive transients of powerful percussion, it rose to each occasion with great results. The $10k price tag can be a bit of a shocker, but you get what you pay for. Regardless of the price, I recommend checking it out, because it is well worth the experience. It appears to have everything; however, you must supply the talent.

Telefunken USA, 860/882-5919, www.telefunkenusa.com.


Mark Cross is a producer/mixer in Los Angeles, and has worked with Bill Bottrell, Shelby Lynne, Randy Newman and Jennifer Warnes.






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