By Paul Vnuk Jr.
The LA-320 is the latest tube mic from Lauten Audio. We have been following the Lauten story since August 2007, when we reviewed its first offering, the now sadly discontinued tube-based LT-321 Horizon microphone.
With designs by Brian Loudenslager and Dr. Charles Chen, over the past decade Lauten has built a reputation for microphones that are functionally, sonically, and visually distinct. They stand on their own; there are no me-too models or clones of vintage greats in the line.
Lauten really hit its stride with the release of the solid state FC-387 Atlantis (reviewed January 2013), and again in 2015 with the Eden LT-386 tube mic (review forthcoming). Both models were designed with input from producer/engineer Fabrice Dupont and feature unique multi-voicing controls.
Of course, ultra-thick metal bodies, unique electronic switching, and cutting-edge shockmount systems come at a cost. At $1500 and $2500 respectively, neither mic is what one would consider “entry-level” or “inexpensive”.
This is where Lauten’s newly launched Series Black comes in. Aimed squarely at home studios and musicians on a budget, Series Black offers the company’s most affordable microphones to date.
There are currently three Series Black models available to buyers. The flagship is the mic reviewed here, the LA-320. It’s a large-diagram tube condenser with a street price of $499, unheard of for a Lauten mic. Less than a month ago, Lauten also announced and released the LA-220 large-diaphragm FET mic for $249, and the LA-120 small-diaphragm condenser that sells for $349 per pair.
The LA-320, as mentioned, is a large-diaphragm tube condenser mic. At this price point, it’s not hard to guess that it is of Asian origin. However, it’s built to Lauten’s specifications, with high-end components like polypropylene capacitors, a custom output transformer, and a 12AX7 dual-triode vacuum tube. It is a single-pattern cardioid microphone with a 1” pressure-gradient condenser capsule in a K67-style dual diaphragm/dual backplate design.
The mic features a matte black aluminum body and a chrome head basket. It is exceptionally lightweight and measures 8” long and just shy of 2” in diameter. It comes in a kit with a shockmount, power supply, and cables in a robust road case that is large and spacious, without the packed-to-bursting problems we see too often in budget mic cases (and some not-so-budget ones as well).
Switching it up
Like most recent Lauten microphones, the LA-320 has a few sonic tricks to aid in its versatility. Like many mics it has a highpass/lowcut switch, but this one cuts a little deeper than most, with a corner frequency set at 120 Hz. This is useful for cleaning up the mud from low-toned instruments, household furnace and fridge hum, and the rumble of passing planes, trains, and automobiles. The second switch on the mic is less common: it’s a 12 kHz lowpass/highcut filter that can help lessen string jangle, cymbal sizzle, vocal sibilance, and even amp noise.
Specs and sound
A few specs of note: the LA-320 has a frequency response of 20 Hz to 20 kHz, a 120 dB minimum dynamic range, impedance under 200Ω, maximum SPL handling of 130 dB (0.5% THD @ 1 kHz), under 17 dBA of self-noise, and a sensitivity of 14mV/Pa (@ 1 kHz, 74 dB SPL)
Its frequency plot shows that the LA-320 offers a hearty 60 Hz bass boost, a flat mid section from 200 Hz to 1.5 kHz, followed by a gentle but wide dip from 1.8 kHz to 9 kHz. Then there’s a slight 1dB boost at 10 kHz, followed by a gentle slope to 20 kHz. The LA-320 is an even, smooth, and non-hyped microphone with a healthy low end in its pre-filtered natural state.
This is a mic designed to be at home on any source. To help prove that point, Lauten offers a series of videos on the company web page showing the LA-320 on everything from vocals and guitars to harp, kora (an African string instrument), and more. I spent time with the LA-320 on acoustic guitars, electric guitar cabinet, kick, snare, (mono) overhead, room mic, male lead and backing vocals, cajon, shakers, bass cabinet, voiceover, and tambourine.
In every instance, the LA-320 exhibits a classic tube vibe; if you want a bright, modern, forward mic, look elsewhere. Having said that, in true Lauten tradition it has its own sound. It’s not at all aiming to be a U47, C12, or ELA M251. Its upper mids are closest to a 251-style mic—in my tests, a Telefunken AR-51—it lacks the AR-51’s feathery top end and is more velvety and smooth. In comparison with other vintage-inspired designs, the LA-320 was furthest away from my Pearlman TM-47, which is obviously a U47-inspired mic. While the TM-47 is thick, mid-forward, and dusty, the LA-320 is much more neutral by comparison.
It has a nice thick proximity effect that lessens nicely at 3–4” without affecting the general tone of the mic. Its off-axis behavior is open and clear. Its bottom end is full and gives the mic weight, and its low-end thickness nods to, but is just shy of, the Lauten Horizon, which is one of the boldest and thickest mics in my collection.
On outer kick drum with the lowpass filter engaged, the LA-320 offers great controlled boom and beater click. I pretty much never use a large-diaphragm tube mic on snare, but inspired by Lauten’s own video series, I decided to try it. My kit is a vintage 1960s jazz-style Slingerland kit with a 1950s chrome-over-brass snare, and I was quite surprised by how open, full, and controlled the snare sounded through the LA-320. It is a more open, laid back, vintage jazz-rock snare tone rather than a modern thrust. I do a lot of Americana and folk-style songs where the snare needs to sit back in the mix, and the LA-320 is perfect for such a task.
I only had one mic to test, so for capturing the whole kit, I tried it both as a mono overhead and as a front-of-kit mic. My personal preference was for the front-of-kit setup; I found the filter switches offered a nice option to control the room sound.
On vocals, the LA-320 will be a song/style-specific mic that works well in classic singer/songwriter, jazz, and classic country situations more so than modern pop, indie rock, or R&B, where bright modern forward mics are more in favor. I liked its smooth vintage quality on crooner-style vocals with both filters in. It also makes a very nice clean yet vibey voiceover mic.
Those were the standouts in my long list of trial sessions. On most other of the sources I mentioned above, the LA-320 just did its job and recorded the source with a nice hint of vibe. Rarely, if ever, did I think about its price point.
I did a search at a few online stores and there are less than five large-diaphragm tube mics in the $500 or less category, not counting sketchy no-name import fare. This places the LA-320 in a virtually untapped market, and it’s a standout not just because it has little competition. With a great tube-flavored but nicely tailorable sound, the LA-320 is easily among the very best budget tube mics I have used to date, and I can’t wait to try out Lauten’s other Series Black offerings.
More from: Lauten Audio, www.lautenaudio.com