I was one of the lucky ones who picked up Oktavas when they were dirt cheap. $100 for a pair of MK 012 Small Diameter Condenser (SDC) pencil mics and another C-note for the Large Diameter Condenser (LDC) 319. They have been a stable here at home. Other mics have come and gone, but that $200 was a jolly good deal. The 319 remained my main vocal mike for a long time. However, many of the vocal recording at my humble home studio are of a female singers and the 319, combined with lots of compression, tends to make altos sibilant. So I started using one of the 012s. Although the 012 captures more bass than the 319, a phenomenon I always found strange, it didn’t completely resolve the issue. The whole thing is a mystery, since both models of Oktavas are considered “dark” mics. Of course, talking about sound is as pointless as describing color to a dog – unless you are in the same room and can identify exactly what you mean by “dark” or “orange” (and the dog is really, really smart). But I think what others mean by dark is that Oktavas don’t accentuate the highs or lows of a captured sound, so the midrange tends to lean forward. They aren’t bassy like a ribbon and the high end isn’t rolled off. But the mid-forward sound gets them called warm or muffled, depending on whether one likes that sound or not. Me, I like it. I grew up listening to country and western on the AM that my Dad dialed in. Then it was the English Invasion (the first one – they ought to start numbering them) in glorious mono on KLIF, eleven-ninety (still catchy all these years later if you know the jingle), along with all the 60’s pop – good and bad. Later it was 70’s rock, then punk. All that music passed through tubes and tape and big-assed transformers to give a sound as thick and luxurious as the Breck girl’s hair. Today, we use digital. Nice and clean and clear and precise. Each has its strength and place. The Oktavas aren’t tube or tape and the transformers are quite small, but they still help round out the digital medium, smoothing the percussion cap edges just a hair.

 The 319 has been a rock, and works on most everything. Male vocals, sax, guitar cabinet, drum overhead or room, etc. The two 012s cover most everything else. But of course I wanted more mics, or at least one great one. Preferably perfect for female vocalists. The lust was quite theoretical, since I don’t really have the money needed for an expensive mic here to use at home. Then I went and dropped my 319 and it came up with a dent in the head basket. It seemed to be fine immediately afterwards, but on the next session it sounded … all phasey. I had pondered upgrading the 319 before this happened – since it is a damn fine mic as is and figured if modding made it even a little better I might not have to spend a grand or two (or more!) here at home to upgrade. I’ve heard great mics and knew I’d often gotten comparable recordings with the 319, although not consistently. And since I had to get it fixed anyway, that gave me a good excuse to get it modded at the same time.

I picked Michael Joly because of the his reputation. There are other modders and kits too, but I have a tendency to take stuff apart and, if I do get it back together, have a few parts left over. I’d never heard a peep against Mr. Joly’s work and you know how the internet is. You can have an elixir that turns water into wine or lead into gold and someone, somewhere, will complain they don’t like red wine or it is only 14 karat gold, not pure 24. A simple email got the ball rolling. Michael suggested the full mod, naturally, and pointed out he had a special on the “Floating Dome” PE (premium electronics). I had been thinking of just getting the standard modification, but decided to go whole hog. Like my better half shopping for shoes, it became all about how much I could save. And a good mic should last longer than a pair of shoes. The standard mod is $179, while the PE is $249. The PE Floating Dome special was $279, $20 less than its regular price and that of the PE “Flathead” mod. The Flathead looks uber cool, but a man has to draw a line somewhere when spending money, so I got the PE Floating Dome.

Since I was reviewing the Warm W-12 preamp for Tape Op, Michael kindly rushed the mod and I had it off his desk and back in my grubby little hands in a little over a week. One caveat to the prices, though, is you have to pay to ship it to Michael. And return, unless he is running a special (which he was at the time). You can read about what all the mods entail at his website. Suffice for this non-electrical engineer to say is that one of the obvious things he does is remove the internal screen so you can see all the lovely gold sputtering on the LD. And no, I don’t know if it is 14 karat or not, but figured if I could see it better – it can capture sound better. Both the Floating Dome and Flat Top also remove the struts that support the original basket head. Once again, that seems like a good thing, and since I don’t plan on dropping the mic for another 7 or 8 years, desirable.

That evening I had a Dickey Johnson over for testing. Dickey is a mild-mannered account by day but a guitar-slinging primate at night who plays with various local Dallas bands and in national studios. I also had one of those sibilant singers available. I demoed her first, hooking the Oktava through the Warm preamp since the review was looming. My review statement stands – “Wow.” You can go to Tape Op to read my thoughts on the preamp in question, but the mic definitely helped with the “Wow.” People throw out statements like “it was as if a veil was lifted.” Which is fine, if you are blind and overdriving crappy equipment. I never felt the 319 veiled the sound, but there was obviously more openness after the mod. Excuse me for flashing back here, but the sound on the singer’s voice was more … granular. I could hear deeper into the sound, the strata that make up the whole sound, the way the individual particles rub together, yadda yadda yadda. Must be what they mean by a veil, but to my ears there is simply more there there. More depth to the sound, more air around it, and within it. It brought a smile to my face, which is what any good tool should do. I wouldn’t venture a guess about how much better the modded 319 sounded percentage wise, nor can I say by how much it falls short of classic mics that cost multiples of what I spent. I do know it sounds better than before, and it sounded good then. Maybe clients can hear the improvement, while maybe the downstream audience can’t tell the difference on their computer speakers or ear buds, but the difference in quality remains and makes my job easier (and me happier, healthier and a more productive member of society).

 I found the same granular phenomenon with Dickey’s electric guitar. He used a Roland amp, which is mid-rangy itself, so the “new” 319 cut through nicely. But the sound is all there, too, giving a nice balance. The Warm preamp is a nice combination for the mic since it throughputs all the bass, which is something you can filter out but can’t put back in. That solid low mid bass provided a good foundation for the higher cut, which helped the guitar from sounding strident while it did its cutting thing. None of that fingernails on the blackboard methodology.

 It also seemed to tame some of the sibilance on the female voice, though some of that again was the Warm preamp. But I also used the Portico II on her for the actual recording, and there wasn’t any real sibilance problems. I guess I need to have her sing something written in Slytherin before I can give the mod a full thumbs up. But until I do, I’ll let the mod take credit. Part of this sibilance issue, I know, is my ears. As I’ve gotten older such frequencies have gotten more irritating, like a moog filter with resonance just starting to build up at the cut off. Yes, I can still hear over that 7 kHz range but I know my ears dip above it, which is scary when mixing for a younger audience. The other part of it is the stereo system in the Jeep I’m driving these days. Sibilance and other frequencies in that range just pop out like Orca’s baby. I have a synth song that sounded great on my studio monitors and my home system and sounded good on computer speakers. It also had one high, distorted sound that just disembodied itself in the Jeep. Hell, even John Cale has some sibilance in the Jeep, and his is the last voice I’d expect it on. But ears and Jeep aside, it does show if there is a sonic problem (even minor), and I’d rather solve it at the source than at mix. The Oktava mod seems to help.

Of course I’m aware of the placebo effect and don’t discount the “I paid good money for Y and just know it sounds better than my old X” syndrome. I try to factor that, too, and like to spend time with X ‘til some of the shine wears off. And when I listen to some of my older recordings there is nothing wrong with them. Solid technique will beat better equipment any day, or most days, anyway. But I don’t have any qualms in stating the Joly Mod makes my 319 a better mic. I still lust after an uber mic for use here at home, but it ain’t so urgent anymore. In fact, no I’m wondering when I can get my pencil Oktavas modded. And that is as big of an endorsement of the value of the Joly Mods I can give – to throw more money at a solution that isn’t that bad to begin with.