British microphone manufacturers are few and far between — Soundfield, Coles, and Hebden Sound being the only three that come immediately to mind. However, we can now add to that list Newmann Retro, a newcomer to the market.
I'm not sure how good business would be if you started the Neekon camera company or the Lexas car company, but Newmann Retro is apparently named in recognition of the technical brains behind the project, a retired electrical engineer called John Newman. However, the company is owned and run by a very enthusiastic chap called Steve Bull, who says the inspiration for his first microphone product was the years of personal frustration with the very high cost and sonic variability of classic vintage valve mics.
As always, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and while specifications and technical measurements can be very informative, the raison d'être of a microphone is to capture and, arguably, to shape sounds — and only the ear can tell how good it is in that respect.
Since almost all valve mics have their own power supply and don't require phantom power, my choice of microphone preamps to pair with the Retro was wider than usual. Purely because it is fabulous and I don't get to use it as much as I would like, I opted to use the AEA TRP preamp — a design intended for ribbon mics, but which works very well with valve mics too. The TRP is extremely clean and neutral, and very quiet to boot, so I could be sure that any sonic character was the microphone's and nothing to do with the preamp. I also used it with a GML 8400 and Focusrite 428, achieving very similar results.
Since the only way to mount the mic is with the supplied cats-cradle, that's the way I mounted it — and it seemed to serve the purpose of isolating stand vibrations pretty well. However, the microphone does seem quite sensitive to vibrations coming up the mic cable, which is relatively stiff and heavy. There's no mechanical cable decoupling provided on the cradle at all, so I would recommend taping a loop of the cable to the stand, to try to isolate as much vibration as possible.
Overall the Newmann Retro's sound character is fairly neutral, but with a crisp and airy top end. This brightness isn't overdone and it didn't over-emphasise vocal sibilance, but it certainly adds a sparkle and sheen to instruments like acoustic guitars, percussion and pianos, as well as capturing a lot of detail. The bottom end of the spectrum is well balanced but slightly 'laid-back', and that creates the impression that the deep bass is not as extended as some other mics. Again, this didn't cause any problems with a wide variety of sources, and if anything it contributed to clean-sounding mixes without the need for 'window filtering'.
The Retro is quite 'tubey' in its character — I think few would be in any doubt that this is a valve mic — but the effect is not as overdone as many I can think of. Overall, the spectral balance seems very well judged and the slightly rich quality through the mid-range isn't overly plummy or bass heavy in the way that a lot of valve mics can be. Thanks to the overall neutral character, most vocal and instrumental recordings sounded good in a mix without needing much, if any, EQ — something that I think is always the sign of a very 'usable' microphone.
In cardioid mode, the proximity effect is moderate and easily workable, although I noticed a distinct trend towards hypercardioid with a rear tail at low frequencies. Through the mid-range and high end, the pattern was far better controlled, affording better rejection of spill or room ambience. The omni pattern lost a little HF at the sides, but then most switchable-pattern mics do. The figure-of-eight pattern had nice deep side nulls and the same sound character front and rear — so you could use this mic as the side element of an M/S array.
Close vocals without a windshield resulted in a few plosive pops, but fitting the supplied screen cured that easily enough. However, you wouldn't want to have to fit and remove the pop screen often — I found it a bit too fiddly for that. The microphone appears to have plenty of headroom, and I rarely needed the 10dB pad. I hardly used the low-cut filter either, such was the controlled low-frequency response of this mic.
The mic's relatively high self-noise became apparent occasionally when comparing it directly with solid-state mics, so I don't think the Retro would be my first choice for spoken word or exposed, delicate solo instrument recordings — but having said that, it was never a problem within a full mix.
On a couple of occasions I noticed a tendency for the Retro to pick up mains hum, but this always turned out to be because the power-supply mains lead had inadvertently become wrapped around or placed across the microphone cable, and separating the cables resolved the problem completely. Clearly, there was some sort of induction issue there, but I'm told this has been fixed with an improved cable in all current models.
I also noticed a distinct 'ping' sound whenever the mic was subjected to any physical knock. Changing any of the switch positions would generate it, as would tapping the mic or capsule mesh. This seemed to be some kind of mechanical resonance within the capsule itself, and once the ear had locked on to it, it was quite recognisable. Fortunately, it didn't seem to cause any problems during recordings, but it is clearly a concern and some further attention to capsule damping or component tensioning is probably required.