Confession time… I bought this mic without having ever heard it. I was in the market for a no-holds-barred professional vocal mic, and this one certainly fit the bill. I couldn’t quite afford a Neumann U87, as it just barely exceeded what the university would allow to be placed on a credit card. At the time, the LT-386 was being sold for (gasp) $2499. Sweetwater has it listed at $2999 today. I would have gone with the U87 in the moment, but fate had other plans. I’m really glad it did; sometimes having a less common mic is more fun.
One of the great joys of owning any piece of musical equipment is learning how to use it. However, music gear tends to require a LOT of work to learn. Unlike our other senses, our hearing acclimates to sound very quickly and becomes about as objective as… well… as our sense of morality. Making decisions about what “sounds good” or constitutes an improvement is far more complicated that it may at first appear.
When my LT-386 first arrived, it was even more visually stunning than I had imagined. I knew that, if nothing else, it would impress any vocalist who stepped in front of it. A good-looking mic gets the artist hyped and makes for a fun beginning to the session, but to get down to business and really learn the sound, I needed to reference it against a known aural quantity. On that first day I tested it against my previous go-to tube large diaphragm condenser (M-Audio Sputnik) as well as an AKG 414. It certainly reminded me of the flavor of other ultra-high-dollar tube mics I had borrowed and used in the past (i.e. Bock Audio). Smooth, deep, detailed… I almost thought “better than the Sputnik and 414!” …but this wasn’t my first rodeo. Just because I liked my voice better on day one didn’t mean the LT-386 was a better mic. Still, I was pleased enough for unboxing day.
That was a long time ago. After years of using this mic, the thing I like best about it is that it definitely avoids the brittle and/or harsh sound that many mics, even thousand-dollar condensers, tend to impart. When I have chosen other, more expensive mics (after a soloed vocal shootout for example), I have gone back and compared the $5K-plus mic to the LT-386 on the same vocalist. The $5K mic may have won in a soloed pre-tracking shootout, but in the mix I always seem to be surprised how little difference I hear. Quite often I prefer the Lauten and wish I had not been seduced by the solo test (though you have to try new things).
Oddly enough, one of my favorite uses for this mic is drum overheads. I have become a big fan of the mid-side technique for drums, and the LT-386 is my secret sauce. The Eden is always the “mid” mic, and I pair it with either a 414 XLS or a ribbon mic as the figure-8 “side” mic. For the sort of groovy, rootsy, americana music I tend to do, this provides a great vibe. If a punk band comes in and I need less detail, I trade out the Eden for a Sennheiser MD441. In fact, that’s a great way to think of the LT-386… it’s sort of like a 441 with more tube-y, condenser-y goodness.
This mic has a big bottom. Not all tube mics do, but there is definitely an obvious low-end color to the Eden. You can minimize it, of course, if you want to. There are options for two stages of high-pass filtering. Once in a while I’ll use the Eden for voice-over, and, unless you want fat, radio DJ bass for your audio book, rolling off the bass is a good idea. The smooth top end will still keep things sounding comfortable and easy on the ears. However, the big bottom is a color than you can’t easily replicate. If you apply it to sources that truly benefit from it, that warm, syrupy tone really does become the secret sauce I was talking about.
In the years that have passed, I have had the chance to compare the LT-386 to a U87 and other well-known studio standards. It definitely holds its own. But the wise engineer knows it’s not about which mic is “best.” It’s about having a diversity of colors and learning to paint with them in an aesthetically pleasing way. The Eden has a very unique color, and I like the fact that it can flatter so many sources in a manner than helps me to create sonic recipies I’m proud to send off to the mixer.
Yes, this is the singularly most expensive mic (by far) in the recording studio collection. Recording studios do, in my opinion, have a bit of a fantasy element to them. Clients often come to studios with the expectation of having access to gear that they themselves cannot afford. Is the price of the LT-386 worth it? I think that depends entirely upon how (and how often) it may be used. As a teacher, and from an educational standpoint alone, I’d say yes. Dozens of students get a chance to listen to this bad boy and develop an ear for how it sounds versus other options. I think they’d be disappointed if they took four semesters of recording classes and couldn’t hear what a top-shelf vocal mic sounds like. I also think this mic is a great choice for the serious recordist or content creator. If an artist knows they will be working for years and years and making recordings like crazy, this mic could easily be a centerpiece for a project studio. However, if someone simply wants to record their first three-song demo… I’d not recommend buying a microphone of this magnitude in order to do accomplish that goal.
One of the great revelations of working with microphones, instruments, and vocalists is that even cheap or ostensibly “low-quality” gear can be not only useful, but absolutely fantastic when applied in the right way. Likewise, super-expensive gear (how many times have I heard someone say, “now this is a REAL microphone!”) can and will fall flat when used haphazardly. Every piece of gear, just like every person, has strengths and weaknesses. I’m sold on the idea that every collection of musical equipment is unique (just like every community of creators), and therefore can be used to create something that no other collection is capable of creating. I’m fortunate enough to work in a studio where there are justifiable reasons for spending a bit more than the average garage band’s budget on music gear. But you will never know what your own collection is truly capable of unless you sink the time necessary into creating and tasting your own recipes. It’s better get to work with what you have, and in time you’ll develop a better idea of what pieces you may be lacking.
Feel free to check out how this mic sounds on Haleigh Martin’s vocal track for “Like A Lady” on Spotify and Apple Music. We recorded and mixed that track entirely in-house as part of the recording techniques minor at Murray State.