After years as a vintage mic repairer, and with some components becoming harder to find, John Peluso set about finding alternative ways to give his customers the vintage sounds they loved. We put one of his finest offerings to date - the Peluso P-280 - to the test at Headliner HQ. Peluso as a mic manufacturer has been around for some time now and has built its reputation on capturing the essence and sonic qualities of various legendary microphones: from Neumann to Telefunken and AKG. While keeping the legacy of now discontinued but highly sought after models alive, they are perhaps taking over from where the R&D departments of the aforementioned manufacturers left off. In other words, they are not making copies but looking for new component level ways to recreate all that was special and much loved about those vintage legends.
It’s lovely to see a man with a passion for what he has done to keep great vintage microphones in service - and even better when you consider that these products are painstakingly designed, built and assembled by hand in what looks very much like a small cottage industry. Every Peluso mic has been passed through the hands of the man himself, and that’s a rare occurrence in this day and age. More recently, Peluso brought out a couple of designs based on their own preferences and ideas: firstly, the PS-1, a highend handheld Large Diaphragm Condenser (LDC) aimed at live work; and more recently the P-280, a LDC vacuum tube studio microphone. It’s the more recent P-280 which arrived at our studio just in time for second lockdown, beautifully presented in a sturdy wooden box within a flight case complete with power supply, five-metre 8-pin mic cable, shock mount, and direct mount. The P-280 features the same tube and FET gain stage as Peluso’s P-28 which is inspired by the likes of the Neumann KM54 and similar, but featuring a smaller 34mm diaphragm. So with no specific emulation in mind and no single product to compare it to, how does this mic stack up against the alternatives; and does it represent good value for money? Today it is possible to buy great microphones with a vintage vibe or characteristic within a whole range of budgets, so that is our starting point. The P-280 retails for around $1,800 (£1,600) and of course within that price range is a multitude of alternatives. In the same way that digital technology has put the power to create back in the hands of musicians, the competition that has built amongst microphone designers and manufacturers has also produced a massive push toward better quality and lower prices. And over the last few years, I’ve found myself selling off a Neumann or two to fund a number of mics I had never previously heard of, simply because I liked the sound. The P-280 is a beautifully packaged microphone which looks and feels every bit a vintage classic; with its dark finish it has a bit of a Sony C100 and Manley reference vibe going on. It’s not often you see a high end studio LDC in black, but that hasn’t stopped it looking every inch attractive and classy. There’s often a slight disparity between various condensers, but while gaining this mic up you become immediately aware of its incredibly low noise floor. I don’t own a tube mic this quiet – in fact, I’m not sure I own a mic with a lower noise floor, period. It’s always difficult to be completely objective when you’re being performer and engineer, which is why I prefer to use other people’s musicianship and performances for equipment reviews and stick to wearing my engineering cap. So we set up a series of recordings to see exactly what this mic is capable of, running it through a Merging Anubis.
"The P-280 produces a transparent and accurate recording..."
So let’s start with the vocal. I often favour performance over technical perfection, but I think with the flexibility of a good mic like the P-280 you can get both. One little test that I love to check a LDC for is the transition from cardioid to wide cardioid and possibly on to omni if you absolutely have to. This is especially useful for animated performers, and so long as you’re not working in an odd shaped, odd-sounding room, can be perfect for increasing the pickup area and negating the proximity effect, that way maintaining a consistent-sounding vocal even though the performer might be constantly on the move. This can really help put young performers at ease if they’re new to recording. Having five variation of patterns from omni through wide cardioid to cardioid gives you a lot of flexibility in tailoring the EQ, proximity effect, and possible air movement to give you the result you’re looking for - and the P-280 doesn’t disappoint. The mic produces a really transparent and accurate recording. Cardioid certainly produced the best results - and for a close, in your face smooth crooning style male vocal at around six to eight inches, it’s very impressive. For a more dynamic vocal - to avoid the plosives - you would have to go back a couple more inches, but staying on axis still produces a really full and detailed up front image. But even on cardioid there was a good consistent field of pickup that allowed for a reasonably animated performance. The recordings had clean, clear midrange detail with all the warmth and depth you could want in the low mid to keep the voice close. The top end was detailed without being too bright, and although with plenty of presence, it didn’t bite or become sibilant. Between the team, we have a number of acoustic guitars, and this is the instrument that got the most attention. I have a beaten up old classical guitar which also got a dusting down - normally not the easiest instrument to record – and even that sounded pretty good, and gave me an excuse to treat it to a new set of strings. It’s the tube stage again adding that little magic and keeping those low mids smooth and musical, even moving the sound hole closer to the mic was surprisingly bearable and not unpleasant. The P-280 effortlessly coped, and faithfully took all the low resonance in its stride. Headliner’s editor had been busy in the time he’d spent with the P-280 before it got to me, and recorded a piece which he’d set up a couple of cameras on; this video shows you how forgiving pointing the mic towards the sound hole can be, and how rich the lows remained alone with how detailed and transparent this recording is. I quickly warmed to this mic, which is impressive, as I didn’t have it for long. It kind of reminded me of a Neumann M149 in terms of its versatility and its generally forgiving nature. The cardioid pattern opened out in a generous way but maintained a lot of control and rejection until you got close to the full omni setting, and likewise the hyper and super cardioid settings really gave you some great off-axis rejection without destroying the audio quality, should you stray. During my time with this mic, on more than one occasion I thought I heard an old 1960s U67 I once owned. This is a great-sounding mic with vintage style response, and even though I have a number of alternatives, I still found this inspirational - as Headliner’s editor did, coming up with a new piece of music as a result of his section of this review. I, however, now have a very strong desire to spend money... and a need to go and find out what other hidden gems are lurking in the Peluso range.