Oktava Mods: The Morals of Modding MC-012 Microphones

There has been a lot of discussion in previous years about modding the Oktava MC-012. Michael Joly made a business out of this and Bill Sitler also offers a mod service and kits for these microphones. There are tons of articles (and some business claims) that proudly say, “Turn your Oktava MC-012 into a Neumann KM-84!” This would be amazing, since we’re dealing with a $1,000 mic versus a $150 one on the used market. Are they true, or even close to true?

Oktava MK-012 MicrophoneThese claims are not accurate in my experience – no Oktava MC-012 I’ve ever heard sounds close to a KM-84, modded or not, and the mics don’t share the same circuit topologies. However, if you had instead asked, “Do I get a performance enhancement that is comparable to the mod price?” Well then, yes, you do in many cases. Here’s where a mod can help:

  • your Oktava MC-012 is not working
  • your mic has intermittent problems
  • your mic sounds seriously crappy compared to other examples you have tried

If your Oktava MC-012 doesn’t fit those categories, then congratulations, you have an average to above average MC-012! These mics had absolutely junky quality control during a long middle period and the range of quality can be fairly extreme. Before you go and get your mic packed up to send away, note that there’s a twist that no one seems to ever mention on the interweb – it’s not the bodies that have the widest range of quality spread; it’s the capsules. They can be quite nice, or (nearly) useless crap. It’s not unreasonable to think that you could mod (or get your MC-012 modded) and have it come back as a slightly better version of something you’d rather not use. None of the guys that mod these things ever deal with the capsule, because I don’t believe that there is not much you can do with it. The variation in capsules alone will almost guarantee that your modded MC-012 won’t sound like whatever else you’ve heard in internet clips.

Discrete version of Oktava MC-012

Discrete version of Oktava MC-012 (courtesy of Saturn Sound)

I’ve done before and after testing (same capsule both times) of a later model MC-012-01 using Bill Sitler’s standard mod kit and while it did improve the high end a slight amount and the low end was a bit tighter, it was not a night and day difference. It did not change the character, or make the mic sound like a KM-84…not even close. It simply made the mic sound like a good example of a MC-012 when before, it sounded like a below average example. A much larger difference in sound was found by swapping capsules. Before you write that option off, the $25 to not have to source the components is a small price to pay for laziness/convenience and the benefit very much does outweigh the cost in this case. But, you have to do the work yourself. Even in the best of cases, you can only polish a design so far before you are limited by component size and other factors outside of your control, like the capsule. If you want a quick rundown of what is usually involved in modding one of these, see this GroupDIY article.

Older module version of Oktava MC-012

Another version of the MC-012 (courtesy of Saturn Sound)

It should be noted that Michael Joly has been vocal in the past about the fact that he doesn’t just replace components – he dials the FET and other components in to their ideal operating voltages. This is fair – it is likely that whatever components you replace probably bring with them different voltage and current needs than the stock pieces.

Then there are the older MC-012 mics with the very thin font and no “-01” designation, early in the days of the ASM distribution. For a comparison, see the featured image for this post – there are four different MC- designated mics that share two major circuit layouts and two sets of similar components, and all were made by the Oktava factory. There are even older examples that have different capsule designs and even earlier circuits, too. The ones I am thinking of still used the wet slug tantalum electrolytic capacitors in the more “modern” circuit configuration and some of these sound really, really good. In fact, these bodies can sound as good or better than any modded body I’ve ever come across, including two OktavaMod examples that had come through the studio in the past. However, you have to buy a lot of MC-012s to find a good example, and there’s a good chance you’ll have to send it to off to the mod shop once one of those wet slug caps fails, something that is not uncommon. Many thanks to Ashley at Saturn Sound for his permission to use these photos of the Oktava MC-012 internals!

Two older model Okatav MC-012 Microphones

Two older model Oktava MC-012 Microphones (courtesy of Saturn Sound)

Why does this niche market even exist? Couple with rich media and popular message boards on the web, the pro audio press, some smart techs, and crappy quality control from Oktava in the past, these mod companies serve as the good quality control department that Oktava never had. If you asked me if the $120 invested in Michael Joly’s shop plus the cost of the mic is worth it, I’d probably say go for it if you think your mic isn’t up to speed with other examples you’ve heard. Or, if you really like the mic and want the most out of it, then $250 as a total investment isn’t unreasonable at all. The good examples of these mics (modded or not) have a place in any mic locker and they work very well on some sources.

For a second opinion of how good the OktavaMod MC-012s are, I asked Anthony D’Erasmo, owner of Digital Doctorz – a busy New York City studio & music business – if he wouldn’t mind offering his take on the OktavaMod MC-012 mods. Anthony has a lot of experience in this industry and has been around many types and classes of microphones. I have much respect for his opinion:

From what they originally sounded like to what they sound like now, it is amazing! I have U47’s, Gefell UM70s, 92’s, U67s, and U87’s… The Joly-modded MC-012s are quite different from all the high-end stuff, but they have a formidable character unto themselves. They have their own place on certain things I do and they work very well with acoustic strings, upright bass, cello, and violins. And, they are really good room mics.

With that said, know that one of the biggest potential limitations in these microphones is the capsule* (and possibly, your propensity for being swayed with advertising claims that you really, really want to believe). If you have a good capsule, you’re going to have a very different opinion than someone who may have the same modded body, but a poor quality capsule.

So for $600ish, you aren’t doing bad with the modded MC-012 mics by any stretch of the imagination. It’s certainly easier than betting on 10 pairs of ebay purchases and $3,000 to find two diamonds in the rough!

*One other note – new capsules have a rounded edge to them, where the old ones have a sharper 45 degree angle cut on the edge. I have heard great older examples, but not very many good newer examples of this capsule. Maybe I got some duds? The very old capsules do not expand outward from the body to the edge and keep roughly the same diameter as the body – these are fairly rare in my experience.

Capsule variations in the Oktava MC-012

Capsule variations in the Oktava MC-012 (courtesy of Saturn Sound)

Also, the only easy way to tell the Chinese “fake” MC-012s is to look at the body retaining screws at the end of the mic – they shouldn’t have a black phillips head on them.

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