Originally Posted: Mon, 23 April 2007
Whether or not you've actually heard of Klaus Heyne, you've certainly heard his work. Most famously known for the Brauner VM-1 KHE (Klaus Heyne Edition), a ten thousand dollar microphone that is a jewel in any mic locker, Klaus has mostly been modifying and converting microphones for studios and artists for a couple of decades now. Any mic with a Klaus Heyne mod usually drives the value up, which is typically not the case when somebody modifies a vintage microphone.
Why are Klaus and his work so highly revered? Well, I had a chance to catch up with him this October at AES and find out about the man, his philosophy and his plans.
How did you wind up doing what it is that you've now become so well known for' How did you end up in the field of microphone specialty?
You've got to go very, very far back, to the '60s, when I witnessed the first refinement, if you can call it that, of good sounding guitar amplifiers; Like when I saw Jimi Hendrix the first time in 1966. There was magic when sounds sounded good. They touched you. When sound didn't sound good, it went to your brain to analyze, to maybe appreciate it on a cerebral level but certainly not on a visceral level. As I was playing in a high school band, and later as a professional bass player in a fairly well-known German band, any time I would make a selection of an instrument, of an amplifier, of a speaker, a loudspeaker cabinet, it became clear to me that there was a hierarchy of quality. Not a bandwidth of taste, but clearly, in my mind, a vertical hierarchy ' an absolute hierarchy. A Celestion Blue Cone sounded absolutely better to my ears than an Eminence or even a Jensen, or whatever. And sometimes you couldn't really tell by price.
I went to law school, in Frankfurt, and then I also did an apprenticeship as a luthier/guitar maker in a violin shop ' and at the same time I was also playing in bands. Later, I started my own little shop out of my 5th floor apartment building and I did repairs -electric guitars mostly, and some acoustic guitars, too. And then again realized that there were quite some differences here. You know, I got to play with the Schaller copy of a Gibson humbucker ' I said, what is the point of issuing the Schaller thing'
And then, during the Frankfurt Music Show, '72 or '73, I forget which year, I wandered through the aisles, and there's these demo-booths with windows you can look in. I saw this '53 Goldtop leaning against an amplifier, and I said 'whoa' ' there was nobody there, and I thought: 'that's nice'' so I walk in and I start doodling. I do not know what happened- I lost track of space and time- but it so happened that a man walked in and started to grab a bass. And maybe an hour later, I look outside of this window and there's a solid wall of people watching us play. It was one of those key experiences you have in your life. The man was Dan Armstrong, and we instantly became friends.
At that point, we recognized so many similarities in our loves and dislikes in music, musicians and instruments, and he said 'Do you want to become the importer for my instruments in Germany'' and I said 'What do you have'' And at the time he was still issuing these Boosey and Hawkes amplifiers where you supposedly could model any kind of different amplifier with some kind of bogus graphic equalizer thing. I said 'you know that still has the Boosey and Hawkes tone, no matter what you do.' He says 'I like what you're saying, come to England with me, because I'm starting a new project.'
Dan is English?
He was an American disenchanted with his country. He had the biggest guitar shop in New York - Mid Town Manhattan - catering to professional musicians. He was the main man for Eric Clapton during Cream. He was the guy who glued back together Eric's SG after the head broke off. And he was also doing repairs for all the other seminal players of that time. He was always an inventor as well. And of course he's the one who came up with the Ampeg Lucite clear guitar later. So anyway, he invited me to London. I took a leave of absence from law school and he put me up in his house.
How old were you at this time?
22 / 23. And in and out walks Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood ' everybody who was anybody walked in and out of his place. They were all his friends. He was in the middle of finalizing his new Dan Armstrong London Instruments, guitar and bass. So I helped with a few things, because I had a luthier background, and had always been interested in the principles and mechanics of good sustain.
I went back to Frankfurt and became the exclusive importer for his instruments in Germany. But it was tough going. The early 1970s were not a good time for introducing new guitars and new concepts of sustain or any of Dan's innovative concepts in Germany. People barely got over the shock of shitty Stratocasters, and were trying to figure out what to do with that.
So that didn't last long and then I got the fever, and went to America. I barely finished law school, but without a final exam. I went to San Francisco in a Greyhound bus and got a job at Don Wehr's Music City, biggest music store in the world at the time. I worked there for a couple of years. Then I started my own shop in Bolinas, on the other side of the bridge, and took the best clients with me, like Santana, Journey, etc.
As my parents still lived in Germany, I would go back to visit and often would read 'Funkschau' magazines that carried ads about surplus microphones. I had always had a Neumann U87 from my recording days with this band in Germany. It was a 1967 U87, which always worked really well, and was a really nice compliment to anything I wanted to record. And one day, I saw an ad for an auction in Cologne, where I bought a Neumann KM54 and took it with me to America, plugged it in and said 'this can't be true.' This little thing has this sexy sound ' a sex appeal that the U87 didn't quite have. I said, 'This is very interesting - 50 dollars for this, and they are selling them for $500 here.' So I went back to Germany and went to auctions of the Public Broadcast System.
And I would bring back M49s, M50s, all the broadcast mics ' U47s they didn't have, because by that time they only used broadcast models, including SM69, KM25x and similar models. I fixed them up enough so they would work, but then realized, 'Wait a minute, these broadcast chokes and other impediments to good sound, they don't make any sense. Why don't we take them out'' So I would take them out and of course then my customers would say, 'Hey this sounds great. Do the same for the one we already own.'
And so gradually, I was on my way. And anything that I did with microphones from then on was always guided by my ability not only to discern differences in sound, but to make a qualitative judgment on a vertical scale, to say 'This is better.' And it so happens that my hearing, or my brain, or however I process sound, is shared by the people who then became customers. Give me three capacitors, and I will tell you which I think is better. And my customers would say 'Yeah. Give us those three capacitors. We hear the same thing.'
That's why I keep coming back to absolutes. It is not a matter of taste. There are absolutes involved.
I think I stayed true to this principle through time. A major manufacturer approached me last year and said 'We want you to design a $1,000 microphone.' I said that I can't do that. It's impossible. He said, 'Make a few compromises, it will still be better than any other kind of microphone in this price class.'
I said, ''True, but I cannot live with that. I must be able to plug it in and feel good about what I hear, whether it's my design or somebody else's.' I can't say 'for what it is it sounds pretty good.' That's not how I live my life. I don't have that kind of approach. To me that's whoring , and thank god I never had to whore.
Which brings us to the Brauner VM-1 KHE. How exactly did your involvement with that come about?
I scanned many manufacturers of condenser mics on the Internet in '99 or '98 for their design philosophies. Because I had been successful in modifications at that point for about fifteen years, I'd always wanted to serialize what I had learned and what I knew somehow, and put it into a production microphone. And there was this mission statement on Dirk Brauner' s website, along the lines of 'We don't do negative feedback. We only do tubes, etc.' And I thought, this guy is saying something interesting, I should meet him.
So, at AES, here in '99, it was a fortuitous coming together. It was another crucial moment in my life. On the exhibition floor, we had Brad Lunde (from Transaudio) standing here, Dirk Brauner over here, and the guy who brought Audio-Technica to the United States, standing there, and he says, 'Dirk, you gotta work with this guy.' He had sent me an Audio-Technica 4033 and I made it sound pretty good for what it was, and he was real happy about it. And Brad Lunde, who was a close friend of the guy, had just become Dirk's distributor/importer. It was a fortuitous moment.
So I said, 'Dirk, I like what you're doing. Would you give me the chance to take one of your microphones, and let me see what I can do with it'' He said 'sure,' so I took the VM1 microphone back home to Oregon and modified it. I radically went at it, threw a lot of circuitry and components out and started almost from scratch.
And basically what is the nuts and bolts approach to your modification on those mics? What modifications are you doing to the capsule' Are there circuit modifications, component modifications?
I need to preface my answer by saying that the final, production version of the KHE is so very different from the VM1 that it is impossible to convert a VM1 to a KHE. Lots of VM1 owners keep approaching me about that, but it would be cost prohibitive to even try.
In the case of Dirk's VM1, there were circuitry, component and acoustic areas that I recognized as bottlenecks for good sound. Dirk's basic architecture was very simple and very straightforward. Almost ideal, but not quite. He could have made, in my opinion, a few different decisions with the design, circuitry wise, component wise, and also capsule wise. But he came upon a brilliant acoustic principle with the capsule that he was using for the VM1.
He designed the capsule but MBHO manufactured it?
No. First of all, there are no new capsules under the sun. There are exactly three families of large diaphragm condensers, no matter who manufactures them: K47, K67, CK12. Dirk chose the K67-type as basis for his capsule.
A dual backplate?
Yes. Two backplate halves, chambered and offset to each other. Great for high and high-mid frequencies, but phase problematic. That design gets really edgy if you don't do it right. So he had the idea, 'Why don't we use the best features of a K47 and a K67'' So, without going into too much detail, he made a compromise of the two, but he could have taken it further. So I started with my drill press and started to figure out how to perfect this backplate design. About the time the KHE was in the planning stage, Dirk started to go to a new type of machining for the diaphragms and the sputtering, and I said, 'I don't know why it doesn't sound as good anymore, but I don't want this for my model.' So Dirk had Haun (MBHO) make a backplate and diaphragm that's only used on the KHE. That capsule was very labor intensive to make, and there was reluctance to accommodate me. Again, there are idiosyncrasies in the world of sound, where it doesn't even matter whether I know how it exactly works, but I know right away whether it works or whether it doesn't.
Dirk said, 'Well the other one is much easier to make, much better on the frequency', and gave me lots of other good arguments not to use the labor intensive capsule for the KHE.
I said 'I don't care. It sounds sterile to me. I don't want this sound. I want that sound.' And, gentleman that he is, he agreed. So, when I was ready, I flew to Germany and we went to a very nice studio not far from his house. He was generous and courageous enough to do a blind test.
Afterwards he said, 'I like this very much.' And that's how it started. And that's always how it starts. You can't sell something unless you say, 'Can you hear the difference' Do you like this better''
Aside from changing out certain components, did you modify the circuit at all?
Yes. I modified the circuit. Changing components is ground floor work- everybody can do that, and I often chuckle when I take in a mic from a mic repairman, and I would find the exact duplication of a component or circuit modification of something I did at one time, but have abandoned since, like piggy backing capacitors!
But anyway, that's how it started with Brauner. Dirk, Brad and I formed a great symbiosis. Nobody messed around in the others' territory of competence. Of course, there were issues Dirk would sometimes complain about, because I was nitpicking. I would say 'the voltages are off on the latest batch, could you please fix that at the factory'. Because my royalties were not that much, so I couldn't do a lot of extra work in addition to fine-tuning every KHE for a client. There were some tube problems as well. So, I would go to my stash and take new old stock European tubes to replace the ones that came from the Brauner factory. Then again, at other times Dirk would deliver really beautiful sounding, everlasting tubes. Regardless, I would burn in every microphone for a week and get rid of any questionable tubes or other issues and make sure everything's really solid, so that the mic wouldn't come back (for repair).
The KHE was a five year run, and then Dirk, as of late last year, physically didn't feel good. I guess he attributed it to the stress he had from doing everything in his company himself. He decided to hire a worldwide distributor, who was located near by. This was of course a conflict for the KHE, because Brad Lunde, who put Dirk on the map in America, felt 'Wait a minute. I'm going to be treated just like a regular dealer now' That ain't working.' So, we terminated at serial no. 100. As soon as word got out, the orders came in. Brad just told me today that we have four more orders for KHE's. It was really, really tough to say "No more". Still, Dirk and I had a good meeting at AES yesterday and I feel forever grateful for what he did for my career.
So what's your process in personalizing? You said you personalize or custom tailor each KHE mic...
I'll give you an example. ' well, I'll give you two extreme examples: John Fogerty has a very unusual voice. You know, one can't say he sounds like a regular singer. He wanted a replacement for his old U47 which really sounded perfect for his style of singing. It was unusual in the sense that his voice was the perfect complement to this odd, one of a kind U47 sound. So he and I talked a lot on the phone about how to proceed. I decided to find a capsule for his new KHE that was the closest I could get to his U47 sound, kind of where the raspiness of this voice wouldn't be ear-shattering, but it would still be highlighted in the sense that that raspiness is his signature.
I always wondered, because you know one mic of course never fits all, and some people will sound brilliant on a C12 and awful on a U47 and vice versa...
Choosing the right mic model is always the absolute first decision to be made in the fine tuning process. A few years back I went through this with Barbra Streisand. We changed microphones. She used to be a 47 woman. It didn't work, in my opinion. It was not the right complement to her voice. It was almost like the features that are not so hot in her voice were boosted and the things that were really good and authoritative were suppressed. So you've gotta start with the right microphone. And then you dial it in within that palate or sound range of that microphone. You approach it from your aural, mental, hearing discretion. You go to where you say, ' This could work. This would not work so well.' You take a chance and send it out and you get feedback. And that's my job.
Last night on PBS was a biography of Andy Warhol. At one point in his career he started to make multiple print series of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor photo portraits, and they were all silkscreened; all were supposedly the same, but they all looked slightly different. He only like 32 or 36 of Marilyn Monroe. And you look at them and you get the feeling she looks depressed in one frame, and in the next one she looks happy. These seemingly identical prints somehow had slight variations creating varying expressions. And that is also our saving grace in the microphone business. Many of the automated, machine-made microphones have very, very high quality control with literally identical sonic results. But that's not really what people want, I think.
I came in on BART to the AES show just now. I looked around at the passengers: Blue jeans are still it. Why' Because of the ever changing shadings of blue, the hues ' They may want a cobalt shade of blue today, and tomorrow they may want a slightly more green one. And that is the secret to a desirable microphone as well: You keep that variation in the serial product ' you appreciate the variation, you don't suppress it: Fine, it's a little brighter here, ah ' that might be working well when you work with an old MCI 24 track. Is that what you're using' Oh you're using 16 bit DAT '' Oh, well I better go to a slightly darker shade of sound in the mic...
You work with these variations. And thank God for handmade capsules. Thank God that nobody can ever manufacture them identically by the millions. That was the downfall, in my mind, of AKG's glorious history in the 1970s. With new machining processes the company was certainly reigning in the extremes in sound that was common with the old CK12 capsules, and the complaints from the Austrian broadcasters that they couldn't use CK12-equipped stereo mics anymore for the Vienna Orchestras ' because left and right was never the same on these CK12s, stopped. But now nobody likes the new, automated, identical sounding successor capsules, but these imperfect CK12s have become the Holy Grail. Like, when the color of that indigo blue on those blue jeans is just right, you gladly pay 150 bucks for them and that's that.
So, Dirk and I made the tolerance spread of these handmade capsules a virtue. I'd say, ''OK, this works really good for this guy.' But at times it could also get really complicated. There was this case of Phil Collins needing one KHE in Switzerland, at his home studio, and he also wanted one for his film work at Disney, in L.A., and I had to make two that were supposed to sound identical. It wasn't easy to find two capsules that sounded halfway alike'. but you know those are the challenges. I find it harder to make two mics sound the same, rather than take advantage of the fine points in each capsule, and refine that sound.
Which goes to the myth of the matched stereo pair...
..yeah, right! For our matched stereo ears or our matched stereo eyes! Have you noticed, if you look at a white wall with one eye, and then you look at it with the other, you will see completely different hues of white' But the combination, of course, makes the music.
So who are some of the notable people that you have made custom mics for, for instance, aside from the VM-1KHE clients, the people you've done modifications for?
Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Huey Lewis, Julio Iglesias, Steve Perry, going back to that time...Among current clients I recently started to work with is a producer whose work I've admired for a while- Jon Brion.
You once told me you did a 414-EB for...
For Whitney Houston, but I ELA M'd it.
It's really a royal pain to modify because there's so little space. But boy, what a pocket rocket. What a killer microphone.
It's using a...
...real CK12, but then a very simple FET design, with not much circuit redundancy, but just a simple FET design, straight out.
What exactly is the ELA M circuit, as found in the Telefunken ELA M 251?
What the ELA M circuit does, in difference to the C12 (which shares the same capsule, tube and transformer as the ELA M-251), is that it has a direct wire connection between the capsule and input of the impedance converter. Whereas the C12 has a coupling capacitor in between, which is already one level of sound degradation. The way the tube is biased is also different in the ELA M and the C12. So you can adapt the better sounding system, even when you have a FET (solid state amplifier). A FET is nothing else but a silicon triode. It's almost the same thing, sonically. Only when it get really loud does the FET show its ugly face. If you stay within moderate sound pressure levels, it's really, really hard to tell the difference between a FET circuit and a tube circuit, if they are otherwise identical in design. Except, there's no noise in a FET circuit. It has always been the shitty implementation of FET circuitry that has given FET microphones a bad rap, notably the U87. What a lousy design that was! And the 414, too.
But at that time everyone was so happy they didn't have to bother with tubes...
So how do you see the current state of what's going on with microphones' You know, you have the two big monolithic microphone manufacturers who seem to be at least in a state of decline?
Who are they?
I would say Neumann/Sennheiser, AKG...
AKG is no longer there.
Since Norbert Sobol left, I can't see their philosophy of good sound lasting any longer, because they are not coming out with any product that is any different from what RØDE is doing, or what Audio-Technica is doing. It's the Harman International conglomerate approach to microphones, and that's why Norbert Sobol had to go. He doesn't fit in there. That Old World idea of quality or sensual approach ' no way. So ask the question again'
Well, there seemed to be a couple different things going on; you have some boutique manufacturers like Brauner, then you have a handful of people who are going for recreations, or inspirations I should say, of various microphones, and then you have the large microphone companies. What do you think is going on with the landscape? How do you see things progressing, and what would you really like to see happen differently?
Well let's look at the microphone bags that we have right now, in 2006. In one bag are mics made with fully automated manufacturing using highly efficient, low-priced, surface mount technology. We don't have to name names. We all know who they are.
Then you've got the bag of copycats that say 'wait a minute, we'll make money, because people have got to go somewhere when they can't quite afford the real thing, and they don't want to hassle with spare parts', so their customers buy the Ford AC-Cobra clones for slightly less.
And you don't have to worry about getting in a fender bender.
And then you have a few individuals who are tinkerers. David Bock is one of those guys. He's very opinionated about what he likes. He actually enjoys listening to music, and has good listening equipment at home- we both share a love for E.A.R. audiophile equipment. Then there is Dirk Brauner. He has a very different approach from David Bock. But certainly equally valid. David Bock certainly alludes to classic designs in his mic models. But he's not an outright shameless cloner, yet, he certainly understands there is a great market for people with a little bit more money in their project studio business. He is the bridge between the mass manufacturer and the super premium stuff. Valid approach. Great education for the next generation of mic aficionados.
Who else do we have' And what else do we have' Well, we have Microtech Gefell. They've been doing their whole thing without any regard to whether the American market is buying their products or not, or liking it or not. They've just been doing it steadily, for along time, and with very good capsules, and are gradually finding a sellable middle ground, too. They are also in the fortunate position to not be so dependent on selling studio mics because it's their measuring and automotive branch that brings them most of the income, so they can play around with interesting visual ideas, and they have had a consistent quality, too. They do their own thing.
But, you know, to me, I will always be looking for the Holy Grail. I'm always looking for a microphone that simulates best the thrill of when we hear something. Let's not make any bones about it: a microphone is an incredibly primitive piece of work, compared to our ears, and the best microphones work not by being the closest to how our ears work, but by having the best euphemistic additions or alterations that make us feel good about what we hear. Realistic it ain't. No microphone is realistic. But it is way too complicated to scientifically model or technically recreate with a microphone how hearing works. So, in my mind, the best microphones are the same as the best loudspeakers, like a good Blue Cone Celestion: It is not necessarily true reality, but it is passable enough as reality and it gives you pleasure in the process. So, again, one of the biggest mistakes I think that many microphone manufacturers are making is thinking that they could approximate reality by comparing frequency curves or designing along static measurement criteria. It doesn't work.
I think when we hear something through a microphone, we unconsciously know that it's not all there. But if the microphone gives a certain trigger to a certain pleasure center in our brains, we are satisfied with that, even if objectively not all frequencies are represented accurately. And we say: "yeah that's cool, I want to listen to that orchestra or to this opera singer or to this standup bass through this microphone, because that rekindles the information that is important for my brain to get the imagination going and to get the pleasure of the essential experience back into the mix."
And a state-of-the-science Danish or German microphone doesn't do that for me. Some of them may be incredibly accurate, but for me the right artifacts are missing that translate the sound with enough euphemistic additions that allow me then to say "yeah, I feel like I'm there.!" mY definition of a good mic is: the musical experience never even wanders away from my pleasure center to my intellectual side, to where I might think: "oh yeah, I can really hear the cymbals, they're right over here; I can hear the second violinist tapping her foot.... I regard that as intellectual wanking. Aimless mind fucks. I don't want that. I want to be there. I don't even want to think. I want to be in the music, so I can have the experience of dreaming and imagining, rather than analyzing how the setup is." That kind of musical experience is on a lower, less desirable level for me.
Speaking of this Holy Grail, I know you are limited to what you can say about it, but you've been trying to develop a Holy Grail microphone yourself.
Yes, and my position is not enviable. Anything that I will come out with, anything that has my name attached to it, will be immediately compared not only to my custom work, but to the KHE. Immediately, and without mercy! There's no way around it. And you know I am not starting fresh anymore, so I cannot just come up with something new that doesn't bring at least as much aural pleasure as my previous microphone did. Yet, I need to be modest - if I can create that much pleasure as was in the KHE, but in a different way, that's reaching the Holy Grail again for me. I always remember: you've got this room up there, on the 13th floor of an old building in Midtown, where the big fat Old Guys are smoking their big Havanas: The M50 in the corner, over there, then an M49, U47, and the C12 on the couch, and maybe the KHE, if I was lucky. And then a young whippersnapper knocks on the door, and wants to at least get to sit on the stool next to these guys. Havana or not, I've gotta be in that room with my next design somehow to be credible.
See, I also can't say: 'Oh, compared to what that manufacturer did before, my new design sounds incredible.' That would be failure. It has to be, 'Compared to the KHE, it sounds damn good.' And that's why I'm not quite done yet. One other reason the KHE is a tough act to follow, is because there were so many unplanned idiosyncrasies in that microphone. Things that neither Dirk nor I knew at the time would be beneficial or detrimental. I told you the story about the capsule that Dirk didn't want and I said 'no, I want this capsule or nothing at all!' Because it was handmade, and each diaphragm was individually finished after mounting, and because the whole capsule was really complicated to make - for whatever reason its sound helped me towards getting to the Holy Grail. And you can't expect that these kind of coincidences will just happen again. But you can bet that I won't release a new mic until it's there, because I couldn't live with introducing something that wasn't as good.
So this is something you are starting basically out of the ether, from the ground up or?
Are you thinking about a certain microphone principle where you know you really like the sound' Or are you just trying to come up with something like a completely new approach?
A completely new approach' No. David Bock is working on a new approach. I know a few other people like Sennheiser are working on a new approach. But to me, I can't foresee it for myself. No square capsules, or triangular ones, no cathode followers or multicaps, no digital processors mated to the high impedance capsule. No, it's going to be a round capsule. It's going to be another, better, euphemism for reality, a progression of what I believe works well.
Will there be a tube?
It is certainly going to be a tube microphone, one that is hopefully based on a tube that is still available. And that is pretty important. Because many people making tube microphones now have no business using the tubes that they're using if I look at their design parameters. Many if not most are not made for high impedance applications, and are of lousy, cost-cutting build quality. But yeah, the new mic most likely will be an EF86-based design. And I have enough NOS tubes if necessary to help out, if the Russians don't get any better with theirs. And it's going to be a large diaphragm design; roughly an inch. And that's all I can say at this point.
You told me about this over a year ago...
And, guess what? I've been working on that thing for a year now, and don't feel bad, because the prize hangs high. I worked with Oliver Archut (of TAB-Funkenwerk) on the transformers. He has sent me fourteen so far. It is a nightmare to select with so many variables still in play. And that's just one parameter of the mic...
Well, good luck with that, and thank you. I'm really looking forward to hearing it when you finish.