It's been 30 years since I mailed hundreds of hand-typed postcards to studios, offering AC701 tubes and Neumann tube mics I acquired at auction in Cologne, and gingerly pointing to my budding upgrade services. An anniversary is a good time to reflect on a few truths I have learned about professional condenser microphones since.
1. Microphones rarely change hands at a price above or below their true value, and there are very few bargains. The invisible hand of the market guides the process towards a price that reflects the quality level of each mic as recording tool. Folks who bought a copy mic for a fraction of the price of the original may be in denial (see #2), and will wake up to reality much later (see #5).
2. No copy mic sounds anywhere close to the original. The more experienced the listener, the more glaring the lack of depth, texture and detail found in copy mics. Clone manufacturers are too lazy, greedy or ignorant (or some combination of the three) to go the extra mile and spend the extra buck that excellence requires.
2a. This is especially true with respect to capsules. It's a tragic waste of energy trying to make a superior sounding mic with a mediocre China capsule.
3. Once all of the old-stock tubes have been used up, and only offshore versions can be had, all tube mics will sound mediocre. Until someone, old blueprints in hand, spends big and tools up again.
4. The one-two punch: Cheap mics have improved greatly in quality over the years, but, because the way we now listen to music does not require that level of quality, and because there are not enough discriminating engineers left who could stimulate a renaissance in the manufacture of superior mics, the market for superior mics has stopped expanding.
5. Once you heard the better of two similar mics side by side, you will never again love and embrace the worse of the two. That mic will soon be orphaned.
6. Since the 1960s, no esthetically beautiful mic has been created. Compare what's displayed in the advertising spaces of Tape Op
these days to the understated elegance of a KM53 - akin to the Chrysler Buildingís stunning architecture, or Schoeps' CM51/3 Art Deco head complemented by a midnight-blue body.
7. The love and care that went into the design of classic mics can be stunningly beautiful, superbly functional and durable on the inside, too. I still marvel at the double-decker geometry of the U67ís circuit boards- even the resistors are all oriented in the same direction.
8. You can still make excellent AND unique mics today. Dirk Brauner and I slaved over every minute detail of the KHE for years, then delivered 100 of them to Brad Lunde, who put them in the right hands all over America. Forced to price the mic into the stratosphere, we barely broke even. People liked the KHE enough to double it in price within 10 years. The market is always right.
9. At first, the giant ship (in my case, the business of restoring, repairing, and upgrading mics) is superhumanly hard to push off the pier. No money, no recognition, no respect, plus lots of territorial yapping from the competition. Then, if you stick with the job and truly have something of value to offer, the ship will start inching forward, barely noticeable. Much later come the coasting years, when the ship moves on its own and people come to you (as long as you stay true to your craft and go the extra mile, every time).
10. The design of a microphone is more than the sum of its technical features. A microphone is the receptacle - orifice, if you like - of the musician's creative vulnerability. Thus, it occupies a uniquely emotional position in the recording chain. The pocket protector types who claim to know and understand all there is to know about a microphone, arguing specs and data, often donít understand the soul, the alchemy and synergy formed by its components. Thatís why there are so few new mics capable of holding oneís emotional attention. And that is why so many of the old mics are in such high demand. Never underestimate or disrespect the passionate listener.
10a. This goes way over the line, but I lately sense that spending concentrated, focused time with a mic during its restoration process adds quality to its sound.
30 years on, it is still gratifying when I get a positive response from someone for whom I created a microphone sound that touches the heart, regardless whether it comes from a well-known professional or a home-studio hobbyist.
Another reason for sticking around all these years is the visceral pleasure a superb sounding mic gives me.