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Author Topic: Money for Nothing or: What's Wrong With 'Clones'?  (Read 730 times)

klaus

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Money for Nothing or: What's Wrong With 'Clones'?
« on: August 02, 2020, 05:01:32 pm »

Why do copy microphones, or 'clones' as they are often misidentified*, never sound as good or become as valuable as the originals?
The simplest answer: market forces and engineering know-how.

Imagine you could recreate an original Telefunken ELA M 251 so perfectly that the copy not only looks but also performs exactly like “the real thing”.

Let’s further assume that the average price of that ELA M 251 made in 1963 is around $30k and in excellent condition. Now let’s pretend that a company has succeeded in copying that mic so well in the year 2015 that its performance and looks perfectly match the original- the same magic all the way through.
Let’s assume the company, in order to get a foothold in the top-level condenser mic market, sells the copy at an attractive $4500 street price (and likely at a considerable loss).

In our perfect dream scenario three things would immediately happen, as soon as the word got out:

1. Enough people hear and compare the copy to the original and spread the news

2. Every sample is sold quickly, due to the high quality and attractive price

3. Taking advantage of the exceedingly high demand and low supply, the manufacturer increases production and price.

According to market theory, the street price of the copy would keep spiraling up until it would end up very close to that of the original, say around $25k, still showing a small price advantage for the newcomer vs. the higher collectible value of the vintage version. That differential would eventually disappear once the copy’s reputation grows so much that it in itself becomes a highly desirable collectible.


Let’s now look at the real world and see what actually happens to the value and utility of copy mics:

1. They usually lose between 20% and 40% or more of their value as soon as they become available on the used market, and rarely will they rise in value over time from there.

2. The price differential between original and copy will remain very large, because the copy manufacturer does not get to raise prices, as demand for the copy product will remain limited to semi-pro buyers on a tight budget.

With that kind of interaction between demand, supply and pricing, how could copy mics ever become as valuable and desirable as the originals?

It’s been endlessly repeated: if you cut corners, don’t spend the time, money and energy it takes to properly develop or source at least the core components that are responsible for the almost mythical sound of the originals, you end up with something less satisfying to the buyer, thus limiting your clientele and price potential. If one characteristic defines all copies, it’s mediocrity. Mediocrity of parts selection, build quality, sound. It takes a disproportional amount of investment in smarts, tenacity, time, money to close the performance gap between original and copy. For reasons ripe for another discussion that’s just not ever done by the makers of copy mics.

The irony: in the pursuit of market share, copy manufacturers have no shame taking credit for someone else's efforts: “BV8”, “M7”, “VF14” and other famous letter and number sequences are appropriated for copy products with no adverse consequences, because copyrights for these products were never filed or have expired.


To sum up:
Trying to score a bargain when buying a copy microphone remains an illusion that contradicts how free markets work. You always get exactly what you paid for. That includes microphones.** No exceptions ever, no free lunch, no vintage performance without paying vintage prices.

The performance differential between original and copy remains palpable, even for the uninitiated, when listening in direct comparison. All the while prices for originals continue to increase, and those for copies continue to depreciate.


* I dislike terms that are sloppily imprecise, purposefully misleading, or self-delusional, but it seems an impossibly uphill fight to get rid of the misnomer. The classic definition of a clone is “a 100% perfect copy of the original”. Which U47 copy would possibly fit the bill?

** This law of the market applies not only to manufacturers of vintage copies, but original products made by “legacy” makers like Neumann or AKG, too (think M149 or C61): if the mic does not perform, it loses, not gains, value over time.
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Klaus Heyne
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Kai

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Re: Money for Nothing or: What's Wrong With 'Clones'?
« Reply #1 on: August 03, 2020, 05:18:13 pm »

Questions, maybe a little philosophical, arise when I read this.

How did the vintage originals sound when they were born, and are they still "originals", do they still sound the same after parts have aged, and being serviced probably several times during their 60-70 years life span?

Did the service from high-skilled people maybe even improve their sound over the time?
If I read how you work on a microphone to bring it to it's best, I think that is far more effort than what was spend into it when it was produced.

Isn't it high time to concentrate and bundle the knowledge and skills of the few specialists left, to preserve some things that will be lost soon?
Isn't it high time for you and some others to build real clones of the vintage gems?
And document thoroughly, exactly what you did, to preserve the knowledge for later generations.

It must be possible today, because it was possible then, and technical engineering by no means has become worse since.
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klaus

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Re: Money for Nothing or: What's Wrong With 'Clones'?
« Reply #2 on: August 03, 2020, 10:24:59 pm »

Each question responded in brief (ha!).

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How did the vintage originals sound when they were born, and are they still "originals", do they still sound the same after parts have aged, and being serviced probably several times during their 60-70 years life span?
This is an old canard (lovely expression), often used to counter criticism of some of the dreck out there today pretending to be "as good as the original":
The excuse goes something like this: "As the condition of old mics is all over the map, due to aging and lack of maintenance, our recreation should not be compared" (the easy way out).
That argument is also too nebulous to factually counter. Give me a concrete example of how you experienced components aging and how that affected the sound of a mic, and we can discuss it.

My experience having encountered enough 'like new', unopened, never used vintage mics, virgin NOS spare capsules, and transformers, etc. perfectly preserved and stored through time tells a different story. When you listen to enough of them, you get to understand and define a sonic baseline, a range of sound and timbre of a given model which, surprise, turns out to be very close and often identical to well-preserved (not modified!) examples of these vintage mics in service in world-class studios today.
There are of course exceptions: Neumann, Berlin's M7 capsule is dead and gone. I have not heard a fully-functioning one in years now. But when I listen to an audiophile recording of Nat King Cole, I recognize the capsule sound as being very close to my personal memory of PVC M7s.

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Did the service from high-skilled people maybe even improve their sound over time?
Yes, it may, but that's not the subject of this discussion, which is: why do any of the Big Five in 100% stock configuration and in great condition continue to blow any of their pretender copies to pieces?

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If I read how you work on a microphone to bring it to its best, I think that is far more effort than what was spend into it when it was produced.
The cumulative effort that went into the development and refinement of components assembled in vintage mics far exceeds any time one could possibly spend tweaking these mics.
Neumann started on the M7 in 1928, and by about 1950 had it perfected. That's over 20 years. The same is true about tube development: it took four decades until a miniature triode or pentode of superb transmission and durability had been perfected. After all these years of component refinements by related industries, manufacturers of microphones could readily install these parts. They did not have to start from scratch to explore the best laminations, core materials, winding methods, etc. But with the demise of discrete components in audio equipment, we now experience a de-evolution, where even a Neumann cannot source decent tubes anymore (see my U67 Reissue review).

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Isn't it high time to concentrate and bundle the knowledge and skills of the few specialists left, to preserve some things that will be lost soon?
Isn't it high time for you and some others to build real clones of the vintage gems?
The deep knowledge one could "bundle" from the inventors of excellent audio equipment or components is not that easy to come by anymore. The inventor geniuses and the craftsmen who had the proper training to manufacture tubes, transformers, capsules, etc. are either dead by now or are hanging on by a thread. THAT collaboration should have been initiated decades ago, but back then no one had the foresight, and people threw tube equipment into dumpsters.

The current crop of "specialists" are mostly solo-players, paranoid that someone could get at their food trough. They don't share. But you can (and I do) collaborate across platforms, where the knowledge contributed by each part is symbiotic, complementary, rather than competitive. I am currently working with tube and capsule specialists with a  recognition and respect for the unique skills each party brings to the table. But clone manufacturers? Forget it. They all fear (and maybe rightfully) theft of intellectual property, and not only from the Chinese.

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Isn't it high time for you and some others to build real clones of the vintage gems?
I know too much about good microphones to pretend I know enough to make them. That hubris has cost at least one cloner's investing family millions.
But there is a realistic way forward: if you concentrate on the components that are currently the bottleneck to excellence in new microphones- capsules, tubes, transformers- you can envision supplying these key components to microphone manufacturers, without getting into the clone wars. Time will tell whether the partners in these ventures will stick it out to the sweet end, or stop short at "good enough". 

But trust me, for me "good enough" will never be good enough.
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Klaus Heyne
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BluegrassDan

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Re: Money for Nothing or: What's Wrong With 'Clones'?
« Reply #3 on: August 06, 2020, 01:50:10 am »

There are parallels between the vintage musical instrument market and vintage mic market. Much has to do with the aging clientele (baby boomers for instruments and big studios for microphones) who had disposable income in comparison to younger generations. As Joe Spann and George Gruhn would say, younger people want customization and personalized music-making devices. Acoustic guitars  can be had from private builders for $3,000, versus $40,000 for an old Herringbone. Millennials can’t afford prewars at the boomers’ widows’ asking prices.

(Many old Herringbones have been dragged through the dirt and repaired poorly, just like those vintage mics that have been Frankensteined.)

So, record labels are suffering from loss of physical sales and they can’t afford big studio prices. Studios are losing revenue and are closing down all around us. Young music makers are seeking independent success through video content.

Then comes along a company with a $4,000 mic, touting “the look” and “the sound” and plagiarized model numbers. It may be the best a person can afford in this income-gap world we’re in.

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Dan Boner
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gtoledo3

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Re: Money for Nothing or: What's Wrong With 'Clones'?
« Reply #4 on: August 12, 2020, 01:45:32 pm »

“Unfortunately this clone has acquired a horrible genetic mutation.”
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