Neumann Celebrates 75 Years
Dec 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By George Petersen
For the past three-quarters of a century, the Neumann name has been synonymous with excellence in audio, but the influence of company founder Georg Neumann goes far beyond the famed microphones that bear his name.
Among Neumann's first products was a record-cutting lathe. Rather than the belt-driven mechanisms so common in other lathes of its time, the 1931 AM31 instead employed a direct-drive design, where the motor itself was an extension of the platter's spindle. In 1933, a portable lathe followed, which simplified the process of making location recordings of speeches and music concerts outside of the studio confines.
Besides its record lathes — which set the world standard for half-a-century — Neumann also produced reference playback turntables, cinema gongs, radio station ID code signal transmitters, electro-acoustic measurement devices and the first factory-produced logarithmic level display chart recorder. Neumann's nonmicrophone innovations continued into the 1980s and beyond, with products such as the VMS Series (widely considered the best record lathes ever made), the DMM (Direct Metal Mastering) disk mastering process, and studio and broadcast consoles, both analog and digital.
Ironically, the Georg Neumann invention that made the greatest impact on the world was not audio-related at all: In 1947, he created a process to make nickel-cadmium batteries without the excessive formation of gas, allowing the production of sealed, leak-proof designs. Even today, Ni-Cad batteries are found in every conceivable type of electronics, a lasting tribute to the genius of Georg Neumann.MICROPHONES!
Ni-Cad batteries aside, microphones were and always will be the most loved legacy of Georg Neumann. The story starts 105 years ago. Born in 1898 in a small town outside of Berlin, Neumann apprenticed at Mix & Genest and did amplifier research for AEG. When AEG lab director Eugen Reisz created his own company, Neumann joined him and looked into ways to improve carbon microphone technology. Neumann stretched a tight rubber membrane over a marble slab containing powdered carbon and two electrodes. The resulting “Reisz marble block microphone” was fairly flat from 50 to 1k Hz, with a 10dB peak at 4 kHz, and was -15 dB at 10 kHz. Hardly impressive by modern standards, this 1923 model encouraged Neumann to look at other ways to improve mic performance.
In the mid-1920s, as radio gained popularity and record companies switched over to the “electrical recording process,” microphones suddenly became a major link in the audio chain. Excited by the idea of building capacitive (condenser) mics, Neumann left Reisz and, with Erich Rickmann, founded Georg Neumann & Co. in Berlin in November 1928.
The first mass-produced condenser mic — Neumann's CMV3 — debuted in 1928 and remained a standard for years, both in studios and in live broadcasting. By 1932, Neumann unveiled the CMV3a, which featured interchangeable heads (cardioid, omni and figure-8). The mics stayed in production until after World War II and are still in use in studios worldwide.
With World War II escalating, Berlin was a major target for Allied bombing. In 1943, the Neumann factory in central Berlin was struck by incendiary bombs. Searching for a safer site to relocate the plant, Neumann drove south of the capital and, according to legend, stopped in Gefell, the first place where he didn't see bomb craters. In 1944, Neumann moved into this small village with most of his workforce and the manufacturing equipment salvaged from Berlin.
After the war, Gefell was in a U.S.-occupied zone, but with the 1945 Potsdam Conference, the area was turned over to the Soviets. With the growing uncertainties about East and West, Neumann moved back to Berlin under the new name “Georg Neumann GmbH.” The Gefell company continued supplying components for Neumann until 1953, but with the establishment of the East German state, commerce became increasingly difficult and all commercial ties between Gefell and Neumann were severed. Gefell continued making mics on its own, mostly supplying broadcasters in the Soviet bloc, and today, with the fall of the Iron Curtain, now creates studio, live and measurement mics for a world market.
The postwar Neumann factory in Berlin was definitely moving forward. Besides Neumann's 1947 sealed Ni-Cad cell, that year, the company introduced the U47, the first switchable-pattern condenser mic. The microphone that began the age of modern studio microphone technology, the U47 featured a high-performance VF14 tube and the dual-diaphragm M7 capsule, essentially back-to-back cardioid capsules that could be combined to create an omni pattern or used singly for a cardioid pickup. Due to distribution issues with Telefunken and post-war production snags, the U47 officially debuted in 1949. Eight years later, the U48 — a cardioid/figure-8 switchable version — was added to the line.
The success of the U47 was followed by a number of “firsts”: The M49 (1951) was the first mic with a remotely switchable pattern; and the M50 (also in 1951) featured a small-diaphragm, pressure-gradient capsule embedded in a perspex (acrylic) sphere to provide a very smooth upper-end response. The onset of stereo in the mid-'50s led to Neumann's SM2 (1956), the world's first stereo microphone. The 1987 RSM 190-S was the first stereo shotgun mic. Three years later, the M50 concept was revived in the nickel-membrane TLM50, a transformerless, low-noise, solid-state design, and in 2000 with the M150, featuring a low-mass titanium diaphragm and the same tube electronics developed for the large-diaphragm, multipattern M149: the first mic with transformerless tube electronics.
In all, Neumann has released some 90 microphones during its 75-year history, and going through the design specifics of each one would take a book. Models such as the solid-state U87 and U89, the tube U67, the KU80/81/100 “Fritz” binaural dummy head, the KM84/184 small-diaphragm condensers, the TLM103, M147 tube and KMS105 handheld have certainly joined other Neumann models in the category of audio classics. Fortunately, for those seeking more, Neumann offers archives of current and vintage models on its Website. Additionally, a wonderful 290-page book detailing the company's products and history is now available from www.neumann.com.DEFINING ITS FUTURE
For decades, the Neumann facility stood on the edge of Western Europe near the Allies' “Checkpoint Charlie” between East and West Berlin. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the company's plant was suddenly in the center of Berlin. Rents soared and the building was slated for demolition to be replaced by a skyscraper. Very expensive to manufacture, Neumann's line of superb analog and digital consoles proved unprofitable. Meanwhile, a growing CD market spelled the end of Neumann's profitable record lathe business and plans for a mechanical CD lathe (DMM CD) fell short, because, unlike DMM for vinyl production, the copper blanks for CD prep had to be 100% pure, as even the tiniest microscopic flaw or void in the blank would create havoc on a CD master. Also at the time, Neumann's heirs — who owned the company since Georg's death in 1976 — wanted to sell their share. The company's future was uncertain, to say the least.
In January 1991, after talks with a number of potential buyers, the Neumann family turned the company over to Sennheiser Electronics, a similarly structured, family-owned business based in Hanover, a few hours from Berlin. The plan was to move production to a new “Neumann” section of the Sennheiser plant, while Neumann's engineering, marketing and repair facilities would remain at a new complex in Berlin. Company founder Professor Fritz Sennheiser had known Georg Neumann for years and was quite familiar with the Neumann operation. In many ways, the change offered the best of both worlds: Neumann would have access to modern, world-class electronics manufacturing, while the “old-world” processes — such as the meticulous hand-assembly of capsules — would be done under clean room conditions.
There's no doubt that Neumann — once infamous for long production backlogs — is far better equipped to handle modern production demands under Sennheiser's ownership; further products, such as the popular TLM103 (a $1,000 mic that combines ultralow-noise 7dBA electronics with a single-diaphragm version of the K67 capsule from the U67) simply could not have existed under the old Neumann system. Other companies might have been tempted to buy Neumann and then cash in by flooding the market with cheap products with a famous name — we've seen that scenario many times before — but Sennheiser remains committed to maintaining the Neumann quality and reputation for excellence.
The Sennheiser-Neumann relationship has gone well beyond mere words or shared production conveniences. The companies collaborated on the 2003 TEC Award-winning KK105S, a handheld wireless transmitter that combines the performance of Neumann's acclaimed KMS105 capsule to Sennheiser's SKM 5000 UHF wireless rig. Both are also working on new mics for on-air broadcasting, with the new BCM 104 kicking off the series. And Sennheiser supports the development of new approaches, such as Neumann's Solution D digital mic system, which defines the future direction of microphone design.
Besides the innumerable hit records made using Neumann mics — from Sinatra to the Beatles and beyond — the accolades for Neumann products have been many. The company garnered an unprecedented seven TEC Awards for microphone excellence, and received a Technical Grammy
Mix editorial director George Petersen is both a mic collector and creator of Crazy Campsongs (www.crazycampsongs.com).