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Frank Zappa’s Microphone Collection Restored

From left: Dweezil Zappa with a vintage Telefunken M49, Toni Fishman and Charlie Bolois. Photo: David Goggin.

The restoration of Frank Zappa’s vintage mic collection, which began in 2005, is now complete. The project began with a visit and evaluation by Telefunken | USA CEO Toni Fishman and was completed by Charlie Bolois, the company’s West Coast service specialist and owner of Vertigo Recording Services.

As Fishman explains, “Frank Zappa had assembled a very original and complete collection of extremely rare and valuable German and Austrian microphones, unused since his passing. We dismantled and carefully evaluated the condition of the mics, performed numerous minor repairs, replaced some of the tubes with NOS [New Old Stock] tubes, and then worked on mic systems integration by matching up the correct power supplies and cables.

“We went through three Telefunken U47s, four Neumann M49s, a beautiful matched pair of Neumann M50s, circa 1950, and four AKG C-24s, circa 1960. We also worked on an AKG C-12A that was missing a cable and power supply and rebuilt a custom Telefunken Ela M251 using the existing capsule. It was an impressive collection, but if microphones are unused they tend to deteriorate, so we’ve given them a renewed life and got them up and running for Dweezil’s upcoming projects.”

In the second phase of the project, Dweezil met with Fishman and Bolois to evaluate the remaining mics and other Zappa gear. Bolois concentrated on two U67s, nicknamed “The Champ” and “Schneider” by Frank Zappa. “Neither had a power supply,” explained Bolois. “First, I worked with a number of Zappa cables with various problems and made two good working cables with swivel mounts. Toni Fishman provided two custom power supplies, which I adjusted to the correct voltages specifically for each mic. I also replaced the tubes in both, using NOS selected for low-noise and low microphonics. A third mic, a vintage M49, required repair of the original Neumann power supply, the fabrication of a cable from a selection of broken castoffs, plus various tune-ups and a capsule replacement.”

In addition, Dweezil Zappa took possession of a new Telefunken | USA U47, designed to faithfully re-create the vintage Telefunken sound. “It’s amazing how same-model microphones have very distinct characteristics, because of the subtleties of the capsules and the choice and condition of the tubes,” he says. “The new U47 is a very finely crafted mic, which fits beautifully into the collection that Frank put together.”

Dweezil also unearthed various family treasures, including the rare Systec Harmonic Energizer guitar pedal. “The pedal, like so many of Frank Zappa’s other guitar stomp boxes,” Bolois says, “was originally customized by installing the basic unit onto a circuit card and creating a module that could be plugged into a lunch-box style stage box chassis. This kept the pedals off of the floor, out of harm’s way and closer to the amp, allowing a quieter and more reliable system. One power supply fed all of the effects units to eliminate battery worries and to ensure reliability. The effects modules plugged into the main chassis and received power and I/O signals via an edge-connector bus system. Of course, there was no documentation and no main chassis or power supply available for reference. A custom chassis was fabricated with a suitable external power supply.”

Bolois restored the unit to working order and Dweezil identified it as one used by Frank in the 1974 Roxy and Elsewhere album period. Dweezil has incorporated the pedal in his current “Zappa Plays Zappa” concert tour.

Another treasure pulled out of storage is “some form of a compressor,” says Bolois. “It’s definitely hand made. Somebody adapted a compressor/limiter circuit board that utilized a Telefunken device. Once we figure out what it is and get it working, we’ll hear what it sounds like and take it from there.”

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