AKG Turns 50—Austrian Microphone-Maker Celebrates Golden Anniversary

In pro audio’s digital era, 50 years is both a half-century and an epoch. But it’s also a useful vantage point from which to take stock of a very changed
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In pro audio’s digital era, 50 years is both a half-century
and an epoch. But it’s also a useful vantage point from which to
take stock of a very changed industry and the unique position
AKG—whose entire diverse product line is analog—occupies.
First, though, a bit of history.

In May 1947, surrounded by the rubble that was Vienna in the wake of
Allied bombing during World War II, physicist Dr. Rudolf Goerike and
businessman Ernst Pless opened Photophon to begin manufacturing of
cinema projectors and related equipment. The company was founded on
Goerike’s particular expertise and on a solid marketing
basis—movies were the great escape for many in the bleak
landscape of postwar Europe. Goerike and Pless soon changed the company
name, for business reasons, to AKG, which stands for Akustische u.
Kino-Gerate (Acoustic and Film Equipment). But the acoustic part soon
became the center of the fledgling company’s focus, based on
Goerike’s innovative microphone diaphragm designs. The first
success—and the world’s first single-element cardioid
microphone
—the AKG D-12, propelled the company’s fortunes
even as Pless was delivering orders on a bicycle, and at times
accepting payment in the form of black market cigarettes and butter.
The mic also introduced the AKG logo of three overlapping cardioid
patterns. The film equipment business was discontinued in 1965.

AKG’s product line has been diverse in the past half-century,
sometimes oddly so. While its professional microphone line was
building, AKG was also making car horns, door intercoms, telephone
handsets (telecommunications products continue to be a large seller for
the company) and in-pillow speakers—a brief fad from the
1950s—all of which are represented in a compact museum display in
the lobby of the company’s sprawling 4.2-acre plant in
Vienna’s southern reaches, where 450 people make a heck of a lot
of microphones.

But it was the D-12 that formed the basis of AKG’s success in
pro audio. Developed in 1953, the dynamic mic offered a tight pattern
and extended low-frequency response to an industry on the verge of
hi-fi. It quickly gained an avid following, which opened the door to
subsequent new products, such as the C-12 condenser mic (developed in
1953), also destined to become a classic. Both microphones were
produced in several versions, including the C-12A and stereo C-24, the
AKG Tube and the C-12VR, the most recent model with the original
capsule. Yet another classic of the era is the C-414, which is based on
the original capsule design for the C-12 but with smoother
upper-frequency characteristics, which made it a favorite for vocal
applications.

The development of AKG’s product line over the years reflects
the massive philosophical shift the overall pro audio industry has
undergone: from that of an engineering-driven business to one
predicated on marketing. The C-12, developed by recently retired AKG
engineer Konrad Wolf, was innovative both because of its diaphragm
design and its slender tubular housing, which was considerably smaller
than Neumann’s competing U Series and which also had
shock-mounting integral to the design, as opposed to an elastic-web mic
suspension. But for all of its early success in broadcast, film and
music applications, the C-12 (also marketed by Siemens as the SM 204
and by Telefunken as the M251, part of an OEM strategy to enhance
AKG’s limited postwar distribution capability) was discontinued
around 1963 as solid-state electronics took off and the electronics
industries—pro and consumer—looked to FET technology to
free them from cumbersome tubes.

“Everyone wanted smaller, FET-type microphones,” recalls
Norbert Sobol, AKG’s affable pro audio products manager.
“We had success making smaller tube microphones, like the C-12,
replacing the large 6072A tubes with smaller Nuvistor tubes. The same
with the C-414, which was using solid-state circuitry but used the same
capsule in a smaller housing and which was the first interchangeable
microphone assembly. But solid-state was a big buzzword at the time, so
everyone was switching to that, including us.”

The C-414 was originally intended as the first AKG high-end FET
offering (the C-414 comb) in 1971, using the same modified rectangular
shape first designed for the C-12A in 1962. By the mid-1970s, though,
the C-414 was using tube circuitry with its smoother C-12-based
diaphragm. It went through various sub-types: the C-414EB/P48 reflected
the fact that by 1977 U.S. consoles had standardized 48-volt phantom
power
(the “E” phonetically represented “XLR,”
as opposed to the “CB” version for the German DIN plug
standard, and the C-24 stereo version, so designated because it
utilized two C-12 capsules).

Early FET designs and pop music never quite meshed, and rock
’n’ rollers brought demand for tube sound back with a
vengeance in the mid-1970s. “At first, we thought going back to
tubes would be a fad,” Sobol remembers. “But within a few
years, we realized—quite happily—that it was not. I think
every engineer has a special place in his heart for the way tubes
sound. In 1983, we came out with the first reissue of the C-12 design
[same electronics but with a 414 capsule and a smaller housing], The
Tube.” It was followed 11 years later by the C-12VR, which was
virtually the same as the original C-12 design, replacing the
C-414’s capsule with the edgier characteristics of the original
C-12 capsule. That same capsule was also re-created in the 1993
transformerless TL-2 version of the C-414.

Acknowledging that the pro audio market has evolved based on a
digital revolution—one that microphone companies could not have
been part of—Walter Ruhrig, AKG’s music division product
manager, says, “This new market was not developed by companies
like AKG. The new market has very specific requirements as far as
accessories are concerned.” In response, he says, AKG has
developed entirely new lines, including the C-3000—a less
expensive large-diaphragm microphone that includes high-end features
such as shock-mounting, yet at a cross-market price—and the
Emotion and Performers Series, which aim at entry-level studio and live
sound niches. In addition, the C-414 has seen its own retail price
reduced twice in two years.

“The major change that has been seen is that marketing now
leads engineering, the reverse from the way it used to be,”
Ruhrig says. “We saw it was time to enter what has become the
mass market of pro audio, which we did with the Emotion Series,
available at very low cost. The Performer Series is positioned in the
gray zone between consumer and musicians. Even the packaging has become
more consumer-oriented.”

As if to underscore that point, an interview with AKG wireless
products manager Roland Scholz focuses as much on the packaging for the
WMS-51 VHF budget-priced wireless unit as on the product itself. The
package includes:
• A brightly colored box with application icons on the
cover—along with an endorsement photo of Simply Red lead singer
Mick Hucknall—and graphically illustrated product information on
the back; Scholz believes this can take the place of the sales
personnel, who are increasingly less available on a one-to-one level as
pro audio moves into the Wal-Mart age.
• A color-coded frequency chart, which, Scholz points out, makes
things easier for both salespeople and consumers.
• And a cross-marketing for AKG’s Micro-Mic
line of instrument microphones. (Doug McCallum, AKG’s sales and
marketing VP in the U.S., commented that, while the pro audio market is
becoming more global, the U.S. and European markets still have
differences, and that AKG’s U.S. operation is focusing on the
WMS-300 UHF wireless system aimed at a mid-market price point.)

But while the industry is moving toward a mass market, no one at AKG
believes that should have a deleterious effect on quality. AKG benefits
from a unique manufacturing capability that evolved over the years,
centered on production lines that dovetail automation developments from
other industries such as plastics—the incoming plastic for what
will become transducers looks like bags of breakfast cereal—along
with highly specialized manual assembly and the company’s ability
to make many of its own tools.

Diaphragm manufacture is at the heart of the plant’s activity,
framed by casing manufacture and electronics assembly. AKG has long
used what they call “Tiefzieh Varimotion Technology”
(Tiefzieh is an Austrian word that translates as “deep
drawing”), essentially a transducer shaping methodology that both
widens the frequency range of microphones by permitting more than one
thickness in a single transducer and which also helps maintain
consistency from one microphone to the next. “Manufacturing
provides part of the character of a microphone’s sound,”
explains Norbert Sobol. “And you keep the character consistent by
keeping manufacturing with as little variation as possible.
That’s difficult to do because every part of the microphone plays
a part in its sound—the housing, the grille, everything. Once
you’ve developed each part to where you want it, you have to
freeze it in the manufacturing process and repeat it over and over
every time without variation. That, we’ve learned how to
do.”

That experience will be put to the test as AKG enters its second
half-century. With its most recent reorganization behind
it—ownership has changed several times since 1975, before the
company became part of the largest single entity in pro audio, Harman
International, in 1994—AKG will seek to remain at the top of the
high-end microphone market, move deeper into the project/personal
studio markets and the wireless and live sound markets, and introduce
new products, such as the EMS-1 in-ear monitoring system, which was
introduced at NAB and is scheduled to become available in late
summer.

It has become routine in the pro audio business to ask whether a
company can cover all the bases of the new mass-market paradigm. And
the response tends to be an equally routine “of course,”
laced with a whistling-in-the-dark bravado needed to tackle much
broader horizons. But as AKG’s international sales manager
Heinrich Zant puts it, “As long as we keep basing the future on
what we’ve learned in the past, keep the quality at the same
level that built the company in the first place, and keep our focus on
the things we do well, like transducers, then we can do it.”