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Restoring Sunset Sound’s Vintage Mics

Bringing a mic locker of classics back to life.

Hollywood, CA (July 19, 2018)—There’s an old joke that if you want to own a lot of vintage studio gear, start acquiring equipment when you’re young—and then grow old. The catch is, of course, that some gear ages about as well as people do, and while some items may be lauded and prized as stone cold classics, ultimately wear, tear and mishaps can sometimes consign them to the scrapheap of studio history.

That was an issue that Sunset Sound Recording Studios faced with some of the most intriguing selections in its mic locker. Founded in 1962 by Walt Disney’s former director of recording Tutti Camarata, the studio had a number of classic—but then current-day—microphones by AKG, Telefunken and others in its collection. In the ensuing decades, Sunset Sound eventually grew into a three-room complex serving clients like Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Prince, Fleetwood Mac and hundreds more.

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With all that production going on, daily use took its toll on many of the facility’s vintage mics. “The problems really started about 30 years ago,” recalled owner Paul Camarata, son of the founder. “We started noticing that the plastic components on these mics were starting to deteriorate. The capsules were starting to weaken, the switch mechanisms weren’t working, the bodies were cracked and we were in serious trouble….we started looking into re-manufacturing these plastic pieces, which turned out to be a nightmare.”

Camarata recalls their initial repairs, “I had a friend of mine who was a machinist make some head-mounting capsules; he machined new parts out of some sort of composite so we could mount the capsules. We no longer had the switch on the mic, but at least the mic became stable and solid enough to use.” It was a serviceable but hardly ideal solution.

In the meantime, Telefunken Elektroakustik in South Windsor, CT revived its namesake microphone brand, building new reproductions of vintage Telefunken microphones and, less well-known, providing restoration services as well. Still, that’s what grabbed the attention of Camarata: “We first saw them at an AES show, and sent a C24 stereo mic for repairs and it’s worked perfectly ever since.”

Studio technician Wren Rider recalls, “One of our mics really got destroyed when it got swung on one of the large Atlas booms, smashed into a wall and was shattered into pieces. I spent months gluing this microphone’s plastic pieces together, putting that mic back into service as best I could. Eventually, we sent it over to Telefunken; they took care of it and made it a really excellent mic with the new parts now available.”

Telefunken restored five of Sunset Sound’s vintage ELAM 251E large diaphragm condenser microphone systems. Details varied with each repair, but entailed replacing pattern switches and refurbishing amplifier housings, plus power supply updates and cabling maintenance.

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A number of vintage mics from other manufacturers also were brought to Telefunken—a process that saw two vintage CK12 capsules get reskinned (membrane replaced) and sonically matched for the studio’s AKG C24. Telefunken also restored Sunset’s vintage Neumann U47 system, which included a new power supply, reassembly of the cable and general cleaning.

Camarata concludes, “You know, I hate to say it, but these mics will probably be around much longer than we will.”

Telefunken Elektroakustik •