How did you get into mic repair/restoration?
I became a lifer the day, in the 1970s, when I heard my voice through a good KM54 for the first time: an undeniably higher level of sensual experience, after which it was impossible to return back to the status quo and accept life as it was before. I was hooked. Started to import Neumann tube mics. Made my offerings more competitive by redesigning circuitry and optimizing capsule performance, and gradually got calls for improving mics other than the ones I was selling. Dropped out of selling when I could no longer find enough good mics in Germany, and started concentrating my energies on improving the very best mics, regardless of brand.
How long did it take you to get good at it?
For 20 years have I continually tried to improve the sound of my U87 modification. When clients send me some of the earlier modified mics for service, I recognize—sometimes with embarrassment—how much closer I have come over the years to getting a pleasurable sound from this mic.
But “getting good at it” is a moving target. As long as my hearing and mental recognition and discrimination continue to evolve, I hope my work will also continue to improve. Yet, sometimes “good” or “better” is not a straight process: “flavor of the month” and ever-changing production fads sometimes interfere with my better sense of what sounds good.
For example, in the past I would dial in much more high frequency content in a mic than I was personally comfortable with, just to make sure the client was happy. I am now in a much better position to say to that client: What you want from this mic sounds wrong to me, and I respectfully decline, because it will reflect badly on my name and my skills.
Did you get help from anyone (or any specific resources)?
I pretty much started alone, and on the left bank of the microphone establishment, right from the start. My early and often expressed contention? When it comes to good microphone design, if you cannot hear something, its quantification on a graph does not matter. This still irritates and confuses the microphone establishment.
These days, I rely on a few trusted colleagues for support and inspiration in my field, among them: Oliver Archut. We bounce ideas back and forth weekly, he sends me transformer prototypes, considers my suggestions and often shares his ideas how to improve microphones, revive the art of good tubes, how to uncover obsolete raw materials…We recently held an AES Master Class in New York that was very enjoyable, just alone for the respect and trust we have for each other. Brad Lunde of Transaudio has for many years given me good insight into how microphones should be marketed in an ethical and truthful way. In general, I do best with the kind of professionals who dare to trust, rather than hedge their perceived advantages.
But, as I mention under “pet peeves”, it’s mostly a lonely job, and more suited to individuals comfortable to work alone, than gregarious Eurocentric luddites like me. Yet I feel lucky and proud to have kind and respectful relationships with manufacturers, modifiers and sales professionals, bar none.
Who are the people (customers and other technically savvy folk) you really count on for their ears or technical skills?
Leslie Ann Jones (Skywalker Sound), producer Jon Brion, engineer Al Schmitt, scoring engineer Shawn Murphy, and many other less-well-known—but equally passionate—listeners give me valuable input into the results of my work, which I compare to my own impressions at the time the mic left here. In the end, the clients’ and my own impressions mostly overlap, and through that affirmation my microphones get better. I often call clients after a few weeks, and ask them to share their impressions. This helps me to calibrate my esthetics against a larger body of professional users.
Who are the technicians you really respect in our biz?
Every single manufacturer aiming for high quality microphones (and not just for an easy buck) deserves respect, even just for the fact that they all try so hard, while the Big Boys have dropped the ball. Most likely, the new flagship mics will come from one of these boutique shops, rather than a transnational consumer goods conglomerate.
Dirk Brauner’s philosophy of “less is more” was instrumental in my decision to develop the Brauner-KHE with him. David Bock has singular passion for new design ideas, which also may come to fruition. Oliver Archut has single-handedly revived the art of transformers, which are vital for a good sounding mic. David Josephson has an encyclopedic knowledge of technical matters that he shares freely.
I will drop everything to sing high praise for the new master(s) of the most elusive, artistic and secretive of all the skills in our field: new capsule manufacturing. In the meantime, hats off to Neumann for unerringly sticking to the same old three capsule designs that have made them famous, and, thankfully, without changing a thing! And, while I am generally under whelmed by most of the current independent capsule providers, Herbert Haun in Germany excels.
What are the challenges you face, in terms of getting good parts?
Electronic component manufacturers do not pay much attention to esoteric parts for professional audio equipment. But, as I use a relatively small number of high-quality components, parts are still relatively easy to obtain, either through surplus dealers or from boutique manufacturers where they can be very expensive. I wish someone would invest a few dedicated years of his life to revive the AKG CK12 capsule. I still have some stock left, but it’s not getting any better or more with the years.
Tubes currently pose the only truly insurmountable dilemma for me: Russian, Chinese and central-European tubes made today are unsuitable for high quality condenser mics, because of their inferior sound, lack of quality control and durability. As a consequence, I will not install any currently made tube in any of my work. And my NOS supply is dwindling.
What is the range of time you might spend on a microphone?
A U87 modification takes me about three days: Day 1, assembly; Day 2, fine-tuning and making all parts work in synergy; and on Day 3, I question what I did on Day 2, and refine my work further, or start over from scratch. On the other end of the range would be the full restoration of a Telefunken ELA M251: 1 week to glue all the broken plastic parts together, 3 days to restore/upgrade amp, capsule, power supply and cabling, 1-2 weeks to fine tune the capsule’s front side, and then one more week to wait for the tube to sputter, or some other AKG gremlins to raise their heads.
Do you have a non-audio hobby or does it consume all of your time?
My motto: Thou shalt not be consumed by microphones! I have always felt much more fulfilled playing music with friends or in a professional band than I could ever feel as shoeshine boy to the stars. I will often push aside microphone work because I love to repair essentially any broken household goods that my family tosses my way: “Papa, can you fix this two-dollar plastic sword?” I go at it with a zen-approach: “let’s see what the absolutely best adhesive and gluing sequence for this job would be…” I also love to spend time outdoors to reduce some of the pressures of my work life —I live on acreage in the Columbia Gorge, and frequently make time for felling trees, riding the tractor, mowing the field…
How many employees do you have?
None, yet, but it may not be too late: I recently sat my 5-and-a-half-year-old son down and said: Listen, if you want to learn a job where people are always nice to you, wait patiently for years, pay you enough to feed, shelter and clothe you, a job where you can take naps every day, take a day (or two) off and greet the Fed Ex man in your pajamas at three in the afternoon, I may have something for you! And, guess what else: you would be the only person in the whole wide world to whom I would tell all the secrets I know about microphones! He was mildly amused.
Do you have a pet peeve – something that really bugs you?
I mainly have two: The direction in which Neumann has been heading ever since giving up the claim to the throne of making the best microphones in the world. (Do I even have to mention what happened to AKG?) Neumann’s bullheaded idea that the world is ready for digital processor mics just isn’t the direction recording professionals seem to be looking in at the moment.
How much better microphones would we be able to buy by now, if we would share our specialized knowledge a bit more with each other, pass it on to our colleagues as we get older, publish what we know; in general, act with less fear of getting ripped off and deprived of a living—as if there wasn’t enough individualized work around for all of us for centuries!
Are your customers patient?
If there was one aspect of my job as gratifying as trying to make microphones sound more pleasant, it’s the endless, good-natured patience of my customers. It’s been years since anyone expressed annoyance or frustration (at least to my face!) about my long waiting list. I feel lucky to be in a field where everybody treats me with courtesy and respect, and have never taken my good fortune for granted.