why I do what I do...
Updated: Mar 13, 2019
I haven't written a blog post in a while, and its certainly not for lack of being busy. I've been both building and fixing mics, working with a few mic designs I had not worked with before, and also getting some work done in the studio.... but it occurred to me, I haven't really written what should have been the first blog entry... why I do what I do, and what drew me toward working with microphones.
Folks who know my backstory know that I've worked in some aspect of the audio industry pretty much my whole life with the exception of a 2 year stint at a thermal research laboratory (about as boring as it sounds, though educational). Out of college, I worked in live sound for a while for the largest (at the time) live sound/rental company in Baton Rouge, then went on to have a 15 year run at (what became) a very large pro audio manufacturer (though we were in the basement of an antique store at the time I started), then on to a 2 year stint running operations for a much smaller prosumer studio gear maker in TX, following about 2 years of consulting and support services done here from home. In between those various things, I've also done consulting or writing work for a few other pro audio manufacturers along the way.
Once I finished restoring my flood-damaged house after moving back to Baton Rouge, I closed in the carport, build a de-humidified/HEPA filtered workshop, and set to work making no compromise mics and other mic and equipment mods. I've been working from home ever since. But why do that?
During my time in TX, I had the opportunity to evaluate and open up many different brands of microphones from a number of different manufacturers, a benefit of the close relationship I had with our then US distributor... some very high end, some mid-priced, and some affordable mics got dissected on my bench, and then put back together and send back. I continue to do this today, in fact one of the reasons I sometimes accept repairs and mic-mod work is to keep an eye on what other manufacturers are doing. What I found and what I continue to find today really shocked and surprised me. Even though there really is a degree of shadiness and buyer's remorse in every aspect of this business; the microphone side of things, I felt, was the worst I'd seen. And by that, I simply mean that there was a considerably wide gap between what customers believed they were paying for, and what they were actually getting. Now to be fair, I also found a few diamonds in the rough, and some of those are mics that today I modify for folks, to help them 'get all the way there'. I won't be naming any brand names here (there's no need for that); but rather, I'll give a brief rundown of some of the things I had found.
I opened up a 'brown colored' ribbon mic that was fully assembled in China, with a Chinese transformer, Chinese set ribbon, and a cheap circuit designed to make up for the limitations of the ribbon motor. This ribbon was set poorly enough that it actually sounded like 2 different mics depending on whether you spoke into the front or back; and not done intentionally as Royer do, but just done haphazardly. All this might have been OK if it had been a $299 ribbon; but this was a mic by a larger company that sells for over $1000.
I opened up several very expensive, very gorgeous (externally) tube microphones by a respected Russian/European company and was dismayed to see a plethora of 'Jamicon' (a VERY inexpensive Taiwanese brand) electrolytic capacitor distributed throughout, including strapped across the audio output of the tube mic circuit itself, which is rather inappropriate and generally only done when one truly does not give a s***. Small value electrolytics are fine when used in solid state mic outputs; but on a tube circuit, you will get best performance from a bipolarized film or paper-in-oil cap. That was nothing compared to the tube pencil mic circuit by same manufacturer, which decided to run the output of the mics unbalanced (but tube buffered) through 20+ft of so-so quality quad mic cable that could barely be soldered to, and locate the balancing output transformers on the power supply PCB for the tubes. Even with every trick in the book, I couldn't get out all of the buzz that crept through into the audio path; and I found the design almost cringe-worthy. This company apparently put 99% into the visual presentation (which I do admit is striking) and little to nothing in the way of trying to do really good design work or manufacturing.
And from there you can go straight down the list. Opening up brand after brand of $1000+ microphones that were being sold on name and clout, containing lackluster Chinese transformer after transformer and Chinese capsule after capsule and generic part after generic part. Companies that put money into a falsely inflated sense of self-worth, marketing, packaging, and mic aesthetics; with little in regard to how well things were really being designed and built. More than a dozen brands, that if people knew what they were really getting; they would be pissed... and rightfully so. Couple that with the ever growing trend of companies who simply forgot how to voice microphones... an ever growing trend towards making microphone brighter, harsher, and hotter... none of which do anything to make mics sound better other than the same misconceptions listeners have about over-compressed masters (louder must mean better??). At the very bottom end of the price spectrum, where prices get lowest, you find the worst; unsurprisingly. Over-presence, over-sensitivity, over-sibilance, and microphonics. The signs of really poor capsule making, and poor component choices.
What I realized then, as I do now, was that one could really carve out a space in that market (even though it is already saturated) just by putting in a little bit more effort to deliver a better product that people had come to expect at those prices. And we set out to just that, with the company I was working with at the time. We, and I, developed a line of microphones that put just a bit more effort into finding a decent capsule, using a good transformer, voicing the circuit a bit, performing some real QC on the end product, as well as implementing a few tricks I'd learned along the way about dampening microphonic components, etc. That strategy worked, and those products we, or I, developed continue to trickle through (some have only just now been released, and a couple still aren't) and are responsible for most of that company's new growth.
...But it could still be far better... One of the key philosophical differences between myself and that previous company is that I have a holistic approach to audio electronics. Where as they mostly chose to focus attention on a single 'upgrade' part in order to maximize and fully exploit that part's marketing potential (typically the focus was on the audio transformer), I wanted to obsess about everything. Starting with the power supply (keep in mind, everything starts with power, and when you hear audio you are really hearing a power supply, modulated by a signal) and making sure that supply is robust. I then also worried about brands and types of resistors, capacitors, and other semiconductors. About capsules, transformers, about heat transfer, about acoustics, and about the weight and type of materials used in construction. I worried about the quality of my PCBs, and made sure they were lab grade purity, and I worried about my internal hookup wire (finally investing several grand into a full collection of silver/teflon hookup wire, the finest made), and of course I obsessed over the cables... ultimately making an account with Gotham and manufacturing my own. Even my own IEC power cable. I wish it were as simple as just talking about Cinemag or AMI, and I have a strong relationship with both of those companies to this day; but there is so much more to building a great mic. Lastly, I obsessed over using the best capsules, and keeping the transit and order time to a minimum by using American sources... This led me to Eric Heiserman and Dany Bouchard. I also obsessed over developing and further refining the best Asian sourced capsules that were possible, for those who buy the baseline edition microphones, further bridging the gap between the boutique and the manufactured. Getting the mylar right, the backplate right, the polarization voltage tuning, and the overall measurement and QC has taken years. Finally have a baseline 'signal art' capsule that I am truly proud of.
By obsessing over every detail, keeping my quantities and commitments low, keeping as much as possible under one roof here, and staying focused on quality; I can finally make a limited number of mics that I feel are no-compromise in all the ways that matter to me. After a lifetime involved in 'mass production', this is a welcome relief... because managing mass production is frankly never more than an exercise in triage and damage control. Putting out fires. Now, I make sure there are no fires to start with. And all that would be for nothing if I were making $5000 microphones that no one could afford to buy. Call me crazy, but I actually want real people to be able to afford and use these products. When you put all these criterion together, I think you'll see that even in a crowded market, no one is really quite 'doing that' in the way that we're trying to do. Thanks for reading!