Microphones Made With Magic Of Alchemy, Science Of Sound

Host Jacki Lyden digs deep into the history of the microphone and visits a couple who carefully build microphones modeled after some of the world's legendary microphones. (This story originally aired on All Things Considered on April 20, 2008.)

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

If you're just tuning in, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Now, we go back to a story we first heard a few years ago. It's about an object that's touched and transformed your life in ways you might never have considered. In fact, I'm using one right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPPING ON MICROPHONE)

LYDEN: Testing one, two, three. It's the microphone. We, of course, are people of the microphone here at NPR. We were intrigued by a story we heard about a boutique microphone operation.

Two people, a husband and wife, creating microphones at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in southwestern Virginia. We drove six hours listening to Ella Fitzgerald up ridge backs, through hollers and passing double-wide trailers and lawns ornamented with lots of lawn art.

Finally, we were in Floyd County, Virginia, where up on Horse Ridge Road, John and Mary Peluso not only create microphones, they also tend to a couple dozen sheep and lambs and two very fetching llamas.

MARY PELUSO: Dolly and Lori.

JOHN PELUSO: You got to have a Dolly llama.

(LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: Mary and John Peluso moved to Floyd County eight years ago from Chicago. John had worked with mics for years in the city's recording studios. Now, he and Mary rise before dawn to make their own microphones. They're modeled after some of the world's legendary mics but priced for mere mortals.

J. PELUSO: And these are the diaphragms.

LYDEN: John Peluso pulls out a microphone diaphragm, an impossibly thin sliver of plastic sensitive enough to quiver with the vibration of a voice or an instrument. The vibration in the diaphragm begins the process of converting sound waves into electricity.

J. PELUSO: It's got 300 atoms of gold on it, which is a very small amount of gold. And it has - like a drumhead, I can tune it.

LYDEN: With your finger.

J. PELUSO: Yeah.

LYDEN: Like any good instrument, a microphone diaphragm has to be in tune. And for that, John uses a tank of dry nitrogen and his closest ally, his ears.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICROPHONE DIAPHRAGM)

J. PELUSO: We're listening for a certain tone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICROPHONE DIAPHRAGM)

M. PELUSO: John has the unique ability to take these bits and pieces of matter, metal and transform them into an instrument. And it is a form of magic.

LYDEN: Creating microphones as the Pelusos do requires both a conjuring of alchemy and the science of sound. In his career as an engineer, Peluso would eventually work with all the classic microphones, mics from RCA, Sony, AKG, Neumann. But he knew little of what he calls the black art of making microphones until he went to work for a mysterious Latvian physicist named Verner Ruvalds.

J. PELUSO: The day I met Verner, they had just had an elevator crash. Verner was at the bottom of the elevator shaft, and I put him in my car and drove him three blocks to the local hospital. They bandaged him up, and I drove him back to the studio, and he commenced to give us the five-cent tour.

LYDEN: Wow. And the rest, as they say, is history.

J. PELUSO: And the rest is history, yeah.

LYDEN: Ruvalds had volumes to impart about the soul of a microphone.

J. PELUSO: What he would tell me is intricacies of the technology: why it did what it did, why it sounded the way it sounded. You know, we would talk two, three hours at night after our work.

LYDEN: But there were other things about which Verner Ruvalds was reticent, such as his own part in the lineage of the microphone, a lineage that went from the fabled Neumann microphone factory in Berlin straight to the heart of the Third Reich.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: The 1936 Berlin Olympics reached the world through the groundbreaking Neumann bottle microphone. Chancellor Adolf Hitler declared the games begun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADOLF HITLER: (Speaking in German)

LYDEN: The Neumann bottle mic, a big canister with a head on it like a golf ball, was designed in 1928 by Georg Neumann. It was a technological breakthrough. Neumann took the old carbon grain microphone that sounded like a telephone and turned it into a mass-produced condenser microphone. Remember the vibrations of that impossibly thin diaphragm? Here, for the first time, that diaphragm was one-tenth the width of a human hair. So thin it could respond to the most minute vibration, making the output clearer, closer, more authoritative. The Neumann bottle mic gave the human voice its full range and intimacy.

KLAUS HEYNE: The Third Reich - Hitler and Goebbels and all these other people - used that technology to their advantage.

LYDEN: Klaus Heyne is the owner of a company called German Masterworks and an expert in vintage microphones.

HEYNE: They could, for the first time, not only transport the words and the information, but they could transport emotion. And that was revolutionary.

LYDEN: The Neumann mic was so widely used by the Fuhrer that Klaus Heyne says it acquired a nickname. Listen closely.

HEYNE: The Hitlerflasche, the Hitler bottle. And this was truly used and is still being used today, unashamedly, as the name for this microphone.

LYDEN: After the war, the Neumann factory took some of the exact same technology that had gone into the Hitler bottle microphone and put it into a new microphone that would transform the American studio sound. High fidelity, meet the crooners.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME FLY WITH ME")

FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Come fly with me, let's fly, let's fly away.

LYDEN: You're listening to the U47, the first condenser microphone that, with the flick of a switch, could go from picking up sound from all directions to picking up sound in the shape of a heart. Of course, old Blue Eyes loved it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME FLY WITH ME")

SINATRA: (Singing) Come fly with me, let's float down to Peru. In llama land there's a one-man band and he'll toot his flute for you...

LYDEN: Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong used it, so did Bing Crosby and countless others. And a handful of guys from the other side of the pond used the U47 and its successor, the U48.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FROM ME TO YOU")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) If there's anything I can do, just call on me and I'll send it along with love from me to you.

LYDEN: In fact, says John Peluso...

J. PELUSO: It's hard to find a record recorded in the '50s or '60s that didn't have U47s on them.

LYDEN: So naturally, the U47, with its smooth musical tone, is one of the main microphones the Pelusos try to replicate in their shop. Looking up, we see a silver parade of the 13 different kinds of mics he assembles. At each step, they're meticulously tested.

J. PELUSO: This machine is vibrating that diaphragm at a million times a second.

LYDEN: And tested...

(SOUNDBITE OF MICROPHONE FEEDBACK)

J. PELUSO: A little feedback. So the microphone is working now. That's the feed from the headphone.

LYDEN: ...and retested. The result? A microphone like the Peluso 22 47 LE. Begat by the Neumann U47, begat by the Neumann bottle microphone, this new mic costs a couple thousand dollars. The U47 can range up to $15,000. The Pelusos' cheapest mic is just a few hundred bucks. So by now, maybe you'd like to hear the sound of a Peluso microphone. Well, here's the music of Blue Highway, largely recorded on Peluso microphones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THROUGH THE WINDOW OF A TRAIN")

BLUE HIGHWAY: (Singing) Everybody drives the same old roads these days. Don't see a thing, but they know the way. Every mile's a marker, every town's the same...

LYDEN: This is NPR News.

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