Jacki Lyden, NPR
John and Mary Peluso live on 120 acres at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In addition to building microphones, they tend 27 sheep and the two llamas that guard them.
John and Mary Peluso live on 120 acres at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In addition to building microphones, they tend 27 sheep and the two llamas that guard them. Jacki Lyden, NPR
Kate Davidson, NPR
John Peluso assembles his microphones by hand. Here, he attaches the circuit board.
John Peluso assembles his microphones by hand. Here, he attaches the circuit board. Kate Davidson, NPR
Adolf Hitler, circa 1936, making a speech into the distinctive microphone sometimes known as "the Hitler bottle."
Adolf Hitler, circa 1936, making a speech into the distinctive microphone sometimes known as "the Hitler bottle." Keystone/Getty Images
B.J. Morgan/Courtesy of the Museum of Making Music
The Neumann U47 microphone — still a common item in studios around the world — was used by the Beatles for almost every track they sang from 1962 through 1970.
The Neumann U47 microphone — still a common item in studios around the world — was used by the Beatles for almost every track they sang from 1962 through 1970. B.J. Morgan/Courtesy of the Museum of Making Music
On Horse Ridge Road in southwestern Virginia, Mary and John Peluso tend to sheep, lambs and two spitting llamas named Dolly and Lori.
But unlike some of their rural neighbors, who may rise before dawn to cast their lines in the local creek, this couple rises early to meticulously assemble microphones by hand. The Pelusos' microphones are modeled after some of the world's legendary mikes, but at a price more affordable for today's musicians.
The Pelusos are part of a boutique microphone-making movement — an effort to inexpensively replicate the look and sound of classic mikes. Peluso microphones have been used to record the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the bluegrass band Blue Highway and the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra, among others.
The couple produce their microphones using the magic of alchemy and the science of sound. As he creates a microphone, John Peluso works carefully on its diaphragm, a sliver of plastic thinner than a human hair and sensitive enough to quiver with the vibration of a voice or musical instrument.
Like any good instrument, a microphone diaphragm has to be in tune, and for that, Peluso uses a tank of dry nitrogen and his most important tool: his ears.
"John has the unique ability to take these bits of pieces of matter, metal and ... transform them into an instrument which is more than just matter, it has a personality," his wife says. "And it's able to form a partnership with a musician or a performer. And it is a form of magic."
A Mysterious Mentor
Like the crooked road up the ridge to his house, John Peluso's career has taken some twists. In the 1960s, he was a long-haired techie working at a suburban sound studio. One day, the recording engineer didn't show up for a recording session, giving Peluso a lucky break.
"The band was B.B. King and his band. And I was the one there. The studio owner was there and he said, 'The engineer didn't show up — the clients are here. You're it.'" Peluso recalls.
As a recording engineer, he eventually worked with all the classic RCA, Sony and AKG microphones, and particularly the German-made Neumann mikes. But it was when he went to work for a mysterious physicist named Verner Ruvalds that he learned about what he calls the "black art" of making microphones.
Peluso met Ruvalds at his studio immediately following an elevator crash. He took the older man to the hospital, then brought him back to the studio where Ruvalds eventually taught him the intricacies of making microphones.
The physicist imparted volumes about the soul of a microphone — how a change of a few invisible microns in the pocket of air behind the diaphragm makes a big difference to the ear. A micron is about one-sixtieth the width of a human hair.
"What he would tell me was ... why it did what it did, why it sounded the way it did," Peluso says. "We would talk two or three hours at night after our work for nights, days and weeks and months on end."
But Ruvalds was reticent to share his own part in the lineage of the microphone — a lineage that went from the fabled Neumann factory straight to the heart of the Third Reich.
A Classic's Tainted Past
Ruvalds had helped produce the Neumann bottle mike, designed in 1928 by Georg Neumann, and considered a technological breakthrough. Neumann took the old carbon-grain broadcast microphone, which uses bits of carbon sandwiched between two plates, and turned it into a mass-produced "condenser" microphone, which has one fixed plate and another that forms a diaphragm moved by sound waves.
The Neumann, a big canister with a head like a golf ball, made it possible for the human voice to sound clearer, closer and more authoritative. It gave the human voice its full range. At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, German Chancellor Adolph Hitler opened the ceremonies with a speech that reached the world through the groundbreaking Neumann bottle mike.
Klaus Heyne, owner of the company German Masterworks and an expert in vintage microphones, says leaders of the Third Reich used the technology to their advantage.
"They could, for the first time, not only transport the words and the information, but they could transport emotion. And that was revolutionary." Heyne says.
The Neumann mike — the CMV3 — was so widely used by the Fuehrer and Nazi Party leaders that it acquired a nickname: The Hitlerflasche, or the Hitler Bottle.
Peluso recalls how his mentor told him he'd been "kidnapped" in Latvia and compelled to work for the Germans. Ruvalds emigrated to the United States soon after World War II, but little else is known about his past.
Coming Full Circle
After the war, the Neumann factory took some of the same technology that had gone into the bottle microphone and put it into a microphone that would enhance American recording studios. High fidelity met the age of the crooners. The U47 was the first condenser microphone that — with a flick of a switch — could change the pattern of sound it picked up.
Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett and the Beatles all used the U47. In fact, it's hard to find an album recorded in the 1950s or '60s that didn't have a U47 on it, John Peluso says. The Beatles used the mike for almost every track they sang from 1962 through 1970.
With its smooth, musical tone, the U47 is one of the main microphones that John and Mary Peluso try to replicate in their shop. Their little workshop doesn't look much like the imposing production facilities where Neumann microphones are made today. But it boasts a gleaming row of the 13 kinds of microphones the Pelusos lovingly construct with the help of generations of knowledge and, of course, their own ears.