Couple's Custom Microphones Carry Colorful Past In rural southwestern Virginia, Mary and John Peluso meticulously assemble microphones modeled after some of the world's legendary — and infamous — microphones, but at a price today's musicians can afford.
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Couple's Custom Microphones Carry Colorful Past

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Couple's Custom Microphones Carry Colorful Past

Couple's Custom Microphones Carry Colorful Past

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JACKI LYDEN, Host:

Now, the story of an object that's touched and transformed your life in ways you might never had considered. In fact, I'm using it right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPPING)

LYDEN: Testing one, two, three - it's the microphone. We, of course, are people of the microphone here at NPR. Recently 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 ridgebacks through hollers and passing double-wide trailers and lawns ornamented with lots of lawn art.

Finally we were in Floyd County, Virginia...

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

LYDEN: ...where up on Horse Ridge Road John and Mary Peluso not only create microphones, they also tend to a couple dozen sheep and lamb and two very fetching llamas.

MARY PELUSO: Dolly and Lori.

JOHN PELUSO: You got to have a Dolly Llama.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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

PELUSO: And these are the diaphragms.

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

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.

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 SCRATCHING)

PELUSO: We're listening for a certain tone.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOISE)

PELUSO: 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. And it is a form of magic.

LYDEN: Certainly creating microphones, as the Pelusos do, requires both a conjuring of alchemy and the science of sound. Like the crooked road up this ridge, John Peluso's career has taken some twists. Back in the 1960s, he was a long-haired techie working at a suburban sound studio. One day, the recording engineer didn't.

PELUSO: And we had a session with a blues bassist Blueblood, who was at the time B.B. King's bass player. So 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: (Singing) I ram a guitar cane, I play these blues everywhere I go.

LYDEN: In his career as an engineer, Peluso would eventually worked with all the classic microphones. Mikes 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.

PELUSO: The day I met Verner they had just had an elevator crash. Verner was at the bottom of the elevator shaft and I'd 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: And the rest, as they say, is history.

PELUSO: The rest is history, yeah.

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

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 to three hours a night after our work.

LYDEN: Really? For two or three hours?

PELUSO: For nights, days and weeks and months on end.

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 factory in Berlin straight to the heart of the Third Reich.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: the 1936 Berlin Olympics reached the world with a groundbreaking Neumann bottle microphone. Chancellor Adolph Hitler declared the games begun.

ADOLPH HITLER: (Speaking in German)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

LYDEN: The Neumann bottle mike, 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 most minute vibration, making the output clearer, closer, more authoritative.

The Neumann bottle mike gave the human voice its full range and intimacy.

PELUSO: The Third Reich, Hitler and Goebbels and all these other people used that technology to their advantage.

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

KLAUS 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: So, when Adolph Hitler and Hermann Goering announced measures like the Nuremberg race laws, the message was chillingly clear, and the words could not only be understood but felt.

HERMANN GOERING: (Speaking in German)

LYDEN: Marriages between Jews and German citizens are forbidden, Goering says.

GOERING: (Speaking in German)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

LYDEN: The Neumann mike was so widely used by the Fuhrer and his party leaders that Klaus Heyne says it 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: So it was already a microphone with a past that Verner Ruvalds came to produce in the thick of World War II in Germany. John Peluso remembers his mentor telling him he'd been kidnapped in Latvia and compelled to work for the Germans. After the war, Ruvalds came to the U.S. quickly. We know little about him other than the bare facts from the Social Security Death Index. He died at age 66 in 1982 in Cook County, Illinois. But he did pass on his art to John Peluso, who shows us a photo of Verner.

PELUSO: He's in his typical thick horn-rimmed glasses and his sweater vest that he wore year-round and his back to me because he didn't like his photo taken, in front of his Neumann disc-cutting lathe.

LYDEN: Why was Verner so camera-shy?

PELUSO: I don't know.

LYDEN: Do you think it had to do with his past?

PELUSO: It might have had to do with his past. You know, this was during the period where Nixon resigned and he was terrified that the government in the United States was going to change and it was all going to go downhill.

LYDEN: But just looking at this picture of this white-haired man with his sweater vest and his back to the camera, it's a mystery picture, really. There's something about it that he's hiding, really, from us here.

PELUSO: Yeah, he is, yeah, and he did.

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 microphone that would transform American studio sound. High fidelity, meet the age of 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 a 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 lover land there's a one-man band and he'll toot his flute for you...

LYDEN: Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong used it:

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) And you say either...

ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) And you say either...

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) You say neither...

FITZGERALD: (Singing) And you say neither...

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Either...

FITZGERALD: (Singing) Either...

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) And neither...

FITZGERALD: (Singing) And neither...

FITZGERALD: (Singing) Let's call the whole thing off...

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Oh yes...

LYDEN: Bing Crosby used it, so did Tony Bennett 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 MUSIC)

THE BEATLES: (Singing) It was everything that you want. Is there anything I can do. Just call on me and I'll send it along with love from me to you. I got everything...

LYDEN: In fact, says John Peluso...

PELUSO: It's hard to find a record recorded in the 1950s 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 tried to replicate in their shop. Now, the little workshop up on Horse Ridge Road doesn't much look like the pristine German facility where Neumann microphones are made by white-suited workers and hairnets. And the Pelusos casings in bit parts are manufactured around the world, although to John's custom specifications.

But looking up we see a silver parade of the 13 different kinds of mikes he assembles at each step they're meticulously tested.

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

LYDEN: And tested it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICROPHONE FEEDBACK)

PELUSO: Little feedback.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PELUSO: So, the microphone is working now. That's a feed from the headphone.

LYDEN: And retested, ending with a run through a time domain spectrometer developed by NASA and it sounds like it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TONES)

LYDEN: The result: a microphone like the Peluso 2247LE. Begat by the Neumann U47, begat by the Neumann bottle microphone but this new mike cost a couple thousand dollars. The U47 can range up to $15,000. The Peluso's cheapest mike is just a few hundred bucks.

So by now perhaps you'd like to hear the sound of a Peluso microphone. Well, here are the voices of 350 satisfied customers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Unidentified Man and Woman: (Singing) Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, Hallelujah.

LYDEN: That's right. It's the Mormon Tabernacle Choir wafting their voices heavenwards in Salt Lake City and using just five Peluso microphones to do it.

(Singing) (Foreign language spoken) Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah. (Foreign language spoken) Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Our visit with John and Mary Peluso was produced by Tape Davidson. Let's go out on perhaps a less exhalative note but one appropriate to the rolling hills of the Blue Ridge. The music of Blue Highway, largely recorded on Peluso microphones.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAWN LANE: (Singing) Everybody drives the same ole road these days, don't see a thing but they know the way. Every mile's a marker, every town's the same as a place to stop but not to stay. Daddy was a brakeman on the L&N, sometimes he'd let me ride along with him. Don't matter where we'd stop along the way, everybody knew his name...

LYDEN: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Andrea Seabrook is back next week. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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