Just a bit ago, I had the interesting experience of talking with Jürg Sennheiser, son of the founder of the major European manufacturing giant, Sennheiser GmbH.
et al manufactures a complete line of broadcast and studio gear, widely respected
and used throughout the world. Jürg distinguished himself by completing
research with Professor Hibbing of Sennheiser on the push-pull capsule used
in the new series of small mikes which boast low I.M. distortion.
Some of the big news we've all heard lately that I talked to him about had to do with the purchase of Neumann GmbH, Berlin. This was a historic business move which will affect the recording industry for years to come. Obviously we're all concerned about the effect this will have on a company with the history and impact Neumann has had on the professional recording world.
I really didn't know what to expect, so I was pleasantly surprised to meet with a comparatively young, stylish fellow, and his lovely wife. Sennheiser the Younger sported a red sports jacket and a flair for contemporary European dress. Andrew Bracken, President of Sennheiser USA joined us as well, and we found a quiet corner of the Universal Sheraton in which to chat.
I asked Jürg about the origins of the company, knowing very little about its history. He told me that Sennheiser was "founded in 1945, and was a direct child of the war..." His father was a professor at the University and was involved in research involving acoustics and vocal encoding. (Methods of scrambling and so on. James Bond, anyone?) Jürg was wonderfully frank about the reason for the start of the company..."Well, after the war, this research was forbidden, and my father had to do something to earn a living..." I liked this guy. And so on we went.
I was torn between presenting this as an interview or a story, and I guess the ultimate solution will be to present it as a little of both. So here are some of the questions and answers, and bits of my own musings thrown in for good measure...
I wondered a bit more about the origins of the company, and so I ascertained that Jürg's father and six other guys from his university got together and decided to start manufacturing "something with the knowledge they had and the materials available...."
"So he just closed his eyes and picked something?" I mused aloud...
The Gang of Seven decided that since they were involved with acoustics and related sciences, test equipment and other electronic challenges quite naturally presented themselves. Their first product was a millivolt meter. I remembered that Sennheiser had manufactured an impedance meter in the seventies that was quite popular. I asked Jürg about it...
"Yes," he grinned, "that was a very famous piece of equipment, very famous in California..."
We laughed. Ahhh, there's nothing like test gear esoterica to whet one's thirst. The waitress appeared. Jürg ordered a Margarita...This dude's got style.
Of course, I wanted to know about the mics and how did they get started making those? As it turned out, Jürg told me someone came to them with a dynamic mic and said... "Can you duplicate this? So they did...make a copy...and then they had their own ideas about acoustics, and they built another copy with 'improvements'."
"Oh!" I laughed..."so they modified it?!"
Big laugh all the way around.
Okay. So. I asked him about the acquisition of Neumann and the effect that all this Teutonic Trysting in the biz world's going to have. After all, we may love 'em or hate 'em, but no one can downplay the contribution Neumann made to almost ALL of our favorite recordings. And it's pretty much a forgone conclusion with all the Merger Mania out there that when the competition gets absorbed, things have a way of turning into Homogenized Milk. Not always, but it certainly isn't a rare occurrence.
Jürg seemed to be relatively sympathetic to the differences between the design philosophy of Neumann and Sennheiser, but after all, there are crucial areas of total overlap. The shotgun mics, for example, and the smaller series such as the KM's. What will happen when they are considered against the equivalent Sennheiser models?
Well, as with anything, there are two faces to the coin. I mentioned the shotgun mics, to which Jürg replied,
"Yes, there was competition between us, but frankly speaking, we have always been the best..." Laughter.
And perhaps there were intimations of mortality for the Neumann shotgun line. Of course, none of this is going to happen overnight.
Jürg seemed to be saying at first that the other overlapping mics were completely different, and each had their place, and the engineers who are used to their favorite type will always make the best recordings with whatever that is...however, he indicated that pretty much the stuff that isn't asked for much anymore, will cease to be produced. "A sort of natural fading away..." as he put it.
When that occurs, Sennheiser will make a determination as to which company will produce what solutions for the future.
At this point, I decided to ask about the future of support for the more-or-less vintage stuff...
"Well," said I, bravely venturing into the fog, "let's take a capsule such as the K47 which got its start in 1935, and has many followers..."
"Yes," Jürg jumped in with a smile, "and has a very distinctive sound...whatever that is..." He continued, "Obviously, there are two diverging markets...the vintage mic market where some examples are selling for over a thousand percent more than their original price, and are somewhat like buying a vintage car at this point. These have a very unique sound though perhaps designers would consider them as leaving a lot to be desired by today's design standards.
"The other is the contemporary market where many companies seem to be a little lost...at least as far as engineers seem to feel these days."
"What is the situation going to be as far as support for these older models, inasmuch as Neumann has graciously continued to support (to some degree) mics which are in some cases forty plus years of age...and though there are things which have been in short supply, at least one can still get a capsule for a 47. Is this going to change?" I asked, already knowing the answer, but at this point forged ahead... also believing I knew what would happen no matter what the plan was from this point of view.
"Probably there will be this point-of-no-return at some point, though there are some admirable efforts at restoring these old capsules and electronics and things...but it is somewhat outside normal thinking for me to understand what is the positive effect of these vintage microphones...and I would really like to have objective parameters as far as what is really going on.
"As far as I can see, if a good sound engineer can use a certain mic with a certain frequency response and a certain polar pattern, and make a great recording, then he must be an artist. To know what the advantages and disadvantages of that specific microphone are and to work with them, well, that is not normal recording business."
Well, okay. I guess I saw what he meant. I suppose that these are far from foolproof as mics go. You do have to know what you're doing to get the best from them. I wondered though if most of us who have used these babies would trade them for the latest whiz-bang under ANY circumstances. (Well, I TOLD you that there would be some of my own musings here.) So I mentioned this.
We discussed some of the 'objective' factors, such as the size and shape of the grille etc., as well as the dimension of the capsule itself. I pointed out that since we all know that there really is no such thing as 'accuracy', not really, you know...no matter what we do in the lab, perfection is unreachable. It's all a matter of compromise. And therefore, we are always really dealing with an illusion. The illusion is either magic, and we think the sound is appearing in front of us, or it isn't and it doesn't. Many times, things that don't measure well sound the best in terms of this magical illusion.
So, this being said, what's going to happen when the rather large vintage school of engineers and producers out there find their traditional tools abandoned by the manufacturer?
"Well," said Jürg, "I think that designers are going to leave the past where the mixer and engineer are performing artists, and their microphone is their 'violin' so to speak, and provide transducers which will be very sophisticated, but very reproducible. [Meaning that they can build a thousand which will sound reasonably alike.] The sound engineer will learn to use several transducers to pick up a sound rather than a single one which is uncontrolled in some parameter.
"I think that a lot of it is the way you're educated and what you're used to."
Well, maybe so. However, I think that a lot of us may feel that recording is quite a bit like all of the more mystical professions, in that secrets are passed from generation to generation, and these vintage tools will ALWAYS be the subject of many an apprentice's education. Though I suppose it is possible that one day, a brand-new crop of engineers will surface and not want to bother themselves with this old stuff. How many of us feel that it all comes down to numbers?
All in all, it would seem that Neumann is in reasonably good hands. (Though I had a strong feeling they were in for a shock!!) Jürg indicated that an open dialog between users and the company is welcomed, and the things we really want, we simply have to ask for.
Enter our faithful waitress. Maragaritas and beers abound once again. At this point the conversation turned rather esoteric, and though I'm sure you'd all like to have been a fly on the wall for this one, suffice it to say that we covered a wide range of subjects including adaptive encoding and the new digital broadcast standards. We also talked about the laser-operated mics which seem to be a possible wave of the future, and eventually wound up on the subject of the Lakers.
We did agree that we'll all miss Magic.