For years Rob Chiarelli and Chandler Bridges have worked, together and separately, producing and engineering records for the likes of Will Smith, Madonna, Pink, Janet Jackson, J-Lo, Christina Aguilera, P- Diddy (Puff Daddy), Aaliyah, and Johnny Mathis. Along the way they decided to start selling microphones and more. Why? We had to know!
Rob, you’ve got a career as an engineer and producer. How did you get involved in a microphone company?
RC: My son was about ten years old and he started playing the drums. I figured I’d put his drums in the garage, get some mics, and mic it up in case I wanted to do some demos at home. I didn’t want to spend $10,000 on mics, so I went to a well-known music store and asked the opinion of the salespeople. I spent a couple of grand, and the mics sounded horrible. I took them back and tried a different brand. Horrible again. I couldn’t believe what they were selling, and couldn’t believe how much they cost. Just by chance I was in the studio with a producer friend of mine; he was using this unknown microphone, and it sounded really great. I wrote down the name of it and told Chandler about it.
CB: Rob and I had been working together for about ten years, at this point. We were in studios about 300 days a year and had access to world-class microphones. We had bought a matched pair of very expensive mics from a well-known manufacturer, but they didn’t sound all that great. We had this idea that we would share our mics with each other when we recorded at home.
RC: Which we never did, by the way.
CB: Well, no, because the mics didn't sounds all that great. Then we heard these mics and they totally beat the thousand-dollar mics we had bought. I tracked down the manufacturer and found out they were manufactured in China. I thought, “My iPhone and my Mac are made in China,” so I figured that not all Chinese products are bad. But it was more a matter of better quality control, which company is making it, and how you handle your business.
RC: So we ordered a dozen of these mics. Some of them sounded good and some of them didn’t. We just had to figure out why.
CB: Yeah, the first mic that we made was the Gauge ECM-87. We put a lot of thought into how we could make a great mic at a good price, bring it to market, and who we were making it for. As the idea started to develop, we realized that people have a horrible selection of mics at home, or they have a [Shure SM]57 and use it for everything. I’m not saying to get rid of that; but it would also be nice to have a mic that sounds incredible, that sounds like a thousand dollar mic.
RC: That came later though. First, when we got them, we had to sort out what the problems were. We changed components, wanted a different capsule design...
CB: And we also incorporated everything anybody was upgrading through forums and do-it-yourself mod kits into our plan. That was an interesting process.
RC: It did take a while. And once we got objective feedback from friends, we decided to order a few more. We sold a few, and then gave a few more away.
CB: Rob is good friends with Michael Laskow, from TAXI.com. They have that incredible, once a year, Road Rally conference. It’s fantastic, with all these breakout classes and lots of information. My wife, Tara, and I set up a booth, and that’s when we started selling the microphones.
CB: We sold them, at our cost, to any of the TAXI members, as a perk. It was fun. Tara and I were looking for something exciting and new to do. I don’t know how many we ordered on the first run...
RC: They were gone, and quick.
CB: We sold out the first or second day and took some pre-orders. It started from there. Those were the CB: That’s exactly why we started with the large- first sales we made. We’ve never sold through stores.
RC: It’s all been word of mouth. About a year ago we sent a survey to all of our clients. One of the questions was, “How did you hear about us?” About 80 percent was word-of-mouth. That really said a lot. I think one of the things that helped, when we first started, is that Chandler and I listened to every mic that came in, testing them. We’re like, “This one sucks. Send it back. This one’s great. This one’s good.” It was actually fun to do.
CB: Imagine a huge table, just covered in mics. That’s just too fun.
You had to listen to every one?
CB: Yes. That was part of our plan. We didn’t want to sell a mic that didn’t sound great.
RC: Every one of our mics is still checked by a platinum engineer. Not the ECM-80 handheld live mic, but all our studio mics. It makes it more expensive, but we feel like it’s worth it.
I think the business model is really interesting. It’s still not distributed through typical routes; it’s just direct.
CB: When someone asks to distribute our mics, they always want to double the price. They want us to raise the price to $300 to give them some room to make more money on it, which is the opposite of why we started the company. We still sell the ECM-87 for $149. I think it’s our home run mic, and it’s just a hair over our actual cost. I think it’s one of the most incredible mics you will ever hear.
Large-diaphragm condenser, I assume?
CB: Large-diaphragm condenser, and transformer-less. We’ve got samples on our website where you can compare microphones, and we include information about how those tests were run. In blind tests, again and again, people pick our mics over some well-known brands. When it’s $150, compared to $1,000 or $2,000 – Rob used to say, “Save your money and take your family on a vacation.”
RC: I remember when I was 21. I still remember scraping together a few dollars to buy a set of strings. I remember those days well. And today, musicians are getting killed. They [often] have to pay to play, and it’s getting harder and harder to find venues that will pay a decent fee for a band. Here you are, you want to make a good demo and record your songs. In the end, you’re looking at spending a couple of grand for a mic while you’re scraping to pay rent. That’s a hard decision, and I remember those days. With all the technology that’s available today, with Pro Tools, Logic, millions of plug-ins, and tons of different mics to choose from – there’s so much. A lot of the gear is really good these days, but I think it must be hard for someone to make that choice to spend $1,500 on a mic when they need the money for rent.
If they’re buying mics to use, just for lead vocals or drum overheads, how many times are they going to use it in a year compared to a commercial facility?
CB: That’s exactly why we started with the large-diaphragm condenser. We wanted to offer something that was versatile. I don’t know about you, but if I only had one or two microphones in my collection I would want something I could put on an acoustic guitar, percussion, overheads, piano, and definitely use on vocals.
RC: Yeah. Don’t get me wrong. I love a [Neumann] U 47 tube, a [AKG] C12, [Telefunken ELA M] 251s, and [Neumann] U 67 mics as much as the next guy. But not everybody can shell out that kind of dough.
And there’s no way to even replicate those without spending a lot of money in manufacturing.
RC: Right. I do a lot of seminars every year. The truth is my voice through a U 47 is not going to sell as many records as Paul McCartney’s voice through an SM57. There’s this balance that I think gets lost in the sales talk and the amount of misinformation that people get these days. It’s hard to see through the fog sometimes.
CB: In the record business, the whole art is about using your ears and listening. It’s tough to balance. For example, how do you record an acoustic guitar? People will give you their opinions, but really it’s a combination of the acoustics, mic, the type of the guitar, and so on.
RC: The style of playing, the player, the instrument.
You put something up, and change it if you don’t like it.
CB: Yeah, the biggest mistake people make in home recordings is they start recording before they listen.
What have been the reactions of your pro colleagues that have received a $150 mic?
RC: There are classic microphones that have been around for years. They’re pleasing, well-designed, great microphones. My biggest clients have those microphones, and they tend to use them. I don’t think either one of us would say, “Get rid of your $15,000 mic and go for one of ours.” That’s not the idea. But clients of ours that have those classic mics use ours also, because it’s a different sound. It’s a different color that can be used in a different application. That’s a valuable thing; to be able to have a selection of microphones and choices. But I think most of our Gauge clients are singers, songwriters, and young producers. They want a good microphone, at an affordable price. They want it to sound good, and they want it to be reliable.
Is Gauge a side project to your other careers?
RC: Yes, and it’s not like we’re getting rich on selling microphones. That was never the idea. Chandler is finishing his doctorate degree, and I’m mixing and producing every day. We still work together, but Gauge Microphones is really a way for us to “give back,” and we enjoy doing it.
How do you run the company?
RC: It’s a family-run business.
CB: With Rob’s wife, my wife, and our kids.
RC: We don’t want to expand, hire a bunch of people, and raise prices. Even though we sell out every month, we want to stay small and keep it fun.
What has the product line expanded to be?
RC: The second mic we did was the ECM-47. We can’t keep those in stock.
CB: They sell out instantly. It’s a tube condenser with a nine-way variable pattern. We use a 6072 [vacuum] tube with a very unique transformer design. That mic sounds great, and at $479 it’s a no-brainer.
Do you offer “money back” if purchasers don’t like the mics for some reason?
RC: Thirty days. If you don’t like it, send it back. Just make sure it’s not banged up or dented.
CB: Over the last eight years we’ve only had one ECM- 47 returned, and only a few ECM-87s.
What was the next product? Did you go to a small-diaphragm, at that point?
CB: Everybody wanted it, so we went through the same process with our ECM-84 kit.
RC: We wanted to offer it with omni and cardioid patterns, so we spent a lot of time designing the capsule housing as well as the electronics.
CB: People wanted a small diaphragm condenser, and we take peoples’ advice. There’s the MP-1073 preamp. That was the next thing everybody wanted, because every mic needs a preamp.
Did you do a transistor-based design?
CB: Yes. And it has the largest transformer we could fit in there! It has a huge, thick, creamy sound. It’s incredible. At the moment there is a 70-day waiting list for the MP-1073!
CB: One channel. It’s a desktop unit because the transformer we put in was so huge that it would need to be a two-space rack. We plan to offer a two-channel version of the MP-1073 in early 2017.
RC: We offered the MP-1073 in advance and it sold out in about four hours. Since then, it’s been backordered. The family is still trying to fill orders and keep up. And we also have the ECM-80 handheld, dynamic live vocal mic, which is awesome.
CB: We’d done a live mic, the ECM-58, before. Then we thought, “You know, we’re really studio guys,” so we discontinued the 58. We thought we could make something better. That’s why the ECM-80 came out.
What kind of ideas went into the making of that?
RC: We wanted very low handling noise, better feedback rejection, and a clearer sound. Those were the three big challenges.
CB: I really like it because it is transformer-less. I’m sure you know about people advising to take your SM57s and gut those. We figure if it sounds better, it’s the way to go.
RC: The handheld mic is as good, or better, than anything out there. It feels nice; a heavy, solid, and beautiful mic.
What new products are on the way?
RC: We’re coming out with a killer drum mic kit, and we have a 251/C12 style mic coming out.
CB: That’s a really amazing mic, and we will be offering it at an incredible price. Great sound, at a great price. That’s been our goal from the day we started Gauge Precision Instruments.