Milwaukee's Bob Paquette Sr. is regarded by many as the world's foremost expert on microphones. His self- published The History and Evolution of the Microphone is an 840-page volume chronicling the microphone's inception and development up to the 1960s. In 1958, Bob founded Select Sound Service, an audio company specializing in medical and industrial applications and live sound for large events. A visit to Bob's Microphone Museum, housed inside his Select Sound Service complex, offers a private tour of the world's most complete collection of pre-'60s microphones as well as a vast array of early recording gear, test apparatus, device schematics and sound gear for film and broadcast. I spoke with him at the museum.
How did you become interested in sound technology?
When I was a kid, there was a library in our neighborhood. I would spend evenings there learning all about radio, because there was no "electronics"- it was called radio then. By the time I was in seventh grade, I had been repairing radios for two years. All this time I was going to radio shops and going through their trash and taking stuff to build amps myself. I went to high school and only finished one year. Then I quit at sixteen to go work with for a sound company. They hired me to form an assembly line to build phonographs and things, because right after the war you couldn't buy them. Then my dad died and I wasn't making enough money, so I went and worked for the railroad to make twice as much. I was getting 50 cents an hour. This brought it up to a buck. I convinced my mom to let me join the service by telling her that I'd send her the money home and she wouldn't have to feed me. That worked out, and after I got out I went back in the sound business. I'm completely self-taught.
Lots of the best sound engineers, musicians and people of other disciplines seem to be self-taught.
They're motivated to do it for themselves, and whatever it takes to do what you want to do, you learned it. When you're in school your attitude is, "Once I do this, that's all I have to do." It isn't that way. You've got to keep learning and keep up. A famous concert pianist whose name I can't remember [Ignace Jan Paderewski] said, "If I miss one day of practice, I notice it. If I miss two days, the critics notice it. If I miss three days, the audience notices it." There's the problem I have with [some] people I hire. They think that once they finish [a project] they're done [learning]. They don't even read the magazines or try to keep up. You've got to stay ahead.
Do you notice a disparity between the professionally manufactured mics of today and fifty years ago?
There's a company in California that builds a [RCA-style] 44 and they claim you can hardly tell the difference between them. I had a guy buy one and then he borrowed one of mine and he preferred the sound of mine to the brand new one. So he sent it back. I'm sure it was good, but with musicians everyone has a critical ear based on what they do, and you're not going to compete with that. There was [another] guy who came in the other day, and he had some nice microphones that he designed and built. When I plugged in his mic, it wasn't too bad, but it was way low in gain. I told him, "This has no gain. Nobody would want this." I went and got a RCA-77 and took it apart to show him the structure. Then I plugged it into my amp and you could turn the gain to one and hear it from across the room. His had to be turned up to four before you could even hear it. He must not have had a really good mic to reference.
Why do you specialize in pre-'70s microphones?
The mics were always way ahead of everything else because of the telephone industry. They developed the first early mics. In 1920 there was a double button carbon that was at least 50-7,000 [Hz], which is more than anybody used. AM only went to 5 kHz, and when movies started they went to 8,000, and they could still fit in there. When the broadcast museum opened in Chicago they borrowed a double button carbon and wanted to record with it. I said, "It will sound as good as anything we've got today. The only thing is you might have a little noise in the background." We played it back and he said, "You're right. We can't tell." I rented some mics to Woody Allen for a movie and I told him that he wouldn't be able to tell the difference. What he was associating as the sound of the mic had to do with limitations of radio and so on. He ended up hiring someone to change the sound of the mic to simulate the old-time sound.
Can you envision any way in which modern technology can improve the sonic quality or accuracy of the microphone?
No. They've been at that stage for more than twenty years. The ribbon mics that RCA put out in the '40s will do anything and everything. One of the things the condenser mic people used to keep saying was, "There's no coloration. You get True-Fidelity pickup." And that's a bunch of garbage. You record with a condenser microphone, and it sounds sterile in most cases. You record with a ribbon, and it sounds good. But they keep coming out with more and more mics and this and that...
What do you think you would be doing if you were just getting out of the Air Force now? Would you still have been interested the sound business as it is today?
I don't know. Probably, because sound was really something I liked. And I like working with people, even though some of them are idiots. Some of them are really bad and others are really nice. You can run into some really bad people in the music industry.
More so than in any other industry?
No. But you'd get some people, I don't know what you would call them — but if everything wasn't done their way, they would go nuts. Like what's his name... the drummer, Buddy Rich. He was terrible to work for. He was a bad dude. Another guy was Bobby Vinton. When I started working with him, first he was part of a [variety] show and he sang good. But then he made a record, and they called him the "Polish Prince" after that. From that time on he was unbearable to work with, really nasty.
Celebrity can ruin someone's personality.
Yeah, but then you had the opposite with a lot of people. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were really nice, super down-to-earth people. Johnny Cash was good to work with, and the Carter Family was excellent.
It seems that the type of people that become recording engineers these days are a different breed than in the past, when most recording engineers had to be more technically adept.
Well, everything was so complex in comparison. When we did disc recording, you had to know a lot just to get a decent recording. If you put too much level, you'd cut into adjacent grooves. If you gave too much bass, you'd do the same. So you had to roll off everything below 500 and [above] 10,000 and put it back later with EQ, which is how we got the RIAA curves. It was more complicated and it's just gotten simpler and simpler. Now you can record with any small unit and get pretty decent quality without knowing what you're doing.
Have you ever had interest in starting a microphone manufacturing business?
No. There were always more microphones [than necessary]. Even today my son keeps telling me I should go into manufacturing. Everything has been done. I don't know why people keep making new [microphones], because they aren't accomplishing anything. You're basically talking people into [new designs] as so great, and then you only get so much work out of them before moving on to the next thing. Lots of companies are now going back to the original designs and using them.
One reason to keep manufacturing new microphones is that those original microphones have become relatively rare and increasingly expensive.
Yeah, but the quality was so good that [it's useless] to even compete.