Bill Bradley has been collecting, modifying and selling vintage microphones for years. He started as an engineer in Chicago and now lives outside of Nashville where his workbench at The Mic Shop sees a constant flow of traffic.
Walt: What's your history with modifying microphones?
I was a recording engineer for about a hundred years, right after the coal era, just before running water. I started buying tube mics in the late seventies. One night I had a session that I wanted to use an M-49 on and it was dead as a doornail. So I took it across the hall to the tech room staffed by five full time techs and said, "Help, help! Fix my mic!" They said, "No. It's your mic, you fix it." So I set up a different mic for the session and came back after I was done and stayed that night and fixed it. That was my introduction to the inside of a microphone.
Walt: Were you a musician before you were an engineer?
Yes, absolutely. I was a clarinet player who became very interested in recording in high school and then started in the business when Chess moved their studios back in 1968. Half-inch 4-track was the medium that was brand new at the time and that was a big deal. Whilst being an engineer I started buying my own stuff and I ended up with about 60 mics in my locker. I did a lot of orchestral stuff so it came in handy. I have been doing only microphone repairandmodificationsinceabout1990.
Walt: What do you think of the all the re- makes of classic mics being made today?
I give them an A for effort. They have an unfair disadvantage of their predecessors having unlimited R&D funding, which Neumann had when they were developing mics in the fifties. They had the German Rundfunk behind them. Similar to the BBC, they took tax money from subscribers [who] had to own a radio or a TV. As long as you owned one you had to pay a tax and that tax money went to unbelievable R&D and eventual manufacturing of just fabulous equipment. Back in the day they could afford to build anything they wanted, out of anything they wanted, and essentially sell it for any price they wanted. So basically to have something comparable in terms of quality and design it would take a lot more money than most of these small boutique shops have. When you consider that a U- 47 in 1953 was almost 400 bucks and you could buy a Chevrolet for under $3,000! Think about it, $400 for a microphone was big dough!
Walt: What makes the vintage microphones so special in terms of design, tube selection, etc?
Probably the most popular and most recognized is the U-47. There were about 5000 made. About 3200 long bodies and the rest were short. People say it's gotta be a long body to be any good. False. They're exactly the same microphone inside. The mic went through three revisions. They started off with a very large transformer/capacitor package. If you pull the covers off you won't believe, they're packed. There's no room for anything in there. If you take exactly the same mic that's five or six years younger, take the shell off — you'll wonder where the mic went.
Walt: What about you were telling me about a friend of yours who has left his tube mics powered for years?
Yes, basically considering the fact that tubes draw extremely low current there's really no reason to put the tube through the torture of getting hot getting cold, getting hot, getting cold. They seem to appreciate staying in one state. I've got a buddy in Chicago who has a very nice collection and every time he's bought a microphone he takes it home and takes it to his studio and turns it on and leaves it on. The oldest mic I'm aware that he has is an AKG C-28 and that thing's been on since around 1979.
Walt: A big monthly power bill, I would think...
Bob: What other mics do you want to talk about?
The C-12 is a great mic. It's also a bit ironic it was the first AKG production mic and it's the best mic they've ever made. They've never even come close...