Say Hi to a Vintage Mike
Microphones are ubiquitous in our modern environment – they surround us. Everything from a cell-phone to a Walkman-type tape recorder has one. The news media thrusts them on poles at politicians and celebrities. Occasionally we amuse ourselves by noticing the supposedly out of sight microphones which turn up in movie scenes, overlooked by the editor.
The word “microphone” comes from the Greek. “Micro” means small, and “phone” means voice. The word was first published in a dictionary in 1683, and defined as “an instrument by which small sounds are intensified.” At that point the word was used for acoustical hearing aids like ear trumpets and megaphones.
But modern microphones began with the telephone, in 1876. The first one, known as a liquid transmitter, was developed almost simultaneously by Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell. It involved a membrane which, responding to sound waves, moved a pin up and down in a cup of dilute acid, which caused a variable resistance. As telephones were developed, better microphones were invented.
Radio pushed microphones to the next plateau – and they got an extra boost from the U.S. Army during World War I. Around that same time, in 1915, Western Electric introduced a “loudspeaking outfit” for public-address use. And soon after the war not only was the radio industry taking off, but Magnavox and Western Electric were promoting PA – or “sound reinforcement” as it’s now known – systems. These, of course, totally changed the nature of public performances and made possible the “crooning” style of singers like Bing Crosby. By the early 1920s three major companies were making microphones: Westinghouse, Western Electric and General Electric.
As radio developed into a commercial broadcast medium and movies went to sound, microphones were the key ingredients. Typically, in the early 1930s these were “condenser” microphones, and most of them were being made by RCA and Western Electric. In 1931 RCA introduced the ribbon velocity microphone.
Until ribbon types were introduced, microphones had been omnidirectional – they picked up sounds from all directions. Ribbon mikes were bidirectional, picking up sound equally from their front and rear, but little from the sides, top or bottom – a figure-eight pattern. In 1936 RCA introduced the unidirectional 77A ribbon microphone. This mike picked up only the sounds it was pointed at.
This period in the 1930s is generally regarded as the Golden Age of microphones, and there are collectors who extol their “warmth” and superior sound. And it’s surprising who some of those collectors are. One was the late L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Dianetics and its religious offshoot, Scientology. There is an official website devoted to Ron’s “cherished collection,” which “includes such utterly rare makes and models as the Neuman U47s, U48s, M49, M250, and numerous vintage AKG C-12s – meaningless names to the layman but tantamount to a Stradivarious [sic] in the eyes of recording professionals and astute musicians.”
The good ones don’t come cheap. RCA velocity type PB90s go for over $2,000 apiece; less prized mikes are being bought and sold in the $200 to $500 range. Significantly, these prices parallel the prices of new quality microphones, and many of the older mikes are bought by working musicians and engineers who value their various properties and sound and put them to regular use – not just to be displayed as a collection.