Oldies but goodies: Kansas City's history echoes through a collection of vintage microphones [The Kansas City Star :: ]
(Kansas City Star (MO) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 23--In 1989, a 28-year-old audio engineer from Tulsa, Okla., couldn't tamp down the fluttery feeling in his gut as he climbed the worn stairs of an old brick church at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue to worship at the altar of a legend in Kansas City sound.
The visitor was Don Miller, now owner of Airborne Audio Productions in Overland Park, and the eminence at the top of the stairs was Ed Roche, owner of Crown Recording. The building has since been torn down, but from 1935 until Roche's retirement in 1991, the city's top broadcasters, artists, celebrities and a U.S. president made the trek up to the former balcony area of the church where Roche had assembled a Frankenstein's laboratory of recording equipment.
Roche's wife, Lucille, answered the door and ushered Miller into the tiny reception area. That day and on subsequent visits, even though Roche was the only other person in the studio, Lucille would press a button on an intercom on her desk and say, "Ed Roche, Line 1, Ed Roche."
"It was so quaint and charming," Miller recalls.
Roche was sitting in front of a giant green console copying thousands of tapes from a seminar company. A plain-spoken man, he was skeptical at first about why Miller wanted to hang out. But after several visits he warmed to Miller and rewarded him with lots of tech talk and stories from his colorful career.
Like the time Harry Truman climbed the stairs and took his place in front of a microphone to record his memoirs for the Truman Library in Independence. At the end of one session, Roche told Miller, Truman walked over to a piano and played a tune.
Or further back, to the days when local radio stations didn't have recording equipment. News and sports broadcasters would deliver their morning reports live at the station, then hustle over to Crown, where they would read their reports again as Roche recorded them on 16-inch vinyl discs, curls of highly flammable acetate flying everywhere. The discs were then delivered to the radio stations to be played throughout the day.
Over 56 years, Roche recorded thousands of bands, choruses, radio programs and civic events, including the "Kansas City Hour," the Kansas City Philharmonic and the Kansas City Jazz Festival, creating an astonishing documentation of the city's cultural and civic history.
His carefully archived tapes are now housed at the Marr Sound Archives at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The Roche tapes are from 1964 to 1971 and include performances by Woody Herman, Duke Ellington, Lou Rawls, Count Basie and Buddy Rich and local groups including Jay McShann, Marilyn Maye, Milt Abel and Pete Eye.
Miller remembers debating the quality of various microphones with Roche, a man of strong opinions.
"He hated RCA mics, and I loved them. Once I asked him, 'Why do you hate RCA?' and he said, 'I've never liked them. You can have them!'" He gave Miller a piece of RCA gear to prove his point.
Later, when Roche was selling off his equipment, Miller purchased several microphones from him. Today, those microphones from Crown, along with others from the now-closed Kansas City film studio Calvin Co. and a retired sound engineer in Texas form the core of a collection that captures the history of recorded sound in Kansas City and the nation.
How mics changed history
Miller has no formal display space for his collection of microphones, many of which are strikingly beautiful sculptural objects.
They are casually arrayed on top of wall-hung cabinets and countertops in the Airborne Audio studio. In part that is because Miller still uses several of the mics, especially for recording music, although much of the studio's business is voice work for radio and television commercials and corporate films.
Two of the mics are often seen in photographs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The oldest one, a Western Electric 7A from the early '20s, resembles a church.
The other one, a Western Electric 618A, a slender stem supporting a brass disc suspended inside a ring, is the one FDR spoke into for his "fireside chats." Those mics, and others in the collection, have the tinny sound heard in old newsreels.
A flock of sleek silver RCA "ribbon" microphones harkens back to the golden age of broadcasting in the 1950s. Their warm, rich tone shaped the sound of early rock 'n' roll records as well as TV shows such as "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "The Lucy Show" and "The Andy Griffith Show."
Miller's most prized local microphone, a Shure 5-B mounted on a floor stand, was the main on-air mic for WHB radio station.
Chuck Haddix, director of the Marr Sound Archives, says Miller's collection is significant beyond the value of the mics themselves.
"Microphones led the way to changes in the music industry. In the early days, recordings were made acoustically using big horns. That crude technology could not pick up the timbre of a piano or a guitar, so what you got were a lot of wind ensembles and big mama blues shouters and opera singers."
Refinements in microphones in the 1950s caused changes in instrumentation. When it became possible to pick up a flute, for example, composers began to include them more in scores.
A more important shift occurred when refinements in microphones ushered in electrical recording and the vocalist could be heard along with the band. That altered the songs and leadership within musical groups. The billing changed from "Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra featuring Frank Sinatra" to "Frank Sinatra and his band."
In addition, Haddix says, the microphones studios used imbued their records with a distinctive sound. "You could tell immediately if something was recorded in Motown or Muscle Shoals or Stax."
When old is good
A microphone is a transducer, a device that receives a signal in one form of energy and converts it to a different form. It converts air pressure to voltage. A loudspeaker does the reverse: It converts voltage into air pressure.
Even in the age of digital music, microphones are necessary mechanical, analog devices. The three basic microphone designs -- dynamic, ribbon and condenser -- used by contemporary manufacturers were invented in the 1910s and 1920s.
Dynamic mics have a movable coil inside a magnetized field. They are robust and can take in a lot of sound before feedback occurs, making them well-suited for onstage performances.
Ribbon mics have a thin piece of aluminum foil that vibrates inside a strong magnetic field. They have a rich, warm sound preferred by jazz artists.
Condenser mics have two plates that act as a diaphragm; vibrations change the distance between the plates. "Condenser mics are probably the most accurate, the most transparent, the fastest and the most expensive," says Tom Mardikes, professor of sound design and chairman of UMKC Theatre. "They are great for vocals. Most serious classical recordings will be made with super high-end condenser mics.
"Part of the sound engineer's expertise is choosing the right mic for the right application. We might use $150 to $200 stuff for tom-toms and for an acoustic guitar we might use a $7,000 condenser mic," Mardikes says.
When it comes to manufacturers of elite mics, not much has changed either. German makers Neumann and Sennheiser, which debuted in the 1920s and 1950s respectively, still reign supreme, says Chuck Chapman, owner of Chapman Recording Studios in Lenexa.
Chapman got his start in 1972 working for Vic Damon at Damon Studio downtown. Damon Studio was Crown's main rival, with Vic Damon and Ed Roche vying for the city's largest contracts for decades.
In 1975, Chapman bought out Damon and purchased most of the studio's microphones, which he still uses.
"Our preference is to reach for something 60 to 70 years old," Chapman says.
He has favorite mics for different jobs.
"For voice-over, we reach for a Sennheiser 416, a dynamic shotgun mic that's been the standard in L.A. for 60 years. It's a very, very natural sounding mic," he says.
For classical grand piano, Chapman prefers Neumann. "With Neumanns, the more acoustic the source, the better the sound."
"Recording technology has changed a lot," says video producer and editor Bill Pryor of Overland Park. "But the basic things that happen inside a microphone haven't changed in 100 years."
Pryor worked at Calvin in its heyday from the late '60s to the early '70s. His collaboration with Hollywood stars included Arte Johnson and Judy Carne from "Laugh-In" -- the duo did a parody training film called "Freeze-In" for Sears, training salesmen how to upsell freezers.
"We were using mics that were already old then. Stuff never wore out in those days. Some mics might have been 50 years old -- so ancient but still so good," Pryor says. These days, he says, sound quality has been hurt by the rise of single systems that capture sound and images.
Pryor, who is on the board of the Kansas International Film Festival, says the festival rejects a lot of low-budget films because of poor sound quality. "Half of audiovisual is audio. If you don't have good sound, you don't have a good picture."
Getting good sound doesn't require expensive mics, audio experts say.
"I'd rather have a Radio Shack mic with a guy working it who knows what he's doing than a $1,500 Sennheiser and somebody who doesn't know how to use it," Pryor says.
The 'fly on the wall'
Miller's mics are all in working order, and he has used them to record local jazz artists including Luqman Hamza, Ahmad Alaadeen, Tommy Ruskin and Candace Evans. Despite Roche's rants, Miller continues to love vintage RCA mics for capturing fat, warm sounds from brass instruments.
The RCA KU-2A "skunk mic" is his favorite for alto sax, while he prefers the RCA 44 for tenor sax. For trumpet and flugelhorn, he pulls out the RCA BK 11.
Vintage microphones can become even more valuable if they have historical pedigree.
Chapman let go of the most famous mics in his inventory when demand pushed the prices to irresistible levels: nine mics used by the Beatles when they played Memorial Stadium downtown. Damon had purchased the six Neumann U-67s and three Neumann U-64s new in 1964 for $1,000 each. Chapman sold them for $10,000 each.
Neumanns also played a role in a darker moment of history. In the 1930s, Neumann was a major supplier of the PA systems Adolf Hitler used to whip up nationalistic fervor in his speeches to the German people. The condenser mic he used is known as the Hitler mic.
Recently Miller carted his collection to a luncheon of around 30 veterans of the broadcasting industry in Kansas City. Many in the crowd had fond memories of some of the equipment, but Miller says the appeal of the microphones is just as powerful with lay audiences.
"A lot of people collect antique radios, but the microphones are there in the room during the performance. There's something magic about them. They were the 'fly on the wall' that witnessed historic moments."
To reach Cindy Hoedel, call 816-234-4304 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook and The Star's Chow Town blog.
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