In the Red Chinese Condenser Microphones Are the Revolution

In the Red Chinese Condenser Microphones Are the Revolution
The communists aren’t replacing our precious bodily fluids, as Sterling Hayden’s character falsely prophesised in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. A slightly less than red China has indeed infiltrated, but the revolution they’ve brought is not Bolshevik — it’s musical. As the massive music conglomerates fall to their knees in the face of a MySpace generation of musicians, most of the credit for putting the tools of music production in the hands of this generation has been credited to the computer. But Chinese condenser microphones have become an integral part of affordable music by the masses.

The digital revolution has made computers a remarkable recording tool, replacing separate devices designed for effects, EQing and recording, but it would have little impact without a quality means of capturing sound — after all, shitty sound going in will still be shitty sound coming out. The fidelity of a condenser microphone, coupled with inexpensive digital recording, has closed the quality of sound gap between skilled DIY recording and one done on a major label budget. The inexpensive condenser mic is in fact the final frontier for putting quality recording into the hands of the people — how is it that China has stepped up to provide it?

Condenser microphones are an ancient piece of technology by today’s standards. This idea was developed in 1916 by the Bell Labs and was patented in 1920 as a "telephone transmitter.” It is an outstanding piece of electronic design, with great fidelity that can be used to record almost any instrument, from vocals to drums. But cost proved prohibitive, and a different design — the dynamic microphone, the thin cylinder commonly seen in live performance — became the affordable option. While the condenser mic is found in nearly any professional studio, and cost upwards of $1,000, the dynamic mic could be had for less than $100.

This changed when digital recording was born. The Adat (technically like a VCR on steroids) was released in 1991 and the digital tape recorder cost about half as much as an entry level analog machine; it paved the way for small business "project” studios, a bridge between four-track home recording and the million dollar studios. The only thing missing was a budget-priced microphone that could compete in quality terms. A Japanese company, Audio Technica, produced the first condenser microphone that retailed for less than $1,000, and it was a hit. Eager to jump in, other manufacturers flooded the market with barebones, fidelity-challenged condensers. The digital revolution wasn’t far behind, literally bringing the studio home, and with the birth of the "bedroom studio” came demand for yet another step down in microphone costs. In a strange turn of the zeitgeist, China answered.

China, like other communist states, had lived in a vacuum, far away from the ditch and replace consumer cycle that dominates free market economies. Whether it’s through marketing (ditch that outdated TV for a high-def set) or forced obsolescence (vinyl’s dead, so buy The White Album again on CD), capitalist culture relies on consumers to, well, consume. Communist states were neither driven by those cycles, nor did they enjoy access to the same new technologies. The former Soviet Republic, for example, continued to manufacture and utilise vacuum tubes — in everything from radios to submarines — long after they were replaced by transistors in the Western world. Now Soviet tubes are being used in rich-sounding guitar amps and microphone preamps; China’s similarly Luddite technology is changing the world of microphones.

Using a "borrowed” design, probably copied from a Gefell — a factory that split off from the most distinguish mic manufacturer, Neumann, when Germany was divided after the Second World War — the Chinese began to manufacture condenser microphones, and made virtually no change to their design in 40 years. Older condensers are highly sought after for their fidelity and sound, and none more so than the Neumann. So, when China opened its borders to economic trade, not only were they a developing country with a cheap labour force, but they had an expertise in constructing quality microphones.

The result is a series of mics made in China, yet stamped with Western brand names like Yorkville, Joe Meek, and Studio Projects. Some have been compared to the Neumann U87, a microphone you’ve certainly heard on a past pop hit. Starting at about $60, with most quality models now going for about $300, the Chinese condenser has forced other companies to drop their prices in order to compete. A generation of musicians that have a means of recording, producing, even distributing and promoting through a computer, have access to the tool that gets it started — and this threatens the very foundation of corporate music. It’s the last step of power to the people. Exactly what the communists set out to do in the first place. Funny what happens on the way to the revolution.

Tech Specs

Condenser Microphones
A diaphragm stands at the front of a microphone while a rigid back plate is situated in the back. The vibrations in sound cause the voltage between the two plates to change; that electric info is carried through a cable, boosted by a mic preamp, and goes to the recording device (tape or computer). This architecture provides great frequency response; that is, the condenser can capture higher and lower timbre sounds with higher fidelity than most other types of microphones. It can be used to record most instruments and can be put close to sound sources, unlike its closest competitor, the ribbon mic, whose diaphragm will snap from the sound vibrations if it gets too close to a loud sound. The high fidelity and rigidity make the condenser the quintessential studio mic.

Vacuum Tubes
Vacuum tubes are composed of circuitry in glass tubes used to amplify or modify electronic signals. Tubes do some really nice things to sound. They create a "musical” harmonic distortion — an "in tune” distortion — that is said to "warm” the signal when they are just slightly overloaded. They can be used to control the volume so it does not overload other gear that might create an "unmusical” distortion. And when they are heavily overloaded, they create a rich distortion that many guitarists favour (think any ’60s guitar record). They can be used to improve the tone of musical electronics: guitar and bass amps, mic preamps, and even in the microphone itself.