BB: How much of your time is spent working on the new Brauners, and how much still modifying old mics?
KH: Well, I had dreams that maybe every time I roll over in my sleep at 4 AM, another fat royalty check would fall into my bank account in Germany and I wouldn’t have to do anything! Well, it turns out that they have good manufacturing standards at Brauner, better than anybody else, that much I know, but still not enough to make up for the variations in capsules. If you go back to the 1950s, the old Neumann capsules—I have old stock Neumann capsules, never opened—if you plug in one after the other, they all sound different. It’s the same with the Brauners. So I realized that they still have to come here.
Today, UPS brought seven more. I go over every one of them, and first determine front side selection for the capsules, then I fine tune it in terms of the specific customer. For example, Lenny Kravitz is one of our customers, and I say I’m not going to give him one that is mellow, I’ll give him one with more balls in the lower mids. So I have to intuitively figure out what works where. Fortunately, or unfortunately as the case may be, many of our customers are scoring engineers in Hollywood, and they buy two or three at a time. That can be a nightmare, to find three that are ideally suited to work with each other. It can be a very time consuming process, and the microphone is already expensive to begin with.
So my main bread and butter doesn’t come from these new microphones. Upgrading and customizing older, high quality recording microphones is still my main business. My goal is to bring out the personality that is in them, something that is often veiled by crud from 30 or 40 years, or by sloppy manufacturing. Take the Elam 251. People forget that nine out of ten will sound absolutely mediocre, but they will never forget the one that sounded like God.
BB: Are you ever asked to create—or re-create—a microphone with a specific kind of sound?
KH: I’m asked to do that often. I have worked with Neil Young for many years. All the recordings they make have my microphones on them. And when it came down to making Harvest Moon, Neil wanted a sound that was reminiscent of the sound of the original Harvest album, this almost creaky wooden, mellow, very organic approach to sound. So they sent me the main vocal microphones and the backup vocal microphones, for Linda Ronstadt and others. I remodified them, to take a little bit of the zing out of them, to make them more woody sounding. They liked it so much that they actually gave me credit on the record.
BB: So in a sense the microphone becomes a subjective instrument, rather than a supposedly transparent carrier of the sound.
KH: Yes, and this is not such an unusual thing. When I work for vocalists, whether Julio Iglesias or Bryan Adams, if I don’t know the voice, I can’t do the microphone. I do a lot of work for voice talents that do movie trailers, and they are very secretive. But I have them send me three samples: one unprocessed, straight into the microphone, one processed sound as they send to client, and then the final trailer version. Sometimes, I will say, “This microphone will not work for you. You need to get this.” So that’s almost like doing sound design.
BB: Then you think every voice needs one particular microphone, not just a particular type of mic?
KH: Yes. In the past many singers, even moneyed singers, would never buy their own microphone. But I have worked to instill into many people in this industry, that they should get their own microphone. It’s ridiculous. Jascha Heifitz didn’t go into a rental house when he came into town for a concert and rent a violin. He brought his own! You need to bring your own microphone, then at least that part is predictable as you go from studio to studio. Another example is Whitney Houston, she has a 414, modified to sound very much like and Elam 251, but handy so she can take that wherever she goes to record.