A week is a long time in politics, but 90 years is an eon in Berlin. The microphone manufacturer founded by Georg Neumann on November 23 1928 could not have been placed closer in time and place to the heart of modern European history, as if the very technology of capturing voices had arrived just in time to record it. It’s the sort of tough history that needs recording, but it also has a story of liberation in the later chapters that makes you feel good about being alive today – wherever Europe may turn next.
Very much alive today is the Neumann brand under president Wolfgang Fraissinet, who accepted an award from the AES at the 145th Convention in New York last October for ‘Service to Industry’: namely, Neumann’s extraordinary contribution to the advancement of microphone technology and the legacy of its engineering. Some product icons were on display at the exhibition, plus a limited edition U87 Rhodium Set and a re-issue of the U67. Meanwhile, the immediate present and the future were also acknowledged by such innovations as the Neumann Control app for iPad, a key adjunct to the KH80 DSP studio monitor.
Fraissinet is keenly aware of the balance of innovation and legacy that underpins Neumann’s image. “When we re-issue an original like the U67, we really mean it’s the original,” says Fraissinet, who joined Neumann Berlin in April 1990 at an obviously pivotal moment.
“There are so many fakes on the market, and we wanted to re-build our original exactly as it was. It hasn’t been ‘modernised’, apart from some soldering chemicals that would be non-compliant today. All of the components are from the original sources, and were tested and re-tested until we had a product that sounded totally convincing to the ‘golden ears’.”
There is indeed a generation or two of engineers who have grown up with and cherished these products all their lives, although Fraissinet is aware of its limitations. “Of course this story has an end,” he says, “and there are new generations growing up in the recording industry who don’t have this legacy in mind and who seek brand new solutions. That is what drives us more than coming out with re-issues. ‘Vintage’ is the cherry on the cake: the research into the future goes on.”
When you visit Berlin today, you find a city perfectly at ease with past, present and future, its legacies fused with smoothly presented civic statements. The original HQ of Siemens, for example – the company that literally electrified and telegraphed Berlin and Germany – is a smart Mövenpick Hotel. The Wall is T-shirt and novelty mug fodder, true – but history is taken seriously.
The first Neumann factory, right in the centre of Berlin, was bombed late in 1943. Clearly a safer home was required, and a former textile mill was chosen in Gefell, to the South-East, near the Bavarian border. The whole company was moved in 1944, and there is still a local neighbourhood known as ‘Little Berlin’. A small facility was maintained in Berlin, and after the war Georg Neumann and some of his staff returned, leaving the rest in Gefell. As the Soviet Eastern Bloc gained influence in that part of Germany, many manufacturers including Neumann – such as Leitz, Zeiss and Agfa – found that de facto there were two different companies, one in East Germany and one in West Germany. Now located in the American Sector, Georg Neumann Berlin GmbH was registered in 1946.
By 1952, this company was again manufacturing in Neumann Berlin Entrance Area: Neumann’s current HQ in Leipzigerstrasse, Berlin, but it was still a precarious location. When the Wall drew its line in the sand in 1961, capsule workers who were living in the East of the city simply couldn’t get to work so they were returned to Gefell. For about 10 years Gefell’s M7 capsules managed to get delivered to West Berlin for export, but the writing was well and truly on that Wall: in 1972 the Gefell company’s name was forcibly changed to ‘VEB Mikrophonbau’ – meaning Volkseigener Betrieb, a publicly owned business – and Georg Neumann lost control in common with many private owners whose assets became ‘the property of the people’.
But Neumann’s West Berlin HQ in Charlottenstrasse prospered, and its role as the company’s home for nearly 30 years coincided almost exactly with the existence of the Wall. It was only a few metres away from Checkpoint Charlie, and those who worked there recall the fascination it held for all of their overseas visitors. Some even ruefully point out that the propaganda between East and West sold a lot of microphones, and if you can include Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and The Beatles in that summation they’d be right.
After the Wall came down in 1989 there were attempts to re-integrate the Gefell facility with the Berlin operation, but it was difficult. There was even the ‘Perestroika’ range – good, affordable if not top-class Neumanns. Financial difficulties were exacerbated by production cycles of over a year for expensive disccutting lathes and digital mixing consoles, and when Sennheiser bought the company in 1991 it phased out disc-cutting and consoles completely. Interesting footnote: the resulting departure of several key digital mixing console engineers was a crucial factor in the subsequent formation of Stagetec, founded in 1993.
Charlottenstrasse became prime real estate in the centre of a new Berlin, and the Neumann building made way for the developers as Neumann’s Sennheiser owned Berlin offices relocated further out of town. Meanwhile, VEB Mikrophonbau joined a list of innovative manufacturers able to re-invent themselves as capital investment companies; its Neumann-inspired microphone skills became Microtech Gefell GmbH. Sennheiser moved Neumann manufacturing to Hanover, and ceased co-operation with Gefell.
The relationship with Sennheiser has been fruitful, and increasingly sophisticated. As concerts and auditoriums experience audio closer and closer to studio quality, for example, Neumann has begun to turn its attention to this market, one globally dominated by the Hanover partner. “We see the music market trending towards major revenues from touring and live performance,” confirms Fraissinet, “rather than the sale of CDs or vinyl. We are starting some deeper investigation into what’s needed in this area and, although we have a partner well established in this sector, we have our own ideas. It wouldn’t be necessary to brand our contribution as ‘Sennheiser’, for instance, like an OEM agreement. The typical Neumann customer expects Neumann to produce its own solutions, and that’s how it will be.”
The new ‘Neumann.Berlin’ website has a matrix of recommendations for microphone application, and while this clearly pertains to the recording of specific instruments, it’s easy to see how this matrix could be extended to include sound reinforcement techniques and solutions. “We’re also looking at the new processes of music recording and live performance,” adds Fraissinet. “The way people capture, publish and generally transduce sound has changed, and the audio industry needs to modernise. We’re not alone anymore, and we have to integrate with video and IT – it’s no use having three heads for one problem.”
Fortunately, since 2000 Neumann has been at the forefront of digital microphone technology. The flagship of the Solution-D series is the D-01, but as originally conceived its appeal is limited. “It’s not an item that sells in large quantities,” Fraissinet says. “The D-01 is used in dubbing studios, and others in the range have gone to the likes of the Philharmonie de Paris. These users are very happy with them, but the AES42 standard didn’t penetrate the recording studio and concert hall markets as we expected. What we’re doing instead is a new research project into how this technology can be used without proprietary interfaces, irrespective of AES42.”
The new networking landscape may suit Neumann better. AES67 offers an interoperability standard between the latest protocols, including both Dante and Ravenna. “You will see solutions from Neumann that will illustrate our different thinking about this,” promises Fraissinet, “and within the foreseeable timeframe.” At the same time, Neumann is exploring the interactive and immersive markets that suggest completely new types of audio and multimedia capture. In fact, let’s face it: innovation is so ascendent at Neumann that maybe the U67s and U87s belong with the T-shirts and mugs at Checkpoint Charlie after all…
“This is still a market to ‘explore’ rather than ‘exploit’,” says Fraissinet, “but it certainly has synergy between Sennheiser and Neumann. ‘AMBEO’ is a combination of ‘ambience’ and ‘stereo’, and was coined as a concept rather than a model name: it predicts the world of VR and AR. With the help of products within the Sennheiser group, we will make the AMBEO world more visible and audible to our customers and wider audiences.”
Back in the day, the KU100 Dummy Head binaural microphone was made for stereo recordings; AMBEO is far more. So is the new technique of room ambience control, using combinations of mics and speakers to manipulate the wetness and dryness of acoustic space. Will Neumann be a part of all this, as it is right now part of a future-defining Berlin? It certainly sounds like it.
“We’re on the verge of completely different thoughts and solutions for products and services for the music industry of the future – and I am explicitly not saying the ‘audio’ industry,” reveals Fraissinet. “Everything has to be considered from input to output, and all signal processing in between. There’s much more to this than ‘what is our next microphone.’”