In my previous blog post I reviewed the latest addition to my microphone locker, a U87 clone I bought on eBay for only $218. The man who made it is Ian Davidson. Ian works as a tech in a few recording studios in NYC. As promised, here’s the interview I did with him the other day.
Ian, what’s your background, and for how long have you been building microphones?
I have been playing guitar on and off since 1964. That’s one of my favorite ways to kill time. My first steps in the diy world were in 1995. I built a ribbon microphone and a guitar pedal. I’m still using those from time to time.
Do you source all the parts yourself, or do you use kits?
That’s a good question. For the first few years I have been using kits only. My recommendation: if you want to learn how to build diy audio gear, go with kits for at least 2-3 years. It will give you confidence because you most definitely will succeed. Also, you should go with popular diy projects because there is lot of additional information available on groupdiy forums. If you have any issues you can bet someone had those problems before. All parts can be found on Mouser or Digikey.
How long does it take you to build e.g. a U87 clone?
I work on a bunch of projects at the same time. It usually takes me 2-3 hours including the calibration process for one unit. On average I build one stereo pair a day.
Do you need a lot of know-how and skill, or is this something most people will be able to do on a Sunday if they have the right tools?
If you want to design your own gear it takes years of mistakes and troubleshooting to get there. However, if you are using something like a PCB design (Printed Circuit Board, PS) and you have a bill of materials and okay soldering skills, it may take you a few hours on a Sunday. It’s not rocket science to be honest.
How many microphones do you sell in a year?
Five to six hundred.
What are some of the challenges you encounter, building clones of legendary microphones?
To source the right parts and to calibrate them properly.
Is it realistic to expect that you can match the quality and sound signature of a classic microphone such as the U87, running a small business by yourself?
That’s a tricky question. I believe that the sound of any condenser microphone can be reproduced completely. However, a capsule for the original U87 would cost around $1000, and you need to order at least 500 pieces. And so a small business can’t afford it and the price of those diy clones would be at least $1200 -$1300.
How close do you actually try to get to the original microphones, and do you think you are successful?
As close as possible to keep the price in the $150 – $250 range. Over the years I tried a huge amount of different parts and options, and I think nowadays my mics are the most popular clones on eBay and Reverb because you can’t find a better clone under $500.
Companies like Stam Engineering, Beesneez Pro Audio, Open Plan Recording, and Warm Audio all make U87 clones, but they cost between $600 and $990. How come your microphones are so affordable?
I don’t invest in advertising. And so when you buy my product you pay for the parts and my time. Huge companies like Warm Audio are paying for promotions and product placements in YouTube videos, blogs, forums, etc. which is totally fine, but a buyer covers those expenses in the final price of a product.
The U87 I ordered from you looks very real. It even has the Neumann name and logo on it. Couldn’t this get you in legal trouble?
Yep, the size and color are the same. It took years to make a mic body that looks identical. I have to mention here that we don’t use any authentic Neumann components. And so the name of this German brand can’t be used to present or promote our product.
Do you take custom orders? Let’s say I want an AKG 414 XLII clone, could you build it for me for cheaper?
I love making C12 custom clones. However, the C414 isn’t my favorite mic, so I’ve never tried to reverse engineer it.
You obviously take pride in your work, and you have a 100% positive feedback rate on eBay. What are some of the best compliments you have received?
A few months ago a vocalist from Tame Impala (one of my favorite bands), sent me an email with compliments about my TLM 103 and U87 clones. It made my day. Recently I sold 10 units to Japan, and a few weeks later a guy sent me photos where they were using my mics to record an orchestra.
I love it when people make home recordings and send me positive feedback, but when pros use it for making their records, that’s the biggest compliment. However, my goal from the start was to make home recording studios more affordable, so any talented kid could record a decent song on a low budget.
Let me finish by saying that I used my own money to buy the U87 clone, and this is not a paid promotion. You can hire my voice, but my opinion is never for sale!