“Paul, I think you’re on to something,” said Heinz Gruenewald.
Heinz works for the world-renowned Westdeutscher Rundfunklabor in Germany, and he’s one of the top sound wave specialists. He has several patents in nanomaterials, acoustic devices, transducers and sensors in his name.
AN UNUSUAL TALENT
Just like some wine connoisseurs are born with an extraordinary palette, Heinz is blessed with extraordinary hearing. As you know, you can let an oenophile taste a glass of wine, and he’ll tell you what country it’s from, what region and even from what year. Heinz has that same uncanny ability but with microphones.
He says that it’s both a blessing and a curse: “Whenever I hear audio, my mind immediately tries to figure out what microphone was used to record it. It usually takes me a few seconds to analyze the sound spectrum. Call me arrogant, but 9 out of 10 ten times I’m dead on.” Heinz has even been on the German version of 20/20 to show his talent off.”
Right now, he is working on a portable version of the digital microphone interface, which is expected to come out next year. The rapid advance of high-def television is associated with increasing requirements in terms of audio technology, which can only be met with the aid of digital microphones. That’s where Heinz comes in.
Heinz and I actually started an “online relationship” when I found him on the Internet as I was looking for an expert who could confirm or deny what only can be labeled as a surprise discovery. Here’s how it started.
At the end of 2008, I was listening to some old demos of mine, to determine which ones to keep and which ones to delete. Since I’ve been listening to myself for my entire life, it’s fair to say that I know my sound top to bottom, inside out. For some reason I listened back to back to a demo recorded at the end of January and one from the middle of August. The difference between the two couldn’t have been greater. It was almost as if another person had taken over my vocal chords. I couldn’t believe it.
Back in January, my sound was thin, shallow and cold. In August I sounded rich, resonant and warm. Mind you: I was certain that I had used the same microphone, the same preamplifier and they were all at the same setting I always use to create a consistent sound. For days I kept wondering what could account for the tremendous difference in the way my voice came across. It was night and day. It was too weird for words. What on earth could be the difference that had made the difference?
Then I got an unexpected breakthrough. One December morning, I went into my studio to record an audition. It was early and I was freezing. Nevertheless I gave it my all. But when I heard myself back, I could hear the cold of the morning in my voice. This wasn’t working. I decided to switch on the thermal heater and come back when the temperature would be up.
Fast forward sixty minutes. I recorded the same lines with the same gear, and out of curiosity I played the two recordings I had made one after the other. My mouth fell open. A week and many experiments later, I contacted Heinz.
“Let me get this right,” he said with his soft German accent. “Are you saying that the temperature in the recording booth actually influences the way you sound?”
“Based on my experiments, I’m prepared to go even one step further,” I said. “At this point I am convinced that the temperature of the microphone greatly affects the tonal qualities of the sound it is picking up. It boils down to this:
When the mic is cold, I sound cold. When the mic is warm, I sound much warmer.”
SCIENCE IN ACTION
Being a scientist and a sound wave specialist, Heinz didn’t take my word for it. Not even when I sent him the audio files. But I could tell he was intrigued and determined to repeat my experiment in a laboratory setting. It was easy enough to replicate.
At 3:00 AM the next morning my phone rang. An excited Heinz had forgotten that he was on German time.
“Paul, I think you’re on to something,” he said. “I have never heard anything like it. I only had a cheap microphone in my office, but I decided to put it to the test anyway. Stone cold it sounded like…. the piece of junk that it was. But when I left it on the radiator and it had warmed up significantly, it was a totally different animal. I swear to you, it almost had tube-like characteristics. It’s amazing. I don’t know how it works, but it definitely does.”
In the months that followed, Heinz and his team made sure that this hadn’t been a random event. Test groups were brought in to evaluate identical sound bites that were recorded with cold mics and mics that were warmed up. Without exception, the people surveyed not only noticed the difference; they all preferred the warmer sound of the warm microphone.
In February 2009, I traveled to Germany to go over the findings of the Rundfunklabor in person. Heinz and I had been speculating about how we could put my discovery to practical use. We had agreed that it would be a shame to leave the results of the research in some stuffy drawer.
When we sat around the table at the lab, Heinz had a big smile on his face when he handed me a cable with some sort of extension that reminded me a bit of a MicPort Pro. He said: “It looks like an ordinary USB cable, right?” “More or less,” I replied. “What is this black thing that’s attached to it, and why are you showing me this?” Heinz said: “You are looking at a prototype, my friend. And I have a feeling that this is going to create a small revolution.”
He continued: “This device is powered from the USB port and needs no batteries. The other end plugs directly into a condenser microphone. Now, do you see this control knob? Notice that the scale is in centigrades?
When you turn it up, it draws energy from the computer and transfers it into heat. This heat is actually warming up the microphone. And because you can adjust the temperature, you can adjust the tonal quality of whatever the mic is recording. That means that you can use a lower temperature for microphones that already have a warmer sound. Isn’t it ingenious?”
I was floored. In a few months time and without telling me, Heinz had turned my little discovery into the beginnings of a product. “Do you think people would actually buy this?” I asked.
“Paul, listen to me,” said Heinz. “I took the cheapest condenser microphone I could find and plugged it into this mic warmer. When it had reached the right temperature, I asked a professional narrator to read a few paragraphs into this mic. Then we asked him to read the same passage and we recorded it with a Neumann U87 large diaphragm microphone. I think it sells for about $3400.00 in the US.
My assistants had me listen to both samples, and I am telling you right now that I could not hear the difference. And you know me. My ears never lie. This is going to be big!”
“We have to make sure that this thing is safe,” I said. “I don’t want to be sued by some engineer because my device set his studio on fire.” Heinz agreed that there still was a lot of work to be done, but he was confident that we could put this thing on the market within one to two years.
With the backing of an innovation grant from the European Union, things moved fast. Patents were secured. The technology was thoroughly tested. Designers were brought in to make the mic warmer look sleek and futuristic. Because we were using European money, the device had to be manufactured in Europe. That’s where my Dutch connections came in. I managed to find a small company in the North of Holland that was able to start a modest production line. And I am proud to tell you that in the next month or so, the very first mic warmer will be ready to go to market!
It will be officially launched at the biggest annual audio show in Munich, but one of America’s top pro-audio providers has already placed a substantial advance order after hearing the test results. Geoff Deary, the head engineer, said that he had been very skeptical at first, but that he was “absolutely blown away by this small device.”
So… there you have it. As faithful readers of my blog, I wanted you to be the first ones to know. But this story does not end here. I need your help. My product needs a name. For some reason ‘mic warmer’ doesn’t sound good. That’s where you come in. I’m asking you to come up with a better name. Please leave your suggestions in the comment section at the bottom of this article.
In two weeks, Heinz Gruenewald and I will pick a winner. And if we choose your name, you will be the first person to receive the finished product! The winner will be announced in this blog, so stay tuned.
Thank you so much for your help!
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
PS please take a few moments to read a personal letter from Prof. Dr. Heinz Gruenewald.