An Evening With Klaus Heyne

Whether or not you’ve actually heard of Klaus Heyne is of little consequence, because you’ve certainly heard his work. Most famously known for the Brauner VM1 KHE (a $10,000 jewel of the most coveted mic lockers), Heyne has spent the last couple decades modifying high quality microphones for some of the most prolific artists and engineers in the music business. But how does he do it? Where is the magic in Klaus Heyne’s Midas touch? How does someone make the jump from a mere tinkerer and hobbyist to, arguably, the most renowned and revered mad mic modifier — the go-to gear guru — for ensuring sonic success in studio sessions worldwide? Don’t worry, you can thank us later for what we brought him here to tell you. So kick back and relax, crack open your prized U87 (or maybe not), and join us as we sit down the man, the myth, and the mystery in An Evening With Klaus Heyne

EQ: How did you end up in the field of building specialty microphones?

Klaus Heyne: You have to go back to the ’60s when I witnessed the first refinement of good sounding guitar amps. There was magic when sounds sounded good — it touched you. When sound didn’t sound good, it went to your brain to analyze, to appreciate on a cerebral level but not on a visceral one. I was playing in bands, and any time I would make a selection of an instrument, of an amp, a speaker, a cabinet, it became clear to me that there was a hierarchy of quality. Not a bandwidth of taste, but clearly an absolute vertical hierarchy. A Celestion Blue Cone sounded absolutely better to my ears than an Eminence or a Jensen, and sometimes you couldn’t tell by price alone.
I did an apprenticeship as a luthier and, later, I started my own little repair shop out of my apartment where I did mostly electric guitars, and I realized the same differences: I got to play with a Schaller copy of a Gibson humbucker and I said, “What is the point of issuing this thing?”
During the Frankfurt music show, in ’72 or ’73, I wandered through the aisles and saw this ‘53 Goldtop leaning against an amp. There was nobody [in the booth], so I walked in and started doodling. I don’t know what happened but [inventor and luthier] Dan Armstrong walked in and grabbed a bass. Maybe an hour later, I looked outside of this window and there’s a wall of people watching us play. It was one of those key experiences in life. We instantly became friends.
We recognized many similarities in our loves and dislikes of music and instruments, and he offered me the opportunity to be the importer for his instruments in Germany. At the time he was still issuing those Boosey & Hawkes amps where you supposedly could model any kind of different amp with some kind of bogus graphic EQ thing. I said, “You know that still has the Boosey & Hawkes tone, no matter what you do.” He said, “I like what you’re saying. Come to England with me. I’m starting a new project.”

EQ: How old were you at this time?

KH: 22 or 23. And in walks Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood . . . everybody who was anybody walked in and out of his place. They were all friends. He was in the middle of finalizing his new Dan Armstrong London Instruments guitar and bass line. So I helped with a few things, because I had always been interested in the principles and mechanics of sustain.
I went back to Frankfurt and became the exclusive importer for his instruments in Germany. But it was tough going. The early ’70s were not a good time for introducing Dan’s innovative concepts in Germany. People barely got over the shock of crappy Stratocasters, and were trying to figure out what to do with that.
So that didn’t last long. I got the fever and went to San Francisco and got a job at Don Wehr’s Music City — the biggest music store in the world at the time. I worked there for a couple of years and then started my own shop in Bolinas, taking the best clients with me like Santana and Journey.
I would go back to Germany to visit and would read Funkschau magazines that had surplus mic ads. I had a 1967 Neumann U87 from my recording days with a German band, and it worked really well as it complimented anything I wanted to record. Then one day I saw an ad for an auction in Köln where I bought a Neumann KM54. I took it with me to America, plugged it in, and said, “This can’t be true.” This little thing had this sound, this sex appeal, that the U87 didn’t quite have. It was $50 there, and here they were selling them for $500!
That’s when I started going to German Public Broadcast System auctions. I would bring back all these mics — M49s, M50s, U47s they didn’t have — because at that time they only used broadcast models, including SM69s and the KM25x.I fixed them up enough so they would work, but then realized that the broadcast chokes and impediments to good sound didn’t make sense. So I took them, and my customers would say, “This sounds great.”
Anything I did with mics from then on was guided by my ability not only to discern differences in sound, but also to make a qualitative judgment on a vertical scale. Give me three capacitors, and I will tell you which I think is better. And my customers would agree. That’s why I keep coming back to absolutes. It is not a matter of taste. There are absolutes involved.
I think I stayed true to this principle through time. A major manufacturer approached me last year and asked me to design a $1,000 mic. I told him that I couldn’t do that; it’s impossible. He said, “Make a few compromises, it will still be better than any other kind of microphone in this price class.” But I cannot live with that. I must be able to plug it in and feel good about what I hear. I can’t say, “For what it is it sounds pretty good.” That’s not how I live my life.

EQ: How exactly did the Brauner VM1 KHE come about?

KH: I’d always wanted to serialize what I knew and put it into a production microphone, so I scanned the Internet for manufacturers of condensers’ design philosophies. There was this mission statement on Dirk Brauner’s website along the lines of “We don’t do negative feedback. We only do tubes.” So I thought I should meet him.
At AES in ’99 there was a fortuitous coming together, another crucial moment in my life. On the exhibition floor, we had Brad Lunde [Transaudio], Dirk, and the guy who brought Audio-Technica to the U.S. who had sent me an AT 4033 that I made sound pretty good — he was real happy about it. So I asked Dirk if he would let me take one of his mics and see what I could do with it. I took the VM1 back home, threw a lot of circuitry and components out, and started almost from scratch. . . .

EQ: So what is the nuts and bolts approach to your modification on those mics? What modifications are you doing to the capsule? Are there circuit modifications, component modifications. . . ?

KH: I need to preface by saying that the final, production version of the KHE is so very different from the VM1 that it is impossible to convert a VM1 to a KHE. Lots of VM1 owners keep approaching me about that, but it would be cost prohibitive to even try.
In the case of the VM1, there were circuitry, component, and acoustic areas that I recognized as bottlenecks for good sound. The basic architecture was very simple — almost ideal, but not quite. He could have made a few different decisions, but he came upon a brilliant acoustic principle with the capsule that he was using for the VM1.

EQ: He designed the capsule, but MBHO manufactured it?

KH: No. First of all, there are no new capsules under the sun. There are exactly three families of large diaphragm condensers, no matter who manufactures them: K47, K67, CK12. Dirk chose the K67-type as the basis for his capsule.

EQ: A dual backplate?

KH: Yes. Two backplate halves, chambered and [the holes] offset to each other: Great for high and high-mid frequencies, but phase problematic. That design gets really edgy if you don’t do it right. He had the idea to use the best features of the K47 and the K67, to make a compromise of the two, but he could have taken it further.
I started with my drill press to perfect the backplate design. About the time the KHE was in the planning stage, Dirk went with a new type of machining for the diaphragms and the sputtering. I didn’t know why it didn’t sound as good anymore, but I didn’t want it for the KHE. So Dirk had Haun [MBHO] make a backplate and diaphragm that’s used only on the KHE. There was reluctance to accommodate me, as the capsule making was very labor-intensive. But there are idiosyncrasies in the world of sound, where it doesn’t matter whether I know how it exactly works, but I know right away whether or not it works.

EQ: Aside from changing out certain components, did you modify the circuit at all?

KH: Yes, I modified the circuit. Changing components is ground floor work — everybody can do that, and I often chuckle when I take in a mic from a repairman and find the exact duplication of a component or circuit modification of something I did at one time but have abandoned since — like piggy backing capacitors!
So that’s how it started with Brauner. We formed a great symbiosis. Nobody messed around in the others’ territory of competence. Of course, there were issues, where I would say, “The voltages are off on the latest batch. Can you fix that at the factory?” There were some tube problems as well, so I would go to my stash and take new old stock European tubes and replace factory ones. Then again, at times, Dirk would deliver really beautiful-sounding, everlasting tubes. Regardless, I would burn in every microphone for a week, get rid of any questionable tubes or issues, and make sure everything was solid, so that the mic wouldn’t come back [for repair].

EQ: So what’s your process in personalizing? You said you personalize or custom-tailor each KHE mic.

“It is not a matter of taste. There are absolutes involved.”

KH: I’ll give you two extreme examples: John Fogerty has a very unusual voice — one can’t say he sounds like a regular singer. He wanted a replacement for his old U47, which really sounded perfect for his style; his voice was the perfect complement to this one-of-a-kind U47 sound. He and I talked a lot on the phone about how to proceed, and decided to find a capsule for his new KHE that was the closest I could get to his U47 sound — where the raspiness of this voice wouldn’t be ear-shattering, but it would still be highlighted in the sense that’s his signature. . . .

EQ: One mic of course never fits all, and some people will sound brilliant on a C12 and awful on a U47, or vice-versa.

KH: Choosing the right mic is always the absolute first decision to make in the fine-tuning process. A few years back, I went through this with Barbra Streisand. She used to be a U47 woman, but it didn’t work in my opinion. It was not the right complement. It was almost like the not-so-hot features in her voice were boosted, and the things that were really good and authoritative were suppressed. So you have to start with the right microphone. And then you dial it in within that sound range of that microphone, approach it from your aural and mental discretion. You take a chance, send it out, and get feedback.
Andy Warhol once made a multiple print series of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor photo portraits. They were all silk-screened — all supposedly the same — but they all looked slightly different. With Marilyn, you look at them and get the feeling she looks depressed in one frame and happy in the next; these seemingly identical prints somehow had slight variations creating varying expressions. That is also our saving grace in the mic business. Many of the automated, machine-made microphones have very, very high quality control with literally identical sonic results, but that’s not really what people want, I think.
I came in on BART [San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit] to the AES, and I looked around at the passengers. Blue jeans are still it, because of the ever-changing shadings and hues. Someone may want a cobalt shade today, but a slightly greener one tomorrow. That is the secret to desirable microphones as well. You keep that variation; you appreciate it in the serial product. You don’t suppress it. It may be a little brighter here, but that might work well with an old MCI 24-track. And if you’re using 16-bit DAT then you go to a slightly darker shade of sound in the mic. You work with these variations.
Thank God for handmade capsules. Thank God that nobody can manufacture them identically by the millions. Look at AKG in the ’70s: With new machining processes they were reining in the extremes in sound that were common with the old CK12 capsules. The complaints from the Austrian broadcasters who couldn’t use CK12 equipped stereo mics for the Vienna Orchestras, because left and right was never the same on them, stopped. But now, with these automated, identical-sounding successor capsules, those once imperfect CK12s have become Holy Grails.
At times it can get really complicated. There was this case of Phil Collins needing one KHE at his home studio in Switzerland and one in L.A. for his film work at Disney. And I had to make two that were supposed to sound identical. It’s not easy to find two capsules that sound halfway alike. It’s harder to make two mics sound the same, rather than take advantage of the fine points in each capsule and refine that sound.

EQ: Which speaks to the myth of the matched stereo pair. . . .

KH: For our matched stereo ears or our matched stereo eyes! Have you noticed that if you look at a white wall with one eye, and then with the other, you see completely different hues of white? But the combination, of course, makes the music.

EQ: So who are some of the notable people that you have made custom mics for?

KH: You name it. Neil Diamond, Huey Lewis, Julio Iglesias, Steve Perry. I recently started to work with Jon Brion. . . .

EQ: You once told me you did a 414-EB for . . .

KH: For Whitney Houston. But I “ELA M’ed” it.

EQ: Really?

KH: It’s a royal pain to modify because there’s so little space. But what a killer mic! It’s using a real CK12, but then a very simple, straight out FET design with not so much circuit redundancy.

EQ: What exactly is the ELA M circuit? [Editor’s note: As found in the Telefunken ELA M-251]

KH: What the ELA M circuit does, in comparison to the C12 (which shares the same capsule, tube, and transformer as the ELA M-251), is that it has a direct wire connection between the capsule and input of the impedance converter, whereas the C12 has a coupling capacitor in between — which is already one level of sound degradation. The way the tube is biased is also different in the ELA M and the C12, so you can adapt the better-sounding system, even when you have an FET [Field Effect Transistor, a solid state amp]. An FET is nothing else but a silicon triode. It’s almost the same thing, sonically. Only when it get really loud does the FET show its ugly face. If you stay within moderate SPLs, it’s really hard to tell the difference between FET and tube circuits, if they are otherwise identical in design. Except, there’s no noise in an FET. It’s only the poor implementation of FET circuitry that has given FET mics a bad rap.

EQ: But at that time everyone was so happy they didn’t have to bother with tubes!

KH: I will always be looking for the Holy Grail, for the mic that simulates best the thrill of hearing. A mic is incredibly primitive compared to our ears, and the best mics work not by being the closest to how our ears work but by having the best euphemistic additions/alterations that make us feel good about what we hear. No mic is realistic. It is way too complicated to recreate with a mic how hearing works. So, in my mind, the best microphones are the same as the best loudspeakers — like a good Blue Cone Celestion. It is not necessarily reality, but it is passable enough, and it gives you pleasure in the process. One of the biggest mistakes I think many manufacturers make is thinking that they can approximate reality by comparing frequency curves or designing along static measurement criteria. It doesn’t work.
I think when we hear something through a mic, we unconsciously know that it’s not all there. But if the mic gives a certain trigger to a certain pleasure center in our brains, we are satisfied with that — even if objectively not all frequencies are represented accurately. We say, “That’s cool. I want to listen to that orchestra or to this opera singer or to this standup bass through that, because it rekindles the information that is important to get the imagination going, to get the pleasure of the essential experience back into the mix.”
Some [mics] may be incredibly accurate, but for me the right artifacts are missing that translate the sound with enough euphemistic additions that allow me to feel like I’m there. My definition of a good mic is: The musical experience never wanders away from my pleasure center to my intellectual side, to where I might think “Oh yeah, I can really hear the cymbals, they’re right over here. I can hear the second violinist tapping her foot.” I regard that as intellectual wanking. I don’t want that. I want to be there. I don’t even want to think. I want to be in the music, so I can have the experience of dreaming and imagining, rather than analyzing how the setup is.