The German-American Connection

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Rudy Van Gelder was a perfectionist, always looking to solve problems and improve his system by evaluating his gear with a critical ear. Although the recordings themselves do not necessarily reveal any particular shortcomings with his equipment, one of Rudy’s problems dates back to the early 1950s when he acquired his first German microphone, the Telefunken U47.

From the outset, German microphones were not designed to interface properly with American mixing consoles (Zand, 2004). While American equipment was built around low-output ribbon microphones like the RCA 44-BX, German equipment was designed for use with high-output mics like the U47, which easily overloaded American equipment. Using the U47 at a distance — set up to record a symphony orchestra, for example — one might still get favorable results despite the mismatch. But using it at close-range would create unwanted distortion, and since close-miking was the new popular technique in the states at the time, something had to be done. So Steve Temmer, president of Gotham Audio, tapped his best man, Rein Narma, for the job.

Narma modified the internal electronics of the microphone to produce a lower output level, and soon everyone including Van Gelder was getting their U47 modified by Gotham (Jenrick, 2005). Eventually though, Van Gelder realized that in the process of lowering the output level, the sound of the microphone had changed (Zand, 2004). So he commissioned Narma to find a new solution, to build him a first-class mixing console that from the outset would be designed for use with high-output German microphones (Joel, 2002). This way, Van Gelder could have the best of both worlds: lower distortion and the original sound characteristics of the microphone.

Narma built the console singlehandedly throughout 1956, and in January 1957 he delivered it to Prospect Avenue in Hackensack (Robertson, 1957). An improvement on Van Gelder’s previous Altec broadcast console in every way, “the Narma console” had ten channels of inputs, each of which utilized a three-band equalizer, an echo send, and a preamplifier specially designed for high-output mics (Joel, 2002). Cosmetically it was inspired by the console at Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio. Van Gelder had some knowledge of what that console looked like since an industry friend (probably Larry or Les Elgart) had managed to sneak a photo of it while recording for Columbia — a “Navy SEAL operation”, as Rudy put it (Sickler et al., 2011). After finishing Rudy’s console, Narma would go on to build similar consoles for other New York City studios, as well as one for Les Paul, the inventive musician and engineer who, like Van Gelder, had built a recording studio in his New Jersey home (Skea, 2002).

Click here for more information on the historical integration of German and American recording equipment.

In the coming years it became clear that Van Gelder made the right decision having Narma build him a console designed to work with high-output mics. While it was being built, Van Gelder had fallen in love with another German microphone, the Schoeps M221, of which he would use for many years to come.

Then in 1960, Van Gelder found out about another great German mic, a mic he would end up using more than any other in the 1960s. The Neumann KM-54a appears in countless session photos from that decade, and at one time or another we see it being used on just about every instrument. He liked it so much, at one point he owned eight of the versatile, small-diaphragm mics.

Click here for Michael Cuscuna’s refutation of the rumor that Van Gelder would swap out mics before photo ops.

Main photo: Schematic for Neumann KM-54a microphone power supply

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