Meet The Maker - Neumann

Neumann.Berlin was founded in 1928 by Georg Neumann and remains one of the most highly regarded brands in the industry. Their name is synonymous with quality and their products are as desirable now as they were back in 1928 when Neumann released the first mass-produced condenser microphone - the CMV3 “Neumann Bottle” – “CMV” standing for Condensator Mikrofon Verstärker (condenser microphone amplifier).

Neumann CMV3 "Bottle Mic"

Neumann is responsible for many of the technological innovations we now take for granted and it's no exaggeration to say that over their 90 year history they have significantly influenced the way recordings are made - and sound. For example, the legendary U47 was one of the first condenser microphones to be widely adopted by the recording industry - the increased clarity and presence finding favour over the traditional ribbon mics used until then.

The Beatles with U47

We talk to Neumann president, Wolfgang Fraissinet about the company’s history and where they’re heading…

90 years is a long time in business - what’s the secret of Neumann’s success?

In the early days, Neumann was pioneering new technology for the audio industry at a time when the recording process was becoming increasingly important for capturing music and speech. Back then, Neumann was one of the first companies developing the tools to do this. We established ourselves as a company by providing microphones, disc cutting equipment, mixing consoles, equalizers and things like this. More recently we have also entered the studio monitor market - adapting and inventing monitor technology in line with the Neumann sound. Over the history of our company, we have grown from defining how recordings sound with our microphones (the “input” side) to encompassing the “output” side of the signal chain through our monitors and recently introduced headphones. Right from the beginning we have always been innovators - and we still want to be leading the industry into the future.
Neumann Disc Cutting Lathe
There is a philosophy within Neumann HQ, it’s what we call the “typical” Neumann sound and that’s something which the music industry seems to appreciate. There is more to it than simply using high quality components and precise manufacturing techniques – although these things are very important to us. It’s also the detailed scientific approach behind every Neumann product.

If you had to choose one microphone that best represents Neumann, what would it be?

We’ve produced so many classics over the last 90 years, but if I had to choose one, it would be the U87. It remains the standard wherever you go in the world and is still one of the first things people look for when checking the technical rider for a recording studio. Historically it was the U47 for a long time and if I look over the history of the company, there are many more – it’s not just down to one microphone…
Neumann U87 - the world's most popular vocal microphone?

It’s great to see another of your classic mics – the U67 – back in production. How did that come about?

Firstly, the U67 is one of the most popular valve microphones we have ever made so there was a lot of demand for us to start manufacturing this model again - a lot of famous artists, producers and recording engineers have relied on the U67 as one of their main recording tools.
Nina Simone with U67
Secondly, today we are still able to produce a U67 exactly according to the original specs of the vintage model. However, we had to adapt some details to satisfy current legal requirements - for example the soldering process and the materials used. And of course the original vintage power supply did not fully comply with today's safety regulations. Another manufacturer cloning our product would simply choose readily available components - so long as they are technically equivalent and behave in a similar way. But you can’t rely on technical measurements alone. You have to really listen to the microphone, and there is an emotional aspect, an “artistic” element that can’t be underestimated. We have carefully selected every single component and, where original parts were no longer available, have had them remade exactly to our specifications. We didn’t simply take something off the shelf – although this would have been the easier thing to do. That is why the new U67 sounds exactly like the old U67 – it is the U67. We can still re-issue older products like this - not many companies in the world can say that.

You still manufacture your microphones in Germany. Have you not been tempted to move production to the Far East?

Of course, it’s always tempting to reduce costs in this way. But Neumann customers expect the best quality from us without any compromises. With regard to our microphones, we can only guarantee this standard by maintaining production, assembly and testing in Germany. In particular, capsule production is an extremely sensitive process - it is at the limit of what is physically feasible and requires employees with enormous experience.
Capsule assembly
To anticipate the legitimate next question: Our first headphone, the NDH 20, is actually produced in China and there are good reasons for that. We benefit here from established and proven Sennheiser production facilities. We have reused the headband of the HD 630VB as this is a very good looking, robust and comfortable design, and the production tools were already in place. Conversely, the ear cups have been completely redesigned and retooled resulting in a totally new design. Additionally, many features of the HD 630VB were replaced with other features more suited to studio applications. Of course, only materials and components that meet Neumann quality requirements are used. This is not the start of Neumann moving all of its production to China. All microphone production remains in Germany and the studio monitors are in the middle of being transferred from Ireland to the Czech Republic. Maintaining quality is of the greatest importance. There is nothing worse for a recording engineer and, more critically, the artist in front of the microphone, than when your equipment fails. In these situations time really is money, and when you have a famous artist in front of a microphone, the cost of the mic is relatively insignificant – even if it’s an expensive valve microphone. Compared to an hour recording with Barbara Streisand, the cost of the microphone is the least of your concerns!

Any engineer will know that feeling! You need to be able to rely on your gear because the minute it goes wrong, you don’t look good and the whole session can be ruined?

You know, for a singer or recording engineer (who in many cases is the artist themselves, don’t forget) the microphone is their instrument. When you play a guitar, you want to have a nice Gibson or Fender, when you play piano you dream about having a Steinway or a Yamaha – you learn to rely on the musical instrument as a tool to help you to make your music in the best possible way. For a vocalist, that means using a Neumann microphone. And there’s a reason for that!

Has the shift away from large recording studios towards home recording and project studios affected your business?

Well, it’s a fact that recording methodologies, and the recording market as a whole continues to drift away from the large established recording studios we all know and love towards smaller project studios. There is an increasingly large number of younger studio owners who are more likely to be creative musicians than trained sound engineers. As a company, we cannot change the market so we have to adapt ourselves to the changing circumstances. This means we have to serve not only our established traditional customer base, but also provide new solutions for the growing future markets of smaller project and home recording studios. So what’s our approach? We have no intention of making the U87 smaller and cheaper in order to have something affordable for lower budget studios - that is not the solution. A lot of manufacturers think in terms of price points, which is a valid approach because you can’t force somebody to spend more on their microphone than they spend on their entire laptop! A typical person recording at home can't afford to invest several hundred thousand euros in their equipment. Their recording setup is likely to comprise of a computer, some software tools and a limited amount of hardware. These days, you can get a nice home recording studio equipped with everything you need for 10000 euros. For us, it’s important that customers know that when they purchase a Neumann product they are buying a professional tool that will improve the quality of their recordings – even if they only have a limited budget available. Also, when you visit our website, there is a home recording section with videos on how to use certain microphones for certain home recording applications. We aren’t simply trying to sell microphones – we’re happy to offer our know-how to people who want to improve their recordings – it’s all about supporting our customers.
Neumann TLM103 - a great choice for project studios

How do you feel about other manufacturers copying your products?

Of course we have to pay attention to companies who are cloning our microphones or naming their products similarly to ours. But as long as people choose to imitate us, then we must be doing something right and it means we’re still considered a benchmark for quality. Of course a person is free to buy a cheap copy for $200 and pretend they have a U87, but in the end when these people become professionals they understand the difference in quality between the original and a fake - and those users who appreciate that difference will want the original in the end. It’s like when my daughter started learning to play the flute – her first flute was on loan from the school and didn’t cost anything. Then as she improved we bought her a 600 euro instrument, then the next one would cost 2000 euro and if you play professionally for an orchestra you can pay 10,000. You upgrade every time your level of expertise grows. So yes, we keep an eye on this and there have been several cases where companies have got too close to our patents and we have had to go to court to discourage them from doing this in the future. In these cases the companies have had to take back their microphones and stop advertising, but we cannot fight every manufacturer who makes something close to our products - and it’s not necessary. But you’ll understand that we need to protect our intellectual property – we have a reputation built over 90 years behind us and we take that seriously.

Yes, when customers come to us for advice, we usually encourage them to get the best thing they can afford at the time – not because it’s more expensive but because they won’t need to upgrade so soon.

Let me explain why that’s a good approach from the customer’s point of view. When we make a U87 here in Germany, it is hand tested 64 times during the production process. Every single unit that is made, quality checked, packed and shipped to a customer is tested 64 times. Now, somebody holding a microphone in their hands, connecting it to a measuring device and running tests 64 times requires both time and money. However, we believe this process is necessary to achieve the level of quality we’re known for. And our microphones keep their value. I mean, buy a nice laptop or computer and within a year you can write it off by 50%. With a U87, if you sell it after a year you will get almost the same price you paid for it. And if you look at our vintage mics - even after 40, or even 50 years of use, you get several times the price you have paid for it. In the 1950’s, a U47 cost around $450 – today it is often more than $10k!

Let’s talk more about your studio monitors. Neumann has completely redesigned some Klein & Hummel products and in 2013 revised the K&H O300D’s into what became Neumann KH310’s. This has proven to be an incredibly successful three-way monitor – very popular with our customers. Are you looking to expand into other monitor markets?

We certainly will not expand into the live sound business. There are excellent companies like L-Acoustics and d&b already taking care of this market. But what we will be doing – and this is absolutely certain – is develop products for studio and broadcast in line with new standards in the audio industry. “Audio over IP” will be a keyword there. And of course we will continue what we started with the KH 80, offering attractive new features using DSP technology.
Neumann KH310

Can you tell us more about the new NDH 20 headphones – this is a new direction for Neumann?

The introduction of these new headphones has a simple explanation. We are well known for the products we provide on the “input” side of the signal chain - which means microphones and everything around microphones. On the “output” side, until now we have only really had our range of studio monitors. But people often use headphones for desktop monitoring so we thought we should develop something for this kind of user, especially given the reputation of our parent company, Sennheiser. Neumann has been part of Sennheiser for 28 years and Sennheiser is very well known as a premium brand for headphones. So it made complete sense to develop a Neumann headphone in collaboration with Sennheiser, using their extensive knowledge in this area. We looked at the Sennheiser range of headphones and decided what we liked from a Neumann perspective, then we developed our design until we ended up with the NDH 20. I should be clear – this is not simply a Sennheiser headphone with a Neumann badge on it. It is a design we developed together but it was Neumann audio engineers, acoustic engineers and electronic engineers who defined the difference between what a Sennheiser headphone is and what the Neumann monitoring headphone should be. The NDH 20 is less of a headphone for people who want to listen to music in the most beautiful way possible - most people prefer hi-fi headphones for this. The NDH 20 is for musicians and producers who need a reliable tool to evaluate their tracks and mixes. And with the NDH 20's closed-back design, you can also use them on the road.
The new NDH 20 closed-back headphones
We wanted to make the headphones accessible for smaller project studios, not just professional recording studios - 500 euros for a monitoring headphone is a reasonable price. The initial response has been great!

Finally, how would you sum up what Neumann stands for as a company?

There are three things. The first is our heritage - 90 years is a long time and all the things we have talked about over those nine decades has helped to build our reputation. The second thing is innovation. It’s not enough to simply rely on what we’ve achieved in the past - we also need to innovate because markets are continually changing. As mentioned earlier, things have moved from the large recording studio market of the past towards the smaller project and home recording studios of today. Also, in the future we will have people creating much more content. Instead of spending a recording budget on a small number of high quality recordings per month, producers often now make a much larger number of recordings knowing that there might be only a few successful ones amongst them. That’s increasingly how things are these days, so we need innovation in order to develop the right tools for this kind of user. The third thing is “reliable technology leadership”. From the earliest days, Neumann has been a leading innovator and responsible for developing new standards and trends in the audio industry. In the future, we won’t be able to talk about the audio industry in isolation, without also considering other aspects like video and IT. Also, in future we will see much wider data bandwidth, especially in the broadcast market but also in other areas like recording studios. As a company, we need to gear up so we can handle all these new developments in technology, which means IT, video and audio. If we only stick to audio alone - as we’ve done in the past – then we will fall behind. So Heritage, Innovation and Reliable Technology Leadership – that’s Neumann! For more information on our range Neumann products, please visit: