NEUMANN: SURVIVING 90 YEARS OF SUCCESS
How Neumann plans to maintain its edge after 90 years of success, from the president himself, Wolfgang Fraissinet. Oh, and a new product scoop!
Interview: Christopher Holder
Neumann isn’t celebrating 90 years in the biz by a string of lucky coincidences, assures president of Neumann, Wolfgang Fraissinet. Throughout its long history, the German microphone manufacturer has been delivering on one key proposition: riding at the edge of physics to help turn natural sound into pieces of art. That’s not going to change; but Neumann, as a company, must.
Recently, we caught up with Fraissinet during his Australian visit to talk about the future.
AT: What’s 90 years of Neumann really mean for the company?
Wolfgang Fraissinet: The 90-year anniversary provides a good opportunity to talk about our history and even more importantly, talk about where we are going.
Being 90, there’s a danger of being viewed as a little bit dusty and old — almost 100 years old. So I get the chance to talk about what’s going on within our research and development department where we gear up for the years to come.
AT: Neumann has been a Sennheiser company for 25 or more years now. How much of that R&D happens at Neumann versus within the Sennheiser mothership?
WF: R&D is within the Neumann headquarters, located in Berlin. Sennheiser R&D is in Hanover. We do of course have some synergies between both groups of engineers. Take, for example, the Neumann capsules for Sennheiser wireless transmitters. In that case it makes sense to give the best of both brands to the same customer to get better audio results. But other than that we are developing completely different tools and technologies at Neumann. We share information, we talk openly about our R&D with Sennheiser, but we owe it to our customers to remain as Neumann.
AT: Neumann has recently reissued the classic U67. It feels like a brave move to bring back such an iconic microphone. The level of scrutiny is unlike any new microphone release.
WF: Interestingly, we reissued the U67 in the early ’90s for a period. At that time we had enough parts from the original production of the U67 [1960-1971] which we used to assemble microphones. After that we stopped and we thought, ‘well, we can never do that again because we’ve used up all the parts’. We had some happy customers and no quality complaints — after all, these were U67s through and through.
More than 20 years later we asked ourselves, ‘Can we recreate these parts, while conforming to modern RoHS rules?’ ‘Will the result really be a U67 so that we can very clearly call it a U67 reissue?’ ‘Or is it only close to the U67?’ If the latter was the case we wouldn’t have followed through and built it. The answer; a clear ‘yes’, it really could.
We have had customers comparing the 2018 reissue with originals from the ’70s and the ’90s — something we knew would inevitably happen. These frequency-by-frequency ‘golden ears’ tests reveal one difference: age. When you compare a brand new U67 with its brand new capsule, it doesn’t sound identical to an early ’90s U67 because of the 25 years of dust on the membrane. Other than that, when you see the circuit board you see the electronic components we’re using, the parts, which are more critical than the capsule itself, is all U67. Which is why we can call it a U67.
AT: Part of the reason for the reissue must be to stop customers buying expensive clones?
WF: If people spend seven thousand US dollars on a new U67 they’ve got the Neumann guarantee for spare parts availability, for maintenance and for everything you need for a professional studio tool. Buying an old mic is more of a lottery. And if you buy a fake then you can be even less sure. It’s easy to copy the shape of a Neumann microphone, copying the content is a little more tricky.
AT: How vigilant do you need to be in protecting your intellectual property?
WF: We pay close attention to people misusing Neumann designs and our intellectual property. If a product is called WA87, or something similar, it’s no coincidence. We will buy the product, test it, disassemble it and we see how close it is to a Neumann, from a non-professional or home recording customer’s point of view. If it’s almost like the real thing we will take people to court. Recently we had just such a product taken from the market and they were forced to pay a fine because they violated Neumann intellectual property. We don’t do this with every product that comes along looking like a U87. If it’s a cheap knock off then every customer knows the difference.
AT: There have been some lovingly engineered U47 ‘clones’ produced over the years, for example.
WF: Neumann is not an aggressive vendor of merchandise or an aggressive advertiser of our brand. After 90 years, we’ve learnt how to position ourselves within the market.
If a product comes into our landscape — fakes, copies, close-to products and so on — we will do our best to talk to these people. Normally they’re industry colleagues, not people we want to sue. In most cases we find other ways to harmonise the landscape. But of course when people are really clearly violating our rights then we have to take action and we do that from time to time. We have to do it from time to time because otherwise even a court would say, if you don’t pay attention to your IP then anybody can copy your design and get away with it.
It’s easy to copy the shape of a Neumann microphone, copying the content is a little more tricky
AT: So what’s next for Neumann?
WF: Neumann has to acknowledge the fact the audio industry won’t remain a separate industry among future multimedia businesses — along with video and IT.
We’ve noticed that audio and video is being increasingly integrated into IT systems infrastructure.
For example, a live Olympic games broadcast will be controlled from a central headquarters and be more of a vast network of IP addresses than a traditional broadcast studio.
AT: So what are you doing to address that market?
WF: That’s something I cannot tell you. That’s what we’re working on now.
But I’m not talking about the next microphone and not even talking about the next hardware component. I’m talking about completely different business models that include services and more, in conjunction with IT infrastructure and software engineering. At this point in time we are expanding our Neumann software engineering capacity.
AT: Sounds like a major shift.
WF: It’s our job to anticipate the future of audio. What’s more we also have to anticipate the business model behind it. We have to do that now. The changes are happening rapidly. The last three years has changed with a higher speed than five years ago.
A new home recording market is growing fast. People are creating content in non-traditional ways. For these content creators, it’s a numbers game: they create hundreds of recordings and cut the best bits together. They don’t have the knowledge to make a perfect recording in their first, second or third try. But the results are good and they have hundreds of thousands of YouTube followers. It has nothing to do with the way we have been defining professional audio in the last 90 years but it has definitely a lot to do with the way we have to redefine professional audio into the future.
AT: Podcasters are unlikely to know or care about the name Neumann. How does Neumann still command that ‘superior’ point of difference in markets it’s new to?
WF: What I’m trying to explain here without talking too much ‘out of our laps’, is we are not intending on let our existing customer base go, and say ‘well, professional products are too expensive, too complicated, too analogue’ and depart from that and do something different in order to serve the markets I just described in conjunction with IT, video and audio.
Keeping faith with our existing professional high-profile customer base is non-negotiable. As long as people are asking for U87s, they will get them in the exact same quality as we are doing them today and have done for 45 years.
But at the same time we’ve got to expand our business to new customer groups without violating our relationship with our existing customer. We could be talking about Neumann offering something for considerably less money compared to what people are used to from our large diaphragm microphones, but it wouldn’t mean Neumann is a cheap brand. That’s not what we want to do. But at the same time we don’t want to overcharge people just because of our nice brand.
AT: Speaking of software, what does Neumann think about mic modelling?
WF: It is something we have been talking about with a lot of people internally and externally since the Antares mic modeller was released.
AT: They’ve come a long way since then.
WF: Yes, I know and I’m not saying anything bad about any competitor or product, I’m just saying I had my doubts and I still do. When somebody says they have a machine or software that allows me to record something with an SM58, push the U67 button and suddenly I get a 3000 Euro recording out of a 120 Euro microphone… I have my doubts.
A lot can be done in software and for an untrained ear the results may be of a good enough quality. For the customer base who is buying U87s today — working professionals — it is not even a discussion because they know the differences; which are not only explainable by talking about technical data, like SPL and self noise level. But it’s when you’re at the edge of physics, which we are as a manufacturer of hardware, and being used by people turning natural sound into something which is a piece of art, a song or a speech or whatever. You cannot measure everything. Engineers want to measure everything but you cannot measure a recording and say it ‘sounds good’. There’s something unquantifiable going on.
AT: What does Neumann think about how high-end outboard has been successfully modelled. Have high-quality modelled analogue circuits severely cannibalised outboard sales?
WF: There has to be a certain amount of cannibalisation — these products do have their customer group and there’s a need for these products otherwise people wouldn’t buy them.
The better the software modelling, the better the competition. From a Neumann perspective, high level competition is a good thing. Maybe some of that competition also woke us up at Neumann to think about these IT things I’m describing and for us to increase our software skills.
Neumann hasn’t survived and thrived over 90 years by coincidence or luck. When there is good competition out there, we gotta be better or we’re not worth the money we are asking. Up to now, we think the success tells us that we are not doing the wrong thing.
AT: As you ramp up your software and digital capabilities, how does Neumann consider its Solution-D foray from the early 2000s?
WF: I understand why you are asking this question with a smile on your face. I can smile about it myself. There were years when I didn’t think there was anything funny about it. And the key word is AES42. This standard has not made it into the market, neither for the console manufacturers nor for any other outboard gear. And having not accepted the AES42 standard it was quite hard to offer an AES42-based digital microphones to a market which does not exist — at least not as a mass market. At the same time, Neumann has offered a variety of digital microphone interfaces. What’s more, Solution-D customers have been very happy with the product. When you go to the Philharmonie de Paris you will see Solution-D microphones in the ceiling, and they’re used week in, week out.
AT: Sure. But apart from being philosophical about its fate, what were the technical Solution-D ‘take aways’?
WF: We learnt a lot about signal processing, which we knew anyway from our times spent making mixing consoles. We know what a de-esser function is, we know how to make a good equaliser, and all the other features of a normal channel in a good mixing console. We still have the technical drafts and we will use that knowledge in future but not in an AES42-based microphone. Which doesn’t mean we won’t offer digital microphones in the future… maybe according to new standards.
The other important learnings from Solution-D was the conversion process to turn an analogue signal into a digital signal, not somewhere in the signal processing chain but right behind the microphone capsule, inside the microphone. It meant Solution-D was able to offer a lot of mixing console-type functions — EQ and de-essing, for example — as part of the electronic circuit built into the microphone. So the microphone had a connection to a software channel which you could see on your laptop and you could, for example, control the gain setting from zero to 63dB in one dB steps or you could change the polar pattern between 15 different patterns with a pushbutton. Those things did not have any influence on the self-noise level of the microphone because there is no self noise — once it is zeros and ones, the signal remains the same. As long as it is an analogue signal you always increase the self noise level by the time you put the gain up. So those things are predictable developments even in the future, when you talk about digital microphone technology be it Solution-D or something else.
AT: You’ve been with Neumann since the early ’90s, how has your constituency changed?
WF: The magic term here is ‘customer loyalty’; now in a group of younger customers. A few years ago audio engineers were still coming up through professional recording studios and they were all in contact with Neumann products and they knew that without Neumann the results wouldn’t be the same. Increasingly, people are bypassing the professional studio world. They’re still achieving more or less good quality recordings but they are not in contact with Neumann so much anymore.
That is something we do sense and that is something we do see. That’s why we’re increasing our social media activities dramatically right now. As we get online, people who are not even audio engineers are making serious requests for our products and services. We have to stay on top of these developments. We can’t afford to think: the past was easier. Neumann needs these fresh thoughts, fresh ways of thinking and fresh young people who are users of multimedia.
AT: Tricky waters to negotiate. A blogger doesn’t want to spend more than a couple of hundred bucks on a USB mic.
WF: When we are targeting these younger target groups where we say ‘okay we need to have services and hardware solutions and software solutions for their needs of recording’, we are in a different field of business and that is something which I will not explain in detail because that is exactly our homework right now. But it means it’s a big change for every manufacturer and the earlier we face it, the better. If we don’t change, we lose business.
AT: Readers of this magazine could point to examples of companies with great brands, going downmarket unsuccessfully. No one wants to see a Chinese-made pair of cheap headphones with Marshall’s distinctive logo on them, for example.
WF: True. Interesting you use that example. Because there’s nothing wrong with thinking Neumann could make a headphone. We know how to make good transducers and the Sennheiser mothership makes headphones. I think people would consider such a product to be serious. The question is: would it be a 49 Euro set for a cell phone or would it be a real headphone. The answer is: it will be a real headphone and you can see it at NAMM 2019.
AT: Thanks for the scoop Wolfgang! See you at NAMM.