Mic-Boggling: Sylvia Massy's Microphone Museum

Mic-Boggling: Sylvia Massy's Microphone Museum

Written by John Seetoo

Producer, engineer, author and educator – these are just some of the roles that can be attributed to Sylvia Massy. Her work with Rick Rubin, Tool, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash, Lenny Kravitz, Aerosmith, Queens of the Stone Age, Tom Petty, Prince, Seal, and many other artists could fill an entire music library.

In 2017, she and Chris Johnson wrote a successful book called Recording Unhinged, and the publisher requested a follow-up book on vintage microphones. In researching the book, they traveled around the world to find mics, document their stories and gather information from engineers, producers, artists, and studios. In Milwaukee, they met Bob Paquette, who owned the largest private microphone aggregation in the world, amassed over 67 years. Sadly, Paquette passed away before they could meet again, but Massy and Johnson purchased the collection from his estate, which will be a key element in creating the new book.

Humorously referring to her love of microphones and her mic museum collection as a “gear problem,” “Sylvia Massy’s Mind Blowing Microphone Museum!” was presented online as part of the Audio Engineering Society’s AES Show Fall 2020. No stranger to teaching, Massy has conducted numerous workshops for the Abbey Road Institute in London, as well as at Castle Röhrsdorf in Dresden, Les Studios de la Fabrique in France, and in other seminars in Rome, Oslo and other locations. She has a series on her YouTube channel called “Mic du Jour,” where she features mics from the museum.

The virtual presentation was conducted from her studio in Asheton, Oregon. Massy demonstrated the mics using Neve, Looptrotter and WEM consoles, Maag Audio equalizers, and preamps from Maag, Looptrotter and Warm Audio.

Carbon Microphones

An 1876 microphone.

Above: a reproduction made in early 1900s): Starting from the beginning in 1876, the presentation showed a replica of the very first microphone, a liquid transmitter mic built by Alexander Graham Bell. Resembling a tall milkshake cup on a small stand, it operated by speaking into the cup, which vibrated a parchment diaphragm connected to a wire dangling in a small cup of acid. The fluctuations of the current moving through the acid is what created the audio signal. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Floyd L. Darrow.) An original carbon microphone made by David Edwin Hughes.

Above: an original carbon microphone made by David Edwin Hughes, it is a wooden hinged unit resembling a jewelry box with a bracelet on top. A pressed carbon “pencil” sits in the box. It operates by closing the box and speaking into the bracelet-shaped disc, which vibrates the pencil, which, in conjunction with a 6-volt battery charge, creates the audio signal. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Thomas Gray.)

Massy actually used the carbon microphone on a vocal session in Los Angeles and it still worked!

Not pictured: an improved carbon microphone. It featured a larger wooden box of similar design, mounted on a wooden pedestal, resembling some of the early telephone boxes seen in old photos (late 1800s) and silent movies. Granulated carbon packed into a tiny button would vibrate in the box to produce the signal.

Double-button carbon microphone made by Western Electric, Model ET3.

Above: a metal double-button carbon microphone made by Western Electric, Model ET3, formerly used at radio stations. It has a metal base with a hoop loaded with an 8-spring shock mount ,centering a hockey puck-shaped disc that holds the diaphragm element touching a small button filled with carbon. Sound vibrates the diaphragm, which excites the carbon particles in the button that transmit the sound by changing the signal being sent to the microphone. The power requirement ranges from 6-12 volts. This design became very popular in the 1920s. Photos of movie stars like Gloria Swanson were taken with double-button microphones, which became the US industry standard for the era. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Daderot.)

Above: a candlestick microphone. Reminiscent of a tabletop telephone from the 1900-1920s period, it was made from polished brass by Western Electric. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Joe Haupt.)

The carbon mics are classified by Massy as “non-directional” as they are neither unidirectional nor omnidirectional.

Not pictured: an early European carbon microphone (1878)  by Siemens and Holstein was called a “Butterstamp.” Used at the post office in Germany for transmitting over telegraph lines, it looks like a wooden candlestick with a wide top and a separate leather cover and leather-bound handle.

Not pictured: a German Reisz Type 104 coal microphone. (Europeans refer to carbon mics as “coal” mics.) It is shaped like a jewel box with a large but very thin layer of carbon particles that vibrate a rubber membrane diaphragm. The case is made from hollowed marble, making it quite heavy. These types of mics were used by Josef Stalin and the UK royal family, among others.

The Reisz microphone was actually developed by one of its young employees, George Neumann, while Eugen Reisz was on vacation.

Above: an improved Reisz type mic built by the Marconi laboratory in London. Marconi refined the design with an octagonal shape and smaller surface area. Massy found one in the EMI London archives with gold filigree ornamentation that had been built for the Queen Mother for her radio addresses. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Jan Kameníček, cropped to fit format.)

Massy compares Reisz mics to that of old telephones: limited fidelity but rugged. One of Massy’s music production tricks is to take the carbon mics from old thrift store telephones and wire them up in the studio for recording to get a unique, limited-frequency radio transmission sound.

Condenser Microphones

The condenser mic was invented by E.C. Wente at Westinghouse in 1920. It was the first mic to contain two charged plates with one of them acting as the diaphragm, while the signal was generated from the variance in signal between the moving and stationary plates.

Not pictured: a Neumann CMV-3 with a Telefunken badge. Massy originally thought this was the first high-end condenser mic. It has a long cylindrical tube with a ball end that has a grill on one side.

Not pictured: The Western Electric 394W. E.C. Wente beat Neumann to the market by a few years. The 394 has the appearance of a larger double-button carbon mic mounted onto a wooden box. The box holds the power supply, which contains transformers, wiring, and a large, round vacuum tube. This model was used by president Calvin Coolidge.

Not pictured: a Western Electric 7A. It is alternately nicknamed, “The Tombstone” or “The Mountain Clock.” It looks like a tombstone with a circle at the top inside the arch, which contains a 394 capsule. The base contains the power supply. This mic can be seen in photos in use by Winston Churchill.

 A Western Electric Model 47A microphone.

Above: a 1928 Western Electric 47A. A long, thick cylinder with an angled grilled capsule, it was designed to hang inverted so that the heat from the power supply would rise and not affect the capsule. It is full of tubes and its design became very popular with amateur radio DIY stations. Hooking up her own power supply to it, Massy tested it, and the sound quality is significantly superior to that of the carbon mic.

Not pictured: a Western Electric 640AA. It is a long, chromed cannon shell-shaped mic with a flat 640AA capsule from the 1930s in a shock mount. It is smaller than earlier mics and closer to the size of a Neumann U47. The internal wiring showed advances in the miniaturization of components and the use of flatter and smaller 382A vacuum tubes.

Not pictured: an Altec 165 “lipstick” mic. This legendary mic is the US version of the Neumann KM53 and KM54 and has interchangeable capsules. Advances in technology, including the narrow size of the 5840 vacuum tube, enabled the smaller size of the mic. It remains an excellent and useful mic to this day.

Dynamic Microphones

Dynamic mics were first introduced in the early 1920s.

Not pictured: an early Round Sykes dynamic mic from Marconi Lab designed by Captain H. J. Round. It has a heavy magnet and looks like a theater light with six outer rim rivets and a central rivet holding a plate against a short, wide cylinder. This was the first dynamic mic in history and was excellent for field recording. It was used by King George V for outdoor speech recording to a magnetophone, the first tape recorder. The EMI archives photos show that the King’s Sykes mic had a silver filigree windscreen cover.

Above: a photo picturing multiple Western Electric 618A mics. A very popular mic in the 1930s, there are photos of Franklin Delano Roosevelt with all of the mics from the radio networks in the photos being this model. It looks like an Inky light on a U-mount yoke swivel. The Vitavox Admiralty mic was the UK version of the same design. The WE 618A design was even copied in Japan.

Not pictured: A Western Electric 630a “Ball and Biscuit.” It is shaped like an aperitif glass with a flat top. A very popular design, it was copied by STC (Standard Telephones and Cables Limited) in the UK, and by France and other nations.

It sounds very natural and Massy has used it in sessions as a room mic. It is still available in used markets from $200-$300.

beyerdynamic m19b.

Above: the beyerdynamic M19B led the way in European dynamic mics. Popular for radio and recording, it looks like a large acorn with a center post and is omnidirectional. (Courtesy of beyerdynamic.)

James Hetfield of Metallica with a Shure 55 Series mic.

Above: the classic Shure 55 Series – the “Elvis” mic. Popular with singers, including Presley and Billie Holiday, it debuted in 1939. It is still in production and is the preferred mic of Metallica’s James Hetfield (above, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Pingaiadadocrack).


Above: an Electro-Voice 630. Featuring a small chrome body on a hinged post, this model is still available and good to use for recording.

Shure SM57 microphone.


Above: a Shure SM57. This is Massy’s favorite mic. She owns the one that David Bowie used for the Tin Machine albums (which was borrowed from her personal collection). This mic and the SM58 vocal mic are industry standards on stages and studios worldwide, and have been for a long time.

Ribbon Microphones

Not pictured: The first known ribbon mic was the Siemens ELM25 (1925). It looks like an old box camera on a yoke. It is a directional ribbon mic with a replaceable cartridge. It was used by Joseph Stalin. The mic did not need a power supply. The velocity of the sound vibrated the ribbon and the strong magnets generated the signal voltage.

RCA 44 ribbon mic.


Not pictured: the RCA77A. This large, bulky mic was designed by audio pioneer Harry Olsen. RCA started using ribbon microphones in broadcasting for their high fidelity and because they didn’t need power supplies. The first-ever RCA microphone was the PB17. The RCA 44 (shown above) and others soon followed. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/LuckyLouie.)

An RCA 77DX ribbon mic.


Above: a production model RCA 77DX. It's become an iconic and familiar sight. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Scott Bomar/Jacob Blickenstaff.) Demonstrating the RCA 44 prototype, Massy showed it was a rich, very warm-sounding mic.

Crystal Microphones

Crystal mics operate on the principle that crystals emit a charge when bent, so a very thin slice of crystal is attached to a diaphragm by a pin. The vibrating diaphragm creates an electrical signal in the moving crystal. Piezoelectric mic development was pioneered by the Brush family. Not pictured: a Brush BR2S resembles a small Shure SM58 and is omnidirectional.

Astatic D104 microphone.

Above: the Astatic company formed in 1933 and licensed crystal mic technology. They made a hugely popular chrome lollipop-shaped mic: the D104, in production from the 1930s to the 1990s. Since 2000, Astatic is now part of CAD Audio. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/LuckyLouie.)

Heil Sound "The Fin" microphone.

The Turner 44X, which looks like a sci-fi robot helmet. The Heil Sound "The Fin" mic shown above is a modern re-creation. Other crystal mics in the collection included the rocket-ship-shaped Astatic 600S, a Massy favorite, and the Turner 80X, which Massy for its different sonic character, akin to a walkie talkie. Crystal mics are not known for their high fidelity but more for use in communications. The inherent problem with these mics is that the crystals are often salt-based and rapidly deteriorate when exposed to humidity. Sylvia Massy’s microphone collection is a fascinating look as to how the technology has evolved over the last 150 years.

For more perspective on its immensity, visit https://www.sylviamassy.com.

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