In 1928, Georg Neumann began to build better microphones in a rear courtyard workshop in Berlin. Today, these microphones and monitor systems stand for excellence at the beginning and end of the signal chain. But what about tomorrow? 90 years would be a good age to become hale and hearty. The culture in 2018 is changing, changing its listening habits as well as its production realities. An interview with Managing Director Wolfgang Fraissinet about brand values, innovative spirit, humility — and the Dead Poets Society.
What did you just say?
I said, “We don’t build the best microphones in the world.” There is no such thing as “the best microphone”.
There’s been a misunderstanding. I’ve been in countless studios around the world. I was also able to gain experience as a producer, and I enjoyed working with orchestras, with film scores, with great jazz talents. Technically and artistically, this is enriching. You deliberately take off this big Neumann hat, join the production team, concentrate mainly on the artistic side. This brings me to a point where I deviate from my Neumann role and decide to use completely different microphones — depending on what we want to record and what effect we want to create. It is unrealistic to assume that everything you do always sounds best with Neumann. It’s not like that.
Doesn't this realization pain the Managing Director in the middle of the night?
[laughs] On the one hand, I experienced this bitterly: I represent Neumann! We manufacture and conduct research at enormous effort and expense; our products are considered legendary! But actually … right now this other microphone in this particular application simply sounds better, no: more appropriate. On the other hand, it’s a sweet experience. Because I understand the customer better now: why the engineer or the artist or producer chooses which solutions for which application. This is part of their art, and we at Neumann are well advised to stay humble. We are among the best, but not always, not for everyone, and not for every application. Good sound requires a wide selection of microphones, not a monoculture. We are allowed to be part of an exquisite selection. That’s great.
Neumann just relaunched the U 67 tube microphone onto the market at a prodigious price. At the same time, many traditional studios are closing, and production processes are in a state of upheaval. The era in which Neumann grew large seems to be over. How do you respond to that?
The good old U 67 was clearly ahead of its time back then and contributed significantly to a change in how recording was done. And yes, it’s sound remains unmistakable to this day. But where pictures and sound were once produced in peace and quiet, today there are seemingly simultaneous, interlinked items of news, music, and video on digital channels. The whole signal chain changed, and this also applies to production. More is being produced, and a broader selection is being produced; projects are created in home studios, and accessibility is constantly widening.
We see opportunities in these changes in the markets and production. We want to help shape this change.
What can I expect from Neumann?
On the one hand, we are bringing a classic of the 1960s back onto the market. Something that is seemingly an “old thing.” It sounds just like its ancestor. Anyone who digs a little deeper into the technology will get an idea of the effort and expense involved just in developing the power supply unit and the amplifier circuit. We continue to be masters of work with the smallest currents and dimensions to this day. But two doors away, our coders are sitting and developing the software for the digital signal processor in our KH 80 DSP monitor. That is a scant megabyte, and half of it is already used by the operating system. In addition, we are developing the appropriate protocol layers. That’s on an extremely high level, but that’s handcrafted as well. However, an even more important question is: What do we do when we program a DSP from scratch? These aren’t special effects or anything dramatic. We develop algorithms with which sound in the room becomes more precise, even without a great deal of effort. Yes, it takes a little longer. But in return we deliver something that Georg Neumann was also very good at: state of the art. Not as an end in itself, but as a tool. And by the way, in the case of monitors for 500 euros each.
You’re not worried about these changes, which are massive in part?
No, I’m not. We look forward — not backwards. Neumann’s brand world will expand to other business areas. Those characteristics that set us apart in the studios and among professionals who work with our tools will also be able to be brought to life in other industries.
Cassettes, records, CDs, digital distribution channels: In the last two decades, we have experienced radical changes. More than half of music is distributed digitally today. The physical data medium will disappear, and at the same time people will spend more money on music and access to music. The industry is not competing for market share in a stable market but for a place to share in the growth. The pie itself is getting bigger! We are looking for the skillsets of the future and no longer think in terms of hardware alone. We are thinking about accessibility, about access to spaces and events that are still physically limited. The development process is now taking place — with or without us. We prefer to jump on the train and get used to the speed instead of trying to apply the brakes on the train to slow it to a convenient speed.
State of the art and a good sense for subtleties. How does Neumann intend to develop with these competencies?
The amount of hardware that can be packed and sold in boxes is decreasing — and will continue to decrease. It is being replaced by an IT-based, software-supported world of products and services. “We at Neumann aren’t sitting on our U 47 design drawings, shouting ‘Vintage!’ and ‘Analog only!’” We are already one step further in the labs and development, but we aren’t satisfied yet. When we are satisfied, we will make ourselves heard.
"Do I interact with this little machine in front of me as a musician or more as a technician? What do I actually concentrate on when I'm standing in front of it? Questions like this move us."
Do you have a practical example?
Services such as acoustic design: We’ll take a look at the rooms where our products are being used. Not just studios but also theaters, stages, embassies. We’ll help customers think about how sound moves, functions, and works in their space. How do we achieve the acoustic goal — a Beethoven symphony, for example — in this or that room? We are far from circuit technology and close to the question: How do we design audio in this case? How do we shape emotions? What are the expectations of the guests, the people in this environment? What standards need to be met in this context?
Or take healthcare technology: You of course can’t hear a heartbeat best with a Neumann microphone. However, many vital signs are recorded by sensors that work in a manner that is technologically similar to that which we know very well. And without a doubt, it’s all about reliability and precision. Or take access: accessibility to physically limited spaces and events. The beauty here is that the microphone will remain as an individual device. But what I do with it — entirely new possibilities will be opening up.
And what do you say to artists?
How about the question: “What does the microphone do with me?” Why does my breathing technique in front of the U 87 sound different than in front of microphone X or Y? Do I need to change my breathing or is the device simply different? Do I interact with this little machine in front of me as a musician or more as a technician? What do I actually concentrate on when I’m standing in front of it? There is an area of conflict between what we as Neumann put into the studio and what artists bring into the studio. Such questions move us — and we don’t believe that we have already thought everything through to the end here in 2018. [smiles] We have some ideas about this supposedly familiar user interface.
When I have been working with Neumann products for decades, I know what I can expect. How is Neumann changing for me now?
For a large part of the market, which is currently reinventing itself in entertainment and culture, there is neither a sound technician nor a sound engineer — although sound is produced there. We can’t ignore the fact that there are people who produce good sound but don’t really know how it works. They use trial and error to get results, but they didn’t learn how to do it conventionally. We can offer part of our expertise to these content creators. The catchphrase here would be knowledge transfer. But apart from that, the sound world is evolving and becoming bigger than what we are doing today. It is IT paired with audio and/or video.
Where do you see Neumann’s role in this creative design process?
So far we as a company have been on the technology side. Then there is the area where art and design meet, where sound engineers and artists still grapple with each other regarding the result. And there are the listeners, of course. In this field — between making the technology available and the emotional experience of the finished product — there is this area in which technology and art meet and marry. Even with the best technology, nothing happens if a feel for music is missing — and vice versa. The engineer likes to say: “You can measure everything.” But I can’t stand in the studio and say, “Okay, we measured the recording. It sounds good.” That’s nonsense. It’s like in the movie Dead Poets Society, where in this opening scene, the art of poetry is to be measured on X and Y axes. Do you remember? In his role, Robin Williams reminded us of the madness of this.
The following applies to our area: What lies between these measurements and art is a process; it needs technical and human intelligence. Neumann can toss these intelligences onto the scale. This will not replace the creative process of writing and composing — but it will improve the creative process of implementation. We can have a say here.
That sounds like more than just products ...
Those times are coming to an end, I think. The more virtual, the more intellectual. The “craftsmen” of the future will work in a place where the virtual and real world touch and combine into one. Today you have to know more than just how to play an instrument and how to write music. Nowadays, setting a film to music or running a Foley studio is dependent on more than that. You have to understand software and algorithms, things that go on beyond the pure craft. The imagination for this is nourished from sources other than just playing an instrument. And at the same time, with all the IT and AI infatuation in this world, you need common sense to keep your feet on the ground.
"We are and remain on an equal footing with the professionals out there — with the very big names as well as with the engineers and technicians whose names perhaps no one may know but who do great work."
So how will the profession of a sound technician or sound engineer change in the coming years?
They will become more and more about IT and software, and they will also take on a different intellectual aspiration. Us Germans like to confuse this with education and training, but that’s exactly what I don’t mean. I mean the intuitive ability to work in a creative manner. Today we see more and more talented people who do not first train as sound engineers before they put their finger on the pulse of the times. How many music producers do an excellent job without any technical training? And Neumann should be attentive during this transition, attentive to business models that take account of the changes on all levels: in popular culture, in technology, in lifestyle, in architecture. This goes beyond the question of how exactly the next microphone will look and whether the next speaker will now be bigger. And it’s great fun to think about what is coming beyond that.
Will I still recognize Neumann in ten years?
Of course. We will remain state of the art for professionals and for professional standards. We also want to belong to the avant-garde in the future. We aren’t going to forget the professionals; reliability is our core. I hardly dare to say “loyalty to our customers” — the phrase sounds so old-fashioned today. But that’s exactly what I’m talking about. We are and remain on an equal footing with the professionals out there — with the very big names as well as with the countless engineers and technicians whose names perhaps no one may know but who do great work.