11: Microphone Museum (Transcript)

Craig Shank I’m Craig Shank.

George Drake Jr. And I’m George Drake Jr. This is Everything Sounds.

Craig Shank March 10th 1876 will always be one of the most historic days in American history. It was the day that one of the most important inventions of all time was first tested by two men in Boston.

Thomas A. Watson During the months that we were working together on his telegraph, Bell often spoke to me of another invention he had in his mind. It was the telephone.

George Drake Jr. That’s Thomas A. Watson, and of course, he’s speaking about Alexander Graham Bell in 1926. Watson was Bell’s assistant and the two of them were the first to transmit one entire sentence to each other while they were in the same building over the telephone.

Thomas A. Watson Bell sat in front of the new transmitter in the back room, which I had made into a laboratory for him on the top floor of number 5 Exeter Place, Boston and I went down the hall to the front room to listen to the results with a telephone receiver.

Craig Shank That’s when something happened. Not to the phone or the phone call, but to Bell.

Thomas A. Watson As Bell was about to speak into the new instrument, a motion of his arm upset over his clothes a battery jar of * unintelligible* water. In the excitement of the accident, Bell called out to me, “Mr. Watson, come here! I want you!”

Craig Shank And there it was. The first sentence to ever be sent by telephone.

Thomas A. Watson The big mouthpiece picked up his call for help and I heard every word of it through the receiver at my ear. The new transmitter was better than we had expected or had dared hope.

George Drake Jr. Now phone calls happen billions of times a day across the globe, but today’s show isn’t about phones. It’s about something associated with the phone that has fundamentally changed the world, and it’s something that people truly take for granted.

Craig Shank  Watson even mentioned it before.

Thomas A. Watson The big mouthpiece picked up his call for help…

Craig Shank …or as we know it today: the microphone. In modern phones they’re smaller than most insects, but think about how different life would be without the invention of the microphone….no sound in movies, no recorded music, and if you went to a concert, you would need to be silent or the performers would need to be incredibly loud.

George Drake Jr. Without the microphone the world would be a much different and, in a way, quieter place. And there’s one guy who understands the importance of microphones probably more than anyone. He’s been collecting them for over half a century and he’s also been the driving force behind a microphone museum in Milwaukee.

Craig Shank His name is Bob Paquette.

Bob Paquette I’m Bob Paquette. I own Select Sound Service where this museum is located.

Craig Shank …and he runs the Bob Paquette Microphone Museum. He’s one of those guys that has a collection and loves to talk about it with everyone that he can. It’s not a bad thing. He’s genuinely excited about what he collects. Although he began collecting in 1958 it wasn’t until 1970 that he opened up his collection to the public.

George Drake Jr. No matter who walks through that door, he’ll talk with them about his collection for as long as they want to stay. He’s a super nice guy with a passion for microphones. So much so, he wrote and compiled an 840 page book about the history of microphones. What began as a reference book for himself is now available for sale on the museum’s website.

Bob Paquette Just about anything I could put in here that I thought would be of interest to people collecting because it shows all the different spec sheets. It shows a lot of things you’d never find anymore today.

George Drake Jr. He visited the research section of the local library for years, gathering information about the history of different microphones by brand, type and country of origin.

Bob Paquette Today if I would have had the internet, I could have done it in about a year. This was really doing a lot of digging and all kinds of stuff. You had to transpose the other medias and so on.

Craig Shank His fascination with microphones started when he was a kid. He quit school at 16 and got a job at a local business setting up audio equipment for rallies during the war.

Bob Paquette …big arena shows, you know. They set up portable sound systems and so on.

Craig Shank …and that’s when he began to work with microphones.

Bob Paquette …and that’s where I started, but I ended up working on microphones quite a bit because we would repair them and eventually when that company closed they sold it to somebody else and I ended up with an old twenties microphone that they had, a double-button carbon and then I wanted to know what everything was like before that. So, it just got into that.

Craig Shank A few years later he started his own sound company in the basement of his house. He kept it there for 8 years and was able to move to a bigger location and from there, an even bigger location where he could not only display his collection, but he also expanded it.

George Drake Jr. Bob has got thousands of microphones.

Bob Paquette …probably closer to three thousand.

George Drake Jr. …but there are some that he’s missing from the collection. Those are shown by empty mic stands where they should sit on the shelf, which is arranged chronologically and by manufacturer.

Bob Paquette …and I built…my office became shelves and I started showing it from then on. Then it just kept getting bigger and bigger. When I bought this place I built this room and then just kept adding on going backwards. So, it gets bigger and bigger every year. In eleven or ten years you’ll come back and interview me again.

George Drake Jr. Before we go any further talking about the microphones in his collection, we want to clear something up about how many of his microphones actually work.

Craig Shank Bob agrees that one common misconception about older microphones and most standard microphones in general, for that matter, is that they’re essentially an electric version of the human ear, which isn’t entirely accurate. They do pick up sounds, but the human ear has special skills.

Bob Paquette You know, a lot of people would call us and they’d say, “Just bought a big AMPEX recording system and the mics are no good. Can you rent us mics?” I said, “It’s not the mics.” I said, “My guess is you’ve got twelve people at a table and you’ve got one mic in the middle.” She says, “Yeah.” I said, “It doesn’t work that way.”

Craig Shank The main difference is that the human ear is selective. With our ears we’re able to hear sound from numerous sources and exclude those elements that we don’t want to hear in order to focus in on that one thing that we do. Most microphones aren’t designed to do that.

George Drake Jr. Let’s say you’re talking to a friend at a table in a restaurant and you set one of his microphones in the middle. Like he said, it wouldn’t be able to pinpoint only what you want it to record. Your friend will blend in with the rest of the sounds in the restaurant, but as humans we’re able to focus in on that one element, her voice in this instance, and ignore other sounds in the environment.

Bob Paquette You try putting it on mono on earphones and listening, you can’t tell. You can’t seperate them at all because (it’s) just the way sound works, you know.

Craig Shank Around the time that microphones were first started being used regularly for performances and speeches, such as presidential addresses, the technology wasn’t quite what it is today. The president wouldn’t have just one or two microphones at the podium like we usually see now.

Bob Paquette It used to be they were just loaded. Everybody clipped on microphones. It looked like a mess.

Craig Shank They made something new. One stand with six microphones positioned in a long horizontal line.

Bob Paquette Back in ’25, was this? Yeah. Coolidge gave a talk, but they gave every group there, the networks and so on, one of the mics and then they just had a feed to it and they plugged it into their system for recording.

Craig Shank Bob didn’t have an original, but he did make his own replica.

Bob Paquette So, I made a replica of that because that was one of the first things they ever did to try to clean up the mess.

George Drake Jr. When microphones were still a reasonably new technology performers were a bit uncomfortable being near them. When a lounge singer would step up to the piano, they wouldn’t touch the mic, let alone come close to it.

Bob Paquette People were afraid to get up close to the mic and typically…this is a double button carbon mic. Now, what they’d do is, there’s carbon grains in those cups and when this is just sitting idle it kind of sounds like, “ssssss,” in the background, real slow hiss.

George Drake Jr. There was widespread fear concerning the dangers of electricity in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s due to its use in executions.

Bob Paquette …and you’d hear about people being electrocuted and the penitentiaries and so on and electricity was dangerous if you didn’t know something about it.

George Drake Jr. When people would step up onto the stage, they wouldn’t be standing in front of a mic, they’d be standing in front of a mic with a lampshade on it.

Bob Paquette They would tell the people, “Go by the piano and sing towards the lamphade.” You know, in the 1920’s when those came out, and you’d always use them in pairs, you know for redundancy in case one quit working, and this is about as close as you could get anybody to go near that. They see three wires hanging off of each one of those and they wouldn’t go near it and that’s what those are. Those are housings too so that they don’t see the microphone. They don’t feel, “Hey! There’s a problem,” you know?

Craig Shank Not only were microphones perceived to be dangerous, they were also enormous. Decorations were sometimes added to make them a bit more appealing, or depending on where they were going to be used, sometimes they’d hide them entirely. One of the things that stands out the most in Bob’s museum is a large candelabra in the middle of the room.

Bob Paquette That’s a funeral home mic.

Craig Shank That’s right. A hidden microphone for a funeral home.

Bob Paquette Well, when they would do the real big…say the mayor died in the city, they’d rent an auditorium and usually there was a platform that’s maybe three feet up. Well, that would sit in front of the platform and they’d have a podium set that would come up in front of ’em and, in fact, that’s how Turner started. They were in the funeral home business and they developed the sound system for funeral homes.

Craig Shank Later, Bob found out that the funeral mic was actually one part of a set and if you’re a bit squeamish about morose anecdotes, now would be a good time to turn the show down for about 25 seconds…..starting now…

Bob Paquette I had….there was a big collector in Chicago, Ralph Muchow, Dr. Muchow, he had a big radio collection. He came here one day and he saw that and he said, “Do you want the matching unit to that?” And I said, “What’s the matching unit?” He said, “It looks just like it, only it’s a fan instead of a mic and they put it in the coffin in the summer to blow flies off.” I said, “Nah, that’s a little morbid for me. I don’t need that.”

George Drake Jr. Out of the thousands of microphones he has and has seen, there is a kind of microphone which Bob has never been able to track down on or even find online. Microphones that have rarely been photographed known as the Turner ColorTones. From what Craig and I know, they came in a variety of colors including yellow, green and orange. The design is completely unique: kind of an art deco look with a large fin, which goes from the bottom to the top and it’s just kind of weird looking. At the time, they were incredibly unpopular, but from a present-day audio-nerd perspective, they’re pretty  *beep* cool.

Bob Paquette The only ones that got those were the reps that went out in the field. There were only two or three that got a set to show people. Nobody liked them. They thought they were cheesy and crummy-looking and I called a guy, probably thirty years after he designed and built these, the engineer, and he said, “Oh god, I thought this was over.” He designed this and they just didn’t buy them. So, he took ’em all home and threw them in the river behind his house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and there’s…I doubt if there’s more than two or three sets of these anywhere.

Craig Shank Naturally with a collection as comprehensive as Bob’s, he gets a lot of  offers for certain microphones and collectors looking to trade. However, he’s not keen on parting with pieces of the collection.

Bob Paquette I don’t sell any mics out of the collection, no, but I do have spare mics occasionally I will sell, but the better ones I hang on to for trading stock, you know, and I’ve got some pretty good mics a lot of people would like and I say, “Find this one and make an even trade for it,” you know, and it’s probably worth less than what I’m offering them, but I’ve never found it, so it’s worth it to me.

Craig Shank Not only that, if you ask him if he’ll loan you one of his mics, even for a fee, he’ll probably say no to that too. He does have some extra microphones that he will rent out, but nothing from his permanent collection will leave the museum. He once had a bad experience with loaning pieces of his collection.

George Drake Jr. We’ll avoid using the guy’s name just to be on the safe side, but Bob would probably be willing to let you know about it if you asked him in person. Just know he’s a very famous and well-respected movie director.

Bob Paquette I rented him some mics and he wouldn’t give them back. He said, “Well, you said they’re worth this much more. Let me pay you for them.” I said, “No, I don’t want the money.” I said, “I want the mics back because they’re too hard to find.” Well, we went around for a year or so and then I thought, “Well, if I try to fight him, the only people that are gonna make money are the lawyers.” So, I sold them for that, but it took me about eight, nine years to find the ones that I had rented him because it was like sixteen mics.

George Drake Jr. While making the movie, he wanted the sounds of the microphones to match the recordings from the era that they were made. However, the mics actually sound fine. It was the radio, recording, and home audio equipment and their fidelity issues before the 1940’s that people associate with that period of recordings.

Bob Paquette …and he, at the time, wanted microphones of that era and I said, “Well, you got this mixed up. All the stuff that I’m giving you is pretty high-quality stuff.” And I said, “We were way ahead of the game back in the 20’s and 30’s.” So I said, “They’re not going to sound like you think.” He wanted all that, you know, all that distortion and noise and everything, but he had to hire an acoustical engineer to do that for him and EQ everything and add noise and so on, you know?

George Drake Jr. We thought it would be fun to test Bob’s knowledge with something that Craig had at home. He brought in a mic that he owns to learn more about it.

Craig Shank This is actually a gift I got for Christmas a few years ago from my dad, he knew that I loved radio and then…it was a little bit after I had started. So, just kind of curious if you know a little bit about it, you know, kind of…

Bob Paquette In the first place, you’ve got a telephone base. This belongs on a…there’s another piece that goes under here that’s felt-lined and it’s from a telephone, a candlestick telephone, but this is a crystal microphone. Have you used it at all?

Craig Shank No, I’ve never used it.

Bob Paquette It’ll be high-impedance. So, you have to plug it into like, a guitar amp or something. Nobody has high impedance anymore.

Craig Shank So, I asked him when it was made.

Bob Paquette I’d say in the 40’s, probably. 40’s or later 40’s.

Craig Shank I then asked if he had one like it in his collection and without missing a beat, he responded:

Bob Paquette Should be right up at the top shelf there. Look along the top shelf somewhere.

George Drake Jr. Oh yeah. Right there.

Craig Shank See if it matches up…yeah, pretty much exactly the same!

George Drake Jr. A room full of over a thousand microphones and he knows exactly where each one is.

Craig Shank Then he said the words George and I didn’t expect to hear.

Bob Paquette Let’s check it and see if it works.

George Drake Jr. So, we walked out to his workbench which was covered in tools and microphone parts with a wall full of cables. We watched him essentially hot wire the mic to see if it worked.

Bob Paquette Hello? Hello? Testing, 1,2. 1, 2, 3, 4. Hello. Hello. That works.

Craig Shank I have to admit, it was pretty cool hearing my mic work for the first time. I’ve had it for years, but never actually plugged it in to test it out or record anything.

George Drake Jr. That was until we got home. Remember when Bob said that the old mics sound good, but the recordings aren’t the greatest? Well here’s Craig on a digital recorder he bought in 2006.

Craig Shank Testing, 1,2,3. Hello, my name is Craig.

George Drake Jr. And here he is on his old mic…

Craig Shank Alright. Hello.

George Drake Jr. …and here’s Craig again. Modern Craig, that is.

Craig Shank Yup, it’s me on a modern microphone!

George Drake Jr. …and here’s Craig from the 1950’s…

Craig Shank I feel like I should be singing “The Chattanooga Choo-Choo” into this thing.

George Drake Jr. Sure, there’s a little hiss and the sound is a bit tinnier than his new microphone is, but still it’s pretty good.

Craig Shank I found out that a lot of blues harmonica players like this type of microphone because it emphasizes certain frequencies and it makes their performances sound a little more “dirty.” And to think that it was made in the 1950’s – -a time that the United States was impacted by racial segregation, the red scare, and the Korean war but was nonetheless thriving with technology and forethought as we looked to the sky and began our exploration of space. In Latin, microphone literally translates to ‘small sound,’ which is not only incorrect but seems to not give it enough credit. The microphone truly is one of the cornerstones of media and we have more to thank it for than simply entertainment. Without the microphone Roosevelt never would have  been able to give his fireside chats, Bell would have never been able to call Watson in March of 1876, and of course, George and I wouldn’t be sharing any of this with you today.

George Drake Jr. The Bob Paquette Microphone Museum isn’t just a display of antiquated technology. It’s a time capsule that documents the stages of technological progress, but it’s also a place to learn where everything we’ve grown accustomed to originates from. Every model of microphone on display has a story and it played some role in our shared cultural history. And Bob himself, well, he’s the curator and the genius behind an outstanding collection. There are collectors and then there are guys like Bob. He doesn’t just collect. He’s more of a scholar when it comes to microphones. He just wants to share that appreciation, knowledge and passion with the world and enjoys being able to see people’s faces light up as they look at his thousands of microphones. Who knew that just down the road from central Milwaukee, there is a kind man with a one-of-a-kind museum.

Bob Paquette I still look at it like I’ve always been just a regular guy and that’s it and, you know, I have a lot of information and that’s fine. I can help people out with it, but I don’t look any beyond that. So, it’s..a lot of people, when they get a hold of me finally they’ll say, “You’re the guru of microphones, I hear. Can you tell me about this,” you know, so I’ve probably got that reputation across the country, but it wasn’t designed to be that way. I just enjoy doing it and I like to see people learn about it, you know, because that was the first thing I liked about the whole business too was the microphones and how they worked and what they did and so on.

George Drake Jr. You can learn more about Bob Paquette and his microphone museum from our website everything sounds dot org. There you can also see pictures that we took at the museum as well as information about where and how to buy his book, The History & Evolution of The Microphone.

Craig Shank While you’re on the site, you can listen to past episodes in the episode guide and also learn how you can become an Everything Sounds Audiophile. Everything Sounds is an independent production. George and I are literally a two-man operation and we have no outside assistance aside from people like Bob who are gracious enough to share their time and stories with us. If you’d like to help out, head to everything sounds dot org slash support.

George Drake Jr. And thank you to all of you who have rated and reviewed the show on iTunes. Keep those coming. They help us move up in their rankings, which gives us more exposure. We’ll take all the help we can get. And also a special thanks to Amy Smietana who helped us out with today’s episode.

Craig Shank Until next time, I’m Craig Shank.

George Drake Jr. And I’m George Drake, Jr.

Craig Shank This is Everything Sounds.

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