Every since Uncle Dave and Aunt Betty left their front porch and took their Guitar and Fiddle up on the stage at the local high school auditorium, there has been a need to electrically amplify the performer’s picking and singing. Almost any audio amplifier will work as a public address system and drive a garden variety loud speaker with enough volume to reach the back of the hall; however, to transform a faithful representation of the vibrating strings of the performer’s musical instrument and the performer’s vibrating vocal chords into electrical signals that an amplifier can process, has been an ongoing design evolution.
Every since that fateful day, that the electricity first flowed, microphones that convert the performer’s playing and singing into electrical signals that amplifiers can process have been necessary. Thus, the continual quest for better microphone designs has also existed. Engineers and work bench tinkerers have stayed busy bettering the quality of the artist’s acoustic output into an electrical signal, which brings us to the heart of our story. One of the most successful folks in this category is Ear Trumpet Labs of Portland, OR. This company is the designer and builder of the most unique looking and electronically superior line of performance microphones that the acoustic string music genre (particularly the bluegrass artists on festival tour) has ever experienced.
I first became aware of this most unique looking microphone at a dealer’s booth at Merefest in Wilksboro, NC this past spring. Since then, these microphones have been constantly on display and in use this festival season. All of this notice culminated this fall at the IBMA conference in Raleigh when the AR booth was located next to the Ear Trumpet Labs’ booth thus allowing us to become familiar with the microphones and the folks associated with them. During the IBMA showcases, these Ear Trumpet microphones were in use by many performers, and it was easy to hear how great they performed—they easily picked up much more of the stage event than did the other microphones in use. Recently, the publisher and I were attending a festival where a bluegrass group employed five Ear Trumpet microphones. The sound was amazing. We turned to each other and said, “Our readers need to know about this!” To accomplish this, I recently made a call to the designer and manufacturer and creative genus of the Ear Trumpet microphone.
Ear Trumpet Labs microphones are the creation of Mr. Phillip Graham. Mr. Graham is a former software engineer with a fine arts degree that drives an artist’s vision. Mr. Graham is the designer and hand builder of every Ear Trumpet Labs microphone produced at the lab. That’s right. Every unit is a hand built creation of his design.
It Just Sounds Better
I began our interview by asking Mr. Graham to tell us why his microphone design seems to produce a much finer result. Without getting into too much technical detail, he told me that the Ear Trumpet microphone is specially designed to solve the problems that acoustic string-music and vocal performers have long encountered and have had a lot of trouble getting the right tools to achieve the desired result. Mr. Graham told me, “Good sounding condenser microphones that are stable, feedback resistant, and behave well in a live setting are something that very few people have tried to design for that situation. Bluegrass and old-time music players have an understanding of having to have a good quality sound especially a studio quality sound because they are passionate about having good sounding acoustic instruments and having that sound projected to their listeners. Up to now, they have only had access to microphones designed for studio use. These microphones were never designed for live performance use in mind so they have weaknesses when it comes to stability and feedback rejection and particularly in evenness of tone across the pickup pattern. That is the sort of design aspect that we address in our design.” Although there is no secret formula for achieving the desired result, Mr. Graham said the circuitry is big part of it as it is tuned to minimize the harsh high end of the spectrum but a lot more of the design comes down to its physical construction along with and the placement of the pickup capsule and other components in the uniquely designed head basket. The head basket is his acoustic design and is incredibly complex requiring construction, testing, rejection, and adjustment.
The other critical part of the design is the pickup capsule, which is different from those that are widely used in most studio microphones; simplifies the circuitry; is well suited for live performance; and makes the microphone more reliable.
I wondered about the unique look to the physical design of the microphone and the fact that it seemed to be designed around hardware store parts. Being an artist at heart, it seems Mr. Graham’s approach to microphone design involves a Zen-like process that he describes as Bricolage. This is an art world term for artwork made by employing creative and resourceful use of whatever materials are at hand regardless of their original purpose. Here are Mr. Graham’s thoughts about this fact as gleaned from his website, “Here at Ear Trumpet Labs, we are tinkerers and artists. When I started making microphones I was immediately drawn to the possibility of making the housings from all sorts of things. Some of our products recall the elegant microphone designs of the early broadcast era; others evoke early industrial aesthetics.”
How The Journey Began
I ask Mr. Graham to tell us how he got started on this journey. As he tells it, he has always been a tinker starting with heavy old tube-type guitar amplifiers and different associated audio circuitry. Sometime around 2010, his singer songwriting daughter had just stared to write her own songs and he started thinking about recording her efforts. As he prepared to record her performance, he became interested in microphones. He said, “As I started to examine different designs, I discovered that these available microphones were really atrocious and wondered what it would take to build a good microphone. Just as there are many good acoustic guitar amplifiers on the market, they are expensive; and I could spend the time using found parts and build a high quality amp of my own. So, I just took that same approach with microphones and that idea is what led me down the rabbit hole.” He began by studying ideas expressed by followers of an internet user group devoted to microphone builders There he discovered the interest many in the group had in the design work performed by Scott Helmke in developing his microphone he labeled the Alice. While most microphone design devotees are content to slightly modify existing inexpensive imported microphones, individuals interested in base design are drawn to Scott Helmke’s design. Graham said he owes a lot to this design; and while the Ear Trumpet circuitry is similar, Helmke’s use of copper plumbing pipe in the physical design is what started Graham down the path of repurposing readily available material in his design.
I observed to Mr. Graham that it seemed that he started out with a need and then tailored the designs to meet that need. His reply was, “Yes exactly. There are some aspects of the design that are more practical than others. There are times when a need could be filled with a couple of different designs. All the designs were created using found materials initially. I spent a lot of time pouring through the hardware store bins looking for things that appear as if they would go together in the right kind of way. Of course, I then would have the reproducibility problem. I would find something then need to track down the actual supplier of such a part and source the supply for a given part. That has generally been the process for the physical designs.”
Out Of The Basement
I ask Mr. Graham if he really started out in his basement just tinkering? He answered, “Yes, absolutely. My initial plan was make one or two just for recording; however as soon as I had made a couple of microphones, and because they have this weird, interesting look musicians that I know were drawn to them and wanted to perform with them. That got me to thinking about the whole deal of why don’t people use studio condenser microphones for live performances and what would it take to do that. That thought process led me to thinking about the whole area of designing for the purpose of getting the best acoustic sound that we could get in a live performance. The appearance of the design led me to that point and that is where my head has been at every since—the focus on the acoustic design problem rather than the aesthetics.”
“We were very lucky to have some major players in the old-time and bluegrass world pick our mics up. The old-time Fog Horn String Band is based in Portland, and I have known the players in this group for sometime. They were the first nationally touring act to use the Ear Trumpet microphone on the road. They performed with one of the first Edwina models that I built. They have had that microphone out with them for six years. That event sustained me for the first couple of years because Kaleb (of the Fog Horn String Band) was basically my marketing department.
Two or three years ago, Jerry Douglas started using an Ear Trumpet microphone in his solo performances. This was also near the time he was forming the Earls of Lester group. As he and his sound engineer were already familiar with our microphone and liked the way it worked with his resonator guitar, they adopted Ear Trumpet microphones for their live performances. Douglas says that these microphones are as much of their stage identity as are their string ties and hats. This high profile really helped. Since then, we have had the microphones at IBMA for two years, and they have been well received. We have had fairly steady growth for the last two years. This is fantastic for us. The coolest thing is how close knit is the bluegrass community. The great thing about old-time and bluegrass music is that much of the audience is composed of players. I feel grateful for how much the bluegrass community has gravitated toward our microphones.”
Be on the lookout for Ear Trumpet microphones on the festival circuit. Hear the difference they make in your listening experience. If you are a performer, borrow one from a fellow artist and see the improvement it can make in your performance. Learn much more about Ear Trumpet Labs and Mr. Graham’s Bricolage creation by checking out the website: http://www.eartrumpetlabs.com.
By Edward Tutwiler