Thursday, December 15, 2011

Spring microphones

Scene from Amelia
The first time I really noticed a spring microphone was when I bought New Edition’s Under the Blue Moon LP, back in 1986. Ironically, when I look the LP cover today, it seems that the photographer didn’t even bother to get the real thing. It has two of the most famous Shure models, and what seem to be two props made to look like spring microphones. To be honest, I used to think that New Edition had done a pretty good job on the 50’s cover songs as well. They did sing very well on this album, and it did have Little Anthony as a special guest, today but today it just sounds too “kiddie pop” to me. You can certainly find better cover versions out there these days.

All Bowlly and a Western Electric mic
Although you sometimes find contemporary artists using these mics on photo shoots or videos, they are hardly good enough to record anything these days. Unless, of course, you want that “old record” sound. Nevertheless, back in the day, artists like Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Al Bowlly (who had that typical “sweet singing” of the 20’s), depended on these microphones to record and perform.
Even though a lot of people call them spring microphones for the obvious reason, they are also known as carbon or double button microphones. They were made during the 1920’s/30’s, and widely used in radio broadcasts. I’m not going to explain the full technical details of how it works because I had some trouble understanding it myself. The spring suspension is known to prevent feedback or undesired vibrations. The housing contains carbon granules between two metal “pieces”. One of the pieces acts as a diaphragm that is affected by voice or sound waves and pressures the carbon granules into changing the electrical resistance between the pieces. Ultimately, this change of resistance results in the change of the current, and the sound eventually turns into an electrical signal. I found the schematic below on Wikipedia, to ease the understanding of the process.

But the hardest thing isn’t understanding how it works. It’s testing these microphones to see if they actually work. You need a small electrical current going through these mics for them to function. If you have an amplifier from the same era, great! But these are extremely hard to find, let alone a working one. After I bought my Lifetime model 6 carbon microphone, I searched online on how to get it working. Even sellers that are specialized in vintage mics, had no clue on how to wire them. Some even had amplifier schematics, but never tried to put one together. Finally, after some time, I came across an article written by Chris on his Preservation Sound page. Not only did he manage to make a unit to make the same Lifetime mic work, but he also uploaded audio links so you can hear how it sounds. If you understand the principles of electrical engineering, you can also try to make a unit, since there’s a schematic on how to put one together on the same page. But after I contacted Chris, he told me that he didn’t follow the schematic to the letter. That’s just an example he found online. He will be starting to make these units to order. So, if you have a carbon mic that you always dreamed of making it work, get in touch with Chris at This week, I ordered a unit with him and will post an update once I get it.

Justin Timberlake in the What Goes Around...Comes Around video

At a steep price, today you can still find some of these almost centenary mics on Ebay. Keep an eye out for companies that made them back in the day, such as Western Electric, Universal, American, Electro-Voice, and Shure.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

New generations

If you ask teens today if they ever heard of Motown, Doo Wop, 60’s R&B and Soul, I’m pretty sure that about 80% of them won’t know what you’re talking about. So when I see contemporary artists recording old standards, I feel relieved that another generation will get to know an important part of music history. They learn about real artists, which sometimes recorded in primitive studios, but still became chart toppers. They learn about artists that, decades later, are still known for their contribution to music.

After all, a lot of the singers from that time not only paved the way for other artists, but also helped define what today are R&B, Rock and Roll, and Soul today. So to the newer generations, I’ll say that it’s always interesting to find out where or with whom it all started. Where the cool choreography, bass licks, and group harmonies came from.

Having said that, the other day I came across a group on Youtube called The Cactus Cuties. Don’t let that name fool you. These 4 girls have voices that together form something much more overwhelming than “cute”. Although they sing mostly contemporary music, you can find some great classics they sing like Aretha Franklin’s “Think”, The Impressions’ “People Get Ready”, and The Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next To You”.

To think that these girls are in their teens is just amazing. The blending harmony of their voices is not something we see every day. Sure, you have thousands of groups that have had great careers and sing extremely well together. But only from time to time do you hear a group whose voices just fit perfectly. I’ve heard that rare combination from The Platters and The Temptations (although the sound from The Funk Brothers plays a strong part in the Tempts’ music). You can clearly see what I mean in the video where The Cactus Cuties sing Etta James’ “Something’s Got A Hold On Me”.

I have to give it up to them. They have personality, cuteness (obviously), and definitely, the voices. I checked on their site and they haven’t done any shows in a while, but I hope they continue to amaze people with their superb singing.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Deco Sound Poster

So a few months ago, I thought of making something to help spread the word about the blog. But it had to be something as cool as the vintage microphones I talk about. And it had to be a decorative item, that people would enjoy having. Not just an advertisement.

So I thought about making a poster. But I didn’t want just a bunch of mics all cluttering what would turn into a small sheet of paper. I wanted to do something special. If I had my way, sure, I would have singers like Aretha Franklin, Ryan Shaw, Phil Alvin (The Blasters), B.B. King, or Fred Parris (The Five Satins) all pose for me while singing with my microphones. Since this was virtually impossible, I had an idea that would still make the poster a special piece. Instead of having just anonymous models pose with the mics, I called upon friends who are real singers to take part in this project. Luckily for me, all four invitees accepted to participate. Three of them have their own CDs, so they’re not your regular family gathering singers.

The first singer, Letícia Maria Castro, sings in a group called Balaio de Maria. The group is composed of five great musicians, and play mainly pop (Brazilian or not), jazz, and R&B.

Rogério Midlej has been singing since 2000, and masters in Brazilian pop music. He participated in a Brazilian TV reality show called Fama, similar to American Idol. He also has a jazz quintet, with which he sings jazz standards.

Thais Uessugui is probably the singer with the most versatile background. I’ve seen her sing from disco to pop rock, from Bossa Nova to soul music. She was of great help, agreeing to give herself a "Billie Holiday" look.

My niece, Aline Perez, has appeared on the blog in an earlier post, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be talking about her again sometime in the future. She has a promising voice.

But this project wouldn’t have been possible without the help of a great friend. Vini Goulart, whom I met through my professional work in advertising, was kind enough to take the pictures in his studio ( We had V.I.P. treatment the whole time from him and the rest of his staff.

So even if you’re hearing about these people for the first time, you now know that this project was special. Not only is the poster a great decorative piece, but it has a story behind it. Having said that, this poster has a limited edition of 150 copies. Since I’m not looking to make a profit, and the idea is to spread the word about the blog, I'm offering this poster for free. All I ask is that those who are interested in getting a copy, pay for the shipping costs. The poster is 64 x 94cm tall (approx. 25 x 37 inches), and printed on couché matte 250g paper. If you’re interested in a copy, please contact me directly at