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Out of the Box: Audio Legend Bob Heil

Microphone Guru and Rock Hall of Famer Says Performance, Quality Don't Depend on Cost

Bob Heil is a musician, inventor, listener and innovator of products and processes. He’s the kind of guy who might be inducted into a museum to mark his accomplishments.

On June 8, in fact, Heil’s long career in pro audio was commemorated with a permanent display of his creations at Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Centered on Heil’s contributions to live sound audio in the 1970s, the exhibit tells the story of a store owner, organist and ham radio enthusiast-turned-amplifier repairman who received a phone call from Jerry Garcia, whose band, the Grateful Dead, desperately needed a PA for a show at St. Louis’ Fox Theatre.

Heil impressed Garcia and the rest of the Dead. Things grew. Calling his business Heil Sound, the storeowner progressed to design and build gear for the Who (a quadraphonic mixing console for 1974’s Quadrophenia Tour), Joe Walsh and Peter Frampton (Heil’s own invention, the Talk Box), and numerous other artists.

Today, Heil is still building. He’s focused on the development of comparatively inexpensive microphones designed and assembled in his Illinois factory. Heil microphones have found a foothold in radio and have a reputation for offering pleasing, natural-sounding articulation on vocals and instruments without the necessity of equalization.

To Heil, eliminating extraneous processing and relying purely on sound sources and complimentary microphones is a key component to great-sounding recordings and live performances.

In a recent conversation with writer Strother Bullins for Radio World and Pro Audio Review magazine, Heil shared his opinions on the industry in which he operates.

Q: In your opinion, what differentiates Heil Sound from other microphone manufacturers?

Heil: In the microphone world, we haven’t had anything new in 30 years. It’s just the same old dynamic crap. Nobody has done anything new lately. Oh, yeah – they moved their plants to China and Mexico (laughs).

But we’re still building our microphones here in Illinois. Sure, parts come from all over the world, but we final-assemble them here and listen to each and every one we make.

An important part of the business – concerning quality and the way we did things in the 1970s – is lost, except for us. We’ve never lost that. We’ve carried that philosophy through our years in the speaker business as well as with mixers, power amps and a lot of the things that are going into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. …

It’s really pleasing to have an artist come to us and say, “Wow, this is the sound we’ve been looking for. Where’s it been?” Well, quality keeps deteriorating because American manufacturers keep moving factories offshore. They don’t care. We care.

Q: Do the manufacturing trends you describe make it harder or easier for your company to market and sell microphones?

Heil: Oh, [they] make it much easier. Once the public hears something that sounds really good, it’s like, “Oh, wow! You did that without a bunch of boxes?” Yes, it’s very simple and it works.

The challenge is getting them to listen and think outside of the box because it seems like everyone wants to buy a certain brand name. Well, wait a minute – there are better things out there. So what if you haven’t heard of it? Just listen to it! Once they listen to our microphones, they’ll never go back.

Q: Today, more and more new recordists are building small, capable DAW-based recording rigs, but most of them are doing so with limited funds. How are you attempting to reach those buyers?

Heil: They’re the ones we’re doing this for. We’re building $200 microphones that blow away $1,000 microphones, and it’s really helping new artists because they don’t have to spend all that much money.

The pros may look at our microphones and say, “How can this $200 thing outperform this $1,000 thing?” But we’ve never lost a shootout. Never. Ever. And we won’t because our microphones outperform those other choices. The quality of a microphone is not about how much it costs. Joe Walsh and I knew that.

Q: What did Walsh, a rock musician, have to do with the entrance of Heil microphones into the realm of pro audio?

Heil: Several years ago, he invited me to do this – it was all his doing. For 25 years, I had been making microphones for amateur radio, a very niche market. We own it; there’s no one else there, just Heil Sound.

But that’s communications-quality audio – not hi-fi, not live sound. It’s very pointed and narrow-banded so it cuts through noise. If we’re saving lives in an ambulance, we want to understand the words. We’ve learned how to do that very well. No other manufacturer understands articulation like we do. They want you to do that with equalization. We don’t have equalizers in an ambulance, thank you. So decades ago, we had to learn how to build articulation into the microphone.

A few years ago, Joe – a big ham radio operator – told me, “I think you need to build me a microphone for the stage. Wouldn’t that be neat to have your sound, but only wideband?” So he and I began working together. I’d give something to him, he’d listen to it, play with it on stage and in the studio, and he’d come back with suggestions.

We finally broke the barrier and that’s why everyone is going nuts for Heil microphones. They sound gorgeous. They have this huge wideband – wider than anything else does. It’s from 28 cycles to 18 kHz, but the mics have beautiful articulation – I call it “a bouquet of speech.”

So why doesn’t everyone else have it? They don’t give a damn. They’re riding around on golf carts while they move their plants to Mexico and China. The bean counters are happy because they’re charging way too much. But we come flying in here, and we are waking up the industry. It’s really cool because we’re helping all the new guys, and – for instance – at the same time, I just sold a bunch of stuff to NBC Television this morning. They’re freaking out. They are saving tens of thousands of dollars on something that just works better.

The reason why it works is because I listen. I listen intently. I’m out in the trucks with them. I know what the problems are. I can come back in here and make it happen. The big boys can’t. They have too many boards of directors. I’m just me. But boy, can’t my people at the plant and I make things happen quickly.

Q: What’s so different about the technology used in Heil microphones?

Heil: When Joe invited me to build some of these microphones for the stage, he said to me, “You know Bob, the bigger things are, the better they sound.” He was standing next to one of his seven-foot transmitters. He said it tongue-in-cheek, but I thought, “You know, he’s right.”

I started experimenting. The first microphone I built for him had a diaphragm with a huge diameter. Everything out there has a smaller diaphragm, but the diaphragm in the PR-30 is an inch and a half. It’s huge.

We had to really work at it, though. We had to worry about the dampening of something that big, so we used different materials in the voice coil. My microphones are loaded with new technologies, and therefore new sounds – natural sounds. We quilted it, perforated it, put humbucking coils on it and did lots of things that no one else is doing. But the whole time we were just having fun with it. I finally gave it to Joe, and he said, “Wow, it sounds great. It sounds like a ribbon. And it’s dynamic.”

We play with what we build, and we don’t look at it on an analyzer. You don’t buy a microphone to look at it on a scope, so I don’t care about spec sheets. I care about how it sounds through my [JBL] 4410s.

Q: How has this technology you describe ultimately helped recording musicians, engineers and producers?

Heil: The fewer gadgets you go through, the better you will sound. You don’t need all those boxes if you have the proper microphone to start with, a transparent piece of gear for the job at hand. With just about every microphone out there, you have to EQ the crap out of it to get it to sound good. Live sound engineers will call me up and ask, “What am I doing wrong? I use your microphones, but I have to turn off the EQ?” Well, yeah. What’s the problem?

I’ve been out on the road a lot with Tool. It’s just amazing how loud they are. Yet, with our microphones, it’s amazing how clean they are. They couldn’t do that before, ever. So again, we’re proving to a whole new world of users just how fabulous audio can be without a lot of “digi-wigis” in the signal chain.

I recently worked with a couple of really hot producers -Joe Barresi is one of them. It was amazing to me to watch him. He didn’t have many “digi-wigis.” He turned all that crap off when he used our microphones. He got sounds by setting them in different places, aiming the cabinets in different formations, and doing things different acoustically and physically. When he had a microphone with our articulation and that wide, wide frequency range, it really happened.

To watch Joe work – to view his craft – was great. He’s using my PR-20s, PR-30s and PR-40s. Now he can really hear a bass drum thunder. It’s a huge boom he gets from the PR-40, and that’s all he’s using. No EQ. That’s one less box, and guess what? That’s also one less link to phase distortion. Get rid of that and the phase distortion goes away.

I’ll see people with 31-band graphic EQ, and I think, “Why?” If you have to have 31-bands of EQ, you have huge problems. Every band of those filters is a potential phasing problem. Tie them all together and you have a sound resembling a wah-wah pedal. Use a parametric to clean up just a few points. But if you have more than a few points, then you better fix the problem.

We’re having a lot of fun re-training these guys. They learn fast when they plug one of our mics into a board without any EQ.

The deal is that you can’t fix acoustical problems with electronics. You just can’t solve problems like bad speakers, bad speaker placement, bad speaker stacking, bad amplifier chains, bad microphones or bad mic placement that way. It all starts at the microphone. All those problems can’t be repaired with an electronic fix. And that’s why Joe asked me to do this. He thought it was time. He was right.