The Long-Lost Looming Pylon Interview with Michael Joly

A few years ago–2007, to be exact–I had the opportunity to interview mic modification wizardMichael Joly.   Oktavamod (Michael’s company) was really starting to take off in a big way.  I’d purchased a mic mod on an Oktava Mk-319 which (as it turns out) was about to completely change my world.  

I was not too long out of seminary.  My head was still buzzing with all manner of aetheriality, and I was flush with enthusiasm for the minutiae of my new-found passion for recording.  I had high hopes of publishing this interview in an issue of Looming Pylon, but sadly that never came to pass.  I had the full interview up in blog form on the Looming Pylon MySpace page, but MySpace chose to delete that interview (along with most of my other stuff).

Anyway, the interview did see print in TapeOp magazine’s “Behind the Gear” feature, albeit in an edited form.  And here, for your reading pleasure, is the whole shot.  

On your website you mention that you got started recording when you got your first open reel tape recorder.  About how old were you when you first got started with all of this stuff? 

I received a portable Craig tape recorder with 3″ reels for a birthday present when I was 12.  I had seen a public television show that, in retrospect, must have been about tape-based music composition.  I remember a close up shot of the composer splicing 1/4″ tape in a splicing block so the idea of recording and manipulating chucks of sound originated there and stuck with me.  At the same time I was building Heath kit stuff (a vacuum tube CB radio, 10-4 good buddy) and wireless mics etc. from published schematics.  I lived in the Lafayette Radio catalog poring over parts specs.

A great inspiration for me at this time was Alfred P.  Morgan’s “The Boy Electrician” published in 1912.  I found a copy at my local library and was the first person in decades to check it out.  Just a lovely “can do” spirit—wireless sets, spark gap transmitters, induction coil radio telephone sets.  Really kind of an anachronism at that point in 1968.

It seems as though your general field is about half science and half art.  Were you originally more interested in recording, or electronics? 

I think an interest in electronics preceded recording by a year or two.  But by the time I was twelve I was equally involved in both.  I one a first place ribbon in my Catholic school’s 8th grade science fair for a project called “Light Beam Communication.” I modulated a small incandescent bulb with my Craig recorder and picked up the sound with a solar cell and amp I built.  I left instructions for the judges how to operate the Craig so they could hear my voice describing the theory and implementation of the project.  Wish I still had that reel of tape!  I did my first recording gig when I was 14 and did live sound recording/mixing professionally from the age of 17.

At what point did you realize that you could modify a microphone and expect it to sound better than stock?  -OR- Did you already know enough about microphones that you could look at a mic and see untapped potential before you started experimenting? 

I worked for over 14 years as an “empirical engineer” for David Blackmer, the founder of dbx and later Earthworks.  David was a brilliant guy would sketch out rough drafts of circuits intended for “reduction to engineering practice” as it is called.  So my experience in professional audio product design was one of being a tweaker.  Test, measure, change, repeat to squeeze every last dB and Hz of performance out of a circuit.  Besides the compressor/limiter and surround sound circuits that were my specialty David and I worked on a number of loudspeaker systems for cinema use.

His KT-90 subwoofer was the original, reference standard subwoofer installed at LucasFilm’s Skywalker Ranch Stag Theater and become the foundation of the THX loudspeaker system.  I did some work on the second generation of the subwoofer and a line of high efficiency surround and stage loudspeakers.  The basic acoustical/electrical issues involved in loudspeaker transducer can be applied in miniature to microphones.  So by the time the somewhat affordable Oktava MK-219 appeared with that nearly impenetrable grille I already had a bit of experience with acoustical transducers and circuits.

What has been your primary teacher?  Formal education?  Experience?  Some mix of the two? 

I’ve been fortunate to have had some great mentors and role models that encouraged me to be experimental.  My dad worked at the Electric Boat division of General Dynamics in Groton, CT building nuclear submarines.  We always had blue paper bound texts on nuclear reactor quality control around the house.  He was a tremendously hard worker with a creative side—a good draftsman and soup cook.  He used to supply me with bits and pieces of electronic detritus—an old telegraph sounder, solar cells, US Navy carbon button intercoms, etc.

Alfred P.  Morgan I mentioned.  Never met him, but his spirit is alive in the “Boy Electrician.  I did go to a technical college but the stuff I love to do I learned by being with people who were doing it.  I worked for Star Guitars in San Francisco in the mid-late ’70s for some guys who were an offshoot of the Grateful Dead’s Alembic organization.  That was where high quality electronics and high quality musicianship came together for me for the first time.

We worked on the guitars of many of the big names in bay area rock—Santana, Jorma Koukenen, Journey, and guys on tour who’d drop off an instrument for repair or upgrade like Rory Gallagher, Ted Nugent.  Funny story about Ted Nugent—I guess he had been on a TV show with Patti Smith and they had a good-natured dustup over dinosaur rock/punk rock.  Ted was on tour in ’79 and dropped off one of guitars and several amps.  I did some amp upgrade work (black face Fenders, deluxes I think) while a buddy of mine worked on the guitar-fret mill, string action and intonation stuff.  As he finished the job, he stuck little pieces of masking tape with the words “Patti Smith” written on them inside Ted’s birdland so that when the glue dried out in the future the tape would rattle around inside.  We enjoyed the thought of Ted shaking his guitar to get the shit out and discovering Patti Smith labels inside.

Moving back east in ’80 I started working for Blackmer and that stretch lasted until ’94 so I had a lot of mentorship time with him and his business partner Zaki Abdun Nabi.  Zaki was a great businessman with wonderful people skills, so I think I absorbed both technical and business knowledge from them.

What first drew you to Oktava mics?  What do you like most about them? 

The price!  $550 for a large diaphragm condenser mic in 1994 was cheap!  Plus, there had been a couple of pretty positive reviews in the European pro audio press that made it seem like Oktava would be worth checking out.  Even before I owned my first one I just loved the idea of the history of this company toiling away making products for domestic Soviet use.  I love the rough and ready finish of the 219 that is totally at odds with the refined sound it is capable off.  A beast with a heart of beauty.

What was your first successful modification? 

The 219 headbasket mod was the first successful mic mod I did.  Putting drop handlebars on my 3 speed Raleigh in 1969 was pretty successful.  And the rheostats I made out of #2 pencils to control the volume of the multiple mono speakers in my bedroom in 1968 was also pretty successful.

Which mod makes you proudest? 

The OktavaMod MK-319 Floating Dome PE is kinda special to me.  Before this, I had never seen a large diaphragm condenser mic with a 360 lateral degree headbasket—no side supports to cause internal reflections.  So that headbasket mod combined with the other acoustical mods and Premium Electronics upgrade creates quite a good price/performance value in my opinion.

In reading your writing both on the website and elsewhere (that’d be the TapeOp messageboard) I’ve noticed that you seem to see a certain element of transcendence in what you do.  Are you a person of faith?  If so, how does your faith interact with your work?  What its it that makes a microphone more than the sum of its parts? 

Good eyes!  I rarely get asked about this aspect of my work.  I’ll try and give an answer that makes sense in this context.  I am a person of faith.  I believe that the work I do is but one of many jobs along a nearly infinite and reiterative path of spiritual growth back toward the Universal Origin.  My work is essentially that of one who clarifies patterns and strives to reduce dissonance in communication systems so that messages can be heard more clearly.  I don’t sing the call to prayer but rather make it heard better.  The essential nature of my work is carried out with a cognizance that the materials I touch have the same ultimate origin as my own form and spirit.  So they are divine and have a “desire” to be reunited with their Universal Origin.  The manipulation of material objects—putting them right, is a small gesture toward this goal of reunification.  This idea is sometimes expressed as “God in everything” (which I acknowledge) but I’m usually more aware of this faith as a melancholic longing for union that arises from the Original Separation.  My faith has been strengthened and clarified by reading, at one time or another, the works of Hazrat Inayat Khan, Dane Rudyhar, Teilhard de Chardin, Dhyani Ywahoo and the Urantia Book.

As to a microphone being more than the sum of its parts:  If one accepts the idea on faith that the materials in a microphone are divine, and have been previously acted upon by the hand and mind of its designers and builders, and further can be organized to be in more perfect union, than one can see how the union of parts is itself a distinct identity—a meta form.  The degree to which this meta form is manifested is correlated to the degree of consciousness humans brought to their work in the design, building and modding of the microphones.

So as I see it, you’re basically describing microphone design, development and manufacturing processes as refinements of a divine spirit which is in all things.  Your role in all of this is to clarify what’s already there.  You put this into practice by “helping” the microphone reach its fullest potential.  Is that right?

I’m comfortable with that playback.  😉

On your webpage, you explain in some detail about the City of Tula, its heritage, and the Oktava factory there.  Is it just Oktava mics?  Are there other brands of microphones worthy of re-development?  In your mind, what separates the sheep from the goats? 

Well, to follow on the “more than the sum of parts” idea from above I believe that Tula and its people, because of their particular history and actions leave a certain psychic imprint on Oktava microphones that is in part responsible for their sound.  There is a psychic confluence of 800 years of weapons-related metallurgy and a simultaneous desire for peaceful pleasures of tea (Tula, home of the Samovar) and spice cookies.  At a practical level, we’re talking about an electronics factory that has been making transducers since 1927, so that more recent history gets poured into their products as well.

I don’t know if there are other brands of mics worthy of re-development.  I’m a bit myopic here in that the Oktava experience has been very deep and rich for me and I haven’t felt a need to look to greener pastures.  There are a few individual mics that are stand out as mod candidates from other manufacturers, but an across-the-board brand that excites me and I feel is worthy of follow-on re-development?  I personally don’t see one right now, that is right for me.

Are there other “Tulas” in the world?  Do you see hope for other “future classics?”

Objectively, it would seem that the possibility exists.  I would look in geographic areas that have a long tradition of near-alchemical work—populations who have been involved in the transmutation of materials form one form to another for a long time.  Cultures where brass, bronze and iron bells are plentiful as well as a more recent interest in 20th century electronics.  Somewhere in Japan and China perhaps?  Speaking of China, once these manufacturers go beyond copying Neumann capsule designs and connect with their own psychic pasts then they may develop products that people respond to with the kind of affection that has been directed toward Oktava’s mics.

A number of other companies are operating in Russia making musical gear—Sovtek springs most readily to mind.  It seems as though price point isn’t the only issue—that there’s something special about the gear itself.  At the same time, I’ve met a number of people who lived in what was the USSR, and they all seem to view Soviet-era technology with an equal mix of admiration and disdain.  What is it about Soviet-era tech that draws such varied opinions?  What is it that draws westerners to this stuff?

Well the Soviet era is pretty universally regarded as a time of great suffering for millions of people.  The resultant polarization of the world into two basic political camps wasted countless lives and transmuted the precious resources of the earth into tools of destruction.  I suppose there may have been, in the early of years of Russian product availability in the West, a sort of transgressive or subversive attitude accompanying their use that resonated with the punk/DIY aesthetic.  But for me, working with Soviet-era tech is a small scale “swords into plowshares” activity.

At what point did you realize that this could be a viable business?

There were a couple of inflection points.  I started by offering a modification service on eBay.  I wanted to build a transaction track record that would put people at ease about sending their mic across the country to someone they didn’t know.  The eBay rating system helped me do that.  So the first proof-of-concept test was putting up an eBay ad and then making a few sales.  After I did a handful of mods that way and got some good feedback I figured the concept resonated with the marketplace.  The next challenge would be to scale up.  After about year it looked like OktavaMod could be a real business that might offer me the chance to work 18 hours a day and pay the bills associated life in a low overhead city.  Would have been tougher to start this in Cambridge where I was before moving to Springfield, MA.

How has Oktava responded to all of this?  It seems as though they’re fairly supportive.  Has this always been the case?

Surprisingly supportive, never a negative comment.  But I’ve always positioned what I do with Oktava mics as “different” flavors of the stock mics I’m crazy about.  I think they sense that I’m a real brand advocate.  And even though I have my own OktavaMod versions of their mics the brand is getting burnished along the way.  Oktava-Online, run by Denis and Natalia Kuzmenko contacted me about become an Oktava dealer and selling my modded mics through them for the European market.  Denis is the son of the technical director of Oktava in Tula and worked for four years at the factory.  I’ve got an excellent business and technical relationship with Denis and Natalia and through them a good line of communication to Oktava in Tula.

Who do you see as your primary clientele?  How does that motivate you?

In the beginning I think my earliest customers were bargain hunters who bought Oktava mics during the great Guitar Center blowout.  Over time as I got some A/B samples online and some solid testimonials I started seeing some “name” artists and producers sending me their mics as well.  So now it’s a mix of young bedroom recordists looking to buy or improve their first mic all the way up to guys like Adam Lasus (clap your hands say yeah) or Damian Taylor (Bjork et al…) to name just a couple.   My motivation is the same with either customer.  I treat everyone the same—I try to respond quickly, match the style of my answers to the style of the questions and modify every mic to the best of my ability no matter who purchased the mod.  This is a very liberating strategy because I don’t play up or down to anyone.  Seems to make folks at all levels of the professional spectrum comfortable.

Audio gear has traditionally been very expensive.  The price point on a lot of gear seems to be dropping, but at the same time it seems as though there is a lot of cheap junk showing up on the market as well.  You have established what is basically a cottage industry converting decent low-price gear into boutique-grade gear at a price that’s reasonable by any measure, and you seem to be doing quite well for yourself.  What do you think this says about our economy?  About recording in general?

I’m not sure what it says about the economy, but in terms of recording I think people are beginning to realize that they’re surrounded by a lot a stuff with tremendous potential.  Ha—just like humans!  Improving what is already owned has a sustainable-use vibe about it and seems less consumer/consumptive.  I know my clients love the idea of having something they already like perform even better for them.  I guess it’s sort of like putting new strings on an old guitar and practicing a bit more instead of buying yet another guitar.

Do you have any plans for further development, or are you content with things the way they are?  Any interesting surprises waiting around the corner?

Oh man, I wish I had time to finish metalwork parts for my 319 Bottle mod.  I’d love to do a tube mod for some of the Oktava mics as well.  I’m working on a project with a client studio in New Delhi.  We think it will be possible to use OktavaMod mics to emulate the long-term spectral response of a couple of highly regarded Neumann mics.  This project is driven by the needs of the Indian audio market to both have great sound, but have really affordable equipment.  The Neumann M149 is a favorite VO mic there.  We’ve had some initial successes emulating it and I think we can get close enough that many studios will jump at a chance to buy a mic that will give them 95% of what they’re used to for 10% of the price they’re used to paying.  And India is a big audio market.  😉

About andysmash

North Coast punk-rocker/theologian. A good head for gears and an eye on the far horizon. DIY recording artist and frontman for the Rust Belt Hotrods.
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