REVIEW IN RECORDING MAGAZINE (February 2016)
Mark Pirro of Placid Audio has a mission—to build microphones whose character is unmistakable and unique. He’s not about “flexible Swiss Army mic that sounds clear and clean on multi- ple sources”…. he’s about “Oh my gosh this mic doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before and I love it”.
Pirro’s first microphone was the Copperphone (September 2008), developed for Polyphonic Spree bandmate Tim DeLaughter to provide a band-limited “old time radio” voice effect for the Spree’s live shows. It was followed by the Copperphone Mini (reviewed July 2015), a smaller version with a slightly different tonality. Both Copperphones received glowing reviews for their unique character, but compared to the Carbonphone, they’re positively pedestrian….
Yes, carbon. Articles in this magazine usually talk about the three types of mics—dynamic (a speaker in reverse), condenser (a capacitor), and ribbon (a vibrating metal ribbon in a magnetic field). Those aren’t the only mic types out there; they’re merely the ones that are popular in studios today.
There are other ways of transducing sound waves into electricity, and the carbon mic is the very first, invented by David Edward Hughes in the early 1870s. A carbon mic consists of two discs separated by loose-packed carbon granules. Sound waves hit one disc and make it vibrate, causing a variable pressure on the granules, which changes their resistance over time and creates a variable electric signal.
If you were to unscrew the mouthpiece of a pre-electronic telephone as were common around the world for most of the 20th Century, a self-contained carbon “button” mic would fall out. They’re still in use today; they can provide a strong signal from very low voltages, so they’re handy in situations where higher voltages are dangerous because sparks can cause explosions—think oil refineries or coal mines. They’re also very sturdy and highly resistant to sudden voltage transients, which makes them lightning-proof (and nuclear bomb EMP-proof, if you worry about such things).
However, there’s a reason they’re not in common use, and never got closer to a studio than early radio broadcasts—where they were abandoned as soon as vacuum tube amplification made other mic types viable. Carbon elements have a very, very restricted frequency response—they’re the reason why we think of a midrangy and distant sound as a “telephone voice.” Instant dealbreaker for most engineers… and just the sort of thing that Mark would find intriguing.
The mic and its box:
The Carbonphone, like its siblings, is packaged in a polished copper casing that’s been sealed with clear lacquer to prevent patina. It’s mounted on an aircraft aluminum bracket that features a standard 5/8″ threaded mic stand socket, and uses a conventional Neutrik XLR connector. Internally, the military-grade carbon granule element (used for intercoms in battle tanks) is connected to a Hammond output transformer for a balanced output that can handle very long cable runs with ease.
The Carbonphone mic comes bundled with a nicely-finished birch box with an LED and click- knob on the front, and Neutrik XLR in and out plus a 9V power plug on the back. This is the Tone Box, which isn’t vital to using the Carbonphone but greatly adds to its flexibility.
The Tone Box is a phantom power source for the Carbonphone and has five different filter settings built in. There are no specs on the filters; they’re meant to be listened to and selected for a particular application. Some are thinner and more tinny, some pass more lows, and some have interesting resonant peaks, all with very distinct character. If you plug the Carbonphone directly into your mixer and hit it with phantom power, it will need gain settings roughly similar to those of a dynamic mic, and provides yet another tonality, with a hair more bottom end than the Tone Box provides. Six sounds in one—not too shabby!
The Carbonphone has to be heard to be understood. This is a deliberately “funky” sound, with sputtering, crackles, and a glorious 500 Hz to 10 kHz frequency response. Mine had a lovely gritty timbre but was surprisingly fussy about sibilants (easily tamed with a touch of de-esser). I actually found it sounded a bit better after I smacked it a few times to loosen up the carbon granules—a process recommended by Placid.
I used it live on the air for my weekly radio voiceovers and got all kinds of comments from the audience, most of which boiled down to “It’s really weird, but I like it!”. It lends a similar old-timey character to singing, but is even more steampunk than the Copperphones, which I didn’t think was possible!
I also tested the Carbonphone on acoustic guitar, winds, and hand percussion, and in each case it added a certain something to the tone that really caught the ear. You wouldn’t record a whole song with it, but as an accent it’s undeniably fascinating. I also tried out the Tone Box on a couple of other mics and found it a lot of fun for playing with tonality, lending a little of the Carbonphone’s mojo to otherwise pristine mic sounds.
This isn’t an “I need it” mic unless you’re deliberately recreating hundred-year-old radio shows. It is, however, an “I want it” mic for folks interested in sounds they can’t get any other way. Check out the audio samples on the Placid Audio website for yourself. I think you’ll be very impressed with what this hand-built piece of real audio history has to offer.
All together now: “I heard you on the wireless back in ’52…” – Written by Mike Metlay
REVIEW IN RECORDING MAGAZINE (July 2015)
Placid Audio is a microphone company well known for the Copperphone, a microphone with a homemade handyman look and distinct lo-fi sound. Justin Peacock reviewed the original back in August of 2008 and his conclusion was that it “inspires creativity” (in addition to frightening airport security personnel because of its superficial resemblance to a pipe bomb). This month we are looking at the Copperphone’s baby brother, the Copperphone Mini.
Before we begin our review, let’s look to the original for some context. The Copperphone was invented by Mark Pirro, the bass player for the indie music collective/band The Polyphonic Spree. Mark invented the mic out of old communications components and stuffed them into a copper pipe—this was steampunk before it was a trend. The first one was made for the Spree’s lead singer to use live for lo-fi, old school radio and telephone effects. The original was a cardioid patterned dynamic mic with a Frequency Response of 200 Hz to 3 kHz with a 150 ohm impedance. Sonically it was distant, resonant, hollow, band limited and essentially insta-old-timey-vintage. If you wanted that sound, no plug-in or effects processor quite matched the rich character of the Copperphone!
In his review of the Copperphone, Justin called the original a one-trick pony. The Copperphone Mini certainly is as well, but it’s a beautifulpony that does a very cool trick!My point here is that this is not a mic review where I can say that it was good on this source and bad on that one. I can only say that it has a unique sound of its own, one that’s distant and almost ethereal. Anything you record with it will sound like it came through an old radio, or off of a vintage 78 played on a windup Victrola with a horn for a speak- er… minus the static, clicks, and pops. All of this is the cool and creative part of this mic!
So far in the studio, I have used it as a room mic on drum kit, as a second mic on a guitar cabinet, on acoustic guitar, and of course on lead and backing vocals. Not only is it great for the obvious “let’s make this part sound old” trick, but it is actually great for blending with other mics. The blend provides unique tonal results at the source rather than adding EQ and filters later in the mix. Wait, that’s a second trick… I also used it at a live electronic music festival in Asheville, NC recently, where it was my only mic for adding singing bowl, shakers, wind drums, and claves into a live loop in a big reverb. What I liked was how the sound in the reverb had a distant nostalgic vibe to it that really sat back in the space. And yes, it looked really cool on stage; I got a whole lot of “Wow, what is that? It looks amazing!” from my fellow musicians and festivalgoers before my set… and more significantly, after my set, where I heard a lot of the same statements, but now with the words “it sounds amazing” at the end.
Specialty mics don’t get much more special than this! Now let’s meet the Mini… The Mini was originally conceived as a handheld harmonica mic, which it can still be thanks to an included conversion kit, but Mark decided to make it a full-on Copperphone in its own right and placed it into a vintage-style spring suspension mount that looks really cool! I leave it out on my mixing desk on a tabletop stand at all times, just because it inspires conversation.
It is smaller and shorter than its big brother and does away with the original Copperphone’s internal resonant chamber in the process. This makes it more direct-sounding, but as you will see, Mark made it even more band-limited than its larger sibling. It measures a tiny 1.75″ x 2.25″ and weighs 12 ounces; the shockmount measures 6″ x 0.75″.
It is a dynamic cardioid mic, but as mentioned, it has a 200 Hz–1.4 kHz frequency response and 150 ohm impedance. While it’s a bit more band-limited than its predecessor, it has a more modern mic element, making it more sensitive than the Copperphone was.
Phone it in:
The Copperphone Mini is a very inspiring mic, just as its big broth- er was; It truly does make you want to find uses for it. At $299.99, it is about the same price as an upper-tier dynamic mic, and while it may not be as universally useful as a Shure SM7B or a Sennheiser MD441 or an Electro-Voice RE20, it has a charm all its own. Its greatest trick is how it manages to sound vintage and lo-fi, but not crappy and cheap!
The fact that it can be dismounted from its suspension ring and can double as a harmonica mic is just icing on the cake. If you want something truly unique in your mic locker that’s as musical as it is unusual, check out the Copperphone Mini. – Written by Paul Vnuk Jr.
REVIEW IN ELECTRONIC MUSICIAN MAGAZINE (May 2015)
Among the most popular companies making band-limited mics is Placid Audio, whose products have been used by dozens of well-known engineers. The mics are housed within a copper case, built in the USA and come with a lifetime warranty.
The Copperphone ($259.99) is a moving-coil dynamic mic with a cardioid pattern and a 200Hz to 3kHz frequency response. The tuned, ported chamber is attached to a mounting bracket made from aircraft aluminum, which also allows for horizontal positioning.
Slightly smaller in size and cradled in a vintage-looking shockmount, the Copperphone Mini ($299.99) has a slightly reduced frequency range (200Hz to 1.4kHz). When removed from the shockmount, its diminutive size makes it suitable for handheld use by harmonica players.
The newest mic in the line is the Carbonphone ($399.99), which utilizes a carbon-granule capsule as the transducer and copper for the housing and parts, and includes a Hammond output transformer, an XLR jack, and an aluminum mounting bracket. The mic comes with a 9V-powered, variable-filter Tone Box to shape the timbre of the mic. Although the Carbonphone’s frequency response is stated as 500Hz to 10kHz, the Tone Box narrows it further to bring out different tonal characteristics from your sound source. The Tone Box also provides phantom power and can be used with other microphones as well. – Written by Gino Robair.
REVIEW IN RECORDING MAGAZINE (August 2008)
When we say “something different” – we mean it. When I first saw a picture of the Copperphone, I had no idea what to think other than I had to try it. In true home-brew-tinkerer fashion, Mark Pirro makes Copperphones by hand, one at a time, in his garage. And the result is stunning.
WHAT IS IT? – The Copperphone is a dynamic microphone manufactured with vintage communications components and telephone parts. This is instant lo-fi audio in the most classy and fabulous sense – just point it at your source and enjoy. The Copperphone is a piece of copper pipe with a brilliantly simple stand mount. It weighs a ton, and must be rather well damped inside. Aside from that, there is little else to know. Frequency response is limited to basically all midrange, and the polar pattern seems pretty omnidirectional, but that’s just my personal observation.
WHERE FROM? – I held my first Copperphone – a very used and abused sample, I might add – following one of the most incredible live concerts I’ve ever seen. You see, the father of the Copperphone is also the bass player for the Polyphonic Spree, a 23-member symphonic rock band of epic proportions. Spree lead singer Tim DeLaughter uses the Copperphone on certain tunes, and it was fantastic to hear the mic in a live setting. ”As the bass player for The Polyphonic Spree I have watched Tim DeLaughter, (lead) singer in the band, search sonically for the perfect nostalgic “telephone” effect for his voice,” says Mark Pirro. To fill this pretty unique niche, Mark thought it would be great to have a microphone that could create DeLaughter’s phone effect live, rather than deal with effects and switching in the live setting. And, following lots of tinkering and tweaking, the Copperphone was born.
GETTING SOUNDS – The most likely place to start was vocals. Since the voice is the most familiar of instruments to us all, you can really hear the Copperphone’s unique sound here. It is not boxy or even totally telephone-like. Instead, the limited bandwidth has a great lo-fi sound that’s not too thin. There’s enough low-mid information so the sound can really blend into a mix. Or, filtered and pushed up, it can stick out as a vintage radio effect. Over time we tried the Copperphone on everything else imaginable. Its natural compression makes it sound great as a funky drum-room mic. In concert with a more normal microphone on electric guitar, I used it to add just a bit of edge and depth. It transports you straight to the ’40s on piano, and makes stringed acoustic instruments sound especially old. I really liked the Copperphone with my Chandler Germanium rack preamp, which can sound quite thick and warm. The Chandler mellowed and fattened the Copperphone, a nice combination. Note that the Copperphone is remarkably quiet. While you get this crazy lo-fi sound, it works great on quiet sources. On the first verse of the vibey and quiet ballad, we tracked the singer’s lead vocal with the Copperphone. Sitting on top of only a pad and some string tracks, the vocal was eerie and lo-fi, with no notable noise or hiss to mar the performance.
FINAL THOUGHTS – Something about the Copperphone inspires creativity, perhaps because it just looks cool. Many musicians asked about it while up at the studios, wondering what was with this crazy mic. Gear is a tool and not the source of great music. But a cool instrument – or in this case, a cool mic – can certainly inspire creativity and the Copperphone delivers big in this department. When talking about vibe and sonic funk, the Copperphone is king. Its utility is really only limited by your creativity and commitment to experimentation. Just as I was writing this review, I realized it would be cool to try the Copperphone as a mid mic in an M/S array, with a ribbon as the side. I don’t know if it will work, but it will create an otherwise impossible sound. Yes, this is a one-trick pony, but when you need the trick, you might as well get the pony. Just be careful if you fly with it – the FBI questioned percussionist Brian Teasly after finding a “pipe bomb” in his suitcase! – Written by Justin Peacock.
REVIEW IN TAPE OP MAGAZINE (July/August 2004)
A microphone for anyone who likes outstanding build-quality, interesting sounds, and a DIY ethic, the Copperphone is hand made by Mark Pirro (The Polyphonic Spree, Tripping Daisy). It’s really cool looking; it looks like a cross between a pipe bomb and a water cannon on the front of an old fireboat. Made of polished copper pipe, the resonate chamber behind the phone element is as important as the element itself. The resonant peaks inherent to a short length of pipe translate well to Billie Holiday-esque frequency response. The mic has limited bandwidth for sure, but the end result is surprisingly pleasing. The presence this mic can lend to a multiple mic set up is amazing.
I used this mic all over a record alongside a U47 FET to capture upright bass, and the growl we got out of it was insane. On nylon-string guitar, the Copperphone sounds like it’s from another era. Not the lame “alternative” lo-fi type of sound, but truly from another era in recording, where you actually tried to get the best sound possible with limited-bandwidth equipment, rather than by filtering the crap out something recorded with a 4033 to make it sound “old”. Dean from Atomic Recording in Brooklyn borrowed one of my Copperphones, and he really dug the mid range honk this mic added to a clean, indie-rock guitar overdub. (Dean has done a ton of cool rock records, and I wanted someone who’s not a complete freak like me to check out the Copperphone).
We live in a world where big chains sell homogenised, semi-cool stuff as the new “solution” to the problems that they made up so they could sell you more of the same. The Placid Audio Copperphone transcends all that. It can stand on its own or it can complement other mics in a multi-mic set up to give your productions a fingerprint so often missing in the flavorless world of corporate recording. Contact Placid Audio. Great product by a cool person. You need to hear this mic. ($250 direct) – Written by Joel Hamilton.
REVIEW IN PRO AUDIO REVIEW MAGAZINE (June 2006)
Every once in a while (and it’s not very often) a product comes along that is so cool and unique that I’m split between telling everyone I know about it or keeping it a secret to never share with a soul. That’s the case with the Copperphone microphone. This unique little beast has become my new secret weapon.
By using components from vintage communications equipment the Copperphone microphone attains that lo-fi sound reminiscent of a telephone or AM radio. The rugged dynamic mic has a precision-machined handmade copper capsule. The mic can withstand extremely high sound pressure levels (kick drum/guitar amps) with no risk of damage to the diaphragm and it is equally adept for both studio and live settings.
The Copperphone microphone has two sonic characters. The first is smooth clean response with no clipping. In most cases I have found that this is the best response for most situations. I have had great results using the microphone in this manner to record vocals, acoustic guitar, piano, strings, and, my favorite, banjo. The second character is a static response with constant clipping. This response can be slightly harsh but in many instances it works perfectly. It is the sound I’ve typically attained with more aggressive vocals, drums and electric guitars. As a drum kit mic the Copperphone perfectly blends with the other drum mics or it can work as the sole sound for the drum kit if that crusty old-school loop sound is desired. In one instance when using the mic on the drum kit, one of the first times I used the Copperphone mic, I was running it through my Focusrite ISA-430 MkII (using only the preamp – no equalization or dynamics control) and after I soloed the Copperphone for the drummer to hear, the assistant freaked out and ran to the Focusrite to document the settings. He wanted to get the setting so he could get the same sound and he thought I had done some drastic processing but, in reality, it was just the sound of the mic. That kind of thing has happened so often that I’ve almost decided to start claiming that I’m doing something to make it sound that cool.
I have a pair of Copperphone mics that I have been using for several months now and they are simply fantastic. – Written by Russ Long.
ONLINE REVIEW ON SFRECORDING.COM (October 2007)
One of my less productive hobbies is combing EBay for mics from the 1940s – 1960s. There were so many odd-ball pieces of equipment made in those years that have such distinctive sounds. It seems like most modern mics are focused on having a hyped high end and kind of flat mids. That is all well and good, but when it comes time to get a sound with a unique vibe, modern mics seem to always kind of leave me feeling cold. That is why I was so excited to get my hands on a Copperphone from Placid Audio!
Mark at Placid hand-builds these monstrous dynamic mics when he’s not busy with the Polyphonic Spree. The rather large looking diaphragm is housed inside a copper pipe that makes the mic look quite a bit like a pipe bomb! Construction is assuredly bulky with a nice in-built pivoting clip for mounting the mic. It’s very sturdy, but the fact that it’s attached to the mic means that you have to spin the whole mic assembly just to mount it. Additionally, it has a somewhat limited degree of movement. I quickly noticed that the Copperphone is prone to mic-stand vibration, so the option to have a shock-mount would have been much appreciated.
The Copperphone is built from old style telecom components. As expected, this gives you the “telephone” vibe but there is bit more to this mic than the typical band-passed sound. The polar pattern seems to be fairly omnidirectional, which, in the context of this mic, is probably a good thing. Self-noise is surprisingly lower than I expected and the output is fairly strong, about what you’d expect from a typical dynamic. While the frequency response is obviously very limited (you get mids, and that’s about it) the mids that you do get are GREAT. The Copperphone has very pleasing, crisp, but not harsh mids that are naturally compressed. This works brilliantly for things like a doubled vocal or for something that you need to cut through a mix without “hogging” space.
The first source I used this on was a Hammond organ. The artist was hoping for a kind of “old timey” sound, but, with the Copperphone going into a Neve 2254e, we got a pretty great sound that was by no means lo-fi. In fact, in the mix, it was the best I have ever heard my M103 organ sound! It was simultaneously pleasing and disappointing to the artist and I.
Granted, the 2254e was thickening up the sound substantially, but the two together were such a nice pairing that we went for it. Next up, we used it on a trumpet track, also going into the 2254e and got a similar result. The mids were totally cutting through, as horns need to do, but without the harsh upper mids and highs that a regular condenser often gives you on a horn. This time around, the band-passed sound was more prominent, but, to be honest, I don’t think most listeners would interpret it as such. Again, an equally pleasant and disappointing surprise!
Determined to get the artist his long-coveted “old timey” sound on at least one track, we employed the Copperphone on an upright piano part alongside a Neumann KM184. The idea was that the Copperphone may not work in the context of the song, so we recorded both to separate tracks. Soloed, the Copperphone gave us a wonderful, highly authentic 1930’s/1940’s sounding piano, a perfect complement to my 1890’s upright! Smiles all round. The really interesting thing came when we listened back to a mix of the KM184 and the Copperphone. The Copperphone added some very nice mids and a resonance to the piano that was highly complementary. This made me appreciate the mic even more and has me dreaming of pairing it with ribbon mics. In this sense, the Copperphone can serve as a very unique utility mic, as well as a “special effect.”
Finally, we did a vocal take, which was the intended use of the artist for the Copperphone, and got exactly what we had hoped for. A kick ass old AM radio vocal sound that just can’t be faked with EQ or plug ins. Very nice!
At $250, where else are you going to get a hand built mic with a vintage vibe but modern sensibility? I just wish more companies would make “bold” sounding gear like the Copperphone. Cheers to the guys at Placid Audio! – Written by Colin Fairbairn.