blown away

Posted by on Jun 13, 2015 in audio, blog, performance, personal, tools | No Comments
blown away

…in which I try out the “Ultimate 545.”

“Vintage” is an odd adjective, no longer just the year of a wine pressing, but the quality of an old thing, purported by age to be somehow valuable. This value inheres typically to things organic, be they edible or playable. Vintage musical instruments are much sought-after, and the wooden ones do get better with age—and, I suspect more importantly, with use. But electronic instruments exist at the more ephemeral end of the spectrum—well, maybe not more ephemeral than wine, but at least as tetchy as pianos—and tend to be valued more for what they were back in the day than what they sound like now. (Of course, every rule has exceptions, but it takes an enthusaist to rebuild vintage speakers, cabs, and amps from the toroidal magnets up. Does one still have time to play?) So I surprised myself recently by buying an old, new thing, and it’s a lot of fun.

Greg Heumann has a shop up in Geyserville, California, about twenty minutes north of Santa Rosa on the 101. (If you take I-5 north towards Oregon, some days the only cloud in the sky to the west will be a puff from one of the geysers. You can think of Greg when you see this.) His business, BlowsMeAway Productions, turns out some of the most gorgeous blues microphones you could want. In fact, if you yearn for a custom wooden blues mic, his website speaks eloquently enough for itself. I won’t try to do more than direct you there. It’s his only advertisement, as far as I know: a man after my own heart.

I forget who first referred me to Greg’s website years ago, but I’ve been flirting with it ever since. These days I only play for fun, so there hasn’t been any urgency, just the usual yearning for a better sound. I’ve gone through a lot of harps, slowly upgrading over the years from the ever-inflating Hohner BluesBand harps I used to buy for the price of a vinyl LP back in the ’70s—and still the standard, though some of us blow them out way too fast—to Lee Oskar and Bushman Delta Frost. I like phosphor bronze, and these days I don’t ruin a harp every night I play, so it’s finally gotten to be only about the sound; but if I don’t sound good, I don’t tend to play. And there’s a lot of physical effort involved in using your lungs like an accordion bellows, so it’s even hard work to practice. Greg’s approach promised better sound and less effort from gorgeous, handmade gear….

Shure mics for harp players

Shure dynamic microphones, left to right, in roughly descending order of hand-held aggravation:

  • Shure 520DX @ 26 oz including cord. This is a modern reboot, not vintage. The pinky ring I added from a small electric shaver, just to help keep me from dropping the mic.
  • Shure SM57 @ 10.0 oz, stock. Hard to grip, with a hefty metal body and a long lever arm.
  • Shure SM58 10.5 oz, stock. You don’t notice that extra half ounce, and the ball is easier to cup.
  • Shure 545 Unidyne “Ultimate” upgrade ~8.7 oz. Lighter, better balance, sweet sound.

This past Sunday, I finally followed the instructions on the website and sent an email. Greg answered that afternoon and by evening we’d agreed on the specs:

  • Ultimate 545, low-impedance output with XLR connector
  • Aluminum knob, 2 degree taper with top indicator
  • “Bulletizer” shell for better cup grip
  • Drum roll…
  • Upgrade to vintage 545 element and transformer

The vintage upgrade was Greg’s suggestion after listening to recordings I had online. That’s an extra charge to use an old Unidyne III 545 or PE54 “element”—the dark heart of the microphone itself, composition still shielded in industrial secrecy—harvested from a vintage mic. Mine even has some dark stains on the grille, as though someone sang through it for forty years while chewing tobacco; rode hard, put away wet Saturday, and back out next Friday night. Nestled right against Greg’s brand new, signature red anodized, aluminum body with the all-important volume control. An old, new thing.

It sounds…fantastic. My true music critic Becky called the sound “rich and creamy.” Money well spent. Thanks, Greg!