R.A.P. Interview: Bob Heil

Bob Heil K9EID webHe’s the man behind Heil microphones, he invented the Heil Talk Box used by Peter Frampton, Joe Walsh and others. He’s an organist with a serious set of ears. He’s a ham radio operator that could probably build one from scratch if asked to. The hardest part of this interview was knowing all the things we would have to leave out unless we wrote a book on Mr. Heil. So we just focused on a few things, starting with some great stories about his early career and how it started, get his thoughts on big dollar mics and preamps, and discover what makes his microphones so special, including his PR-40 microphone tailored to broadcasting and voiceover. 

JV: Ham radio is how it all started for you, is that right?

Bob: Ham radio certainly was the beginning. In 1956 I became a licensed amateur radio operator. That's where I learned to build things and learned what was happening in the world of electronics.

JV: Was it from there that you started actually building mics and then started building them for musicians?

Bob: No. There was a lot in between there. One of the interesting parts of this is that I wasn't on the air on ham radio two weeks back in '56 when I met up with this guy on the air. I would talk to him nightly. I was also the substitute organist at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis -- a 15 year old kid at the Fox. So one time the guy I was talking to -- and you never know who you're talking to on the ham radio -- he said, “You ought to come by and see me sometime when you're up here playing.” I played eight minutes at the Fox and then we'd have to wait for about three hours while the movies ran then come back and play eight minutes more. Well, during one of those breaks, I rolled down to the address he had given me. It was KMOX Radio, and the guy was Larry Burrows, the Chief Engineer for CBS at KMOX. He took me under his wing, and behind the scenes there on the back benches I learned the color code. I learned how to solder. I learned about Greenlee punches, how we could punch a chassis and put tube sockets in it. I learned so much on the back benches of KMOX.

But congruently at that same time, I was playing the organ at the Fox. After the show would close down, we had to tune and voice that organ because it hadn't been played in years. Now where this comes into play is that is where I learned to listen, harmonically evaluating each of these 6,000 pipes. My mentor and organist there was Stan Kann. He took me under his wing because he needed somebody else to hold keys and help him voice that thing. And those two things were the basis of all of my careers really. It was something that you just can't pick up every day. You've got to have people guide you, and I was very blessed to be able to have both of those relationships going at the same time. And then it went from there.

I played for about 12 years. I had a pipe organ in a restaurant that I built there. It was a four star restaurant in St. Louis. I was there until '66.

JV: So you’re playing this organ that you built in this restaurant, learned all the stuff from Larry at KMOX, enjoying ham radio… what came next?

Bob: Well, I got tired of playing and all the nights and stuff. I opened a little music shop down in Marissa, Illinois, my home 50 miles south of St. Louis, never knowing what was about to happen. But what did happen because of my ham radio background and being able to fix things, these kids would start coming in. This is 1966, 50 years ago. These kids would come in with these amplifiers blown up -- Fenders and Gibsons and such. But I could fix them. I didn't even need a schematic. They looked just like the modulators in our ham radios, and I could fix them. Well, everybody started coming, everybody around the area, even up from Chicago, hours away -- Topeka, Indianapolis. These groups heard about this guy that could fix your stuff. Back in those days, there weren't any professional music shops. “Ye Olde Music Shop” was one of the first professional first music shops, and then it became almost national. People were coming from all over. We became a dealer for many brands.

Then I got a Hammond Organ franchise and became a Hammond Organ dealer. Amazing, but I did. I started renting B3s to the promoters in St. Louis at the Kiel Auditorium. People like Janis Joplin and Ted Nugent, they'd all come in to do their concert and I would rent them an organ.

And the sound systems were terrible. They were just little columns of six inch speakers, and they were awful. I then cranked up the ham radio in me again. Another blessing from the Fox, they were throwing out their A4 Altecs, huge speakers. These things are eight foot by four foot. I had four of them and I built this massive PA. Really it was a big Hi-Fi system, that’s how I was looking at it -- McIntosh amps and all that. And so I started using that at Kiel and the whole world opened up. The stories are immense from there.

But the final part of that is that with all of those things that I did -- many, many technologies that I brought to the industry -- we ended up as the only manufacturer in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There's a very nice display on the third floor right beside Les Paul's room -- many of these firsts that we did -- and it was all because of ham radio and my being able to listen and harmonically evaluate what was going on, whether it was a guitar player, or a theatre organ, or just anything else.

And in the middle of that, interestingly enough, along about '77 I'd been hanging around KMOX for so long that Bob Hyland put me on the other side of the microphone. Anybody in radio knows the name Robert Hyland. He was the vice president of CBS. He was the guy attributed with starting talk radio at KMOX, built a studio just for it. I'm talking a whole building full of studios that were not music, they were strictly talk radio. So he puts me on the other side of the microphone, a little thing we called Hightech Heil. They'd send me to the CES and NAB shows to see new things, and we would report back. I was on the air for 25 years at KMOX covering 44 states, and we were really involved in the broadcast side of it too. That was going on while I was still playing the organ, while I was still doing all the touring and so on.

So my life is always crazy and it still is. I've got three different things going on today. But I'm very blessed that all this has happened and I'm able to help a lot of people. And we really have changed a lot going down the pike.

At the time I thought we'd slow down, we sped up because of Joe Walsh of the Eagles, one of my great friends. He also is a ham radio operator. The James Gang was one of the first major groups that I took my PA out for. Joe and I found out after a couple of shows that we were both ham radio operators, and it changed our entire relationship and it has been there for years. Along about 2006, Joe said, “You've got to do something for me. I want you to build me a better microphone.” We had been building microphones since 1980 when I got out of the music business, building microphones for the amateur radio market. We're one of the only providers of headsets and microphones to that industry all these years. And so he says, “I'm going to use your Goldline,” which was a very popular microphone. I said, “Well, it can't be as good as your ball mic.” He said, “Oh yes it is.”

Well, he took me down in his studio and guess what, it was. But I hadn't listened. In all those years since I had left the industry, these companies were all moving to China and Mexico, and it's the quality that it was back in the ‘60s and ‘70s when I was using things. So Joe and I put our ears and our soldering irons together, and I started building a microphone for him.

Well, we applied antenna theory to the microphone. And when I say that, people say, huh? Yeah, antenna theory. So here we are, two crazy hams sitting at a kitchen table figuring it out. I go back to my plant in Illinois, and I built it. It was magnificent. Then he starts passing it around, and the next thing you know, bingo. Now we have hundreds of leading artists from Carrie Underwood to Stevie Wonder, Charlie Daniels to Keith Urban. The awards show. Practically every time I turn the TV on, I see a Heil microphone, because all the other guys are still doing the same things they did in 1960. There's new ways to do things, there's new technologies, and they aren't doing it. And it's all the big names. Now you might say, oh I've got one of these or one of those. Well, yeah, but it's just a copy because the Chinese plant they have is copying what they did in Chicago back in the really good days and it’s kind of sad.

But we were having much fun and wanted to get into the broadcast industry with the PR-40, and boy have we. I guess the epitome of that is Sirius Radio who just tossed out a bunch of their old microphones and bought 65 PR-40s. So we're very blessed my friend, all because of ham radio and playing that crazy pipe organ.

HEIL PR 40 BG webJV: I was listening to ham radio a few months back and heard a couple of guys talking about you and how one of them had sent you a wave file sample of his voice that you used to help custom make a mic for him. Is that something you do?

Bob: Yeah, I do that once in a while. But I have to tell you that there's not much custom to be done. The PR-40 is amazing, and we don't have to do much of that at all.

JV: So many people in the voiceover business seem to gravitate to the Sennheiser MKH 416 shotgun mic. Why do you think that is such a hot mic?

Bob: I don't.

JV: Well, why do you think they think it is?

Bob: Two reasons people use microphones today: habit and ego. “I have a shotgun microphone.” They don't listen. People don't listen. I get so upset. They don't harmonically listen. They just hear. Listening is a mental concept. You would think they would know how to listen, but they don't. Oh, I have this brand or I have that brand. “…and they’re not moving boy, I've had it for 30 years.” Until they sit in front of a PR-40. It's like whoa, what just happened here.

One of the things that we have done to that microphone is, we applied this antenna theory. What do I mean by that? What I mean is that in antennas, if we build an antenna, and I'm here in the middle of the country, if we point it to New York, I don't hear anybody from California. That's done with an out of phase element that's behind the driven element on that beam.

We turn the antenna around to California, I don't hear New York. Joe said to me when we were at that kitchen table, “Hey, remember that big antenna you got? You turn it around, I don't hear you. Do that to my microphone.” So I did. It's all about phasing.

Have you ever heard any of these large companies talk about phase coherence? No. Why? I don't know. I don't understand. They got four little holes around the side to pick up the rear and side rejections. That's not enough. So we came up with a deal. Joe says to me, “You know, the bigger things are the better they are,” as he's standing beside one of his seven foot transmitters. He loves to go to broadcast stations when they toss out their big old transmitters. He restores them and puts them on the ham radio bands. It was kind of funny... He's standing beside one of these Collins transmitters and said, “You know, the bigger things are the better. Make it a big microphone.”

I was in contact all during my touring days with a couple of really good top engineers for a microphone company. I called one of them and I asked him if he’d ever played with large diaphragms? He said, “Yeah, but we can't make them work.” Well, we figured out how to do it -- a ham radio guy, not a million dollar studio, not any kind of a research lab, not any of that. It was at the kitchen table where we figured out how to do it. We did it, and it works. It has a response from around 25, 28 cycles out to around 18k, and it has this beautiful midrange that I learned from ham radio. Paul Klipsch pointed it out to me. I became a mentor of Paul Klipsch. That's another story for a whole day. He was the father of Hi-Fi, the folded horn. Klipsch speakers. Amazing guy. So he comes to see me one day. He couldn't figure out why anybody would build a 20,000 watt PA because he was an efficiency guy. We became really good friends, and he would mentor me down in Hope, Arkansas where his plant still is. But I learned about phasing. I learned about the studies of Bell Labs back in the late ‘20s and ‘30s. How your voice works. How your ears work. What they must hear to understand the difference of an S and an F, a P and a B. All those articulate syllables, what frequency are they. These microphone companies are not paying attention to that. “Oh well, you fix it with the EQ.” No. I want to plug it into a port and I don't want to EQ it. Charlie Daniels has 35 Heil microphones on his stage, no EQ. Carrie Underwood has about 30 of them on her stage, no EQ. And when I tell people that they say, “Well that's not possible.” It certainly is.

JV: So there's no EQ at the mixer?

Bob: No. You don't need it. I've already tailored the microphone to do the articulation. It's all you need. It all starts at the microphone.

JV: Are you trying to achieve a flat response?

Bob: Oh, no, no, no. Your ears certainly aren't flat. You know about the Fletcher-Munson curve?

JV: It basically shows that you hear different frequencies at different levels, right?

Bob: Absolutely. Look at that curve. Does that look like your ears are flat? Your ears are not flat. No one human has flat response. And why they build flat microphones to me I'll never understand. Well, you can't get crazy, but there are certain frequencies you need to pay attention to, and that's what we've done, and that's how we woke up the industry. It's like whoa, this thing really sounds good.

JV: So you used the laws of the Fletcher-Munson curves to basically tailor the microphones to how we hear?

Bob: Absolutely. Paul Klipsch taught me that.

JV: That's brilliant. No EQ. So your advice to Sirius/XM is, here, plug these things into your studio and don't EQ them.

Bob: That's right. You might have to adjust to minor things here and there, but overall, no. A lot of guys that have a lot of response in the low end, they sometimes might want to roll that off a tad. But basically no, because that's going to take away the richness, the naturalness of their voice.

JV: EQ if you want a special effect, but otherwise, no.

Bob: Exactly.

JV: So let me ask you this: Many of the same people in VO that buy these shotgun mics, for ego or whatever, will pair it up with one of these $3,000, $4,000 mic pre-amps. What's your take on those things?

Bob: Same answer. You can't go out and buy a Radio Shack thing, but my gosh, you don't have to spend that kind of money. That's silly. You know what I use for a pre-amp? I've been using it for years, and I still do and I still think it's one of the great ones. It’s a Symetrix 528e.

JV: I love them. I have a 628.

Bob: And I also have a Presonus, which is a copy of the 528e, and it has a 12AX7 tube pre-amp. I use one of those too. Basically they're both the same. But yeah, if you want to use a bit of compression and some limiting, which you need in broadcasting sometimes, that works great and you're there.

But one of the biggest deals about our microphones that blows everybody away is the rear rejection. That's kind of why they're using the shotgun because it has the best rejection. But it's still not good enough. In doing that, the audio that you're looking for from the front of it, it gets tailored a little bit. I call it tainted. I don't like it. It's not natural. But they give that up for the rear rejection that they get with that shotgun effect. All of that is for naught. The PR-40 has a Heil pattern. I hate a cardioid. Why do we want cardioid? It's got the spike out the back, and I don't want anything out the back. Why are we in love with cardioid? Because we've been forced at it for a hundred years and we're not changing. It's what it says and it's what it is and its hot dog, that's it.

No, it's not. We changed that. We have a Heil pattern. What do I mean by that? It's omni on the front. Any other microphone, and you know this, you've got to stay right in front of it. You start moving around the side, and you're gone, or you certainly will change the texture. But you can take any Heil… the PR-35, which Carrie uses, Charlie, Stevie, it's the best vocal microphone ever. And that's not me talking, that's hundreds of front of the house engineers. The PR-30 has an omni pattern on the front. They can move around 180 degrees all around the front and it doesn't change. They love it because the artist doesn't have to be stuck with that stupid ball up their nose.


JV: I know a lot of people will talk sideways, across a mic to avoid plosives.

Bob: Well, you can do that with this one and it won't change the response. But here's where it gets good. The minute you get behind my phasing plug, the rear rejection of our microphones is 40 dB down. It's gone. Blows away any shotgun, any whatever you want to bring to it. Nobody has ever done that. And it's really kind of fun when we go to the NAMM shows and NAB shows. I get all these people, they come over to hear and see what we're doing, because they hear about me raving and ranting about some of the junk that's been out there for years. And when they pick up a PR-40, or a 35, or a 30 and they do that test I just told you, it's omni on the front and they turn it around back and there's nothing. They go away with their tail underneath them because dammit, he's right.

All you have to do is apply the science. And how did I do it? Remember the story I told you about Joe. I put my antenna theory in his microphone. It's phasing. That's how we do it. Everybody out there, they have four little holes around the side of the element. And that's what they use to capture the rear and the side response. And that's out of phase because it's on the back side of the diaphragm. We did it differently. I open up the whole bottom of the element, the whole bottom, 360 degrees, and it sits on a little collection tube about three inches high inside the microphone of the PR-40, the PR-30. And all of these responses from the side, 360 degrees from the rear, all around, they come flowing up this collection tube into the bottom of that element, and we get this incredible rejection.

JV: What advice would you have to offer in the way of studio monitors for us radio types in the production rooms, about selection or positioning?

Bob: Well, that's really is kind of personal. Everybody's ear canal is different when it comes to that. I have always been, my whole life, a JBL freak. I love JBL. And I really, really like Klipsch. Their stuff is great. But it's kind of sad in these days that the honest to goodness Klipsch stuff is still offshore. But some of it is still built in Hope, so you have to be careful there. He invented Hi-Fi. He brought the Hi-Fi market around himself. And his corner horn, oh my gosh, he had a beautiful speaker, absolutely free of any phase issues. He was a nut for out of phase signals because signals out of phase cause cancellation. He was amazing.

Heil Logo purple webJV: What resources would you recommend for people who want to learn about sound, things that would help them with recording the voice and mixing it with music and sound effects.

Bob: I don't have any one thing that would help. You just have to understand the science of it. Go back and study some of the early Bell Lab studies. It's easy to do today with Google. And especially study how our ears work, what frequencies we need for great articulation. You never hear that word. I never, ever have heard the word articulation coming up in the industry. I say it about every paragraph in any of my stuff. Articulation is it, being able to articulate the frequencies that you need to understand the spoken word. I guess I learned a lot of that from all of the things we did in amateur radio. And not only amateur radio, but a lot of our headsets and microphones go into ambulances and places where they really need the spoken word to be perfect. They're not so much on the quality there, but they are the spoken word. The difference of an F and an S, a P and a B. What did you say? They don't have time to repeat it. It's somebody's life, so they need to hit it the first time. And that's why Heil Sound became very, very popular in all of the communication stuff there, ham radio especially -- all these storm chasers and people like that that relay messages to the troops overseas. It's a noisy environment that we're in with ham radio.

When you take a ball microphone compared to our PR-35, it's like driving a Model A and then putting yourself into a new BMW. It's like night and day, just unbelievable that nobody has ever done this before. But they don't care. They're run by second and third generations. The great Electro-Voice was started by Al Kahn. Al was an amateur radio operator. He was a magnificent guy. I guess you could call him an engineer. I think he had an engineering degree from Purdue. But that isn't it. The degree doesn't mean a thing to you. The ham radio really does because we know how to build. We are not afraid to try things. Engineers are like… “Well, let's see now, we have XRZ over 24 minus 22.” That won't work. A ham radio operator will take a bunch of resistors or whatever and a soldering iron, and if it don't work we'll change it this way or that way and we will get it to work. But that was lost. Al Kahn passed away and Electro-Voice was sold to a washing machine company, Bosch. It's no wonder Sirius tossed them all out and bought 65 PR-40s from Heil Sound that are assembled in southern Illinois.

JV: I didn’t know Sirius/XM had done that. Are you getting into more and more radio studios?

Bob: We're at hundreds of radio stations. You probably know who Tom Joyner is. We have a custom division in our plant in Illinois. We have a guy who does custom cars at top level. He was just on the front page of Hot Rod Magazine with one of the cars he did for a guy. He's an incredible artist in paint. We do all kinds of things. When Carrie Underwood goes out we finish her microphone, her PR-35. We finish it to match some of her dresses and stuff like that.

Anyway, Tom loved the PR-40. His engineer, who is a ham, came in one day after the show. It was in the afternoon and he brought his PR-40 from his house. He wanted to see what this sounded like next to this RE thing. So he plugged it in and it's like wow. Well, what happened was, here comes Tom. Tom never comes in in the afternoon. I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “Oh, I'm just checking this microphone. Let me hear it.” He says, “Oh my gosh, we got to have some of these.” The next day they bought about six of them. Tom's got this new studio. It's very contemporary, beautiful colors and all that. He said, “boy, I'd sure like to have one of these in red.” So his is red with gold panels. It's really beautiful. That's what we do.

Charlie Daniels has an American flag on his PR-35. We also do others in camo for him when he goes and plays for the troops. That was another study. He's been using an SM58 all of his life. One day about eight years ago, his front of the house guy had a PR-35 that somebody had on their console. He picked it up and listened to it during the sound check. He said, “My gosh, I've never heard anything like this.” He did something that a sound engineer should never do. He was so enthused with this sound, he goes up and puts it on Charlie's mic stand for the concert that night and didn't tell Charlie. Bob Workman is his name. He said all night it was just gorgeous. “I just couldn't believe how much better it was than his ball microphone that we'd been using forever.” He said at the end of the show, the last cymbal was still ringing, and he gets this call on his handi-talki, “Bob Workman to Charlie's bus immediately”. He said that was the longest walk he’d ever made. He walked into Charlie's bus and Charlie said, “Son, what'd you do to my microphone tonight?” Bob said he had this whole thing he started to tell him and Charlie said, “I don't care. I've never heard myself in all of my years this good. Go get some. I want them on the stage tomorrow.” The next night there were 30 Heil microphones on his stage and he's never looked back.

I could be here all day telling you story after story of group after group after group, radio station after radio station. And all you have to do is listen and you'll see what I'm talking about -- no, you're going to hear what I'm talking about. It's all about large diaphragm, dynamics. I was put on this earth to get rid of condensers. Condenser microphones are a scourge. They're too sensitive. They pick up the whole room. You’ve got to have that stupid phantom power. And last but not least, every single one of them, no matter what they cost, have this crap on the top. They have this rasping top end -- every one of them. Are people not listening? No, they think it's cool because it's a condenser.

Well, I got something that'll blow it away, and it's called a PR-30. It's a PR-40, but I roll the last octave off. We're using it to record symphonies. We use it for everything. It is the best Steinway piano microphone ever. And they're all large diaphragm dynamics.

What can I tell you from there? You've got to listen. You've got to hear it because you're not believing it. You're sitting here saying, yeah, right, right. I'm telling you it's all new technology that none of these old companies have done. They've just copied their grandpa and they haven't done a damn thing new. Go check it out. See what they've done new. Nothing. Just copied it. Maybe they put it in a different case, painted it a different color. We're after technology moves, and we sure made one.

JV: And your prices are pretty reasonable too.

Bob: That's because we don't advertise. We don't spend millions of dollars to tell you this is the greatest microphone. My wife owns the company. We have a great foundation in amateur radio since 1980. I mean we are the leaders in audio in amateur radio. It's a very small market. Shure left it. Sennheiser left it. Electro-Voice left it. They all left it because it was very small. We picked it up and ran with it, and so we have this foundation. We can pay our bills. We're happy. And when we started doing all the pro microphones around 2006 or so, well that’s all on top of the foundation.

I could spend millions of dollars to try to convince anybody, an artist, a voiceover, a radio engineer… it's not going to happen. What happens? They take their stupid whatever they're using, plug in a PR-40 and go whoa, what just happened here, and throw their other one away. That's how we have garnered our business on the pro side, strictly word of mouth and social media. We have three people on our social media team. It's amazing what happens there. But it's all people. People tell you, you’ve got to get this microphone. You've got to listen to this. And once you listen to it… oh buddy. That's how we've grown our business on the pro side.

Bob welcomes your correspondence at bob@heilsound.com. Visit www.heilsound.com for more about Heil Sound and Bob’s mics.

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