On a recent Friday evening, long after most workers had gone home, there were barely any parking spaces available outside a quiet South Windsor office complex.
Musicians, media-types and fans lined up outside the headquarters of Telefunken-Elektroakustik, a manufacturer of microphones and recording equipment, for a private show by indie-rock band Bronze Radio Return.
Telefunken is not a concert venue. It's a spot where some of the industry's most popular microphones, ranging in price from $250 to $9,000, are built, tested and marketed.
On this night, however, it felt like a rock club. Rounding a corner from the reception area, 150 guests in questionable holiday sweaters (the party's theme), entered an airy warehouse, where Telefunken's 100-year-old logo was projected on the side wall. A disco ball hung above the dance floor, and kegs of Killian's Red lined the bar at one end of the room.
"We work hard here all day," Alan Veniscofsky, Telefunken's director of operations and the evening's de facto emcee, said. "At night, we like to turn the lights down and party."
Veniscofsky introduced local duo VIOLENT MAE, who played a short, mesmerizing set. Bronze Radio Return, a Hartford-based band, then entered and picked up acoustic instruments, which partially hid their colorful sweaters. The sound, as expected, was spectacular.
The concept behind the room, Veniscofsky said, is a practical one. Lined with tech benches during the day, the warehouse is home to Telefunken's team of full-time technicians, who build microphones from 9 to 5. A few nights a year, they turn the space over to working musicians — local bands and a number of national touring acts — who'll stop by and test-drive the products.
"We are trying to model [the space] after any old soundstage, with a modern twist," Veniscofsky said. "It's not like we're building microphones in a regular warehouse. The minute a microphone is done, we're testing it out. We have to."
Before it was Telefunken, owner Toni Fishman built microphones in his Simsbury, home studio, acquiring the rights to the Telefunken name and logo in 2000. By 2009, Fishman had established a global partnership with the original license-holders in Frankfurt, Germany, who had stopped producing microphones in the early 1980s.
Veniscofsky, 35, a musician and graduate of the Hartt School's music production program, came on board in 2002. "They had only sold two mics," he said. "I've been a part of every single microphone sale ever since."
Telefunken now moves around 175 $9,000-level mics a year, Veniscofsky said, mostly to high-end recording studios, engineers and producers, "the Macklemore and Lewis's and Steely Dans" of the world. Modestly priced R-F-T models sell for between $1,000-$2,000, with 700 or so shipped annually to Guitar Center, Sam Ash and other big-box music retailers, and five times as many dynamic mics, which cost between $250-$300, leave the warehouse. Annual sales top $2 million, Veniscofsky estimated.
Over the past several months, visitors to the South Windsor studio have included members of Soulive, the Trey Anastasio Band and Leftover Salmon — mostly jambands — and also a few hip-hop artists. The Bronze Radio Return show, Veniscofsky said, "was done in the name of research and development. It gave everyone who works here a chance to hear the mics right in the environment where they're made."
It's All About The Sound
Connecticut is home to several well-respected microphone brands, including Sennheiser USA, whose headquarters are located in Old Lyme. Telefunken moved to the South Windsor location in 2002. At first, Telefunken rebuilt mics from the 1940s through 1960s, then focused on creating a more affordable line using old technology — vacuum tubes, and so on — popularized during that same period, before turning out a series of dynamic microphones without complicated electronics, for use on stage. "The mission statement at the beginning was to not cut any corners or spare any expense," Veniscofsky said.
Their in-house research and development team now produces a new microphone or related product every 90 days and what Veniscofsky calls a "huge project" once a year. Telefunken also handles a large volume of historic renovation projects for artists like Peter Gabriel, Norah Jones, the Beach Boys and Cyndi Lauper. "The same way there's a guy who collects vintage cars," Veniscofsky said, "there's a market for vintage recording gear. It's some of the most sought-after audio equipment in the world." Replacement parts for original Telefunken microphones, he said, don't exist anywhere in the world; they have to be built.
"A connector pin, anything that would have broken over time, when Ray Charles dropped his U47 or Keith Richards blew too much smoke into his. We replate, we remove dents… Those mics are expensive… You can sell a historic microphone for over $10,000. Someone like James Taylor might invest $25,000 in the same mic he used to record with David Crosby, for example. He knows what it sounds like and he wants that sound. Those are the kinds of people we do restorations for."
Successful artists will approach Telefunken to buy or use some microphones, Veniscofsky said, which starts an internal conversation about it's worth to the company in terms of market share. Other artists, who might be touring close to Hartford on a weeknight and need something to do, are invited in to record. "We'll invite them to come in and cut a handful of tunes," Veniscofsky said. "We'll give them some microphones to take on the road with them. They become ambassadors for our brand. They show off our products for us. It starts a chain reaction."
"We are not zoned to be a club, nor do we want to compete with any of our friends," Veniscofsky said. "We don't want to become a venue. We don't want to sell alcohol."
Telefunken is also an active recording studio, one that charges market rates for studio time, using their mics and a backline of high-end equipment. Bronze Radio Return, Veniscofsky said, paid a nominal studio fee "to turn the lights on," and door proceeds ($20 a head) went to pay for beer, wine and pizza, "things that aren't usually here."
There's also a hidden cost — slower production — for the days surrounding an in-studio event. "Our production comes to a slight standstill, which results in more back orders or missed shipments," Veniscofsky said. "Right now we are focused on the production of our microphones. That's what pays the bills."
Recently, Telefunken reached a deal with Steely Dan for the use of microphones on the road. Their mics are used by Jane's Addiction, Phish, the Beach Boys, Snoop Dogg and younger indie bands like Passion Pit. And while average music fans might not think much about what kinds of microphones are used to create the music they love, Veniscofsky knows better.
"The microphone is absolutely the first thing in line between the talent and the audience," Veniscofsky said. "The game is won with capsules in a microphone and speaker cabinets. They are the first and last things in your audio path, and the most important."
*Correction: This article originally identified Bronze Radio Return as a Brooklyn-based band. One member of the band lives in Brooklyn. The band claims Hartford as its hometown.
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