Making Microphones: Touring the DPA Microphones Factory
With an incredible heritage of innovation and an ethos built on audio clarity, DPA Microphones craft professional standard mics for the music and entertainment industries. We pay a visit to their Copenhagen-based factory and HQ to learn more about DPA… In the pages of MusicTech we’ve looked at a wide assortment of music-making accessories, gear […]
With an incredible heritage of innovation and an ethos built on audio clarity, DPA Microphones craft professional standard mics for the music and entertainment industries. We pay a visit to their Copenhagen-based factory and HQ to learn more about DPA…
In the pages of MusicTech we’ve looked at a wide assortment of music-making accessories, gear and hardware in-depth, and, as a matter of course, pore over aspects such as build quality, size and the comparative merits of the various products.
It’s pretty rare though that we actually spend time witnessing the physical production process of music technology take place. It’s fitting then that our first visit to a factory (in a while!) should be with DPA Microphones: the providers of some of the smallest and most critically acclaimed microphones in professional usage. Their audio clarity stems from an ethos that everyone should experience ‘good sound’.
DPA originated back in 1992, when two employees at the sound and vibration measurement company Brüel & Kjær, Ole Brøsted Sørensen and Morten Støve, left the company to found ‘Danish Pro Audio’, transforming the technical ideas fostered at their former place of work into incredibly accurate and clear pro-audio microphones, including the well-regarded 4060 omni.
DPA’s current CEO Kalle Hvidt Nielsen tells us that the truth of the matter is a little more complex than that though: “DPA was indeed founded 26 years ago, but actually the ideas started back in the 70s,” Kalle tells us.
“Brüel & Kjær made a test on Denmark Radio (the national broadcaster here) and broadcast a music scene with measurement microphones which was very successful. This inspired B&K to start a small department to develop pro audio microphones, but this department was never a big focus for the organisation.
“A couple of key members of the group asked if they could start their own business – B&K went out of that business but continued to manufacture the product. So initially DPA were selling B&K products.”
René Mørch, DPA’s Product Manager, tells us more about the company’s fascinating history: “We actually used the B&K name for a number of years before we found a partner, called Muphone, who specialised in making miniature microphones, for hearing aids.”
Collaborating with Danish hearing aid manufacturer Muphone yielded DPA their smallest capsule to date, while losing none of the sound quality. The idea to do this was initiated by the needs of some musical titans:
“What really kickstarted us making the smaller microphones was the guys from ABBA, Benny and Björn,” René admits. “When ABBA stopped in the early 80s, they started to go into the musical industry, making all of these different musicals for the stage.
“They were using miniature microphones from one of our colleagues in the industry, and they didn’t sound all that great. They knew they’d have to have something that was small, but with a better sound. Our Swedish distributors asked if we could miniaturise our larger capsules. We’ve always been solving problems for artists.”
Kalle tells us that, “the collaboration with Muphone really helped the company take off, back in around 1995, but this relationship came to a conclusion in 2005 when the two merged. Since then we’ve been the DPA you see today, with a broad focus on microphones – of course we’re particularly strong with high-quality miniature microphones.”
Live performers the world over had found a new industry standard through the newly merged company. “With the capabilities of the R&D team here, and their knowledge, we managed to make a perfect miniature microphone – I’d say the best miniature microphone ever made: the 4060. That really kickstarted the whole thing,” Kalle says.
Choose your weapon
DPA Microphones has subsequently expanded its range to cover lavalier mics (the d:screet ™ line which includes the aforementioned tiny 4060, the 4080 cardioid microphone and the 4160 slim omni), the d:fine ™ head and earsets, pencil mics for instrument recording (the d:dicate ™ series which includes 4006 and 4007 omni mics, the 2006 twin diaphragm and many more).
DPA also have the d:sign gooseneck microphone series and the d:facto ™ handheld mics (with the flagship 4018V Supercardioid claiming to bring true studio sound to the live stage), and, of course, a range of d:vote ™ 4099 instrument mics. Their patented CORE by DPA technology is a dynamic range increasing amplifier technology that lives within its line of miniature lavalier and headset microphones, and minimises distortion.
René tells us that DPA, “try to afford equal balance to all the sectors we cover – live performance, broadcast, recording, film etc. But of course we cannot focus really deeply on them all at the same time, and many of our products are usable by various different sectors. The film and theatre industries can utilise the same microphones. We make roadmaps and plans for each sector to best solve current problems and develop solutions.”
Kalle says that, “it’s not like we deliberately give certain sections a bigger focus, we try and think of new ways that our bespoke CORE technology can be applied. With the first d:vote mic around ten years ago we realised that it was quite unique to get such a high quality sound out of a microphone that could be mounted.
“We made a great deal of progress developing mounts that enable you to mount the microphones on basically any instrument you want. Where we find areas where we think we can improve, we’ll work in it – but to be honest we don’t have a general strategic focus on sectors. We’re solutions-driven.”
Kalle goes on to say that, “sometimes when we have a new idea, we’ll brainstorm questions like ’who will use this?’ and we’ll invite people into workshops. We’re trying to understand how these microphones will be used out there in the professional world.”
Under the Mic-roscope
Kalle tells us that one of DPA’s core motivations, especially from a live sound perspective is to eliminate the distance an audience feels from the artist:
“When you have an artist, doing a performance in one area, and the audience is in another – there’s always some distance. We want to remove that barrier, and we do that by making the perfect microphones. Ultimately it sounds like you’re standing next to the artist. Our motto of ‘Get Closer’ to us means – get closer to the natural sound.”
Before long, we’re given a guided tour of DPA’s extraordinary factory close to Copenhagen in Denmark, where close to 100 people work daily – and largely by hand – on various parts of the production process. Though we can’t detail the exact crafting techniques explicitly, what we can say is that the smaller microphones require heavy usage of a microscope to see the intricate circuitry clearly – and to work on an amazingly tiny level.
“DPA have close to 200 employees overall, though there’s only the one factory,” Kalle tells us. “That’s for efficiency purposes and because the process is so delicate, particularly with the small mics. If we spread factories around then we could maybe obtain some labour cost efficiency, but the complexity of running it – and the level of dedication required – is best served by having the factory in just one place.”
The building process requires around 200 individual steps, and each microphone will be calibrated up to 15 times before final sign-off. The narrow tolerances of the microphones are there to ensure that
there will be no discernible difference in sound when utilising more than one DPA microphone.
Finn Mortensen is Production Line Manager at the factory, and tells us that, “there are only day shifts here, no night shifts. It’s basically unskilled labour we use, but of course they’re highly skilled when it comes to making our microphones. It takes a long time to train and educate them to make the best mics possible. Ninety percent of the process of building a 5mm microphone is done under a microscope. Metal work and moulding we get done elsewhere.
All those parts are made for us out of house, but we do the microphone itself and all the assembly here. Every hour the (all-female) workforce take a three-to-five-minute excercise break, on top of their regular breaks, of course. It’s a challenge because we cannot move them around too much, what they do is very specialised. It’s a big challenge, but of course that comes with the territory.”
d:facto ™ 4018 Supercardioid Mic
Predominantly used for live performance, DPA’s d:facto ™ 4018 microphone boasts an extraordinarily natural sound while also having perfectly uniform supercardioid directionality. It has high separation and a sleek design and can be purchase in wired or wireless form. The 4018’s modular nature allows you to change the capsule as well as the adapator, making it a very flexible mic.
d:dicate ™ 4006 Omni Mic
Designed for transparent recording situations, the 4006 Omni offers acoustic authenticity and a detailed, natural reproduction of sound. Typically it also has a great deal of modular flexibility. DPA say that this microphone is excellent for concert halls and also for miking acoustic instruments such as guitar, violin and cello. The 4006’s dynamic range goes up to 124dB and is extremely accurate.
d:dicate ™ 2006 Twin Diaphragm Omni Mic
With a pre-polarized, twin diaphragm, omni mic capsule at their heart, these mics provide well-balanced, accurate sound as well as low distortion and large frequency bandwidth. The 2006 bridges the gap between the supreme sound quality of the d:dicate ™ recording microphone series and the smaller d:screet miniature microphone series Two different preamps exist for it.
d:dicate ™ Omni Mic 4090 P48
These omnidirectional condensers provide a uniquely natural and open sound, perfectly suited for instrument miking in both stage and studio. Due to their astonishingly linear frequency response, these are often a go-to for tuning and testing purposes too. The 4090’s 134dB SPL handling can be used on pretty much any instrument. The design features a 5.4mm condenser capsule and a tapered edge.
d:vote ™ 4099 Instrument Mic
Utilising DPA’s remarkable CORE technology, these small supercardioid condensers can handle high SPLs and are a breeze to mount on any instrument, which is beneficial for mobility on stage and in studio. DPA claim that this one microphone model can ‘reinforce an entire orchestra’. These mics have a lightweight design which marries the versatile gooseneck, this allows both stability and manoeuvrability.
René says that, “the pros of working on such a microscopic level is that ultimately our end users can take advantage of the tiny size, while still having incredible clarity of audio. It is of course quite difficult to do it right, and build the mics to accommodate those very narrow tolerances that we prefer to give our customers.
“Again this is a core value: you can take one DPA microphone and another and try them both in sequence and they’ll sound totally the same. This is pretty remarkable considering their size! The female workforce building the microphones have to do it using a microscope which is pretty tricky.
“We have a rotating system so our workers aren’t doing the same task for many hours, so they’re all trained to do various parts of the production process in the factory.”
R&D is vital to what DPA do, Ole Moesmann, DPA’s R&D Manager, tells us that, “our microphones are balancing on the edge of what is possible – so it’d be very difficult to have a machine doing that. Some of the older processes are not all that difficult to do by hand, we have human beings trying to operate as close to the edges of the tiny circuit boards as possible without ruining them.
“It’s how we’ve done it for many years and it works quite well. There’ll be around ten people working on any one microphone, maybe slightly more – because we have many processes. One step could be around ten processes, and one person will do many different things at each stage.”
Kalle admits that, “the thought of ‘when does it makes sense to automate’ often comes into our heads, but one of the things to remember is that we pride ourselves on our quality, and so if we were making a bigger volume of microphones, then of course it’d be more beneficial to automate, but we would lose some of that finesse.
“Throughout the production process we have to do a number of tests and adjustments to make sure the tolerances are narrow, which is physically difficult to get right. This is why we have so many hands involved, and this is really what’s required to meet the level of quality. That’s why we use our very dedicated workforce.”
DPA have subsequently managed to insulate and protect their microphones against many challenges, environmental and otherwise – though one persistent problem remains.
“One of the biggest challenges, particularly with mics in a live theatre context, is human sweat!” Kalle says. “it’s a massive risk to the mic so we’re trying to protect against that.”
From a music production standpoint, DPA have recently released the d:vice ™ MMA-A audio interface, a remarkably small piece of kit that allows for superb, mobile audio for sound recordists, music-makers and journalists on the go. The pocket-sized d:vice features dual-channel audio capture at a resolution of 24 bit, weighs 50 grams and is 56mm in diameter. DPA claim that it delivers ‘flawless mobile audio’.
Accompanying the d:vice ™ MMA-A is a simple-to-use, proprietary app.
“The d:vice ™ MMA-A is incredible, and I’m keen to develop more accessories like that.” Kalle says. “We have a map of products that we want to make but in the background of that we’re keen to develop and master new technologies too. If you want to master a new technology it’s an extra investment the first time you do it. The digital technology involved with the d:vice – which had a bespoke app alongside the physical interface – we’ll want to add to this new digital platform in the future.”
Kalle goes on to say that, “we’re looking more at digital. Software and hardware is really starting to merge together across the entire music world right now, so the key thing for me is that we’ll still be fundamentally focused on the microphone, but we will of course develop on the platform we have made, to better our products.”
“An exciting new thing is that our microphones are now finding themselves being used in contexts we thought we’d never go into.” René tells us. “Our mics are used by cultures who have different flavours of instruments than we have in the western world, and they are now asking for holders to clip on to their specific instruments – so that’s a challenge that of course we’re looking at.
“Doing the full set up on a large live show is always our goal – to cover it all. If you hear a band playing with just DPA mics, on a good PA system, it’s truly amazing. Because the off-axis response is so equal, it’s really something. This is why our mics were used for major events such as the Glastonbury Festival and The Eurovision Song Contest.”
Ole tells us that, “it’s a management decision where to go next, particularly product management which is René’s call. We have an internal innovation team which looks into what current trends are, what the needs of the various sectors are. I’m a part of that team. We broadly plan ideas that we’d like to see happen, and also take in requests and feedback from the industry. We also get a lot of constructive input from our customers.
The CORE technology is a very good example. There’s a lot of things going on in many different sectors that heavily involves the microphone industry.” Ole tells us that, “more and more developments are required to keep ahead of the curve, and we are aware of that. It’s veryinteresting to see what’s happening out there.”
DPA’s outlook towards the role their products will take in the future is a positive one “I think the whole change we’ve seen in the music industry – from physical records to streaming – has increased the appeal of live performance,” Kalle says to us. “Artists want the freedom to move more and more on stage and subsequently their performances need to be bigger and more dynamic. So yes, we hope we can play a large role in helping artists achieve this.”
it’s pretty clear to us that whatever the future holds for the music industry and for live performance you can guarantee that DPA will continue to stand at the forefront of microphone technology.
Find out more about DPA Microphones by heading to their website at www.dpamicrophones.com, and check out our review of the d:vice ™ interface coming soon in MusicTech.