A short history of Sennheiser microphones
Audio specialist Sennheiser was founded in Northern Germany in 1945. The late company founder Prof. Dr. Fritz Sennheiser – then Deputy Head of the Institute for Radio Frequency Engineering and Electroacoustics at Hanover Technical University – named the company Laboratorium Wennebostel or Labor W (Lab W) for short, after the tiny village in which he founded the company.
The small company originally began with the manufacture of measuring equipment but microphones made its way into the portfolio as early as in 1946, when Siemens asked the engineers of Labor W to rebuild a microphone for them. In 1947, the then Dr. Sennheiser and his team presented their first own microphone design, the MD 2. Early microphone highlights of the company included the MD 3 ‘invisible’ microphone (1949), the classic MD 21 (1953, still in production today), the MD 82 shotgun mic (1956), and Sennheiser’s first wireless microphone (1957). In 1958 Labor W was renamed Sennheiser electronic.
Looking back, Prof. Sennheiser described the philosophy of the early years: “The great pleasure of developing something innovative was key to us. We were always dissatisfied with the current technology and wanted to create something new and improved. And we had so many ideas that even when other companies copied our products, we always had something new up our sleeves.”
1960 saw the introduction of an all-time classic, the MD 421, which is still in the portfolio today. In the early 1960s, the company developed condenser microphones that worked according to the RF principle, and the first professional condenser clip-on microphone, the MK 12. In 1971, the MD 441, another classic still in production today, was launched.
With the allocation of a small but increasing number of radio frequency channels to public broadcasters, wireless microphones became more and more important, and Sennheiser launched the first professional multichannel rack receiver in 1978. This was followed by ever smaller clip-on microphones for pocket transmitters and the radio microphone classic SKM 4031-TV in 1982, which laid the foundation for the success of Sennheiser wireless systems in the years that followed.
In 1987, Sennheiser was awarded the Scientific and Engineering Award for the MKH 816 shotgun microphone. 1993 saw the launch of another radio microphone classic, the SKM 5000. The company was awarded an Emmy for pioneering developments in RF wireless technology in 1996. Two years later, the evolution microphone series was launched, followed by evolution wireless in 1999, Sennheiser’s most successful RF wireless series to date.
In 2000, Sennheiser introduced the first studio microphone to fully utilise the wider frequency range of the new digital audio formats, the MKH 800. 2002 saw the glamorous combination of the SKM 5000 N with a Neumann capsule. In 2007, Sennheiser launched the new MKH 8000 Series. This series of RF condenser microphones is continuously being expanded, with the latest models added being the MKH 8060 and MKH 8070 shotgun mics in 2011. 2009 saw the launch of the wireless 2000 Series and of the third generation of evolution wireless systems. With the MK 4, Sennheiser added its first large-diaphragm true condenser microphone to the portfolio in 2011.
When designing a new microphone or microphone series, Sennheiser can draw on the extensive expertise of its microphone developers. Gregor Zielinsky, Diplom-Tonmeister and International Recording Applications Manager at Sennheiser, notes: “A sound engineer friend of mine once said ‘Quality is not a matter of taste but of knowledge.’ The expertise of the engineers involved in the design – and sound design – plays an important role. We are very lucky in that our engineers are both into engineering and into music, they know how to listen, and where to fine-tune what in a microphone to achieve a desired microphone sound.”
At the beginning of a new design the microphone’s target group(s) and purpose are defined. “We then contact potential users to find out what they are looking for in, for example, a studio mic,” says Sebastian Schmitz, Sennheiser’s Product Manager for wired microphones. Musicians, singers, studios, sound engineers, tonmeisters, producers, home recordists, broadcasters, audio experts and dealers are asked for their opinion and what they value in a mic. Their answers have a direct impact on the design and development process.
“For example, when we designed the MK 4, an affordable true condenser microphone, we found that – besides a good sound and easy operation in less than favourable recording conditions – many potential users were keen on a beautiful product design. At first, we were a bit surprised but then it was obvious. A condenser mic in a studio also has some sort of representative function, and should create a pleasant atmosphere for the artist who is going to record with the microphone, so the looks are important.” A design agency was commissioned to work on an attractive product design that included Sennheiser corporate design features. Other items on the list were weight and ruggedness, “haptic” wishes that also benefited the sound, as somewhat heavier housings have very few resonances.
Once the list of product requirements is complete, the developers set to work, and design several prototypes with different electronics. These are intensively tested for their acoustic behaviour and technical data, and listened to by “experienced ears”. Then the most critical test comes: on-site tests. Gregor Zielinsky: “In designing any microphone – be it a stage microphone, a studio microphone or a broadcast microphone – we attach great importance to taking the mic to its “natural” place of use at a very early point in the design process. This way we can test it under real-life conditions, take corrective action easily, and perfectly tailor the microphone sound and properties to what our customers wish to find in a mic.
“For example, studio microphones are tested with various instruments and singers in the Sennheiser Studio at the Hanover Pop Institute, and in the concert hall of the Hanover University of Music, Drama and Media. The university has a brilliant orchestra, which enjoys a very good reputation in the classical music scene. They have worked with us on several occasions, for example on a recording with our first digital microphones.
“If we want to test and fine-tune microphones for live audio, for stage use, we take them to a nearby concert venue with which we have run a cooperation for the past few years. Depending on their development stage, the newly designed mics either run simultaneously with the venue’s standard mics, or we book artists especially and ask them to thoroughly test the microphone. It makes a huge difference if you’re just testing a mic with a simple soundcheck, or whether you go the full mile and submit it to a real-life test that only a demanding artist can carry out.”
For testing RF wireless systems or broadcast mics Sennheiser relies on its worldwide network of subsidiaries and sales partners that take the microphones to large sports events, public broadcasters as well as show and musical stages around the globe.
Sebastian Schmitz: “When we have found the optimum microphone sound, another Sennheiser advantage comes to bear: developers and product managers work closely together with engineering and production to optimise and fine-tune all production and inspection processes.”
Sennheiser recently invested in a new 13,500 sq.m production and technology centre, one of the most modern assembly plants in Northern Germany. “We can again rely on great expertise – that of our manufacturing staff.”