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Missiles To Microphones: Mic Maker Moves Russian Jobs From Arms To Audio

Coldplay singer Chris Martin recording the song Everglow in 2016 while singing into a Soyuz microphone.
Coldplay singer Chris Martin recording the song Everglow in 2016 while singing into a Soyuz microphone.

A small private company in the Russian city of Tula, long famous for producing arms, is turning swords into golden plowshares -- or missiles to microphones, to be more precise.

Using lathes from a Kalashnikov factory and specialists who honed their skills at Russian weapons factories, Soyuz Microphones is building professional mics that have captured the attention of top music producers from Los Angeles to London.

It is a rare case where know-how and infrastructure from Russia's defense sector have been transformed through an East-West partnership to sell a nonmilitary product outside the former Soviet Union.

World Bank experts suggest such diversification could help wean Russia off its dependence on oil exports, or its heavy reliance on the state-run defense industry -- which employs about 3 million workers and accounts for 20 percent of Russian manufacturing jobs.

A Soyuz SU-017 tube microphone
A Soyuz SU-017 tube microphone

As small-business success stories add up, the state's role in the economy would be reduced. And this, World Bank economist Apurva Sanghi said in a May 23 report on Russia, could help lead to the kind of economic growth the country needs for "more diversified and sustainable development."

Most small and medium-sized Russian businesses, however, are currently encumbered by heavy regulations and the dominance of state companies that don't want competition from a multitude of small rivals.

Vaily Abashkin, an expert at Moscow 's Higher School of Economics, told the AP recently that most smaller Russian firms also lack the know-how to take advantage of government programs aimed at helping exporters.

Niche Market

Soyuz, which means "union," is not churning out thousands of microphones each month.

It's not even trying to compete against high-volume Western firms -- such as Germany's Sennheiser, U.S.-based Shure, or Australia's Rode Microphones.

Instead, Soyuz is carving out a niche in the high-standard "boutique" market of professional audio gear by combining the precision of aerospace engineering with labor-intensive, vintage production methods and Western marketing.

California musician David Arthur Brown and his Russian partner Pavel Bazdyrev co-founded Soyuz Microphones in 2013 -- putting together a team of a dozen specialists from Tula's weapons and electronics factories who build each microphone by hand.

The company's chief mic designer came up with the internal circuitry of Soyuz's top-end SU-017 tube microphone based on Brown's instructions to "build the best tube mic you can."

Brown himself is responsible for its unusual bottle-shaped appearance -- an aesthetic he says was inspired by the golden domes of Russian Orthodox churches, the Sputnik satellite, and the body cylinder of a Soviet-era Soyuz rocket.

"My idea was to assemble a team of amazing experts to design a new tube microphone, not copying anything, but made in the old way -- using all the old technology, which Russians still know how to do," Brown said.

"They still use manual lathes in all kinds of military and industrial applications," Brown said about the source of his team's know-how. "They still use tubes in fighter jets."

In fact, the only component of a Soyuz microphone that the company does not hand-build itself are the vacuum tubes.

Those are supplied by a nearby weapons plant that has been producing them since 1962.

Bazdyrev says Soyuz microphones have a vintage vibe because all critical components are made in-house, and no computer-controlled machinery is used.

Such a production process would be cost prohibitive for a small startup company in the United States or the European Union.

But with Russia's relatively low labor costs, Soyuz can undercut the price of established foreign competitors -- charging $3,500 for its flagship SU-017 compared to about $8,000 for rival models from companies like Neumann, Telefunken, and AKG.

Brown, a former saxophonist with the Grammy-winning American singer-songwriter Beck, has used his studio contacts in the Western music industry to get Soyuz microphones heard by world-class producers.

And they like what they hear. Already, Soyuz microphones have been used to record the latest chart-topping gold and platinum albums by world-renown bands like Coldplay, Radiohead, and Paramore.

John Fryer, an English producer of bands such as Depeche Mode and Jesus Jones, recently borrowed a Soyuz SU-017 for a recording session and was convinced that he needs to own one.

"I used it on a girl's voice and it sounded very clean and very clear," Fryer told RFE/RL. "Sometimes it's very difficult to find mics that fit with a girl's voice, but it sounded great. It's everything I need from a vocal mic. If I had my own in the studio, that would be my 'go to' mic every time. It sounds so good."

Others in the professional audio world have come to the same conclusion.

In 2016, Bazdyrev says, Soyuz sold a total of 160 microphones to turn its first annual profit -- although the company reinvested all of those earnings into manufacturing equipment and the development of new microphones.

Since selling its first prototypes in 2014, Soyuz has expanded its range of microphone types and now builds about 50 microphones each month.

On the marketing side, it is working through distributors and dealers in the United States, Britain, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Mexico, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Japan, and China.

Business Burdens

Bazdyrev says Soyuz has had to face the same burden of regulations that have made other consumer startup companies struggle in Russia. He says it can be difficult to obtain export permits and to get Russian authorities to pay tax rebates.

Brown and Bazdyrev both insist they have never had to pay bribes. But Bazdyrev says Soyuz has been treated with suspicion by local officials because foreign investment in Tula is so unusual.

In one case, he says, Soyuz's Tula bank accounts were frozen over suspicions the company might be a money-laundering front.

Bazdyrev says the accounts were unblocked only after a bank inspector visited Soyuz and, with a surprised look on his face, confirmed the company really produces microphones.

​International sanctions imposed against Russia over its 2014 seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula also have caused difficulties for Soyuz, even though it is not on the U.S. or EU sanctions lists.

Bazdyrev says the U.S. Treasury Department once put sales payments from the West on hold while they were being transferred through a German bank.

To simplify international transactions, Soyuz has since set up a limited liability company in Los Angeles -- an office that also serves as the company's base for U.S. sales and distribution.

Lessons From The Past

The story of Soyuz Microphones began when Brown was touring Russia with his band Brazzaville in 2013 and met Bazdyrev, a music fan who organized a concert by the group in his hometown of Tula.

When Brown arrived in Tula, a city dominated by state-run armament factories, Bazdyrev also took him on a tour of Russia's oldest and largest microphone manufacturer, Oktava.

Oktava has built microphones in Tula since 1927 and Brown had heard about the company.

During the 1990s, Oktava penetrated the home-studio recording market in the West -- selling tens of thousands of low-priced condenser microphones through a British-based distributor and a contract with the international music retailer Guitar Center.

But that arrangement collapsed under the weight of the same challenges that have derailed other Russian state firms trying to compete in the global market for mass-produced electronics.

Trouble began when Oktava was unable to keep up with the orders coming in from around the world.

Then, Chinese firms emerged that could produce similar low-priced microphones faster than Oktava -- leading to a dispute between the Russian firm and its British partners.

"At the Oktava factory, I asked them how business was going," Brown explained. "They said, ‘Not really very well. We've lost our distributor in America,' and all this kind of stuff."

Bazdyrev suggested they start a new company and help Oktava get back into the U.S. market.

But Western markets were already flooded with cheap Chinese microphones by 2013 and tales about Oktava's dispute with its British-based distributor worried U.S. retailers.

Brown knew it would be difficult for Oktava to reestablish its market share in the United States.

The sudden dismissal of Oktava's general manager later in 2013 nullified any remaining hope Brown had of working with Russia's state-owned microphone giant.

"That's when I got an idea," Brown told RFE/RL. "We could design a new tube microphone and build it in the old-school way that microphones used to be built -- the way that Russians still known how to work."

"Russia has a tremendous amount of scientific know-how and technical know-how," Brown said. "Maybe because of the Soviet period they don't have so much ability in the ways of marketing and design that are necessary in the modern free-market economy."

But for producing audio components in ways that are becoming a lost art elsewhere, Brown says the West can "learn a lot from Russian engineering skills."

Brown and Bazdyrev convinced an engineer at Oktava, one of the only microphone capsule specialists in Russia, to join the Soyuz team as head mic designer.

They brought in a radio-electronics specialist who previously worked on projects developing Russian satellites and missile technology.

They also hired metal machinist Roman Ilyukhin, a manual lathe master who can cut the critical back plate of a microphone capsule within the accuracy of 2 micrometers -- less than the width of the smallest thread of spider-web silk.

Ilyukhin now earns almost double the salary he made while working at Russian weapons factories in Tula, where he built parts for Russian tanks, helicopters, and missiles.

He says his proudest moment was when he saw the official video for Coldplay's 2016 single Everglow, which features lead singer Chris Martin using a Soyuz SU-17 microphone that Ilyukhin and his workmates built with their own hands.

Brown says that in a town "famous for weapons production," Soyuz makes something that is "the complete opposite of war -- equipment for creating music, helping artists and producers to realize their vision, and spreading goodwill."

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