Gathering 'Round A Tea Ball: The Curious Case Of Ear Trumpet Microphones
If you’re a fan of bluegrass or acoustic folk music, you’ve seen them proliferate on stages in recent years. With their brass fittings, selectively exposed wires and retro design, they look like a steampunk accessory in an early radio radio station. They are the unique looking and sounding microphones from Ear Trumpet Labs.
Ear Trumpet mics are made by hand in Portland, OR, where they were invented by company owner Philip Graham, almost a decade ago.
“I’m a tinkerer at heart and I just started building microphones out of bits and pieces and scraps that I had in my basement,” Graham told WMOT at the recent Folk Alliance conference in Kansas City. “And I’m not really a machinist, so I was a lot more comfortable making them out of parts and pieces that were largely already made and doing fairly simple metal work to assemble them. And I happen to have a design eye so I was paying attention that they looked cool when they went together that way. And so everything that I’ve built has been with that esthetic.”
Even today he says, most Ear Trumpet parts are sourced from plumbing suppliers or hardware outfitters, even flan rings and metal tea infuser balls from a restaurant supply house.
“It was really the design problem of wanting to get the capsule suspended out in space with as little acoustic interference around it as possible. And again, just working with things I had at hand, I found these large tea balls - three-inch tea infusers - that are acoustically transparent. You need to have a metallic mesh around the capsule for radio interference. So the tea ball seemed like a great answer.”
A folk and bluegrass picker, Graham was inspired by his daughter Malachi, a singer songwriter. He could tell that most stage mics were designed to be really close to a singer’s mouth, as part of systems set up for loud rock and roll. His design, built around condenser mics that one sees more regularly in quiet recording studios, is much more sensitive, allowing distance, while defeating the parallel problem of feedback, when sound systems ring out of control.
The good kind of feedback has encouraged Graham for the six years that Ear Trumpets have been for sale.
“The thing that I love to hear from artists is that they actually feel like they sound like they would in a room, just playing in their living room. When they feel like that’s what they’re putting across to their audience, that’s exactly what I’m trying to do.”
There are at least ten Ear Trumpet models for sale, each with a subtly different purpose and personality, and each bears a woman's name. The newest is a specialty mic for mounting on an acoustic bass named Nadine, after Nadine Landry, the bass player in Portland’s Foghorn String Band, one of the early adopters and champions of Ear Trumpet. “In the early days of carrying them, people would ask about them and we had business cards with a discount code,” said Landry by phone. “We handed out many of those. Philip called us and said, ‘I can tell where you’ve been touring because of the orders I’m receiving.' He’s always been extremely nice to us and helped us.”
So when you see an Edwina or a Myrtle on stage being acoustically rocked by the Earls of Leicester, the Milk Carton Kids or the Barefoot Movement, you’ll know there’s a lot more warmth behind them than just the sound.
See and hear the Foghorn String Band perform into a suite of Ear Trumpet microphones on Music City Roots.