Interview: Blue Microphones CEO – John Maier

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John MaierBlue Microphones is to the audio world what Volkswagen is to car buyers: fast-growing, creatively engineered and designed, and starting to be known by everyone in the business. They’ve been a source of some of the most distinctive microphones on the planet for over a decade, and have experienced a boom in success ever since their current CEO, John Maier took charge of the company. I recently got  the chance to talk with the man himself, who opened up to me about things like what makes Blue so unique, the kinds of clients they have, and what their own employees think of them.

As an introduction, and for the non-professionals who don’t know much about Blue Microphones, can you tell me how the company came about?

Yeah. The company started in the mid-90’s. The two founders were really passionate about audio; microphones specifically. One was a musician and the other was an engineer, and they were both servicing mics, which led them to realized that they could make their own.

In the late 90’s, we were able to make a product called the Blueberry, which was our first commercially available product, and really got things started. So the company started by focusing on professional customers, such as musicians.

(Blueberry Microphone)

Blue berryAround the mid 2000’s, when Apple was putting Garageband on Macs, there was no simple way to get audio into their software, so we came out with the Snowball. That was our first desktop/USB high-performance mic, and it opened up a whole new world for us, where we realized that people were going more mobile, and were using programs like Pro Tools and Logic. So we started spending more time in that area, and more recently, we’ve been developing products for iPhone, iPad and USB stuff, whilst still making the pro stuff. We’ve done several new pro products over the last few years, and have some stuff planned for next year’s NAMM show too.

(Snowball Microphone)

snowball

That sounds really interesting. With so many microphone companies out there, Blue certainly does a good job of standing out as a very visible brand.

Thanks. I think there are a lot of companies that make great-sounding products with interesting technology, and others have interesting designs and functionality, but there aren’t many that put the two together. At Blue, we have great sound and quality mixed with looks, which makes for a pretty unique offering that’s differentiated us over the years.

Seeing as you came on board as CEO in 2009, can you tell me a bit about how that came to be? How did you become involved with a company like Blue Microphones?

I’ve been in the business pretty much all my life. I started as a musician, and through that I worked with a lot of microphones. I worked my way through retail, by being a sales rep. I really just loved performing music, as well as the idea of designing, manufacturing, marketing and selling music-related products.

I knew the Blue guys from my years at Guitar Center management. So when the company got new investors in 2008, they started to look around for someone to help them take things to the next level. They had done a great job with the structure and backbone of the company, but really didn’t know enough about the industry, customers and the applications to build further. So they brought me on in 2009, and for the last 4 years we’ve spent time building up the team, working on being innovative on the product side, and getting better customer service. And it’s worked. We’ve grown like crazy.

I agree that your growth has been quite substantial! Blue seems to have been experiencing some bouts of success in past couple of years, since you became CEO, which is quite admirable. What kind of business strategies have you implemented in your time as CEO to ensure that you guys remain at the forefront of the consumer microphone world, as you have been doing?

The thing is, we focus 100% on the user. We don’t spend as much time with the middle men, although they’re important. We think about the customer first, and the applications that they’re going to use the mics in. A product like Mikey is a high-quality stereo mic that you plug into the iPhone, and it really transforms the phone into a high-performance stereo recorder, which is amazing. The combination of figuring out how customers use these products, and trying to make that better for them has really been critical. Once you have a product that people really need and want, you can add the fun part, which is the design and functionality.

(Mikey Microphone)

Mikey

We just released a new product called Nessie, which adds some processing right into the microphone. We tried to make something that even a pro or semi-pro could use for a voice-over or recording. Nessie’s already got deessing, compression and EQ built into it, to give you a really warm sound. Then we had some fun with the design of it. It obviously has a striking design to the Loch Ness monster, so we decided to humorously call it “Nessie”.

So I think our strategy has been combination of great performance and giving people great results, mixed with good design.

(Nessie Microphone)

Nessie

One of Blue’s most striking characteristics has also been it’s aesthetic. The design of your mics, the colors and even the Blue logo have all played a part in making them some of the most distinguishable mics around. Who’s responsible for this sense of branding for you guys?

In the early days, it was definitely a small group of folks. The founders had some big input during that time, and some of the designers, but it’s pretty much taken on a life of its own over the years.  We have a lot of great examples of what a Blue product looks like, and who we are as a company, and that culture has grown.

Over half of our employees are musicians and engineers. The guys building our pro mics on the production lines, aren’t assembly line workers who just come in and punch a clock. These guys are graduates from the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences, or have degrees from places like Berklee School of Music. They have a passion for what they do. When they’re done building a mic, they’re proud of their work, and can go use that mic in a session that night. So there’s a real connection to who we are and what we do. It’s really part of the company’s culture.

For instance, if we were to come up with a mic that looked like a grey stick, and resembled every other mic, everyone in our building would rebel. They’d say, “that’s not a Blue mic!”.

So it started with some individuals, but it’s become really well-defined over time, and we have a lot of fun with it now.

Can you tell me about some of the hills and valleys that Blue has gone through since you came on board? Both the positive and negative turns that the company has taken?

Sure. There were things which really affected not only our channel partners in the early days, like dealers, distributors, but also our users.

When I first came in, our supply chain, meaning the manufacturing partners that we used for some of the entry level products, were a real challenge to get on board. Getting the necessary product from them in the quality and timing we needed was a challenge. We were quicker in other things though, like technology changes.

Whilst mics like the”Kiwi” and “Baby Bottle” have been around for years, there were other products that were reliant on other technology. So if Apple decided to switch a protocol, like moving from analog to digital audio, or if USB functions were changed on a device, or if a new OS pops up, that could cause us some problems.

(Kiwi Microphone)

KiwiWe had one product that took a while to ship. So by the time it finally left our factory, the device that it was designed for had already changed, and we had to go back to the drawing board to redesign it.

Those are always big challenges. But you realize over time that you’ve had enough success to weather those problems out as they pop out. We’ve had a couple of those, where we were thrown curves and had to improvise and figure out a way to work around it.

Yes, you guys seem to have maneuvered that quite well given how well you’ve done lately. In terms of your microphones themselves, one of the main issues new customers face when they visit your website, is to settle on what kind of mic to buy. You have so many, and a lot of them are marketed as multi-purpose. So what would you say is the main differentiating factor between your mics, when each one seems to be able to do what many others do?

Great question. In a perfect world, you’d be able to try every microphone one out with your own voice and instrument, since it’s a personal decision. Understandably, that can be a bit hard for some customers, since not every store carries every unit we’ve built, and not every customer can get to a store. We’ve tried some things like putting up a lot of sound samples on our website, and we’ve done some shootouts with our competitor’s mics.

In general we have a different philosophy than a lot of mic companies. A lot of companies try to make the perfect recreation of what’s going into the mic, by getting as close to a flat sound as possible, which is a noble cause. But what you realize quickly is that microphones color the sound. It’s just a fact. And we decided to embrace that. We said “Let’s color the sound in the way we like, and create these different sonic personalities”. So when you look across our product line, we have the $400 Baby Bottle, and that has a sort of dark tone to it. It’s great for recording guitar amps, vocals, and percussion. And then you go to something like Dragonfly, which is great as a drum overhead mic, and for female vocals, since it’s good at capturing the highs frequencies, and still has a full-bodied sound to it. We could talk like that about all our mics.

One thing we do, which you can see on our social media posts, is that we have some comparison charts, which talk about our microphone features, especially when it comes to desktop mics. That can start to narrow it down for someone, and hopefully they can try out the mic, and hear some online samples and go from there. But it can be tricky, admittedly. There’s no great approach to it, but hopefully some of the stuff I’ve talked about helps a bit.

(Baby Bottle Microphone)

baby bottleIn keeping with how people feel about Blue mics, let’s talk about the haters. When some of us go to Guitar Center, we encounter some polarizing feelings towards your mics. Some GC staff say “Don’t buy Blue mics. They suck! They’re all about colors and branding, and have no quality“. Other people have nothing but praise for Blue mics. Do you think that Blue’s distinctive brand and colorful aesthetic might possibly be overshadowing the quality of microphones themselves, to the point that people have per-conceived ideas about them?

Great point! It touches on a great subject too. When Blue Microphones was founded, other companies like Shure, Audiotechnica and AKG were really well established. They were standards in the industry, and stuck to their own areas of strength. If you’d said to me in the mid 90’s, “Let’s start a mic company”, I’d have said, “No way. You’re crazy. There’s too much competition, and the markets too crowded. These other companies have been around for 70-100 years, and they’ve got all these patents.” Whilst I think it would have been crazy for most people, Blue was able to differentiate. We were able to create something which was high quality, but also have fun with colors and designs.

The design aspect isn’t all about looks either. For example, the Dragonfly has a rotating head. So when you’re recording drum overheads, you would normally have to set up big studio mic stands, which might be a pain to move and adjust. But with the Dragonfly, if you start tracking the drums, and think ”Oh geez, I misplaced one of those mics” all you have to do is move the head. So even though we named it “Dragonfly”, there’s actually functionality to that design. It’s not just looks. Those things may polarize us a bit for some people, but it’s also what put us on the map and made us successful. I guarantee you that if we had made another grey mic at that time, we would gotten lost in the shuffle.

Over the years, we’ve done a better job of marketing ourselves on the quality side, so that more people understand that our mics aren’t just for looks, and are actually quality products. But hey, there’s still going to be some people who are going to say ”I’m not going to buy a blue or green colored mic. I doesn’t feel professional enough”. We’re sort of willing to lose those customers for the ability to have our own identity in the marketplace, and not be like everyone else.

(Dragonfly Microphone)

dragonfly

Interesting! Well, what would you say to the person who has little knowledge about the technical aspects of a microphone, like frequency charts and polar patterns, buts wants to be able tell if Blue mics are good? Potential customers may want to evaluate for themselves if Blue can balance branding and quality. How would they do that, if the staff at music stores can be so divided on their opinions?

I can answer that question from the company’s viewpoint, and also from my own background.

From the Blue perspective, we have a lot of fun with that. For example, we joined the House of Rock last year in Santa Monica, were we worked with brands like SSL, Fender, and DW Drums, and put together a pretty amazing recording studio in this multi-million dollar building. We’ve had all kinds of folks that performed and recorded there. What happens a lot of times is that they come in and say “Show me these Blue mics. Let’s hear this stuff“, and we blow their minds every single time, which has a lot to do with the fact that they come in with such low expectations.

We also made a bunch of microphones for Jimmy Iovine and the folks over at American Idol. So all of our mics have been in their studios for the last few years, and many records have been made on the Baby Bottle, Kiwi and more. So we’ve seem time and time again how we turn people around when they hear our mics.

The other side of the answer is that in my experience, even the $9 mic Walmart mic can produce a cool sound in the right context, where you might want a lo-fi sound. People can experiment with that. But on the quality side, if you want to get a great recording for your guitar or vocal, you’ve gotta work on your own ears and personal taste. You want a microphone that can capture the bandwidth of what you’re trying to record. If you’re going to capture a low deep voice, and you pick a mic better suited for female vocals, you’re going to loose a lot of the low-end content. So you have match things up.

There are a lot of great microphones out there. This is not to say that Blue has any exclusivity on great-sounding mics. That’s what I love about microphones. You never have enough. You can go to a professional studio and find hundreds of microphones, because they all have their own sound.

In the current music landscape, where many younger musicians sit with their laptops and make music, are you guys going to aim to cater to the do-it-yourself producer who may always be on the move. For example, you’ve made 13 types of studio mics, but only 3 desktop mics. Do you think Blue might expand it’s line of non-studio mics?

You’re right, and we’re trying to find a way to get a studio quality sound in other places.

Spark was a product we came out with in the $200 range, when we wanted to get Blue products a larger audience. It became one of  our biggest sellers, and thereafter we worked on a digital version of that, which you could plug into an iPad. That became Spark Digital, which you can plug into any iPad or USB port.

Our other desktops like Yeti Pro or Snowball are multi-purpose with small capsules built in. They can be used on anything from spoken word recordings and podcast to acoustic instruments. But  what makes Spark Digital unique is that  it has a large-diaphragm studio condenser capsule. So it’s the first desktop mic that has a studio capsule, as opposes to the smaller capsules that we’ve been using in our other desktop mics. So we basically took our successful studio mic and ported it over to the mobile world, and are seeing some great success from that. It has it’s own desk stand and shock-mount built in, but has the same adapter that our studio mics have, so you can attach a pop filter for it too. Spark Digital fits perfectly into what you’re asking about, in terms of us making a quality mic that’s digital, but with studio quality, and is easy to plug-and-play.

(Left: Spark Microphone, Right: Spark Digital Microphone)

spark

Are you guys possibly looking doing more of such desktop mics in the future?

We have a lot of things on our product road-map and stuff that’s being researched. We think it’ll be a great crossover area for us, since a lot of studio heads are making more use of USB mics.

Sounds exciting! I’ll be keeping our eyes out for more stuff from you guys. Thanks for talking to me John! I encourage our readers to learn more about Blue Microphones on their website, and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

SamInterview: Blue Microphones CEO – John Maier

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