Blue Microphones – John Maier [CEO]

Blue Microphones have been manufacturing some of the most distinctive microphones on the market 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 can you tell me how Blue Microphones came about?

Sure. The company started in the mid-90s. 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 realize that they could make their own.

In the late 90s, we were able to make a product called the Blueberry, which was our first commercially available product, and that really got things started.

(Above: Blueberry Microphone)

And what came after the Blueberry?

Around the mid 2000s, 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 the iPhone and iPad, such as USB mics, whilst still making the pro stuff. We’ve released several new pro products over the last few years, and have some stuff planned for next year’s NAMM show too.

(Above: Snowball Microphone)

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 unique offering that’s differentiated us over the years.

You came on board as CEO in 2009. Can you tell me about how that came to be?

I’ve been in the business pretty much all my life. I started as a musician, and later worked my way through retail by being a sales representative.  So I’ve worked with a lot of microphones in different capacities.

I knew the Blue Microphone 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 four 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.

John Maier

(Above: John Maier)

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?

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. So once you have a product that people really need and want, you can add the fun part, which is the design and functionality.

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 already has de-essing, 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.

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 distinguishing them. Who’s responsible for this sense of branding?

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. When they’re done building a mic, they’re proud of their work, and can use that mic in a session that night. So there’s a real connection to who we are and what we do, and 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! “.

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 the USB functions were changed on a device, or if a new OS pops up, that could cause us some problems.

We 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.

(Above: Kiwi Microphone)

 

You have a number of microphones in your range, and a many them are marketed as multi-purpose. What’s 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 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. But we’ve tried some things like putting up a lot of sound samples on our website, and we’ve done some shootouts with 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 the signal going into the mic, and they aim for as flat a 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, as well as 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.

As you can see on our social media posts, 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 some potential customers. Hopefully, they can try out the mic, 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.

When I go to Guitar Center, I encounter some polarizing feelings towards Blue mics. Some of the staff will say to me, “Don’t buy Blue mics. They suck! They’re all about colors and branding, and have no quality “. Other staff members have nothing but praise for Blue mics. Do you think that Blue’s brand and colorful aesthetic might possibly be overshadowing the quality of microphones themselves?

Great point! It touches on a great subject too. When Blue Microphones was founded, other companies like Shure, Audiotechnica and AKG were very 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 90s, “Let’s start a microphone 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 “. But whilst I think it would’ve been crazy for most people, Blue was able to differentiate themselves. 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 just another grey mic instead of something like the “Dragonfly”, 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.

(Above: Dragonfly Microphone)

 

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?

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 to put together a pretty amazing recording studio in a multi-million dollar building. We had all kinds of folks that performed and recorded there. What happened a lot of times was that they’d 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 seen time and time again how Blue mics turn people around once they hear them.

The other side of the answer is that in my experience, even the $9 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 have to 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 want to capture a 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 to match things up.

But there are a lot of great microphones out there. None of the above 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 young musicians sit at home with their laptops, are you guys going to cater more to that market? For example, you’ve made thirteen types of studio mics, but only three 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 desktop mics like Yeti Pro or Snowball are multi-purpose with small capsules built in. They can be used on anything from spoken word recordings and podcasts 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 opposed to the smaller capsules that we use 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, Right: Spark Digital)

Are you guys 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.