By Marty Paule
Highly opinionated and fiercely independent in his views about pro sound, Bob Heil builds mics and possesses a professional resume to back up his often out-of-the-box attitude. And speaking of boxes, it was Bob who invented one of the most memorable guitar effects of all time: the Heil Talk Box that made Peter Frampton a fixture on ‘70s album charts.
He’s built sound systems for some of the most hallowed names in rock. Names like The Who, The Grateful Dead, The Eagles, Humble Pie, Peter Frampton, and pivotally, his longtime pal Joe Walsh with whom he shares an obsession for ham radio.
As we learned in our conversation with Bob, it’s his lifelong love of amateur radio that has surprisingly helped put Heil Sound at the forefront of live music reproduction with a collection of mics that has been winning converts everywhere.
The HUB: When you entered the microphone market with Heil Sound, there were already a lot of manufacturers out there. What was the vacuum that you felt needed to be filled?
Bob Heil: My involvement in pro audio goes way back to the amateur radio side of things. Are you aware of that part of our company?
The HUB: I know you guys build mics for ham operators, but I don’t know anything about that market.
BH: That’s a really big part of our company. But before we get into that, a little background: I was an organist at the Fox Theater in St. Louis; I started playing there when I was 15. I had to do a lot more than just play it. I had to learn how to voice and tune that organ, and that was a big deal because it taught me how to listen. And listening is a real art. I was blessed to be put into that position.
There’s not a lot of listeners in the world today. There’s a lot of “hearers.” Hearing is a physical process. Listening is a mental process, and learning how to tune and voice that pipe organ taught me that.
I played for 15 years, but I got tired of playing six days a week and four hours a night. So I opened this little music store out in the sticks of southern Illinois and I got a Hammond organ franchise. That was amazing! I shouldn’t have been able to get the franchise because I was too close to St. Louis. All the while I was playing the music of the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s; I didn’t know much about rock ‘n’ roll.
But the kids started coming into the music shop and I started renting Hammond organs to them. Then some of the promoters started hearing about this guy who would rent organs. So I would go to these concerts at the Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis where they had these major acts. I saw that they had these little bitty column PAs they were trying to fill this 19,000-seat venue with.
I quickly picked up that they needed bigger PAs, so I got involved in pro sound around that time. But all through this period and going back to when I was an organist at the Fox, I was also a ham radio operator. I learned how to build things—something that was very important in those days—you didn’t just go and buy them. And in all of those years, I was able to pick up a lot of techniques.
So I built a PA using some big speakers I got from the Fox Theater. They were throwing them away. One day I rolled by and here were these big 84 Altecs. They had these six foot by about four foot folded horns—and they were in an alley, they were going to trash them. So they said, ‘Go ahead, take them.’ So I built this PA and started using it at the Kiel.
Then a Cleveland promoter by the name of Belkin got hold of me and I went on the road with The James Gang. It turned out their lead guitarist, Joe Walsh, was also a ham radio operator. That relationship led us to waking up the whole pro sound and ham radio industries.
There’s an article you can find on the web that talks about my early involvement in rock ‘n’ roll sound called The Night That Modern Live Sound Was Born. It goes into how I was able to help the Grateful Dead with this big PA I had built after most of their equipment was confiscated. The word got out—we hit the front page of Billboard and things went crazy.
The HUB: You worked with a lot of rock legends after that didn’t you?
BH: I did; lots of them, including The Who. But what made that so important was that I was always building things for them. They would tell me, ‘I’d like to have this, I’d like to do that.’ Townshend always put it right: he’d say, ‘Hey, leave the guy alone, he’s got his soldering iron and he makes me sound good and he can drive the truck.’
By 1970 I had closed the music shop and I had opened a new place building speakers and mixers. Nobody had built a quality mixer for rock groups. We built the first modular mixer with 2-band EQ and monitor sends, echo, 2-way electronic crossovers. The board was stereo with pan pots. This was in 1970-’71. Even today it would still stand the test.
We sold thousands of all that stuff. I had 35 people working for in a 7,000 square foot building. But I got tired of the road stuff. I had been out on the road for 12 years and punk rock came in and I wasn’t into that. We were going to have to spend a lot of money to redo all our stuff so I got out.
So what was I going to do? (I’m finally getting around to answering your first question.) In 1980 I turned to my amateur radio background and began building microphones because nobody else was building mics of any substance for that market. Shure, Sennheiser, and Electro Voice had been in it, but they all left because it’s a very small market. And we have parlayed that into quite a business. And it continues to this day—I’ve got three new products that I’ve just developed in my new lab for ham radio that I’m excited about.
But about eight years ago, Joe Walsh called me one day—we’d remained friends over the years. He asked me to come over (we both had homes in California at the time.) Sitting in his kitchen he hands me an SM58 and says, ‘You’ve got to do something with this.’ I asked him what he meant. And he says, ‘Your Goldline ham radio microphone outperforms this.’ “No it doesn’t’ I told him. So he says, ‘Come here’ and takes me into his studio and proves it.
I found out later and see it every day that there are two things that influence pro sound: habit and ego. ‘I have an SM58 and I’m never gonna change. Everybody uses it.’ Well how about listening to what it does? It’s 45 year-old technology.
I was on a test team. Mr. Shure sent me a couple to use with The Who. Daltrey threw one out in the audience; he didn’t like it. We used 566’s back in those days and they were much better.
The HUB: What came out of that aha! moment with Joe Walsh?
BH: I started playing with the Goldline mic and came up with the Goldline Pro. He loved it. He was going out on the James Gang Rides Again Tour and all the microphones he used were mine. We created quite buzz through that tour and all the sound guys and musicians wanted to know, ‘What’s going on here?’
Well, what was going on was simple: There’ was a new sheriff in town! And we started a new division knowing that pro audio was going to be a lot bigger. The Goldline Pro became the PR-20.
Going back to the conversation with Joe that started all this, he said, ‘You know with this ball mic they roll it off at 80 cycles?’ I said, ‘Yes, do you know why?’ I explained that if you looked at the specs, in little print they explain that they do this to get rid of handling noise. Because handling noise is from 60 to 80 cycles. So rather than figure out how to get rid of that, they roll it off.’ And Joe says, ‘So what am I supposed to do, just throw away an octave and a half of my voice?’ Well, the PR20 didn’t do that.
We learned a lot from amateur radio because articulation is golden in that market. I never hear any of the big manufacturers talking about articulation. Why not? It’s the difference between an “f” and an “s,” a “p” and a “b.”
The HUB: Getting back to that handling noise problem, how did you solve that?
BH: That was easy. I put an internal rubber sorbothane shock mount inside. It was very simple. And I did one other thing. We designed a whole new body with a rim around the bottom of the screen. There was a space of about a quarter inch where the shock mount attached. That means that if you cup the microphone like many do today—no, I don’t like it—it’s not proper microphone technique—but that’s OK, you’re not going to change them. With the PR 35 vocal mic you’re almost a half an inch from the element, so you can’t detune it. If you put your hand around any other vocal mic it will detune because your hand is right up against the element. We made sure that you can’t do that.
The HUB: What tips do you have for vocalists as far as how to work the mic for the best possible sound?
BH: Well, you can cup it all you want with a PR 35. But when you do it to anything else, oh boy!. So what’s happening now is we’re seeing a lot of FOH guys and artists using our RC 35 replacement capsule that screws onto the transmitter. Cup it all you want!
Major artists have been upgrading their wireless handheld mics with the Hel Sound RC-35 replacement capsule.
What’s wrong with these guys? Habit and ego. They say, ‘I’ve been using the same technology for 40 or 50 years—why change it?’ If you think about it, none have them done anything new technology-wise. They warm over the old stuff. The grandchildren who now own those big companies have moved production to China.
I know one of their prominent design engineers. They fired him a couple of years ago. I met him at a NAMM show and I asked what’s this?—he had “consultant” on his badge. He told me they’d fired him—they didn’t need him anymore. I asked, ‘That’s what they told you?’ “Yep.’
We’ll, we’re exactly the opposite. We’ve brought so much new to technology to market. Every one of our microphones was designed because of an artist or a sound engineer. Right now the best vocal microphone is the PR 35. We had just done the PR 30 when Joe Walsh, who’s standing beside one of these big radio station transmitters he’s converted to ham radio frequencies, says, ‘The bigger things are, the better they are. Why don’t you build me a big microphone?’
So as a joke, I built one with an inch and a half diaphragm and stuck it in an old condenser body. It didn’t work. It had no transient response and it was very low in dynamic range because it was huge. So I took it to Joe and he agreed it didn’t sound good. I told him the diaphragm is so big it doesn’t support itself. He asked, ‘Why don’t you just make it real thin?’ And I said, ‘Then it just drops.’ Joe asked, ‘Why don’t you hit a happy medium?’
Now these are two ham radio operators sitting in a kitchen in Studio City. These are not million-dollar engineers in some lab. But we figured it out. I came back home and I did it. And it worked. Not only does it work, the PR 30 is blowing away condensers and ribbon microphones and anything you want to sit beside it.
You don’t want to get me started on condensers. Condensers should not be on this earth! Why? Because they’re too sensitive; they pick up the whole room, they really don’t have much rear rejection, and they have this raspy top end. [Makes metallic, rasping noises.]
The HUB: So why are they the de facto setup for say overheads on drum kits? How do you account for that—is it just habit as you said earlier?
BH: Yep. And what’s even worse, I just cringe when I go to a show that I’m not doing, and they’ve got these condensers four feet above the cymbals. You know why? They’re so sensitive they get them up real high so they won’t overload the preamp. So what are they picking up? I never hear a cymbal in the PA, I pick them up acoustically from the stage. What is wrong with these sound engineers? I just want to to choke these guys. Not all of them—some of them have their act together. But it goes back to the fact many of them don’t know how to listen; how to mentally dissect what they’re hearing.
I learned something else when I built the PR 30: if you add boron and iron to your neodymium you increase the power of the magnet 10 times. You need that to pull that big diaphragm back. Something else I took from ham radio is the importance of phasing. Being an antenna freak, I have a great knowledge of phasing. Instead of the four little holes at 12 o’clock, 9 o’clock, 3 o’clock, and 6 o’clock like everybody else uses, I opened the whole bottom of the element and I put it on a little pedestal. This get’s back to the question, why do you want something that looks like a condenser mic? That’s because I want lots of rear and side information—not just four tiny holes. All the information comes into that pedestal and glides up that suspension tube into the bottom. We’re getting 40dB of rear rejection. Please show me a microphone that will even get close to that. You can’t.
Why aren’t the others doing this? Because they’re not doing anything new and don’t care. Its ego: ‘We’ve been doing this for 50 years and we don’t have to change.’
But for the people who really listen, we now have a microphone that has 40dB of rear rejection and it outperforms a condenser on the top because of its response—not a pseudo, crappy top end; it’s a natural sound up there. We get that because of the changes Joe and I made to the diaphragm. And then it’s got this gorgeous low end. It’s just an amazing microphone.
We did this thing with [the band] Kansas. To celebrate their anniversary they were touring and playing with symphony orchestras and they recorded a DVD. The entire orchestra is picked up with dynamic microphones—the PR 30, the PR 35 on vocals, and the best damned snare drum sound. You can’t do one better; I don’t care who you are. You do a PR 30 on the top and a PR 22 on the bottom out of phase.
It’s a PR 20 with a little bit of low end rolled off of it and 4dB spike in the midrange—something I picked up from ham radio. From the AT&T studies and the Fletcher Munson curves from Bell Labs I learned what the human ear needs to understand the “f” and the “s” and the “p” and the “b.” Ham radio operators love this articulation because we can understand each other better through all the noise and static. Police and ambulance people love it too because it sounds so clean and clear.
I was out with Paul Rogers a few years ago and I had come up with this PR 22. Paul said ‘I’d love to have this in a wireless.’ And I said, ‘I’m not getting into that!’ He had his FOH guy, Jim Rivers, give me his wireless unit, and Paul says ‘FIx it, figure it out.’
So we took the capsule, just the element that screws onto the top of the Shure transmitter [and replaced it]. Our capsule fits it as well as the Line 6, Sony, and a whole bunch of other wireless systems. It really solved a big problem.
But let’s get back to that PR 22. If you measure the snares on a snare drum, you’ll discover they peak at 4kHz. That’s where the peak in the PR 22 is. Aha! And with 40dB of rear rejection you don’t hear anything other than what you’re supposed to. So you put that sucker underneath, right up against the snare. You take the PR 30 on to top and it hears nothing but the head.
Then I had an interesting thing happen. I had built two prototypes of the PR 30. [FOH engineer] Jason Robain was coming through St. Louis and I asked him to try them. I told him to use them for overheads, guitar amps, and tell me what you think. He called me a few days later and says, ‘Hey, I’m out with Joan Baez. She wants to know if you could build that PR 30 in a hand mic.’ I said, ‘Really?’ And Jason says, ‘Yeah, we were in rehearsal and during a break she saw this new microphone on a cymbal and said, ‘Let me sing through it.’ She did and then said, ‘A girl could fall in love with that!’
Bob Heil in his lab where the input of artists and FOH engineers are translated into game-changing mics.
So I had an old handle with a big top on it and I stuck the PR 30 in it, and she still has it. It’s become the centerpiece for vocals. It has an element that gets down to 40 cycles because it’s open at the bottom so I can get that huge response. It also has its own pattern. I didn’t want to use a cardioid or supercardioid pattern—they’ve got a spike out the back. I don’t want anything from the back. The Heil pattern is omni in the front. You can take that microphone and turn it a complete 90 degrees each way, rotate it all the way around, and you do not change the response like you do with everything else.
So we have omni pattern on the front because Joe had said ‘I want to move around.’ But the minute you get past that phasing plug you’re 40dB down. For those who have gotten past their hard heads and tried it, the reaction is ‘Whoa!’
We’re very blessed, just about every day someone comes to us wanting to change their vocal mic. And of course their guitar mic, and overhead and snare drum mics too.
I had a couple of pre-production samples of the PR 35 that Bob Workman, the sound engineer for Charlie Daniels, got ahold of. He liked it so much that he did something that no competent soundman should ever do. He swapped it for Charlie Daniels’ usual vocal mic at a show and didn’t tell him. At the end of the concert, he gett a call on the radio from a stage manager saying ‘Bob Workman to Charlie Daniels’ bus immediately. Bob says, ‘That was the longest walk I ever took because I knew I was going to get fired. I hadn’t gotten to the second step on the bus when Charlie goes, ‘Son, what did you do my microphone? I have never heard myself in all my years sound that good. What did you do?’ Bob said, ‘Well, sir, that’s a new microphone. I know I shouldn’t have done it.’
So Charlie says, ‘Shouldn’t have done it? That was great! You to go buy a whole bunch of them.’ And Bob says, ‘We don’t have any kind of deal with them, we’ve been with Shure for about 30 years.’ Daniels says, ‘I don’t care, buy them—you pay whatever you’ve gotta pay.’ From that night forward, Charlie Daniels has never had another microphone on his stage. And if you ever hear Charlie you’ll know why.
Later Bob Workman called me to ask if there was any way we could cut down the body of the PR 30. Two hours later we had a new model—the PR 31 BW—named for Bob Workman. It’s a four inch PR 30, and using our special drum clip, he uses two of them on a tom. One is pointed at the tom, the other is pointed up as an under-head mic. It’s an amazing setup because of the 40dB of rear rejection.
The HUB: Going back to your days on the road, did you have any special tricks for figuring out what was going on onstage?
BH: When I was doing sound, I’d use a little Norelco tape recorder and take the output of the solo bus on the mixer, and during the concert I would record each microphone for about one minute. So when I got back home, I could listen to what each microphone was hearing. And boy, did I learn a lot about placement!
The HUB: What about close-miking guitar amps?
BH: Well, most FOH guys use an SM58 or ‘57. What we do, because of our mic’s rear rejection and great response—all Heil Sound microphones will handle 145 or 150Dbs of SPL—I take one of the little PR 31s and put it right against the grill, dead center of the speaker. I take a second PR 31 and place it at the top of the speaker rim and pull it back about four inches. Then I take another and put it at the bottom of the speaker against the grill. Then I take one direct out of the guitar. If its an open-back amp I put one behind out of phase. That means I have five channels of guitar. Oh baby!
Its great to see the smile on these FOH guys’ faces when they discover what these Heil dynamics can do.
Bob Scoville does the sound for Tom Petty. I gave him some Heils to play with during rehearsals. Now Tom always used KM105 condensers. Well, habit and ego got changed in that life because seven of their 105s were replaced with PR35s. And it happens day in and day out. I’m here to tell you that there is no other microphone for vocals like the PR 35, PR 31 or the PR 31 BW for drums. We can do an entire band—even an orchestra—we’ve done it. And the sound is phenomenal. The clarity is there. I have an oboe sitting beside a trumpet beside a clarinet beside an oboe with four microphones. You don’t hear anything but the individual instrument in each mic. Why? Because of the response. Because of that wonderful omni pattern that stops when you get behind the phasing plug, and 40dB of rear [rejection]—it doesn’t hear anything from the sides or rear. And that’s the story of Heil Sound.
Look at all the people who have been design engineers for me—Joan Baez…[laughs], Paul Rogers, and it the list goes on and on. A lot of these people know me from the old days. They know something’s going to happen when I show up with my soldering iron.
The HUB: I enjoy going to acoustic music festivals where you’ll see acts like The Del McCoury bluegrass band all gathered around a single mic, each member leaning in with their vocals. What do you think of that simple, less-is-more kind of approach to miking?
BH: I’ve always wondered, why do you use all these microphones today. We did the Who’s Next tour with The Who with 15 channels. Then we did the Quadrophenia tour with only about 25 microphones. I just read something about a 53-microphone setup. You get all these problems—especially if they’re not my microphones. You’re going to get phasing problems. You’re going to be getting all this crap coming in from the rear—they don’t cut that out like we do. You just get this mish-mosh. Again, they’re not mentally dissecting what they hear, and it’s really sad. A number of bluegrass bands are using the PR 30 and they love it. because they hear nothing from the back. Bob Workman uses 31 or 32 microphones on the stage with zero EQ.
But getting back to the bluegrass groups, they love the PR 30 and PR40. The 40 goes down an octave lower—it'll go down to 28 cycles. It’s got that really nice, articulate Heil sound with a rise at 4kHz. I’ve got a lot of guys who swear by the PR40. They hear a whole new sound; it’s not that raspy top end. You can’t really do that with mandolins and banjos—they’re real critical up there.
I went out with Sully Sullivan, one of the big FOH guys—I think he’s out with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke right now. He does super-band stuff. A couple of years ago, he had all our microphones on stage with Sheryl Crow. We didn’t have the capsule yet, so she used a 58 on her wireless. The only EQ on the board was on the 58. These are things people should know when they’re out shopping for a microphone. You don’t buy them because of the brand or out of habit. You listen and you’ll find that what we have done an amazing move in the technology that changes how your audience hears you—and that’s what it’s all about.
The HUB: Being able to run with zero EQ on the mics sounds like an ideal scenario. A lot of our customers are in small bands that have to run their own sound. They have to ring out the room and hopefully take care of any frequencies that are going to feedback before they begin playing. Do you have any advice for those bands who have to set the faders and hope for the best?
BH: I do it in probably a very strange way. First of all, I set up the microphones where they would normally be, and then I try to simulate the levels I will have during the show and start running things up to see which ones are going to feedback first. Where that happens I lower the gain a little bit. Listen to where its feeding back. Are all of them feeding back at the same frequency? If they are, that means the room is vibrant at that frequency.
The other thing you can do, and it’s inexpensive these days because you can do it with iPads, is take pink noise and white noise and run it through the system and listen to which of the sounds are predominant. The rooms going to be very bright at 4k. You might have a problem at 400 cycles too. You need to spend time listening—mentally dissecting what’s going on. And for not very much money, you can buy yourself an analyzer. That makes it so easy for the young bands. I have a program on my iPad that I use when I do workshops. It’s got the various tones and frequencies, and of course, pink noise—it’s wonderful.
Right off the bat, most rooms are going to have a monster peak in-between 300 and 500 cycles. The first thing to do—I would hope they have a parametric or graphic EQ—is take out of the mix. Those are the noises that annoy the crap out of people. You don’t have to get rid of it entirely, just balance it out. I also punch up a couple of DBs starting at about 3kHz out to about 6kHz—right in that articulate range. And that’s all you have to do. Its not a big deal today with the right microphones. You want to get rid of that “woof-woof” at around 400 cycles and you may have another problem area an octave or two below that; harmonics can play a part in that.
But you’re never going to get a room flat. There are multi-million dollar recording studios that are not flat.
The HUB: Not unless the band is playing in an anechoic chamber are they going to get that completely flat environment.
BH: That’s right.
The HUB: Aside from the artists and FOH people you’ve gotten feedback from, have there been any others who have helped you form your views on reproducing great live sound?
BH: I was honored to have Paul Klipsch, the guy who almost singlehandedly brought hi-fi to the world, call me up around '72 or '73. He wanted to come to Marissa, Illinois to see what I was doing, so he flew up and spent the day with me. I had this monster 30,000-watt system. He was floored. He had never seen that many power amplifiers before—and such a waste of power. He was really an efficiency bug.
So he put me in his plane and flew me down to Hope, Arkansas, where he lived. He taught me more stuff than a college education. I came back home and my 30,000-watt system became 10,000 watts. And it was louder, cleaner, and more articulate with a third the power. Just because he taught me how to load speakers in a cabinet, about the efficiency of speakers, and about articulation. He introduced me to the Fletcher-Munson Curve. Fletcher and Munson figured out how our ears work, and that our ears are far from flat. If you know about the Fletcher-Munson Curve of the human ear, you can adjust the sound system to make up for those little deficiencies, and bingo—articulation comes alive! Everything I've done in my career has been about articulation. Very few people even understand what that word means.
The HUB: In a live sound setup, how would you rank the importance of the components that are used in the overall sound?
BH: Well, you've got a chain: a microphone, mixer, signal processing, power amps, speakers and horns. I recommend that you focus on the transducers—things that change energy from one form to another. Spend the most on speakers with the right power amps. The speakers are one of two system transducers. After you've got the right speakers, don't buy cheap mics! Microphones are the other transducer in the system and the sound of the PA starts with the mic and ends with the speakers. Cheap mics lack vocal definition and have poor articulation, and you can't fix that with any kind of speaker, mixer, or signal processing. Remember, you can't fix acoustical problems like bad mics with electrical solutions like a mixer. Start with great transducers and go from there.
The HUB: You invented one of the most famous guitar effects ever. Tell us how the Heil Talk Box came to be.
BH: Joe Walsh had recorded "Rocky Mountain Way" using an 8" speaker and a funnel, a device used in Nashville by the steel guitar players. Well, it wasn't very loud so you couldn't use it live. So here we are, two ham radio operators on a Sunday afternoon out in my plant. We grabbed a 250-watt JBL, built a low-pass filter, got all the plumbing together, and voila—the Talk Box. That's how it started. After that tour, everybody's going nuts! "What's this thing he's got?" So I put together a commercial unit called the Heil Talk Box. Then Peter Frampton's girlfriend, Penny, called me wanting a Christmas present for Peter. So I sent a Talk Box. The rest of the story writes itself from there.
You can check out the full selection of Heil Sound microphones and other gear at Musician’s Friend here.