Rodger Cloud sits hovering over an illuminated desk, gently handling a nearly imperceptibly thin piece of medical-grade aluminum. He threads it through a corrugator, which leaves indentations along the approximately four-inch long piece of aluminum. He pulls the protective paper off of the zigzagged aluminum strip with precision, thanks to his trusty tweezers. It flutters in the air, despite the room's lack of ventilation and Cloud trying his best not to even breathe. He places one end of the strip into its fitting, trying not to nick it at all because it dents so easily, and tugs slightly to ensure the tension is just right. Then, ever so carefully, places the other end of the strip in.
This nerve-wracking process is basically impossible if he's had a rough day or even a cup of coffee, so Cloud keeps it calm and upper-free in his office to be sure he has a steady hand. At this point, Cloud has a semi-functional ribbon microphone, though there are a few more steps before it becomes a shippable commodity. This once thought to be obsolete form of recording and performing technology is making a comeback and Cloud is at the forefront of its resurgence with an obsessive dedication to investing in local manufacturing and creating historically accurate products with innovative additions. In short, Cloud Microphones might be Tucson's best-kept sonic secret.
BACK TO LIFE
Resurrecting the ribbon microphone was no easy task and it began, as so many forward-thinking endeavors do, as a hobby. Cloud began buying up old ribbon microphones to fix and sell once people in the recording industry noticed their ability to give a "warm" or "vintage" tone to digital recordings. When analog tape recording was the preferred medium, ribbon microphones fell out of favor because, according to Cloud, the soft recording combined with the soft microphone tone came off as muddy and dull. By the '70s, RCA, the main manufacturer and inventor of the ribbon microphone, stopped producing ribbon mics altogether as the industry shifted towards condenser microphones.
"Modern microphones sound more harsh, especially in a digital context. It's not digital itself that's harsh. It's all about what you put into it," Cloud says. "I built a [ribbon] microphone for my project studio and put it up against a $1,000 mic and it sounded great. I got this feeling that the world would need this."
In 2006, Cloud began researching RCA and its pioneering inventors, Harry F. Olson and Jon R. Sank, even enlisting Sank's son Stephen as a consultant. By reverse engineering the work that both men did in the field, Cloud was able to not only replicate the 1930s technology, but also make modern improvements that make his product more viable in the digital age.
"We weren't trying to clone Olson's [microphone], we were trying to re-imagine it if Olson had today's technology," Cloud says.
SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW
Without getting too technical, all microphones work by converting a sort of kinetic mechanical energy into electrical energy. A ribbon microphone works by converting the vibrations caused when sound waves pass through the aluminum ribbon and its surrounding magnetic field. Similarly, more modern dynamic microphones achieve the vibration effect through a magnetic field surrounding a metal coil. Again, without getting too in-depth, the condenser microphone, which became more popular in the '50s, works without magnets at all, utilizing two conductive plates and electrical charge. Typically, microphones are fed through a pre-amp to adjust for "weak output," especially in the case of a ribbon microphone.
"It's a very organic technology and very simple," Cloud says. "There's a low current created by the magnetic field, but it's also very basic and doesn't add distortion. Condenser mics always add distortion."
However, Cloud designed his ribbon microphones using a proprietary gain circuit that adds what's called "phantom power" to compensate for the lower current put forth from a ribbon microphone, and that small adjustment is what's really drawing attention.
"Phantom power could potentially blow up the ribbon," he says. "Basically we took what was dangerous to the microphone and then put it inside of it."
That advance helped bulk up the "weak output" and "low sensitivity" associated with ribbon mics, which, in turn, means that pre-amp won't have to work so hard later, which, in turn, means less "self-noise" (i.e. static and hissing) in a recording.
"It's about getting it right in the mic, rather than fixing it after the fact," he says.
However, Cloud isn't just improving his own microphones, he's also helping to improve all of the other microphones on the market as well. Using the same patented technology that helps to get a clear sound from his ribbon mics, Cloud designed what's called a "mic activator." If you haven't heard of a mic activator, don't worry. A quick Google search will show you why that is—it's because Cloud invented it.
SOMETHING INNOVATIVE, SOMETHING BLUE
"There's really no one else making anything like that. It's a unique idea and approach," he says of his Cloudlifter line of mic activators. "The word is getting out that it can take a $100 microphone and make it sound like a $1,000 microphone."
While high-end microphones can run well into the thousands, the most basic Cloudlifter is just $149 and the most expensive is $499. When Cloud launched his company in 2009, he says it was the Cloudlifter and its affordable pricing that really jumpstarted his business.
"It was the worst part of the recession and we were trying to launch a high-end microphone company," he says. "It really kicked off our business because it works well with any microphone."
Cloud and general manager Scott Haughey estimate that they sell between 5,000 and 10,000 Cloudlifters annually. The little blue boxes come in four models, which range from relatively basic input hookups to ones outfitted with knobs that can vastly alter the tonal range of any microphone. And that cleaner sound has folks in the industry taking note.
"It's like a light bulb goes on when people hear the difference sometimes," Cloud says. "Their eyes get really wide."
Cloud has earned rave reviews from users and industry magazines alike, even winning prestigious awards more typically won by bigger manufacturing outfits. That same Google search for mic activators will show that those microphone-making giants are even bundling their product with Cloudlifters to ensure their mics have that same clean sound.
"It's nice when Goliath recommends David's product," Haughey says.
Local producer Steven Tracy is the owner of St. Cecila Studios in downtown Tucson. While his boutique studio has only been open for a little over a year, Tracy says he was using Cloud microphones before he even moved to the state.
"I didn't know they were from Tucson so that just made it better," he says. "It's all part of this beautiful symbiotic relationship between musicians and studios in this town."
He's used Cloud microphones to record local favorites like Orkesta Mendoza and Katie Haverly to get a "warm, vintagey" sound on both vocal and instrumental tracks. However, like many in his field, he says it's the Cloudlifter, which he uses with all of his other microphones, that's really become an essential part of his operation.
"I never used one before Rodger brought one over and now I don't know how to record without it," he says.
And it isn't just Tracy that feels that way. Cloud's products have been recognized and utilized in everything from radio broadcasting to electronic music to worship services. Everyone from Pixar to The Misfits to Alan Parsons to Elvis Costello to Capitol Records and many more have been spotted with Cloud tech. Locally, UA's choir, KXCI, Calexico, Wavelab studios and more are using Cloud mics and mic activators.
"You can try to mimic with other microphones what the Cloud mics do or you can just use a Cloud microphone," Tracy says. "I think a lot of people don't know Cloud is from here."
STAYING IN STATE
The funny thing is that saying Cloud is "from here" is actually a massive understatement. Considering that many manufacturing outfits ship jobs overseas and have been for over a decade, Cloud's commitment to manufacturing completely in the United States is impressive.
"It's pretty uncommon to have an all U.S.A.-made microphone," he says. "Everything that we could make in the U.S., we did make in the U.S."
However, when you find out that almost all of the manufacturing, save for two small components that come from California, is done in Arizona, it's downright obsessive—but in a good way.
All of the metal fabrication, which includes the metal casings, the blue powder coat and the silk-screened logo, is done or facilitated by Tucson's Clean Cut Metals. A run of 2,500 units takes just about three weeks for the company to complete. Clean Cut's Teri Lerew estimates that about 15 to 20 percent of all of Clean Cut's work comes through Cloud, but she says the real reason the company is "a joy to work with" is being able to see a project through from its genesis.
"We got to help take it from being a prototype onesie-twoesie unit to a full-blown production," Lerew says.
Lerew adds, other than keeping jobs here in Arizona and promoting the local economy, her metal fabrication outfit is better for a business like Cloud's for a few reasons.
"It was one of their key elements for working with us—that we were a local company that was very easily accessible and could work through problems together," she say. "It meant a lot to them and it means a lot to us as well."
However, selling responsiveness and customer service over questionably cheap pricing is never easy for bottom-line-driven businesses. Lerew says the last 10 years have been humbling for her and other U.S. manufacturers, but there is a silver lining.
"We've been in the manufacturing business for almost 40 years ... we've had to see a lot of business relocated oversees," she says. "It's been a long process but it's actually happening now."
"We've had to buckle down, look at face value and re-evaluate," she continues. "We've been survivors because we've been able to do it."
Lerew says there are "other costs" associated to the "effective pricing" overseas manufacturing offers, and Cloud agrees, citing everything from the labor and environmental issues associated with manufacturing abroad to the price and impact of the oil it takes to ship products to difficulty with issue resolution, should a problem arise with an order.
"I could get cheap Chinese transformers for pennies on the dollar, but we set out to make something for the community," Cloud adds.
It's not just Tucson's community that Cloud is helping by keeping manufacturing in state, though. Cloud's circuit boards are made exclusively by the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona by Tooh Dineh Industries.
Although the company specializes in locomotive and aerospace manufacturing, Tooh Dineh has also had a hand in General Motors in the '80s and Apple in the '90s. Casey Dooley of Tooh Dineh estimates about five percent of their current manufacturing operation is making circuit boards for Cloud, which take about 10 minutes a piece to make.
However, when businesses like Cloud use Tooh Dineh, they're giving back something much more.
"It keeps our employees here and closer to their homes, which helps preserve our culture and preserve our traditions," Dooley says.
"We have employees here with a wide range of ages and some of the older people here speak [the language] and the younger group coming up is not as fluent," Dooley continues, "They interact daily and speak to each other in Navajo and then can go home and share it with their families. It's pretty important and now all of that stays."
For a company invested in keeping sonic traditions like the ribbon microphone alive, that adds an extra bonus to the work. Besides, Cloud says Tooh Dineh's circuit boards are just better, which is part of the reason why his company can offer limited lifetime warranties on their products.
"The quality we get is so superb. I'd say less than one in a thousand is bad," he says.
While others in the microphone biz have offered suggestions on how to cut costs to Cloud, he's just not interested in alternatives to what he sees as the company's moral fiber.
"Its not about profit. We're not shipping jobs off and we're not going to," he says. "We wouldn't be able to sleep at night."
Once all of the components are made and shipped, Cloud sits at that illuminated workbench and meticulously assembles the microphones and mic activators by hand. Haughey sits in the other room, occasionally announcing when orders come in from familiar clients or exotic places, including South Korea, Indonesia, New Zealand, South Africa and parts of South America. Including Cloud and Haughey, the business has just five employees to execute all of the assembling, packaging and shipping involved in the process. True, the small building, located just south of Grant Road off of Stone Avenue, doesn't look like much more than a house, but inside something truly unique is happening.
While the proprietary technology, which has pending and registered trademarks in over 40 countries, draws customers in, it's that unwavering commitment to upholding his company's ideals that makes Cloud Microphones special. Cloud says even the packing peanuts used to ship are biodegradable, and the office is looking to increase their solar powered capabilities. Still, that "deep richness" in sound and its nostalgic quality, which could be compared to the "warmth" audiophiles say vinyl carries, is what drew Cloud in the first place.
"The ribbon mic was the first high fidelity microphone. It's responsible for the way music sounded in the '30s all the way until the '60s," he says. "Really, it changed music forever."
For more information on Cloud Microphones, including purchasing, visit the company's website at www.cloudmicrophones.com.