A hearty, big thank you goes out to Duncan Driscoll of Blacksburg for driving around the countryside on fall weekends. He stumbled on the Wildwood Farms General Store some five miles south of Floyd, discovering, among other things, their penchant for day lilies and Saturday night live, foot stompin’ music. He pulled out his cell phone with photos of a microphone on the stage.
“This,” Driscoll told me, “is one intricate, high end microphone made in Willis.”
Now Willis is a very small place, an incorporated community with a post office, a store, the delightful Mountain Song Inn, beautiful valleys, hills and creeks and a few handfuls of people. What blew me away when I checked the microphone company website and clicked on dealers and distributors was the list: Asia, Australia, Canada, Europe, Russia, South and Central America and the U.S.
Entrepreneurs extraordinaire, John and Mary Peluso, moved to their 120 acres of pure southwestern Virginia countryside 17 years ago. Of course, wonderful people, beautiful scenery and low taxes are huge draws, but also air quality and water quality ~ things the rest of us take for granted ~ factored into their decision to leave the greater Chicago area. Once here, they started Peluso Microphone Lab.
“I saw the high demand for real vintage microphones,” John says, and he set out to design sonically accurate reproductions of the most sought after vintage microphones. They needed to have the same build quality and ease of service of the best vintage mics and had to be priced in a range that left room in the budget to run a studio. Most of all, each one needed to have the warm, smooth, balanced sound that vintage mics had when they were new.
Their story begins in the 1960s when a much younger, long-haired version of John was in the right place at the right time. He was a technician in a recording studio, and when the recording engineer didn’t show up, Peluso was asked to handle the band. It was B.B. King. From there, he worked with well-known RCA, Sony and AKG microphones, but it was the German-made Neumann mikes and a strange man that piqued his interest and honed his skills.
A second event of being in the right place at the right time was an elevator accident in a recording studio building. Peluso heard the crash and found people trapped in the elevator box at the bottom of the shaft. He pried open the doors, then transported an older gentleman named Verner Ruvalds to the hospital and back. He may have been a secretive physicist, but Ruvalds was a master microphone maker from whom John learned the intricacies of the soul of a microphone. “He loved to talk about building microphones, and I loved to listen and learn, ‘til 2 and 3 in the morning many times,” John remembers. All he ever knew personally about the man was that he was kidnapped in Latvia and forced to work in the Neumann [microphone] factory in Germany. At the Berlin Olympics in 1936, German Chancellor Adolph Hitler opened the ceremonies with a speech that reached the world through the state-of-the-art (for its day) Neumann bottle mike. It was so often used by the Fuehrer and Nazi Party that it was dubbed “The Hitlerflasche” (Hitler Bottle).
After World War II, the Neumann factory created the first condenser microphone that could change the pattern of sound with the flip of a switch, the U47. This took high fidelity to a new high, so to speak, and it was used by Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, the Beatles and many more throughout the 1960s. This is the main staple of Peluso Microphone Lab, though they produce another dozen kinds of microphones, each one by hand and by ear. Every microphone uses the highest quality of modern and vintage components sourced from around the world before it is tested with both a human listening test and a computer frequency response test.
John, Mary and her son, Chris Newitt, are the team behind the Peluso products and collaborate on everything. “We have three machinists at Virginia Tech and a couple of engineers who help part-time,” John explains. “Mary builds microphones and handles all the finances. She’s an amazing buyer with great relationships with our suppliers. Chris builds microphones, and he’s doing all the layout and aesthetic design on our preamps, which is his first major design project here – the upcoming Peluso vacuum tube and solid-state microphone preamps.”
The lab is housed on the second floor over a couple garage bays, and they constructed a warehouse and a shipping and receiving building. Mary has a pottery studio, and they also built two super nice little cabins for getaways where one can really get away (www.indiancreekcabins.com). “This is the best place in the world to live,” they exclaim. I guess that means to live, to work, to design, to think, to rest. The commute is short, the job is fun, the scenery is spectacular. They have it all ~ right here in the New River Valley.
Text by Joanne M. Anderson
Photo courtesy of Peluso Microphone Lab