When The Polyphonic Spree’s percussionist, Brian Teasley, got off a flight from Dallas Fort Worth Airport in August of 2004 he was tired from a long tour and flight. Making a diversion to the nearest Taco Bell, he quite possibly contemplated the difficult balance between pursuing his dreams of being a touring musician and maintaining a normal home life. Turning the corner onto his road, several police and FBI cars were sitting in front of his house and Teasley was arrested on site. The crime: carrying a Placid Audio Copperphone mic.
The tubular, copper coloured microphone (pictured above) that Teasely carried in his luggage was mistaken as a pipe bomb by airport security, who shut down the airport while they inspected the object. Teasley was released without charge, but decided to let Spree bassist and Copperphone inventor Mark Pirro carry the microphone on tour from that day on.
In fact, several renowned musician and producers - from Dave Fridmann to Jack White and Green Day - can be counted as Copperphone carriers. The cardioid, dynamic microphone was designed to replicate an AM radio sound in the studio and on stage. And with a frequency response of 200Hz – 3kHz, Pirro explains that the crappy-on-purpose sound is exactly what he was aiming for: “Most mics are designed to reproduce a high fidelity response, but I have gone the other way and tried to reproduce sounds that are crappy and low-fi and make them tasteful and useful.
“The components of the Copperphone purposely limit the frequency response. This is partially due to the fact that it is housed in a copper tube, but the length and size of the tube helps as well because of what happens inside the diaphragm. It is like a speaker enclosure; if you pull your speakers out of a cabinet they are going to sound a certain way, but when you put them in a cabinet the air space behind helps accentuate a certain frequency response. I experimented with different lengths of tube and it seemed that six inches was what seemed to work the best to balance the cost and the desired effect.”
The original concept for the Copperphone was conceived in the early days of The Polyphonic Spree as a replacement for outboard processing gear. “Our singer [Tim DeLaughter] really liked the AM radio vocal effect but it was always a pain to use the processor live because the sound guy never new when to turn it on," he says. "I thought it would be easier if we had a mic that created the same effect. I started experimenting with different components and the first version was made out of PVC and held together by tape. I wanted to make something that was durable and attractive, so I went to the hardware store and found some copper pipe, bought a drill press, machined the first one and gave it to DeLaughter. He loved it and a lot of musicians and engineers started asking about it. I realised there was a demand for this, so I started to make a limited number of them because the band at the time was really busy. But because we were touring all over the world I had several opportunities to show people the mic; this is how people like Jack White found out about it. The demand just snowballed from there."
Started as a garage operation at his parent’s house, Pirro has since stepped up production, set up a studio and hired staff to help fill orders. “I have been making microphones for almost 10 years now but have remained a bit under the radar because I cannot devote 100 per cent of my time to making the mics. This has been a good thing in a way because it gives people the sense that they are getting something unique and special. However, I have been working with some independent dealers and I am open to getting involved with more,” he says.
Placid also offers the Harmonica Mini and a prototype of the Carbonphone. Pirro explains: “I had a harmonica player that loved the sound of the Copperphone but it was too big and bulky to hold in his hand so he asked that I make him a smaller one. It doesn’t have the tune-ported chamber and it uses a different diaphragm, so it is a little brighter and rejects feedback a bit better than the Copperphone. I figured that if I put a ring mount on it you could use it in the studio or live as a handheld harmonica mic. I get a lot of guys that want to use it because of its aesthetic."
Pirro has begun production on the high output Carbonphone, but as of yet it is only available as a special order. “The Carbonphone uses a carbon element that I sourced from a company that provides components for tank intercoms and air traffic controller headsets,” he says. “It has a limited bandwidth, but it is a lot more distorted than an intercom. It is really geared towards human speech, but I have used them on snares, kick drums and bass cabs. I am hoping to release it officially soon.”
The Copperphone has been found to be equally at use in the studio as it has on stage for live gigs. As such, Green Day’s engineer bought a Copperphone to reproduce a ham radio guitar sound on tour. “They needed something that wasn’t sensitive to percussion blasts because they have a lot of pyrotechnics in their show and everything else they were using was too sensitive. I think it sounds a little harsh for guitars, but I am working on another microphone that is more of a dynamic mic that will still have a unique frequency response. I am working on some other ideas but the production of the Copperphone is keeping me pretty busy.”
Although the band has been inactive for the past few years, Pirro assures that The Polyphonic Spree is still playing and creating music. He has also joined the Texas psychedelic rock band Menkena. In the meantime, Pirro is hard at work making affordable mics. “I wanted my mics to be accessible to the average person with a laptop and an MBox, but over the years the cost of materials has gone up and shipping and transport costs have risen,” he says. “Even something like a five-cent bolt is now 10 cents, but I have refrained from raising the price to keep it as affordable as possible.
“I have had some criticism from people who say they wouldn’t pay that much for that sound, and there are other methods to get the sound, but people who have used other methods and compared the sound to the Copperphone have told me that they prefer it. It is something very different that you can’t replicate any other way.”