AKG at 70

by George Peterson
in Milestones
From its humble beginnings in post-war Austria, the company has blossomed to become a world leader in audio technology, distributing its products in more than 140 countries.
From its humble beginnings from the basement of this building in post-war Vienna, Austria, AKG has blossomed to become a world leader in audio technology, distributing its products in more than 140 countries.

This month, AKG celebrates its 70th anniversary. From its humble beginnings in post-war Austria, the company has blossomed to become a world leader in audio technology, distributing its products in more than 140 countries. Given this accomplishment, we thought we would look back at the company’s history and examine a few of the significant products that arose along the way.

Rising out of the shambles that was Vienna in the wake of Allied bombardments during the second world war, two Viennese gentlemen — physicist Dr. Rudolf Görike and engineer Ernst Pless — launched Photophon, a company for manufacturing of film projectors and related equipment. The company was founded on Görike’s particular expertise and on a solid marketing basis, as movies were the great escape for many in the bleak landscape of postwar Europe. One consequence of the war was that most of the movie theaters in Vienna had been destroyed or looted, and finding replacements for stolen or damaged projectors and sound systems proved nearly impossible. The two men purchased old equipment from the stock of a closed factory in Hungary and sold it to the movie houses of Vienna.

For business reasons, Görike and Pless soon after changed the company name to AKG, which stands for Akustische und Kino-Geräte Gesellschaft mbH (Acoustic and Film Equipment). The long version was shortened simply to AKG in 1965, when the company discontinued its film equipment business. Of course, today, AKG is among the world’s leading manufacturers of high-quality headphones (consumer and pro), microphones and wireless systems for professional users.

One of AKG’s first products was the PC 2535G, a portable coaxial speaker system for cinema playback

As part of AKG’s core business to equip cinemas with loudspeakers and film projectors, Görike began building loudspeakers and refurbishing projectors with a small group of dedicated workers in the basement of a building in Vienna’s 15th district, at 50 Nobilegasse street. Money was scarce and Pless often supplied cinema products in trade, for food or cigarettes, rather than currency.

From an audio standpoint, one of the more interesting early AKG products was the PC 2535G, a portable speaker designed for film playback. Just over 16 inches tall and 46 pounds, it incorporated a coaxial driver with a then-impressive 25-watt handling and an equally envious (for the time) frequency response of 40 Hz to 12k Hz — all housed in molded aluminium frame.

The DYN 60 was one of AKG’s first microphone products.

‡‡         Entering the Mic Market

However, from the earliest days, an intense interest developed in AKG microphones, particularly its first offerings in its DYN 60 series of dynamic models, which were created by five workers in that tiny Nobilegasse facility. Rugged and good sounding, the DYN 60 quickly caught on, And soon — within the first year of the company’s conception — radio stations, theaters, jazz clubs and cabarets were using these early handmade AKG microphones. In years following, the product range became more tailored to markets in high demand, such as car horns, door intercoms, carbon capsules for telephones, headsets for phones (telecommunications products continue to be a large seller for the company) and “pillow” speakers, which were popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

The AKG D12 was the first single-element cardioid dynamic microphone

‡‡         The D12

But the acoustic theme became the center of the fledgling company’s focus, based on Görike’s innovative microphone diaphragm designs. AKG’s first major success, the world’s first single-element cardioid dynamic microphone, the AKG D12, propelled the company’s fortunes even as Pless was delivering orders on a bicycle, and at times accepting payment in the form of black market cigarettes and butter. The D12 microphone also introduced the AKG logo of three overlapping cardioid patterns and continues today as the D12 VR, which has onboard active filters designed specifically with voicings for kick drum. The D12 VR can be used as a conventional dynamic mic or by engaging a 48 VDC phantom supply to power the onboard EQ filters.

AKG’s tube C12 condenser was the first mic with remote control of polar patterns.

‡‡         The AKG C12

It turns out that 1953 was a banner year for AKG. Besides debuting its D12, AKG unveiled its C12, a tube condenser mic design that was the first true multipattern microphone with remote polar control. Developed by AKG engineer Konrad Wolf, the C12 included an external box for selecting any of nine polar patterns, and its slender tubular housing was more compact than Neumann’s U Series and featured internal shock mounting, so no external elastic suspension was required.

The heart of the sound of the C12 is its capsule, which uses a dual-backplate design invented by two Siemens engineers that results in consistent on-axis sensitivity when the polar pattern is changed. The C12’s CK-12 capsule paired the dual-backplate approach with two 10-micron diaphragms. Two years later, the CK-12 capsule was upgraded to 6-micron Mylar capsules.

Besides making history as the first true multipattern microphone with remote polar control, AKG’s C12 sounded great (and is still highly prized today) and laid the foundation for more than a half-century of future AKG mic designs.

A stereo version of the C12, the C24, was created in 1959 by stacking two identical capsules that could be rotated to vary the stereo perspective. As with the C12, the polar patterns of both C24 capsules can be changed — again, nine choices are offered — so the mic is capable of X/Y, Mid-Side or Blumlein (crossed figure-8) stereo miking.

In 1955, AKG established a subsidiary in Germany. At the time, the reputable producers of recording devices, Philips, Grundig, Uher, Loewe, Opta, Nordmende and Telefunken, etc., obtained their microphones from AKG. The majority of AKG’s customers were based in Germany and the supplier in Austria. By the end of the 50’s, AKG had built an international network of distribution partners.

Telefunken’s classic M251 tube mic was actually designed and manufactured by AKG.

‡‡         The Telefunken (AKG) M251

One of the most notable products from this German subsidiary was an agreement to rebrand the C12 for Telefunken in 1959 as the M251 and as Siemens’ SM 204. Telefunken never built studio mics, instead outsourcing manufacturing to companies such as Neumann and AKG, who made models that bore the Telefunken name. In the 1950s, Neumann U47s sold in the USA were distributed through Telefunken, hence a large number of such Telefunken-badged U47s in North America. Eventually, Neumann established its own North American distribution and stopped supplying U47s to Telefunken.

Seeking a high-quality studio replacement, Telefunken asked AKG to create a large-diaphragm, multipattern, tube condenser that — like the U47 — had its pattern control on the mic body, rather than on the power supply, and the result was the ELA M 251 and ELA M 250. The latter was a two-pattern (omni/cardioid) design, while the three-pattern 251 added a figure-8 pickup as well.

All used the proven CK12 capsule also employed in AKG’s famed C-12. Other than body size (the 250/251 mics were much larger than their C-12 cousins) and move to a body-mounted polar pickup switch, a major difference between the C-12 and the 251 came in the form of an innovative design whereby the two halves of the backplate were kept insulated from each other. Electrically separating the two backplate sections and switching between them provided a selection of the three polar patterns.

Nearly a half-century after its introduction, hundreds of vintage Telefunken ELA M251/250’s are in use worldwide and still prized for their smooth vocal reproduction and sparkling high-end response. But credit should be given to AKG for designing this timeless, enduring classic.

In the late-1960s, as tube mics were losing popularity to the “convenience” of solid-state FET designs, the C12 was discontinued, later to resurface in slightly different forms. In 1983, AKG’s “The Tube” used a C-414 capsule with the original C12 tube electronics but in a smaller body. The C12 finally reappeared in a more accurate re-creation in 1994, as the C-12VR (vintage reissue), which paired the C12 electronics with a re-tuned CK-12 capsule that simulated the acoustic signature of the original C12. Some 23 years later, the AKG C-12VR remains in production today.

‡‡         New Markets

In the late 1960’s, AKG successfully entered the Far East and Latin America markets. As TV was steadily replacing cinema as the source for information and entertainment, AKG decided to fade out cinema devices and concentrate on its strength — the construction of mobile electro-acoustic devices. A new market had been created through AKG’s production of portable reverberators, which proved to be a great success, making AKG the world’s first supplier in the product segment. The 1960’s also introduced to the soon-to-be legendary K141 headphones, which had a high demand with both pro and consumer segments.

AKG’s C 414 EB was one in a continuing series of C414 models that continue to this day.

‡‡         AKG C-414

The availability of reliable, quality Field Effect Transistors in the 1960s opened the door for replacing tube mics with compact, solid state models. In 1970, AKG’s Karl Peschel took the CK 12 capsule from the C 12A Nuvistor tube mic and paired it with FET electronics, resulting in the C 412. A year later in 1971, a second bass rolloff position and a fourth polar pattern were added, created the C 414 comb.

From 1974 onwards, AKG engineer Norbert Sobol supervised the C 414 design, adding numerous improvements in audio performance and features along the way. These included the C 414 EB (1976), C 414 EB-P 48 (1980), models C 414 B-ULS and —TL (1986), C 414 B-TL II (1993) and the current C 414 XLS and C 414 XL II models.

With well over 100,000 sold, the C 414 remains a popular choice whether in earlier versions or the latest models — now updated with LED displays and nine polar patterns.

AKG’s BX20 and BX10 offered affordable, portable spring reverberation in a pre-digital era.

‡‡         AKG Goes Public

In 1984 AKG went public and started a new phase of enormous growth. In 1985 the US subsidiary of AKG was founded, followed by other expansions such as the acquisition of dbx Professional Products in 1989. The expansion continued through the beginning of the 1990’s with acquisitions in Great Britain, Germany and other countries.

Expansion was also a key strategy with AKG products: In the early-1990’s AKG took to the stars when the “Audimir” space project used AKG products for room simulation in outer space. AKG continued its product expansion and success with the new generation of headphones called the K Series, the ergonomically-shaped, triangular-section Tri-Power Series dynamic musicians’ microphones, the AKG Blue Line Series modular microphone system, C 547 boundary microphone and C 621, C 647 “slim-line” gooseneck microphones for stage and installed system use.

‡‡         AKG Joins Harman International

In 1994 AKG became a part of Harman International Industries, Inc. The following years brought a time of restructuring and sharpening of the product line and distribution strategy. The wireless microphone line was extended with great products used on tour by Rod Stewart, Peter Gabriel and Simply Red. 1995 brought the introduction of the world’s smallest dual-diaphragm system in the world, the CK 77/C 577 — offering big sound yet was smaller than a thumbnail in size, specifically designed for theater, TV and film use. This successful path continued throughout the 1990’s: AKG debuted product innovations such as the WMS 60 Multichannel Wireless Microphone System and the C 4000 B — the world’s first dual large-diaphragm electret microphone. The new millennium started with an even stronger AKG focus on its core products. A new production strategy was implemented to strengthen the leading technology position of AKG in the world of professional audio.

‡‡         On Into the Future…

For AKG, the hits just keep coming. In 2010, AKG was awarded a Technical Grammy Award for its decades of innovation in professional audio. That same year, the company launched the WMS450 Choir, the world’s first wireless choir mic system for effortlessly capturing vocal groups from a stand-mounted gooseneck module that is height adjustable from six to nine feet.

AKG’s DMS800 reference digital wireless system

Faced with a changing landscape in terms of wireless technologies and changing FCC frequency allocations, AKG launched its current flagship DMS800 reference digital wireless system, which is the direct successor of the popular DMS700 V2, while adding advanced features, such as Dante and AES digital outputs, interchangeable microphone heads and optional remote network control.

The AKG C636 is the company’s flagship handheld vocal microphone

Yet through it all, the most basic unit of audio — microphones — remain high on the company’s radar. AKG recently began shipping its flagship model C636 master reference handheld condenser mic, which builds on its acclaimed C535 microphone. With its proprietary double shock suspension system, 24K gold sputtered diaphragm, low-noise performance, 20 Hz to 20 kHz frequency response and 150 dB SPL handling, the new C636 is a far cry from the DYN 60 dynamic mics coming out of the basement of that unassuming building on Vienna’s Nobilegasse street. Yet somehow, I’m sure that Rudolf Görike and Ernst Pless would be proud that seven decades later, their legacy continues.

For more information about AKG, visit www.akg.com.