A little studio and home office in Summerland generates some of the biggest sounds heard around the world.
With 45 years of sound engineering expertise behind him, CEO and designer of Advanced Audio microphones Dave Thomas has grown a following for his high-quality microphones that spans Grammy-award winning producers to start-up project studios.
Mashing vintage with modern, the microphones have been used by Kings of Leon, Joel Plaskett and Elvis Costello to name a few and recorded audio for the film Pitch Perfect 2, but not before getting Thomas’ seal of approval from his Summerland residence — which also operates as the base for his family-run company that includes his life partner Jill.
“A great microphone company should be like a trusted friend — approachable, reliable, honest, knowledgeable and lots of fun,” said Thomas.
The exact reputation the experimental-electronics man has grown. Thomas has been a technician in and around studios in Vancouver since the early ‘70s. After getting out of the recording business he was looking for some microphones for his own use.
“I was looking for some microphones for myself that were as good as the old German tube microphones that we had, the classic mics from that era,” Thomas said.
Having performed surgery on amplifiers, keyboards and other gear -— and assisted and fraternized with touring superstars of the day like Fleetwood Mac, Jimi Hendrix and others — he decided to take his expertise for fiddling with circuits and build a better microphone. He ordered some basic microphones from China with a tube circuit in them and modified them to his own specifications.
“I upgraded them to make the circuit work better. There was a little flaw in the tube and we changed some other components, redesigned the electronics basically, but kept it a tube microphone which gives you that lovely warm vocal sound that people want on recordings,” Thomas said.
Around the year 2000, Thomas started ordering more Chinese microphones and rebuilt them and took them to a studio in North Vancouver, where studio runner Paul Baker grew attached.
“He wouldn’t return them to me, he wanted to buy them from me,” Thomas said. “So I’d go buy another Chinese microphone near retail and rebuild it and somebody would use it in Paul’s studio.”
Word of mouth spread and bands started asking for Thomas to build his one-of-a-kind microphones for them. He started a website and things grew from there into a suite of microphones he sells.
Now Thomas gets emails from big-time producers praising his mics, and he doesn’t even have to ask.
He recently received an email from Jack Douglas, an American record producer who was an engineer on The Who’s Who’s Next? album and John Lennon’s Imagine.
“Advanced Audio has nailed the CM251 dead on. I love how easily it brings the source right to the front of the mix. This microphone captures tone from top to bottom, at the same time it’s robust and sturdy taking everything I throw at it,” Douglas said in an email to Thomas.
“We didn’t solicit that, we just asked for his comments on the microphone. We didn’t give him one, he actually bought it. We gave him a professional discount because it’s Jack Douglas,” Thomas laughed.
After a demand started to build, Thomas eventually visited the family-run factory he had been ordering the microphones from in Shanghai.
“Now they build the circuits the way we want,” he said.
The business expanded to different models including an homage to the U47 microphone famously used by Frank Sinatra.
“When I put mine up against a real one, because I restore them from time to time for guys, I couldn’t really tell you which one was which,” Thomas said.
Thomas’ mic does have the advantage of not taking an hour to warm up.
“That’s all we had back then, you had to turn them on an hour before we came in,” he said.
The microphones may be so well reviewed because they take the best parts of past and current recording technology.
“It’s traditional circuits with modern components,” Thomas said.
“All our microphones are based on sort of traditional ones that have been used over the years and produced incredible sounding records and sounds and just reproducing those.”
The mics blend the ease of modern components to the classic staying power of older tube models. They get assembled and tested in China then shipped back to Summerland where Thomas puts them through one last quality check.
Advanced Audio’s sales are around $250,000 a year, with none of the products breaking a $1,000 price tag, something that raises eyebrows around the industry as well. Some professional microphones ring in at up to $5,000.
The mics can now be ordered online and Thomas said he has been taking less orders over the phone, although people still call to chat with him.
Advanced Audio’s growing reputation eventually put Thomas in front of his hero, famed record producer and audio engineer Chuck Ainlay, who now has two of Thomas’ mics.
Ainlay has worked with Mark Knopfler on his solo work as well as some Dire Straits projects. He also engineered country music singer Lee Ann Womack’s The Way I’m Livin’ which was nominated for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical at the 2015 Grammy Awards. That album used a CM67 Advanced Audio microphone.
“If you go and listen to the The Way I’m Livin’ by Lee Ann Womack and listen to the vocals, it’s pretty amazing,” Thomas said. “She’s an amazing vocalist, the trick is to capture that.”
Another CM67 was sung into by Grammy winners Lady Antebellum, a Nashville country music group recorded by Ainlay.
Having his microphones praised and used around the world, including a new deal recently struck with Universal Music South Africa, has Thomas living the dream.
“It’s amazing. It’s like a dream come true,” he said.