Published: September 09, 2000

The New York Times

Stalinesque Lines, But a Silky Sound; Man, That's One Ugly Microphone

A small Soviet-era factory called Oktava has a well-known fan: the musician Sting. The reason? Its microphones.

The company, based in this small city three hours south of Moscow, was focused primarily on weapons production in Soviet times. But since the 1950's, when Moscow ordered mass production for everything from recording studios to telecommunications equipment, it has been making microphones that have lately found an unlikely global success.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the company has compensated for the lack of state purchases with unusual buyers: American and British rock musicians. Since it began exporting in 1994, revenues have more than doubled, mainly through the sale of the microphones, which musicians say are cheap, high-quality and some of the ugliest they've ever seen.

''We nicknamed it the electric razor,'' said Hugh Padgham, a London-based recording engineer who has done albums for Sting and the Police and bought an older version of the microphones about 10 years ago. ''Because it's so cheap and badly made, you're always slightly suspicious why it should sound so good.''

As creaky, Soviet-era enterprises struggle to shed outdated equipment and oversized work forces, Oktava is thriving. It is a rarity among Russian consumer goods companies, whose products normally cannot compete internationally because of poor quality. But Oktava has turned superb engineering from half a century ago into profits today.

''Tula is best known for its spice cookies, guns, and samovars,'' said Gennady I. Ulyanov, Oktava's general director. ''And now for its microphones,'' he added with a grin.

The company is unusual because it has capitalized on its Soviet-era expertise in a competitive industry. Stepping into the factory is like going back in time. Receptionists answer clunky telephones that look much like the display models in the company museum. An exhibit titled ''The First Stakhanovites'' proudly displays the factory's first labor heroes. (Stakhanov was the name of a productive miner, whom the government held up as an heroic example in a publicity stunt in the 1930's.)

Displayed along another wall is a light pink radio the factory made for Stalin on his 70th birthday. Company management has remained virtually unchanged since the early 1990's.

''Nothing in particular has changed,'' said Mr. Ulyanov, a pleasant man with a brilliant row of gold teeth, who was a Communist Party member for years and who began in the plant in 1963 as a lathe operator.

It was in exactly this state that two British brothers, who would later become Oktava's exclusive distributors, found the company in 1993. Fergus McKay and his brother, Andy, both studying to be sound engineers, came across an Oktava microphone in their college recording studio. They asked their father, who ran a food import company in Moscow, to track down the factory. He returned to England with a box full of them. But before the brothers could return for more, the model was discontinued. They contacted the factory, persuaded it to resume production, and signed a contract.

''It was a Russian product -- something no one had ever seen before,'' said Fergus McKay, of A & F McKay Audio Ltd. ''The interest was enormous.''

Even the name of the microphone sounded threatening -- the MK 219. Reviewers praised its sound quality but were astounded at the lack of attention to its appearance. In 1994, when the microphones were released, one trade magazine wrote, ''extremely nice sounding mic, not likely to get stolen,'' while another wrote that it looked as though it had been ''cast from an Aeroflot tea trolley.'' Its homeliness, in fact, became one of its main selling points, Fergus McKay said.

Now the microphones are known throughout the world. Musicians and sound engineers were lured first by the price -- Mr. Padgham paid about $140 for his microphones when a comparable one made by Neuman of Germany cost about $1,700 -- and later by the appearance. Sales at the McKays jumped from 20 microphones a month in 1994 to about 2,000 now. Oktava's annual revenue has doubled to 500 million rubles ($18 million) since it began exporting. The quality, however, can be spotty and does not compare with the more expensive German microphones. The Russian mikes are bought mainly by younger and semi-professional musicians who are starting recording studios at home.

''The thing that kept me from wanting to buy them as a consumer is the variability from unit to unit,'' said Steven Albini, a freelance recording engineer based in Chicago who has used other Russian microphones for about 10 years. ''But if I was just starting out, I'd be buying handfuls of them.''

Mr. Albini prefers the older Russian microphones because they were built mostly with vacuum tubes instead of transistors. As a result, they produce a warmer, better recorded sound. Russia kept that technology for years after American producers abandoned it. He frequently uses microphones made in the 1950's by the St. Petersburg-based company LOMO, and has recorded albums for P J Harvey, Nirvana, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page with them. Oktava plans to re-release an old-style microphone by the end of the year.

Russian-made products are inexpensive, in part because labor and local materials cost far less than in Western markets. Most of the components Oktava uses are domestically produced. The average salary at the plant is about 1,300 rubles, or about $50 a month. Though the factory is still sprawling, with a work force of about 2,000, that is down from 5,000 just after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Still, the success of its microphones abroad has not erased all financial difficulties at home. The company is paying off the tax debt it racked up in the early 1990's, before it found new buyers. Without any bank loans or outside investors it often runs short of capital to expand.

Despite his long history as a plant worker, Mr. Ulyanov, 59, has adapted to management well. The company opened a marketing department in the early 1990's to compete better domestically. It has also bought new equipment. It now exports about 30 percent of what it produces, up from 6 percent just after the Soviet collapse.

The government owns about 60 percent of the company, while private shareholders, mostly workers, own the rest, said Mr. Ulyanov, who himself owns 1 percent. It was founded in 1927, and produced mostly radios and loudspeakers until the 1950's.

Russian musicians most often find Oktava when flipping through glossy Western music magazines, Mr. Ulyanov said. ''Made in Russia'' has meant poor quality for so long that most seek imported goods when they want high technology.

''They call us and say, 'It can't be you -- here, in Russia, in Tula?' '' he said.