The history and legacy of the European microphone manufacturer.
Europe seems to be the birthplace of several major musical product manufacturers, particularly when it comes to high-end studio microphones. From Neumann and Sennheiser through to AKG, Schoeps and beyond, some of the most revered microphones in recording history have originated from the continent, and while some may have since shifted their headquarters to various parts of the world, there’s no denying that their legacies still linger strong back in the motherland.
While many of those aforementioned classics do tend to hail from Europe’s more populous regions, it’d be a poor decision to overlook the output of those studio wunderkinds that reside over in the Eastern Bloc. Take Russia, for example; The former Soviet powerhouse is, among many others, renowned for creating top-tier studio gear that sounds incredible and is tougher than a tank, and no brand examples this quite like Oktava does.
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Founded all the way back in 1927 as a radio repair workshop in Tula, Oktava’s origin story is quite possibly one of the most interesting tales in music equipment manufacturing folklore. After beginning to dabble in microphone and loudspeaker design in the late 1930s, the company was forced to evacuate its factories in 1941 to flee the carnage of Operation Barbarossa. After the German army failed to push further into the USSR, Oktava’s technicians were able to return to Tula and reconstruct the factory, and began producing mine-detectors, loudspeakers and microphones to assist in the Russian war effort.
Following the conclusion of World War II, Oktava was again called upon by the Kremlin to create a run of 100-watt loudspeakers, which were installed in Moscow’s Red Square to convey state-endorsed messages to civilians. The company would later prove itself to be a forerunner in the design and manufacturing of small-sized phones and compact microphones, one of which was strapped onto the suit of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin as he blasted off into orbit to become the first man in space in 1961.
Since then, Oktava has retained a strong relationship with the Russian military, producing an assortment of public address equipment, wired intercom systems, warning equipment and aviation headsets. However, the Tula-based plant has also grown to become a globally renowned microphone manufacturer in its own right, largely due to the ‘zero-defect’ production system implemented in 1964. By striving to uphold such a high level of quality control, the company became a cult-favourite of many studio engineers fortunate enough to come across an Oktava microphone outside of Russia, with models such as the ML-16 and ML-19 ribbon microphones and the transformerless FET MC012 condenser, which even featured a detachable capsule.
Following the disintegration of the USSR, Oktava began shipping their products globally through an exclusive partnership in 1994 with Britain’s Fergus and Andy McKay. It’s safe to say they definitely made an impact. While their radically Soviet designs may have been the source of ire among buyers initially, many producers and engineers began to discover the true merits in the studio and word of their worth began to fly between the musical masses.
With the likes of Steve Albini, Jack White, Sting and Radiohead all being noted fans of their products, Oktava experienced a huge boost in popularity, and their finances soon followed suit, with the company’s annual revenue doubling to a commendable $18 million in less than six years after it began exporting. Even when the partnership with the McKay brothers eventually came to an end, Oktava continued to strive for greatness, hand-making and testing their microphones in Russia before shipping them to ensure their quality was nothing short of top notch. The company even lent a gracious hand in launching fellow Russian mic manufacturers Soyuz, living up to its long-standing reputation as a true comrade for the people.
Nowadays, an Oktava continues to be a welcome (if not slightly peculiar) sight to see in a mic locker, with models like the MK-319 and MK-52 being the mic of choice for several big name engineers when working with guitar cabs and acoustic instruments. Meanwhile, MK-101s and MK-2500s are considered as quality all-rounders to suit an assortment of applications, and the MKL-111 and MKL-5000 are acclaimed as relatively affordable tube condensers with a sparkle that’s perfect for pop vocalists. Even the brutish MK-219 cardioid microphone, which was one of the manufacturer’s first mics to be embraced by the West, is still considered a holy grail when found in the studio, and is a killer weapon when used on vocals.
However, if there’s any Oktava microphone that should be deemed legendary, it’s surely the MK-012. This Cold War-era pencil condenser makes use of a fully modular design, allowing users to switch the capsule from a figure eight to a cardioid, hypercardioid, omni as well as medium and large diaphragm capsules. When paired in stereo, they’re perfect for recording overheads, acoustic guitars, choirs and orchestras, and the fact that there’s so many interchangeable capsules makes them an easy first choice for a number of engineers within professional settings.
As the company charges into its tenth decade of operation, it seems as if Oktava Microphones can truly do no wrong. The Tula-based plant has come a long way since its radio days, and its historic significance to Russia certainly shouldn’t be understated. Whether found in the interior of a spacecraft flying through outer space or angled against a closed-back cab to produce the goods during a late night studio session on earth, everything’s a little better when it involves an Oktava.
Within Australia, their distributor Gsus4 has partnered with Sydney based Messiah Studios to allow engineers interested in these specialty microphones to test them out in a professional environment.
For all things Oktava Microphones, head to Gsus4.