Beck may have two turntables, but Mark Pirro’s copper microphone is where it’s at.
In addition to Beck, Jack White, Sam Smith, Snoop Dogg, Norah Jones and St. Vincent all use Pirro’s “copperphone,” an unique microphone he first created using PVC pipe and duct tape.
Pirro, who builds the microphones in the workshop behind his East Dallas home, came by his audio success honestly. While attending the University of North Texas, his guitar-playing neighbor Wes Berggren was looking to start a band. When Berggren met Tim DeLaughter at an acting conservancy, Pirro joined and the three formed Tripping Daisy.
Peaking during the 1990s wave of alternative rock, the band’s success took Pirro by surprise. “I didn’t know that I was ready for what was about to happen,” Pirro says. They signed to a major label, began to tour and record. Soon, their song “I Got a Girl” was No. 6 on the alternative rock charts and made its way to extended play on MTV.
Pirro’s early success is embodied by the time he heard a nearby car playing his song on the radio while he was in college at UNT. Tragically, Berggren died in 1999 of a drug overdose, but Pirro would continue to work with DeLaughter, forming The Polyphonic Spree in 2000.
Spree is a 25-piece symphonic rock band, complete with a 10-person choir and numerous instruments that played Austin City Limits and toured with David Bowie. DeLaughter’s audio vision for the band made for complicated sound engineering, and his attempts to incorporate an AM radio effect gave Pirro an idea.
Beginning with PVC pipe and duct tape, Pirro taught himself how to make a microphone they could use on tour to create the desired effect. The sound is similar to what you may hear announcing a special or clean up in a grocery store. The microphone wasn’t pretty, so Pirro dressed it up by building the same microphone with copper. In 2003, the “copperphone” was born.
What started as a chance to save money (copper was cheaper at the time) became an asset. As Spree toured, artists began to inquire about the hand-crafted lo-fi effect microphones. “The mics were advertisements themselves,” he says. “They were ear and eye grabbing.”
The business began to take off, and as the band aged and toured less, Pirro was able to put more time into the business. Today, Pirro’s company, Placid Audio, makes six different copper microphones, which sell for $260 or more each. The latest model, the RU-80, uses Soviet military-grade components to create its unique sound.
Pirro’s microphones made the news in 2004, when airport security thought the copper device in Polyphonic Spree drummer Brian Teasley’s bag was a pipe bomb. DFW Airport shut down and emptied out, and FBI agents waited for Teasley when he landed. His bags were destroyed by high-powered water cannons, but the microphone made it through unscathed.
Today, Pirro is married to former Radio City Rockette Stephanie Dolph and has two young children. He still plays music when he can, but his stacks of ideas for new microphones in his workshop keep him busy, and he enjoys the innovative process. “Now there are no rules. It is more experimentation,” he says. “It’s reckless abandon.”
Photo: Danny Fulgencio