Sound Legacy Makeover

Development efforts breathe new life into iconic microphone manufacturer Oktava.

Located in the city of Tula, a 3-hour drive from Moscow, Oktava is a microphone factory-turned cultural hotspot that magnetizes crowds from its local surroundings and the capital. INRUSSIA travelled there to find out how a Soviet-era manufacturer and a modern playground can coexist under one roof.

Tula is primarily associated with its engineering and precision electronics plants, and most locals have worked in this industry for several generations. Located in the city centre, Oktava has largely remained in a state of decay since the 1990s, until a strategy to modernize the factory and its neighbourhood was implemented in 2017.

Our acquaintance with Oktava begins with its workshops. As we pass through the security checks we enter the heart of its manufacturing – the assembly line – where we are met by Alexander Mukhanov, a former engineer at Oktava, who is now at the helm of its sales expansion. The production volumes at Oktava sharply decreased during the 1990s as a result of a decline in state-guaranteed orders for the planned economy. Soon, hundreds of people would lose their jobs, leaving the workshops empty and unheated during the winter periods.

The factory struggled to find customers abroad and it was during these difficult times that Oktava microphones found appreciation among the western rock musicians – Radiohead’s album “OK Computer” was recorded using MK-012 model. Among others who favoured Oktava’s mics were Bryan Ferry, David Sylvian and U2. In recent years, the factory has been slowly but steadily recovering, with its main task the boosting of exports. “The western people are very picky about spending money, they won’t buy something if it’s not worth it,” says Alexander. “Our microphones are still handcrafted and inexpensive at the same time, that’s what makes us stand out from our competitors”.

Though the modern manufacturing process  requires significantly fewer people than it did during Oktava’s production heyday, in the final stages the microphones are assembled manually in close to lab-like conditions. In one such unit women meticulously put together the detailed components with a jeweller’s precision. For some, the work involves manipulating the mic to make sure the resultant sound meets the desired standard. The unit itself is full of light and perfectly clean. “If you expected to see heavy smoke falling out of the chimneys and worn-out workers, you’d better go to the product design section – that’s where all the steam is coming out right now,” says Svetlana, one of the workers. Despite the high engineering standards and sound qualities of Oktava microphones, the products' design and usability define their global commercial success – aspects that apparently were not considered to be of a primary importance during the Soviet years. Recently, a new organisational structure was formed at Oktava, which is responsible for both product development and design. When commenting on that, Svetlana laughs: “We thought product design is about how it looks, but it turned out it’s not just that. You can make a grid that looks nicer, but the sound will be poor, so we’re always on a quest for balance”.

The sound of Oktava products is embedded into the memory of most Russians.  During the World War II, the emergency announcements, voiced by Yury Levitan, were broadcast through Oktava’s loudspeakers all across the Soviet Union. 20 years later, just before the Soviet Union's first space flight, Yuri Gagarin said his famous “Poekhali” (“Let's Go”) into the Oktava microphone built-in into his helmet. 

Oktava takes its roots from Tula’s society of radio enthusiasts founded in 1927. The group’s workshop eventually was turned into a factory providing radio equipment for the whole Soviet Union. The first dynamic microphone was manufactured there in 1936, the same year they launched their own acoustics lab and in-house production of cast permanent magnets. During wartime, the factory was relocated to the city of Perm and shifted to military production, manufacturing items for field communication. After the war Oktava returned to civil manufacturing and eventually gained greater recognition at trade fairs in Europe.

However, in the new century manufacturing no longer required the vast spaces that had been so essential in the past. As a result, the huge factory space in the very centre of the city remained idle for a long time. It was decided to modernize the workshops and dedicate a portion of the area to the cluster – an urban space that might help overcome some of the region’s social and economic challenges.

Leaving the factory, we enter a different realm, where a preparation for the next public talk is underway – that’s where the cluster part of Oktava begins. There are many vast freshly-painted open spaces, largely empty between the events that attract delegations of guests. Cluster is a symbiosis of an interactive machine tool museum, spaces for public talks, screening and concerts and simply a meeting point for the youth, first of its kind in Tula. During the summer, the cluster yard was filled with art kids never seen on the streets of Tula before. The cluster also boasts a free technological library, available to the public and a “Fablab maker” – digital engineering workshop for visitors, where one can learn to work with Arduino modules. Now that the idea of a so-called third place where people could just hang around and socialize was introduced, it also triggered the emergence of other creative businesses in its neighbourhood.  

The museum’s curator Daria has a personal connection with the place. Having studied art history in Venice, as soon as she found out about the cluster, she did not hesitate to get involved. Both her grandfather and great grandfather worked at Oktava. “I remember walking past that decaying factory during my entire childhood, in comparison with how grand it used to be, according to my grandfather,” she  recalls.

Daria’s example is not unique. The cluster brought many specialists back to Tula, who thought they had left their hometown behind a long time ago. The cluster team is made up of people  who moved to Moscow and other more vibrant cities to pursue a career. Now they are back and share their life between two cities to progress Oktava as a business and, moreover, to advance their hometown.