frog_logo

A Writer’s Guide to 60s Technology

A compendium of not gone, not forgotten, sort of obsolete technology.

Old School by Aaron Jasinski

click picture for footnote

Some twenty years back I was asked by the leader of a writer’s group for some background on the world of Top-40 radio in the 60s. Her novel in progress featured a wannabe session guitarist as the love interest. I had given myself away by workshopping a piece which now resides on this blog, The Year We Invented Rock n Roll.

A curious note: although the forms of circuit design and the platforms for its implementation have changed (i.e. digital domain, which was a laboratory phenomenon in the era you are interested in), what we are dealing with in manipulating media—audio/video paths, the human/machine interface, and the basic laws of electricity—have remained the same. This makes for some interesting anomalies for me, the engineer, but is a godsend for you, the writer, for although the platforms have changed, the names for what they do and what the operator is attempting have remained unchanged through the decades and into a not-so-perfect digital world. (see Devices below)

Stereo

The first full-time stereo broadcasters in New York City went on the air in the mid-60s. “Quad stereo” was being toyed with but was never really relevant to your era. The term stereo as used here should be understood as 2-channel audio. Quad stereo was a commercial adventure, designed to sell more equipment. The entrepreneurs who missed out on the stereo bandwagon of a decade earlier bet heavily on Quad and lost their shirts. The mechanics of single-groove stereo are achieved by “multiplexing,” that is, encoding one signal and bonding it to another in the hope that a device at the far end of the process will be capable of decoding them. The most common encoding strategy in your era was combining ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ together in a single medium, but with their signals 90 degrees out of phase. [Yes, there was—and is still—considerable bleed-through (crosstalk)] The medium for records was the groove, for broadcasting the ‘carrier’, or pilot frequency.

Records and broadcasting are examples of ‘concrete’ stereo, ‘discrete’ stereo existed on open-reel tapes and in the recording studio (see ‘multi-tracking’ below).

A historical note: The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. was the pioneer in stereo broadcasting in North America. Glenn Gould, the pianist, produced the first stereo programs—interestingly enough, spoken word assemblages—and defined stereo positioning discernible by the human listener as: left, right, center, center-left and center-right. “The Idea of North” was Gould’s 1967 documentary, the first installment in his “Solitude Trilogy.” Gould’s spoken word assemblages are still (as of 2014) available at a nominal cost, $3.00 or less from Amazon.com via the CBC archives.

Cook stereo

click picture to enlarge

Then there was Cook stereo (Emory Cook in the picture demonstrates his binaural stereo on disc. Click the image to enlarge.) “...stereo sound was entirely new in broadcasting. WQXR was achieving ‘stereo’ by using its AM and FM stations as separate Left and Right audio channels. Was it stereo, was it binaural? I don’t distinguish a difference.”

Emory and Martha Cook donated their record company, master tapes, patents, and papers to the Smithsonian Institution in 1990.

Studio Mixing Console, the “Board”

Audio or video, a mixing board is a combining network incorporating variable inputs and a master output control.

Slide faders versus rotary “pots” (potentiometers): These control “gain” or signal strength of the various inputs (announcer, record, etc.).

“Gain” is a measurable electronic event, i.e., an applied voltage resulting in an increase in signal strength. “Volume,” or perceived loudness, is something else again. Volume is a subjective judgment call.

There is a substantial difference between a ‘fader’ and a ‘potentiometer’ but operating engineers use the terms interchangeably, referring to their effect, not to what they accomplish electrically. At this time—that is, the late 60s—radio stations used primarily rotary potentiometers: both stereo channels would be ‘“ganged”‘ on a single pot for ease in manipulation, since the record manufacturers had in advance determined for you the relative volume (“balance”) of Left and Right.

“Slide faders” (pots) were available but found only in well funded, high-end new, construction projects. McCurdy Electronics of Canada supplied WINS, New York City, with the first 19-in, 4-outbroadcast boards on the East coast while I was an engineer there in 1964. Remember, this was pre-digital, and the ‘state of the art’ was a console with no audio (low-gain) signals in the board and all operations done by DC (direct current) to control ambient electrical noise. The Fairchild “Lumiten,” attempted the same effect by a photo-voltaic application. These “light faders” tended to leak unless you did your mixing in total blackout conditions. Not good.

19/ or 18-in, 4-out. Wrap your mind around split music and effects/narrration sends and you have used up three of a possible four of the outputs. These are switchable, as the input faders may be grouped (traditionally the drum kit used five). There is a reason buried in the mists of history for these particular numbers of audio console inputs. It has in part to do with the width of the fader modules as opposed to off-the-rack mounting hardware (the mainframe console, a term beloved of sales engineers, who had seen computers in the movies) and the fact that no matter how convoluted the design, somehow a human being was going to have to operate the damn thing (ergometrics).

Radio Broadcast Consoles:

There was a bloom of domestic licenses following the war (WWII) and the three manufacturers most represented were: RCA (Radio Corporation of America), Collins Radio and Gates Radio (division of the Harris Intertype Corporation, makers of hot lead compositing machinery for newspapers). All were moderately priced—about$1500.00 by the late 60s—and did the job. Most of them are still in use in your era. The radio consoles featured three microphone inputs, two turntables, one cart, and two network (line level, 600 ohm termination) inputs. Eight knobs with a master gain control and no inboard processing (see glossary—compressor, echo, equalization).

Tape recorders/players

Studio: In your era all multi-track tape machines were built from the electronics of the manufacturers’ monaural models. Ampex of Redwood City, California and MCI of Muscle Shoals, Alabama were the primary domestic manufacturers. Studer/Revox was and is a pricey German giant. The Japanese were not yet a factor. [Ampex has been absorbed by SONY and MCI by Matsushita Electric] These 16- and 8-track machines were the size of industrial freezers. To simply get them into the studio we had to ride them up on the roofs of passenger elevators, hanging on to the cables for dear life. They were too big for the cabs even unpacked.

Radio station: The Magnecorder or ‘Maggie’ has by and large replaced the Ampex in the 60s. They are cheaper and almost as good for broadcast purposes. Scully Machine Works (of Bridgeport, Conn.) made a great deck, but it was a bear to operate, not ‘hands-on user-friendly.’ Scully was a major player in automated music broadcasting. Mr. Scully, as a machinist, made a great machine. It was flawed (in 2015 parlance) at the intersection of the human and the mechanical.

These are “reel-to reel” or “open reel” recorders. One is able to physically edit the tape by splicing and cutting on an EdiTall block, a machined piece of aluminum—a non-ferrous substance—with chamfered edges to hold the tape stock in precision alignment. Gee, we could use tape forever. Well... the jury is still out on ‘forever.’ Roy Friedman, an engineer at United Recording in New York City was told to use up recycled edited working tapes on a no charge session for Rosalind Turek, the celebrated pianist. What they don’t tell you in Modern Miracles 101 is that splices open up with time and repeated windings and the adhesive bleeds through the gap. The Turek piano session sounded like she was playing a ukulele.

Studio: Ampex, Scully, and MCI.

mixer panelsMCI tape decks and recording consoles were the new cutting edge in the States. These were hand wired and custom built. By and large there were no ‘off-the-shelf’ consoles for the recording industry. (Many manufacturers said they had them—McCurdy, Grass Valley Group, Allen and Heath, Neve). Neve (British) was so upscale that for approximately the same cost, you could hire a live-in consultant for six months to build a board to your specs.

At Atlantic Records’ 1841 Broadway studio in NYC that the most important retrofit peripheral device for their new MCI 16-tracks was an $8.50 oscillating fan Bob Schwarz, the chief engineer, bought at the downstairs drug store—the torque motors had an overheating problem and would only run for ½ hour continuous operation before shorting out from their own internally generated heat spike.

For sound-on-film it was Fine Sound in the Hotel Great Northern, across 57th street from us (ServiSound, Inc.) in 1962. Where Command, Mercury (Living Presence classical recordings), and recording direct to 35mm magnetic film changed enough of everything (of how we think we perceive sound) to make a difference. [see Glenn Gould reference] The building was torn down in the 80’s and the Parker Meridian Hotel is on the site now.

“If you drove the channels beyond a certain level, you’d hit the threshold of the limiter/compressor. This is how the ‘Command Sound’ was achieved, characterized by bright up-front horns and crunched drum set, but retaining dynamics and punch in the percussion.” [Popular Science 1967 article focused on the engineering at Fine Sound].

It was said that George Piros, Bob Fine’s mastering engineer, blew three cutter heads getting the upper threshold just right by ear. Damn good ear, too, conceded all in the fraternity.

For a momentery getaway from 21st Century reality, here is a Fine Sound rate card from 1959. As of 2015, multiply by 12.

Magnetic Recording Tape

“The reason we didn’t know about the Magnetophon was that the Germans never bothered to classify it as top-secret.”

With the end of WWII, fleet-footed Richard Ranger (Col.), an American radio engineer, headed the gold rush to Berlin. Meanwhile, tipped off by a British colleague, Jack Mullin made for Bad Nauheim. The station had been moved into a castle there to escape the bombing of Frankfurt, and it was then being operated by the Armed Forces Radio Service. “In response to my request for a demonstration of their Magnetophon the Sergeant spoke in German to an assistant, who clicked his heels and ran off for a roll of tape. When he put the tape on the machine, I really flipped. I couldn’t tell whether it was live or playback. There simply was no background noise.”

While the OSS and MI5 ran a race with the USSR to see which bloc could kidnap the most rocket scientists, the Signal Corps guys were after the secret of noise-free recording on magnetic tape. The secret was high-frequency bias, an analog tone beyond the upper range of even dogs and parakeets, mixed with the incoming signal to be imprinted on the tape. See a 1968 technical paper from the Audio Engineering Society here.

Rangertone tape recorder

The first Rangertone

“In August 1935, the Magnetophon K1 was unveiled at the Berlin Radio Fair. The first serious recording using this portable, self-contained recorder was in November 1936, with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the London Philharmonic at BASF’s concert hall near its manufacturing plant in Ludwigshaven. Other improvements followed, such as BASF’s ferric-oxide tape in 1939 and Walter Weber’s rediscovery and application of high-frequency AC biasing, which had been known since the 1920s, giving the 1941 Magnetophons a bandwidth of 10 kHz.

“Not until BASF had mastered magnetic oxide coated plastic tape in the 1930s, did tape recording, as we know it, come to the fore. War-time “live” broadcasts by the Nazi propaganda machine awakened the allies to advances in Germany by BASF and AEG in magnetic tape-recording and a post-war battle was fought between America and Britain in its development. An analysis of the pioneering German AEG Magnetophon for the British government in late 1945 opened the door to development of magnetic tape recorders in Britain by EMI for broadcasting and record production. By the mid 1950s, live recordings were being mastered on tape and the days of direct recording to disc, almost, came to end.”

www.paulvernonchester.com

The formats (head geometry) during the 60s and 70s were ½” for three track stereo (a survival, but still in use—Presto Recording Devices made the machines in the early 60s); 1” for eight-track; and 2” for 16-track. Recording tape is made on 3-foot wide rolls and slit to the desired width after being coated with metallic oxide (in the 60s ferrous and chrome alloys)—the emulsion. The transparent stock to which the oxide adheres is called the “backing.”

Tape Cartridge Machines:

SpotMaster, Tapecaster, and ITC. The ITC, introduced about this time, economized on hardware by vertically stacking three slots on one ‘capstan’ (the motor drive shaft which controls the playing speed of the tape).

For ease of access and bookkeeping for short, frequently repeated messages, and, on Top-40 stations at about this time, for music, cart machines come into their own. Before the late 60s they had been plagued with phasing and tracking problems, noticeable on the air as “phase shifting” or ‘“skew”‘ in stereo. A tape cartridge is a continuous loop (“coaxial,” meaning a turntable loaded with a length of quarter-inch recording tape, its head spliced to its tail) with graphite-backed lubricated tape loaded into a sealed plastic box. Carts are loaded in a format called ‘B-wind’, that is, with the oxide out. The graphite coated reverse (‘backing’) faces in, away from the recording heads, and theoretically prevents the tape from binding as it wraps around a single hub, winding on its outside, pulling from its center.

Alphabet soup

SMPTE: pronounced SYMP-tea, The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. With the RIAA and the AES, (Recording Industries Assoc. of Am. and Audio Engineering Society) the SMPTE is a trade group that sets engineering parameters, pushing for standardization. I only bring up SMPTE here because your character may have run into the early manifestations of digital control in his studio experiences. Properly, “SMPTE Code” came into general use for “video interlock” control in the mid-70s. A digital data stream developed by organization members (in the film industry) and called “SMPTE Code” was in use in these years (as now) as a system of electronic sprocket holes, a clock track, as it were. ‘“Clock track”‘ is not to be confused with a “click track,” usually an electronic metronome laid down on a spare track of one’s sixteen as a guide for performers.

SMPTE Code was used in studios along with a dedicated software interface specific to the task called generically “CueLock”—to electronically link two tape machines, thus giving the flexibility of more available tracks, minus the tracks used for the control signal (i.e., two sixteen-track recorders linked by CueLock or SMPTE give the equivalent of one30-track recorder).

Meters: VU and DB:

To the right is louder.

VU or volume unit meters are what we are used to seeing on our home and professional analog, and now digital, audio recording devices. The “Zero” on these familiar meter faces was defined by the telephone company 80 years ago. The VU system is a hangover from early radio usage when 0 VU meant 100% of the legal modulation for the particular radio station.

DB or decibel is not an absolute measure but a term we are so used to hearing and using that a Here’s Why is called for. Decibel is used incorrectly by engineers, who should really know better, and everyday Joes alike. The decibel is not a unit in the sense that a foot or a dyne is. Dynes and feet are quantities of force and distance. (You can go to the National Bureau of Standards and look at a foot or a dyne if you want to. They never change.) A decibel is a RELATIONSHIP between two values of POWER. 1

“Peak Reading Meters” (or Plasma Meters): they look great and impress the crap out of the audience, clients and the groundlings but move too fast to tell you much.

The Standard Volume Indicator is a voltmeter which the user is instructed to calibrate so that it can be used to indicate power level. Thus the user must know and take into account the impedance of the circuit across which the volume indicator is bridged. 2

Noise

Has had a lot of bad press. Noise, distortion, and all those ‘nasty’ things that pack along a semantic load of aversion, are actually components of what we call music and speech. Here, they are called “timbre” and “resonance.” Music, speech and suchlike good stuff could not exist with any degree of elegance without “harmonic distortion”. Technically speaking, “noise” is anything you don’t want right now or consider inappropriate. Like predators and parasites, dandelions and NASCAR, noise fills a vital niche in somebody’s ecosystem. Its favorite colors are white and pink.

Noise Reduction:

Thomas Dolby Labs, Model ‘A’. Unwieldy but the industry standard for those who could afford it (studios, not radio stations). Dolby was the first, DBX the only major competitor in the analog domain (‘Domain’ is digital jargon and does not belong in your story of the 60s). A beloved DBX slogan was At last, remove all the hiss from your Dolby A with a DBX. A ‘Single-ended’ noise reduction system, which promised to de-click your records evaporated after a few years’ vogue.

Noise reduction is a strategy for the suppression of “media noise” i.e.: “tape hiss”. This is achieved by manipulating (“encoding”) bandwidth (compression) and frequency response (equalization).

Impedance (Ohms):

You see this word a lot. Forget it; it has crept into newspeak of high end audio salons. Simply a measure of the resistance of a circuit. Impedance changes with the frequency of a signal and is measured with a steady tone for sales brochures. This never occurs in music or speech. Bummer. This is why wires get hot. The frequency of house current is 60Hz (cycles per second); sing along, basso. Since the natural aural state of the aging (older than 17) human being is deaf—we tend to play stuff louder as we get older. And the amplifiers get hotter and speaker coils blow (short out). Think of impedance (Ohms) as the flow of molasses or linoleum paste in the summer vs. the winter.

A glossary

Compact cassette: The consumer’s top choice, patented by Norelco-Phillips, this beloved workhorse of pop tunes, kids’ birthdays and the home hi-fi connoisseur chugged along for almost 50 years until it collided with the digital CD. MP3s are tragically overrated, but can be downloaded, another VHS vs BetaMax scenario. Ease of use trumped quality. Ads for competing brands of cassette tape pitched oxide density, magnetic latency, output levels, signal-to-noise ratio—the usual bragging points. For more than you probably wanted to know about cassettes, check here. What NOBODY put in their ads was praise for the cassette shell, the little box the tape moves in. As in flutter and wow. Digital audio cassettes do not belong in this era, but worked, sort of. Again, motion problems—‘jitter.’

Sound Reinforcement: Something they do in churches and stadiums. Ask.

Plumbing, some assembly required: the screw-together fixtures of microphone booms

“Overdub speakers,” stage monitor speakers: Fed through the “foldback” loop, the artist gets a selective mix featuring himself rather than what the paying customers get out front

“Foldback”: a selective headphone feed.

“Talkback”: The Bitch Box—how the operator and the talent communicate off the air while not actually broadcasting/recording.

High-pass/low-pass filters 3

In the olden days, when recording production audio, most folks used the Neopilotone 60hz sync system. But there was also this thing called the “Fairchild System” [called pic-sync in the industry] which added a 14KHz tone [modulated by 60Hz from the power line] to the full-track mono audio. While Neopilotone was self-cancelling when played back on a full-track machine (2 out-of-phase side-by-side 60Hz tones), the Fairchild 14K was not. Since optical tracks can’t reproduce anything over 8K-ish, the assumption was that you’d cut in a LPF [lo-pass filter] at 8k when you transferred to mag, which would get rid of the audible 14K.

— Brent Hahn http://www.studio-noho.net

Audio Oddities

Nat Levy, my boss at Masterpiece Recording with whom I was to begin a rough-and-ready apprenticeship in the early 60s, wanted me to see Bart Simpson, an engineer at WOR Recording, 1440 Broadway. I was to pick up replacement springs for the Alonge tape splicer, which Bart had invented. While the Alonge is a cool piece of work, its forte was editing full track mono acetate base quarter inch tape (Scotch 111). The Alonge’s virtue was in putting on a show for the clients. This was early in the age of magnetic recording and some wizardry, ruffles and flourishes at the least, was expected for $35.00 an hour. The Alonge splicer broke the tape rather than cutting it; here’s the patent workup. This dandy device went moribund with the arrival of Mylar backing and multitrack head geometry. Plus alignment problems tended to create pops and clicks at the cut line. Oh, yes. Bart was cutting discs at the time, running six Presto lathes simultaneously. The conventions said audio was to begin three revolutions in: engage the lead screws, lower the cutter heads, start and key in the tape machine. Bart was a sixty-something guy doing an industrial ballet and he had it nailed. At twenty-something, I was some impressed.

The Van Eps eccentric cutter. Van Eps as in George, the father, a legendary banjoist, and Fred Van Eps, George’s son and a jazz guitarist of some renown in the 30s and 40s. Inventors, too. But to Fred went the credit for this baby: a jig for hand cutting the run-out eccentric groove just past the audio portion of a record that would trigger the next drop on an automatic changer. The gizmo was operated by hand; the engineer located the end of the groove by sighting through a microscope.

Gates Spot Tape

Note the slider for dropping the pickup head on the desired track.

And now... (at right) the weirdest of the weird, the ne plus ultra of patentable crap: the Gates Spot Tape. While I have never used one myself, there was one in action at WNRI in Woonsocket, R.I. in the late 60s. I was fraternal pals 6 with Dick and Roger Bouchard of the staff there while I was an announcer at WWON, their crosstown rival. Only one spot at a time could be played, and the system then had to rewind.

“The Gates Spot Tape recorder is capable of filing 101 announcements, jingles, scenes, station breaks, featurettes, and other programs. Each can last up to 90 seconds, and music of broadcast quality can be included with no loss of fidelity. All information is recorded on a 13-inch wide tape which winds and unwinds onto two cylinders as in an old-fashioned player piano. An index lever is used to choose the desired track,” said the promotional literature.

To quote Bill Jaker, then of WLIR-FM, Long Island, N.Y.:

“You couldn’t segue between spots because it was necessary to rewind the foot-wide tape—and that couldn’t be done near an open mic because the rewind sounded like a washing machine going into spin cycle. I was very proud to create a sounder to open the nightly stock market report by recording a stock-ticker sound on the track adjacent to the commercial that always preceded the report and then quickly sliding the knob over.

“I once asked the station owner what we’d do if we had more commercials than would fit on the limited tracks of the belt tape. He smiled and said, ‘Then we’d have enough money to buy a second ST-101.’ Fortunately, the cart machine soon made its appearance on the market.”

[For Gates ST-101 information and the link, thanks to Barry Mishkind, gentleman engineer at The Broadcast Archive.]

Words to know; astonish your friends:

Broadcast quality: good enough for radio

Gassy tubes: NOT an intestinal condition! These are called vacuum tubes; with a leaky sealant outside air gets in and a blue halo is notice that the tube is working at decreased capacity, hence low level or distortion, and getting ready to blow. Or not. Except in mercury vapor rectifier tubes favored by tube-amp guitar enthusiasts. Generally. The blue is beautiful. There is a ‘rejuvenation’ trick for gassy audio tubes. It’s scary. It’s here. It involves cooking stuff in a microwave. Ask your parents first.

Microphonic tubes: do NOT talk into the tube. Flick the tube with a fingernail and the circuit will ring. Change the tube. Try the rejuvenation trick. Run like hell if you blow up the kitchen.

Analog delay loops. Think of a super long piece of wire for echo like land lines overseas long distance, there is one great honking processing delay/travel time. Enough µseconds and you’ve got time to take back all those deposit bottles. Yes, they really, really worked, unlike the Burwen single-ended noise reduction systemnot for echo or compression, but a side chain sampling loop all the same.

High compliance close field monitor. Get one. If everybody else is listening to your mix on a crappy system, you should too.

Flatwinding 5

Groove echo/tape echo/print through

Tape generation/transparent generation/tape dropouts

Signal to noise ratio/noise floor

Burnishing facet, heated stylus, half nut, lead screw, depth of cut. Ask.

Phantom Power—48 volts DC, the audio cable carries piggybacked power to a condenser microphone.

Tape Delay—lead time, lag time, real time

Head lapping (Not what you are thinking. This is a procedure for polishing out irregular wear on a tape recorder head stack.)

Magnet wire, (ceramic pickups), Humbucking pickups.

Relay

Crystal oven (see FM radio transmitters, etc.)

Hill and dale or vertical recording (not in use in the 60s, but fun to know about)

Christmas tree effect. A light pencil will reflect a wider/narrower pattern from the groove walls of a disc depending on whether it was cut vertical or lateral. The two techniques require different machinery for playback. File this under little-known-factoids. This was a question when I took the studio operator’s test for membership in the IBEW, Local 1212 in 1959. The test had not been updated since rpm/lpi = time.

Start inside/start outside—from the pre-tape days of 16” lacquer transcriptions for radio broadcast. There is an equalization parallax as one approaches the inner spirals of a phonograph record: a squishing-up of the sound that is attributable to the inside bands having the same revolutions-per-minute as the outer bands, but much less area in which to stuff a comparable bandwidth. Something has to give, and time is a constant. The  answer: for decades ½ hour radio programs were syndicated as two formats, the first fifteen minutes on side 1 with an outside start and the second fifteen minutes on side 2 with an inside start. Confused? Well, the effect is a compatible sound at the flip, hence Dorthy and Toto are still a girl and a dog and in Kansas not on the Planet Xenon.

N.B: “Stuff” is an accepted technical term, as in “stuff a card”—the fitting of all the required components to a pre-manufactured circuit board.

Compression ratio

Unity gain and/or “zeroing out the board,” one of those engineering thingies

BIM—bass intermodulation distortion

Multiplexing, telemetering

Ground loop, ringing circuit

Pulse code modulation (as in the Sony PCM-F1, a portable encoder/decoder) recording digital audio on the picture track of a Betamax cassette. Huh! Now how about that? (from the 1970s)

Rejection/pole patterns (microphone phenomena)

clipper, limiter compresser, Audimax/Volumax

DC/AC Bias

cockpit, slot (where the operator sits)

Sweet spot (ooh), a stereo thingy, where the golden ears meet and greet.

Fairchild 14k sync, Pilotone, Neopilotone

Optical sound tracks

variable area (right) and variable density (left)

80 Hz and 8 kHz (80 and 8)
—equalization boundaries for shooting an optical sound track for film. These beasties come in two flavors: variable area and variable density. Not unlike the VHS and BetaMax standards of home video, variable area and VHS were the winners. Cutoff points were 80 Hz bottom and 8kHz top. In theory optical soundtracks were incapable of exceeding 8 kHz. This was because a mixdown engineer had clipped the tracks before shooting to optical. The miniaturization of an optical exciter gate (a mechanical shutter) was a triumph of the machinist’s art. Remember, it had to open and close with the cycling of the audio track’s upper limits.

Devices

“Microphones,” otherwise known as transducers, come in three flavors: condenser, dynamic, and ribbon velocity (a subtype of the dynamic microphone). Don’t Try This One at Home, Kids dept—since a microphone is a transducer, ideally it works both ways. Really. The potential for damage will be less if you plug a set of bargain headphones into the “IN” jack rather than trying to drive your $4800.00 Neumann condenser microphone with a power amplifier.

“Compression,” “echo,” “equalization”, etc.: The padded brassieres of audio, these are strategies to enhance what nature has bestowed.

“Echo chambers” Three kinds. “Spring reverb,” “plate reverb” and “live” (usually an interior stairwell or ceramic tiled bathroom—the thunder shed. A sign in the men’s toilet at John Arvonio’s PhotoMagnetic Sound Studios, 3 East 57th St., NYC in the late 60s: “Don’t flush if you hear voices.”).

Read and explore:

This article has been expanded from notes I recently (2012) discovered in my backup files. The great thing about a technology blog that references the past is that history doesn’t change, at least not when it’s written by engineers. My technical education has been on the job, a long apprenticeship in seat-of-the-pants audio production. After 50 years I can talk a good game and people seem to think I know what I’m doing. I’ll be updating with more reference to disc cutting—adventures with a portable Fairchild lathe, the Presto 6N and interchangeable lead screws vs. the Fairchild ball-and-plate variable pitch transmission, pull-string dolls, Popeye (voiced by Bill Haddad) and Olive Oyl (voiced by Mona Abboud), and timing cartridges for standardized tests: “Stop! Put down your pencil!” booming out of the walls after 45 minutes of tape hiss.

And here’s a fave: Can you extract vocals from a mixed music track? If so, how? The short answer is no; you'll have to channel Frank Sinatra through a spirit medium and hire a band. There is a long answer. Try here.

Notes and References:

A must visit for more information and a lively BBS: The Wiki at The Secret Society of Lathe Trolls—a posse of gentleman dabblers, amateurs in the grand Victorian tradition, and knowledgable in the ways of the wily sapphire.

1 Decibels and the Volume Unit: Electronic Music at the University of California, Santa Cruz

2 Q&A on the Standard Volume Indicator by John McKnight

3 More on low pass filters from GearSlutz

4 Yes, I realize the morning glory pickup at the top of the page is 90 degrees out of alignment. This is art, and the scene depicted is a reference of the great Cosmic Giggle. We are playing silence. Get it? Like a radio station with an unmodulated carrier, like. An allegory. Thanks to Aaron Jasinski for the concept and cool thinking behind “Old School,” his original artwork. Used with permission.

5 Master tapes—those hopefully without any splices (see ‘Turek’ above)—were archived evenly wound and tails-out. This was called flat-winding and produced a snug and even grip on the tape core. Masters were filed away in supportive cardboard, no reels, no flanges, just on the metal hub. Reels cost money. The reasoning behind saving $00.58 on a reel vs. the $5000.00 invested on the session escaped me then as now. This was grownup stuff and the boss did it. But, ah! Engineers racked up the overtime sitting and smoking as they watched the master recordings play through. Bob Fava, an engineer at Cue Recording on 47th Street, recalled watching a Jean Ritchie master spiral out to the floor in an irretrievable jumble of knotted brown oxide. The tapes not only had to be flat-wound; they liked being exercised yearly. This was the acetate base Scotch #111; it didn’t stretch like Mylar; it aged and broke, and could be spliced back together again. There was another reason: Tape Echo. Unlike groove echo, a bugaboo of disc recording, tape echo (as opposed to tape feedback echo, badden-badden-badden) is a phenomenon of magnetic geometry, otherwise known as print-through. [note: the groove echo manifests itself by being audible before the sound. Tape echo falls where it may, depending on whether the reel was stored heads-out or tails-out (the preferred configuration).] A magnetic signal will bleed a reduced image of itself through adjacent layers of tape to leave a ghost copy on the nearest layer of magnetic emulsion. Park your tapes heads out and the ghost signals appear in silence, before the first note/word. Tails out and the ghost will still be there, but buried in the program and not heard.

6 February 2015 and Dick Bouchard writes: “That crazy machine was a pain but it worked, think piano roll. I would have preferred carts but the owner insisted on that Gates! Now, we own the place and we have 1000 carts in the basement. We’re pretty hi-tech now and one of the only AM radio stations in the country solar powered! We now run 2500 watts with 125% modulated Nautel sold state transmitter.”

7 The Rangertone trademark was first applied in the 1930s to the Colonel’s electronic organ, made in Newark. He was a major then, from his Signal Corps. posting in WWI. More on the Rangertone from the Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording here.

Ta-Dah! The Fairchild Variable-pitch Lathe

The portable version had handles. Notice the editor credit in the upper right corner. This was the Hugo Gernsback, as in questionable publishing practices. “The Father of Science Fiction,” he is generally conceded to be a crook who screwed his writers (Amazing Stories, Aviation Mechanics, Amazing Detective Stories), but not his readers. In his honor, annual awards presented at the World Science Fiction Convention are named the “Hugos.”

The Fairchild variable-pitch lathe

During the years covered in this piece, I was at:

Masterpiece Recording (New York City) – studio technician.

WINS-Westinghouse Broadcasting (NYC) – Tape editor for Program P.M., an hour-and-a-half nightly magazine show.

WBAI, Pacifica Radio (NYC) – production manager, recording engineer, chief announcer. Handled traffic and produced the kids’ shows (Programs for Young People). We produced the first radio call-in show for kids in New York.

Over the next eight years either engineering or staff announcing at WWON, Woonsocket, Rhode Island; news reading/writing at WJAR, WXTR and Channel 10 (all in Providence, R.I.) and the morning shows at WSAR (Fall River, Mass.), WBT-AM (Charlotte, N.C.), and WIVY (Jacksonville, Fla.). Program Director at WSAR for two years.

Back to New York City and my favorite people of all time—ServiSound, Inc. (later ServiDigital, now defunct), formerly Masterpiece Recording, where I served my apprenticeship twenty years earlier. Our relationship over more than three decades had been audio work, scoring, cutting and mixing music and effects for clients as disparate as Prentice-Hall Learning Media, The Psychological Corporation, MTV (all their audio work to video before they built their own studios), Public Television (The Brain and Nature series), and a high-speed cassette duplicating operation.

One of our long-term clients was Sherry Huber of Random House—over ten-plus years editing and mixing over fifty titles in Random House’s Audiobook series. Sherry’s Short Stories of Ray Bradbury got a 1987 Spoken Arts Grammy nomination. (We didn’t win.)

Home | Search | Print | Contact

All content on this website, unless otherwise noted, is licensed under a Creative Commons license