Category Archives: RCA

The Future Of Audio (1962 edition)

IMG_0001In May of 1962 “AUDIO” magazine celebrated its 15th anniversary.  IIRC, AUDIO was the more consumer-facing half of what had initially been AUDIO ENGINEERING magazine; the AES Journal being created sometime in the 50s to carry the more professional articles.  Anyhow, for their 15th, AUDIO asked some of the experts of the time to weigh in on THE FUTURE OF AUDIO.  Harry Olson, certainly one of the greatest inventors of sound equipment who ever lived, had some comments that struck me as being incredibly prescient.  I’ve never seen this reproduced anywhere, so check it out, enjoy it, share it, and take a minute to speculate on where this is all going.

Olson_1962_part1Olson_1962_part2

 

The 1959 Ikegami-Tushin Limiter Inspired by the RCA BA6A

NHK_D_1Reader S. Komiya recently contacted us with some information regarding the Ikegami-Tushin limiting amplifier, an RCA BA-6A inspired piece that was built for Japanese broadcaster NHK in 1959.

SK has been so kind as to provide the schematic for this obscure device, as well as some background information.  I am posting the schematic full-size, so you can control-click it and download it for detailed viewing.

00_schematics_ikegami-limiter1959NHK_E1The photos in this post come from this Japanese auction website; the device pictured here recently sold for just Y30,000 ($300 USD).  And in working condition. 

600x450-2015011900002Here’s what SK has to say about the Ikegami-Tushin Limiter:

‘(It is) very much inspired by the RCA BA6A for sure.  It even looks a bit like it.  The tube format is very similar:  just change 6sk7 to 6ba6, 6j7 to 6au6 those goes into 6v6 PP and transformers between 6au6.  6ba6 were popular and cheap in japan because we made those a lot in japan in the 1950s and 60s.

6sk7 and 6j7 were never made in japan.  This unit also has an extra gain stage before first stage, which is pretty neat.  The components seem very high-end and some are custom made for this.  When i was gathering info about the ba6a in old tube shop, an older ham radio guy told me that he DIY’d one of these a long time ago…’NHKH_1NHKF_1*************

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20141230_123551SK also recently built his own BA6A from scratch.  It is depicted above, and you can hear audio samples of it at his soundcloud page.  SK has also scratch-built the Federal AM864 tube limiter, and he has this to say about the projects:

“The sound you will hear in soundcloud is a good comparison with the fed864.   The fed has good high open but compressed sound,  the ba6a has low mid, ton of low mid. I love them both.  The first time I used them was at a studio in Chicago back in 90s when I was living in US.  At that time I was using LA-2A mainly, but that studio had a Fed864 and BA6A.  They blew my mind, and since then I wanted them so bad!’

SK also provided some build-notes on his BA6A project; if you are planning on building you own BA6A, you might find these useful:  S_Komiya_RCA_Ba6a_DIY_notes

UPDATED: Compressor Roundup c. 1963

Compressors_1963_1Today on PS dot come: a short but v v informative piece from BROADCAST ENGINEERING , July 1963, which gives specs for nearly all of the broadcast compressors that were available that year.  Models covered include: Collins 26J Auto-level, Collins 356E, Fairchild 666A, 666, and 663; Gates M-5167 Sta-Level, GE BA-9 Uni-levele, ITA AGC-1A, Langevin AM-5301 Leveline, Quindar QCA-2, and the RCA BA-25A

DOWNLOAD: Compressors1963

UPDATE: T. Fine was so kind as to provide the entire 3-part article as a compact PDF.  click here to download it: BrdctEngnrgAudioLeveling_1963

Compressors_1963_2

Building an (almost) RCA OP6 Mic Preamp

(image source)

The RCA OP-6 ‘Portable Amplifier’ is one of a handful of truly visually-iconic vintage mic preamps.   The OP-6 was designed as a “remote,” as-in, ‘on-location’ single-channel mic preamp for radio station broadcasts.  It uses three 1620 (6J7) tubes  – most mic pre designs of the period use two.  Furthermore, the 1620s are in pentode operation rather than triode.  The result: a ton of gain.  95db, apparently.  This is almost twice as much gain as the classic RCA BA1 and BA2 mic pres.  OP-6s are in high demand – click here for a seller asking $2900.   Further indication: Blackbird Rentals in Nashville has thirteen in stock as rental units.  The first time I heard an OP-6 in use was at Blackbird; I was producing/directing a live-in-the-studio performance for Martina McBride and John McBride was engineering; he was using the OP-6 for something… I can’t remember what exactly. Anyway, it caught my eye and we talked about it a bit; later I learned that he has an especially strong appreciation for these units.  A strong endorsement coming from the man who likely owns more vintage pro audio gear than anyone who ever has or ever will live.

The OP-6 schematic is pictured above (this file is readily available in high-res on the internet).  So anyhow, if we consider how in-demand the OP-6 is, it seems striking that no one offers a modern equivalent for sale, even on a small-scale level.  If you take a close look at the circuit, the reasons become apparent.  There are two big obstacles to re-creating even a semblance of an OP-6.  First is the input attenuator:

Sure, it’s a voltage divider; probably constant impedance; but what exactly are the values?  And what about that value of that feedback path issuing from the attenuator back to the input stage?  If I could get my hands on an original OP-6 and open up the attenuator, sure I could maybe sort it out.  But I imagine that re-creating that part on custom order could cost hundreds of dollars; frankly I have no idea.

The second obstacle to re-creating the OP-6 is the output stage choke.

The choke is designated L-1 in the schematic.  Curiously enough, it’s actually physically part of the output transformer.  Based on this fact, there is zero chance that this was an off-the-shelf choke, say a UTC for example, that we could track down.  OK – but the crucial value of a choke in a circuit like this is the inductance.  So long as the voltage an current handling values are sufficient, any choke of same inductance should give a similar result.  Now again, if I had an original OP-6, I could measure the inductance and maybe a current off-the-shelf part exists to satisfy the requirements.  But… I don’t think anyone out there is gonna send me their prized OP-6 to open up.  And $2900 is a pretty stiff R+D cost.  So what do we do?  Well, in the absence of any actual electrical engineering training, I looked for some good advice and then I guessed.

The very friendly+talented John Atwood sent me the diagram above; in response to what I can’t recall. This diagram explains why the choke is necessary in order to get the best possible performance from a single-ended vacuum tube line output stage.   Looks pretty similar to our OP-6 output stage, right?  Based on this… I made a wild guess.  I ordered the very inexpensive Hammond 156C choke.  150mh inductance with 8ma current capacity.  8ma might be a little low, but I have found that Hammond really undersells the specs of their transformers, so I’m not worried.

Alright so now we’ve got a choke that might work.  What about that input attenuator?  The best course of action would probably be to get a used 100k Daven T-pad, but without implementing the feedback path that the stock OP-6 attenuator has, it seems like this is slightly pointless vis-a-vis maintaining originality.  So instead: I used the input stage from my favorite, yes yet again, the RCA BA-2.

The BA-2 schematic is pictured above. The input stage uses a 1620 tube, wired as a triode, with a 100k ohm pot following it.  So I just took this input stage, up to the pot output, and wired it in front of the second two OP-6 stages (starting at the grid of stage #2).  When I did this, the whole system worked fine except when the volume pot was a zero (IE., when the grid of tube #2 is shorted to ground).  This caused weird noise and a little humming.  Not sure if this is due to the negative feedback in that stage, or if this is simply a general characteristic of 1620s when they are run in pentode – but it sounded awful.  The easy solution?  I added a 1M resistor from the grid to ground, and isolated this from the pot with a 1K grid-stopper resistor.  Done and done.  The BA2/OP6 Hybrid is born.

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The finished piece is shown above.  I used a 6X5 rectifier tube like the OP-6 uses; in fact, with the exception of using DC filament voltage, I kept the power supply the same as the OP-6.

The audio portion of the circuit is shown above.  What with the three pentode stages and feedback paths, this is extremely complicated for a mic preamp.   A lot of parts.  On the left you can see my usual Jensen 115 input transformer.  Audio caps are a mix of Solen, sprague, and some random Russian ones.  Basically whatever would fit.  Resistors are random as well; now that I have confirmed that the piece works well, I will probably replace the carbon-comp resistors in the B+ chain with some quieter modern resistors.  On the right is the output transformer.  I used an edcor 15K: 600; $10.22!

Even though this edcor is unshielded, there is zero hum following the volume pot.  And as for performance?  I did a frequency sweep through the entire unit; response is absolutely flat from 15hz to 10k hz.  At 10k there is a rise of about 1db up to 22khz, at which point response begins to fall of pretty rapidly.  This is really excellent performance considering the inexpensive transformers.  I did not measure the gain but there is a lot of.  The output level can get extremely hot.

Anyhow.  That’s it for now.  As soon as I have a minute I will provide some audio test examples; I’ll post some A/B examples of this unit versus an API 512, hopefully with both acoustic gtr and drums.

Thanks to DW at EMRR for helpful suggestions regarding this project.

***UPDATE*** Listening test has been done and results are posted here.

Cuttin’ Records: RCA Recording Filter and Cutting-Arm Assembly

Most days in the studio end with me making WAV or MP3 files of scratch mixes or final masters.  I will then upload, copy, or email the files to the musicians.  It takes mere moments to do this.  60 years ago the process of creating a listening copy was considerably more difficult.   The engineer would need to literally cut a record from the studio tape.  And the record was not a literal exact transcription of the tape; the input signal to the record-cutting head required considerable equalization so in order to make a record that would ‘playback’ properly on the equipment of the day.  Click on the links below to download the manuals for the RCA ‘Recording Attachment’ Type 72-D and 72-DX, aka MI-11901/MI-11900.  The ‘recording attachment’ was an assembly that would be mounted on a turntable.  It consisted of an arm, with various provisions to adjust tracking pressure and record timing, and a cutting head.  The second PDF is the manual/schematic for the ‘Recording Filter’ M1-4916-A, which was a passive fixed-equalizer that provided for the then-current ‘orthacoustic’ frequency-response characteristic.

‘Orthacoustic’ response was a pre-RIAA record compensation curve necessitated by the the intrinsic flaws of record-lacquer material and turntable-mechanics of the 1930s.  Confused yet?  Read this very informative Wiki article on the history of the (still in use in 2010) RIAA compensation curve and all will be made clear (maybe).

Here are the manuals…

RCA_MI-11901

RCA_MI-4916-A

TECH: antique theater equipment

It’s a sign of real accomplishment for an artist to have a monograph of their work published.  I would imagine that a few hundred are published worldwide by recognized publishing companies each year.  But much more rare is the collector’s monograph.  That’s right.  You have amassed a collection of (x) that is so stupendous that “let’s make a book about it!”  And the book costs like $60.

Of all the cults and sub-cults of audio-equipment collecting, few are more rarefied and costly than collecting antique movie-theatre equipment; especially equipment made by the Western Electric Company (hf. WE).  I won’t go into WE; the company had such a complicated history filled with intense government regulation, so tightly intertwined were they with the communication industries in American life; check out wikipedia for the details.  Suffice to say that, along with RCA, WE was a main manufacturer of the equipment used to playback sound in movie theatres at the dawn of the sound-film era (late 1920s).   Since the equipment was designed for such purpose, quality and reliability was very high.    Also massive.

(from “Recording Sound For Motion Pictures,” McGraw-Hill, 1931)

Here’s RCA’s theater system from that era:

(from ‘Audels New Electric Library,’ Audel+ Co, 1931-1958)

Mr. Yashima had quite a collection of this stuff.

(scanned from “Makoto Yashima Collection,” Seibundo, Japan)

It’s hard for me to say what the value of these WE components is, but i can easily imagine single pieces trading in the 5 figures.

Getting back down to earth, WE stopped making theatre-sound equipment in the late 1940s due to anti-trust regulations (complicated, right?), but RCA kept on building it.

This brings us into the realm of more accessible (even downright cheap!) devices.  Even though this later hardware may be inexpensive nowadays, we are still dealing with equipment that is designed for ultimate reliability, and really very good fidelity.  After all, tens of thousands of people sat in these theaters every year, paying a good fee in order to watch and listen to the latest films…  this is a case where quality really matters.

I  picked up this circa 1960 RCA 9362 booster amp for…  maybe… $70?  on eBay a while back.  I had no idea what it was, but it looked like it might be useful in the studio.  And here is where it gets technical….

Continue reading TECH: antique theater equipment

TECH: RCA BE-100

The BE-100 is a plug-in equalizer module that was made for use with the RCA BC-100 mixing console.  I have never seen a BC-100 in the flesh, nor am i aware of any albums that were recorded with a BC-100.  Since it was a product aimed at the broadcast market, and fairly rare, it’s possible that no albums ever were made on one.  From what i can gather from the forums, the BC-100 was apparently a custom-built product, and the pre-amps in these consoles were apparently built by API for RCA (no word on RCA’s involvement with the BE100).  A few years ago i was at a local flea market and some guys had a box truck with the contents of a storage-unit forfeiture sale.  I bought about 25 lbs of electronic parts, mic parts, etc., for a few bucks.  I also got some very interesting AES journals (interesting insofar as who had owned them) which i’ll post soon.  Anyhow, one of the parts i got was this BE-100.  just the raw module.   I bought a copy of the BC-100 manual from a dude who had been selling other parts from these RCA consoles on eBay.  He was not in the business of selling manuals, but agreed to sell me one for $25.  a very fair price.  he even spiral-bound it!  Here’s the schematic for the BE-100:

I added an old NOS BUD case, +/- 15v powersupply, a NOS UTC line-to-transistor input transformer from the local electronics warehouse, and an output transformer i pulled from an RCA broadcast phono pre of the same period.

I was too lazy to look up the specs on the transistors used in the BE100 to confirm that i was using transformers with the correct impedances, but my ‘good guess’ must have been close enough:  it works just fine.

The unit sounds…  grungy.  Aggressive.  not subtle, and not hi-fi.  It is quiet (IE no hum, white noise, etc).  I have not measured the freq response, but it sounds like it’s pretty much full-range…  i think the transformers i used are pretty decent.  The most interesting feature is the 40hz low boost.  it sounds awesome.  this will definitely find some use in the studio.

Has anyone else used one of these?  any tips or suggestions?

Does anyone know any records/studios that used these?

ICONS: rca and evaporating knowledge

The story of RCA is a great American industrial story.  From its origins in WW1 to decades to breakups and re-configurations due to government regulation and shifts in consumer patterns, the Radio Corporation Of America was a consistent presence in the manufacture of media-playback devices as well as media itself.  It’s an incredible story.  Check out the Wikipedia entry if you want the details.

For someone growing up in my generation (born 1976), thought, RCA electronics did not have really good associations.  My impression of RCA was basically…  the company that made that crappy electronics stuff that was not as good as SONY (or even panasonic).  Well, by the time i was aware of the RCA brand, the company was only moments away from being broken up and sold off for good.   But just a few decades earlier, wow what a force RCA was.  the 33rpm record, vacuum tubes, mainframe computers, color television…  we owe an incredible debt to the engineers that worked at RCA in the 20th century.  Now that i have access to the pro-audio equipment that RCA was making decades before my birth, I am a big fan.  it’s great stuff.  an RCA BA-2 mic preamp is a great simple design that always gets good results in the studio.  And their ribbon mics?  Amazing.

RCA published an glossy magazine for its engineers.  it’s pretty technical, but i can understand the Audio-related articles.

It’s interesting to read essays that attempt to quantify the acoustic performance of those god-awful ‘french provincal’ Hi-Fi consoles.

I do not know how many people worked at RCA in the 50s/60s, but i imagine it was in the mid 6-figures.  Ironically, even i have been an ‘RCA’ employee – I worked for a few years at SONYMUSIC, of which ‘RCA’ is one of the record labels within this major label.  Of course, by the time i got there, the RCA name (as it pertains to sound-recordings) had been sold and re-sold and licensed so many times that the connection is faint at best.

I live in a town that was once a manufacturing powerhouse, with several major pro-audio companies present.  I will soon publish a post about Bridgeport’s audio manufacturing history.  I have sometimes thought about looking up former SCULLY employees, for instance, and trying to interview them about their work.

Once these people are gone, there will be no one left to ‘fill in the blanks’ about a great many details of audio technology history.

For instance: I was recently corresponding with a gentleman who is an expert on mid-20th century broadcast audio equipment. I was hoping he could clarify a vague detail in the schematic of a very old and very desirable microphone preamp.  Because: if i had a little more info, i could easily ‘clone’ this device and use it in my studio.  Since the vintage examples of this device sell for up to $7000, i have a pretty good incentive to build it myself.  Anyway, this very knowledgeable gentleman himself was stumped by this component as well, as are all folks on the forums.  So who does have the necessary knowledge?  if a HUGE community of thousands of audio and broadcast engineers all over the WWW can’t figure this out…  shit.  It’s the loss of this kind of information that i fear, and this is one of my motivations in creating this site.

Engineers who worked at RCA, and similar companies, back when our prized ‘vintage’ audio hardware was being manufactured, are the only people who can answer certain questions, provide certain skills.  ENAK is the trade name of Clarence Kane, a former RCA employee who now restores ribbon mics.  He is a very nice guy and he does great work, and very quickly.  He has restored an RCA BK5 and a SHURE 300 for me, and he really did a nice job. Dudes like this are a BLESSING.

I am not really sure what i am getting at here…  i am not saying that we should start cold-calling these dudes and finding out if they have piles of old schems and old parts in their homes…  but… after 15 years of going to estate sales all time, i can tell you that they probably do.  The ‘stuff’ of these retired engineers will all eventually turn up, but their knowledge and skills will not.