Federal AM-864 Limiter Clone: Build Notes: update 1


Note: I performed extensive frequency, level, and actual studio tests on the 864 clone today, and several interesting details were revealed.  Text has been edited to reflect that. 

From 1954 through at least 1963, the Federal Television Corporation built an audio limiter called the AM 864/u for the US Air Force and US Army.  The 864 is a simple, rugged device that accepts 600 ohm balanced or unbalanced line-level signal, offers a single front-panel input-attenuator control, and compresses the output level at a 10-to-1 ratio once the threshold point is reached.  The output is also 600-ohm balanced or unbalanced, and it offers a maximum 36db of gain.  The rear panel of the unit displayed the threshold and ratio controls, although these are confusingly referred to as (respectively) CURRENT and THRESHOLD in the manual and schematic.  Attack and release times are fixed, and the manual indicates them at .05″ and 2″ respectively.

AM864_hookupAs you can see in the diagram above, the 864 was intended to be used as what we call a ‘broadcast limiter’ – the final step in the signal chain before the broadcast transmitter.

Download the original 1963 manual for the AM864 (apologies to whomever did the epic work of scanning this 55pp document; I have long forgotten where I got this file from)

DOWNLOAD: Federal-AM-864-U-Manual copy

Federal_AM864_on_benchAfter having scratch-built an Altec 436 compressor years ago, I wanted to try building an 864.  The circuits are very similar, although the 864 uses the older 1940s-era octal tubes and uses a feedback circuit from the plates of the input tubes (rather than the output tubes, as in the 436) for its compression control signal.  More importantly, though, the 436 remains a bit of an oddball underdog in the vintage-compressor market while the 864 enjoys a very strong reputation.  Anyhow, like the 436, the parts cost to build one of these things is negligible, so I figured what the hell.

This is going to be a very long + detailed +technical article, so I’m going to ask y’all to please click the link below if you dare to READ-ON,,,,

Continue reading Federal AM-864 Limiter Clone: Build Notes: update 1

Sammy Davis Jr had a crazy fkkn life and he wants you to buy an SM-56

Sammy_1977“Samuel George Davis, Jr. was born in the Harlem section of Manhattan in New York City, as an only child, to Sammy Davis, Sr., an African-American entertainer, and Elvera Sanchez,[9] a tap dancer of Afro-Cuban descent. At age 7, Davis appeared in a film in which he sang and danced with Ethel Waters[10] During his lifetime, Davis, Jr. stated that his mother was Puerto Rican and born in San Juan; however, in the 2003 biography In Black and White, author Wil Haygood writes that Davis, Jr.’s mother was born in New York City, to parents of Cuban, Afro-Cuban, and African-American descent, and that Davis, Jr. claimed he was Puerto Rican because he feared anti-Cuban backlash would hurt his record sales.

“Davis nearly died in an automobile accident on November 19, 1954, in San Bernardino, California, as he was making a return trip from Las Vegas to Los Angeles.[24] The accident occurred at a fork in U.S. Highway 66 at Cajon Boulevard and Kendall Drive (34.2072°N 117.3855°W).[25] Davis lost his left eye as a result. His friend, actor Jeff Chandler, offered one of his own eyes if it would keep Davis from total blindness. The offer was not needed.[26] Davis wore an eye patch for at least six months following the accident.[27][28] He appeared on What’s My Line? wearing the patch.[29] Later, he was fitted for a glass eye, which he wore for the rest of his life.

“While in Community Hospital, in San Bernardino, Davis’ friend, performer Eddie Cantor, told him about the similarities between the Jewish and black cultures. Prompted by this conversation, Davis—who was born to a Catholic mother and Protestant father—began studying the history of Jews. He formally converted to Judaism several years later, in 1961.

“In 1957, Sammy was involved with Kim Novak, a young actress under contract to Columbia Studios. The head of the studio, Harry Cohn, was worried about the negative effect this would have on the studio because of the prevailing taboo against miscegenation. He called his friend, mobster Johnny Roselli, who was asked to tell Davis that he had to stop the affair with Novak. Roselli arranged for Davis to be kidnapped for a few hours to throw a scare into him. His hastily arranged and soon-dissolved marriage to black dancer Loray White in 1958 was an attempt to quiet the controversy.” (SOURCE)

Shure_SM_56The Shure SM-56 (click here to download the specs) was the 2nd generation of the Shure 546, and as far as I can tell they are pretty much the same mic.  We have an 546 at Gold Coast Recorders and it’s my go-to top-of-snare mic.  It sounds pretty similar to an SM-57, but the top end is a little smoother; it seems to mellow things out a bit but without ever sounding dark.   SM-56s and 546s have become outlandishly expensive in the past few years, so if you find a working one of these for under $150, i’d recommend picking it up.  As this 1977 advert shows, the SM56 was sold as late as 1977.


Reeves Sound Studios NYC (1933 – 197X)

Reeves_1948- Frances_Flaherty-Eugene_Ormandy-CRFAbove: Reeves studio A during music scoring for “Louisiana Story,” a 1949 Oscar nominee for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story. The soundtrack score, composed by Virgil Thomson, won a Pulitzer Prize.  L to R: co-director Frances Flaherty, conductor Eugene Ormandy, and C. Robert Fine, mixing engineer. (Source: T. Fine)

Considering that owner Hazard Reeves was the man responsible for introducing the magnetic soundtrack channel to motion-picture film, as well as being one of the developers of Cinerama, which prefigured both the stereo hi-fi music revolution and the IMAX film-format, there is surprisingly little information online regarding his Reeves Sound Studios (hf. RSS).  RSS was in operation from approx. 1933 – 1980, and although it was primarily a sound-for-picture facility, some important albums were cut there, including early efforts by Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane.

Monk_at_ReevesMonk listens to playback at Reeves c. 1956.  Photo by E. Edwards.

PS dot com contributor T. Fine has provided some background on this important piece of recording history.  If any readers worked at RSS during its long history, please get in touch and tell us about it.

Reeves_1948-Eugene_Ormandy_conducts-Louisiana_StoryAbove: soundtrack recording session for “Louisiana Story” in 1948.  Eugene Ormandy is conducting the orchestra, with pickup via Altec 639 “Birdcage” microphones. (Source: T. Fine)

RSS opened its doors in 1933 (source: NYT). The earliest detailed account we have of its actual operation is a 1949 article by one Leon A. Wortman.

Click here to download a PDF of the article: Wortman-Fairchild_Studio_Design-low

Wortman’s piece(s) was originally published in the trade publication “FM AND TELEVISION” and subsequently re-published for promotional use by the Fairchild Recording Equipment Corporation.  T. Fine: “Reeves (Sound Studios) was full of Fairchild and Langevin gear. Buzz Reeves was good friends with Sherman Fairchild.”

Reeves_SchematicAbove: schematic for RSS circa 1949 (Wortman)

Reeves_ChannelA_cuttingroom_FAirReeves_B_roomReeves’ Room B c. 1949 (both above from Wortman)

Reeves_1948-CRF_Eugene_OrmandyAbove: Eugene Ormandy (L) and Bob Fine (R) work the Davens at RSS in 1948 (source: T. Fine)

T. Fine: “During the time my father worked for Hazard “Buzz” Reeves in the late 40s, he engineered jazz and classical records for Mercury and Norman Granz (who later founded Verve Records). Among the significant jazz recordings were “Charlie Parker with Strings,” some sides in Granz’s deluxe “The Jazz Scene” album, and Charlie Parker’s latin-jazz sides with Machito on Mercury.  Among the classical recordings for Mercury was the first U.S. use of the Neumann U-47 mic for orchestral recording: William Schuman’s “Judith” and “Undertow” performed by the Louisville Orchestra with Robert Whitney and William Schuman conducting.

“Here is a cut from the “Charlie Parker with Strings” sessions, followed by Charlie Parker with Machito and his Orchestra.

BobFine_ReevesCuttingRoomAbove: Bob Fine in the Reeves A cutting room, 1949.

Ed: Bob Fine would leave RSS in the early 1950s to build his own sound studio Fine Sound, which was purchased and then closed by Loews/MGM. In 1958, Bob Fine opened Fine Recording Studios on 57th Street.  You can read our account of Fine Recording Studios here and here.

T. Fine: “In the 50s, Reeves was the studio for a bunch of significant Riverside Records jazz recordings.

In a 2007 interview, Riverside founder/producer Orrin Keepnews (who’s still alive and in his 90s) talked about making a deal with Buzz Reeves to get the studio and engineer overnight at a cut rate if he block-booked chunks of days.”

“Not long after (1954), we made a long-term deal for a studio that was of great value to us..  (We) had become aware of Reeves Sound Studios in the East 40s. It was a big room—although easily brought down by screens and baffles to the small-group size we basically needed. The studio was used primarily for radio jingles and other advertising agency work. That meant it was rarely in use after daytime working hours. They agreed to give us almost unlimited time for a very low annual flat fee, provided our recording was basically done at night. It was a real meeting of needs. That low studio rate, and the quite reasonable union scale rates in that far-off deflationary period, made it possible for us to do a lot of recording with very little cash, which was a pretty essential factor in the early growth of Riverside.”  (source)

T. Fine: “It was perfect for jazz because Keepnews would have the guys come by to record after their club dates. He got a more relaxed but still tight feel than some of the Blue Note and Prestige sessions at Van Gelder, where the guys would often show up in daytime hours, off-kilter from their night-owl schedules.

“Reeves figured so prominantly in Riverside’s viability that some first-edition Riverside LP covers included a little graphic on the front boasting of “Riverside Reeves Spectrosonic High-Fidelity Engineering.” In the early stereo era, the “Stereosonic” replaced “Spectrosonic” in the logo.

“According to the Riverside Records discography located here, the sessions at Reeves began in late 1955 and continued until 1961.

TheloniusHimself (SOURCE)



T. Fine: “In the 60s, Reeves turned more to sound-for-picture work, and they were an early TV-sound production center in NY. They later did a lot of sound mixing for videotaped productions, especially with WNET Public TV.  Reeves bought out Fine Recording in the early 70s, and Bob Fine then managed Reeves Cinetel Studios in the early 70s. One of the projects he worked on then was producing the sync’d sound masters for the simulcasts of Don Kirschner’s “In Concert” late-night weekly rock concert series.”

“RSS produced a 4-track 1/2″ tape that was sync’d to video by a 59.95 Hz signal on one track, stereo audio (fed to the simulcasting FM station) on two tracks and mono audio to feed the TV station audio (or mono radio) on the 4th track.”



FirefoxScreenSnapz002T. Fine: “In 1972, Guidance Associates (still in business in Mt. Kisco NY) produced a filmstrip centered around RSS sound engineer Bill Brueckner. Bill’s work day described in the filmstrip involved putting the soundtrack together for a Cheetos TV commercial. The filmstrip shows images of a 1970’s sound-for-picture studio in action. Brueckner is shown working in two separate studios at Reeves. The studio where the commercial was made was the more modern studio. The console appears to be custom-made, probably using Langevin faders and internal parts. The second studio shown, where Brueckner is recording a voice-over later in the filmstrip, is older. Visible there are a Fairchild full-track tape machine, an Ampex 300 full-track, plus a very old mono console.”

T. Fine: “The filmstrip (with accompanying LP) was part of a set titled “People Who Work In Science,” probably aimed at middle school aged kids.  I found a mint-condition copy about 10 years ago; I assume a set was sent to my father since the ‘Sound Engineer’ strip was done at Reeves. I immediately transferred the LP, and eventually found someone to scan the filmstrip for me. Bill Wray, head of the AES Historical Committee and a retired Dolby exec, married the sound to the picture. He started out with side A of the LP, which has mid-range pitch manual-advance tones. He assembled the piece in Final Cut Pro and then laid over the side B audio, which had low-frequency auto-advance tones which I had notched out. We just recently finished it, got permission from the original publisher and posted it to the AES’ YouTube page. Thanks to Peter Haas for scanning the filmstrip and Jay McKnight for doing very good Photoshop cleanup on the images (the filmstrips were manufactured on that type of film stock that fades out to red over time).”




And that’s pretty much all I have been able to uncover regarding Reeves Sound Studios.  Hazard Reeves himself was a very public figure with a great number of technologies and awards to his credit; he started sixty companies in his lifetime, won an Oscar, helped introduce the blender to American kitchens, and owned a major audio-tape manufacturing facility just a stones-throw away from where I grew up in Danbury Connecticut.

7-inch reel late 60s frontAbove: a 7″ reel of consumer-grade Reeves Soundcraft audiotape, manufactured on Great Pasture road in Danbury CT.  

10-inch reel 1957 front10-inch reel 1957 rearAbove and left: a 10″ reel of industrial-grade Reeves audiotape.  T. Fine: “Interesting data on the rear of the box. This was sound-for-picture music work done at Reeves Studio B. The engineer was “J.H.”, most likely Jack Higgins, the engineer who made most of the Riverside jazz records at Reeves. You see notes for “Pic-Sync Fairchild,” meaning the tape was recorded on one of the studio’s Fairchild tape machines using the Pic-Sync system, which used a tone modulated at 14kHz to sync with motion-picture cameras and projectors. I can’t fully interpret the take sheet, but it looks like they were scoring to picture, with timing marks indicating footage from the film projector.”



HazardReeves_w_CineramaSoundHead_c1948Above: Hazard Reeves with a Cinerama 6-channel sound-head circa 1948

Cinerama_6_channel_console_C1952Above: an unknown audio engineer operates the 6-channel playback console at a Cinerama movie theater circa 1952.

The 3-camera, 3-projector, 6-channel surround-sound film format known as Cinerama has proven to be Hazard Reeves’ principal legacy.  There is a ton of information online regarding this far-ahead-of-its-time quirk of film history, so I won’t repeat any of that here.  But I would like to point out how interesting it is that although Reeves possessed the technology to create 6-track magnetic audio masters as early as 1948 (as evinced by the image above), he did not chose to apply this technology to music recording.  We can only assume that this was because the musical aesthetics of the day simply did not require it.  In 1948, live music was still the paradigm of musical-sound; there was evidently not sufficient demand to build a console and studio workflow that would allow for multitracking and overdubbing until a decade later, ever though the actual recording technology evidently existed.  This begs the question of what technologies we currently posses that could be put to the service of creating entirely new musical aesthetics, but which we are dismissive of, or simply blind to.

Nonetheless, Reeves’ diversified and energetic ventures reveal a man who boldly took advantage of the emerging technologies of his era to develop better and more effective communication products.   Reeve’s assessment of the relation between media form and media message is stated quite eloquently in this passage he wrote in the November 1982 SMPTE Journal:


Show, don’t tell.  That’s the message here. And ultimately this is remains the critical factor in creating meaningful artwork and communication, regardless of the tools and technologies used to produce it.

Suzanne Ciani profile in TECHNOLOGY magazine, 1982

Ciani_face_82Suzanne Ciani is a name that should be familiar to many of you.  Considered to be one of the true innovators of electronic music, Ciani found great success as a sound-designer for television and radio commercials in New York in the 70s and 80s.  After a very lucurative career, she returned to California and began a 2nd career as a recording artist; her music is often generalized as ‘new age,’ not surprisingly.

Ciani_HomeStudio_82There is just a ton of information online regarding Ciani and her work; I suggest you start here and here. Also if there is anyone out there who wants to redesign her website HOLY SHIT it’s like 1997 up in there.  Jesus.  Anyhow, I was at an estate sale recently, some real eccentric types; in the LPs were such gems at the United States Of America, Holy Modal Rounders, and The Remains. Not your typical 60s rock albums.   The piles of musty old magazines included graphic-designer fav U&lc, an old issue of Viva, and something called TECHNOLOGY, which was on its 2nd edition, 2nd issue by March of ’82.  Sorta like OMNI minus the fiction, TECHNOLOGY featured this profile with Ciani, which I think may have been lost to time… until now.  I offer it to you here:

DOWNLOAD: ciani_1982

Author is one Stephen Kindel.  The focus is very much on the economics of being an in-demand synthesist, which may have just been some 80s yuppie zeitgeist shit, or maybe some part of the magazine’s editorial mission.  Either way, it’s Karl Marx’s fucking nightmare.  Enjoy!   Oh, and here she is around the same time on Letterman, doing some sorta wacky proto Liz Lemon-meets-Kate Bush schtick.  Love it.

The Farfisa 233 electric organ of 1972

Farfisa_VIP_233_1972_2In ’06 or ’07 I found a Farfisa VIP 233 organ at the flea market.  It languished at the market for a few weeks, but even I was surprised when the seller accepted my offer of $120 for the thing.  I was taking a pretty big risk buying it, as these things are insanely complex and therefore not-really-worth-fixing if they have voice problems.  As it turned out, the big heavy beast worked perfectly.  I recently came across the original 1972 advert for the VIP-233 and it reminded me that I once owned one of these things:

Farfisa_VIP_233_1972_1It’s a versatile unit, and it sounded great… that being said, despite all its attempts to encroach on Hammond territory, it always sounds very Farfisa-y and can’t really do the Hammond thing very well.

FARFISAtopviewI came across these photos of my actual unit, taken back in 2007: I shot some images of the thing so that I could sell it on Craigslist.  At the time, we wanted more of a Hammond sound and the VIP-233 just was not getting used much.  The piece sold in a matter of days for… i think… $650?  A kid came up from Brooklyn and was thrilled at the deal he got.  OK so gonna get nostalgic for a minute: in this series of photos, you see the 233 in the piano booth at my old studio on Bridgeport’s far east side – the American Fabrics Building – the same bldg that is now the home of the Preservation Sound shop.  Subtle index of time-passing?  Check out the ashtray and lighter on the little end table.  I don’t think I know anyone who smokes anymore… and a mere seven years ago, pretty much everyone I knew, myself included, did.  I suppose we have Mayor Bloomberg to thank for that?

FarfisaWcase The space depicted above was completely gutted and transformed into an art studio years ago; while my new studio has certainly been a major upgrade, it’s great to see the old spot.  I don’t think I had the VIP 233 for very long; I could only find one production that features it.  Check out the track below.  This is the band Stylofone; you may know these guys from their later work with MGMT and The Acrylics.  At about :30 in, you can hear a little moog-esque glissando; this is the unique ‘Slalom’ portamento effect the the VIP 233 offers.

Kustom & Kasino in the 70s: Part II

Kustom_1972Today at PS dot com: a few images of the ‘later’ Kustom amps, as well as a forgotten entry by sister-company Kasino.  Above:  the 1972 Kustom Hustler, Charger, Sidewinder, Commander, and Challenger amps.   I think someone had a thing for muscle cars back in the day,,,  ironic, considering that dude later went into business making police radar detectors.  Oh wait: you don’t know the crazy story of Kustom founder Bud Ross?  You might want to check out our earlier article about Kustom at this link… including our exclusive high-res download of the complete 1972 Kustom Katalog.

Kustom_1972 copyAbove: this advert uses the non-literal communication method known as SIMILE to suggest that ‘Kustom amps are as precision-made as surgical instruments.’  There is also a parallel structure that relates a musician’s ‘picking’ of a guitar-string to a surgeon’s ‘picking’ of a cyst/tumor/etc.  Aii yi yi.

Kasino_PA_1972Above: a Kasino PA system from 1972.  Kasino products were apparently the same circuitry as Kustom, but repackaged to as to allow different local dealers to carry the same products without competing directly.  Much like Gibson/Epiphone in the 1960s.

KustomAmps_1977Above: the third generation of Kustom amps circa 1977.  The big selling point here seems to be…  a wide-Q notch filter.  Yawn.

1972: Rogers (via Phil Upchurch) tells drummers what’s up

PhilUpchurch_1I came across this odd bit from 1972…  Phil Upchurch was one of the most lauded studio guitarists of the 60s and 70s; at one point he was the house guitarist for the Chess label (Muddy Waters, The Dells, Howling Wolf, etc).  He also has some great lines on Bonnie Koloc’s 70’s folk rock LPs.   Check out the multiple solos (with a CRAZY quadraphonic mix) around the 3:25 mark here:

A versatile player, certainly.  Anyhow, check out this interesting promo campaign from Rogers Drums:


I love this idea.  I would equally welcome “advice for guitarists (by a great drummer).”

Why do certain guitarists make great drummers?

Players: have you learned more from those who play your instrument, or other instruments?

Does anyone have the ‘Phil Upchurch Percussion Fact Sheet”?