Stephens Electronics, maker of the 40-track analog multitrack machine (1973)

Stephens_40_track_1973Commercially-released albums were made on 24-track tape machines for a very long period of time, approximately 1971 – 1995.  Now, before 24-track machines were available there was always the possibility of ping-pong’ing, which can get you 8 solid-sounding tracks on a 4-track machine (and at least 20 on an 8-track) , and at some point in the 70s engineers were able to lockup two 24-track machines to get, I imagine, 46 tracks of audio plus timecode.  But as early as 1973, Stephens Electronics of Burbank offered another solution: a 40-track, 30 IPS 2″ tape machine that still promised 40 – 2oK response.  Users of these machines apparently included Leon Russell and Roy Thomas Baker; can anyone positively confirm any well-known records that were made on the Stephens 40-track?

A helpful dude has made the original Stephens catalog/spec sheet available online; click here to download the PDF (not my link).

Let’s get back to that advert tho…  WTF is going on here?

moodyPensive lady

draggingDrags 132lb tape deck along beach

GreekNonsensical ‘greek’ placeholder copy tells us nothing

headlineHeadline hails the freaks

Aphrodite FowlerThere’s clearly some sort of Venus/Aphrodite metaphor at work here, but what exactly IT ALL MEANS remains a mystery (at left, a painting of Aphrodite by Fowler).  I could find one other similar-period Stephens advert, and it’s a little quirky, but not as bizarre as beach-lady.

Stephens_ad_1974Any of y’all using these machines nowadays?

Many former Stephens users report that the machines compare well to Studer and Ampex in terms of sonics.  They were also designed for utmost mechanical and electronic reliability; designer John Stephens apparently had a background in aerospace engineering.  The machines seem to be few and far between these days, commanding prices well above that of similar vintage Studers.

19 thoughts on “Stephens Electronics, maker of the 40-track analog multitrack machine (1973)”

  1. One of the Stephens special features (other than its track count) was its portability, because you could separate the meters from the deck for easy shipping (compared to an A80). Hence all the lugging and train tracks.

    1. Stephens manufactured his own transports which were without capstans or pinch rollers. Instead his constant-torque reel motors relied on a tach pulse generated by the reversing idler at the middle front center of the tape path.

  2. I believe Queen and Giorgio Moroder made use of 40 track Stephens machines. I had one of his 24 track machines myself. John Stephens was a genius.

  3. Some early Stephens decks used 3M transports but John came up with something different later on – a precursor to some of the later high-speed data tapes and also on some video recorders. The later 811 and I believe all of the 821 machines had a very unique system with no pinch roller and only two motors. Tape speed was sensed using the tape reversing idler and an optical pickup underneath it. Control electronics in the bottom steered current to each reel motor to maintain backtension (total current) and speed control (current steering). Very clever idea, sometimes very tough to fix.

  4. Being John’s brother, I’ve created a Flickr website which gives quite a bit more info on John. He started out by being one of the first to use transistor electronics (opamps) and transformer-less output on highly modified 3M 1/2″ decks. When he started to be competitive with 3M, they basically cut him off from buying the deck only. That’s when he invented an iso-loop revision using a capstan-less speed control from the readout from a strobe wheel on the bottom of the puck/idler at the bottom of the loop. It was/is a very sensitive kind of control as you might imagine, and I remember he had problems even with different types of tape, so his feedback info he continued to modify. Every deck was a bit different, and many of his “babies” came back to his shop for modification. Just that kept him in business for a time. Later, he got into making a modification package for the Bosch FDL-60 telecine that included a better software upgrade and optics package. A quote from a client, “New CCD preamps that are 10-12 dB quieter,
    affordable resocketing, etc.” He was always interested in the broad field of science and even made a “black box” sun tracker for the Griffith Observatory (planetarium) in Los Angeles when the clock guidance system had to be constantly reset. Using his shop test telecine, he did some high quality film to tape transfers from moon landings for NASA.

  5. Yeah, if you click on my name (above), it will take you right to my Flickr site. I just remembered that Robert Altman, the film director, bought a number of John’s
    8-track high portable decks to use on location for recording up to seven actors’ dialog simultaneously. Then, in post-production editing, he could bring their tracks up or down them all talking at the same time to feature one or the other as the camera panned across a group. Jim Webb was the location recordist that used them for Altman and others. You’ll see his cart with the 8-track on my Flickr page.

    1. I worked for John for about 5 years before moving to Robert Altman’s company Lion’s Gate for another 5. I could probably answer all kinds of questions.
      John also made a 3 track console using optical faders, a photographic log taper that Led Zepplin used on Led Zepplin 3 as I recall.
      The Cars 1st album was recorded and mixed on Roy Thomas Baker’s 40 track in 21 days.
      Pink Floyd used a Stephen’s to Playback on while mixing some of The Wall
      Ambrosia recorded a lot on the Stephens at Mama Joes.
      Seals and Croft owned a 24.
      Leon Russel had a 40.
      Altman owned 3 – 8 tracks, Coppola used an 8 track on One From The Heart, still has it in storage in Napa, I worked for him for a while.

      The real beauty of the machine was – 1 discreet custom made epoxy amplifier between the input and the tape. No kidding, 1 amplifier period. It took 2 amps to do effective EQ and output isolation for Playback. That’s 3 amplifiers total from input to tape and output. There were wow and flutter issues that required maintenance and knowledge of how the loop worked.
      The machines were often rented to do tape transfers, I recall Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder doing that.

  6. I had several discussions about the technology with Stephens at the ’78 AES. He was one of the brightest inventors I have met and it was one of the most enlightening conversations of my audio life.

    The transport was a marvel of execution, using better bearings than even Studer (AFAIR, he said “Class 7”, which was the penultimate aerospace category). The motion control circuit was deceptively simple with few parts but complex feedback and torque compensation for winding radius for constant tension without separate tension sensing.

    The audio circuits also had novel configurations, with current feedback on the record heads and a transimpedance amp on playback. The 40 track has the same mix-down SNR as the competitors’ 24 tracks. I had a friend with a Stephens 16, it best sounding multi-track until multi-track DSD.

  7. I have a Stephens 40 track frame with 16, 24 and 32 track heads. I’m in search of some technical support as most techs I have tried are either unwilling to attempt the unfamiliar design, or are restrictively expensive. Anyone interested in taking a crack at this beautiful machine, please do contact me. I am not asking for freebies at all, but I do think it needs a considerable amount of work and I’d like to find someone with the time to spend on it at a manageable rate.

    1. Lou, if you are still in need of some assistance I may be able to help, or at least provide some useful contacts. Please email me at jesse52(replace with at symbol)

    2. Are you looking to find it a good home???
      Or are you looking for a studio “Partner”…???

      It’s a little unclear…if it’s a 40 track frame…you only listed up to 32 track heads???

  8. I worked with John from 1978 -1982 as production manager/service tech/purchasing agent etc. while in my late 20’s. John was a brilliant guy, always interesting. I always considered myself to have blessed to have been able to work with John. We became good friends. I learned a lot from him. It was one of the most inspiring and fun periods of my life! Randy might remember me. I started with John shortly after he left to work at Lions Gate.
    Doug Cioce

    1. Hi Doug Cioci!
      I worked for you in 1979 or 80. I was the kid that built and wired up the power supplies. I remember those two old ladies that wired up the amplifiers and John’s girlfriend Gina Desopo? what was the name of the guy that assembled the decks? He got angry one day at John and walked out.
      John never spoke to me, but you spent a lot of time showing me how to put those analog electronic devices together. You helped me develop skill that were very useful for the next 37 years. Thank you for that. I’d love to have copies of any photos of the old shop or sales and engineering literature.

  9. I have two channels from a Stephens mixing console that was used to record a Kenny Rogers album, (or so I was told). I have never found the info for power supply etc. to get them up and running as preamps, but would really love to do that.

    1. Bob, did you ever get these modules running? I fix Stephens machines and can help with the console strips. Contact me through History of Recorded Sound, 310-204-4911.

  10. I think Keith Richards has a desktop 24 track sitting in his “den”.
    Not sure how much work he’s done on it…

    That was a few years ago.

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