2008 TECnology Hall of FameIn pro audio, history is not only our past but also our present especially as classic gear remains in use for decades. A spin-off of the TEC Awards, the 9/01/2008 8:00 AM Eastern
In pro audio, history is not only our past but also our present — especially as classic gear remains in use for decades. A spin-off of the TEC Awards, the TECnology Hall of Fame was created to spotlight significant innovations that forever changed our industry. Each year, inductees are selected by a committee of top engineers, producers, educators, historians and journalists. Listed chronologically, here are this year's honorees.
Tape recorders may not be as important as they once were in modern recording studios, but magnetic recording technology continues to permeate our lives in the form of hard disks, mag stripes on credit cards, etc. The lineage of magnetic recording can be traced to Danish engineer Valdemar Poulsen (1869-1942), who created the Telegraphone magnetic recorder in 1898. Poulsen described the system as an “essential advance in this branch of science as it provides for receiving and temporarily storing messages and the like by magnetically exciting paramagnetic bodies…such as a steel wire or ribbon.” The Telegraphone medium was steel piano wire wrapped in a tight spiral around a small brass cylinder, although later Poulsen developed reel-to-reel recorders using spools of wire. His 1900 Telegraphone recording of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph is the earliest magnetic recording in existence.
The first dynamic microphone was patented in 1874 by Ernst Siemens but never caught on. As telephone and radio technology improved, Bell Labs' Edward Christopher Wente created the first condenser mic in 1916, offering improved performance, but in a large, fragile package. Wente worked with fellow Bell engineer Albert Thuras to develop the first commercial dynamic microphone, which on its release in 1931 was called the Western Electric 618A electrodynamic transmitter. With a thin duralumin diaphragm and cobalt-steel magnet, the omnidirectional 618A offered high output and a respectable 10kHz bandwidth. It remained in use for years and was also the mic of choice for Franklin Delano Roosevelt's famous “Fireside Chat” radio addresses.
Georg Neumann developed the successful Reisz carbon mic in 1923. As radio gained in popularity and record companies switched over to the “electrical recording process,” microphones became the front end in the audio chain. Excited by the idea of building condenser mics, Neumann founded Georg Neumann & Co. in November 1928, and that same year debuted the CMV3 — the first mass-produced condenser mic. Nicknamed the “Bottle Mic,” the CMV3 had an omnidirectional capsule with gold-sputtered colloidan (later switched to PVC) diaphragms and RE084 triode-based electronics. In 1932, Neumann unveiled the CMV3A, featuring interchangeable capsule heads, including a cardioid version of the famed M7, which was later adapted for use in the U47.
Seeking to create a low-cost cardioid dynamic microphone, Shure engineer Benjamin Bauer began developing the Unidyne in early 1937. Prior to this, most unidirectional patterns were achieved by multi-element mics that combined the outputs of omni and figure-8 capsules. That worked, but resulted in bulky mics with uneven frequency response and unpredictable directional patterns. Bauer felt a single-capsule approach was the only workable solution. He experimented with capsules having front and rear openings that allowed sound waves to reach the diaphragm. Partially blocking the rear openings created a short phase delay that effectively cancelled the sounds from the rear, and the Unidyne was born. Debuting in 1940 as the Model 55A/B/C (each had different impedances), the Unidyne was an immediate hit, and nearly 70 years later it remains in production; today, the model 55SH combines vintage looks with a modern capsule.
A year after founding Lansing Sound (now JBL), James B. Lansing began working on a high-performance woofer using the new Alnico V magnet material developed during World War II. With its 4-inch, edge-wound aluminum-wire voice coil; cast-aluminum frame; rear-cone venting; and aluminum dome to radiate high frequencies, the D130 in many ways defined the modern high-power woofer. It soon found favor with cinema, P.A. and home hi-fi users, while its extended HF response — out to 6 kHz — was ideal for the growing musical instrument market. Leo Fender began using the D130 in Fender amps in 1955. In various forms, the 130 Series was in production for more than 50 years — a remarkable accomplishment.
Founded in 1926, Tannoy built its first speaker systems in 1933, followed by mics, amps and test gear. In 1947, Tannoy's Ronald Rackham created the dual-concentric design, combining a 15-inch woofer and compression driver with two voice coils sharing a single magnet structure and the woofer cone forming a wide-dispersion horn. After this “Monitor Black” successfully debuted at London's Radio Olympia Expo in 1948, Decca bought the first six units for its studios. Later versions — such as Tannoy's Red and Gold monitor series — made dual-concentric designs a worldwide studio standard, while the DSP control in Tannoy's new Precision and Ellipse models take the technology to a new level.
Long considered a classic, the 1176 peak limiter began when engineer/producer/designer/studio owner Bill Putnam experimented with the idea of using FETs as voltage variable resistors for gain-control devices. Putnam's Universal Audio was an engineering-driven company, and the 1176 went through constant revisions; the most significant was Brad Plunkett's addition of low-noise (LN) circuitry in the preamp stage — hence the version 1176LN with the familiar black faceplate. In 2000, the reborn Universal Audio released an exact re-creation of the 1176LN, and its popularity continues. But in any form, the 1176 still sounds great and is easy to use.
In 1967, Saul Walker designed the first 12-track recording console for Apostolic Studios (New York City), a facility used by Frank Zappa on many of his legendary recordings. The console project led to Walker's founding of API (Automated Processes Inc.), focusing on creating modules for custom mixers, which were common in most studios in that era. Still prized today, perhaps the most beloved API module is the 550A, a 3-band equalizer with five switchable frequency centers on each band. Walker's design combined his 2520 discrete Class-A/B op amps with an ingenious proportional-Q circuit that alters the filter bandwidth (Q) with changes in gain boost/cut — three octaves wide at ±2 dB, narrowing to one octave at ±12 dB. The result? A highly musical unit offering simple, fast operation. In 2004, API resumed production of the 550A (and the 4-band 550B), offered in both modular and rackmount formats.
David Blackmer founded dbx in 1971, based on the concept of using decibel expansion (hence the name “dbx”) to replace the peaks lost from the limited dynamic range of magnetic tape. His brilliant decilinear VCA and RMS level-detection circuits changed the world, yielding classic products such as dbx noise reduction, dbx compressors, OEM VCAs for automated consoles and more. Blackmer's first pro unit was the model 160 compressor/limiter, something he really didn't want to make because, after years of creating products that would restore or expand dynamic range, a box that squashed dynamics seemed very wrong to him. Yet this half-rack unit found favor with engineers and two 160s could be linked for stereo operation.
From Yamaha's consumer hi-fi group, the most inauspicious audio debut in 1977 was surely the NS-10M. At the time, no one in pro audio used them, and they didn't rise to prominence for another five years when they replaced Auratones as the most common studio reference speaker. Claiming it smoothed the top-end response, engineers began hanging tissues over the tweeters, and NS-10Ms so adorned were a common sight during the 1980s. In 1987, Yamaha debuted the NS-10M Studio model, which offered the same 7-inch woofer but had a redesigned tweeter, tweaked crossover and minor changes to optimize horizontal placement.
Studer has a long history of building precision recorders. Its first multitrack — the J37 tube 4-track — debuted in 1964 and found fame in 1967 when George Martin and crew used two J37s to record The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album. In 1978, the Studer A800 brought a new generation of pro multitracks. Thanks to its huge frame, half-horsepower spooling motors (for effortlessly handling 14-inch reels) and thick-slab alloy deckplate, the A800 weighed nearly 900 pounds, yet was the first microprocessor-controlled multitrack — remarkable in 1978 when even the simplest early PCs were years away. Perhaps more important than the A800's smooth handling was its sound, providing 15 to 30k Hz of analog excellence. The recorder was discontinued in 1988, although thousands of A800s are in daily use 30 years after its introduction.
It isn't often that a console company comes out of a recording studio. London's Trident Studios opened in 1968, and having the first 8-track recorder (Ampex) in Europe, it attracted top artists from the start, including The Beatles, who recorded “Hey Jude” there. In 1972, longtime Trident engineer/designer Malcolm Toft founded Trident Audio Developments to create products based on consoles the studio built for its own use. With its “A” and “B” series, Trident Audio prospered and expanded, adding designer John Oram to its team in 1974. The 1979 TSM console had high-end performance, but cost $150,000. At $40,000, the Series 80 (1980) was more affordable, yet from its English ash exterior to its TSM-based circuitry, with clean preamps and musical equalizers, it never seemed second-rate and was hugely successful. Today, the Series 80 lives on in various modern reissues.
After inventing a number of firsts — text-to-speech synthesis, the CCD flatbed scanner, Omni-Font optical character recognition and a print-to-speech reading machine for the blind — Ray Kurzweil met Stevie Wonder, who encouraged him to apply computer control to acoustical instruments. As a result, he founded Kurzweil Music Systems in 1982. A year later, AES visitors marveled at the Kurzweil 250, the first ROM-based sampling keyboard to successfully reproduce the full complexity of acoustic instruments, with natural-sounding pianos, thick drums, lush strings, choirs and more. It weighed 95 pounds and cost almost $16,000, but sounded great, and Kurzweil followed it with a long series of innovative — and more affordable — products.
In 1985, the British Library National Sound Archive funded digital audio restoration research at Cambridge University, work that led to the prototype CEDAR computer, the earliest PC-based audio restoration system. Its unveiling at AES Europe in 1987, along with being featured on BBC-TV, helped secure funding for a commercial system. CEDAR gave users real-time control during the transfer, letting operators adapt the processes for varying noises in the material. The first production systems in 1990 incorporated dual-floating-point AT&T DSPs hosted in a conventional PC, later followed by dedicated hardware units, PC- and server-based systems, and plug-ins for DAW platforms. Since then, tens of thousands of CD, DVD, film and broadcast projects have employed CEDAR noise-suppression technology.
Ideas sometimes come when you least expect them. In the late '80s, Paul de Benedictis — Opcode's marketing guy — and Digidesign software engineer Mark Jeffery were carpooling from San Francisco to the South Bay office park where both companies were located. During one of their 30-minute commutes, these two musicians considered the possibility of combining the power of Opcode's Vision MIDI sequencer with the digital audio capabilities of Digidesign's Sound Tools and Audiomedia recording systems. Excited about the prospect, Opcode founder Dave Oppenheim worked with fellow code writer David Willenbrink (co-founder of Blank software) to make it happen. It worked. Audio data was displayed as tracks of waveforms and could be cut/pasted/manipulated as easily as MIDI tracks, and the software was the talk of Winter NAMM on its debut in January 1990.
George Petersen is Mix's executive editor and runs a small record label at www.jenpet.com.