4 All-American Pieces of Classic Audio Gear
To all our fellow engineers, musicians and audio enthusiasts - we salute you!
The 4th of July marks the historic day in 1776 when the Continental Congress declared the thirteen American colonies into a new nation – the United States of America. For most Americans these days, the 4th of July means fireworks, family reunions, barbecues, picnics, parades, games and, above all, music. Throughout recent history, America has been one of the main music centers – their industry has driven gear manufacturers to create some of the most sought after pieces of equipment ever made. On this very special day, we praise our top 4 pics of all-American classics and we salute our fellow musicians, engineers, producers, technicians and gear makers!
Automated Processes, Inc.[API] was formed in 1968 and is known today as one of the leading manufacturers of high quality audio equipment. Being at the forefront of audio broadcast console manufacturing, API has served high profile radio and television networks, world renowned recording studios, first class engineers and outstanding producers. Over forty years later, in excess of 700 classic API consoles are still being used in some of the most prestigious recording and broadcast facilities across the world, serving as a testament to the great craftsmanship of American engineers.
One such studio is Boulevard Recording, based in Hollywood, LA. Clay Blair is the proud owner of what he describes as ‘1970s all American discrete love’ – his unique 1977 API 3288 console. Originally owned by ABC in New York City where it was used for broadcasting purposes, Clay’s API is one of only two 48-channel split consoles from that specific era, while the other resides at RAK Studios in the UK.
One of API’s technological achievements was the development of the 2520 op-amp – one of the most musical sounding designs. Clay’s 3288 features channel strips with the 2520 built-in, however, since the console was used for broadcast, it has also been fitted with an extra layer of Jensen transformers, adding to its sonic character. The team at Boulevard use it on everything due to its sound shaping capabilities – ‘it can deal with anything from soft and mellow to gritty and punchy and it’s extremely useful for widening a mix’, Clay adds. One last detail worth adding about this particular piece of recording history is that it currently lives in the studio where Pink Floyd finished recording The Wall and has been also used by Deep Purple on a number of their records.
For those familiar with its name, this unit needs no introduction other than ‘The Holy Grail of Compression’, to put it in the words of countless audio professionals throughout recording history. For new-comers, the Farichild story begins with Sherman Fairchild, the son of Congressman George Winthrop Fairchild – one of the founders of IBM. A brilliant engineer by trade, Sherman started a number of companies serving military applications; these include Fairchild Aerial Camera Corporation in 1920, Fairchild Aerial Surveys and Farichild Recording Equipment Corporation in 1931 in Whitestone, NY.
Arguably some of the best built audio equipment units, the company’s most prised inventions are the Fairchild 660 [mono] and 670 [multi-mono/vertical] models – developed in the early ‘50s. Featuring an astonishing 14 transformers and 20 vacuum tubes, these units are essentially variable-mu tube limiters – a design replicated by many throughout the years. While multi-mono is a fairly easy to grasp instantiation, in vertical mode, the 670 made possible to isolate the center and sides of the stereo signal – in essence, allowing for mid-side processing or M/S. The unit is well known for its extremely fast attack time, being capable to reduce the level of a signal within the first 10.000ths of a second. It is also one of the most musical compressors ever built and these days, second-hand prices can reach an exuberating $30 000, keeping it clearly in the reach of only those who appreciate its heritage, design and sonic capabilities.
Sherman’s invention is indeed one of the most revered piece of audio equipment and will surely keep its top position in the recording gear hall of fame for generations to come. Lastly, for the true gear aficionado, a lesser known fact is that Sherman came up with the initial design for the Fairchild 660/670 in his New York City apartment in 17 E 65th Street in Manhattan – it might be worth paying a visit in recognition of The Holy Grail of compressors – the Farichild.
Founded in 1944 by Alexander M. Poniatoff, Ampex initially manufactured motors and generators for the military but, by the end of the war, Alex focused the attention of his staff towards developing professional magnetic tape recorders. Helped by Bing Crosby, the company expanded quickly and within a few years, Ampex had managed to dominate the magnetic tape technology market in all sectors including the record industry, radio, television while still retaining its position within the military market, focusing on instrumentation recorders.
Arguably one of the most revered tape machines, model MM-1200 revolutionised multitrack recording. The unit was capable of recording up to 24 tracks of audio on 2-inch tape, introducing a variety of new features such as recording one or more channels simultaneously while monitoring one or more previously recorded channels.
However, the beauty of the Ampex model MM-1200 lies in its sonic capabilities, where the unit truly flourishes. Firstly, fitted with class-A discrete circuitry offers a certain sheen and polish imparted to every single track passed through the machine and secondly, the 16 track model owned by Simon Ayton actually allows for more width and, in a sense more ‘headroom’, allowing the tracks to breathe, compared to the 24 track version. Simon mentions it works wonders on any kind of music, ‘adding a sheen and polish you simply can't get from software – you must try it.’
The ‘50s were a glorious time for American recording equipment; one of the protagonists of the decade was the infamous Pultec EQP-1. While most will be familiar with its clunky knobs and unique sound, the story of this unit and the company who built it remains bleak.
Formally known as Pulse Techniques Inc., in short – Pultec, was the brainchild of Ollie Summerland and Gene Shank. Since its incorporation, the company has been run solely by the two engineers who made up the entire production unit, research & development, marketing and sales throughout the company’s lifespan which ended in the early ‘80s. What might sound like the unthinkable from a business perspective nowadays, was in fact the reality of that time – the company was built from the ground up by the duo and all of their devices were made by hand, to order. What’s more, Shank and Summerland also ran a Pultec shop in Teaneck, New Jersey, although the formal business address was West Englewood, NJ.
From an engineering point of view, the EQP-1 along with all its future variations had impressed with its design. What is essentially a passive equaliser, meaning it made use of capacitance and inductance to alter the sound, a technology licenced from Western Electric, was ultimately converted into an audio engineering masterpiece. To do so, the two engineers had to overcome a 16 dB insertion loss – a common design issue in passive equalisers and their solution was perhaps the most musical one available at that time: the inclusion of an all-tube amplifier which counteracted the level drop, making the unit appear to be ‘lossless’.
Sonically, the unit continues to impress professionals around the world by its clever filter design and layout. On the front panel of any EQP-1, there will be a ‘boost’ and an ‘attenuation’ knob; and while the documentation advised against using the two controls simultaneously as they would cancel each other out, in practice, the ‘boost’ control has a slightly higher gain than the ‘attenuation’ has cut and both use slightly different frequencies. This results in a very magical resonant shelf curve, which one can manipulate to achieve various effects, the most predominant being a low-midrange scoop balanced out by a slight boost of the resonating bass frequencies. This trick alone is worth the value of a real Pultec EQP-1A.
This rounds up our Independence Day special featuring 4 unique all-American analog studio classics which you have to try in a lifetime. These units all carry a part of recording history and to an extent, a part of popular culture – a culture of American musical heritage made popular worldwide.