- Born : Michigan, 1964
- Education : BSEE University of Michigan, 1987
- Work : Aerospace Industry, Senior RF System Specialist
Although I’m loath to admit it, I am old enough to remember the last of the tube days and the great invasion of the transistor. In fact it was during this time, let’s call it “the late 70s”, that I had my first experiences with both the old tube amps and televisions of the 60’s. It was also during this time that I converted a large part of my parents’ basement into one large electronics shop of horrors. Complete with old televisions, ancient tube radios and amps, and every manner of electronic contrivance. And for a time I was happy.
However, something wicked and evil happen during those formative years. I was assailed by the cult of the transistor. I was told that tubes were too big, too fragile, too prone to failure. I was told that in all things transistors are better. They’re smaller, lighter, more efficient, more elegant. I was told stories about near infinite linearity and noiseless performance. My college professors were no better then anyone else. They regaled we poor Engineering students with stories about the dark ages of tubes and the horrors they’d encountered. And I believed.
I laughed at my shop full of tubes. How could I have been so foolish, so naive? And, as I shifted my attention to transistors, op-amps, integrated circuits, and microprocessors the old tubes in my workshop gathered dust. Eventually, it was all hauled away to the dump. The basement was cleaned out and the transition was complete. The past was forgotten.
Then one day about 20 years later while working at my desk, I was listening to music through a little headphone amp based on an LM386 audio amp. And it just didn’t sound right. I played with the controls, adjusted levels, checked connections, but nothing helped. The sound was there, but not the music. I don’t know why it happened then, but it did. And so began my search to find the music.
Strangely enough my discovery happen via an old American Five radio which had been a gift to my Father when he graduated High School in 1948. That radio had always sounded great to me. Listening to it made it easy to understand how the great news men and reporters of the forties gained their fame. Voices that sounded small, tinny, and ordinary through the mighty transistor amps, sounded big round and full through the old American Five. But how could this be? Transistors were better at everything! I’d been told! I’d been taught! I had told others! I believed! And so I started to research the old American Five.
I read about their development, their operation, and their acoustics. I learned about series filaments, line level power supplies, and simple audio amplifiers. I learned about all the things that supposedly made them cheap mass market throwaways. And that’s when my discovery came. It wasn’t the radio, it was the tube! I talked with my wife, a Speech Language Pathologist, about sound, harmonics, and distortion. She told me about how the ear works and how the brain processes sound. She told me about the system that is hearing and perception. And I learned that I had been lied to.
For all those years that I was told that music was just a collection of superimposed sine waves. Perfect the reproduction of the sine wave and you perfect the reproduction of the music. Flat response from 20Hz to 20KHz was all it took. It was so simple. It was so easy. And it was so WRONG!
Music is about perception. It’s about instruments and voices interacting both with each other and with their surroundings. It’s about acoustics, distortions, reverberations, and how all those things interact with the ear and the brain. And our brain is not a flat 20Hz to 20KHz signal processor, eagerly separating sine waves and checking their amplitude and phase. Our brian is a carefully trained pattern matching attractor network. And it knows how things should sound. It knows that an instrument played in an anechoic chamber sounds wrong and one played on a stage in an amphitheater sounds right. It knows that the blending of instruments and the inclusion of harmonic distortions because of that blending is part of the music. It knows, even if we do not. That’s why music recorded in so many studios sounds so sterile, so strident, and so wrong. Putting a microphone on every instrument and vocalist in an anechoic chamber, recording everything, and expecting to get it right by simple mixing afterwards is bound to fail. That is why the greatest recordings of symphonies and operas are all live. It’s because they are recordings of the total music. Complete with all the environmental interactions and distortions that make it music.
And so enters the humble vacuum tube. For this simple device, with its propensity for adding just a touch of distortion and nonlinearity, achieves what all the great sound mixers with all their super clean and ultra linear transistor amplifiers could not. The tube amplifier restores the music that our brains know should have been their all along.
And so, after 25 years in the musical wilderness, I decided to again build a simple tube amplifier. And once again, I have found the music.
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