Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Brick Armadillo, White Light and the President of Bolivia

The Club House needs a bit of cleaning these days, both literally and figuratively. Tropical storm Hermine put 10 inches of rain on my house and 2 or 3 inches managed to make it inside, so life has been a bit complicated lately. But even before that the blog was suffering from projects set aside and articles abandoned. Maybe more details on that later, but for now it's time for a bit of catch up.

If you are an Austinite of a certain age you will know what this picture is:

This is the lead armadillo in the herd that adorned the wall in the late lamented Armadillo World Headquarters. The Armadillo lost the battle with Austin's high tech progress and the property was sold and replaced with a high rise office building. The contents were auctioned off and the building was demolished in early 1981, and my good friend Rob Haeuser grabbed the above in a daring daylight heist. I trust the statute of limitations for brick theft has passed.

An update from Rob, slightly edited... 

"A minor correction:

 The bricks were paid for, albeit reluctantly, by my ex-wife, aka the ***********  from ****. We were in separate cars, and met at the demolition site.  I rooted around for a couple of good bricks, and stumbled across a chunk of about 15, lying face-down.  When I flipped it over I nearly died!  So I hustled the chunk into my trunk, and the  *****  headed to her car.  On the other side of the site a guy in a pickup started yelling “It’s a buck a brick!”  I headed off in one direction, *****  headed off in the opposite direction, and the guy jumped in his pickup and followed her.  She pulled up to a red light, he hopped out of the pickup and ran up to her window, she rolled it down an inch, and handed him a five.  Needless to say, I reimbursed her!  So what a deal: 15 bricks at 33 cents a brick…"

Rob sometimes gives the impression that his divorce was not an amicable one...

This world is full of all sorts of odd connections of the Kevin Bacon sort. One of the occupants of the high rise built on the ashes of the Armadillo was IBM, and at the time they employed the future President of Bolivia, Jorge Quiroga. Jorge was part of a team that sold the state of Texas a large number of first generation PC AT's for a project that employed me then, and somehow employs me now. Jorge was an interesting guy and mad about soccer.

But I digress. Rob was (and will always be) a musician, and like most musicians he has a story about how he came that close to getting the big break. His band was called White Light and the big break that almost happened was a too brief connection with Bill Josey, founder of Sonobeat Records. Bill produced Johnny Winter, a very young Eric Johnson and a host of other Texas musicians. He passed away in 1976 after producing a demo tape for White Light. The tape disappeared for literally 30 years and, well, follow the links above and this one for more of the story.

I have to wrap up this little bit of unfinished business for now, but there are several stories in the above that deserve to be pursued. Austin is like that, lots of old business that needs to see the light of day. With luck I will get to these and a few more, including one very interesting one involving Janis Joplin.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Snap Out of It!

Life has taken a few twists and turns around The Stereo Club and the blog has suffered. The last post was way last February, and blogging was sparse for months before that. That's just pathetic.

Well, today I was moping around the house, thinking about the blog I have neglected, and realized it was time for an intervention. I needed someone to step up, get in my face, and let me know what I needed to do. 

And then it hit me:

Thanks, I needed that.

I confess that Cher has been one of my musical guilty pleasures, and the Moonstruck Cher just looked great. However, like many males in the late 70's, I found this Cher... er, intriguing:

Remarkably, this album is titled 'Take Me Home'. Ahh, sure.

On the other hand, this Cher was just scary:

What was she thinking? If you know, please don't tell me.

Of course, Cher got her start with former Phil Spector go-fer and future Republican Congressman Sonny Bono. Sonny co-wrote 'Needles and Pins' with Jack Nitzsche and I thank the both of them for that.

And he also wrote and produced this classic number, perhaps the first work in the rock genre to feature an oboe hook:

This Shindig clip from 1965 featured a doofy looking Sonny in his caveman outfit, but the song was very catchy, and Cher looked great and could sing.   I was hooked.

Anyway, I hope Cher has snapped me out of it and the blog is back. I have tons of catching up to do...

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Motorcycle Girl

Yeah, I have been slackin' on the blog, these days, life has intervened a bit. The posts are stacking up like speakers in my closet...

In the meantime here is a version of Motorcycle Girl by Tito & Tarantula. Tito Larriva was the charismatic front man for the Cruzados, a great L.A. Chicano punk band that fizzled out after a great first record. I couldn't find a copy of the official Cruzados video from '85, but this is a scorchingly good version.

Tito's voice has a bit of road rash, but the band is in fine form. The video is from the German RockPalast and was recorded (very well) in Bonn in '08. I think the line up includes Cruzados ex Steven Hufsteter on lead guitar, Lucy Rippy on bass, and Alfredo Ortiz on drums. (I think... This band has been through some changes.) If Ortiz' drumming on this track doesn't have you bopping in your chair you are without hope.

As a parting shot here is an earlier incarnation of the band sharing the stage with Selma Hayek and a snake.

Yowza. Now that's what I call a show! The band contributed 3 songs to Robert Rodriguez' remake of Desperado in '95, and Tito scored the soundtrack.

Tito Larriva and Steven Hufsteter are currently residents of Austin, no doubt Robert Rodriguez had some influence there. Lucy Rippy is also a Texas resident, maybe even an Austinite as well. Austin will make room for Betty Page playing bass any day. That's a two-fer just made for South Austin. For the link inclined here are a few: Tito, the band, The Cruzados, Rippy on MySpace, and Alfredo Ortiz.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

A simple vacuum tube amp

I've owned and serviced quite a number of pieces of tube audio gear over the years. I've even owned more than a few bits of tube gear in the past that are quite sought after these days. Many were were a mixed bag to own and feed. Especially when the output stage becomes unstable, and eats an expensive set of tubes. My goal was to create something simple and musical. Hopefully, it wouldn't cost an arm and a leg.

Anyone who has built just about anything from scratch will tell you that the cost of materials and labor far outweigh the cost of an assembled product from a store shelf. It certainly turned out to be the case here. A pretty decent power amp could be purchased just for the cost of just the resistors and capacitors in this particular amp. Holco precision resistors, and Sidereal poly capacitors did add up. Throw in teflon coated silver stranded wire, and silver plated ceramic tube sockets, and cost added up even more.

The start of this project began with a set of transformers from an old Sansui unit. They were in great physical condition, and well suited for a project like this one. The output stage takes cues from both the Sansui they originated from, but from some Fisher influence as well. Unlike many common cathode designs of the 60s, I chose a simple self bias approach used in a smaller Fisher 6L6 based amplifier designed many moons ago. No tweaky bias adjustments needed at all.

Looking to cut costs somewhere, I discovered that the Pilot company used a simple 12AX7 tube for each channel of a power amp delivered in the 1960s. Half the dual channel tube used for the input stage, and the second half for the driver/phase splitter. The credit belongs to these trailblazers, and not me. The result is a musical amp that won't cost your entire rent check to feed with tubes. The cathode bias approach definitely squeezes a long lifespan from the power output tubes. Common cathode proponents might claim tighter bass, and a few more watts of power, but I say the trade-off is well worth it.

This amplifier is currently on display at Austin Stereo in Austin Texas.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Audio Research SP3A1

Produced around 1973 to 1974, this vacuum tube preamp definitely raised the bar for the state of audio gear. Many manufacturers had already made the transition to solid state circuitry for their entire model lines. Audio Research (often referred to as ARC) would soon follow with their own solid state audio amplifiers. The basic design of this preamp would continue to evolve for years to come, and carried on in models like the SP6, SP8 and SP10.

Features like a cathode follower buffer stage, a bypassable tone circuit, and a solid state voltage regulator were among the unusual features offered by the SP3. While not new features, few preamps (if any) at the time combined all of them. Add to this a large number of inputs, and a set of AC power outlets on the back that can switch 1200 watts of consumption via a separate power switch. This is great, and even necessary, when using this unit with a solid state power amp. A tube preamp should always be powered on first, and switched off last. Even with modern gear, it's wise to follow this advice.

Of course sound is where the rubber meets the road, and this preamp does not disappoint. Even compared to modern offerings, it can hold it's own. Especially when compared to less sophisticated designs.

This particular example is currently on display at Austin Stereo, in Austin Texas.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Dude, yer slackin on the blog!

Ah, yes. True. I am now wrapping up week 4 of respiratory distress. And before that was the food poisoning. Normal blogging activities will resume when I can breathe.

But I care about the Club's entertainment. How about this:

What is it?

Glad you asked. It's a 38 pound, bluish gray, extremely high voltage ceramic insulator. That some idiot was using as a planter. Please, show a little respect for an industrial objet d'art. It comes in maroon as well... but that one needs a bit more cleaning.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Pioneer PD 5010

This CD player was built in 1986 and retailed for $400. It is nicely built, but not nearly as sophisticated as the Sony CDP 650ESD that graced these pages recently.

This post is mostly an excuse to share this link and this second link. These sites contain pretty much identical lists of cd players and identifies their DACs and transports. Cool, but why? you ask.

Well, some people are really obsessive about their DACs and transports. Just google TDA1541 and see what you get.

For the record the PD 5010 uses the Sony CX20152, a dual, 18 bit, two times oversampling DAC. You can see it at the right, above. In the previous picture it is in the far upper right. Note the nice film caps in the output stage to the left of the DAC. The clear ones are styroflex.

Li' Mar: Making the Best of a Difficult Situation

Ahh, we are back to that troublesome little Marantz, are we? Yep. She has not been forgotten, although it has been tough to tell from this blog. I have been avoiding her.

In our last adventure (It was when??? October??) we made some progress by pulling a wobbly post off the preamp board. That solved a problem, but progress always seems to be followed by a setback with this amp.

Way back in August (!) I had recapped the amp board, and I vaguely recall checking the output transistors, but evidently I was not exactly thorough. With the preamp playing a bit better it was clear that the left front channel had an odd distortion. Mike ran it through the ocilloscope and exactly half of the wave form was missing. Literally. One of the 8 outputs was bad and I had either missed it or it had recently failed. Its mate was working on the positive swing, but the zero line was as far as the signal went.

When one is bad, replace them both.

Here is the board, pulled yet again. The replacements are the clean ones at the left.

Here is the heat sink and goo, the imprint of the dead output is the incomplete one at the top. Hmm, maybe it didn't seat well enough... No need to wallow, there is more trouble ahead!

Replacing an output isn't particularly difficult, but what followed was.

The preamp board: what a pain in the butt. The front channels seemed ok, although once in while it seemed... off. The rear channels were maddening. The treble was behaving like a combination tone control and volume pot all in one. The signal would disappear. The bass pot was more stable, but every once in a while it would distort. Maybe it was salvageable, but that treble pot was more a 'trouble pot'. I chased bad solder joints and bridges for far too long, and finally threw in the towel.

I talked all this over with Mike. His strong suggestion was to cut my losses and just run both front and rear outputs with the front section of the preamp. This was a very easy modification, but I really didn't want to sacrifice the quad features of this amp. I was hoping we could just jumper the rear channel treble pot and salvage as much as we could. Mike did not like this idea at all, too complicated and too many problematic components remained in circuit.

Before we could decide on a plan of attack, life intruded, and Mike had to leave for several weeks to visit his father in Midland. This has been a very tough year on our parents.

This past Saturday we finally had a good day on the bench. We settled on a reasonable plan of attack, and most importantly, Mike did most of the dirty work. So, next time, I promise I will have some good news about Li'l Mar.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Very, Very Rare Sony CDP 650ESD CD Player

This statement piece from Sony Esprit was built in February, 1986 and retailed for $1300. This unit clearly spent its last years in a garage since the back half was completely coated in fur. I spent a good hour cleaning it with cotton swabs and fired it up. It came up nicely on the Sencore Powerite, but the drawer wouldn't open: as usual the rail grease had become rail sludge. So, another 10 minutes of swabbing followed by the oil got the door to open.

There is almost no information on this player on the web. For comparison purposes here is the write up on a Sony CDP 302 from '85 and the very similar Sony CDP 520ES.

This player is very heavy and chock full of copper. It is also chock full o' boutique caps, mostly Elna Cerafines and a few Blackgates. There are 6 op-amps in the analog stage that have copper heatsinks mounted on top, which can be seen at the upper right of the picture below:

The transport is complex:

The drawer action was a bit slow and it skipped occasionally, so we opened the bottom:

Mike said the skipping was caused by a sticking sled, and he was correct. The 650ESD played very nicely post lube. I changed one belt, somewhat unsuccessfully. The second was trickier to remove so I blew it off. My choice of replacement belt was not very good, the drawer action was actually worse afterwards. It will have to wait until next time.

Here is the bottom of the transport. The laser is on a sled that slides front to back, right to left in the photo below. The two belts are at the left, around the white plastic pulley.

This 650ESD is noted as the first cd player with digital out and it is housed in a pod sticking out of the back. Odd. The switch says 'On', 'On (For Audio Use)', and 'Off'. I am not exactly sure the how the two 'Ons' differed. And it has 3 play modes, I am not sure how that works. I might actually have to procure a manual and suffer the resulting testosterone loss.

And a nod of appreciation to Sony, c. 1986.

This is a spectacularly designed and built player. I am not sure what is next beyond belts. There are a few caps that could use a freshen-up, but it is tough to replace Cerafines with anything other than Cerafines. Time to do some research.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Odds and Ends, Again

Not much to write, but here are a few interesting photos. First up, a CM Labs 911 solid state power amp. Orion says it's from the early 70's but it looks very 60's.

The sides are cast:

According to Mike the build quality is superb, akin to McIntosh of the era.

UPDATE: Rummager has commented on the Bozak and CM Labs connection. Here is a very interesting web site by Bob Betts, several times chief engineer for Bozak. It includes a photo of Wayne Chou. The name CM (or C/M) Labs was a contraction of Chou and Morris. Here is a link to a DIYAudio wiki with information supplied by Wayne Chou. The above amp is from 1966 (!) and was named after the Porsche. CM Labs even produced a speaker, the CM-15, that was designed by Houston's own Louis Erath. (One of these days we hope to have a long write up on Mr. Erath. We have a source!) Thank you for the tip.

Next up, my very early Sansui mono pre/power combo. I assume this is from the 50's. The label on the front says this is an FM 15.

The outputs are 6V6. Note the substantial and lovely output transformer:

And last but not least is the volunteer papaya plant growing in the alley behind Austin Stereo: