Learning the ropes

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The phrase “he knows the ropes” written on a seaman’s discharge meant that he was inexperienced and only familiar with a ship’s principal ropes. A novice that passed a few tests.

When Stan and I first started learning the ropes of design in 1974 the challenge seemed almost insurmountable. We had just compared our first phono preamplifier circuit to one of the best ever made, the Audio Research SP3, and it kicked our collective asses.

Where our box was clean, dynamic and good sounding, the SP3 was magic. Music came alive in ways I was unaware electronics could provide. Sure, our little box was sparsely populated with only a few ICs, a handful of capacitors and resistors compared to the eight 12AX7 vacuum tubes and support circuitry of the AR, but still—both boxes were mere collections of coils, wires, and parts. How could one produce magic while the other could not, when they both measured the same?

The design ropes we needed to learn couldn’t be found in books or mentors. They were only acquired through hard work, experimentation, and thousands of hours of listening, changing, tweaking, note taking and correlations made between circuits, parts, topologies and how each affected the sound.

In the same way a magician learns the art of misdirection by years of practice and polish, coaxing magic from a collection of parts requires honing skills until the dim light at the end of the tunnel grows bright enough to make sure it isn’t a train.

Once you learn the ropes it’s easy—in the same way it was finally easy for Arthur Rubenstein to play the piano.