My first time

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My first time

Most of us remember, often with great fondness, our first times. Yes, first times for anything good. Like the first time you heard a high end audio system. What were the circumstances for you? Write me back in the comments section or send me an email and I'll post a few of the best stories. Yes, I want stories, not just equipment lists. I want to know how it felt and how it happened. Here's mine.

In the early 1970's I was working as a disc jockey at a local FM radio station in Santa Maria California. At the time I was the boss of programming (called a program director) and an announcer. We had a separate music director, a wonderfully gifted nut job we affectionately called "Mickey Lee" (his real name was Mike Bechtel). Mickey Lee kept us supplied in all the best releases of the day and the station sounded wonderful.

It was the peak of the golden age of FM radio, a few years before the fall of this wonderful freeform media, into the oatmeal encouraged sameness FM radio has today. Not only were the air staff encouraged to put together creative sets of music that blended together seamlessly and sometimes told a story, but the quality of the sound was important as well. The goal of the station in this small town wasn't to be the loudest, most compressed on the crowded FM band (as stations in Los Angeles and other major cities were). No, the goal was to sound as close to your stereo system as possible.

I first became intrigued with good sound at this station, thanks to the station's engineer, Jim Mussel. Jim, the quintessential nerd engineer, handled a number of radio stations in the area but this one was his baby. He spent hours upon hours tuning, tweaking, adjusting and perfecting the sound of this station.

Our air shifts were four hours long and mine was the 2pm to 6pm slot. Mickey Lee took over at 6pm and went to midnight. Engineer Jim could be found in the control room during my time slot on many days because he needed my blessing for any major change he wanted to make to the sound. Not that I knew squat about what he did or wanted to do, this was just the way it was back in those days. The Program Director held sway over what went out over the air and was responsible for growing and maintaining the listeners.

Jim wanted nothing more than to make the sound of the the broadcast as close to identical to the source as possible. This idea was new to me. I had come from a top 40 rock and roll environment where we added reverb, pumped up the bass and compression to sound as loud as we could. At this station, what was prized was hearing Peter Frampton's Do You Feel Like We Do as close as possible to what was on the album. Very new stuff for me but I liked it. It felt right.

Our mixing console had two monitor switches. One could monitor the output from an actual FM tuner (a classic tube Marantz) or the mixing board itself before it went to the radio station's transmitter. We always listened to the tuner output to make sure we were on the air. But Jim constantly wanted me to go back and forth between the input to the transmitter and the output of the tuner. This was really my first A/B testing and I didn't even know it.

Over the course of a year Jim and I became fast friends and we chatted much between the long tracks the music of those days provided. I questioned why we kept making sure the two sounds were identical, the idea so foreign to me. Jim explained that the despite the fact we worked at a radio station and all the fancy equipment it entailed, the actual goal of the FM transmission medium was to not have a sound. The inventors of FM wanted to make a wireless connection between the turntables and microphones in the radio station and the listener's home stereo. A connection that was perfect and transparent. A connection that did not add nor subtract anything from the music being played. It was as if there existed a simple wire between the turntable in the radio station and the loudspeakers in the listener's home. That explanation made a lot of sense. There was a purity to it I liked a lot. Little did I know the ideas being presented to me were some of the last of their kind, that once there were many in FM's past that valued great sound, great music and creativity but now were going the way of all great creative mediums after their peaks; swallowed whole by commercial interests that would suck the life out and lay waste to these great temples of sound and music.

Jim then went on to tell me it was hard to hear the differences on our A/B because the speakers in the control room "sucked". They were called Quadraflex speakers and had been traded out (in exchange for advertising) by our penny pinching station owner from the local Pacific Stereo store. Acquired over the loud protestations of station engineer Jim.

I then asked "what speakers are better? Do you have a better pair"?

"Sure, but they're at home. On my speakers you hear everything and the difference is obvious."

Tomorrow, my first time.

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Paul McGowan

Founder & CEO

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