Revolutions Per Minute

The Big Move, Part One

Issue 131

Ten years ago, I moved to a new building carrying a couple of truckloads of equipment, with which I was planning on building up a mastering studio, an electronics workshop and a very basic machine shop, where I could work on all kinds of audio equipment. What started as a fairly small operation, built up on the leftovers of my previous business, quickly grew and soon outgrew the building it was housed in.

The Neumann-based custom disk mastering system at Magnetic Fidelity, with an MCI JH-110M preview head tape machine visible in the background.

 

The studio developed into a recording facility, along with a mastering suite, complete with a disk mastering lathe to cut lacquer disks for vinyl record manufacturing. Within a few years, the number of tape machines in the facility exceeded 20 in various formats including stereophonic, monophonic and multitrack. Some of them rare custom-made oddball machines.

Several tape machines in a row at the tape editing room at Magnetic Fidelity.

 

The collection of vintage guitar and bass amplifiers also grew rapidly, enhanced by various electric organs and my custom modular synthesizer, known by his stage name “Bob,” as well as a respectable collection of highly sought after effects units. Massive plate reverbs were constructed and installed, along with various more reasonably-dimensioned spring reverb boxes.

A home-made analog modular synthesizer called “Bob,” which the author started building when he was 16 years old. It eventually escalated into an audio-visual synthesizer. Photo courtesy of the author’s vault of audio adventures.

 

In the corners of the studio some weird instruments were lurking around – circuit-bent Casios (inspired by Q. R. Ghazala’s work), vintage glockenspiels, a self-made Theremin, blues harps, an old police band drum, and a World War II air-raid siren.

A vacuum tube electrochemical audio synthesizer, designed and built by the author: It generates audio signals as a result of an electro-chemical reaction in a reactor cell, filled with a liquid electrolyte solution.

 

The operation of the studio generated a large number of master tapes, test pressings, stampers, mothers and reference cuts on lacquer, along with calibration tapes and records, safety copies, archival copies, working copies, cassette tapes, CD’s, and so on. This steadily growing collection necessitated a generous amount of storage space, consisting of properly ventilated shelves in a climate-controlled environment.

The Agnew Analog electronics workshop: tube tester, spectrum analyzer, oscilloscope on the bench.

 

The electronics lab also grew accordingly. It was originally intended to cater to the maintenance of all the studio equipment, but soon evolved into a boutique manufacturing operation of custom audio equipment. It started with a couple of soldering stations, an oscilloscope, a signal generator and various multimeters, but soon extended to include tube testers, LCR bridges, various ’scopes, spectrum analyzers, coil and transformer winding equipment, various power supplies, measurement transducers, vibration analysis equipment and a lifetime supply of rare electronic components. When other studios saw what we were doing with our tape machines and disk recording lathes, they started asking us to work on their machines too, which we did. We then started manufacturing custom effects units, synthesizers, tube amplifiers and specialized electronics for mastering studios.

The Magnetovolt Beyonder is a massive 200-watt vacuum tube musical instrument amplifier, based on a unique transformer-coupled circuit invented by the author.

 

As if this wasn’t already intense enough, the machine shop also grew out of proportion, to include some of the world’s finest lathes, milling machines, measurement instruments, precision work-holding devices and eventually a full blown mechanical engineering workshop.

The author engaged in precision machining on a 1930s Lorch precision lathe: The machined parts are so tiny that a microscope is required!

 

This of course included a stock room, where all kinds of raw material to be worked on (along with tons of packaging materials) would be stored, plus heat treatment facilities for hardening parts, grinding, lapping and polishing facilities and of course some basic lifting equipment (a crane and associated equipment) to be able to lift and move massively heavy machines around. Extensions to the building were constructed, to house even more equipment, including a “pneumatics” room, where industrial air compressors, vacuum pumps, air filters and regulators lived. The machine shop became the basis of a new business for making precision parts for disk recording lathes, tape machines and transducers. Word spread and we were soon making parts for many of the world’s finest studios, record pressing plants and original equipment manufacturers.

Small parts for disk recording cutter heads, machined by J. I. Agnew.

 

All of the above required specialized HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system as well as a very complicated electrical installation, generating clean AC power from a massive battery bank, in both 60 and 50 Hz, 115 and 230 VAC, with separate supplies for lights, HVAC, analog audio electronics, digital audio electronics, and transport systems for lathes, turntables and tape machines. There was also the 380 VAC three-phase supply to the machine shop and balanced power (positive phase and negative phase instead of phase and neutral) to the audio areas and laboratory instruments.

Part of an electrical board during the installation phase in the workshop.

 

Every ten years, I seem to be making some kind of major life change and this decade was no exception: Shortly after the birth of my son, Nicholas Thermion Agnew, we decided we needed a more comfortable living space, in an area which would be more exciting for a child to grow up in. At the same time, we realized that for the past couple of years, the primary factor limiting further growth of the business side of things was that we had completely run out of space! Our building was totally packed full of equipment and all possible arrangements for creating more space had already been implemented long ago. It was impossible to put anything more in there and it was even getting hard to work, as the workshop was permanently full of several lathes, tape machines and other projects we were working on for our customers, in addition to our own equipment that was permanently located there. I had already gotten used having to climb over boxes to reach my equipment, to the point where my wife Sabine eventually refused to enter the lab due to safety concerns…

One of the several custom lathe projects filling up the lab: a heavily-modified 1940s Presto lathe, converted to direct-drive and computer control!

 

So, we started looking for a new building, but kept on dismissing building after building as unsuitable for our purposes.

We were beginning to think that it might be impossible to find what we needed and started considering the idea of just buying land and constructing the building from the ground up, although it was clear that with running a demanding business and my fatherly duties, I would never find the time to be personally involved in such a construction project.

Beautiful countryside around the new building. Photo courtesy of Sabine Agnew.

 

But then the perfect building was suddenly found: a quiet location in the beautiful countryside, secluded enough to offer privacy for celebrity musicians and exceptional low levels of ambient noise, but still in close proximity to the city infrastructure, with shops, restaurants, bars, luxury hotels, VIP-grade private hospitals (in case the band members disagree on who shall sing the chorus) and some of the world’s most attractive beaches, all within a short car journey. The building itself was roomy, with distinct architecture and very solidly built. Our initial measurements showed that it fell comfortably within the NC-20 (noise criterion) line even before any sound isolation or acoustic treatment. So, we decided it was time to move our entire business and build a new studio and workshop in the empty shell of that new building!

An 8-ton Hitachi excavator on tracks, during the construction work necessary around the new building.

 

What had been built up over ten busy years now had to be packed up, loaded onto several large trucks, moved several hours away and put back together again as fast as possible, by the bare minimum of a crew, observing all safety precautions for the pandemic. What had taken ten years to build up, now had to be moved and rebuilt within weeks. Having constructed several studios and audio engineering laboratories for my own use over the years, as well as having worked as a consultant for many others, there were also plenty of new things I wanted to try out this time and I was determined to outdo all my previous efforts.

One of the several crates containing audio and industrial equipment, that come and go on a regular basis.

 

In addition to all the equipment from the previous facility, we searched the world for rare items that would be needed in the new one, including a 120-year-old John Broadwood & Sons grand piano, discussed in Issue 129 and Issue 130. This created various logistics nightmares, which often involved lifting ridiculously heavy machines and maneuvering them in unbelievably tight spaces around both the old and the new buildings. The master plan called for a total of three forklift trucks and five cranes, three of which came in the form of 20-ton trucks. One of the forklift trucks would be required on a permanent basis, to cater for the requirements of daily operations even after the move was done. One of the neighboring businesses where our previous building was located had a forklift truck, and we had been working with them when we needed to load massive disk mastering lathes, and other equipment used in the industrial side of media manufacturing, in and out.

A vintage Toyota forklift truck lifting the Hardinge HLV lathe out of the old building.

 

The Toyota forklift taking the scenic route.

 

But our new building did not have suitably -equipped neighbors, so it was time to buy our own forklift truck. (The other two forklift trucks that would be used for the move were an ancient Toyota and a strange vintage truck powered by a Perkins diesel engine.) We looked around and in typical Agnew fashion, fell in love with a German BKS forklift, powered by a 1952 Daimler-Benz “oil” engine (which means it is designed to run on anything that can pass for oil, from diesel to corn oil, chip fat, or any mix thereof). Some quick fluid changes later, it was busy at work, carrying pallet after pallet of equipment.

A scene from the latest Mad Max film, where a global pandemic has forced audio professionals to take to post-apocalyptic oil-burning forklift trucks…no, wait, this is reality. The author next to his “new” BKS forklift truck, outside the new building.

 

Among the machines that were to be transported were some rare examples of the world’s most accurate machine tools, of the kind usually encountered in national laboratories and research institutes. There was a 1954 Hardinge HLV lathe, a 1961 Moore Special Tools jig borer, a 1930s Lorch optical lathe that came from the Leitz factory which made the microscopes found on Neumann disk mastering lathes (and the lens assemblies for Leica cameras), and an unusual Harnisch and Rieth milling machine, originally intended for manufacturing medical implants, along with various other museum pieces, that could make seasoned mechanical engineers weep. Transporting these treasures made my hair a bit thinner from stress.

The author operating a forklift truck powered by a 1952 Daimler-Benz oil engine, carrying a 1954 Hardinge HLV lathe. Keeping it period-correct!

 

By comparison, moving the 1,000 lb. Broadwood piano and similarly heavy disk mastering lathes seemed easy, and the big tape machines suddenly felt small and lightweight!

As for tube amplifiers? What, you mean that cute thing in the corner that you don’t even need a crane for?

Bringing in the Hardinge lathe: The forklift lowered it onto a custom-made industrial trolley, on which it is rolled to the new machine shop.

 

At one point, my assistant was carrying a box of thoriated tungsten filament triodes and told me: “this is suspiciously lightweight!” To which I replied, “anything lightweight is most probably radioactive, so just make sure you don’t drop it!”

To be continued.

Inside the new building, a crane lifts the Hardinge lathe off the trolley and to its final position, using a load balancer to prevent it from tilting towards the heavier headstock side.

All images courtesy of Agnew Analog Reference Instruments unless otherwise noted.

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