In yesterday’s post I mistakenly called the great David Hafler “Bob”. Oops, I think I had “Bob” on the brain. Sorry. But speaking of history, I think the stories of the people in any industry are perhaps more interesting to me than the actual products and technologies they design. I hope you’ll indulge me yet one more.
Yesterday I told you the story of Robert Noyce the man behind the microchip or integrated circuit and today I want to tell you a little of the story of the man who designed a part of just abut any audio product you have ever listened to. Bob Widlar.
In 1973 PS Audio launched our very first product: a phono preamplifier. That preamplifier used a passive RIAA network sandwiched between two linear amplifiers – both of which were IC op amps. The op amps we used at the time were called the 709 and were designed by Bob Widlar at Fairchild Semiconductor which, as you’ll remember from yesterday, was the company run by Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore and Andy Grove, soon to start Intel. During Widlar’s tenure at Fairchild he battled the growing forces of digital in favor of analog once telling Gordon Moore “anyone can count to one!” Widler felt it was beneath him to consider anything not analog and in those days, analog was king.
Widlar was a rebel by anyone’s standards. The tales of his antics, mostly drunken rip snorting antics coupled with a bohemian lifestyle and a disdain for anything orderly, are those of legend. Unhappy with his first linear IC op amp, the 701, he locked himself in a room for 170 hours and reappeared with the legendary 709 op amp as a result. Among his accomplishments Widlar invented the push pull output stage, emitter degeneration to match components, the active current source, use of FET’s inside of linear IC’s, coupling PNP’s with NPN’s in linear designs, the integrated circuit regulator, the idea of an external capacitor to trim the compensation. In fact, it can perhaps be safely said that during the 60’s and 70’s when analog was king, this man single handedly designed more than half of either the actual circuits or the technologies within them for the entire industry.
When we entered into the fray in the early 1970’s the choices for operational amplifiers were extremely limited: there was the 709, the 301 and the 741 as the main contenders. The 709 and the 301 were both designed by Widler and the 741 was a copy of the 301 design just done poorly. A quick audition between those three candidates was eye opening. The 301 and the 741 were slow, cumbersome dogs while the 709 was brilliant.
It was an unfortunate fact then (and still is today) that audio designers didn’t listen to their designs they just designed with meters and textbooks. Had they actually listened to their creations as designers in the high-end have done for years, much of the great and forever precious music created during those same heady days would sound good even today. But alas, the vast majority of mixing consoles in the recording industry were designed with the ubiquitous 301 or the even worse 741 and music through those early op amps was harsh, bright and congested. So too were the recordings they made.
So during this amazing time of converging lines we had the birth of the IC, the birth of analog linear circuits, the explosive growth of the consumer electronics market as well as high-end audio and an explosion of musical energy the likes of which haven’t been repeated many times throughout the course of history. The energy was high, the rush to succeed was great and in the middle of it all was Bob Widler.
If you have listened to a piece of solid state consumer electronics from today to 30 years ago and every moment in between, you have listened to and enjoyed music through the designs of perhaps the greatest pioneer and inventor the history of analog electronics has or will ever know. Widler died at an early age no doubt due in part to his binge drinking and crazed lifestyle but while here he touched the lives of every person who loves music and that’s saying a lot.
Tomorrow, let’s find out what this mysterious op amp is.