Passing the test

October 3, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

50 years ago in the dark ages of my past, I was determined to learn how circuits worked and what made amplifiers tick. Working full time as a disc jockey for the US Army in Germany at that time I had no practical means of attending school.

Enter Herr Rudy Stroebel, chief engineer of the AFN network. Herr Stroebel was an embodiment of the stereotype German engineer: meticulous, exacting, educated beyond his job title, strict, unbending. Things worked the way things worked in Herr Stroebel’s world even if he had to move heaven and Earth to make them conform.

Herr Stroebel agreed to take me under his wing and act as my tutor. He was my hero.

I desperately wanted to learn how to design amplification circuits, in particular, how to build a recording studio mixing console.

He had in his head the keys of knowledge that would for me unlock the secrets of design.

Halfway through our first lesson Herr Stroebel discovered I had yet to memorize the color code for identifying the values of resistors and capacitors. He was horrified and abruptly ended the lesson, informing me there would be no more knowledge shared until I took the time to prove to him I had mastered the basics.

I was pissed. Learning that code and all the formulas I hadn’t yet stuffed into my head would make no difference in my ability to understand the inner workings of circuitry. And to add insult to injury he knew that.

After grumping around the studio for a week I finally confronted him.

I will never forget his answer.

“It is not about color codes or formulas. It is about obedience between the student and the master. A circuit obeys rules and so too must you.”

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37 comments on “Passing the test”

  1. “Billy Brown revives on your gin but values good whisky” As you become involved with electronics you get to recognize the colour codes, certainly for the preferred values, instinctively but I have never forgotten the mnemonic I was first taught.

    1. Our electronics teacher in high school (British Columbia- early 80s) was an old Austrian -Mr. Berndl, and I also remember the mnemonic he taught us students in class on day one –
      Billy Brown rapes our young girls but Violet gives willingly
      Yup, simpler times, nobody gasped in horror, filed a complaint, reported anything, got triggered or such. A couple kids giggled a bit & we easily remembered it & carried on to the obvious next step which was seeing who could achieve the wining high number holding the probes of the AC generator the longest while student #2 slowly dialed up the juice knob (when the thick-accented proff was out of the room…)
      ** Nobody got raped or electrocuted and we all passed the course and Vic Berndl lived until 2018!

  2. When my boys were little I made painted and numbered playing blocks in the resistor colour code. They both could read resistor values before they went to school. But now we’re mostly SMD, it seems to be a dying art.
    Still, they can both wield a soldering iron on 0402 without magnification. Gettin’ old (or should I say, more experienced) is such an inconvenience!

    1. Good morning Streamin Steven!
      I really think, that’s what your boys and I have in common with each other.
      I too, wasn’t in school yet when I learned to do a lot of the things, that I still do today.
      Except for the collard code thing, that’s the one thing that I can’t see anymore.
      But if I’m just holdingg a resistor in my hands, I can tell some times, what kind of a resistor it is.
      From the volue of it, right down to the impedance of it.
      And as for capacitors, thank God for talking testers!
      That’s how I figure those out.
      But long before I lost the ability to see, I got in to electronics when I was five.
      That’s when I starded replacing tubes in old radios, from that to rebuilding a cerket inside of a TV set.
      I don’t work on those anymore these days, but I still rap my head around audio cerkets.
      I won’t talk about those right now, because my cirket designs mite sound crazy to a lot of people on here.
      But I do know for a real true fact, that they do work.
      I’ve built some of those cerket designs already.
      But that was many years ago.

  3. The circuit has to obey the rules, it can’t think for itself. Two phrases spring to mind.
    Rules are for fools.
    Rules are made to be broken.
    I’m not recommending, just repeating.
    The line that really struck a chord with me is ‘educated beyond his job title’ and all it conjures up. Being nostalgic for a moment, in the good old days, wasn’t that frequently the case with people you encountered in life? Now, when making calls for example, so many seem barely educated, even up to their job title. Or perhaps I’m just being old and grumpy.
    Finally, a belated Happy Audiophile Day to everyone. I hope it lived up to expectations, but being audiophiles, how could it 😉

  4. Herr was a wise man.

    It seems the idea of understanding the basics and following ‘the rules’ is one of the main things that is being lost as society progresses towards a feelings only approach.

    Of course the continuation of the story… is we all assume that Paul contained himself, and realized if he was to proceed with Herr, he was going to have to do a few things he didn’t FEEL like doing.

    Is that really what happened, or did Paul defy the rules and the odds?

    1. After I read my post this popped out..

      “ and realized if he was to proceed with Herr, he was going to have to do a few things he didn’t FEEL like doing.”

      That line could easily have been found in a cheap romance novel, or be a deep imbedded truth in the heterosexual life style.

  5. Her Stroebel was correct. A circuit does follow the rules and so should the engineering student. He did make a serious error in thinking that you knew the color code before he started his teachings. He should’ve asked before he started you on your journey. The moral of my post is that is “The journey of 1000 miles begins with but a single step”.

    1. Good morning Stimpy2!
      For the most part, I agree with you, whole heartedly!
      What’s the point of learning the collar codes, when you haven’t learned how those things are suppose to work in the cerket yet?
      This is where I think Paul’s teacher got it wrong at.
      God rest both of them, but my dad and my uncle taught me how every cerket inside of radios TV’s and amplifiers work.
      They also taught me that when designing or building a cerket, the only time you need to look at the collar codes, is when you are doing it from the schematic.
      But there were times in my younger days, I drew up my own schematic for my own designs.
      I turned around and built some of them too.

      1. I get what you’re saying John. That was not my path because I was building circuits from Popular Electronics magazine. I already knew schematic symbols and what resistors, capacitors, inductors and active components were all about without understanding circuit design. We each have our own path that comes about as we grow in life. I still don’t believe that Paul’s teacher who agreed to give of his time imparted his knowledge based on how he was taught was wrong. And, it seems that Paul was overly anxious to get to the end of the road before beginning on his journey. Only Paul can answer that. Someone else who posted this morning referred to a four word teaching tool “Wax On, Wax Off” without allowing his student to understand the purpose of what he was demanding to teach a young teenager how to become a master of Karate which takes tremendous discipline. This young man was getting an education while he waxed his master’s vintage automobiles so that he could perfect his skills without understanding why. in the end, the student was rewarded by his master with the gift of any one of these automobiles. We each have different ways of learning but if someone is willing to teach you, it’s important to make a decision early on whether you want to be taught in the manner that the master has decided on. I don’t think Paul was abused or hurt by this, only in a rush to get to the finish line without the basic knowledge about how to spring out of the starting block. I await your response.

        1. Hi again Neil!
          Everything you said, makes perfect sense!
          You can learn to do anything.
          But it won’t happen over night.
          There is an old saying that goes, “all good things, come to those who wait.”
          In other words, patience is a virtue.
          You have to stay in it for the long haul.
          I both know and understand it, myself.
          I took up electrical engineering when I was 11.
          But I didn’t get to complete it until I was just about getting ready to turn 13.
          But I had to stay both with it and at it.
          So, ya, I get it!

          1. We’re getting closer to a full agreement John. I don’t discount what you’re saying about needing to learn color codes before you are taught the basics of circuit design. Between you me and Paul we each have different histories in our quest for understanding electronic circus. That’s probably why we have some small disagreement. I like the discipline that this master instructor was using because that’s the way I was taught when I got to begin my engineering schooling so it all made sense to me based on my prior knowledge.Let me add that I was taught all about resistors including the color code and one two hour class. Both you and Paul had different life paths.

            If I may I’d like to bring up another quote from an old black-and-white movie which starred Peter Lorrie as Mr. Moto the famous Chinese detective. The scene where Mr. Moto goes to visit Scotland yard where are he is searching for a killer, he makes a comment I think he’s really cool…”Softly,softly catchee Monkey”. A statement like this how does lead me in my life path as one of many. I believe it’s still appropriate today.

            1. I agree!
              Everything you said, is so very true!
              And as for that movie, I wish I could have seen it.
              There were many times, I decided to carve out some time for myself.
              When I thought I was spending way too much time out there on the road, that’s when I would just stay at home, and watch old movies on my vintage Zenith Space2000 collar TV set.
              I had an LD player at the time.
              Sure a lot of old movies were released on LD, but that one, hasn’t found its way to me or vice versa.
              But never then less, I get your point.

        2. Ah..your post brought back some happy memories. My Dad had a large collection of old Mechanics Illustrated, Popular Mechanics, and Popular Electronics. They were in his workshop in the basement, and I would read them for hours. Never did get to make a go cart out of a bed frame, or a mini bike out of a bicycle, but it sparked my interest in electronics.

          Thanks for the reminder.



          1. Happy I could bring back fond memories. I have this ability to see flashbacks of all kinds of omens in time that occurred throughout my life that had to do with friends, family and other Important happenings in my life. Beside popular electronics I really used to enjoy popular science, then came many different audiophile and photography magazines and a huge number of topical books.

      1. My intention was to create a mystery. Anybody who has not seen the film “Karate Kid” would not understand my message. I was going to say Mr Miyagi says Wax On Wax Off. I decided to say less just to enhance the mystery. The film is about so many aspects of life including learning what is important. A seriously wonderful film.

  6. So finally and unintentionally he possibly provoked what made you successful:
    to get creative instead of obedient

    Sometimes the bad experiences help 😉

  7. I guess Paul’s story can be passed along as an understanding for people’s political stances as well. Lol.

    Sometimes strict and exacting can merit so much respect and it can be proven useful under the right guidelines when teaching someone.

  8. When I taught structural engineering at a major university, I spoon fed my students from scratch. I never made them go through unnecessary hoops. I gave them simple-to-follow “recipes” that had them designing complicated beams, columns, frames and foundations in no time. And above all, they knew what they were doing. I hated teachers who couldn’t communicate well, seemed to delight in making subjects mysterious and left students to their own initiative to try to learn complex technical subjects. Many students simply had too many other subjects and issues to deal with. Learning should be easy and fun, not an unnecessary struggle.

  9. The current mnemonic “Bright Boys Rave Over Young Girls But Veto Getting Wed” for the resistor color code is only slightly misogynistic as compared to the one I was taught in the 1960s that was very misogynistic and racist.

    Things have improved, sort of. My mentor’s insistence on how things were done was rigid but fair. “If I am going to invest my time training you, then you can come back to me totally prepared.”

  10. Hey guys, it’s rainbow colors: ROY G. BV, with three “monochrome” and brown added. Then there is the multiplier.

    After some years of pulling resistors out of a single bin, color code became second nature, and then I got bin boxes. Back in the ’60s you had to check with an ANALOG Ohmmeter to make sure the surplus parts had the right value (to 5%, that’s a gold band), which often meant a re-cal for the probe resistance. Rules, tasks, precision are what it takes to do electronics.

    Resistors may not have color bands any more, but vintage mica caps do, and the same color code is used for wire labels, for example. My state of the art Rode NT-SF1 Ambisonic microphone breakout cable, for example, is brown, red, orange and yellow; as is the cable for my Audio Technica AT854 quad cardioid boundary mic and all my 8 channel snakes.

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