Saturday, January 1, 2011


Many moons ago, before my beard was gray, I lived on my parent's farm in New Jersey.  I had a “shack” behind the house where I did a lot of my early experimentation with electronics.  Some TV repair shop (remember those?) gave me a broken stereo record player – one of those all-in-one units the size of a refrigerator on its side.  This was a vacuum tube design with “electrodynamic” speakers (meaning that they had electromagnets instead of permanent magnets).  By today's standards, it was quite a monster unit.  I remember that it had 18" diameter woofers, and three or four other speakers, all coupled with (for those days) a relatively sophisticated cross-over network.

One of my first successes in electronics was to fix that thing.  That's more of a feat than you might think, as I had no schematics.  I reverse-engineered the audio amplifier and discovered a blown-up resistor that prevented a key bias voltage from being generated.  This was in 1969, a month or two before the first moon landing, and I can still remember the hand-drawn schematic I made – and the overwhelming flush of victory when I figured out what the problem was.

Within 15 minutes of finding the problem, the stereo was up and running – I'd scavenged a replacement part from a broken TV.  After that, the stereo was my constant companion in my little electronics shack.

A year or so later, I bought a double vinyl album: “Tommy”, by The Who.  I couldn't afford to buy many records, and those few I did were played very often.  “Tommy” sounded particularly good on that stereo, so it got played extra often.

A few years later, I was in the U.S. Navy and something happened to that album (I don't remember what, exactly).  I've not heard “Tommy” since.

Until today, that is.  I just purchased it from iTunes, and I'm listening to it as I write this post.  There are several things about this experience that are kinda freaking me out.

First, the flood of memories about that shack.  Suddenly I'm remembering all sorts of details that I haven't thought about in many, many years.  There are very strong associations between that particular music and my very earliest engineering experiences.

Second, I still have perfect memory of that album.  As each song plays, I know what's coming next.  I know the words to every song.  The “Underture” is playing now, and every note in it is as familiar as the back of my hands.

Third, I am frequently startled by the different sound of the music, all of which can be accounted for the the difference in quality (by any measure!) between that old stereo and the way I'm playing it back now (through iTunes on a Mac Powerbook, through top-notch computer speakers).  I hear details clearly now that I've never heard before, and they surprise me.  But it's all good!

Powerful stuff, music is...

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