Two unappreciated film cameras: Pentax K1000 and Pentax MZ-M.

Both the Pentax K1000 and MZ-M can be seen as bookends to Pentax's PK bayonet mount lens manual focus 35mm cameras. The K1000 was one of the first-generation PK mount cameras, and it became the longest-lived while the ZX-M was the last manual focus Pentax.

Both models are almost universally seen as budget cameras, good for students. Stepping stones to better. I think that misses the point and the hidden genius.

Pentax's K-mount series began in 1975. The K2 was the flagship model. As such, it incorporated aperture priority auto-exposure provided by a step-less, metal-bladed, Seiko shutter having speeds from 1/1000 second to 8 seconds, plus Bulb. Its match-needle manual metering is a sophisticated, center weighted, silicon photodiode system. Mirror lock up, depth of field preview and self timer rounded out its set of features.

The KX has center-weighted match-needle metering and silicon photodiode meter cells, with aperture and shutter speeds displayed in the viewfinder. The mechanical shutter has speeds from 1/1000 second to 1 second, plus Bulb. It also has mirror lock up, depth of field preview and self timer.

The KM has center-weighted match-needle metering and less expensive Cadmium Sulfide meter cells. The mechanical shutter has speeds from 1/1000 second to 1 second, plus Bulb. It features only depth of field preview and self timer.

The K1000 has a simplified averaging match-needle meter and Cadmium Sulfide meter cells. The mechanical shutter has speeds from 1/1000 second to 1 second, plus Bulb. It has no other features, eliminating the KM's depth of field preview and self timer.

See the trend? Pentax simplified or eliminated features to reduce the model's cost. So, the K1000 must be the cheapie. Well that's strictly true, it misses the genius of the design. Yes, compared to the other models of Pentax camera, it's quite basic, if not downright spartan. But compared to other budget SLR camera is, it's a completely different story.

Many of the budget SLR cameras made by other companies feature self timers and sometimes depth of field preview, trading off build quality by using less costly parts.

More importantly, they have fewer shutter speeds -- often only 1/8 second to 1/500 second. Had a glance, this may not seem important, but it actually is. Fewer shutter speeds means that the camera can take photographs in fewer situations, within a more restricted range of lighting conditions. In other words, it's a less versatile camera as a result of having a more-limited range of shutter speeds.

In contrast, the K1000 gave up features that do not directly relate to its ability to take photographs in a wide range of lighting conditions and situations. Depth of field preview, mirror lock up, or a self timer are nice features to have, but they don't affect the range of lighting conditions that the camera can take photographs in. They're convenience features. The K1000 also does not sacrifice build quality.

The name is no mistake. K1000 was chosen to draw attention to what the designers felt was its most important feature: the 1/1000 second shutter speed.

At the time, a quality camera was assumed to have at least 1 second to 1/1000 second shutter speeds. A narrower range of shutter speeds denoted a lower quality camera. For example, a contemporary of the K1000, the Ricoh KR-5, features shutter speeds from only 1/8 to 1/500 second plus B. This limits its ability when compared to the K1000.

That's the hidden genius of the K1000. The "full range" of shutter speeds means it doesn't compromise what matters most: a very wide range of situations where it will take a usable photograph, unlike most other budget models. Dismissing it as a student camera is a mistake. It's the result of a series of choices to give photographers the minimum camera features that does not sacrifice photographic equality, only convenience. Keep in mind that many professional cameras of that time have the same set of features as a K1000, although in larger film formats.

So, a K1000 could arguably give you professional quality at a lower price point then other budget model SLR cameras. That was exactly my experience with the camera. I begin my professional career using a K1000, and other than the lack of status appeal or convenience features, it let me achieve truly professional quality. It was the only 35mm SLR camera in its price range that would have done so.

So, I see the K1000 not as a merely a student camera. I see it as a professional capable camera on a budget that gives up a little bit of convenience for overall excellent quality. It is the product of a great set of design choices, and overall, it's been my most favorite camera for the past 40-odd years.

Fast forward to 1997. Pentax had just discontinued the K1000 and the P30T. By then, Vivitar, Promaster and others had introduced less-expensive manual focus cameras that had more features than the K1000 with the same range of shutter speeds. The K1000, from a business point of view, had lost its edge. So Pentax decided to discontinue it. Similarly, the more-expensive manual focus P30T was also deemed not to be market competitive, and thus was also discontinued that same year.

Nevertheless, Pentax felt that they still needed a manual focus camera in their then-current MZ (ZX) camera line.

Why? Because manual focus cameras give the photographer a degree of creative control otherwise not available. Autofocus cameras, although convenient, sometimes do not place the point of focus at the best distance pictorially. Serious photographers almost always prefer manual focus.

So, they introduced the Pentax MZ-M as the sole manual focus camera. The camera was positioned as the worthy successor to the K1000. Operationally it was based on the MZ-5N/ZX-5N with a classic knob-based control layout. It retained the built-in autowinder, but not the LCD displays and pop-up flash. More advanced features were also omitted, such as the autofocus mechanism, exposure auto-bracketing and TTL flash control.

The result was a lightweight construction, achieved by making the lens mount ring of plastic and replacing the traditional solid glass pentaprism with a pentamirror viewfinder.

Critics, many who were accustomed to older brass-bodied cameras, derided the MZ-M as excessively cheapened, with a flimsy feel, especially because of the short-travel electronic shutter release button. Other criticisms included the slow, noisy autowinder; the plastic lens mount ring, and the painted finish that was not considered to be durable.

I have several criticisms of these criticisms. "Flimsy feel" is an opinion, one not shared by many I've spoken to about shooting the ZX-M. Yes, it does feel quite a bit different than traditional brass body cameras, but it's also quite a bit lighter. And that's a good thing.

The shutter release is comfortable. It works easily. It's very durable. The short push stroke of the shutter release button reduces the tendency to shake the camera at the moment you take the photograph. So, I actually see it as an advantage.

Autowinders, usually, are by their nature noisy and slower than motor drives. The Pentax Winder ME-II for my ME Super is just as noisy and no one was complaining about its noise back then.

There is a tendency to react to plastic as being a material used in cheap products. And, most of it is. But, some plastics are just as strong as metal, if not more so. Pentax chose a very strong plastic for the lens mount ring. It's just as strong as a metal one, it's just as precision made, it works just as well, and it's just as hard to break. So what's the problem? I don't see any.

Camera finishes do get scratched and can look tatty over time. It doesn't matter if it's a cheap camera, or the most expensive camera, if the camera is used often, it's finish will become marred. So, it is no surprise that the Pentax MZ-M's finish is subject to damage. It's inevitable. Also, it's not a fair criticism.

The Pentax MZ-M it's not a cheaply made, stripped down, budget camera. It's a lightweight, precision made, very convenient manual focus camera. The built-in autowinder is a nice amenity that was an expensive option many years ago.

The Pentax MZ-M would make a nice introduction to film photography for those who presently are using digital cameras. It features DX film speed coding, which prevents mistakenly setting the proper film speed. The viewfinder is bright, making manual focusing easy. Three exposure modes (metered manual, aperture priority autoexposure and programmed autoexposure) increase the versatility of the camera. The built-in autowinder with automatic film rewind improves its ease-of-use.

Best of all, the Pentax MZ-M's light weight means you'll be more willing to carry it with you everywhere you go. The more often you carry a camera, the more opportunities you have to take a great photograph. It's been said, "the best camera is the one that's with you." The Pentax MZ-M could be that camera.

Why Vintage Records Sound Better.

The vinyl renaissance is here, so musicians and studios are eager to capture the vintage sound. Sales of vintage reissue recording equipment are brisk. Even analog tape recorders are making a comeback.

What are the secrets that make those vintage albums sound so wonderful?

I learned the art and science of sound recording in the 1970s during an apprenticeship under recording engineers and producers affiliated with Columbia Records. Sound recording is one of those things you really cannot learn on your own; you need the guidance of a mentor. Trade schools are a good start, but the best approach is an apprenticeship or an internship. Years are required before you can become a competent professional recordist.

Let me share with you my recollections of that time and compare it with today's approach to recording albums. By its nature, this note is both generalized and brief. Large books could be written on this topic.

Once upon a time, when a record label began the process of making an album, they hired a producer and an A&R department to manage the project. A&R? Oh, that means Artists & Repertoire. The producer maintained control throughout every step of the process, ensuring both the technical quality of the actual recording and that the band had achieved their highest artistic realization of the music. A&R strove to ensure every song was great, otherwise the album wouldn’t sell. Few listeners would buy an entire album just for one good song. That’s what 45s were for, yet they weren’t that profitable compared to albums and airplay.

The A&R people, who also served as talent scouts for the label, also oversaw the artistic development of both the band and of the songwriters. They were the liaison between the artists and the record label. Ultimately, every activity involving the band right up to the point of the album's release was considered to be under the purview, and thus was the responsibility, of A&R. The band, therefore, had two persons guiding their artistic development and the album as a whole: the producer and A&R. Once this administrative staff had been assembled and met with the band then the process could begin.

1. Recording Technique: the quality loss going from analog master tapes to the finished album, including LPs or cassettes, is extreme. Recording engineers had to be fanatical about every technical aspect of the process. Quality losses added up quickly. The recording media themselves had serious technical limitations; fortunately, the engineers understood those limitations. There was no room for error or compromise, because sound quality worsened rather quickly.
2. Preproduction: the musicians and the songwriters together worked out the song arrangements before beginning the recording project. They rehearsed. And rehearsed. And rehearsed. Rehearsals often entailed making demo and test recordings. Arrangements would be refined, the songwriting tweaked by the producer. The recording engineer often attended rehearsals to become familiar with the music and to work out recording techniques. This required planning beforehand the tracking order. Which instruments or vocals should be recorded first? Technical limitations of the recording process, musician and staff scheduling issues, and artistic considerations dictated this.
3. Recording Project: finally, months later, the recording began. The band entered the studio thoroughly rehearsed and laid tracks. The first track recorded was almost always the “click” track. A good click track could make or break a recording. It gave cues not only to keeping everyone to the same timing, but aided with musical expression. A great drummer who could lay down a flawless click track was worth more than solid gold. During the course of the project, the musicians left the technical details of recording to the studio staff, stopping from time to time to listen to playbacks for performance flaws. In rare instances, the musicians had the skill and experience to participate actively in the recording details. Otherwise, they concentrated on making music and left the taping to the professionals.
4.a. Mixdown: The engineer now edits and blends all the tracks seamlessly into the final whole. Editing was done minimally, because analog editing is tedious and limited in its resolution. Sometimes, the best sections of multiple takes would be combined into one finished track, a procedure called “comping,” short for “compositing.” Vocals were the parts most-likely to be “comped.” Additional signal processing would be employed, to improve overall sound, even out aspects of the mix and give the finished album an overall, cohesive sound.
4.b. The mixing process often was began in monaural, because phase errors and badly tracked parts would become glaringly evident. The engineer would work toward, then finish, a monaural mix - which became the master tape for AM broadcast, television soundtrack and audiovisual releases. Once the music sounded great in monaural, you knew it would sound amazing in stereo. Finally, the monaural mix would be “panned out” to create the spacious stereophonic mix. Panned? Past tense of “pan,” short for “panorama,” the placement of sounds from left-to-right between the two loudspeakers. Some felt the monaural mix was the more valuable of the two.
4.c.. Fixing the Mix: The engineer really couldn’t fix the mix, beyond applying some equalization or compression. But these processes had to be undertaken sparingly, because the signal processors of that day could ruin the sound quickly; each instance of equalization or compression degraded overall sound quality. The potential benefit to the mix from the processing and the subsequent degradation had to be weighed against the quality loss overall and the cost of the proper, and only genuinely effective, method of fixing the mix: have the musician or musicians redo the problem track, or hire studio musicians to re-record the track then replace the original track with the one done by the studio musicians. The latter method was the path most often chosen. You’d be surprised to know that the musicians you hear on many classic albums are studio musicians, not the band themselves. Now you know why the album sounds so different from the live concert!
5. Post-production: the completed stereo master tape went off to highly specialized mastering engineers who added finishing details to the recording and prepared it to be made into the final albums for sale. The pressing plant made the LPs and 45s as tape duplicators ran cassette and 8-track cartridge copies.

That was then but this is now.

Today, few recording projects have producers and even fewer benefit from the presence of A&R, except those created by the major labels. Most bands feel they can produce their own albums, that otherwise they lose “artistic control,” and will be denied “their artistic vision.”

Far too many of those who make professional recordings, defined for this note’s purpose as any recording made for sale, have the depth of experience and training necessary. Yes, that sounds egotistical, but it’s true. Watching YouTube videos and reading blogs is no substitute for the intense, hands-on experience of internships and apprenticeships. Albums recorded by the band themselves are usually the worst, because the recordist is most-often self-taught.

Similarly, the democratization of recording equipment had led to a trend of bands assembling their own recording studio, making their own recordings, then releasing the finished albums themselves directly to their fans. Most of these so-called project studios are ill-equipped. Some will hire a professional studio but then insist on asserting final control over every technical aspect of the project.

Mastering is seldom applied to the album. When it is, most of the time the band, once again, does it themselves. Because mastering is expensive, many bands elect to avail themselves of flat-rate “mastering” services. To be profitable, such services are often generic, done with presets or otherwise applied in haste.

Little to no preproduction takes place with most commercially-released recordings today. Bands often show up to recording sessions unrehearsed, using some of their studio time to work on arrangements or to rehearse. This leads to a clutter of redundant tracks, unplanned and often haphazardly made.

When a band does hire a studio, the first recording session is the first time the studio staff will have heard the songs and, sometimes, the band as well. This results in the recording engineer having to set up the microphones quickly. So, generic microphone placement and hasty recording techniques become the norm, degrading technical quality.

As the band doubles as both artists and studio staff, their attention is divided. With few exceptions, both the band's artistic performance and the recording's technical quality suffers.
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Sorting through, then editing, the aforementioned clutter of tracks creates more problems. Because many of the tracks were made from poorly rehearsed sessions or were more of a "let's try this" nature, getting the mix correct is problematic.

The mixing process then often requires a heavy reliance on excessive editing and extensive signal processing to fix performance defects that should have been worked out in rehearsals and arranging sessions before the recording ever began.

The result is an album that has had the life edited out of it. Dynamics, the vehicle for excitement and expression, have been crushed under layers of compression and limiting. Equalization has been made atop previous instances of equalization in an attempt to fix mistakes in tracking, basic recording techniques, sloppy microphone placement as well as the use of inferior equipment. It's audio quicksand with each fix creating new problems that need to be fixed. They never really are.

I hear you thinking, “But wait, what about the gear? Those awesome LA-2 gain levelers? Pultec EQs? Those sweet-sounding preamplifiers, NEVE consoles, 610s and all the rest. Big diaphragm Neumann U87, Sony C37 and AKG C12A microphones? Oh, and those awesome RCA 44 and 77 ribbon mikes? The warm sound of Ampex MM1100 or ATR-124, Studer A80, and 3M 79 tape decks? Why aren’t you talking about the gear?”

Because that’s not really the secret of the sound of vintage albums. The real secret? The process. The uncompromising, well-planned, methodical approach to recording. Artist management and development. The work ethic of the musicians themselves. Studio musicians.

The gear was largely incidental. Frankly, we knew most of that gear really wasn’t as good as you’ve been led to believe, and that the gear itself wasn’t inherently special. But it was all that we had, so we used it. We didn’t worship the gear or look to it for our sound, we used it to create our sound — often in defiance of its severe limitations. Yes, the gear did affect the sound, but nowhere near as much as the process itself.

Adopt the process behind vintage albums and you’ll get the vintage sound. If we would have had the equipment made today, we’d have used it instead of what we did use. Yet, we still would have achieved that “vintage” sound. As my mentors often repeated, “Technique, not technology.”

Stop! You Can't Use that Camera! It's Illegal!

Here's a small example of why I have grown to dislike government and its greed for ever-increasing regulation.

Let's say you want to record an hour long video. What kind of camera would you choose? Well, you could simply use the camera in your smart phone to record an hour of video. Or, you could use the WebCam in your laptop or desktop computer to record an hour of video. You could use a camcorder, which arguably is the easiest method. Or, you could get very fancy and use a professional video camera along with a professional video recorder. You're free to choose all of those methods.

But, you cannot record an hour of video on a DSLR, even though the camera is capable of recording hours of motion picture quality video.

Why?

Well, it's not a technical limitation with the DSLR.

It's the law.

I'm not joking, I'm not making this up, it is the law.

You see, in the United States it is against the law for an imported DSLR camera to be able to record video for more than 29 minutes and 29 seconds. Regardless of the technological capability of the camera. By the way, DSLRs sold in other countries around the world can record hours of video. That includes the same models sold in the USA.

Let me bring this home to you: the only reason a DSLR sold in the USA cannot record more than 29 minutes of video is because of government regulation.No technological limitation exists. The cameras are perfectly capable of recording hours of vide. The only reason they can't is because of an arbitrary, completely unnecessary, government regulation created out of thin air by an unelected, faceless bureaucrat.

Why? Who does that benefit? Not me. Not you. But I bet some big campaign donor benefits.

So, you see, our unenlightened government doesn't believe you should have the freedom to record an hour or more of video on a DSLR camera.

Now, I understand this is not a vitally important event. I bring it up because it goes to show the attitude of our government toward us, the citizens of United States. We, the government, will decide how you can record an hour of video - you don't have the freedom to choose what you want.

Now step back and think of all the other small, everyday freedoms that excessive government regulation has taken away from you.

Tell me, why I should support any politician who will not increase our personal liberty by curtailing this monstrous factory of neverending regulations that we call the United States federal government?

In Other Words (A Pretentious Treatise On Loudspeaker Technology).

Loudspeaker efficiency is inversely proportional to its moving mass and directly proportional to the square of the product of cone area and to the product of magnet field strength within the voice coil air gap and the length of wire immersed within the magnetic field

In other words, itty bitty speakers with weak magnets are inefficient.

The maximum sound pressure of a loudspeaker is a function of the volume of air displaced, or placed in motion, by the loudspeaker at any given pitch and also of its acoustic impedance. The volume of air the loudspeaker must displace is directly proportional to wavelength; longer wavelengths, producing gravely-pitched sounds, require greater displacement than do the shorter wavelengths that produce higher pitch sounds.

Constraining the emanation of the loudspeaker diaphragm by means of a horn projector causes the diaphragm to place an expanding column of air into motion, increasing displacement for a given diaphragm surface area within a given mechanical amplitude, and thereby reducing the need for larger diaphragms moving through large mechanical amplitudes.

Otherwise, the loudspeaker requires a large surface area, often comprised of multiple radiators, moving through large mechanical amplitudes, to be able to displace enough volume of air to produce high sound pressure levels.

In other words, if you want it loud, you need a really big speaker.

Ceteris paribus, frequency modulation distortion and Doppler distortion, the forms most objectionable to a causal listener, vary directly with mechanical amplitude. Reducing mechanical amplitude reduces distortion.

Bottom Line: that Bluetooth speaker with its little speakers will sound awful.

The Smple Project That Became Un-Simple

Here's the latest on my Dual 1218 restoration project. On initial inspection, the mechanism was frozen solid. With these older 1200 series, that's usually just dried out lubricant that's become rock hard - a straightforward if tedious project. Remove all lubricants, which requires disassembling the mechanism; clean thoroughly, replace lubricants, reassemble then enjoy music.

Well, the more I get into the project the more I find wrong. It's been victim of prior repair attempts that created more problems than they solved: bent shafts, stripped threads, incorrectly assembled torsion springs.

Now the latest: missing parts. Yes, the previous owner lost several parts and used one that is the wrong part. Grrrrrr.....

I'll get it going, that's not in doubt, but what could have been a simple project became a major effort. I'm not really complaining because I'm delighted to be able to resurrect one of these classic turntables.

The lesson: when you attempt to service a vintage deck, take your time. Get a service manual.

Don't force parts together - if they're stubborn there is a reason, so stop, look and think. Find an expert on the particular turntable and get their advice.

Take photos every step of the way so you don't forget what to do or lose your place.

Keep every part! Repeat - keep every part. Nothing is superfluous.

Don't just use any oil you have: Dual used specific lubricants. Substitute them and things won't work correctly.