So Why All The Cameras?

I received an email the other day that read, "You have a lot of cameras for an audio guy! What's up with that?"

That's a fair question, so the short answer is that they're from my private collection, I enjoy each of them, and I shoot all of them. They do serve a purpose other than the obvious: photography keeps me sharply-honed and fresh creatively. It's too easy to get stale creatively, to get stuck in a rut, doing the same thing, taking the same approach to everything. I don't want that to happen to me. Photography gets me out of the ordinary, and forces me to do things differently. Whenever I notice I begin to take photos of a particular subject the same way consistently, I switch to a different camera, one that won't let me keep shooting the way I have been.

Each of my cameras and lenses will give a completely different look to the same subject, so switching cameras or lenses often means that I'm always forced to see everything anew, to look at the same subject differently.

One day I shoot one of the 35mm SLR cameras to achieve a balance of precision with ease, the next day I have the fun of shooting the sneaky, spontaneous Minox B spy camera, or I may let the Pentax Auto 110 camera take control of exposure completely and just concentrate on composition. The next day maybe I'm taking the deliberative and carefully-studied approach imposed by the Calumet 45N view camera or the amazing Graflex.

Then again, I may be taking a completely different tack, shooting with one of the oddball Loreo lenses, or my pinhole lens or a zone plate lens -- each of which renders a scene in startlingly unique ways. Try it: take a photo of the same scene with a 35mm SLR and normal lens, a Minox, a Graflex, a view camera, a pinhole lens, a zone plate lens, a Loreo lens, and a 110 camera and you'll see what I mean -- each photo will be so different that some of the photos may not even look like you shot the same subject. How wonderful!

Similarly, as I produce each recording I gain new insights into how equipment affects sound, and get new ideas for eve more new designs, or for evolutions of my many existing designs. Then, as I finish each design, I learn something that helps me to make better recordings the next time. So, my recording experience makes me a better designer, and my design experience makes me a better recording engineer; they re-enforce each other. Photography adds the third cord to my creative rope, so to speak; it keeps me always off-balance, out of those deadly creative ruts. Besides, each of those cameras are really cool, man!

Building Amplifiers As Relaxation

I'm often asked the question whether I enjoy building amplifiers. The answer is simple: Yes! It's fun and relaxing to take a pile of inanimate parts, then a few hours later have something that comes to life and makes music. Although I do have to use a variety of calculations to create the design, I do my best work intuitively -- and am at my best when I can "throw away the book" and follow my instincts. That way the amplifier is a result of my creativity, not the result of a formula on a piece of paper. My best designs have come into being this way, as a spontaneous design that evolves, flows into something sometimes entirely different than what I first intended, finally coming into its final form as I build it. For me, an amplifier is part artwork, part engineering. I do see myself as an artist who "paints" with electrons. Part of me is in every amplifier. Think about it, I get to make pieces of electronic artwork that themselves make music! How cool is that?!

As my old friends know, my right hand is partially paralyzed and bright overhead lights give me a headache. So building amplifiers is good therapy too! It's not uncommon to see me wearing a hat while building amplifiers. So, you could say that building amplifiers is occupational therapy. Hey, it beats hours spent with a boring exercise machine!

My two most successful designs had very different beginnings. While studying electronics in the 1970s, one of the classroom exercises was to design a simple hi-fi amplifier. My attempt was disappointing. I truly disliked the sound of the project. My teacher gave me some good advice -- don't junk the amplifier, find out what the amplifier was suited for! I soon discovered the amplifier I thought as awful was wonderful for enhancing less-than-perect sounds. I took my little amplifier to every recording session I did, and used it for a variety of situations. After a while, other engineers began asking where I got the amplifier. When I told them I had built it, they asked me to build them one too. Before long, I was in the business of building amplifiers. Thus was born what would become the Type 61 "Feste," a 10-watt utility amplifier, which has been my longest-selling product. The first Feste amplifier was sold in 1977, and I still receive the occasional order for one.

Recently, I took a break from making a large custom stereo amplifier for a record collector. In fact, it's the amplifier I'm building in the photos. To relax, I grabbed three valves at random, which were a 5Y3, a 12AX7A/ECC83 and a 6V6GT; and decided to put together a small amplifier by designing it in my mind as I grabbed parts. I wanted to try an idea I'd been considering for some time. The little amplifier sounds great! It became the 56J and the basis for my new OEM product, the ValvOEM 3.