A fond farewell to those rotary consoles!
July 28, 2007

So the rotary old-school audio consoles at Specs Howard School are a thing of the past. My oh my oh my!  An era has finally and completely come to a resounding close!

We bid a fond farewell to the last of ‘em this past summer at Specs Howard School.  How many students first learned their craft on one of these gems?   Considering some of this equipment goes back to the 1980s, quite a few!

In the 1990s (before I arrived at Specs myself), one of the stations I maintained was WTWR-FM in Monroe.  Many students call that station home – both today and in the past. 

At the time, WTWR (better known as “Tower 98”) was independently owned when I first began serving their techie needs.  Their studios were crammed into two storefronts in downtown Monroe. One side had the sales offices, the other contained the studios.

The On-Air studio featured a Broadcast Electronics rotary console. It was almost identical to the type we had in abundance at Specs Howard.  There were a couple of cart machines and consumer-type CD players, a cassette deck and a reel to reel tape recorder – all common items at Specs as well, when I first jumped on board.

In my Tower 98 days, many times I would be called upon to do repairs on that audio console, always when the console was “live” on-air, usually on a Saturday or Sunday when we were (hopefully) least disruptive to the day to day operations, but sometimes an emergency repair had to be made. At the time, the General Manager at WTWR was Specs graduate, Herb Cody, who actually cared a lot about the station. Herb was there throughout the time I was there. He knew everything about the station and would do everything possible to assist engineering, helping to get parts ordered, and would make a supportive trip to the transmitter site at a moments notice.   

During my console repair escapades, I would ask the air talent to find the longest song they had during which I would attempt to complete the repair.  The repairs usually involved replacing an important mechanical switch, which was always in an awkward location and always required a hot soldering iron  (so much for the convenient plug-in cards inside, which rarely had problems other than a blown fuse).

Later, I was part of a group that among other things, attempted to purchase WTWR.  We had already reached the conclusion that the studios and offices needed to be completely scrapped. 

Our friends at Cumulus, however, had more money than us and they got the station instead (and still do to this day).  Regarding the old studios, however, they had reached the same conclusion we had:  Start completely fresh in a new location.

As the story goes, I turned out to be one of the engineers who helped to build their new studios (or at least finish them). 
As luck would have it, I later was on the Cumulus payroll when WTWR became one of the stations I was responsible for maintaining.

I remember seeing the original rotary console gathering dust in a storage room that I  (and others) had repaired many times. 

I had no particular fondness for it.  It its day, it was a fine workhorse.  For that matter, so was the rotary RCA console at the very first station I worked for that actually paid me:  The long-departed
WBRB-AM in Mt. Clemens, Michigan.  You could see glowing tubes through the ventillation holes on the back.  The year was 1977.  The late Gilda Radner owned the place at the time and her uncle signed my paycheck.  I would guess that audio console dinosaur was from the late 1950s. I was the midday jock. The afternoon drive guy showed me the proper place to “whack” the console when it would occasionally cut out.  As the youngest full time on-air guy on staff, I still was already seriously addicted to radio. It didn't matter to me that some of their equipment was manufactured before I was born.

All I knew was it sounded so cool when would I manually back-time my show using music from carts and 45 rpm records, and hit the live ABC news feed precisely on time.  Throw the key switch precisely at :59:55 and you ruled the radio station when that dramatic ABC sounder came across.

The network “pot” was a smaller knob near the top with a key switch, but the rest of the console was not too much different from the more “modern” solid state versions such as those manufactured by Broadcast Electronics, LPB, McMartin, Sparta and others of the era.

So how do I feel when pulling one of those 1980s-era consoles out of a studio being upgraded at Specs? (The actual removal only takes 10-15 minutes... cleaning the crud underneath takes more time).  

Do I feel 
nostalgic?  Not at all.  “Classic” technology that is maintained for a certain sound or function (like tube type guitar amplifiers, certain studio processors, etc.) is highly prized.  But 1970s technology (such as early transistor equipment with a lot of mechanical switches) has about as much use as a DOS computer of the early 1980s.

Try playing a pristine CD through some of that old gear.  Maybe you’ll hear it past the system hiss, crackle and noise caused by oxidized components.  And MAYBE the microphone will actually work when you throw the switch.

But you still have to give the equipment some respect and a fair burial, even if it’s in the dumpster or in somebody’s basement who THINKS it can be the center of their home studio.  They WOULD have been fine additions to anyones’ studio 20 years ago.

As for now, go buy a Mackie mixer from Guitar Center.  

B.E. Consoles, R.I.P.

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