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Adventures in Audio and Engineering

1967-1971

From ’67 to ’71 I was attending the University of Arizona toward a BS in Electrical Engineering. My interest in ham radio had faded, replaced by a fascination with sound and audio engineering, and somehow I found time to work several side jobs while still in college.

KXEW-AM had landed an FCC license to add an FM signal. They promoted me to Chief Engineer and had me supervise the purchase and installation of a 5 kW FM transmitter and a second broadcasting studio. This was great fun for an 18-year-old nerd! To avoid the expense of adding a second full-time DJ, we installed one of the early “automated” radio studios, with reel-to-reel tape recorders and robotic drums of tape cartridges. With PCs not yet developed, this ran on banks of telephone stepping relays and was programmed with a telephone dial. You can probably guess that this Rube Goldberg contraption did not survive for long.

It was around this time that ICs (integrated circuits, or “silicon chips” to the layman) became available to hobbyists and experimenters. I wanted to try building a circuit with both analog and digital ICs, so I designed and built a compact automated studio console for KXEW’s remote broadcasts. This was my first “professional” electronic project. Operational amplifier ICs served to mix audio from a microphone, two turntables, and two cassette playback decks. Digital logic ICs automatically started and stopped the turntables and decks when you pushed a single button.

To protect the setup in mobile use, I also built a custom, padded “roadie” case from plywood. Now I can see that this project was the precursor of two of my lifelong hobbies, electronics and woodworking.

Around this time, I learned that a new recording studio had opened up in Tucson. I dropped in on a whim to see if they had any openings. Forster Cayce, owner of Copper State Recording Studios, was always looking for technical help, so he graciously gave me the grand tour. His studio had a brush with greatness, doing early sessions with Alyce Cooper and Linda Ronstadt, but I never met anyone famous. I mainly cleaned and aligned the massive Ampex multitrack recorders, and occasionally helped with roadie duties. But I eagerly absorbed lots of new knowledge about sound and recording. And I took advantage of their commercial discounts to customize my home stereo with massive studio-quality Altec speakers. As I entered my final year of college, I thought I was headed for a career in audio engineering. I was wrong.

The Seventies in Silicon Valley

1971-1977

In Spring 1971, companies visited the U of A campus in search of new EE grads. With Vietnam and the Cold War raging on, it was defense companies making the most attractive offers. I was about to accept an offer from MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, but a boutique Silicon Valley defense contractor — Electromagnetic Systems Laboratories (ESL) — outbid them by throwing in full tuition for grad school at Stanford including time off with pay when attending!

After graduation, I arrived in Sunnyvale with my worldly possessions in a U-Haul behind my VW beetle. The photo shows me and my first wife, Susie, in front of a condo we’d just purchased in the crazy Bay Area housing market. In 1975 we had to camp outside a development sales office for 7 days and nights to buy our first tract home.

Finding a direction in direction-finding

At ESL I started work in the Antenna Department, designing antenna systems for radio direction-finding systems on reconnaissance aircraft. First, an accurate scale model of the aircraft was built from aluminum. Then, we fabricated working scale models of the antennas, often an inch or less in size, and mounted them. The finished model with antenna arrays was tested in an anechoic chamber to measure the radiation pattern and other characteristics of the antennas.

In case an engineer might be needed onboard during testing, I and a few other engineers went through hypobaric/rapid-decompression training. That was an unforgettable experience, fortunately never subsequently needed. I’m surprised that almost 50 years later, a version of this reconnaissance plane is still being flown by the Air Force.

Graduate studies at Stanford

While playing with model airplanes was fun at ESL, I was also engaged in the serious task of completing an M.S., and then a Ph.D., at nearby Stanford University. The STAR (Space, Telecommunications, and Radioscience) lab attracted me, and it was an enormous privilege to have Prof. Ronald N. Bracewell as an initial advisor, and later Prof. Robert Helliwell as I focused on my dissertation.

My dissertation covered the development of a specialized receiver for tracking and performing direction-finding on VLF (very low frequency) radio signals called whistlers. Fans of technologic history can find out more in Don Carpenter’s epic memoir here: The Early History of Very Low Frequency (VLF) Research at Stanford

I thought life would be simpler once I completed my Ph.D. work. And once again, I could not have been more wrong…