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A Chicago Childhood


Planting the seeds of lifelong passions

Although my life began in mid-20th century Chicago, my family’s Orthodox Jewish traditions were holdovers from their Eastern European roots. As a result, I attended kindergarten and 2nd grade in a parochial school, learning Hebrew in the mornings, and conventional English subjects in the afternoon. I think this photo was taken in the cloakroom at that school, and given the bowtie and cufflinks, I’m dressed up for some holiday.

I didn’t like this school and much preferred to think about cars. I studied the automobile dealer pages in the phone book until I had memorized every model. I was proud to be able to precisely identify the make, model, and year of almost any car on the road, just from seeing its taillight or bumper shape.

My parents also felt I needed music lessons. But why accordion? The only music studio close by? At any rate, I learned to read music and play some accordion standards. Any requests for Lady of Spain — anyone…anyone…anyone?

Following a rather traumatic hospitalization for asthma, I also became interested in doctors and medicine — I liked their white coats, stethoscopes, and the respect they commanded. Young boys were frequently asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, and I quickly learned that “doctor” was the correct answer to that question.

In 1957 our family moved to Tucson, Arizona, where the climate was believed to be more healthful for my asthma. There, these three seeds — cars, music, and medicine — would later sprout into lifelong passions.

World’s Youngest Jewish Spanish DJ


After achieving the most advanced Amateur Radio license at age 13, I studied two more years to pass the FCC First Class Commercial Radio license exam. With this in hand, I applied to local radio stations for a job as a transmitter engineer.

Tucson’s rock station KTKT was my first choice, but they hesitated since I was only 15 and it might violate child labor laws. I kept trying until I reached KXEW-AM, a 100% Spanish-language station. My Dad had to take me there to apply, since I was too still too young for a driver’s license. The intrigued station manager, Ernesto Portillo, said he could overlook that issue if I’d take $1/hour to cover weekends (I had to be in school during the weekdays). I had my first job!

I stuck to the transmitter room initially, but the Spanish-language immersion and the party atmosphere at the station (after all, it was called Radio Fiesta) was infectious. I observed how the announcers operated the studio console to seamlessly mix music, commercials, and patter into an engaging program. One Sunday morning I turned on the transmitter but the DJ didn’t show up. I played some records while I called Ernesto and asked what to do. He said, “well, start announcing, muchacho!” So I did! Later I got my own teenage Spanish rock-and-roll show. It didn’t last long, but I still claim the Guinness record for having been the “World’s Youngest Jewish Spanish DJ“.

Adventures in Audio and Engineering


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.

Rewinding by Half a Century

Restoring a 1971 vintage Teac A-4070 tape deck


On the NextDoor social network, I found a post by Stephen Atkins looking for a nearby tape deck technician. There was a special meaning behind his request: Steve’s father, being blind, had preserved his memoirs and family events on reel-to-reel audio tape, not in photographs. When Steve’s Dad passed away 30 years ago, his recorder and tapes became lost in storage until recently.

From his online bio, I realized Steve himself was quite an expert with a long career in audio production. Still, he wisely decided not to just plug in the recorder, but to seek help. My own experience — side jobs during the ’60s in high school and college, at radio stations and a recording studio — was antiquated but relevant. With both the tape deck and me being relics from the same era, I thought we might be compatible.

The photo above shows the deck as it appeared when Steve brought it over, after 30 years of storage in its original shipping carton. The tape head cover had fallen off and its internal shield had come unglued, but otherwise things looked OK until I removed the case and began moving the mechanical parts by hand. The reel brakes were extremely tight and squeaky, the tape tension arms were frozen,  the level controls were nearly impossible to rotate, and some pushbutton switches were stuck. Inside, the drive belt had stretched with age and fallen completely off its pulleys.

Was I up for performing an operation on Steve’s prized, sentimental possession? I wasn’t quite sure until I found a scanned service manual for a later, but similar, model online. Having a schematic and assembly drawing, now I could understand the anatomy before undertaking surgery, so with the informed consent of the patient (actually the patient’s guardian) I went ahead.

The solid construction of the deck was reassuring. Weighing 50 pounds, it had a thick steel chassis, a cast aluminum frame, three big motors, a power transformer, and half a dozen printed circuit boards bristling with relays and solenoids. I opted not to power up the deck — which could damage irreplaceable components if there were short circuits — and to tackle the purely mechanical issues first.

The four tape heads and capstan/flywheel were supported by a thick steel plate. Since I didn’t want to unsolder the connections to the heads, I just detached the plate from the chassis and tilted it up, supported in on a wood block. That allowed enough access to disassemble and lubricate the tape tension arms, lubricate the capstan bearing, and mount the new drive belt. So far so good.

The electronic components most affected by aging — even worse when sitting unused — are electrolytic capacitors. Some restorers replace them all preemptively, while others just cross their fingers and turn on the power. Faced with more than 60 of them, I decided to start by replacing the two dozen most vulnerable ones — power supply filtering and motor capacitors — that could damage other parts if they failed.

The reel motor capacitor had 4 elements, housed in a can with its 5 tabs soldered to a PCB, and I was nervous about heating all those tabs at once while pulling the capacitor off. But fate smiled! Despite the otherwise stellar quality of the deck, the factory had failed to seat the capacitor fully onto the board. I was able to get needle nose pliers and diagonal cutters in to snip some of the tabs loose before desoldering.

The three capacitors housed in chassis-mounted cans were replaced with modern, smaller cylindrical capacitors. So I had some fun designing and 3-D printing plastic mounting brackets to adapt them to the original chassis mounting holes.

The remaining electrolytic capacitors were just a matter of patiently desoldering and replacing them on their respective printed circuit boards. I appreciated that the deck was obviously designed for repairability — by turning it to various positions, I could reach the bottom and top of most of the boards. Before reassembling, I cleaned all of the switches and level controls with spray-in contact cleaner, then re-lubed them until everything worked smoothly.

It was time for the Moment of Truth: power up — cautiously. A Variac was used, gradually increasing the line voltage while watching for any signs of overheating or smoke. Everything looked good, so it was time for mechanical and electrical alignment.

Mechanical alignment consisted of checking and adjusting the torque from the reel motors and brakes. The reel brakes were very tight and squeaky, even adjusted to their loosest setting. I solved this by “exercising” the brake springs, which had apparently stiffened in their old age (like people do). The motor torques were measured using spring scales, pulling on a string wrapped around the hub of a tape reel. Luckily, I was able to get everything within factory specs, and the deck demonstrated its rewinding, fast forwarding, reversing, and stopping prowess without snapping or spilling any tape.

Before performing electronic alignment, I cleaned and demagnetized the heads and guides. An oscilloscope was connected to the outputs, and a signal generator fed to the inputs.

A reference calibration tape was mounted, and the playback levels of prerecorded test tones on the tape were measured on the scope. Only minor adjustments had to be made to the playback head azimuth to peak the high-frequency response, and to bring left and right channels into phase match. A response plot showed the deck was achieving close to factory spec.

Since the primary intended use of the deck was to play back Steve’s archival tapes, didn’t attempt a full alignment for recording, but confirmed that recording does work.

Restoration complete, here’s the rejuvenated Teac A-4070 playing the #1 hit song of 1971!