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AEA’s Ribbon Microphones & Linear Systems’ JFETs

When John Kurlander sought to capture the vast array of sound for the Lord of the Rings movies, he turned to Wes Dooley and his ribbon microphones. And for years, when Wes needed ultra-low-noise semiconductors to build and amplify those microphones, he turned to Linear Systems, Inc.

“Linear Systems has kept that tradition going of making parts that are competitive with the [discontinued Toshiba] SK170s and 389s,” Dooley said in a recent interview. “And that gives us the ability to make compact, high-performance audio products.”

“We make the quietest ribbon mic in the world, the A440, and the higher SPL A840. Both of them use the [Linear Systems] LSK389, for the output drivers and their current supply,” Dooley said. Dooley's company, Audio Engineering Associates (AEA), also uses the LSK389 in front ends of its RPQ and RPQ 500 preamplifiers, which were designed for use with ribbon microphones.

AEA's microphone business started with ribbon mics for classical music used as movie scores. “John Kurlander did all three Lord of the Rings using AEA mics on strings left and right almost as strong in the mix as the main orchestra mics,” Dooley said. “When you work with such people, one really learns to be of service.”

AEA's customer list reads like a Who's Who of Grammy and Academy Award-winning recording engineers and artists. Among the many examples, sound engineer Michael Bishop, winner of eight Grammy awards, extensively uses AEA's A840 microphones and AEA preamps for his recordings. Shawn Murphy, who's worked on over 330 films and won an Academy award for Jurassic Park, also relies on AEA's preamps and microphones. One of the best parts of AEA's website is the long list of reviews and mentions by users.

Dooley, a lifelong ribbon microphone enthusiast and developer, got into the business by repairing ribbon mics built by RCA during the golden age of radio. “We started servicing mics in '76 when RCA shut down making them,” he said. “Many of our favorite RCA designs were from the mid '30s, when a designer's foremost tool was listening to live music. Critical listening was the gold standard as acoustical measurements were cumbersome.”

“We've adopted that approach, which is: musicality trumps metrics. The mic has to sound good to people in the music business,” Dooley said. “If it doesn't sound good, measurements don't matter. Once you have a mic that sounds good to people who have experienced ears, then measurements are very important, as they are the key to consistent production.”

“So we first strive to make sure it sounds musical, and then we measure what it does,” Dooley said. “Because, as one of my mentors, Richard Heyser, said, if it measures well but doesn't sound right, then you're measuring the wrong things. Often you find you don't know what the right thing to measure is. Over time you discover what those metrics might be. Ultimately, it's a matter of how it sounds. Since we come from an acoustic music tradition, it's pretty simple: you put the mic in front of live music, and compare that live sound with the reproduction, to see how close it is.”

Dooley told the story of working with legendary bluegrass fiddle player/violinist Richard Greene. Greene, along with his wife, a violinist with the LA Chamber Orchestra, recorded samples using over 20 microphones. “The next day, when they had 'fresh ears,' they listened to all the recordings and said the one made using our ribbon microphones was the best,” Dooley said. “And that's what we try for, for the musicians to experience that this is the closest they've ever heard to an actual performance.”

Asked to comment for this article, Greene had high praise for Dooley and his microphones. “Silky, smooth, best violin sound I ever heard, Wes is amazing and his tech support and other free maintenance are over the top,” Greene wrote. “I will never have any use for any other mic on my violin. I have the AEA 440.”

Dooley said this close interaction with artists drives how he builds microphones and preamps. “The whole thing,” he said, “is to build tools they need. That is the key to survival for a small business doing high-performance products.”

The LSK389 “is a very good part for manufacturing,” Dooley said. AEA uses the “C” grade of the LSK389. “We started with the 'A' [grade], but then we realized it didn't make any difference for what we were doing,” he said. The LSK389 is graded by IDSS ; all three grades have the same ultra-low-noise characteristics.

The Linear Systems LSK389 part used by AEA is an ultra-low-noise junction field effect transistor. Linear System Founder and CEO John H. Hall began working on a JFET similar to Toshiba's 2SK389 about the time that the Japanese company began to discontinue the device 10 years ago. “Toshiba kept its production process for the 389 secret, so we had to figure out on our own how to build something to the same specification, which was extremely difficult,” Hall said.

Expertise brought to Linear Systems is based on processes and products Hall developed since 1962 at Amelco, Union Carbide, Intersil, and Micro Power Systems. Hall, a protégé of Silicon Valley legend Dr. Jean Hoerni, was the director of IC Development at Union Carbide, co-founder and vice president of R&D at Intersil, and founder/president of Micro Power Systems.

Much of Linear Systems' current development work focuses on lower-noise JFETs. The production techniques Hall conceived to squeeze the last bit of noise out of the 389 led to development of another part, the LSK489. The LSK489 has less transconductance than the 389, and though this increases noise slightly, it makes the part easier to design into new circuits.

“While the 389 is the perfect part for some users, such as Wes Dooley, who need the lowest noise levels in existence, we found that the high gate-to-drain capacitance of the 389 caused problems for some of our other customers,” Hall said.

“Building a high transconductance part, such as the 389, formed part of the basis for providing ultra-low-noise levels, but the high input capacitance causes intermodulation distortion in some higher-frequency applications,” Hall said. “Since we had created some advanced processing techniques to make the 389, we decided to go back and look at creating a part with lower capacitance using the same processes.”

Though Dooley's ribbon microphone and other devices take advantage of the 389's low noise level, other developers could tolerate a slightly higher noise level in a part that has much lower input capacitance due to a lower transconductance, Hall said. The lower capacitance and other features make the LSK489 a lower-noise, functional replacement for Linear Systems' LS840-series of JFETs, as well as the Siliconix U401-403 series.

Dooley's precision ribbon microphones are perfect applications of the LSK389, Hall said. “Both ribbon microphones and JFETs are very difficult to design and build, but there's really no other way to achieve the level of performance needed than to do the work this way.”

The circuit design work using the LSK389s was done for AEA by Fred Forssell of http://www.forsselltech.com.

For more on Dooley's microphones, go to: http://www.ribbonmics.com

Data sheets for the LSK389 and LSK489, the application notes for the LSK489, and a good paper on general JFET theory and use can be downloaded at: http://linearsystems.com.

8 comments on “AEA’s Ribbon Microphones & Linear Systems’ JFETs

  1. eafpres
    April 5, 2013

    Hi Tim–really interesting reading.  Having worked for some time in pretty high volume electronics (automotive-millions; laptops-tens of millions; handsets-hundreds of millions) I have a hard time grasping a business model like you described for the mics.  Likewise, the components.

    Can you comment on other application for the FETs you talk about?  There must be more demand than just mics to keep these parts alive?

  2. mccunets
    April 5, 2013

    EAFPRES, thanks.  JFETs find their way into a lot of interesting applications.  There's a guy who uses them in instruments he makes to measure temperatures going down to absolute zero.  Many of the instrument makers use Linear Systems' JFETS and other parts. Medical equipment is also a big part of the market for JFETS. Basically anything that needs a high-impedance, low-noise input.  Pairing a JFET with an op-amp often works well.  There's an application note for Linear's new JFET, I'm not sure it's up on the web site yet, pls send me an email at tim@linearsystems.com and I'll send you a copy.

    Small companies like AEA are very interesting. IWT, my company, is around that size, and we were able to develop and adapt new devices for Iraq/Afghanistan sometimes more quickly than larger companies.  

     

  3. Brad Albing
    April 5, 2013

    Tim – so, gone are the days of the ribbon mic preamp based on the 12AX7. Or do people still use those?

  4. mccunets
    April 5, 2013

    I'll ask Wes.  My dad (Bell Labs engineer) had boxes of NOS tubes in our basement growing up, wish he still had them now.  I picked up some tubes for my McIntosh on a trip to Russia at the Svetlana plant, the work pretty well.  Like a lot of things in Russia, you go around back and pay in cash.

  5. Brad Albing
    April 5, 2013

    Sounds interesting. Looks like it's time for another road trip.

  6. Brad Albing
    April 30, 2013

    Tim – we anxiously await your next blog.

  7. mccunets
    April 30, 2013

    Plugging away at it, but took a break to read some old Lester Bangs columns for inspiration.

  8. Brad Albing
    April 30, 2013

    Good choice. I appreciate that you followed his work back in thje day.

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