The venerable Studer J37
In the world of music production, tape recorders rarely achieve legendary status, but there are a few examples that do. First in mind is the 8-track created for audio innovator Les Paul in 1955 and is still in use in his personal studio. Also known as the inventor of the solid body electric guitar, Les began doing sound-on-sound tape recording in 1949, using a modified tape deck with an extra head and a switch to defeat the erase function. However, the technique was risky: One bad pass and the recording was ruined, and each additional pass added noise and distortion.
With the concept of creating an 8-track in mind, Les met with Ampex, which began the project in 1953. The task required designing new record/play and erase heads, and the difficult switching of very low-level/high-impedance circuitry to achieve exact sync in monitoring previous tracks while overdubbing new ones. Ampex engineer Mort Fujii felt it could be done, and the first 1-inch Sel-Sync 8-track (based on an instrumentation deck) went to Les two years later for $10,000--a sum that could have bought two nice houses at the time.
Technology moved slowly in those days and Studer (www.studer.ch) debuted its first multitrack recorder--the 4-track J37--nearly a decade later, in 1964. Studer has long been known for creating high-performance, precision recorders and during the company's 60-plus year history, manufactured some three-quarters of a million units bearing the Studer or Revox names.
With its 52 vacuum tubes and solid construction, the 300-pound J37 was a serious studio machine.
Keeping with the legacy of excellence founded by Dr. Willi Studer in 1948, the J37 was built as solid as a tank. This 1-inch, 4-track weighed 300-plus pounds and was switchable between 7.5 ips and 15 ips tape speeds. Its 52-tube complement included four record amplifiers each with two ECC188 tubes and four reproduce amplifiers with three ECC188s and an E283CC--all twin triodes. Frequency response at 15 ips was spec'ed at 30Hz to 15kHz (+/-2dB)-pretty respectable for its day.
THE J37 MAKES HISTORY—AND MORE
Like all Studer machines, the J37 was responsible for hundreds of hit records, but is best known for its role in The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. That album redefined the studio as not merely a site to capture recordings, but also as a creative tool in the production process, as producer George Martin and crew used two J37s in EMI's Abbey Road Studio Two over a 129-day period to sculpt a masterwork. Having only four tracks to work with, the album was laboriously created through a combination of editing techniques, track bouncing and ultimately mixing from two J37s manually synched together.
EMI's J37 No.8 on display at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
The irony of course, was that 8-track recording technology had been available for nearly a decade in the United States--and would certainly been affordable to the top-earning band on the planet--yet those were more innocent (and perhaps naive) days and the instant exchange of information we have access to these days just didn't exist in 1966. Fortunately, George Martin and the lads were able to overcome any technical obstacles and Sgt. Pepper's rocked the Studer J37 forever into the annals of music history, leading to a fascination about this recorder that continues to this day.
YESTERDAY... AND TODAY
More recently, Cleveland's Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum featured an exhibit offering Beatle fans the opportunity to view one of the pair of original Studer J37s used to record Sgt. Pepper's. On loan from Studer's own museum, the J37 is included in a newly renovated exhibit dedicated to the Beatles.
This J37 (EMI No.1) was also used on the Sgt. Pepper's sessions.
"The Beatles exhibit has always been one of our most popular exhibits and Studer's J37 multitrack recorder will make an exciting addition," said Jim Henke, the facility's vice president of exhibitions and curatorial affairs.
Studer's executive VP of sales Bruno Hochstrasser remembers that period well, having served 37 years with the company. "The J37 made history as the first studio-quality, multitrack recorder to be [commercially] produced. The Beatles use of it in the recording of the Sgt. Pepper's album was confirmation of the J37's innovative legacy. Loaning this piece of history to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame reminds us of Studer's long association with the recording industry and especially rock and roll music."
The J37 on display is fitted with its original EMI asset tag ("E.M.I. RECORDING STUDIOS J37 No. 8"), and appears restored and well cleaned-up. Way back when, I saw one of the original J37s (asset tag "E.M.I. RECORDING STUDIOS J37 No. 1") used on Sgt. Pepper's at a display at London's APRS show in 1992, commemorating the album's 25th anniversary. And from the photo I took of that machine, you can see the recorder looked more like something that had spent decades as a studio workhorse. But whether beaten up or restored, the J37 lives on as a testament to technology and a pinnacle of studio creativity that even today, remains as a benchmark to excellence.
George Petersen is the executive editor of Mix magazine and runs a small record label at www.jenpet.com.