Gear Stories With Sylvia Massy: The Spirit of American Gadgetry

Sep 21, 2010 7:11 PM, By Sylvia Massy

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The Eico kit open-reel recorder responsible for my own career direction. Also on the shelf: Eico oscilloscope, Dynakit ST-70, PAiA vocoder and various bits and robots all made from kits.

The Eico kit open-reel recorder responsible for my own career direction. Also on the shelf: Eico oscilloscope, Dynakit ST-70, PAiA vocoder and various bits and robots all made from kits.

High fidelity exploded in the early ’60s with the onset of the stereo revolution, and the kit companies were there to fill the void in quality stereo consumer electronics. Audiophiles complained that they could not enjoy their new stereo vinyl with the large wooden console units of the era, so enthusiasts turned to kit-building to create their sometimes outrageous stereo component systems. In addition to the Heathkit company, several other kit manufacturers thrived during the ’60s, including Eico, Dynaco, Fisher, HH Scott and glorious McIntosh. Similar to Heathkit, Eico was a company that used surplus WWII electronic components in its kits.

But then, as transistors replaced tubes, Japanese companies crushed the American companies in the consumer electronics market. They could build them faster, cheaper and better. It was no longer economical to do it yourself. In fact, in many cases it cost more to make a radio from a kit than it cost to buy a Japanese-made model off the shelf. So in the ’70s, the kit-building focus shifted to the new frontier: analog synthesizers.

Here’s what a simple PAiA VCO kit includes. Not that big a deal, huh?

Here’s what a simple PAiA VCO kit includes. Not that big a deal, huh?

TODAY'S NEW KIT-MASTERS
On the forefront of the synthesizer revolution was John Simonton of PAiA Corporation, whose company still offers several kits for the musician and engineer, including the 9700s analog synth module and the Fatman. If you love analog synths, you’ll want to get a stack of these fun and useful devices for gritty low-end tone and audio processing through their envelope filters. PAiA also offers new build-your-own spring reverbs, flangers, vocoders, guitar effects and even stereo mics. The PAiA users group in the ’70s also started Polyphony magazine, which eventually became Electronic Musician, a sister publication to Mix since 1985.

I have to give a great deal of credit to the kit-makers for my own career direction. My father built an Eico open-reel tape deck from a kit in the early ’60s, and when I was 4 years old, he sat me in front of it with a microphone. He monitored the recording off of the playback head, creating an amazing delay sound, which I remember to this day. I sat there for hours babbling into that microphone, listening to my voice echoing. It changed me. That old Eico tape machine is the reason I am engineering today.

Our minds can be inspired by the act of putting together a simple electronic kit. It’s an American tradition: Sweating over a workbench in a garage, then daring to take that plane for a ride. Or at the very least, the electronic kit helps us to understand how things work, which then inspires us to ask the question: “How can I build it better?”


Sylvia Massy is the unconventional producer and engineer of artists including Tool, System of a Down, Johnny Cash, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Petty and Prince. She is a member of the NARAS P&E Wing Steering Committee and Advisory Boards, and is a resident producer at RadioStar Studios in Weed, Calif.






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