Gear Stories With Sylvia Massy: Mr. Williams and the Fairchild 670

Dec 1, 2010 9:00 AM, By Sylvia Massy



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Mr. Williams led me through the darkened third-floor corridor of an abandoned brick office building in downtown Joliet, Ill. Cardboard boxes and ceiling plaster lay strewn on the floor, and a jolt of fear pulsed through me as we stepped over piles of debris to reach the illuminated doorway at the end of the long hall. I wasn’t sure where this creepy old guy with the mustache was taking me, but it could be very bad news for a foolishly trusting single girl like myself. He smelled like old leather and cigarettes. His lips curled back to show a toothy smile as he pushed open the door, waving me inside.

This Fairchild 670 sits in Sear Sound Studio A, New York City.

This Fairchild 670 sits in Sear Sound Studio A, New York City.

I squeaked past him into the room. And there was the hoard. Stacks of old tube broadcast compressors, Altec amps, rotary-knobbed Western Electric mixers, lonely Sparta turntables, Voice of the Theater horns—an armory of equipment collected from radio stations and movie houses stacked from the floor to the roof. I had finally found the mother lode, but the one thing I really, really wanted wasn’t there. I had traveled 1,200 miles and put myself in harm’s way to find the Holy Grail—the Fairchild 670 compressor—and there wasn’t even one Fairchild in the whole darn place.

Because I’m writing this story now, I suppose it’s obvious that I made it out of there alive. And I managed to bring out a massive collection of tube broadcast equipment, too; even today, I still have most of that collection. But there was no Fairchild in that ancient red-brick building and for a very good reason—Fairchild 670 compressors were mainly found in disc mastering houses, and creepy Mr. Williams only dealt with broadcast equipment. I was barking up the wrong tree!

So why are these old analog compressors such a big deal? Well, for starters, they are filled with magic. Putting a mix through the stereo 670 will turn a mediocre song into a hit. Okay, maybe I exaggerate, but today these stereo tube compressors go for $30,000 if you can find one. And that’s no exaggeration. Some may think it’s a myth, but they really do something that no other compressor does. As the last element across your mix bus, the Fairchild 670 adds excitement and fury, while clarifying every part of the program going through it. The 670 smooshes everything together without becoming glassy or brittle or hard. And it can make the kick and snare on rock records go “pah-powww.”

In 2007, Mix’s George Petersen initiated a conversation where Les Paul described the birth of the Fairchild compressor. It jumps back in time to a dining-room table in New Jersey in the 1950s, where the famed guitarist was discussing a compressor design with Rein Narma, a young tech who had proven his skills by building a recording mixer to use with Les’ new Ampex 8-track. Les got a list and bought all the parts so Rein could assemble his new exciting design, but before Rein could put the darn thing together, another friend of Les’ named Sherman Fairchild hired Rein away to have him build what would became the 670 and its mono counterpart, the 660, at his Fairchild facility in New York. Les never got his compressor built, and the parts just remained in a box in his basement for years!

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