John T. Mullin: THE MAN WHO PUT BING CROSBY ON TAPE

Oct 1, 1999 12:00 PM, Peter Hammar

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Audio and video engineer John T. (Jack) Mullin-who introduced America to high-fidelity magnetic tape recording, built the first prototype videotape recorder and created some of the standards for the technology-died of heart failure on June 24, 1999, at his home in Camarillo, Calif., at the age of 85. His was a life of ingenuity, discovery and absolute creativity. It's safe to say that the recording industry would not be the way it is today without his extraordinary insights and contributions.

Born in San Francisco in 1913, Jack Mullin graduated from Santa Clara University in what is now Silicon Valley with a major in electrical engineering. In 1941, Mullin entered the U.S. Army as a private, emerging at the end of the war as a major in the Signal Corps.

Stationed in England from 1943 to '44, then-Lt. Mullin was assigned to help improve the performance of Allied radar and other electronics. Spending nights alone in his lab at the Royal Air Force facility in Farnborough, England, he liked to listen to good music. The BBC went off the air at midnight, and he tuned to the only classical music he could find, which was broadcast by the Germans from powerful AM transmitters inside the Reich. The performances of the Berlin Philharmonic and other groups sounded "live," with none of the telltale ticks and pops of transcription discs-16-inch diameter 33 11/43 and 78 rpm records-that were the norm in American broadcasting. Mullin reasoned that even Hitler could not compel musicians to perform continuously 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Germans, he reasoned, had to have some kind of outstanding recorder that no one knew about.

After the liberation of Paris in the summer of 1944, Mullin went to the French capital to set up an electronics lab for examining captured German electronic equipment, submitting reports to the Signal Corps and to Allied Intelligence. GIs brought in all kinds of gear, including DC-bias AEG Tonschreiber and Magnetophon tape recorders, which used 6.5mm (slightly more than 11/44-inch wide) acetate and PVC tape moving at 77 cm/s (30.3 ips), with high distortion and a frequency response barely better than a telephone.

By the summer of 1945 the war was over, but Mullin and his team were still investigating German electronics advances, including frequency modulated two-way radios, which Mullin and his engineers experimented with from atop the Eiffel Tower. Unknown to the Allies, the Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft (a German radio network) had already made experimental FM music broadcasts in Berlin in 1942.

In July 1945, Mullin set out with some fellow officers on a fact-finding tour of Germany, which included an unforgettable visit to the subterranean radio and closed-circuit television studios in Hitler's bunker at his Bavarian mountaintop retreat at Berchtesgaden.

Mullin also investigated the remains of a radio transmitter on Feldberg Mountain near Frankfurt. He found little there except a bare antenna tower and a large generator, but at the site Mullin met a British officer who shared his love of good music. The officer told him about the high-fidelity version of the German AEG Magnetophon audio tape recorder, a machine with unbelievable reproduction quality: It had low distortion and a frequency response almost matching human hearing. He told Mullin he could find some Magnetophons at Radio Frankfurt's satellite studio in Bad Nauheim, a small resort town north of Frankfurt.

At the studios, Mullin and his assistant were astonished by the fidelity of the studio Magnetophons. A look at the schematic drawings showed Mullin why the machines performed so well: AC bias in the record circuit. Mullin realized that those poor-sounding Magnetophons back in his lab in Paris could be modified simply by adding AC bias, using the same tape, transports, heads, power supplies, and most of the same record and reproduce electronics.

Mullin obtained permission from the Army to send home, for his own use, two AEG Magnetophon K-4 decks, some spare heads-the one component he knew he could never duplicate in his garage-and 50 reels of blank BASF and AGFA PVC Luvitherm Type-L tape. He only sent home the transports, as he could design and build his own electronics, using plentiful American parts.

HI-FI TAPE IN AMERICA Returning to civilian life in San Francisco in January 1946, the electrical engineer entered into a business partnership with filmmaker/16mm film sound pioneer W.A. (Bill) Palmer, who provided financial and mechanical engineering assistance. Mullin built two sets of record and reproduce electronics with a passive switching bridge between them, similar to the studio setups he'd seen at Bad Nauheim. The 11/44-inch tape reels-identical to today's IEC European-spec flangeless pancakes-held 22 minutes of music at their 77cm/s tape speed. For a half-hour show, he knew he'd have to be able to switch the input and output signals between the two decks.

Mullin's redesign of the Magnetophon electronics resulted in a sonically superior tape recorder, and he and Palmer demonstrated their prototype hi-fi tape machines in May 1946, at the NBC Studios in San Francisco (now KBHK-TV) to members of the Institute of Radio Engineers (now the IEEE). The technology stunned the engineers and technicians, some of whom said they literally could not believe they were hearing a recording and not a live performance.

The audience included several people who would go on to make magnetic recording history, including Harold Lindsay, Walter Selsted, Frank Lennert and Charlie Ginsburg, all later of Ampex. Ginsburg would eventually lead the team that built the world's first commercially successful videotape recorder. The others worked on the groundbreaking Ampex Model 200, America's first professional audiotape deck.

Working with Palmer Films, Mullin designed methods for producing high-quality audio for the pre-production of 16mm films. The engineers built a third tape deck using one of the spare head stacks Mullin brought from Paris, along with their own transport and electronics. The homemade tape deck allowed them to do a final mixdown on 11/44-inch tape, synched to the film for layback to an optical track-a first in the country. Meanwhile, the two modified Magnetophons were used to produce the first U.S. commercial entertainment disc professionally mastered on tape, Songs by Merv Griffin, in 1946.

HOLLYWOOD AND BING CROSBY In October 1946, Mullin and Palmer took their decks to Hollywood, where a demonstration at MGM Studios grabbed the town's attention with a stunningly clear recording of performances by harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler and pianist Jose Iturbi playing with the MGM Symphony Orchestra. Bing Crosby's technical producer, Murdo MacKenzie, heard about the Mullin-Palmer machines and arranged a demo for the singer, his manager and brother Everett Crosby, and the rest of the organization.

Crosby was desperate to find a high-quality audio recording method to produce his show for delayed broadcast. Though live radio was king, he hated live performances and loved the relaxed atmosphere of studio recording. The singer had been broadcasting his weekly NBC half-hour show live from Los Angeles during the 1944-45 season, doing each program twice, once for the East Coast feed and again three hours later for the West Coast. Live radio was an ordeal he wanted to end. When NBC refused to allow Crosby to record his shows on 16-inch "electrical transcription" discs (ETs)-the only option besides the equally dismal-sounding optical-film audio recording-he quit radio for a year.

The arrival of Mullin and Palmer's two modified AEG Magnetophons came at a perfect moment in history. Crosby and his producers decided they would produce Philco Radio Time on the Mullin-Palmer machines, transferring the final mix to a first-generation ET for on-air play. No one trusted tape enough to put it directly on the air, and in any event, there wasn't enough German blank tape to do that. Mullin's tapings would be backed up by ETs in the NBC recording department. Meanwhile, Ampex Corporation had begun building an American version of the Magnetophon, and a number of manufacturers, including 3M and Audio Devices, planned to make blank tape.

Crosby, whose contract with ABC specified that the network provide him with the finest-available recording facilities to time-delay his show, insisted on an agreement with Palmer Films, which would be the sales agent for the Ampex tape recorders. ABC agreed, although with the stipulation that Bing Crosby Enterprises, not Palmer Films, become the exclusive sales agent for Ampex recorders. Crosby invested $50,000 in Ampex, and the deal was made.

Starting in the 1947-48 season, Mullin became Crosby's chief engineer, recording Philco Radio Time on tape, both the dress rehearsal and the "live-to-tape" show. The final mix, transferred to 16-inch ETs for airing, was often an edit of both performances. Mullin's skillful edits created the kind of program pacing that most live radio shows could not achieve. The now-hit Crosby show remained tape-delayed, setting a precedent in broadcast production that remains the norm to this day. Other network radio and recording artists quickly adopted tape to produce their shows and discs, including Burl Ives and Les Paul (who later went on to develop the first multitrack tape recorder). Live broadcasting soon became limited mostly to local disc jockeys spinning the new long-play 33 11/43 and 45 rpm music discs.

MULLIN INSPIRES AMPEX Mullin's two prototype machines proved the feasibility of the new tape technology to Ampex Corporation, a tiny, six-employee company that built small motors and generators for U.S. Navy contracts. Mullin and Palmer assumed that the Army Signal Corps reports from Germany on the Magnetophon would motivate the big U.S. electronics firms to introduce their own professional tape recorders. Strangely, that never happened. Only Col. Richard Ranger of Rangertone in New Jersey tried to build a working prototype of the German technology. Although Ranger later distinguished himself with audiotape decks for motion picture production, his first effort was a failure, opening the door for Ampex. In 1946 in Alabama, J. Herbert Orr-a former major in the Signal Corps-began manufacturing an Fe2O3 (ferric oxide) acetate tape according to a recipe given him by a BASF scientist, but 3M eclipsed his initial products. Orr's Orradio later became Ampex's magnetic tape division, today called Quantegy.

Ampex went on to design and build America's first professional high-fidelity audiotape recorder, the Model 200, which went into service in Hollywood, Chicago and New York on all of the radio networks in the spring of 1948. Mullin and the Crosby show were presented with serial numbers 1 and 2 of the Ampex machine in gratitude for their research and development support. Model 200s were biased for the newly developed 3M Scotch No. 111 tape, which replaced Mullin's dwindling supply of German tape. That same year, other American manufacturers including Magnecord, began building commercial audiotape machines for consumer and pro use. Mullin's pioneering work in America became the basis for many recording industry standards, including the famous NAB equalization curve still in use for analog studio recording.

Ironically, many of Mullin's innovations and modifications made their way back to postwar Europe. When the Germans entered the international tape recorder market in 1950, joined by the Swiss, international marketing pressures led them to adopt most of the technical parameters established by Mullin and put into practice by Ampex, Magnecord and many others, including the 30 ips tape speed (later reduced to 15, 7 11/42 and 3 31/44 ips) and the 11/44-inch (6.35mm) tape width.

THE VIDEO TAPE RECORDER AND DATA TAPE In 1949, as television exploded onto the American entertainment scene, engineers and producers recognized the need for high-quality video recording for delayed broadcast and program editing. At the time, video was captured on poor-quality kinescope recorders, a relatively low-tech, 16mm and 35mm film-based TV recording method. A kine (pronounced "kinnie") was essentially a film camera with a "3-2 pull-down" shutter aimed at the screen of a 30-frames-per-second video monitor, all in a closed box.

Mullin told Crosby that he could do for the singer's budding TV career what he had done in radio, and he could earn a lot of money for Bing Crosby Enterprises in the process. Mullin proposed a magnetic-tape video recorder, which some engineers at the time felt was a theoretical impossibility given video's wide, 6MHz bandwidth. He led the Bing Crosby Enterprises team, assisted by Wayne Johnson, that introduced the world's first working prototype VTR in 1950. Simply called "Crosby Video," the machine used 1-inch tape running past 12-track fixed heads at 100 ips (250 cm/s) with an 8,000-foot-long reel recording 16 minutes of monochrome video. The engineer based the VTR transport on the robust Ampex Model 200. By 1955, Crosby Video recorders had color capability and longer record/playback times using 11/42-inch tape with 3-track heads, but always with fixed heads and high tape speeds.

Mullin's Crosby Video prototypes established engineering principles that became the basis for many professional and consumer audio and data recorders, including the closed-loop capstan that later appeared with great success on 3M's Mincom line of data and professional audio machines, on Ampex data recorders and in many consumer decks. Mullin's Crosby Video machine also spurred Ampex, RCA and the BBC to begin their video development work. Ampex won that race in April 1956 with the world's first practical VTR, the Ampex VR-1000 (the secret was the use of spinning heads past slow-moving 2-inch-wide tape), as well as vestigial-sideband FM recording.

SUCCESS IN RETIREMENT Bing Crosby sold his electronics lab to 3M in 1956, which led to the creation of the Camarillo, Calif.-based 3M Mincom electronics division, a maker of military and civilian data recorders and later professional and consumer audio machines. 3M audio engineers pioneered some of the earliest professional digital audiotape recorders sold commercially. Mullin served as Mincom's chief engineer until his retirement in 1975, when he began a second career teaching, writing and lecturing. He voiced over 2,000 hours of books-on-tape that reside in the national library of Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (www.rfbd.org) and are still nationally distributed.

He created one of the finest collections of historic entertainment technology-radios, recorders, microphones, phonograph and cylinder players, cutting lathes, tapes and discs-which were widely shown at trade shows around the country, including AES functions. A video, An Afternoon with Jack Mullin, based on those shows is available from the AES (www.aes.org). The Mullin museum is now a part of the Pavek Museum of Broadcasting (www.pavekmuseum.org) in St. Louis Park, Minn., near 3M in St. Paul.

Mullin's love of classical music and his support of public radio led to his work as a volunteer engineer and on-air talent at California stations KCPB-FM and KZYX-FM. His tenor voice was well known to local public radio audiences as he played his favorite pieces and offered his views on the art of performance and the history of recording.

Mullin was a fellow and honorary member of AES, a recipient of the Emile Berliner Award, and an elected member of the 3M Carlton Society. He is survived by sons John and Peter, and daughter Eve Collier.






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