You might not think that shopping for a piece of audio equipment would make good material for an anecdote, but this story is of an epic struggle. In 1999 I was making plans to go into CD production, but I needed a digital equaliser to resolve 2 issues. Firstly, I had been recording on digital mini-disc (MD) and needed a way to enhance these recordings. Secondly, I had been thinking about ideas to improve old mono tape archive recordings and to develop a pseudo-stereo technique. I actually knew the technique, but needed digital equipment to achieve it. I had an additional problem with doing digital original recordings: Copy protection systems built into blank digital discs (whether MD or CD-R) included a code to stop you from doing more than 1 generation of digital re-recording. For publishing one's own work, you need 2 generations of re-recording.
Home pc software had not reached an acceptable standard at that time, at least from what I had seen. A separate audio unit also gives a much better user-interface than most pc software and permits real-time re-recording so that settings can be altered by hand as a re-recording progresses.
I was aware that professional studios were using digi-eq machines, but these were very expensive. I needed someone to come out with something more affordable. In 1999 (before I had gone online), I trawled all the audio related shops in Leicester with no success. I gave up until the following year and searched again.
Your (you're?) nuts, m'lord
I visited one of those up-market hi-fi shops where you don't see price labels and are tempted to take your shoes off before entering. I asked the proprietor about digital equalisers. This set him off on an excitable rant. He exclaimed that there is "no such thing as a digital equaliser... such a thing is not possible". He continued "You obviously don't know what a digital signal is. It's a series of 1s and 0s"!!! Good heavens, that was enlightening! Before I could give him a lecture on digital processors (or let him know that electronic computers have been invented already), he got called away to the phone, so I shook my head and left.
I dropped in on my good friends at Leicester's best hi-fi shop, "Leicester Hi-Fi Company" (sadly closed in 2012) and told them my tale. They were not surprised as they had had other customers visit them after run-ins with that other shop and experiencing rudeness. Leic. Hi-Fi advised me to try "Accademy of Sound" who do instruments and professional PA, concert, and other audio bits and pieces.
Accademy of Sound
What a contrast! Three days after that bad experience above, I walked into Accademy of Sound, asked for "a digital equaliser please" and was ushered to the nearest digi eq on display! A newly released piece of kit by Behringer, this was a full digital audio processor. Being a pro machine, it was designed to be functional rather than the usual hi-fi trends in style. Just the job! To be exact, it was the Behringer Ultra-Curve Pro DSP8024. DSP=digital signal processor. But hang on, where are the digital connectors on the back? Ah... only analogue connectors, because this machine is used mostly on stage equipment rather than studio post-production. However, an additional digital interface card was available for a trifling £80 extra. And the shop had such a card in stock at their head office.
I'd like digital connectors on my digital machine...
A few days later, I returned to see that they had installed the interface for me, but found that its connectors were professional XLR 3-pin balanced items. Hmmmm, yet another issue to resolve. I staggered home on the bus weighed down with my shopping. I made up an adaptor lead for XLR to RCA to use on the output side, since one of my MD decks had a coax input (RCA connector). For the input of the digi-eq, I bought an optical TOSlink connector and got a friend to wire it in.
I tried it out and it did not work properly at all. Back to the shop and the guy there needed to phone Behringer in Germany, but didn't want to ("don't like Germans" said he! More setbacks!). He suggested that the digital card may have been an older version. After a couple of weeks he did finally get confirmation of this and then it took another 2 weeks for a small package to wing its way over to the UK with a new card.
To prevent my arms from getting even longer, I persuaded the shop to allow me to take the card home and swap it over, without losing the warranty. I tried the machine again and... it sort of, more or less worked. But not completely! The sound went through, but I could not record between my 2 MD decks.
S/P-DIF to AES/EBU
Another bonus of pro equipment is that you get a big and informative manual. Domestic kit manuals usually have pages of warnings not to put your hi-fi in the dishwasher, and then tell you that it can't play "non musical data". Want a bet?! My Behringer manual revealed that the digital code used for machines to communicate by (via wire or fibre-optic links) was different between professional and domestic. Domestic machines use the S/P-DIF code while pro machines use AES/EBU code. They are almost the same, but not quite. It looked like my problems were getting progressively bigger!
Digital convertor machines were available, but would I need 2 of them (for the input and output)? The manual said that some domestic machines will work without conversion and it is a matter of trying. I found that the input did indeed work. So, back to Accademy of Sound to order a Behringer digi convertor (even more expense!). Finally, 2 months after purchasing the equaliser, I had a set up that worked fully and excellently. Possibly also the most complicated network of leads and fibre optics to be found at the back of a stereo system! The digital convertor also has lots of pretty coloured lights which is most important when showing off to visitors :)
Not one to take abuse lightly, I then wrote a letter to the proprietor of the shop who had been so offensive, arrogant and ignorant. Having been told that there was no such thing as a digital equaliser, and such thing is not possible, I delighted in letting him know that it only took me 3 more days to find one! I also gave a copy of the letter to the nice gents at Leicester Hi-Fi Company which they found hilarious.
A few years later, Behringer brought out a less expensive machine complete with optical connectors. It must be a bit boring just ordering kit and having it work straight away!
The proof is in the listening
Equalising my MD original recordings was an easy task with this set-up. Enhancing my old mono tape recordings was a bigger challenge, but a rewarding one. Then adding my secret recipe for a pseudo-stereo effect that makes it sound like real stereo, brought my dusty old tape recordings to life. Since then, I've given a new lease of life to old recordings by other enthusiasts. It's a slow process, but it is lovely to see the expression on the recordist's face when he hears the improvement. It also helps to bring rare and nostalgic archive sounds to more people who can appreciate them. Westerns, class 25s, etc. in BR service. Semaphore signals. Real station announcers!