MCI

MCI

Introduction

One of the things about designing professional audio consoles and recorders for studios is that you need to have experienced life in a real recording studio from a user's point of view before you can ask the question "How can I make things better?".

Early recording studio technology battled after the discovery of the tape recorder in Germany at the end of the Second World War.  Until then, the highest quality sound recording technology available to the rest of the world was the optical sound track used in movies.  This was a poor quality medium, with limited frequency response, very poor high frequency headroom, high background noise and extreme difficulty in making reliable duplicates.  Ironically, this limited technology forced sound engineers to refine recording techniques such as subtle EQ, compression and de-essing.  Since the advent of talking movies, the movie industry gained much experience in these areas and many 1930's movie sound tracks sound amazingly good, considering the shocking quality of the medium we are listening to them through.

As fledgling ¼" mono tape recording got underway, the movie industry started using magnetically coated sprocketted film for their sound production work.  These machines were either mechanically or electrically locked together when mixing down the sound.  On a big film mix there might have been 20 - 30 mono "dubbers" (repro only machines), the master recorder and the projector locked together.  In a sense, these film studios resembled a giant multitrack recorder!  Later, it became common practice to record onto a special 3 track 35mm machine.  Each track was a standard ¼" width and the speed was approximately 18 inches per second.  In those days of mono sound, these tracks were used for dialogue, music and effects.  Later, a final balance of these three stems would be done at the optical mastering stage.

With the advent of stereo tape recorders in the late 1950's, music recording engineers began to see the possibilities of multitrack recording.  Movies were released with stereophonic sound, with left, centre and right speakers behind the stage.  It was inevitable that some 3-track film equipment would find its way into music studios.  Hence the advent of the 3-track ½" tape format.  Suddenly, the complexity of studios began to increase.

Throughout this period, engineers became aware that the distortion, noise and unreliablitity of valve gear was a problem as signal path complexity increased.  Solid state technology offered potentially superior performance, massive space savings, power savings and virtually unlimited life expectancy.  However, early solid state designs often had their own problems such as limited headroom due to their much lower operating voltage, sensistivity to operating temperature and distinctly different characteristics to valves.  Purists were quick to point out that even though a solid state product may specify a lower overall total harmonic distortion figure, it may still sound worse, due to the different distortion component makeup.  However, if the THD figure is low enough, that arguement does not apply.

The significance of sound quality issues can be illustrated by comparing the superb quality of some early 1960's recordings which were recorded virtually "all up" to two or three tracks using minimal microphones and equipment with some late 1960's recordings like Jimi Hendrix who made extensive use of tape delays and track bouncing.

 

The history of MCI

In the late 1950's Grover C. "Jeep" Harned, who went on to found MCI Inc in 1965, did major work at the brand new Criteria Studios on their custom-built valve 16 x 3 console which was initially found to have 20% THD and ½" 3-track recorders to improve their sound quality.  He remained friends with Mack Emerman who owned and built Criteria Studios - responsible for a massive string of hits over the following decades from artists like Eric Clapton, The Bee Gees, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, The Allman Brothers and Bob Marley.

Jeep later built a custom recording console for King Studio in Cincinnati, so impressed was owner Syd Nathan with the Criteria Harnard-modified console.  This console had no model number.  He also began building retrofit audio cards for Ampex 300 machines and later complete machines from surplus transports from Cape Caneveral.

In 1968, MCI built the audio electronics for the world's first 24-track machine - an Ampex 300 modified by Tom Hiddley to take 2" tape.

Around that time, Jeep was contacted by renowned engineer Tom Dowd, who was associated with Atlantic Records.  Together, they designed a new console for Atlantic's New York studios that was to revolutionize console design.  This console became known as the JH-400.  Another notable person involved with the design of the JH-400 was Dave Harrison, who later went on to become Harrison consoles, taking with him some of the worst features of the JH-400 (noteably the status switching system), whilst MCI moved on...

MCI grew from the roots of the recording industry, from the ground up.  Their designs always strived to improve sound quality.  In addition, they were responsible for many technical inovations in both their consoles and tape machines.

As opposed to making custom consoles built to spec like older Neve and API consoles, MCI took a more mass-produced approach, offering standard models with options.

The JH-500 series was first introduced in 1975 and whilst conceptually based on the JH-400, it was much bigger and added many refinements.  The JH-500 was the world's first automated console.

The JH-400B was released shortly after the JH-500 and is basically a JH-400 retrofitted with the ARMS automation system.  These consoles were only manufactured for a while, before being replaced by the 600 series consoles.

The JH-600 series was a totally new transformerless design, including many of the JH-500 features in a more compact frame with automation.  They were relatively low priced and many people did not realise just how good this desk was sonicly.  However many engineers agree that this was the cleanest sounding console of all.  The JH-24 series tape recorders released around the same time were also transformerless.

Unfortunately, things didn't go well for MCI with the JH-600 console.  There was an early shipment of 18 desks which were reluctantly rushed into Australia to beat an upcoming import duty increase before they were ready.  MCI had to send technicians to Australia to work on them after they were delivered!  There were some problems with the board layout resulting in cross-talk between the channel busses.  This didn't bother the music studios too much, but made them unacceptable for broadcast applications.  MCI ended up replacing all of the modules in all of these desks free of charge - it must have cost them a fortune.  Someone ended up doing a deal with MCI and ended up modifying the old modules and putting them into new frames.  You can recognise these desks by their "honeydew" coloured modules.  Many studio owners perceived these desks as being too cheap and too physically small to be taken seriously and sales were disappointing.

One cannot help but speculate that there must have been a JH-700 on the drawing board - a big brother for the JH-600 to replace the now ageing JH-500.  Perhaps the closest thing we ever saw to that realisation was the SSL consoles.

MCI released a 3" 32 track analogue tape machine.  I never saw one in this country and would hate to think what it would have been like trying to lift a 15" roll of 3" tape on and off a machine - you would need an engine hoist!

It is also rumoured that MCI was working on a digital tape recorder and this was one of the reasons why Sony who was also working on a digital machine bought them out.

In 1982, Jeep sold his company to Sony and retired.  Although Sony continued to market re-badged machines for a while at a reduced price to try to compete with the cheaper products now on the market and even went on to design their own products in this area, the MCI era was over.

The day Jeep retired was the day the evolution of analogue audio technology came to an end.

 

What makes MCI different?

MCI was based in Fort Laudidale in Miami and was not afraid to take advantage of the surrounding space industry manufacturers for high precision components such as the capstan motor assembly for the tape machines.  They utilised large high quality double-sided plated through hole circuit boards in place of hand wired smaller boards in expensive metal boxes like Neve consoles, resulting in a genuine manufacturing cost reduction.  I suspect that many people dismissed MCI products unfairly when comparing them to Neve and Studer products, based soley on their appearance.  But MCI products have stood the test of time, outliving entire generations of newer technologies such as DAT machines.  The use of larger high quality audio coupling capacitors resulted in much longer life than newer more component-crammed products which ran hotter.

MCI products were a technician's dream!  Except for special metal and mechanical parts, most components were intentionally chosen to be available "off the shelf" at electronics parts suppliers - at least in the USA at the time.  They were designed for maximum servicability.  For example, the power supplies for consoles and tape machines had removeable "chimney" assemblies which consisted of a fan, heatsinks and electronic circuitry for these high power regulators, making it possible to work on the things whilst the machine was running.  Virtually every area of the tape machines are fully accessible, in most cases without even the need for a screwdriver.  And of cause, the consoles were fully modular, with extender boards enabling them to be worked on whilst running.  These measures directly translate to dramatically reduced down time when something goes wrong.  No other audio manufacturer ever came close in this regard.

MCI did not uneccessarilly introduce new models, rendering previous models obsolete.  Instead, they were constantly improving their existing products by adding retrofit assemblies where necessary to enable users to keep their older units fully up to date.  You could even buy complete kits to update your 8-track to a 16 or 24 track.

- Colin Abrahams


Contents

  1. MCI JH-400 Series consoles