Updated: Jun 7, 2020
The following is a transcript of my conversation, in Episode 9 of the Press Play> podcast, with Steve Fensome. He has created and excellent new product for Studer A810 and A812 machines: The MPU card. They are available for sale in eBay, via his Facebook page and also on his website Studer-MPU-boards.com. I started by asking Steve about his involvement with tape-recorders.
Steve Fensome It's purely a passion, which has been for ever since I can remember really, as a kid, always messing around with stuff like that. In my professional background, I'm a heating engineer by trade. I've always got my head stuck in a boiler that's not behaving itself. This is just something that I do for pure joy. And I've done it for so many years now, when I left school, I did work for a local electronics firm that made opto electronic devices for press machinery. So I lapped-up a lot of information from that, the electronics and everything. But it's something that's just a passion really Iain Betson For me, it started off playing around with Dad's hi fi. Steve I'd say the same. Yeah, exactly the same anything mechanical, electromechanical, as a child, I got my fingers in it, whether I should have or not. All I remember, from a very young age. I think through some of my teenage years I probably have a misspent youth playing around and stuff like that instead of being out, but I made up for in the later years, so to speak. Iain So you've got a collection of machines now? Steve Yeah, too many actually.Well, actualIy I'm not so much in the domestic stuff anymore, rather than the professional now, but of course, as you know, stuffs getting it's very scarce now. And it's getting beyond the reach of most hobbyist people. I've got a few identical models, Studers mainly, and a few domestic machines. A couple of A810s in different states of repair. Iain When we first started communicating, because you're on so many of the groups on Facebook, we got in a conversation about the BBC lineup tapes and where you went to collect one of the Studers from. Tell me about that. Steve This guy in Manchester. An amazing bloke. He had two floors of an old cotton mill in Manchester. Absolutely massive. It was full of video equipment, ex BBC, ex ITV. Video machines and recording equipment on first floor and on the second floor was mainly reel-to--reel tape stuff. And I did I meet up with him at the end of his period there really. He said to me, "I wish I knew you a couple of years ago because he had so much stuff that he had tried to get rid of and couldn't." It was like wow! I got an A812 that done 250 hours. Wow, that's all it has done. I couldn't believe the head was like new on it. It had got the hour meter on the back. It was well, amazing. Iain How long ago was this? Steve 2016/2015, it was probably just on the cusp of the interest. You know, Iain I detected last couple of years, interest in the format has kind of gone vertical. And people obviously going after desirable machines. But you know, I thought the way you were talking, with a warehouse full of this stuff, it was probably 2005 because, frankly, you couldn't give some of that stuff away then. Steve That's right. It probably was a little bit earlier than that. It was around that sort of time, you know, Iain So this guy, as you said, Yorkshire TV and the BBC, he would have been collecting all the cast-offs from the broadcasters? Steve Yeah, yeah. Getting rid of it around that kind of time. Iain So you've got an A812 off him. You said there were other machines there as well. What was there? Give me an idea. Steve Okay, there was an 24 track A800 sitting there Iain You should have taken that! Steve Oh no, I kick myself now, things I've turned down over the years now. But when stuff's plentiful you think that you just cherry pick. You're not thinking ahead 10 years this is gonna be desirable. He told me he was having three lorries a week delivering stuff to this place. Where he was getting it, through auctions or whether he'd got a contract with someone to get rid of this stuff, I don't know. I've never seen so many A807s in my life. Like a lot of soldiers lined up in a row, out the trolleys standing up there. That must have been 25 to 30, probably more, all lined up. Iain I like the A807, it's a simple but sophisticated machine. Steve Yeah, that's right. It's a lot better than people make it out to be, and the different ones that there are. I used to pick those up for 100 quid you know. I've a couple here as playback. That was ex BBC with the plate on the front where you'd ring the number if it goes wrong. So yeah, it was amazing place. To be fair it's a fair old truck for me from Northampton to Manchester and he actually rang me before the lease of the building was up and he had got a load of chassis that we weren't much left on them, there might have been a few motors attached and trolleys and he said, did I want them? I said, I'd love to, but I couldn't get up there to pick it up. So what happened I don't know. I'd imagine it went for scrap. I did go up there to get an A80 off of him, and when we got there the lift had packed up and you couldn't it downstairs. Iain Nobody was brave enough to come down the stairs with it? Steve Yeah, the stairs were like pitch black. Some guys were doing some electric work in the street and electric was off, so the lift was out. He delivered it to me in the end. I think the days are over for bargains. Iain I agree. I think it's two sides, really. People have got to be realistic at what they're expecting to pay for a machine but the flip side, I'm also seeing people selling these machines who are being completely unrealistic in what they expect for them. As you just said earlier in our conversation, you're steering clear of domestic machines and it's with regret on my website I've had to say I don't do domestic machines. Anyone knows I love them, but the point is, you're gonna get perhaps, even for a pristine one, 300 pounds, $300 for something like that. But that doesn't reflect on the price that you might have bought, even a junker for 10 pounds, $10, and it's someone's time and effort to strip it down, clean it, it needs parts, and it's just not financially viable. And it's getting to the point now where people want pristine B77s and they're getting to the point where you realize, if you think you're not going to make money on this if you sell it. If you're stepping up to an A810 you can spend, and let's be brutally honest about this, you could spend like $2,000 or so to fix these machines and you still get a profit at the end of it. But you're right, even the A807 is starting to borderline there. You know so it's a shame, but people got to realize the price of these machines going up and what they worth at the end of it. Steve That's right. Yeah, yeah, too many out there want ridiculous money and sadly, I did have a Technics RS 1700 at some point, which was a great machine and a guy from Poland, he was so keen he was he came all the way from Poland and picked it up. Amazing. You know, I mean, it's a great machine but at the end of the day it's a 4 track that, yeah, don't get me wrong, it's nice. But if you're looking for that little bit of extra, you know, you're really going with a two track. Iain Fantastic machines to look at. Steve Oh god yeah. Iain As a piece of, sort of, mechanical architecture. Steve Oh yeah lovely and pretty, you know. And some of the Akai GX range that's either 747 and I've still got a 646 somewhere, sorry a 636, and to look at, they're absolutely lovely. Iain I try and get the podcast away wholly from Studer Revox, but let's admit it, they are dominant in the industry. But they never really went in for too much of the bling, whereas the Pioneer, with all their blue LEDs and that nice aluminium, they looked lovely. Steve Yeah, they were built for both performance and looks, to catch that market. Iain So what do you use your machines for now? Steve It's just pleasure really. I haven't managed to persuade the wife to let me have an A80 in the front room. So in my listening room, as I call it, I've got an A810 and an A812, in a tall rack, which I use to listen on. So the A80s are in the workshop, and I just record on them now again, from digital or a high res file or something like that. Just for fun, really, I mean, and it makes amazing recordings, as you know. That's about all the use they get. Iain Do you collect tapes, pre recorded tapes? Steve I don't to be honest, I've got a few BBC stuff kicking around, some classical stuff that I picked up which sounded quite good, but I don't collect and I certainly don't buy any of these, I don't know whether you have ever heard of these people that are doing... Iain The alleged master tapes? There are some good and honourable record companies out there doing straight to tape and tape masters. I mean, good examples probably are STS and Chasing The Dragon, they're honourable and great quality. It's audiophile stuff. But I agree with you, when you're hearing of 1-to-1 master tapes from the Beatles. You think, yeah, right. Interesting that your listenership of these machines falls into exactly what I do, in that I actually just like the pressing play and seeing all the stuff work, and seeing that tape move. What it plays, sometimes I don't really care! Steve I'm the same here. I'm exactly the same. Yeah, I know. Iain I know some people like the analogue sound, fair enough. And that's it. It's so great about this hobby that the different sort of levels that people sort of approach it at. Steve Yeah. A lot like sound like you. As long as it's decent. I can listen to anything if it's a decent recording in the first place, then I'll listen to it, whatever it is, I mean, there's so many so called decent recordings out there that are terrible. And the stuff that's being churned out over the last, you could probably say, 20 years. Some of the recordings are absolutely dire, quality wise. So anything that's been recorded well, I'll listen to it. Iain And if you're playing it back on an A80 or an A812... Steve Yeah, even better. Yeah. Iain Ohhh that's fighting talk there! Are you saying the A812 is better than the A80?! Steve No, not at all. It's different. Yeah.Some people don't like the sound of the A812, it sounds a bit too clinical for them. I personally like it for playback. I don't record on it. But it's preferential taste in the end of the day. You know, Iain Do you ever get that fear though that you are playing it back, or you're recording, and you're like, "I'm grinding my heads down. I'm wearing the heads down!" Steve Oh, yeah! Because the market for heads is so dried up at the moment. It's gone, basically, you know. If anybody has got any Studer heads for sale, well, you could get two machines for the price that want for it, you know, 10 years ago. Yes, I do. Especially on the A812. I keep thinking "I need to take the record cards out. I need to take the HF driver cards out. I need to take the record head off it." But I haven't, I haven't done it, but because you think well you're just wearing the record headout and never use it. Why not just turn it into a playback machine? It does bother me. Yeah. But I think, at the end of the day, the heads I've got are pristine so it's like, they probably outlive us anyway, you know, the amount of use they get. Iain That's a good way of looking at it. One of the reasons why I wanted to get you onto the podcast was because of a post you put way back, a good few months, you've been posting on the various groups, about a new A810 MPU card. Is it just for the A810? Steve And the A812. Iain You've been developing this? I mean, is it now a product? Steve It is. Right. Okay. It originally started with, I had an A812 that I picked up, that was sold to me as spares or repairs. And basically it was in way too good condition to scrap it. Basically someone robbed the cards out of it, just the audio cage and the capsule motor control card, but the other the other stuff was all in there. So I scoured the internet for MPU card, for an A812 or an A820, or whatever, it is basically the same. I couldn't find one anywhere. And if I did find one, I remember now, some miles away wherever, they wanted about 900 quid for it. Iain I think for our listeners here, who don't know the foibles of the StuderA810, '12, '20 MPU card, I would say, of all the parts on those machines it is the thing that's most likely to get trashed now because of battery leakage. Steve
Oh yeah, because of the battery. Especially the A810. Iain These cards have got batteries on them. They've been what, minimum 30 years old now, they're leaking, and you can see it's all leaked out and in some cases, I've seen boards where it's stripped the tracks off, it's just completely absolutely toasted the board. As a consequence they are now quite rare, you get a machine that hasn't got battery leakage damage on it. Steve So in the end I thought, well hold on a minute. We've done projects like this before, let's have a look at it and, as I've said, I think about stuff for way too long a time, by the time I've made my decision you can forget it, but I thought about it for a while and then I thought "oh okay that we can do this". So we had to sacrifice the MPU card out of the good, working, 812, which believe me, when you're sitting there de-soldering it and cleaning it all off, this better work, yeah! So there you are, with a blank card, and all the tracks intact, because you've been so careful. You know, you're cutting the IC sockets off with a pair of side cutters then pulling each pin out one by one. It's like, yeah! That's what I did, and then scan that into the computer and build the PCB up from that and then send it off and got that made. And then when they come back, obviously put it together and hey, presto, there you go. Not quite as easy as that, but sourcing the components, so while we thought of doing the 812, so a hold on, A810s, they're the same, they're even worse than the others because you got the rechargeable batteries on the A810. So, I had a spare one anyway, kicking about. So we did the same with that, got some of those made up. And that's how it came about really. Iain You are a brave man! Some of the components on those boards are still readily available. Obviously IC sockets and descrete components, but you are talking about EEPROMS on there that need burning. That need their brain installed into them. How did you go about sourcing and doing that? Steve Right. I think one of the hardest components to source on there was a good supply of genuine, you got to make this clear now, genuine components. There's a lot of hooky stuff out there. So I think one of the hardest was getting the MPU processor, but I did source some in the end somebody got 130 of them, genuine Motorola ones. They had to be genuine. So we was okay with that. So I picked them up. And now the EEPROMS, 2764s I think, if I remember right now. Yeah, they were a bit more difficult but there was a guy who I got in touch with for some EEPROMS for the 812 which I think has 128s in them. And he had some new old stock of those and they are new, and it's like I couldnt believe it, about about 80 of them. So we managed to get them so basically scouring the country for stuff and then you've got to burn them. So yeah, I've got an old fashioned EEPROM burner that we use. So, as long as you've got the check-sums for the software, which is readily available on the internet, it will tell you the check sums of different software versions, as long as you've got a good set to copy, get them up onto the computer and then just burn them off, one-by-one basically. And away you go. Iain So you scoured the world but the sound of it, you've got sort of 130 of this and 80 of that. Is it a finite resource that you've got, or do you think you will continue to search? It strikes me then, if you've got 80 of one and 130 of the other, you've got 80 say full cards you can create but are you looking for other devices? Steve Yes. Oh, yeah. I mean, RAM chips are another one, trying to get the static RAM chips it's quite difficult to find genine ones again, I emphasize genuine. I did get some that they said were genuine and it's like, they don't like it and of course they play up, so you know, might work okay for a couple of days and you'll come in switch machine on and it will give you EE 01. Oh great! Here we go, lost all this memory. So yeah, I've learned to tell now for looking at it straight away. I think well, that's genuine or that's not genuine, you get a feel for it. So I've got quite a few of them, but I'm actively looking all the time to see if there's anything else. I mean, I suppose a real, real last resort, I wouldn't want to really do it, but you could recycle the EPROMS. A lot of people will sell socket-pulls and I reckon they're in good nick. You can test them, you know, as long as they've been handled all right, but I wouldn't really want to do that. To be fair. I test them for four or five hours in a machine over a period of a week maybe, you know, on and off, on and off, and you know, straightaway, if it's going to be okay, once it's in, if it works first time it's gonna be okay. 9 times out of 10 you never have one that doesn't, you know. If it's not gonna work, it's not gonna work first time. So yeah, all good stuff, as I say. Iain So you've now got a viable product for, you mentioned A812 and A810? And you get that A820s as well? Steve Well the A820 MPU is the same as the 812 Iain Yes, the same electronics at the A820 same transport as the A810. Yeah, a bit of a hybrid. Steve So they are, yeah, it's half and half, the A812. Half A810 and half A820. And A816 I think as well. But the MPU cards for the '12 are the same for the audio MPU in an A820. And it's main MPU, just different software, different jumper settings. But I've never had the chance obviously, to try it, because, I haven't got an A820! Iain So you've got these cards now and they're available to buy now? Steve They are, yeah, they are. Yeah, I mean, I've got about 18 in stock ready to go. And I've probably sold about the same amount already as well, I would think. And what's happened now, because they're starting to go, we've actually put the price down, a bit more realistic. Iain I was about to asks that. How much are they? Steve They're £295.00 now. Originally they are a bit more than that. And at the end of the day, I mean £295.00, if it's going to bring your A810 back to life, it's nothing is it? Iain I think that's excellent. Well, when you think I've paid 400 pounds for a Spooling Motor Control Board on an A810 before because I had to get it, that's a fantastic price. So that really is great. And, you're selling these internationally are you? It's 295 obviously, UK pounds but? Steve UK pounds Yes. Yeah, they go all over the place, to be fair, ones have sold already. There's been quite a few actuallyin the UK. China. America Iain You must have sold some back to Switzerland. Please say that! Steve You know, I haven't. Or I have I?! We've gone Hong Kong. We've gone to Surrey, China, London, Singapore. Iain How are people finding out about it? I mean, your website? Steve I haven't got a website, just on the Studer (Facebook page). And they're on eBay as well. Iain People if you're listening to this podcast please get in touch with me. You can find my details on Reel Resilience.co.uk, you can find me on Facebook. And like I'm talking to Steve here about items that people are creating for tape-machines, we've spoken about Studer Revox quite a lot, but it doesn't matter if you're making for any other manufacturer, or even if it's just accessories that are across the board, such as spools, there's a guy in America and I've tried to drop him a line to say you know, you're making these beautiful spools with all lovely aluminum etching and that kind of thing, you know, let's get in touch, let's talk. So making these parts for machines we love, please drop me a line and we can talk like Steve and I'd happily plug your products you know. So, you're making this card any other ideas for the future, because obviously put a lot of hours into this MPU board. Any other things, such as a Spooling Motor Control Board, Capstan Motor Control Board? Steve The spooling motor control board is quite a troublesome bit of kit, but there's no plans at this present moment in time to look at that. It's just getting the components, some of the components on some of this stuff is difficult. And I've found on some of the cards that they're quite fussy about what replaces something, not just a matter of thinking, yes, this is an equivalent, according to the datasheet it should do, because, 9 times out of 10, it doesn't work, or it doesn't work as it was intended to without changing dozens of other components. So, if you going to do something, make sure you can get everything and you can make it work as it should. I mean, I was thinking about this the other day, I mean the next lot, we might even get rid of the charging circuit altogether on the A810 card and just put a lithium in and then you haven't got no trouble with the battery leaking in 10 years time or anything like that. But I'd like to think, if someone goes to bother of puttting a new card in, then they'll be keeping their eye on that, or I say, check it every 12 months if you're not using the machine, like if it says that they hate being sat there doing nothing. Iain This is actually an issue I have with, especially with professional users, studios that you know, the reason why tape is lifted off, is off the back of the vinyl revival. And I'm getting studios going oh, we want to use their tape machine again. And I think that what you've got there is like a vintage car. Like an Aston Martin, like a beautiful Ferrari. You've left it in a garage for 20 years with a sheet over the top of it, you now want to just get it out on a sunny Sunday, or whatever, and take it for a spin expecting it to work perfectly, and it doesn't. These machines are electromechanical devices and the oil dries out and the grease goes solid, the batteries go flat on the later machines. You got to run these machines, you got to take them out. Steve Yeah, I mean I done some at the weekend, I'll just run a couple just to the fact that haven't been run for a while. My wife says "Why have you got those running?" And I say they're just running, because they need to be run, you know. Iain On the first podcast I did my guest was Stuart Blacklock, if you've seen Stuart's collection. And he admits himself, he'll fix the machine and it's running perfectly, but by the time you can cycle, he's got about I don't know, Stuart I'm sure you can correct me on this, 400 machines? By the time could cycle all that lot you know you're back to square one. Steve Not a bad hobby is it? You can go around in circle. Iain Or find space for 400 machines! But yeah, you gotta just you run them because they hate being left. Steve That's right. Yeah, worst thing you can do. worst thing you can do with it. Yeah, yeah. So that's where we're at with them. So they're our they are up and running. And if anybody wants them, then I can look on eBay or they can drop me an email or through the Studers Users group or something like that. Iain One quick question. You said "we". Is it just you? Steve Well, we is me! It is only me, so I do everything. Yeah, I put them together when we test them. And we do this and we do that, just one man in his workshop doing what he likes doing basically. Iain Can't go wrong with that, one man in his workshop. Steve Even in this difficult time now. I mean, I'll spend a lot of time up here, which is good. But I did say to my wife I don't really want to get to the stage where I'm going up the worshop because I have nothing else to do, because I come up, because I want to come up here. I don't come up because I've got to. So if I ever get sort of feeling like I don't want to go up, you know, then it will be a pretty sad really, but if everything turns out nice and we can get back to normal. Iain Let's just dwell on the nice things of just putting tape on that machine. You are lacing it up. And you press play, and it all goes "clunk". And then you see that 15 ips. We are in heaven. Steve Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. I couldn't agree with you more. Iain Steve. Thanks very much. It's been fantastic talk to you. This card's on eBay, or you can find them on the Studer Users Groups. There's no website, but if that's the way you're selling them, then that's the way you're selling them. And yeah, I urge you if you've got an A810 or an A812. Go to Steve if you need a replacement MPU card because it certainly sounds, I take my hat off due to the effort you've gone to producing, effectively, a brand new, retro, call it what you will, card for these machines, great! That you've done it. And had the guts to take apart a working MPU card as well. Steve Well, yeah, what's the worst thing that can happen, it ends up in the bin! Yeah. It's been. It's been great talking to you, Iain, Really nice. Iain Thank you very much. It's been wonderful talking to you. Steve Yeah, goodbye to you. Thank you.