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Jeff Wexler

old mixer from an old mixer

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Bruce Bisenz, one of my oldest sound mixer friends, retired 3 years ago and so is no longer using this custom mixing panel he designed and had built. Bruce had a long and interesting career having done such films as "Norma Rae", "Personal Best", "Purple Rain", and "Tequila Sunsrise". This mixer was last used by Bruce on the film "Without Limts" in 1998. Here is Bruce's description of the panel:

Everything was designed during the 2 track era to make it possible to precision equalize wireless mics/lavaliers (first with my custom nominal curve) and then to trim individually so that lav sound would be a dead match for the fishpole mic.   Also to route various mics and (equalized) mixes to up to 4 tracks.

The electronics are almost all Nagra cards (1st used by D.M.R.) and clones of those circuits on special circuit cards.  The, then, retail price of just

the switches exceeds $1000 and of course there are 100's of hours of design, fabrication and testing.

The graphic & program equalizers were modified by the incredible "Mr. Bennett" who rewound new coils and respected the frequencies.  Note the

center frequency plate of the Altec Graphic.  It was converted from 1.5 octave centers to full octave centers spanning just 125 to 8KHZ for the

ultimate in precision dialogue EQ.  There was another squarish box which contained monitoring, power and audio switching as well as a 2nd Graphic EQ. There were also 2 "Dog Houses" to mount and connect various accessories (Comtect Base, Wireless, CD etc, etc).

All this stuff rode on "RoseMary's Baby" carriage or the Queen Mary to some others.  FYI I still have the original Kart which will mount a table on top (or not) and will roll through a 28" door.  It has pneumatic go kart wheels (spare bearings etc) and I will sell it for a ridiculously low price.

post-1-130815073697_thumb.jpg

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That is an amazing thing.  I guess all the metering he needed was in the Nagra?  Interesting idea, a general

lav EQ with more trim EQ by channel.  What are the sliders over on the left for?  They remind me of the old Langevin board EQs, one for freq and one for peak and dip.    This should in the mic collection display case @ Location Sound Corp..  The CAS should put it on the cover of the journal.    Did it run on 12V?

Philip Perkins

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Guest repete86   
Guest repete86

Wow!  That's beautiful.  I wish I had the knowledge to do something like that.

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That is an amazing thing.  I guess all the metering he needed was in the Nagra? 

Philip Perkins

I think Bruce was a user of Stellavox SP recorders, which incidentially were time code ready (in 1971) with the interchangable headstack (two track with 2mm centertrack).  If I am not mistaken, Bruce was the one who came up with using a Denecke SB-2 as a TC source for the Stella.  ---    Rob Braxton

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Bruce Bisenz is an amazing, unique person who developed many unconventional ways of doing things. He was one of the few who used the Stellavox recorder which in many ways was a much more versitile and capable recorder compared to the mainstream and widely used Nagra recorders. The Stellavox was a very quirky machine though, much as the Aaton cameras, requiring very special attention and little or no factory support in the US. I was fortunate enough to do one documentary in 1974 where I used a Stellavox. My good friend Gerry Feil from New York had done everything from serving as the sound mixer and picture editor on the original "Lord of the Flies" to Directing and Producing major documentaries, owned a Stellavox and several Aaton cameras. I was able to get very familiar with both at that time.

I don't remember when the Nagra I-S came out (and probably most of you have never even heard of that model) but it is widely believed that Kudelski came out with that machine just so no one could say Nagra did not have a machine as small as the Stellavox. I owned a Nagra I-S too, of course, but never did purchase a Stellavox.

Regards,  Jeff Wexler

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tsmyles   

Hey Rob!

Bruce had Stellavoxes... as do I still (my two SP8s are operational but, sadly, not used these days, and my original SP7, that I often used for location music scoring jobs, became the sacrificial parts lamb).  I never asked Bruce about this but I believe I was the first (among the Stellavox "crowd") to modify the Deneke tc generator to run with my Stellavox SP7.  Annndddd, I was the first one to modify the original Deneke slate which ran on C batteries and didn't have an integral generator.  I modified it to run on 4 9 volt batteries (two in series and then these two pair  in parallel for 18 volts) and I disassembled my other generator and mounted in on the back of the slate in the space gained.  Then Mike Deneke looked at it and said "Hmmm.  Very interesting".  And guess what the next version of his slate looked like??!!  Except for the use of AA batteries, the same arrangement as I had come up with.

The Stellavox was, and is a marvelous machine.  It was perfect for low profile documentaries because you could more easily hide it.  I walked around the open air market in Dahran, Saudi Arabia with it under my jacket while we were clandestinely shooting there. Could never have done that with a Nagra.  The drawbacks were the fact that it would only take 5 inch reels and that I NEVER found a reliable service facility here.  I sent it to Switzerland several times but that got old.  I wound up, by necessity, being my own tech after a particularly bad experience with a fellow here in LA who completely messed the alignment up.  Changing tape types was a pain.  At least a day with changing out individual components mounted on the head stacks and listening to "Ampex Standard Alignment Tape......")

It had universal mic power supplies and six inputs (2 mic, 2 line, 2 mixer) and my SP7 could record at 3 3/4, 7.5, 15 and 30(!!!) ips (about 3 minutes run time on a 5" reel).  It didn't have the rewind "gearshift" that the Nagra has.  Every transport function (except fast forward) was done on the front function knob.

Other drawback was that I couldn't hand it over to just anybody if I needed to replace myself...

My SP7, which I acquired in 1978, was used in the stereo timecode mode from 1992 until about 1997 when I got my first of two SP8s. My SP7 was built in 1970... long before Nagra came out with even the 4ST.

Supposedly Stevie Wonder had an SP7 and used it to record his daughter for the opening of "Isn't She Lovely".

Where are those crazy geniuses today???

Tony

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The drawbacks were the fact that it would only take 5 inch reels

Tony

There actually was an option that could be special ordered from Stellavox to allow the use of 10 1/2" reels! Not that you would ever be able to put that over the shoulder and conceal it, but it was offered for the purposes of making concert recordings. I have no idea how many were ever ordered or delivered --- since it was a special order item I imagine they did not even build it until someone ordered one.

Regards,  Jeff Wexler

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There actually was an option that could be special ordered from Stellavox to allow the use of 10 1/2" reels! Not that you would ever be able to put that over the shoulder and conceal it, but it was offered for the purposes of making concert recordings. I have no idea how many were ever ordered or delivered --- since it was a special order item I imagine they did not even build it until someone ordered one.

Regards,  Jeff Wexler

Stellas were pretty, but the 10 inch reel adapter was really scary.  I did quite a lot of work with the 10 inch reel adapter on

Nagras, and that piece of gear really required you to rethink how you work a tape recorder.  The Stellavox 10 inch reel adapter was even weirder--it had the drive bands on top of the tape reels, and always looked like it was part sewing machine.  I saw one in a store once--never in use.  The Stella gear around here eventually ground to a halt since there was no one to service it, and a lot of the electronics were epoxy "potted" in non-repairable assemblies.    I liked recording on the SP7, but the no 7 inch reel thing really was a drawback.

Philip Perkins

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tsmyles   

Yes. I meant 5" in its native "cover down and locked" mode.

And I have the 10 inch reel adaptor also.  So that makes me even more odd, I guess.  It wasn't as nice as the "active" adaptor that Nagra made (I'll give them this one).  It was all mechanical and there were two sizes of pulleys that you'd use with either 7 or 10 inch reels.  The machine really didn't like the 10s.  It would strain and the rubber bands would compress.  You also had to lay a finger alongside the supply reel when you started it up since it would bounce (remember that happening with the 4.2 and 7" reels??) and oscillate for a while otherwise.

I only used it a couple of times.  Once to lay down a temp mix on a feature we were working on.  The director was so cheap he didn't want to pay for the 35 transfer to be done at the temp.  I had to lay it down on the Stella and then go to the OTHER transfer facility I was working out of and do the transfer there.  I think he saved maybe $5 overall. Cheap bastard.  Thought he was Orson Welles, too....

The adaptor was pretty ingenious overall, if not more than a little squirrely. The bearings on the reel tables were extremely nice, though.

(In case anyone wonders, I did have a Nagra, which I rarely used.. actually I still have a Nagra 3, a 4L and the Kudelski synchronizer.  Stellavox also made a cable so you could use the Kudelski synch.. forgotten the number on it... with the Stellavox.  And so even in the pre-timecode days I was able to record and resolve 2 track stereo quite nicely.  The facility I was working out of didn't have a stereo Nagra at that time.

Aaaahhh. The good old days.... What sample rate???

Tony

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Yes. I meant 5" in its native "cover down and locked" mode.

And I have the 10 inch reel adaptor also.  So that makes me even more odd, I guess.Tony

Wow... maybe it's just me, but I really love this history stuff. I think it is more than what I was saying before about "the good old days" when you really get into all of the history of the technology AND how it was put to use then, in its day, and compare it to how we work today. I find it fascinating. Thank you so much for talking about the Stellavox. I had a such a brief history with those machines personally, I lobe to hear from others who actually used ita lot. One other little bit of trivia for me personally, is that I was consulted breifly by the Warner Bros. sound department (it was actually TBS at that time, The Burbank Studios complex) when they were building a production mixing panel. They chose the mixing panel that Stellavox made at the time (I don't remember the model number) which was pretty neat and essentially the same size as the SP7/8 recorders. They modified it extensively, and in typical Warner Bros. engineering practice, made a lot of really foolish changes. I really had no more conversations with them when they told me they were going to modfiy the monitoring, the signal fed to the sound mixer's headphones, and equalize it based on the "Academy curve" for theatrical projection. Their engineers claimed this would help sound mixers do a better job of production sound mixing and require less work in the post chain on the way to theatrical release!

Regards,  Jeff Wexler

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The little Stella mixer was the "AMI".  Pretty to look at but not easy to work on.  5 in, ours had Tuchel connectors in and banana jacks out, and the video engineers hated it.  It had peak reading analog meteres, which were so different from the ballistics of the VU meters that they were used to that they would tend to overload the crappy 1" and 3/4" video decks all the time.  The mixer always seemed to be broken when I wanted to use it--I was always suspicious that the video guys kept sending it back to the maintenence shop so they wouldn't have to take it out on jobs.

I remember doing a job recording with a doco director's personal SP7.  He and the shooter had come up with their own automatic slating system which involved, somehow, a flash of light from the camera (on turnover) that was picked up by a still photo remote flash sensor (what they use to fire multiple strobes instead of cables), which when plugged into the Stella would make a momentary tone bloop.  It worked fine for them--they carried this gear with them wherever they went. 

Philip Perkins

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tsmyles   

They modified it extensively, and in typical Warner Bros. engineering practice, made a lot of really foolish changes.

I never saw the end result of the modifications but I understand from Lee Strosnider that one of them was to remove the lovely faders and replace them with rotary pots(!!!).  Still thinking in the Sela mode, I guess.

I've seen Rob Braxton's AMI but never got to use it. Saw another one on line for sale about 5 years ago but, sadly, didn't have the funds to buy it.

The history also interests me.  The mechanical innovations folks came up with years ago still fascinate me.... did I mention that I have a Webcor wire recorder that works?  Brought that to the set once and told them I was going to record on it.

I still love my Stellavoxes.  It nearly broke my heart when I started having to canibalise the SP7 for parts... disemboweling a friend of 20+ years.

Tony

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tsmyles   

He and the shooter had come up with their own automatic slating system which involved, somehow, a flash of light from the camera (on turnover) that was picked up by a still photo remote flash sensor (what they use to fire multiple strobes instead of cables), which when plugged into the Stella would make a momentary tone bloop.  It worked fine for them--they carried this gear with them wherever they went. 

Philip Perkins

That never occured to me.  When I got my SP7 the company I was on staff with was still using an Eclair NPR and did all of their docs (and almost all of them out of the country) with the Eclair tethered to their Nagra using the bloop lite sync system, and sending synch from the camera, even though the Nagra did have the internal xtal.  Of course I made up a similar cable to use the Eclair with my SP7.

I synched dailies shot with that bloop lite system for more than four years...... hated it but it worked.

Tony

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Guest Don Brown   
Guest Don Brown

The first mixer a had was a Perfectone which I modified for mike powering But due to the old circuitry (germanium transistors) it became noisy in cold conditions. We had one in our hire fleet when I was Head of Sound Maintenance for Samuelson Film Service London where I was prepping

Some equipment for Jim Alexander who was off to Switzerland to do The Eiger Sanction with Clint Eastwood using the late Ken Weston as his Boomer. His instructions was for two Nagra 4L’s with NAB Eq which we in the UK did not use, so I set down to modify them which meant component changes on the record and playback boards I had just finished one when Jim decided to come in earlier to check out his kit so I put them back together thinking that when he had gone I could finish modding the other machine

He produced a small in the ear earpiece, and plugging into the Nagra’s proceeded to check them out when he said to me after 3 minutes

That one was not NAB, I admitted yes one was not but amazed that he could tell with this small earpiece. I did finish it later but he did have problems with the Perfectone, which we replaced with the Sennheiser M101

Jeff, I did meet Mark Levinson once he came into Sammies in the early 70’s To show us his Cinemixer which he had built around the Burwin modules?

It was a nice looking unit, gold contacts, Teflon wiring, and low noise pots.

But the trouble was that he had built it around the new Shoeps mics that he was trying to sell which were very high gain, most of our PSM at that time still liked to use the odd Dynamic, Roy Charman loved the Electovoice 668 on the Fisher. So even with some mods it was still low in gain I don’t think it ever went on hire.     

     

Regards

Don Brown

(Boston UK)

PS Great site keep up the good work everyone

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When I started in sound in SF, the main camera rental place also had a Nagra IV-L and  a 3-in Perfectone.  No one knew anything about it, and it was very noisy and generally crappy sounding.  I've seen pix of mixers using these (sometimes multiple units to get more inputs) so this onemust have been damaged somehow.  It never rented in all the time I was around there that I know of, and was eventually donated to a museum.

Philip Perkins

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I owned both the SP-7 and SP-8 and visited Neuchatel sereral times.  George Quellet was a true electro/mechanical genius.  His Stellavox achieved the most difficult of design objectives-simplicity and flexibility.  In 1971 I recorded stereo sync on a SP-7 in monument valley with John Ford.  Nagra had no stereo product then.  I could always switch back to neopilot mono in a minute since not only the heads and EQ but the guides moved with the headblock.

The "Big reel adaptor" made for a very loose wrap and would not reliabily play on a pro machine with much higher tension. It was necessary to first "rewind" it by playing through (@ 15IPS) on a low tension machine like a a Revox.  Rewinding was a hassle also because you have to reroute the tape.  However, unlike the Nagra, no extra batteries were needed.  The "ABR" was/is most useful (in a controlled setting) with a pancake on the left and a 7" reel on the right.  That way you could "make" 2 or 3 7" (standard) daily rolls without the loose wrap and have no fear of running out.  The worst that would happen was a "stacked reel" which might have to be leadered onto another reel later.

Incidentally, the sliders on the left of my mixer are Altec's "Program Equalizers."  The 15KC position was modified to center at 1.5KHZ (courtesy of Mr. Bennet).  These EQs were used, with other outboard units, to individually "trim" lavalier/wireless mics (after first being "nomalized" with my mixer's internal bus lavaliere EQ.  Of course the goal was always to achieve a sound that would mix and match with the fishpole mic.

Bruce Bisenz

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I owned both the SP-7 and SP-8 and visited Neuchatel sereral times.  George Quellet was a true electro/mechanical genius.  His Stellavox achieved the most difficult of design objectives-simplicity and flexibility.  In 1971 I recorded stereo sync on a SP-7 in monument valley with John Ford.  Nagra had no stereo product then.  I could always switch back to neopilot mono in a minute since not only the heads and EQ but the guides moved with the headblock.

Incidentally, the sliders on the left of my mixer are Altec's "Program Equalizers."  The 15KC position was modified to center at 1.5KHZ (courtesy of Mr. Bennet).  These EQs were used, with other outboard units, to individually "trim" lavalier/wireless mics (after first being "nomalized" with my mixer's internal bus lavaliere EQ.  Of course the goal was always to achieve a sound that would mix and match with the fishpole mic.

Bruce Bisenz

I always wondered why there weren't more Stellas around--they were always ahead of Kudelski in innovation.  Marketing I guess.  Didn't Mr. Quellet fall ill sometime in the1980s and had to leave the business?  (Before it was sold to Sonosax.)

Those EQs are great and must have made for a really powerful and versitile mixer, esp. in getting lavs to sound good.  This is so counter to how we are asked to work now--with this device one could really dial in the lav sound so they COULD be successfully mixed to a mono track, now location EQ isn't wanted--we are really just supposed to record the lavs flat and prefade and let them figure it out in post.  As one who sometimes has to sort out all those tracks in post, I applaud those of us who will still record in the field to one or two tracks that sound great and are ready to cut and mix w/o a whole lot of software and file substitution BS needed to even find out what I have to work with. 

Philip Perkins

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Regarding the early mixers: 

I bought a Perfectone mixer from the Factory (actually showed up unannounced at the seperate plant instead of the "Bureau" under the capable hands of Madame Beauchat).  The first stage of the Perfectone's mic preamp was very noisey.  I, eventually, figured out a workaround and patched in a Kudelski QPLE or the Sennheiser -10 box for the first stage. 

Quellet use the peak recording method.  He routinely put an AMI in one side and a Stellamaster (15IPS, DIN eq, Hi Bias-no film sync) in the other side of his bicycle's saddle bags and went to local venues for music recordings.  As such all the AMI's (I bought AMI #2 from him in CH) had no headroom and overloaded just when the recorder did.  To cope with this I had Quellet make me a special meter amp module with an extra 10DB of gain so I could mix with some headroom.  But compared to anything today both the AMI and AMI-48 are really sub par.

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Regarding TBS's  monitor return "academy curve:" This was actually their crude expedient (rolling off the boom return highs) to stop the feedback they got when attaching the second length (and under some conditions just the first) of their homemade 4 pin duplex.

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Sprotnik   

Hi.

not sure if this is the right thread to post, it´s an old thread and my query is about an specific mixer.

I found this thread diving in the web serching for some info, maybe some of the members writing here can help me. if this is not the place where i should write, let me know and I´ll start a new topic.

 

my situation is... I know a guy who offers me an old stella ami 48 for a good deal. I can´t check it for myself cause it´s in a city far from me.

I have some pics and the device looks pretty well, very good consevation. I have been reading a while and I know some of the problems that it can have (like noisy faders cause the age, unbalanced outputs, many chances to have to send it to switzerland for cheking or adjust...)

I have been reading about the mic pres, and most of the times it says that they are very good, except one post in this very thread.

the information in the web is not plenty and in some cases contradictory. There´s no way to find the manual.

 

my point is, would this device be useful nowadays? is it worth at any way?

I´m thinking on it "useful" terms, not about collection

 

thanks and best regards

 

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The AMI was rockin' for it's time (1970s) but by now lots of its components are WAY beyond their rated lives (esp capacitors).  The problem with this specific to the AMI was that Stellavox "potted" electronic assemblies in opaque resin, supposedly to allow for quick swap outs and probably also to keep others from copying their circuit designs.  As I said in this thread back in 2006, this made servicing the mixer very difficult, so the company I worked for which had one basically took it out of active use since the service techs refused to work on it.  A friend of mine bought that mixer from the company, had it serviced by Stella in Switzerland and used it happily for a few years after.  By today's standards it would be noisy and have low headroom even if in good repair.  However, it looks VERY cool.....in a collection.  If you need a good cheap mixer I strongly recommend you buy a used SD 442 or 552--light years beyond the AMI in sound and features.

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Aha! It's that mixer. (Thank you Phillip for spelling out Stellavox and jogging my memory.)

It's a very sweet looking console and also tantalizingly compact. Neil Stone had one in his shop for awhile and I was tempted every time I came by. I thought it might be a nice way to have most of the functionality of a Cooper in a package that could be used in an insert car and other tight spaces. 

Neil (bless him!) talked me out of it. He said that it was essentially impossible to service. He didn't mention the issue of components sealed in resin but he did tell me that most of the electrical parts - capacitors, transisters, etc. - were no longer available. (And this was maybe fifteen years ago.) Any repair work would inevitably require extensive consultation of cross-reference catalogs. 

Finally, he sealed the no-sale by telling me that once the unit passed his threshold, he would not permit it to enter again for any reason, not even for a social visit. 

It was pretty though.

David

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