What It’s Like to Refit a Masterpiece
Bill Sacks is refurbishing classic analog Optimod processors.
Sacks is a former chief engineer; he worked for Carl T. Jones Associates as a consulting engineer and founded Straight Wire Audio Inc. in 1979. A former SBE chapter chairman, he also does product design for Henry Engineering. In 1979 he was the first audio editor of this publication.
He’s an insightful engineer and big fan of Optimods. I chatted with Sacks about his venture and his strong feelings about them.
McLane: What business name are you using?
Sacks: Signal Bars R Us is our trade name for most of our consulting work and other business — we provide bidirectional cell phone amplifiers and consulting to enhance wireless service inside buildings — but I refurbish Optimods simply as Bill Sacks, CPBE.
This is a personal passion and I do all the work on Optimods, without hired help.
I have been a close friend of Bob and the rest of the Orban Associates family since the late ’70s when I used to visit their Bryant Street factory. I was also friends with Bob’s late partner John Delantoni.
We share the full support of the factory along with a select few authorized repair centers.
McLane: How did your relationship come about?
Sacks: In my youth, I “hot rodded” many an Optimod 8000A with new op-amps, better and more capacitors and some modifications to be cleaner and less obtrusive yet maintain that musicality unique to Orban processing.
I shared my work with Bob Orban and we became friends. He became a great mentor and teacher, going back to when he took me to the woodshed over some incorrect modifications I was doing in 1978.
Bob took the time to show me a whole world of seeing the synergies he exploited in the 8000A and gave me an appreciation for the deeper math, which I had skimmed in my hurry to play with the hardware. I listened and learned about his philosophy of processing musically and what he intended for his product.
I have kept my modifications fully supportive of Bob’s original desire to maintain the integrity of the audio and preserve quality. I have seen many abusive modifications done to these lovely machines and I remove the toxic and nasty sounding ones on sight.
The idea of me refurbishing legacy Optimods came about in conversations with Bob about how the 8000As were now a legacy product and so old that none of the original factory people remained from the time of production.
Knowing how much I enjoyed working on 8000As, he liked the idea of me joining the few support depots for the old products.
McLane: What makes you feel the industry needs this type of support?
Sacks: There is a growing, small cult of quality revival in broadcast sound and they are generating a quiet revival of sweet, clean audio using these boxes, which are the pinnacle of analog technology.
Analog Optimod processing is uniquely musical and unobtrusive. This smooth sound is provided by the legacy Optimods year after year with only modest care and feeding. There is still a place for well-seasoned analog sound in broadcasting.
Years ago, Bob Orban referenced the listener’s ability to turn the radio volume control up or down vs. excessive processing for that last dB; and that is still true today, except the volume control is now via remote and includes other options, such as an iPod.
The modern listener now has more dynamically unprocessed options such as AAC on their iPod. AAC from an iPod certainly sounds better than HD driven by a cheap pedestrian DSP tin-horn processor.
It is also true a good sweet-sounding analog FM employing a refurbished analog Optimod sounds far better than that same iPod because it has a professional polish of just enough processing.
Also, many noncommercial stations still prefer legacy Optimods because they are competent, serious music processors with a track record. A used Optimod can be had for a reasonable price and cost-effectively refurbished.
Many legacy Optimods are still in service as backups and should be maintained. Run your backup air chain along with your testing of the generator every so often.
McLane: What kinds of models can you work on?
Sacks: We work on 8000s, 8100s, 9000s, 9100s, etc. Orban also still services 8100s. We offer some special enhancement upgrade modifications and do alignments of 8100s as well; and now we handle analog sections of the 8200 and 9200 Optimods.
We also have released a unique proprietary bass EQ control modification for the 8100XT, which remakes the two controls into a separate low and high LF EQ control in L+R only. This also makes the unit easier to adjust live without having to null the L-R of left/right bass EQ for each setting, in addition to more flexibility in the EQ.
Another benefit is that the bass boost does not inadvertently increase LF L-R modulation due to imperfect L/R EQ settings.
I work on all the analog models. We seek out, buy and hoard many of the odd and out-of-production parts and chips used in the older units.
We are starting to produce retrofit modules, such as LED meters for the old pointer movement meters, which have become difficult to obtain.
We also offer a retrofit replacement for the input transformers, which uses the world’s best active balanced input stage, the InGenius chips, with servoed common mode inputs, under license from THAT Corp. This module also has a switchable phase rotator to create modulation symmetry and reduce apparent processing.
We are also going to be offering a life-extending retrofit power supply kit for all the analog units, to get the heat from the regulators off the limiter board.
McLane: What is the most common Orban question people ask?
Sacks: “Why do you replace all of the ceramic capacitors, when they don’t wear out like the electrolytic types degrade with time?”
The answer to that is an RW article of its own. Many people have casually replaced op-amps in Optimods without upgrading the bypass capacitors. This practice can be dangerous and has caused stability issues.
We use select film capacitors not just for the audio path, but we replace all the green ceramic 0.05 uF bypass capacitors with high-performance 0.47 uF or 1.0 uF film capacitors as well.
Doing this step alone smoothes the sound audibly, even without changing the op-amps. The detail of the sound just opens up with the enhanced power supply high-frequency bypassing.
Of course, we upgrade all the caps in the audio path, as well as install better electrolytic and bipolar capacitors, which also has a significant sweetening affect. Changing the bypass caps synergistically allows one to employ very high-performance op-amps, which are unsuitable with the original power supply design.
McLane: You told me, “I feel like I have a franchise to refurbish and detail Stradivarius violins.” Why?
Sacks: Orban’s revolutionary concepts and his artistic reduction to practice of these concepts gave us modern FM quality as we know it today.
The 8000A is still a first-rate musical instrument, one built with serious artistic integrity by a rare talent of historic proportion. It was made by a prodigy maestro and compliments the sound of a fine rare violin by its very design. It is timeless; once tuned, refinished and refurbished by a caring artist it is smooth, pleasing and unobtrusive to the music.
Optimods still predominate on serious music stations and will remain the classical music FM and serious jazz standard processor through my lifetime.
More info is available at the tribute sites optimod.am and optimod.fm. You can e-mail Sacks at email@example.com. Comment to me about this or any article at firstname.lastname@example.org.