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Wood Reflects on 40 Years

Inovonics started with replacement recorder electronics for vacuum-tube machines

Inovonics turns 40 this month. The manufacturer has 13 employees; its offices and manufacturing are in a building it recently purchased in Felton, Calif., between Silicon Valley and the Monterey Bay.

I emailed with founder and owner Jim Wood. Shortly after this interview the company announced that Ben Barber is replacing Wood as president/CEO, while Wood remains as chairman.

Happy 40th anniversary Jim. You’ve said that the company started with a single product idea. What was that?
Our first product was a replacement electronics package for the Ampex and Scully reel-to-reel tape recorders that were still in wide use, both in broadcasting and in recording studios, in the early 1970s. The mechanics of those machines were simple and built like the proverbial battleship, but the amplifiers were noisy, intermittent vacuum-tube designs that posed no end of maintenance hassles. Our drop-in solid-state replacements gave these recorders a new lease on life. Ironically, the old vacuum tube amplifiers are now in great demand as mic preamps in some circles.

Other than yourself, were there one or more people early on who were particularly influential in helping Inovonics get off the ground as a business?
Inovonics was started by myself and Mark Drake, a fellow I had worked with in the music business. We were both let go, shortly before the company we had been (with) failed — through no fault of ours, of course. Jobs were scarce at that particular time, so we chose to strike out on our own. Mark stayed with Inovonics for a number of years before following other interests.

At the 1983 NAB convention, Chris Kidd, facing camera, talks to an attendee in the Inovonics booth, which featured the MAP-II airchain processor for AM plus its small cousin, the Model 215.

How has the company’s product mix changed with the times?
We discovered rather early in the game that the broadcast industry was a far more stable market than the music business, although most of our past experience had been in audio recording. As our replacement electronics found their way into more and more radio stations, we got to know the broadcast people and became responsive to their specialized needs.

One need was for more aggressive audio processing than afforded by the CBS Audimax/Volumax combination in universal use back then. This piqued our interest in audio processing and spawned a line of audio processors, from simple production limiters to quite ambitious analog airchain designs, and from there to our latest all-digital audio processors. As time went on, our sensitivity to broadcasters’ needs saw our development of mod monitors, translator receivers and RDS encoders and decoders.

From the beginning, our design philosophy has been to offer the best performance at a responsible price.

What are your thoughts about the way RDS rolled out in the United States, and the role it plays in the market now?
European broadcasters see RDS as a service to their listeners; U.S. broadcasters want to generate revenue from it.

Jim Wood, Inovonics founder and chairman

We were early proponents of RDS in the U.S., importing technology from the U.K. for our first encoder product. It has been a slow implementation, but once penetration reached about 10 percent, everyone wanted to climb aboard.

Easy integration with broadcast automation has been a keynote of RDS expansion, and digital-stream consolidation software now allows the clever broadcaster to add weather, traffic and advertising to the usual artist and title information.

I believe that RDS and its HD Radio counterpart can do more than what we see now: applications that will help keep terrestrial broadcasting competitive with broadband (Internet) program distribution.

What’s your feeling about HD Radio?
I have mixed feelings. I consider the distribution of additional, diverse programming (HD2, etc.) a great advantage of HD Radio, although one could argue this based on programming redundancy one already hears in most markets.

The audio quality issue is a mixed bag. In a car I can hear a subtle difference with FM, but the difference on AM is maddening as the radio “fades gracefully” from one mode to the other.

One HD AM station in my home market (L.A.) has worked closely with the people at Orban to extend their analog response to something over 7 kHz. The difference between this station and the other HD stations, all with a strict 5 kHz cutoff, is easily discerned on my stock Honda radio, even though the radio, itself, begins rolling (gently) at about 2.5 kHz.

I really think that AM HD ought to be shut off at night.

Ben Barber of Inovonics, right, talks with Saul Perez of KPWR(FM) Los Angeles at the 2012 NAB Show. Barber was promoted to president/CEO in May. Photo by Jim Peck

How has the nature of audio processing changed in recent years?
The technology behind audio processing has become much more sophisticated in this “digital age.” It is now easier and far less expensive to provide functions that were difficult or impossible to realize using analog circuitry, with processing artifacts reduced, eliminated or hidden.

But don’t believe for a minute that the “loudness wars” are over. The desire to be as loud or “powerful-sounding” as the competition remains a prime goal of the broadcaster, and the ability to deliver loudness is touted by manufacturers in their advertising.

Loudness can now be accomplished without the attendant distortion common in earlier times, though the concept of “listener fatigue” is still a factor for consideration.

Most memorable moment in 40 years of manufacturing?
The company came quite close to going belly-up in the mid-1980s, suffering from a soft economy, an embezzlement and being forced out of our rented Silicon Valley facility at the onset of the personal computer boom. The resultant regrouping and move to new quarters was a tenuous, sobering and educational time in the company’s history.

AM radio’s adoption of the NRSC Standard brought us out of the slump; we worked around-the-clock for weeks to meet the demand for equipment ahead of the 1989 FCC mandate.

See an Inovonics company timeline at