This is one in a series of occasional interviews with the suppliers of audio processing in the radio industry.
In 1972, the year Inovonics was founded, a first-class stamp cost 18 cents, a gallon of gas was 36 cents and Richard Nixon was president.
Since that time, Inovonics has been a staple in the broadcast equipment industry, its products known for their simplicity, low cost and ease of operation and repair. The product line – including audio processors, modulation monitors and RBDS encoders, as well as tape-recorder electronics – have long been favorites of budget-minded broadcasters.
Nixon and the 18-cent stamp may be long gone, but Inovonics is enjoying its 30th anniversary this year.
Jim Wood is the company’s co-founder, CEO and chief engineer. An alumnus of the University of California at Berkeley and San Jose State University, he holds a bachelor’s degree in theater arts.
In the 1960s Wood worked for Pacific Telephone & Telegraph, now called PacBell, as a “toll transmissionman,” maintaining carrier and microwave long-distance facilities, and in administrative work. He moved on to Vidar Corp., a manufacturer of instrumentation/data acquisition equipment, as a production engineer, developing test fixtures and procedures.
He then became senior development engineer for GRT Corp., which made prerecorded tapes. There, he designed high-speed tape duplication systems before co-founding Inovonics in 1972.
Wood spoke with Radio World Technical Adviser Tom McGinley about the history and the products of his durable company in Santa Cruz, Calif.
RW: How did you get started in broadcast equipment design and manufacturing?
Wood: A friend and I found ourselves out of a job when the audio tape duplicating facility we worked for closed its doors in the early 1970s.
This was during an economic slump, and we found it easier to start our own business than to find gainful employment.
RW: Your co-founder was Mark Drake. Is he still involved?
Wood: No, Mark left the company in about 1978. He quit the technical realm and affiliated with an Eastern religious culture in northern California.
RW: Why a theater degree?
Wood: I’d always been drawn to the technology of the entertainment industry, but as a student I lacked the self-discipline and the patience to pursue a math-intensive technical education. My degree is in theater arts, though the emphasis was radio and TV producing and directing.
RW: Your first products, I recall, were aimed at the recording industry. What attracted you later to the broadcast market?
Wood: Inovonics’ first product was a solid-state replacement electronics package for the still-popular Ampex 350-series tape recorders.
As we still had contacts in the music business, the studio market was our first target, but we soon discovered a much larger user base among broadcasters. And just as important to our continued success, broadcasting was a more stable industry; recording studios were in and out of business almost overnight.
RW: Up until about 1990, most recording studios and radio stations used reel-to-reel tape recorders heavily. The Inovonics model 375 and 370 replacement electronics for Ampex reel equipment had become a staple.How many of those units were sold?
Wood: Over the nearly 20 years we manufactured tape-recorder electronics, and among the several models and versions, we shipped between 4,000 and 5,000 channels. About 60 percent were monaural, 30 percent stereo and the rest were for custom multi-track machines or for magnetic film recorders used in motion-picture production.
We still respond to the occasional request for help in keeping these running.
RW: You entered the processing marketplace with the 201 and 210 audio limiters and the 220 Audio Level Optimizer in the mid-1970s. What was driving your design philosophy? I still see stations and studios using these units.
Wood: Those three initial processors utilized a unique VCA circuit that had been patented by our defunct previous employer. Initially it had been used to control high-frequency program content when mastering for audiocassettes. Ownership of the patent reverted back to us, and it proved ideal for FM pre-emphasis protection limiting. Back in those days, about the only other processor that dealt with this properly was the CBS Volumax.
RW: Inovonics jumped into the early multi-band processing arena with the model 230, or as some called it, the MAP I, and then later the MAP II for AM radio.
Wood: The MAP-I was developed almost overnight as a “do-all” processor for both AM and FM, and proved a compromise that, at best, was marginal for either service.
It was replaced in short order by our MAP-II, intended exclusively for AM. This was in the late 1970s, early days for multiband processing. The only other product on the market at the time that I was familiar with was Mike Dorrough’s very successful DAP 310.
Compared with Mike’s smooth-sounding DAP, our “MAP-II” imparted an unusually dense and “busy” sound, which was rejected by a significant segment of the broadcasting industry at that time as being entirely too aggressive. This was an escalating period in the “loudness wars,” and FM broadcasters, in particular, wanted something similar but less brutal. Our Model 250 evolved from this requirement.
RW: The model 250 five-band FM processor has been a popular product for two decades. Describe the secret to its success.
Wood: By the early 1980s, FM stations also were caught up in the loudness game. “Burn a hole in the dial” was a common phrase.
The 250 did not match Bob Orban’s Optimod 8100 in that respect, but was an unqualified success in Europe, which at that time remained several years behind the U.S. in the technical side of radio programming practices.
The 250 used feedforward pulse-width modulation in the gain control stages, a technique that is predictable, adjustment- and drift-free, and virtually colorless. The resultant “sound” (or lack thereof) appealed to European broadcasters, who at the time still maintained a spirit of responsibility to the music arrangers, artists and producers.
Though our U.K. distributor independently introduced a “loudness mod” for the 250 in the last few years of its availability, the design remained essentially unchanged over the 18 years the product was sold.
RW: In the 1990s Inovonics introduced the 705 and 706 FM stereo generators, followed by the David I and II integrated FM processors. The David models were a great low-cost alternative to Optimod. Tell us about those units and their target market.
Wood: Bob Orban’s Optimods certainly defined the “single-box” approach to processing and stereo coding, and a splendid job they did, too. Integrating these functions makes a lot of sense, both in terms of installation logistics and for technical reasons as well.
Our standalone stereo-gens, the 705, 706 and 708, were companions to our various standalone audio processors. Our David line was named after the biblical battle of David vs. Goliath, in which the smaller guy trounces the much larger opponent.
I don’t like to think of Inovonics as having “opponents” in the marketplace, nor do I pretend that our low-cost alternatives “trounce” the other guys. But at a fraction of the price, and with surprisingly competitive performance, I like to think that we provide an excellent value for smaller markets and emerging nations.
RW: In addition to processing, Inovonics offers the popular 530 FM modulation monitor, the 520 AM mod monitor and the model 711 RDS encoder. Describe the design philosophy and capabilities of each unit.
Wood: The keynote of the design philosophy of any Inovonics product has to be simplicity. We use this term in our advertising as well, but always with an attached qualifier claiming, “consistent with maintaining quality and performance” or words to that effect. Our designs are straightforward and, to the greatest extent possible, utilize component parts that are, and will continue to be easily and readily available.
Like our David processors, the FM and AM mod-monitors are devoid of a lot of bells and whistles. They may have limited application in a plant that’s strung together entirely with CAT-5 cables, but rack them up in a typical studio or transmitter environment and they will give honest modulation readings for years.
I hate to think of RBDS as a lost cause just yet; new cars are coming out with RBDS radios as standard equipment. But some of these same cars offer satellite radio as an option too.
It’s been said that Inovonics is the perennial champion of lost causes: Magnavox Stereo-AM, CBS’s ill-fated FMX system, Noise-Free Radio to name a few. We’ve offered three different models of RDS/RBDS encoders as well as a digital decoder/reader. Acceptance of RBDS in this country has not been spectacular, but we’re hoping that this technology, which is virtually free to the broadcaster, will prove a value-added boost to FM.
I’m surprised that, in the L.A. market where I live, not one station is transmitting song titles and artists. It’s so easy. (Subsequent to this interview, Wood noted that several L.A. stations have begun sending not only song title and artist information but weather and stock market figures.)
RW: You offered an analog processor for Webcasting two years ago called the WebCaster. What is the future of that business?
Wood: The greatest potential for Webcasting seems to be in non-traditional programming by providers other than radio broadcasters, or perhaps for wider distribution of innovative material created by college and other non-profit broadcasters.
“Simulcasting” worldwide over the Internet does not particularly serve a broadcaster’s local advertiser base, and simply multiplying the sources for identical play lists couldn’t be much of a service to listeners, either.
RW: With the advent of digital broadcasting, Inovonics has developed the Omega FM. What kind of challenge does this technology using DSP present to a company like yours that has been known almost exclusively as an analog-based enterprise? What does the Omega offer in the way of advantages against other digital processing products and do you think processing attitudes will change as DAB is implemented?
Wood: In its present form, our Omega_FM processor is intended almost exclusively for FM, replacing our Model 250 analog box. As the Omega_FM doesn’t use DSP chips, relying instead on the bare-bones number-crunching power of a Pentium-class CPU, software revisions can reconfigure the product for whatever digital transmission system ultimately perseveres.
DAB-done-right eliminates the fundamental need for audio processing; that is, to maximize coverage and overcome a poor S/N ratio. Perhaps processing is best relegated to the listening environment. A noisy car might well use some squashing, whereas a home theater setup would sound most impressive with wide dynamics. DAB ought to level the broadcast playing field from a technical standpoint.
RW: Everyone has an opinion about whether analog sounds friendlier and warmer than digital. Many feel that no matter what the resolution or processing, digital will never sound as good. How does Jim Wood answer that claim?
Wood: When someone cites “CD-quality,” I like to counter with, “CD? Why, that’s a consumer format, isn’t it? Certainly no match for a good 16-inch professional transcription.”
Just joking, of course. But we do live in an analog world. If it weren’t for the cumulative effects of noise and distortion, it would make sense to keep program material in the analog domain. But today’s generation of digital converters, coders, recorders and transmission links is superior to those of digital’s early days.
I believe that many of digital’s detractors speak from initial experiences. As far as I’m concerned, current digital recordings that do not use any bit-rate reduction techniques sound fantastic. I don’t miss tape hiss at all.
RW: Your company has seemed to offer affordable products using innovative design concepts usually seen in those of more expensive competitors.What has been your secret to keeping costs so well behaved?
Wood: Inovonics has always based product selling price on what it costs to manufacture and market the product, not on what the market will bear, or what seems to be the going rate for a competitor’s equivalent. And we attempt to use common component parts rather than esoteric ones that quickly become obsolete.
RW: Where do you see your company headed – competing with the likes of Orban/CRL, Aphex and Omnia? Will Jim Wood ever get tired of building broadcast equipment under the Inovonics banner?
Wood: Rather than “competitors,” I prefer to think of the firms you mentioned as companions in the industry.
The technology of audio processing, for example, is so subjective that there will always be room for alternatives. Just like automobiles, there’s no single “right” model.
Excluding a major upheaval, either in technology or the broadcast industry, our products will continue to follow broadcasters’ wants and needs. We rely a lot on input from station engineers and managers, as given at NAB and other shows.
And, no, barring a major economic calamity, we’ll keep plugging away as long as we can. It’s more than a job; it’s a whole lot of fun.