Bill Cheney and his partner Jim Romney are the men responsible for keeping the amazing legacy of Spectra Sonics, a legendary, if criminally unheralded, pro-audio company alive.
LC: The history of Spectra Sonics starts with William G. "Bill" Dilley.
He was the chief test engineer for the ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] during the early to mid-1960's. He was basically involved with the transition between tube and transistor technology in HF/RF communication. At the time, he was a constant contributor to AUDIO Magazine. He wrote about recording technology; from portable, tube based consoles to VCA-based compressor/limiters.
LC: Was that a passion of his, on the side?
Yeah, audio. I've got the original tube preamp he built in the late '50s, and then I think he saw the light with transistors. It was an immediate thing, between 1962 and 1964. The first day I met him — when I was like 21 or 22 years old — the first thing out of his mouth was, "Eliminate the cause; don't minimize the effect." Later, I found this in his handwritten notes. He would isolate each issue that caused a specific circuit problem, and resolve it. This applied to peak overload, solid state circuit noise and distortion, plus overall amplifier stability. Rather than chasing things with a bigger stick, he just eliminated the problem. That's how his designs worked.
LC: What year did the first Model 101 amp modules come out?
In 1965. He originally just wanted to build modules, power supplies, and equalizers. He sold to places like Auditronics in Memphis. The problem was that people couldn't deal with the grounding, which is important with our stuff. There was also an issue with console construction, which did not meet Dilley's milspec mindset. In the end he was forced to start building consoles.
JB: So all the early Auditronics consoles had Spectra Sonics 101s inside?
Right. When I went up to the factory for the first time, you had women with beehive hairdos, smoking cigarettes while wiring looms, and you'd have stacks of consoles in rows. I recently found out that a second production facility existed for Spectra Sonics via Auditronics. He couldn't build them fast enough in Ogden, Utah, so he built what was called Son of 36 Grand. It looked just like a Spectra Sonics console, but they were building them in Memphis with Spectra parts. But then they started going out the back door, rather than being sent to Ogden to be shipped and sold. So Bill said, "We're not going to do that anymore." And that was that.
LC: So there are some bootleg consoles out there. How did you end up as part of Spectra Sonics?
I was working for a professional audio dealer when I was 21 years old. I went to a seminar one day, and Bill Dilley's personality was rather intimidating. I sat there and listened to him, and when I went home I told my mom that this guy had it figured out. Everybody else at the seminar was pissed and wouldn't go back the next day, so I was the only one there. I made numerous trips to the factory over the next few years. Bill always had time for me. One day, I told Bill, "I'll work for you for free." So I started doing AES shows with him.
LC: What year was that?
It was 1975 or '76. He'd been going for over ten years. When the company started, Bill was still an officer in the USAF.
LC: My introduction to Spectra Sonics was the 610 compressor. My friend came by with one and told me to turn everything all the way up. It goes crazy.
A normal compressor is a peak-sensing level compressor. Whatever the amplitude of the peak is however much gain reduction you get. In fact, they've taken the definition so far, that anything over 9:1 compression is peak limiting, which is backwards from what we do. What we do is that the peak is separate from the compression. So we eliminate the peak. The peak limiter in the circuit is in and out of the circuit in 180 nanoseconds [ns]. It's eliminating the peak. So everything else that passes through, there's no peak. In a peak-limiting mode, you can take our compressor and put it in front of a conventional power amp and get another 10 dB out of that power amp, but not hear it because it's in and out. In the analog world, peaks are bad. Peaks destroy the character of the recorded signal.
LC: It's a fast transient peak that we don't perceive.
Yeah. The peak is gone. There's no musical content; it's purely voltage. So the peak limiter is separate from the compressor. The compressor still attacks at 100 ns, so there is not a transition issue. The compressor offers up to 20 dB of gain reduction. You can set that slope wherever you want, and you can set that release wherever you want. So you've got the peak limiting mode, you've got peak limiting with compression, and then you've got hard compression, which is how most folks have used the 610 for decades.
LC: Yeah, absolutely.
Spectra Sonics gear is well known for a unique RMS overload distortion. It's so well balanced that it doesn't clip like a normal transistor circuit. I don't think that was what Bill had in mind when the circuits were designed, but that's what you're hearing. For example, if you listen to early ZZ Top, when they recorded lead guitars at Ardent, that was a 101 driven into RMS overload.
JB: So what came first? The early cards and consoles, or the 610 limiter?
You had the Model 101 in 1965. Then he built what was called the Model 100, which was three 101s on a board. The 610 limiter came out in '69. The first EQ he came out with was the 500, in 1966, which was a little 2-band, like Stax and Ardent had. Then the 502 came out in '69, which was the 3-band.
JB: And that's the Record Plant console?
JB: How many of those consoles got built?
I'd guess maybe 30 or 40 is all. The Stax console got thrown in the dumpster. The sister console was at Ardent, and at Muscle Shoals for a time.
JB: Wasn't there some connection with the Flickinger products?
Well, Daniel Flickinger was a dealer of ours. He bought 101s for years and built consoles with our stuff. Then he tried to copy our stuff. At first he ju st removed our name and put his name on it. Then he started building his own boards. People sent them into Spectra Sonics for warranty repair and they'd literally been on fire. It was a really crude attempt at a copy. Sometime later Dilley realized Flickinger was trying to build a 101. It comes down to having the stability in certain stages, as well as the right parts. Flickinger never figured it out, so he just added beefier end stage outputs, with bigger transistors that would handle the current and reduce the fire hazard.
LC: I've been under the impression that Spectra Sonics never ceased to operate.
They didn't stop. Bill's first love, the only reason that Spectra Sonics existed, was because he was an Air Force test pilot and loved to fly. He wrote the operational manuals for the F-100 to the F-107. He was a fighter pilot in WWII, and shot down Germans. The only way he could get a personal airplane was to create a company. The first year in business, in '64, he did six figures, which was a lot of money back then, so now he could afford his airplane. He had hangars full of airplanes when he died. I separated from the company in the late '80s, as I had my own business. With the backing of Spectra Sonics, I started Applied Technology with my partner Jim. We evolved away from audio and went to work for large corporate and government agencies, building communication and weapons test facilities. Then in '07, we started to see what was happening with the 610. On eBay, they were initially selling for $100 to $200. In 2006 the price had jumped to over a $1,200. I called Bill's son, Greg Dilley, and said, "Jim and I want to buy the 610 production rights." He said, "Just buy the whole company."
JB: So this was after Bill passed away?
Bill passed away in '03. Greg wanted to continue running Spectra Sonics Aviation, an FBO, and had little time for the audio part of the family business.
LC: I remember sending my tech my 610, and he was like, "I can't figure it out." So we sent it to the factory to get refurbished in the late '90s.
They were still fixing stuff. He was still supporting everything, still supporting consoles.
LC: That's kind of unusual in this business.
Again, it was a moral thing with him. They'd made their money, and they were really careful with their money. That's why the family wanted us to pick it up, because they knew that we wouldn't butcher it. It took us two years to get our first product out because we couldn't meet spec. We were working on the 610, and there were certain parts that had to have really tight, high tolerance specs. People will try to copy it, but you can't just put parts on a board with our stuff. During the process of producing the first 610s, I called up Greg and asked, "How are you selecting this, this, and this?" Greg said, "I don't know." Then I get a call one day and Greg said, "I've just found Dad's handwritten notes." So we went back and reverse-engineered everything. It took us two years to get the 610 to meet spec, and we would not sell them until they did. There's a picture of Tchad Blake on our website, and he's got a 610 from 1969 or 1970, and he's got a 2012 unit, and he's using them interchangeably. You cannot tell the difference.
JB: You've done a good job of keeping the company intact.
Jim and I could have probably could have retired, but we are stubborn so we are going to keep this up. Recently it's been doing a lot better. We're fighting guys who have hundreds of thousands of dollars in ad budget, with a lot of BS and momentum, and it's just difficult. But we are not going to stop.
JB: I was really impressed when you sent me a 502 to check out. One of the first things I did was open it up. It had such solid and beefy circuit board traces and transformers and inductors.
All of our products are designed and built the same way; to last forever.
JB: You just don't see much new gear that's built like this.
No. It goes back to the way that Bill Dilley would do things. He prided himself on all of his consoles. They'd snap together. There was a thousandth of an inch tolerance in all the milling, so things would literally snap in, even though he still had screws to hold it. The stuff was built like a tank. That's just the way he did it.