Jay McKnight is the founder and operator of MRL — Magnetic Refer- ence Laboratory. If you've ever owned and maintained an analog tape deck you know MRL as one of the few sources for calibration tapes. Before that he worked at Ampex, Gotham Audio and Armed Forces Radio, to name a few. Jay helps people every day with their never ending questions about analog tape recording. Jay is a man you are lucky to come across — a tremendous resource. His place in audio history is assured. His hard work is behind so much that we take for granted.
Let's talk about how MRL got started. Wasn't Ampex already making test tapes? Did you compete against your old employer?
I had survived goodness knows how many layoffs at Ampex since I started there in 1952, but I didn't survive the one in 1972. And I was stunned. I thought that was the end of the world when I got laid off there after twenty years.
Why was Ampex having all these layoffs?
We always felt that the Ampex management was something short of being all it should be. The fast buck mentality is by no means an Enron invention. At Ampex, I worked on audio standards and measurements. And quite often, I consulted with their test tape department. I did that over many of the years that I was there, actually.
So there was Ampex and STL, right? And later MRL?
Who were your partners?
In the US, there was originally Ampex, and several people had run the Ampex Standard Tape Lab over the years. By the 1960s, Tony Bardakos was the fellow who actually made the calibration tapes at Ampex, and Bob Morrison was the chief engineer, so to speak of the calibration tape work at Ampex. Bob left Ampex to start STL (Standard Tape Labs) around 1968, and then Tony continued making the tapes at Ampex, until they laid him off in 1972. Tony said, "We can do this on our own as well as Ampex does it, and we can compete with Ampex and do it better and make the money instead of Ampex making the money." So he got together with Ed Seaman, another ex-Ampexer. I think Ed had been chief engineer of the instrumentation division at one time, and he was now a wheeler-dealer entrepreneur. Ed contacted me to be the engineer. We started Magnetic Reference Lab (MRL) in 1972. The old Ampex system was typically cobbled together in a way that took quite a bit of time to calibrate for different kinds of test tapes — different width, speed, equalization, etc. Each time it wassetupforarunoftapes,ithadtobere- calibrated from scratch — which both meant that there were lots of chances not to get things right, and not to find out that it was wrong. Having spent a half a day or a day setting it up, you had to run a lot of tapes to make the production economic. We figured that we could design a system that would be quick and easy to change over and re-calibrate.
How is business now, with everybody running digital audio workstations?
The number of people who want calibration tapes is down, but then number of calibration tape vendors is down too. And we used to have five suites in an office building — we now have two. We used to have four or five people pretty much full-time. Now Chuck is the only full-time employee. I'm there about half time, and our office manager comes in maybe once a week.
What about when people say that analog still has more to go if people wanted to put the time and energy into it? We could still improve our signal to noise ratio.
We've given people a couple of easy suggestions for improved EQ curves that I think are worthwhile if people will do it [see http://www.flash.net/ ~mrltapes/mcknight_proposed-mastering-eq.pdf]. But it does take some effort, especially if you've got an umpteen-channel machine to re-equalize.
So what advice do you have for young people who are going to be reading Tape Op who own a lot of these old machines? Any advice for them on how to get over their fear of being overwhelmed by this kind of technology?
Well, a lot of what we hear is that the cost of doing the analog recording is so much higher than the digital recording that people can barely afford tape, and often they can't justify the cost of repairing and maintaining their equipment, much less getting a calibration tape. "What, you want $200 for a calibration tape!? I only paid $20 for this tape recorder." Well, to some extent if you are going to work with analog...