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Is Automation Logical?

Hi-Fi Enters the Eighties

Is Automation Logical?

Illustration of vintage tape recorders.


Back in the Thirties when lots of people still regarded electricity with suspicion, a British humorist never failed to get laughs when he predicted that someday somebody was going to invent an electric toothbrush. For anyone who always brushed his teeth with muscle power, that idea was far out.

I am reminded of the electric toothbrush by a recent trend in audio that promises all kinds of new gadgetry that is highly convenient but may be needlessly elaborate. I am thinking of the growing trend toward automation.

From the looks of it, there must have been a marriage between audio and the computer. And if that match wasn’t exactly ordained in heaven, at least it was pretty much in the cards. Ever since tiny computers no bigger than a fingernail – so-called microprocessors – came on the scene, it was a safe bet that they would someday be used in audio equipment, taking over what previously had to be done by hand – like adjusting tape decks, tuning in FM stations and picking out particular pieces of music on a record or tape.

As a group, nearly all these automated functions are based on the use of what is rather loosely called “logic.” In this case, it simply means the capacity of the machine to run through a set of alternate routines in response to coded commands. To tout such equipment as “machines that think” – as has been done by their enthusiastic promoters – may be overstating the case. None of these come anywhere close to what I consider thinking: reflection and reasoned pondering leading to insight. Still, thanks to their microprocessors, these machines can handle such rudimentary concepts as “yes,” “no,” and “either/or.” And with these basic building blocks of logic, they can do a lot.

For example, Hitachi’s D-5500 cassette deck – available in March – automatically arranges its own electronic innards to give you the best possible performance from whatever kind of tape you slap in. With all the different tapes now offered for sale – high-bias, low-bias, ferric, chrome, ferrichrome, ferricobalt and whatnot – it gets to be quite a chore to set the controls to suit each tape type. So Hitachi’s built-in computer does it for you. First it puts a test signal on the tape, measures the output and then adjusts all the variables until optimum output is obtained from the particular tape you picked. Then the robot rolls back the tape to the start and lets you know by a light display that you’re now ready to record, assured of the best performance possible from your tape.

Of course, the $1,200 price might suddenly remind you that the computer really doesn’t do anything you couldn’t. Many of the better cassette decks now feature a test-tone oscillator and variable control for bias. So, just by twiddling that knob and watching the dial, you can be your own computer and perform many of the same functions. But, I’ll grant you, it’s nice to be pampered by a robot.

More evidence of the computer invasion into audio comes in the form of the Technics SH-9038 programmer ($600), a totally unprecedented item. Designed as an adjunct to Technics’ superfancy digital FM tuner ST-9038 ($600), the programmer lets you preselect your listening a week in advance. You punch in dates and broadcast times for what you want to hear, along with a code for any of up to eight different FM stations. The computer then makes sure you don’t miss a thing. If you have to go out and can’t listen, you can instruct the computer to switch on your tape deck, record the program while you’re gone and then turn everything off. All this adds another $600 to the bill. Automation ain’t cheap. At least not yet.

At least two highly advanced tuners use computer logic to trim their circuits for optimum reception of different FM stations. The so-called IF bandwidth of a tuner has to be adjusted differently for stations coming in clear and strong and for stations that are weak, distant or crowded on the dial by interfering neighbors. Many of the better tuners have a switch to let you make this adjustment manually, choosing “wide” bandwidth for strong stations, “narrow” bandwidth for stations troubled with interference. But on the Yamaha T-2 and the Technics ST-9030 – both strictly top rank – a built-in internal logic circuit analyzes the incoming signal, “decides” whether the particular station you want to hear requires a wide or narrow IF bandwidth setting for best reception and then flips in the proper circuit.

Computer logic also lets you select a program sequence to your liking. For example, Optonica’s RT-6501 cassette deck ($399) has a built-in computer that will locate a particular piece of music anywhere on the tape, hunting back and forth for the right spot. The deck also has a multiple memory that allows start-up at any preset time followed by a record or play cycle, then shut-off at a preset time.

The same kind of track-by-track program selection is also available for discs, which is handy if you don’t want to hear the songs in the order the record producer put them on the platter. The ADC Accutrac (available either as a single-record player or as a changer) registers light reflections from the record and can thus distinguish the grooved bands from the blank spaces between. That way it can count up to 27 tracks on up to six different records (in the case of the changer) and play them in any preprogrammed order. All this is just a beginning. Having gotten its first foothold in stereo, the computer is bound to make even deeper inroads. Ultimately, automated controls may take the place of many of the knobs and levers we now have to fiddle with and leave us little to do but to sit back and enjoy the music.


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