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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Interview: Tim Farrant of Buzz Audio

All original: The designer, the company

Tell me the story of Buzz Audio.

Well, I started Buzz Audio in 1985 after leaving a company I formed in 1980 called Mega Systems. We made hi-fi amps as well as designed and installed audio systems. The New Zealand government lifted import duties on hi-fi gear in 1984, so suddenly our products looked a bit pricey and sales fell off -- thats not to say the product was no good, there are still many units in homes throughout New Zealand. Anyhow, Buzz Audio was about serving the technical requirements of recording studios and slowly I got into actual recording myself. One day, a good engineer friend of mine asked me to build him a nice quiet clean mic preamplifier. I thought why not and took some designs I had for low noise moving coil pick up amps (remember vinyl?), and modified them to work with microphones. We did several prototypes and ended up with the MA-2 and a four channel version, the MA-4 in 1990. A few of these units found their way to Nashville via a good friend Lynn Fuston. Since then and due to pressure from others, the MA-2 was remodelled into the MA-2.2. Other designs have followed, the SOC-1.1 Optical Compressor for example. Buzz Audio is still involved in audio installs, We do studios, clubs and public places. I also do a bit of acoustic design and of course we manufacture our current range of pro audio tools in house. Buzz Audio is about providing innovative design in all aspects of our operation. We don't just copy what's been done before.

I get one question about Buzz mic preamps: "What do they sound like?" How would you answer that question? Is there a Buzz sound? Or, is each product a sound unto its own?

I do not think there is a "Buzz sound" as such, each of our products has its own sound depending on the design and type of electronics used. The MA-2.2 is as you know, is all discrete Class A electronics. When I say Class A I mean REAL Class A. They run hot. The actual amplifiers themselves exhibit extremely wide frequency response and fast slew rate even at high gains which out performs most audio IC Opamps. The resulting "product" is capable of reproducing transients at high output levels with virtually no intermodulation distortion. For the user, this means "clean" reproduction. With the new cheaper SSA preamp I have used these Class A amps for the main gain stage to try and get this attribute as well, with IC opamps for the following stages. Matching the performance of the Class A with the ICs has been the subject of quite alot of tweaking in this design.

You mentioned being pressured to make changes to the MA-2, which was remodelled into the MA-2.2. Can you tell me what that was about?

Well it was not really pressure, but encouragement, I suppose. The original MA-2 didn't look too hot, very plain, a bit fragile, but functional. So I worked on the cosmetics and chassis construction to make the preamp more suitable to the international market. Bringing something such as the MA-2.2 to market is a time consuming and costly exercise and at the time I thought: "Who's going to buy it anyway?". Encouragement from others made me persevere in finishing it, and there we have it.

To your mind, what separates a top end mic preamp from the lesser ones?

The best way to answer this would be to describe what I hear when comparing a MA-2.2 to a common console preamp with a mono vocal as the source. "Size" is the biggest difference I hear. Instead of the sound being a small "unit" or pinpoint between the monitors, the MA-2.2 preamp is larger, it appears to have an image, even though it is mono. Of course you do need to have good monitoring to hear it. There are many top end preamps that provide more color than the MA-2.2, but the effect is still the same. Other attributes of a "top end" preamp would be clean mids with no top end clutter and tight bass with good extension. The ability to relay music rather than just sound is very important. This is very hard to describe you understand, and it's something you will know when you hear it. We have many users who have discovered the difference a top quality preamp can make to the sound of even the most boring microphones.

I like what you said about a top end mic pre having the ability to relay music rather than just sound. Is there a way as a designer that you test a mic preamps ability to relay music?

I should clarify that a good preamp is not only used for music, but finds application in other forms of recording, voice over, post production and foley are some examples. Foley recording requires a very quiet preamp in order to pickup a pin drop without any hiss. That said, I believe that any audio electronics that can reproduce a square wave accurately will sound transparent and relay the music. There are of course other considerations, but this test demonstrates to me the circuitry's ability to faithfully reproduce what appears at the input. A square wave is made up of a fundamental frequency plus harmonics of that frequency. A perfect square wave has harmonics extending to infinity, in practice, there is a limit to the highest harmonic. As you can imagine, reproducing such a signal rather than a single tone is a fairly harsh test, this applies not only to amplifiers, but also to recording mediums. Early 44.1 kHz digital systems had very bad square wave performance, accounting for the often bad sound.

I note that none of the Buzz products utilize tube circuits. In a musical sense, are there any advantages to one kind of design over another such as tube circuits versus solid-state?

That is the ultimate million-dollar question within the audio world. My opinion: If you want low noise, wide frequency response, and low cost, then solid state is the only way to go. Tube circuits that perform well are expensive to build. In a musical sense, I would have to say it is easier to get a tube circuit sounding "nice" than solid state, especially if you are designing with intergrated circuits. This is my opinion. I do not think there is a clear-cut answer to this question. We all know there is some very nice solid state gear available, as well as not so nice tube stuff.

By the way, we did do a few tube mic pre/DI boxes a few years back. These were only sold in New Zealand under the Farrantec brand name, and used a recycled Gates preamp module we picked up at a surplus sale. These were boxes that connected to the power supply via an umbilical cord so you could run them out in the studio right up to the mic or instrument and send line level back to the control room. We just might make some more of these one day.

What do you mean when you say you are running the circuits hot?

What I mean is that the amplifier output stages run TRUE Class A bias. They are capable of driving low impedence and/or capacitive loads without sagging or distortion rises. To achieve this (I'll try not to get too technical), the output stage bias has to run at least twice the current you wish to be able to deliver to the load. So, you end up with a lot of power wasted as heat. To deliver 10v RMS (+22dBu) into 600 ohms you need to deliver approx 16.6 milliamperes of audio current. This is a lot and luckily we don't see 600 ohm equipment anymore. The Buzz Audio Class A amp will deliver +22dBu into 1200 ohms before the distortion spec begins to rise. It runs 16mA of bias, so gets quite warm, and once you get a few of these modules into a 1U case, the whole thing makes a good effects rack warmer.

Do any of the Buzz preamps use transformers for the audio path?

Most of our current products are transformerless, however the MA2.2 (and the new SSA1.1 mic pre) can be fitted with Sowter output transformers. They do add a nice "tone" to the sound without loosing the top-end air.

New Zealand is a bit off the beaten path. How has the internet changed the way you look at and conduct your business and has it changed your place in the international recording-gear market?

Without the evolution of the internet we probably would not be here in the international markets to any degree. As it stands, we still have a long way to go in getting the Buzz Audio name out there amongst potential users. Until as recently as 1999, making our products was more or less a hobby, along with all the other things we do here.

The advent of email and web pages has had a significant impact on communication with us, it's as though the 1000+ miles of ocean does not exist (except when you try to ship something!). It's funny sometimes, we'll get an email (for example) from a nightclub in downtown Boston wanting a new sound system installed not realising we are actually based in New Zealand.

Before the internet, the cost of finding and setting up a distributor in a new country was prohibitive for us. Obtaining special parts catalogues, pricing and samples was a nightmare, now it's all online. Things happen a lot faster (plus my single finger typing skills are much improved).

So yes, it has changed the way we do business and it has certainly generated new business. I think the next step might be webcam so we can see who we are talking to. The one flaw with telephones and email: No body language.

--Steven Langer

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