Actually that title has absolutely nothing to do with the subject of this post; it just felt fun to type. I just finished restoring this mid-50s Gates preamp for a friend and I wanted to share.
First a little background: The Gates Corporation began manufacturing radio equipment in 1922; the preamp I restored–a “BiaMote”–was manufactured right around 1956. As I wrote in an earlier post about preamps, the Gates units really have everything I love about vintage audio gear: cool industrial finishes, the distinctly aeronautic smell of weathered insulation, and burly, overbuilt components. If you’d like to spend a few extremely dull minutes you’ll never get back, you can browse past Gates company newsletters here.
In any event, this unit was designed to handle off-site broadcasts (the clunky name denotes its dual inputs and “remote” ability). Picture, say, a football game: The announcer, plus a guest, can each plug their microphones into the back of the mixer. The output, via three lugs, taps into a phone line, and is powerful to drive a signal down several miles of cable to the radio station proper.
This highlights a chief problem with using one of these units in a recording studio: The output is typically WAY too hot to use with the master gain set anywhere above about “2.” Another concomitant issue is, of course, noise, of which there is aplenty. The topology features three pentodes (EF86s or 5879s, depending on the version) in a row driving a 12AU7. I’ve restored a number of these units in the past, and tried all sorts of wacky stratagems, including losing a gain stage or strapping the first pentode for triode. But at the end of the day, it seems more expedient to let these beasts just be what they are: A high-output, somewhat noisy and very colored tube preamp. Small mods like substituting modern metal film resistors and removing the dual input attenuators bring the unit more gently into the realm of modern, usable studio pres.
Don’t think I’m trying to undersell these units; they’ve been my absolute go-to on electric instruments for years, and they even find their way onto lead vocal and drum tracks. That “pushed” pentode sound is absolutely killer on electric guitar, and gives anything you can put through it a pleasing, slightly saturated “halo.”
In addition to a fresh powder-coat finish, this unit got new cabling, a variable negative feedback control to increase the fierceness even further, and a switch to take the meter out of circuit to reduce unwanted distortion.
I have one more of these clunky metal bricks on the bench right now; I’m thinking a switchable input pad might be a useful mod as well…. These units are a real treat to dig into and restore: They’re simple enough that lunkheads like myself can comprehend them, and on an aesthetic level they clean up very nicely with a moderate amount of effort.
Thanks for looking, and sharing my love of crusty old audio junk! Speaking of which, I’ll leave you with this absolutely twisted paean to the “Golden Age of American Radio,” produced by some folks whose dedication to these antiques far outstrips mine.