ProRec Interview: John Hardy Part 2

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on in May 2000, contributed by then Contributing Editor Bill Park. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

When I think of the M-1, I think of high-quality audio, and a product that eschews the bells and whistles and flashing lights that are so prevalent on products today.

I certainly agree on “quality”. I encourage customers to take the cover off of the M-1 and take a look inside. I am proud of the quality of design, quality of construction, quality of parts, serviceability, long term reliability, ruggedness, etc.

I apply common sense, practicality, and quality to my designs. I use the word “Excellence” in my ads. I don’t want my front panels to look like a lava flow. That would be counter productive. After all, are we running a fashion show, or trying to get a job done in the most efficient way possible? The front panels have a brushed, black anodized finish with white markings for the greatest contrast ratio when reading those markings. This is a traditional finish, and for good reason. The front panel and particularly the knobs have a non-reflective finish to eliminate reflections that would make it harder to read the position of the knobs or read the panel markings. The knobs have great feel, thanks to the traditional, fine diamond knurl. They have a laser-cut ceramic insert that allows the user to feel which way the knob is pointing, and to see which way it is pointing. Even the knob is a small, but critical part.

“Few bells, whistles or flashing lights”: Well, this IS a MIC PREAMP. Nothing more, nothing less. It is not a Swiss army knife, just one of the best damned mic preamps on the planet, even with over 300 other makes and models of mic preamps out there. Still, there are a couple of “bells and whistles” that I thought were extremely important: LED back-lit switches (dimly lit when OFF, brightly lit when ON), and a comprehensive meter. There are far too many switches in the world of audio, and there is no excuse for a push button switch that does not clearly indicate whether it is IN or OUT. I have a Nakamichi Dragon cassette deck, and I practically have to get a micrometer out to tell whether the buttons are up or down.

I think that great metering is extremely important in a mic preamp. The mic preamp is where the “great unknown” arrives, and it must be quantified and dealt with. A meter is almost essential. Sure, we can all get by without it if necessary, but it is extremely helpful

In our product he meter is the VU-1 option. It has a 20 segment LED display, 15 yellow and 5 red LEDs. The scale is 2dB per step, from -28 to +10VU, with the 0VU point normally calibrated to represent an output level of +4dBu. There is a switch that provides PEAK or VU ballistics. There is a separate clip-LED, normally calibrated to fire at output levels of +22dBu. The M-1 is capable of almost +26dBu output levels. There are ten op-amps in this meter circuit, more than you will find in the entire channel of a lot of consoles out there. And they are probably better quality than the op-amps you will find in many of those consoles. Just for a meter. But those op-amps needed to have sufficent slew rate, AND very low DC offset to work to my desired specs. The meter actually responds to DC signals, and it is helpful during initial calibration of the input Bias Current Compensation circuit.

I remember when you were working on the M-2, which is basically a modified M-1. You gathered the opinions of a lot of our on-line brethren for that piece. What are the functional differences between the M-1 and M-2?

The M-1 and M-2 are identical with two exceptions:

1. The M-1 has a continuously variable gain control (actually a dual-range gain control with 12-40dB on the low range, 32-60dB on the high range, the range selected by the “HIGH GAIN” switch next to the gain control). The M-2 has a 16-position gain switch with equal steps of 3dB from 15-60dB.

2. The M-1 has a dual range gain function because of limitations of potentiometers. It is better to have two smaller ranges with some overlap, rather than one large range. This is due to problems of contact resistance and contact resistance variation. If I provided one large range, the gain control could get a bit touchy at the highest gain settings. It is better to use a two-section pot (10k and 500 ohms) so the 500 ohm section can be used when the highest gain settings (therefore the lowest resistance settings) are required. The HIGH GAIN switch provides the switching from one range to the other.

Since the M-2 does not use potentiometers, it does not suffer from their problems, so it does not need a HIGH GAIN switch. Therefore, the switch formerly known as the “HIGH GAIN” switch in the M-1 can be used for other purposes in the M-2: either a “20 OHM MIC” switch or a “20dB PAD” switch, depending on which resistors are installed on the p.c. board. The 20 OHM MIC switch adds a 68.1 ohm resistor in series with each side of the signal line prior to the JT-16-B input transformer. This allows the JT-16-B input transformer to look back at a 20 ohm mic and see the series total of the mic and the two 68.1 ohm resistors, for a total of about 150 ohms. This is the optimum source impedance for the transformer. The 20dB PAD switch adds a 619 ohm resistor in series with each side of the signal line and a 169 resistor across the line as a simple resistive pad.

So, in the M-1 you have a HIGH GAIN switch. In the M-2 you have a choice of either the 20 OHM MIC switch or the 20dB PAD switch.

So this gives the user a different kind of ‘control’?

Some people like to be able to match the gains on a stereo pair of mics. The gain switch of the M-2 makes this easy. The user is also able to reset the gain controls to previous settings. However, the gain of the M-2 can only be adjusted in steps of 3dB. The gain potentiometer of the M-1 allows virtually infinite resolution so that the user can make adjustments (ride gain) during a performance. It is not as easy to get exact matching of channels or to exactly go back to previous settings, although the Clarostat pots are remarkably consistent from one unit to the next. These are the tradeoffs. I personally like the infinite adjustment of the M-1, since I think the real world calls for the riding of gain and/or other adjustments that can not be handled in steps of 3dB. But, “you pays your money and you takes your choice”. The general performance should be virtually identical between the M-1 and M-2.

I get the feeling that this is all very personal to you.

There is a lot of personal interpretation and style in the design of the M-1, but it is all in the interests of making a mic preamp that works for a very long time, provides excellent performance and user interface, and does it as economically as possible. I use what I believe to be the world’s best mic input transformer (Jensen JT- 16-B), a great discrete class-A op-amp (the 990C), no coupling capacitors anywhere in the signal path, great packaging features as mentioned above, etc. Any approach that gets away from those basic principles is a “trend” that I will gladly avoid. With 299 other mic preamps out there it is hard to cut through the product noise and fads and trends to realize the “excellence” of the M-1.

Metering is an option on the M-1 and M-2, as are the output transformers. What about output transformers?

Almost everyone that calls me asks about the output transformers! So I explain about the benefits of the isolated, floating output in situations where there are ground-loops, etc. Then I try to explain about the sonic aspects of the transformers. This involves various examples of customers who have heard an M-1 both ways. Some customers like both sounds. Masterfonics has two four channel M-1s, each one having two channels WITH the output transformers and two channels WITHOUT them.

A couple of years ago I added a nice little connector for the four wires that come from the output transformer. I had previously used insulation displacement terminals on the main p.c. board, which was somewhat of a hassle. It was so much easier to install/remove the transformers that I started to mention it to customers. I made the offer that if they bought an M-1 WITH the transformers, I would include the plug-in jumper connectors that are installed when there is NO output transformer. That way the customer could try it both ways during the 15-day trial period by just unplugging the transformer and plugging-in the jumper. I have offered this to dozens of customers, and they have taken me up on the offer, and NOBODY has returned the transformers. So, either they are all changing the setup as needed, or they all loved it so much with the transformers that they figured “I’m not touching this thing”.

When I ordered my M-1 I only saw one racking option package. Didn’t you used to offer other enclosure packages?

I did do a custom installation for the NBC affiliate in Chicago. There was a total of almost 150 channels. The mic preamps were a variation of the basic MPC-1 card that is used in the M-1, with a right-angle header connector at the rear instead of XLRs. The cards were installed vertically in a custom card-frame, twelve channels per frame with an outboard power supply. There was a 2nd chassis that had three additional output transformers per channel on it, and a multi-pin connector between the two chassis. This provided a total of four separate transformer coupled outputs for each channel, one on the original MPC-1 mic preamp card, the other three on the other “TS-1″ card. Perhaps this is what you were thinking of. But the M-1 and M-2 are housed in a sturdy one rack space chassis. The chassis will hold 4 preamps, so you can buy the mainframe and one mic pre now, and add the others later. There is also the M-1 Personal mic preamp, which is only 8” wide. It is just wide enough for the standard power supply circuitry and ONE channel. Put it in a briefcase, carry-on luggage, wherever it is convenient.

Give us an application where the M-1 particularly shines.

My data package says “Rediscover your microphones.” I have some customers who do virtually everything through M-1 mic preamps. Kick, snare, entire projects.

I talk to Glenn Meadows often, and I recently traded e-mails with Frank Wells. I miss the comradery the group of us used to share on line. I learned a lot from that bunch.

It was a good and civil place to go. I will be eternally indebted to Bob Olhsson for straightening me out on who the main bass player was for much of the Motown-era work on such songs as Bernadette (Four Tops), and I was Made to Love Her (Stevie Wonder) and others. It was James Jamerson. Jamerson and Paul McCartney were major influences on my bass playing. Glenn Meadows, Frank Wells and many others are great contributors to the advancement of the work we all do. And it was spamless!

I was always amazed at the caliber of the people who used to post there. We are trying to create a similar feel here at ProRec. Any ‘Lost John Hardy Tapes’ due to surface? I’ve never heard you play.

There are tapes, but nothing that is presentable until I do some serious processing to get rid of noise, do some EQ and so on. Some day… Being a bass player, I am the proud owner of a Hammond B3, BV and four Leslies (1×122 and 3×145). Oh, and I hate drum machines.

I can understand about the drum machines. As a bass player you would get no feedback from the other half of the rhythm section. But what about those Hammonds?

I worked with a Hammond player in the early ’70s. After the band broke up, he traded his C3 in on a “String Ensemble” in 1973. DUH!!! We never let him live it down. He tried for twelve years to simulate the sound of a C3, but finally gave up and bought what he thought was a B3 from someone in Boston (he lives in Chicago). It cost him around $850 for the organ, and almost as much to have it trucked in from Boston, and it turned out to be something other than a B3, and in terrible shape.

So I took a radical approach: I looked in the want-ads in the Chicago Tribune (I live in Evanston, first suburb north of Chicago), and found a great B3 and #145 Leslie for $1100. My Hammond-playing friend came along to help me check out the B3. I negotiated the price down from about $1500, and as we were pulling away, my friend told me he almost started bidding against me! It was a good laugh.

The Hammond BV and #122 Leslie were purchased through the want-ads a few months later for about $800. I bought another #145 Leslie from the want-ads the following year, and yet another at a church rummage sale a few years later. Hey – I love those things! Play some simple chords, turn the Leslie rotors on and off, it’s awesome.

How does one get to become a preamp maker from being a bass player?

One thing leads to another, then another… I’ve been working with electronics as far back as High School, building Heathkits and Knight kits. I barely graduated high school in 1965. “db” Magazine had some interesting technical articles back then that were helpful. I was working in various bands, building PA equipment in the later ’60s and into the mid 70s. I built a 4-channel tape recorder in 1969/1970 by gutting a Roberts (Akai) 1/4″ stereo recorder and building custom electronics for it. It actually worked!

I did freelance design work now and then in the 70s. I designed and supervised the construction of two large consoles for dB Sound of Chicago in 1977, for the Fall ’77 tour of the group Kansas.

I had worked with Kansas the previous year, for AudioFreqs. They were out with Queen and Styx. We hoped to get the Kansas tour, but we ended up on the road with Styx instead. It was a mixed blessing. Styx was fun, and though I enjoyed the music of Kansas more, their engineer didn’t want us to use any system protection. We had ‘Gain Brains’ for speaker and amp protection. He wanted to bypass them.

Interesting note about Kansas: On the tour, they started the opening of the song “Carry On Our Wayward Son…” with the lights turned out. Voices only. No instruments. When the instruments came in, the lights came on. The vocal opening in darkness came from a Crown reel-to-reel tape recorder!

The console project was wild. I had done some preliminary design work on the main module and meter card, but the rest of the design was vapor when I got the OK to proceed. The entire project was completed in 90 days, built in the small town of Alto Pass, Illinois, population 300. A friend started a small company to do the work. We had to teach a dozen high-school kids how to solder, etc. Several of us did not get a whole lot of sleep for quite a while there. Ohhhh, the stories I could tell.

Finally the consoles were sent out to the tour, which was already in progress. I stayed with the consoles for two days to make sure everything was OK. It wasn’t until the first performance with the consoles in Largo, Maryland that I really got a feeling of accomplishment and pride. The concert was under way, things seemed to be working well, so I decided to take a bathroom break. I walked toward an exit that was off to the left and behind the FOH console about 50 feet away. I looked back toward the console just before I exited. There were 32 channels of LED meters dancing up and down, dozens of other red, yellow and green LEDs that were lit up to indicate which push-buttons were activated. It looked so cool! It wasn’t until that moment that it all came together for me. 90 days of insanity, then this really cool moment.

The main modules from those consoles can sometimes be found on the used market. Those consoles used the Jensen JE-115K-E mic input transformer, which was my first use of Deane Jensen’s products. There were also provisions for an API2520-style op-amp in certain locations in those consoles. I had worked up an op-amp module of my own that had an 8-pin DIP op-amp with current boosting transistors. But then Deane Jensen introduced the JE990 discrete op-amp circuitry in 1979, making it public-domain so that anyone could build it. I decided to work the 990 circuit into an API2520-style package, and that was my first regular product.

The next logical thing to do was to build a mic preamp based on the 990 and the recommended input transformer for it, the JE-16-A. I pestered Deane until he made a square-can version of the JE-16-A, known as the JE-16-B. The square can was more space efficient than the round can of the “A” version, making my first mic preamp product, the MPC-500C, possible.

And The John Hardy Company was born. But I’m curious… all these years on line, and no web site?

Sad, but true. I have four names registered, but no info yet. I need to get some HPGL files transferred from several old Hewlett Packard workstations to the PC world. Then I can get some pdf files ready.

You’ve been in the business a long time. Any words of wisdom to share with the rest of us?

Strive for excellence. Work from your heart.

Besides the John Hardy Company, and playing bass, you have time for a hobby?

I drive a 1973 GMC van, which I bought new in 1973 (ordered it special), and has been fully restored (a never ending project). 4:10 posi axle ratio, Edlebrock intake manifold and carb, mild cam, Thorley Tri-Y headers.

Sounds too technical for me!

For more information The John Hardy Company can be reached at 1.847.864.8060. The M-1 and M-2 have become such staples in the world of high quality recording that anything we might have to say about it would be totally redundant. In spite of that, Garry Simmons and I plan to do a major use test. Look for our comments in an upcoming ProRec.