With how we take stereo sound for granted, there was a very long period where broadcast audio and television with accompanying audio track were in mono. Over the decades, multiple standards were developed that provide a way to transmit and receive two mono tracks, as a proper stereo transmission. In a recent video, [Matt] over at [Matt’s Tech Barn] takes a look at the German Zweikanalton (also known as A2 Stereo) standard, and compares it with the NICAM standard that was used elsewhere in the world.
Zweikanalton is quite simple compared to NICAM (which we covered previously), being purely analog with a second channel transmitted alongside the first. Since it didn’t really make much of a splash outside of the German-speaking countries, equipment for it is more limited. In this video [Matt] looks at the Philips PM 5588 and Rohde & Schwarz 392, analyzing the different modulations for FM, Zweikanalton and NICAM transmissions and the basic operation of the modulator and demodulator equipment.
An interesting aspect of these modulations are the visible sidebands, and the detection of which modulation is used. Ultimately NICAM’s only disadvantage compared to Zweikanalton was the higher cost of the hardware, but with increased technological development single-chip NICAM solutions like the Philips SAA7283 (1995) began to reduce total system cost and by the early 2000s NICAM was a standard feature of TV chipsets, just in time for analog broadcast television to essentially become irrelevant.
Running a radio station is, on the face of it, a straightforward technical challenge. Build a studio, hook it up to a transmitter, and you’re good to go. But what happens when your station is not a single Rebel Radio-style hilltop installation, but a national chain of transmitter sites fed from a variety of city-based studios? This is the problem facing the BBC with their national UK FM transmitter chain, and since the 1980s it has been fed by a series of NICAM digital data streams. We mentioned back in 2016 how the ageing equipment had been replaced with a modern FPGA-based implementation without any listeners noticing, and now thanks to [Matt Millman], we have a chance to see a teardown of the original 1980s units. The tech is relatively easy to understand from a 2020s perspective, but it still contains a few surprises.
In each studio or transmitter site would have been a 19″ rack containing one of these units — a card frame with a collection of encoder or decoder cards. These are all custom-made by the BBC’s engineering department to a very high standard, and use period parts such as the familiar Z80 microprocessor and some Philips digital audio chips, which followers of high-end consumer audio may recognize. As you’d expect for a mission critical device, many of the functions are duplicated for redundancy, with their outputs compared to give warning of failures.
The surprise comes in the NICAM encoder and decoder — it’s a custom LSI chip made exclusively for the BBC. This indicates the budget available to the national broadcaster, and given that these units have in some cases been working for over 35 years, we’re guessing that the license payers got their money’s worth.
Although for many the introduction of color television would have seemed to be the pinnacle of analog broadcast television, the 1970s saw the development of stereo audio systems to go with TV broadcasts, including the all-digital NICAM. With NICAM broadcasts having ceased for about a decade now, the studio equipment for encoding and modulating NICAM can now be picked up for cheap. This led [Matthew Millman] to not only buy a stack of Philips NICAM studio gear, but also tear them down and set up a fully working NICAM encoding/decoding system with an Arcam Delta 150 as receiver and Philips PM5687 encoder.
Finally, the Philips PM5688 test receiver is analyzed. This is the component that studios would have used to ensure that the NICAM encoding and modulating systems were working properly. Although public NICAM broadcasts started in the late 1980s, the system was originally developed to enable point to point transfers of audio data within a transmission system. This was made very easy due to the digital nature of the system, and made enabling it for public broadcasts relatively straightforward once receivers became affordable enough.
Of note is that NICAM was only ever used in Europe and some Asian-Pacific countries, with others using the German Zweikanalton. This was a purely analog (two FM channels) system, and the US opted to use its MTS system, that was quite similar to the German system in terms of transmitting multiple FM channels alongside the TV signal. With digital TV gradually overtaking analog TV transmissions, the future of NICAM, MTS and others was sealed, leaving us with just these time capsules we can build up using old studio equipment.
What happens when part of a radio transmitting service listened to by over half the country needs to be replaced? That was a recent challenge for the BBC’s Research and Development team last year, and if you’re from the UK — you wouldn’t have noticed a single thing.
[Justin Mitchell] is a principle engineer in R&D at BBC, and just this past year had to transition the audio coding system installed in 1983 to new hardware due to failing circuit boards and obsolete components. The encoding is used to get audio from a central source to broadcasting towers all over the country. The team had to design and build a replacement module that would essentially replace an entire server rack of ancient hardware — and make it plug-and-play. Easy, right? Continue reading “35 Million People Didn’t Notice When Zynq Took Over Their Radio”→