A 1950s Ampex Tape Recorder Microphone Preamplifier Restoration

So often when we read of a modification on a classic piece of tube electronics we prepare to wince, as such work often results in senseless butchery of a well-preserved survivor. With [Frank Olson]’s work on a 1958 Ampex 601 tape recorder though we were pleasantly surprised, because while he makes a modification to allow its use as a stand-alone microphone preamplifier he also performs an extremely sympathetic upgrade to modern components and retains it in substantially the form it left the Ampex factory.

The video below the break is a satisfying wallow in pre-PCB-era construction for any of the generation who cut their teeth on tube, chassis, and tag strip electronics. We can almost smell the phenolic as he carefully removes time-expired capacitors and fits modern replacements complete with period features such as sheathing over their leads. The larger multiway can electrolytics are left in the chassis, with their modern miniaturised equivalents nestling underneath them out of sight. We all know that electronic components have become a lot smaller over the decades, but it’s still a bit of a shock to see just how tiny even a high voltage electrolytic has become.

The Ampex would have been a very high quality tape recorder when new, and while this one has a problem with its mechanism it’s that quality that makes it easier for him to do this work in 2020. There’s every chance that this one could be returned to service as a tape recorder if someone was of a mind to fix it, and meanwhile it will give Frank excellent service as a high quality pre-amp. This is how resto-mods should be done!

Ampex are very much still in existence making digital storage products, but back in the 1950s they were at the forefront of analogue magnetic tape technology. We’ve written in the past about how Bing Crosby had a hand in the development of high quality tape recorders, and also about Ampex’s part in the gestation of the video recorder.

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A 3.3 V Tube Preamp Without An Inverter

If you’ve ever worked with vacuum tubes, you’ll probably have a healthy appreciation for high voltage power supplies. These components require higher potentials to get those electrons moving, or so we’re told. It’s not the whole truth though, as [Albert van Dalen] demonstrates with his tube preamplifier running from only 3.3 V. If your first thought is that he must have made a flyback converter to step that voltage up to something more useful then you’re in for a surprise, because the single 6J6 pentode really does run from just 3.3 volts. Even its heater, normally supplied with 6.3 V, takes the lower voltage.

The circuit appears at first sight to be a conventional single-ended design, but closer examination reveals a grid bias circuit more reminiscent of a bipolar transistor. This results in a positive grid voltage rather than the more usual negative, and an unusually high 0.3 mA grid current. The cathode current is only  0.15 mA, but the preamplifier delivers a 3.5x gain. There is more detail on his website.

It would be interesting to subject this circuit to a full audio analysis and comparison with a more conventional design. As with so much in the world of audio there’s some smoke and mirrors around what constitutes the so-called “valve sound”, and it’s a question whether the satisfaction comes through the sound itself or the bragging rights of having a unit with a vacuum tube on show.  Still, this is a simple enough design which takes few resources to build, so we look forward to seeing further experimentation. Careful though – down the vacuum audio route can lie folly.

DIY Turntable In A Beautiful Wooden Case

Old timers who have been around for the last 40 years or so have been fortunate enough to have lived through several audio reproduction technologies – Vinyl Records, Cassette Tapes, Laser Disks and CD-ROM’s. Most will also swear that analog, especially vinyl records, sounded the best. And when it comes to amplifiers, nothing comes close to the richness of vacuum tubes.

[MCumic10] had a long time desire to build his own HiFi turntable encased in a nice wooden housing, with the electronics embedded inside. When he chanced upon an old and battered turntable whose mechanism barely worked, he decided to plunge right in to his pet project. The result, at the end of many long months of painstaking work, is a stunning, beautiful, wooden turntable. Especially since in his own words, “I didn’t have any experience in electronics or woodworking before I started this project so it took me many long months in learning analyzing and frustration. I burned some electronic parts few times and made them from the beginning.”

The build is a mix of some off the shelf modules that he bought off eBay and other sources, and some other modules that he built himself. He’s divided the build in to several bite sized chunks to make it easy to follow. The interesting parts are the 6N3 Valve Preamplifier (the main amplifier is solid-state), the motorized Remote Volume Control Input kit, and the Nixie tube channel indicator. And of course the layered, plywood casing. By his own reckoning, this was the toughest and longest part of his build, requiring a fairly large amount of elbow grease to get it finished. He hasn’t yet measured how much it tips the scales, but it sure looks very heavy. The end result is quite nice, especially for someone who didn’t have much experience building such stuff.

Thanks [irish] for sending in this tip.

Tube Headphones Rock Out While Keeping The Family Peace


It’s hard being a kid sometimes. [Young] likes his music, but his dad is an overnight trucker. With his dad sleeping during the day, [Young] has to keep the volume down to a reasonable level. He could have bought some commercial headphones, but he wanted something a bit more customized. Rather than give up on his tunes, he built a pair of headphones with an internal tube preamp amplifier. [German language link — Google translate doesn’t want to work with this one but Chrome’s translate feature works].

Two 1SH24B preamp tubes feed two LM386 amplifier chips, creating a hybrid amplifier. The 1SH24B tubes are designed to work on battery voltage, so a step up circuit wasn’t necessary. However, [Young] still needed to provide an 8 cell battery pack to run his amp. Speakers were a 3 way coaxial of [Young’s] own design. He built the headphone frame using candy tins and cups from commercial headphones. A final touch was a window so everyone can see all that vacuum state goodness.  Considering that [Young] is only 16, we’re looking for some great things from him in the future.

If you don’t want to strap the tubes to your skull there are other options. But you have to admit it makes for a cool look. Starbucks here we come.

[Thanks Patrick]