One of the greatest companies in the history of professional music recording started in 1964 and supplied consoles and equipment to some of the finest recording studios in the world throughout the late 1960s, 1970s and into the early 1980s. Some of the greatest hits in the history of popular music have been recorded through their consoles and using their equipment in places like The Record Plant and Atlantic Recording Studios in New York City, Advision in London, Lararabee Sound Studios and MGM Records in Hollywood, California and American Recording Studios, Ardent Recording Studios and Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee. A modest list of the artists who have recorded on their consoles and equipment could include: John Lennon, Aerosmith, Sly and The Family Stone, Don McClean, Alice Cooper, The Isley Brothers, Three Dog Night, BB King, The Allman Brothers, Billy Joel, The Bee Gees, The Box Tops, The Eagles, America, The Who, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Sam and Dave, Booker T and the MGs, Isaac Hayes, ZZ Top, Big Star, The Staple Singers, Otis Redding, Led Zeppelin and James Taylor. If you were looking at the company name from the 1960s and 1970s, it would have been Spectra (the name Spectrasonics is now taken by a digital audio software company). But, today, that company is now Spectra1964 and the legacy of its amazing products and equipment and of the incredible gentleman who designed them is carried on by two gentlemen— Bill Cheney and Jim Romney, who continue to build some of the greatest products in the world of professional music recording at their company headquarters in Ogden, Utah.
Pictured above is the legendary Spectra console that would be the centerpiece of one of the greatest recording studios in the history of popular music-- Stax Recording Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. Image courtesy-- Spectra1964.
The founder of Spectra was none other than one of the most accomplished engineers in the history of professional audio recording, William G. “Bill” Dilley. If Dilley was only known for his accomplishments in the world of professional audio recording, he would be and truly is one of its most legendary and accomplished figures. However, his work in professional audio engineering is just one very small part of the fascinating story of the founder of Spectra. When we speak about people who are highly intelligent, we often throw out the term, “Rocket Scientist,” but in the case of Bill Dilley, it might just be an understatement.
Born and raised in America’s heartland, Bill Dilley, was an accomplished pilot, a fabulous engineer and a hero of the Second World War. He became an experienced U.S. Army Air Corps pilot during the Second World War— shooting down enemy aircraft and even after having his own plane shot down, evading capture during the Battle of the Bulge, which was the decisive engagement that allowed the Allied forces to be able to begin to bring the conflict in Europe to a conclusion. After the war, Dilley remained with the US Army Air Corps, even after it would become the newly christened, U.S. Air Force and throughout the 1950s rose through the ranks to both establish procedures for the flight of jet aircraft in combat and to become a tactical unit commander in Europe during the height of the Cold War. But, even in the U.S. Air Force, Dilley was more than just a fantastic pilot and an important tactical unit commander, he was also a brilliant engineer whose work was consequential to the defense of the free world during the Cold War. In fact, Bill Dilley became the Chief of Electronic Engineering for America’s ballistic missile systems. These systems included the Thor, Atlas, Titan and The Minuteman ballistic missile systems. He was the instrumental figure in the development of The Minuteman missile system, including being singularly responsible for reducing the required countdown time for the missile prior to launch. Also, he was heavily involved in the transition from tube to transistor technology in HF/RF communication.
So, the question becomes— “How does an engineer who is responsible for developing crucial missile defense systems, an accomplished pilot and a key military mind, become interested in the world of professional music recording?” It was a friend who helped convince Bill Dilley to bring his immense skills and talents into the world of professional audio recording. And this friend, who was a true legend in the history of popular music and entertainment, was none other than the pioneering musician, songwriter, engineer and inventor— Les Paul. Dilley loved music and professional audio and soon, he became a constant contributor to AUDIO magazine. He wrote articles about recording technologies, from consoles to compressor/limiters. In the late 1950s, he built a tube preamp. Later, he parlayed his designs into a small company that started in his home basement which made highly advanced tube-based preamps, mixers and power amplifiers. He called it, “Custom Engineering by Dilley.” But, by 1964, he had seen the light with transistors and became convinced that he could create professional audio products that were superior to what was being used in the world of professional music recording at the time. With that in mind, a new company would soon be born— Spectra Sonics, and today, it is perhaps the best kept secret in the history of professional music recording.
In this picture, are on the left, William P. "Bill and seated to his right, is his beautiful wife, Jean. Image courtesy-- Spectra1964.
Eliminate the Cause; Don’t Minimize the Effect
One of the true companies that would usher in the modern era of professional music recording began creating products based on solid state, discrete designs in 1964. In fact, from 1965 to 1969, Spectra (as it will be referred to in this article at this point in its history) developed some of the greatest products in the history of professional music recording at a time when technological innovation in the field was quite rapid. One has to just step back a moment to remember what the professional audio world was like in the period from 1965-1969. Brand names in the professional audio world that people associate with vintage or classical consoles either did not exist, or as companies were actually in their infancy during the period from 1965-1969. A bit of a history lesson is in order— especially to understand the crucial significance of Bill Dilley’s work at Spectra during this period. Though Rupert Neve had also started his company at about the same time, his products were mostly targeted at the professional broadcast industry and it was not until the early 1970s that it would make significant inroads into the professional music recording market. API and SSL both began as companies in 1968 and 1969 respectively, but neither of them gained a foothold in the music recording market until the decade of the 1960s came to a close. Trident— another name associated with vintage or classical consoles and products from this period, did not yet exist, at all (it started as a company in 1970). So, if Neve, API, SSL and Trident were not behind the hit songs from the Golden Age of Music during the mid-to-late 1960s, the question really becomes— who was? The answer is actually quite simple— Spectra was one of those companies that was truly behind the creation of the Golden Age of Music.
Bill Dilley brought the same non-nonsense attitude that had made him a success in the US Air Force into the world of professional music recording. In the beginning, the company created amplifier modules, card frames, power supplies and equalizers for those who wanted to build custom consoles. During that time, a number of small firms built consoles for recording studio facilities using Spectra components. In 1964, the company created its first preamp— the 101. The 101 preamps created by Spectra were technological marvels— then and now. Due to the fact that the preamp did not overload due to transient peaks, it eliminated the need for overload indicators or even for VU meters. With their fabulous preamps and equalization units, the company began to branch out and to manufacture consoles for the first time beginning in 1968. Using Dilley’s exacting standards for reliability, quality and performance, the company would manufacture console for some of the greatest artists and recording studios of the period, including, but, not limited to models for both the Record Plant in New York City and Los Angeles and for artists such as Michael Jackson and The Carpenters. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find a hit record in America from this period, that at some point during its creation did not benefit from the use of Spectra equipment. In 1969, Dilley introduced another marvel of electronic engineering for the benefit of the music recording community, the 610 Complimiter, which became an industry standard and is still the quickest reacting device of its type and one of the smoothest sounding in the world, even today. This Complimiter would be strapped across the mix buss for a number of hit songs and used in mastering facilities throughout America during the late 1960s and into the 1970s. The equipment that Dilley designed at Spectra was so technologically advanced, that even today, none of the circuits have had to be changed, altered or updated in any fashion to work flawlessly in recording studios in the modern era.
Without a doubt, Spectra was one of the leading players in the professional audio world, manufacturing preamps, equalizers, amplifiers, Complimiters and consoles, but as the 1970s dawned, new brands and competitors appeared just over the horizon. When Spectra first started the process of making consoles it was in an era where consoles were custom made for studios by small firms or by engineers who actually worked in the facilities themselves. In America, first Electrodyne had been a formidable competitor that had also introduced some of the greatest technological breakthroughs in this early era in modern recording, as well. But by the late 1960s, it had given way to an off-shoot company, Quad Eight, that was a rising competitor to Spectra. Another company that was established in 1968 and built its first console in 1969 for a commercial recording studio facility was Automated Processes Incorporated, simply known around the world as API today. Plus, there were still individual engineers who were constructing custom consoles such as Daniel Flickinger. However, during the period, the first pair of companies in the United Kingdom to construct custom consoles, Helios and Sound Techniques were also great competitors (a number of Sound Techniques consoles found their way into studios in America during the late 1960s, such as the famed Sunset Sound Studios in Hollywood). But, by 1973, Neve and Trident had supplanted Helios and Sound Techniques and had started to make great inroads into American recording studio facilities. At the end of the 1970s, a new company, Solid State Logic (founded in 1969, though it did not produce consoles at that time), would emerge as one of the leading companies in the field of professional audio product and large-format console production. Spectra was a company in the forefront of this sector of the industry, but by 1978, that had changed.
With its amazing products being used in top-flight studios across America throughout the 1970s, it appeared that Spectra would continue to be one of the top companies in the field, but it was not to be. As automation began to change the landscape for large-format console manufacturers, Dilley did not wish to foray into creating consoles for this process— in large part, because he feared it would compromise the integrity of the quiet, but yet high-gain, electronics that he had created for his consoles. To put it simply, he did not want to raise the noise-floor with his equipment. Rather than compromise the standards of his equipment, Dilley quit manufacturing consoles in 1979, but continued to create high-performance audio products— power amplifiers and Complimiters for the professional broadcasting industry. And thus, a mighty chapter was closed in the story of Spectra, one of the greatest professional audio manufacturers in the history of music recording. Interestingly enough, the business continued its post-1970s manufacturing scheme until 2007, when two former employees— both from the twilight of the glory days of the company, Bill Cheney and Jim Romney, decided to resurrect one of the most legendary companies in the history of professional audio recording. It would not be an easy task.
Pictured in this image is the console that would eventually be the centerpiece of the legendary recording studio facility, The Record Plant in New York City. Image courtesy-- Spectra1964.
Spectra1964 is born—
None of the great technologies that were developed by Bill Dilley from 1965-1969 had actually changed or needed any modification. But, moving forward, the company had concentrated on broadcasting, despite the fact that they had once made amazing products for the purpose of music recording. By 2007, two former employees, Bill Chaney and Jim Romney, wanted to change the direction of the company. Eventually, they purchased the ability to recreate the Spectra product line, but there was a catch. By 2007, another company which produces music production software, named Spectrasonics had trademarked the rights to what would have been the original company’s brand name. Rather than quibble, Chaney and Romney re-opened the company as Spectra1964— taking the first part of the name of the original company and combining it with the year in which it was established. At first, the two old friends wanted to just manufacture the 610 Complimiter and then possibly foray into other products from that point. A chance phone call from one of the greatest engineering minds of all-time in the history of music production, changed their minds. Bill Cheney will never forget getting a call from none other than Roy Cicala, who had been the chief engineer and the studio manager of the Record Plant in New York City from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s.
If you do not know who Roy Cicala is, here are just a few of his engineering and production credits: John Lennon, Aretha Franklin, The Four Seasons, Madonna, Elvis Presley, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Frank Sinatra, Dire Straits, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Queen, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, The Who, Prince, Santana and the list could just keep going of legendary hitmakers whose seminal albums— and in some cases, their greatest hits of all-time, were recorded by him. When Roy Cicala called Bill Cheney, it was to make a request. In his opinion, Spectra1964 should build mic-preamps again. In fact, Cicala was so convinced that the idea would be a winner for both the company and the world of professional music recording that he made over a dozen phone calls over a six-month period to pitch the idea. He missed the sound, and the sheer inimitable quality of the Spectra preamps of old, that had been in the classic Record Plant consoles. It was that sound that had contributed to hundreds of hit records and songs that have become unforgettable for all of us who love popular music from the period of 1965-1985. Though Cheney would have a decision to make, it became clear to him that this was a product that could be featured in a new format— the 500-series. It led to Spectra1964, taking the time to create a whole new line-up of products, each of which are highly sought after and prized by engineers, producers, artists and musicians in the professional music recording world today.
Pictured in this image is the inside of the control room of the legendary recording studio, The Record Plant in New York City. The famed Spectra console is pictured in the foreground. Some of the greatest hit songs and albums in the history of popular music were recorded in this room. Image courtesy-- Spectra1964.
A Classical Line-up Returns
Today, Spectra1964 is one of the hottest companies in the world of professional music recording and its products— made by hand in their Ogden, Utah, factory just like they have been since 1964— are among the most sought-after in the world by the professional music recording community. If you want the authentic sound of the true Golden Age in Popular Music, or the 1960s, look no further than their line-up of classical products. The company makes three different product types for customers around the globe: 500-series modules, rack-mount processors and direct boxes. Spectra1964, also does something quite unique for their customers, in that their products can be custom-designed or tailored to your needs or desires.
Spectra1964 has a dazzling array of options that are available for its customers in the 500-series format. Like any other 500-series module, do not forget that when you purchase a module, it must be installed in an appropriate 500-series chassis. The first offerings in the 500-series from Spectra1964 are two modules which actually fit (no pun intended) hand-in-glove with one another— the STX 100 and the STX 500. The STX 100 is a sweet-sounding microphone preamp that gives you the sound of the classical Spectra consoles of the past and it can be connected to the STX 500, which is a 2-band equalization module that is also just like the musical equalization section that you would have found on the classic Spectra consoles of the past. (Note— do keep in mind that the STX 500 equalization module must be attached to the STX 100 preamp module, as it has no built-in connectivity of its own— in other words, it cannot function as a standalone unit.)
The company makes two other 500-series modules, as well, and both of them are destined to be new classics from an old blueprint. The new STX 100D preamp module is just like the preamp that Roy Cicala dreamed of having once more. It is a faithful, authentic module that can give you the true sound of the Record Plant, Stax and Ardent consoles of the 1960s and 1970s. It is a true classic made for the modern era of recording that hearkens back to the best of the brilliant Spectra technologies of the past. The final module in the Spectra1964 line-up is, of course, the STX 600 and it may be the most unique offering in their stellar line-up of 500-series modules. The STX 600 is both a complimiter and a microphone preamp— yes, you are reading this correctly. It contains the same circuitry as perhaps the fastest compressor/limiter and one of the greatest buss compressors of all-time (and to top it off, it is in the 500-series format). Imagine having nothing, but crystal clear gain with a sweet, creamy sound that takes away any of the peaks and eliminates any unwanted noise or distortion from your signal— in the STX 600, you can have just that— it is a classic technological marvel that just sounds fabulous (and we are not yet to the rack-mount gear).
The company offers two classic, rack-mount units— the Model C610 Complimiter and the V610 Complimiter— both of which are recording studio classics. It is the fastest, cleanest and quietest complimiter ever created. The C610 could be found as a stereo buss processor (you will need two units for doing that) or placed before record lathes in the process of cutting vinyl records (where peak limiting had to be just right). The C610 is now available and is just like purchasing a unit from the company in 1969, when it first made its debut. But, perhaps the greatest complimiter in the business is the Spectra V610 and it is also available once more from the company. Primarily designed for mastering facilities— this device allows you to shave off any peaks in your program material prior to processing, which allows engineers to effectively have more headroom for their content or program material. In other words, it was revolutionary in 1969 and it still is today.
Spectra1964 also makes the BB-DI and the BB-DI 2CH. These fabulous direct boxes are the envy of the industry and allow for razor sharp accuracy in bringing in signals from guitars and keyboards. Most of us spend very little time thinking about the importance of our direct boxes, but, in truth, these tiny devices are some of the most important components of a great signal chain for certain instruments in the music recording studio environment. Spectra1964 has these fabulous sounding devices available for purchase.
The company also has quite a unique offering, in that, Spectra1964 has a custom shop. For music professionals, this doesn’t just mean that the company can make repairs, it also means that they offer the following services in addition— component matching (so that two units can perform in stereo, for example), switch matching (so two units have the some controls), refurbishment service and too, they can customize the front panels of their gear. A very cool example of the great work that they can do in customizing the front panels of their gear is a pair of V610 Complimiters which have black front panels that were made for famed Nashville music producer, Dave Cobb— these units look sweet and according to their owner, sound amazing, too! The company has new product ideas that are always in the works, so it is worth your time to keep up with their website or to follow them on social media so that you can keep up with all of the great things that are happening in the world of professional audio at Spectra1964.
In this image set are three of the products that are in the legendary line-up of offerings from Spectra1964. From left to right, the STX-100D microphone preamp (500-series module), the V610 Complimiter and the BBDI direct insert box. Image courtesy-- Spectra1964.
A Legend is Back—
If there was a company whose legacy is that of a founder who was a genius and a genuine American hero, and whose products helped to give us some of the greatest music in the history of popular entertainment, it is Spectra1964. Just one look at the legendary credits of the recording studio facilities that have used their consoles and gear, and it will tell you all you need to know about how the products from Spectra1964 sound, plus, it also speaks to both the reliability and the tremendous quality with which they were manufactured. The amazing people at Spectra1964 have not only created products that their founder would be proud of, but they have also done it, in such a way, that a new generation of artists, engineers, musicians and producers can now continue to use them to make the great music of the future.
If you wish to purchase a product from Spectra1964, or if you are interested in learning more about their fantastic product offerings, please visit their website for further information at— www.spectra1964.com.
Special Thanks and Acknowledgement
I want to take a moment to thank Bill Cheney of Spectra1964 for his generosity, time and support for our educational website project.