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Inter.view with Gordon Rankin, designer and founder of Wavelength Audio

[Italian version]

After many years of following Gordon Rankin's development of products, that have brought him a name in the audio industry, and placing him amongst the most successful tube amplifier constructors, it was our pleasure to meet him at CES 2000.

TNT-Audio >
Gordon, would you please, tell us about your background.

GR >
I was born November 1957 in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. My father's family owned the Reynolds Instrument Company, and by 3rd grade I was playing a saxophone that my father had made. By 9th grade I had played Sax, Clarinet, Flute, Piano and Organ.

TNT-Audio >
That is indeed a variety of instruments!

GR >
Man, I wanted to be just like Keith Emerson.

TNT-Audio >
Somewhere around that time you decided to make a change?

GR >
In the 9th grade I wanted to move on, my mother still says I rebelled. I took up percussion. I thought: "Maybe I could play like Carl Palmer"

After graduating from Bethel Park High School in Pittsburgh, I went to several Universities, finally graduating from Ohio Northern University in 1981 with a degree in Electrical Engineering, minor in Music (Percussion), in depths in Math, Physics and Art Design and Architecture. If I recall correctly, I even started in Anthropology).

The combination of skills from a music background and Engineering really took me to Audio. My late friend Jon Paul Ort told me at Ohio Northern: "Man you are in engineering, why don't you just make it?"
That was it- this got me started. By the time I graduated I had designed and built tone arms, amps and over 60 pairs of speakers. I had won awards for papers regarding speaker design: "All Pass Speaker Crossovers", and "Non-Linear Speaker Controls Theory"

I had converted the schools VAX 11/780 mainframe into a FFT testing device. Funny note, in developing the assembler language-processing portion of the FFT to analog board, I crashed the schools winter course scheduling.
At that point they made me only use the thing between 12am-6am. Funny, the calculations took more than 20 minutes to execute. My Liberty Audio suite on a Pentium 200Mhz takes less than 15 seconds for the same calculation!

TNT-Audio >
How did your interest for designing amplifiers start?

GR >
The interest in amps started with speakers. I would design speakers all day long making hundreds of designs, but in 1981 the testing equipment was so expensive. This is when I started to design electronics.

TNT-Audio >
Was it then that you started Wavelength Audio?

GR >
Wavelength Audio was formed on November 28,1981. Our first product was PH1 discrete solid state phono preamplifier. The second was a 135W Solid State amplifier. Then I made a speaker system called "Pictures"; it was a 2-way construction that was mounted to the wall.
Then in 1985 I released an EL34 push-pull stereo amplifier that produced 35W per channel.

In 1989 it was the time for the 845 SET 25W mono-blocks, at that time I didnąt think anyone would pay for sub 10W units.
Shortly thereafter in1990 I released the 1st version of the Cardinal, 5693->300B. Two months later found out someone was copying the design! In 1991 came the second release of the Cardinal, 6SL7->300B. Since July 1992 the Cardinal has not changed electrically.
WA really took off when TAS 's Jonathan Valin reviewed version 3 Cardinal.

I think that you reach your best potential from trial and error. If you have early success in something that you tried then you will head there with great passion.
Take for instance the following tubes: 6SN7, 6922, 2A3 (bi-plate or new version SP). These tubes I am sure are good in particular applications. BUT, in each case I have never been brought to the point of a satisfactory design with these units.
On the other hand, I have a great deal of success with other tubes and these drive me to the passion of completion of great projects.

TNT-Audio >
At what point did you decide to use tubes?

GR >
When I was in college we were taught in a very unique way, "Before you run you must first learn to walk".
We were required to make 211/845's (yes design and build them! Because they are simple and you need very little to make them work) before we were allowed to design amplifier using them.
We were also required to design and build transistors before we could design amplifiers using them.
I am sure that these days are long gone, but I remember the tubes as being real nice. After I designed the amps using the 211, I bought several Dynakits for personal use.

In 1981 there was not really a big tube surge, so I designed solid state amps and pre-amps. By 1985 I got sick of it because it was never as pure as the tube sound. So I released the WA i35T, construction using EL34 in push pull configuration.
In 1989 I met Mike LaFevre and Joe Roberts, they talked me into trying single ended. The Sole was my first single-ended amplifier 6SL7/300B/845
That was it! I decided to sell all my TungSol 6550's, Tele and Amperex El34's to buy Triodes.

TNT-Audio >
Why triodes, and why single end?

GR >
There is that point in audio where the engineering sense is overcome by the realist sense. The realist sense is the one that this is closer real music.
With my extensive music background this happened from almost the first note of hearing my first single ended amplifier.

TNT-Audio >
At which point did you decide to start Wavelength, and how come that you chose that name?

GR >
Actually I came up with it in college, probably somewhere around -79 -80. I would look through the Audio Equipment issues and come up with names. I decided for WA, and it can be traced back to the original logo (a circular oscilloscope screen with a sine wave across the hairline scales).
The original and present logo were designed and conceived by my friend Ric Snodgrass.

TNT-Audio >
What was the first product that took birth?

GR >
The PH1 was the first product designed because I needed a good phono stage. I have always felt that a good phono-stage needs to be separated from the pre-amp.
The PH1 had discrete op-amps using the famed National Semiconductor L394 super matched pair ultra low noise NPN transistors.

TNT-Audio >
You have chosen a minimalist approach with minimal amount of gain stages and components. What is the main design difficulty in this approach, and what are the main advantages?

GR >
I have found over the years that with each stage of active gain you loose some of the musical content. This is the advantage of minimalist designs.
Sometimes when I design I get this total chaotic design that is huge. Then I look at these designs and compile it down to something simpler and more elegant.
The drawbacks are usually that they require more drive voltage from the pre-amp. In tube land that is really not a problem what so ever. It does however mean that some of the designs do not lend themselves to passive preamplifiers.

TNT-Audio >
There is an argument about pricing of low power, single ended amps. Is it justifiable?
What are the main reasons that drives up the cost of your own constructions?

GR >
People don't realize this, but Push-pull amplifiers are much less demanding in design than SE.
A 35-50W PP output transformer is of the same size as an 8-watt, and still the complexity and price of the SE is 2-3 times as much.

My products cost a little more in some ways because I want exclusive iron. There is so much DIY (do it yourself) going on out there that I do not want somebody saying: "Oh my DIY300B is the same as the WA "xxx " - because I use the same iron and look, I only spent $1000 on the whole thing."

I go to great lengths to get parts made for WA that no one else would even think of using.
I end up with a ton of stuff that is useless, because it does not perform as anticipated. But as a result, once these parts are sorted out, I am left with some really cool parts in all of my amplifiers that really shine.
I design, make and ship each product at WA. I figure that this way the cost is lower and the customer getąs more of what they wanted in the first place.

TNT-Audio >
Generally the opinion seems to be that single end 300B amplifiers have midrange to kill for, but in most applications, it appears that the designers have forgotten about the 25% at the bottom and 25% at the top.
I have personally heard your amplifiers and they do have a solid foundation and good extension. How do they differ from the usual "we also made an SET" - amplifiers?

GR >
I am extremely critical in the treble region. If I can't point out a type of cymbal or vibe track the amp is redesigned. The bass I can attribute to engineering and Mike LaFevre the person who designs my transformers.
All of the amplifiers I sell today have at least a full bandwidth of 15-32Hz (-3dB) at full power. Some of them have bass down to 5Hz and some have treble up to 45KHz.

One of the biggest problems with other companies that I can see is they are all striving for the elusive high-power SET amps.
Why not try to make them sound the best and forget about power? That is what WA is all about.

TNT-Audio >
You have also started making front-end equipment, could you tell us more about it?

GR >
I have always had a line pre-amp in several versions, now called the Sine. It has always been a single gain stage and output that is non-inverting, using a transformer in some way to correct the phase. (This is because when amplified the phase is inverted 180 degrees).

During the early years of WA, I held two jobs: WA and I was also a hardware/software engineer for a computer company (more than 2.3 million products in the field).
Many people that knew this asked when my digital products would come out. Well, I was the last person to get a CD player in 1986. The Cosine DAC is just what I would have wanted to design years ago.
The Cosine will take any input from 44/16 to 24/96 and output 24/96. So it is a true up-sampling DAC. The digital and analog power and circuits are isolated.
The SS DAC is isolated by a transformer and fed to the vacuum tube directly from the DAC and through a P&G volume control for the pre-amp version. The output of the tube section is also transformer coupled. There is no filter between the DAC and the output.

TNT-Audio >
How do you view the future development in audio?

GR >
I think the next step in amplifiers is the low watt coupled to high efficiency speakers. As far as front end, I think the next is DVD-A spec. Even though I think SACD might be better, there are too many compelling reasons why it will fail:

  1. Lack of digital output in the SACD domain.
  2. Lack of video technology
  3. Cost of drives and royalties.
I hate to say this, but how many computers come with SACD drives?

TNT-Audio >
What are you future design plans and ideas?

GR >
In August I designed two amplifier lines; one based on the Mercury concept of single stage.
The other is really fun. This is a line of high-end low power amplifiers based on a TON of unknown and known directly heated triodes. All of which will be available from AVVT as re manufactured items.
So there will be NOS and NEW versions of each. These will be very cool and very cool looking.

Editors note: This interview was conducted via e-mail and telephone. This short note gives us a graphical picture of a dedicated genius fully absorbed in his work:

"Also know that I flunked English 3 times, once I turned in a microwave theory report for poetry class!
- Still failed. Though I did get an A in microwave theory!
Don't worry Gordon, remember that Einstein performed poorly in mathematics during his student days..

Courtesy by Gordon Rankin for TNT.
Interview thanks to Patrik Klangerstedt

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