A tour to Orban factory facilities

and some more history about Optimod's.


Rare photos

Orban – The Quest for Loud and Clean
By Barry Mishkind
Radio Guide January-2003

Barry Mishkind owner of www.oldradio.com and editor of website www.radio-guide.com makes a journey to factory of Orban Co at San Leandro, California, and reveals the interesting story of Orban, and its founder Bob Orban. Few people have been building broadcast audio processors as long as Bob Orban. What is that he has learned, in almost 40 years of “pumping up” the audio. This is the first, in a series of Radio Road Trips, that we’ll take you on throughout the year. We'll give you an inside look at some of radio's manufacturers and suppliers – with a bit of their history as well.

Bob Orban and the Optimod:  From college radio to IBOC.
[Tucson, Arizona - January 2003]  

From FM college stations, to Internet streaming, to the new IBOC digital broadcasting plans, Orban has been a major force in the broadcasting industry for over 30 years, ever since the Optimod 8000 turned FM processing on its head. All Bob Orban started out to do was help improve his college station’s sound. Since then, it has been a nearly 40 year run of testing, refining and innovation. And the ride still isn’t over. As the age of digital audio transmission dawns, Bob Orban and his audio processors continue to focus on refinements to facilitate getting the cleanest audio from studio to listener. So, how was it an audio purist with 24 patents? and an Academy Award to his name – a man who has spent the last four decades building ever more sophisticated audio processors, and who’s signature product, Optimod, is known around the world – how did Bob Orban find himself in the middle of Modulation Wars and Digital Shoot-outs? It might well seem to be a contradictory situation. It was 1963 when Bob Orban was a freshman at WPRB in Princeton. The 17 kW station had no audio processing at all, and consequently, listeners could hear not only the full dynamic range of the music, but also the over modulation light relay clicking away behind the announcer. (This was not uncommon then. Many stations used AM limiters, including the Collins 26U1, well into the 70s.) Trying out different state-of-the-art processors of the time, such as the Gates “Top Level” and the Fairchild “Conax,” it quickly became clear that processing audio on FM – with its 75 micro-second (ìS) pre-emphasis curve – was going to require a different approach. Using available technology, Orban himself built A self-described “contraption,” with a compander and filter that would present a reasonably decent output. Far from what we would call great audio today, it still stood out in those days of minimal processing.

From Research Project to Reality
A couple of years later, now at Stanford, Orban used a class design project to build an FET Limiter with a multiple time constant side chain. Five of these units were built and found their way on the air in diverse places. The next step was pre-emphasized clipping, which Orban included in a unit designed for a college friend who had bought a local Class A FM station. Feeding a Collins stereo generator, the OPS was clean, but there was a noticeable overshoot problem which would require some effort to overcome. At this point in history, AM radio was still getting the majority of attention from most people in the processing field. Indeed, it seemed like engineers were working overtime blowing up transmitters as they brought average levels from 30% up to the 80% range. Manufacturers soon saw they needed beefed Up transformers for their transmitters. CBS Laboratory’s Audiomax and Volumax combination (often “sped up”) were common in many stations, and a pre-emphasis FM Volumax was produced for FM stations. As the 1970s dawned, Mike Dorrough designed an AM and FM version of a processor called the “Discriminate Audio Processor.” The DAP, which broke the audio into three bands, demonstrated that high levels of compression need not result in the “pumping” sound so prevalent on AM radio at the time. Still, FM processors needed to deal with that 75 ìS pre-emphasis issue. Over the next few years, Orban and some friends worked on ealing with the overshoot problem. Eventually, the idea came along to build a complete system which included the stereo generator. By doing this, it was possible to match the high-frequency limiter, clipper, 15 kHz non-linear low pass filters and stereo generator in one box, thus simplifying the setup and adjustment of the entire chain. Using his father’s factory resources, Orban produced the prototype unit, and the Optimod 8000 was born! Orban showed the unit to Eric Small, who was active in consulting stations, especially in
New York City, where the Loudness Wars were starting to heat up on FM. Small’s test bench analysis showed the Optimod would give at least a 3 dB gain in average modulation. His response to this was so positive Small wanted to enter into an agreement with Orban to market the Optimod to the broadcast industry.

Production Models Emerge
At this time, it was necessary to bring a more structured entity to control the production. Buying out his father’s interest, Orban and partner John Delantoni founded Orban Associates in 1975. Small arranged for the unit to be shown at the Belar booth at the 1975 NAB Convention. The combination worked well. Quite a few folks noticed Orban’s product and orders started coming in right away. The cleanness of the sound and stereo generator were obvious to those that listened to the unit. With CBS Labs being sold and essentially leaving the processing field, the Optimod 8000A was the right product at the right time. They started showing up in stations everywhere. Orban Associates business grew 20-fold in short order, and required a move to larger quarters. In fact, so great was the acceptance of the Optimod 8000A that the name “Optimod” itself became virtually synonymous with FM processing. Few leading stations would operate without an Optimod on line. Bob’s place in broadcast history was assured. There are literally thousands of Optimod’s on the air throughout the world. It is hard to visit an FM facility anywhere that doesn’t have at least one Optimod in the rack. As the Optimod proliferated, stations tried various combinations to get an advantage over the competition, most of whom were also using Optimod’s. Various pre-processors were adapted to provide multiband processing and leveling. Orban would incorporate many of these ideas in the trail of improvements that would continue over the years, with the 8100, 8200 and the current 8400 providing leadership in the broadcast audio industry.

Rumblings on AM
While Bob Orban’s focus had been largely on FM audio, and how to make his favorite music more enjoyable, the AM stations had not lacked for attention. Dorrough, Circuit Research Labs, and others were building ever louder boxes, seemingly trying to get the modulation monitor need to “stay” at 99% while still having at least more than a “hint” of dynamic range. Into this fray came Greg Ogonowski. Greg grew up on
Detroit radio, especially the audio war between CKLW and WJR. The sound was, as he describes it, “Hi Fi on AM.” Over the years, as Ogonowski moved to Dallas, Seattle, and finally Los Angeles, he was aghast at how bad so many of the stations sounded. Building the “better mousetrap” was his goal; improving on the processors at his stations. 1975 was Ogonowski’s first NAB Convention. It would have a lasting effect. As the show was drawing to a close, Ogonowski came upon the Belar booth, and remembers clearly to this day how he met Bob Orban, and saw the Optimod for the first time. Their mutual interests proved to begin a long running friendship. It changed his life course. Starting with the concept that AM had some problems that were very different from FM, Greg focused on how to bring back that “Hi Fi on AM” that had been knocking around in his head all those years. Shortly after arriving in LA in 1977, Ogonowski started Gregg Labs, and began building processing gear, as well as modifying transmission and monitoring gear to reduce transmission overshoot and monitoring errors, among other things. Although AM was transmitted without a pre-emphasis curve as FM was, the state of AM had effectively brought about the need for frequency shaping. Ogonowski worked on a five band processor, giving special attention to the low end, as well as the upper range. The result was a crisp sound with a low end that didn’t stop.

Orban – The Quest
Car radio manufacturers, however, were moving in the opposite direction, rolling off both the highs and the lows. As modern processors continued to improve their capabilities and boost the high end, the car radios seemed designed to counter the processors. It was almost a standoff. Ogonowski decided to “take it to the manufacturers,” and went off to Delco to discuss not only “detente” between the processors and car radios, but actually how to improve things. These discussions, along with consultation with Bob Orban, led to a paper presented to the Detroit companies, and later on, with Orban, to the NRSC curves that would set a standard for both radio stations and radio manufacturers. NRSC-1 and NRSC-2 stopped a lot of the endless narrowing of car radios, as well as station processors being set so hot on the high end that audio would “sizzle” onto adjacent channels. With the NRSC project, Orban and Ogonowski continued talking and consulting each other. Orban brought out the Optimod AM in 1978, and by 1982 had incorporated a number of Ogonowski’s ideas in the Optimod 9100. In return, Ogonowski offered his suggestions for the Optimod FM, leading to the “0” card for the 8100, and a number of features in the model 8200. Meanwhile Greg’s company, Gregg Labs, was running into a number of difficulties, including the inability to build an FM processor without stepping on patents belonging to Bob Orban and Dave Hershberger. Suffering from financial hassles, and despite developing consoles as well as processors, Gregg Labs eventually closed. It wasn’t all a loss, as Ogonowski joined Orban in 1990.
Combined Forces
In 1989, for a number of reasons, including his desire to stay on the engineering side, Bob Orban and John Delantoni sold Orban Associates to AKG. This brought some benefits, as Bob didn’t have to give his attention to the business side, although there were also some of the usual corporate inanities that one might expect. At the factory in San Leandro, CA (near Oakland), Orban continue to produce their lines of processors, and incorporated the DSE 7000 digital audio work station from AKG, and later the Audicy in 1997. In 1993, the company shifted from AKG ownership to Harmon, and then in June 2000, CRL bought Orban. Nevertheless, Orban continues as a separate division, with its own manufacturing plant. Orban has a full factory manufacturing plant, with machines to load/solder/trim/test/control each part of the process in making each product over the years, Bob Orban has continued the progression of improved features in the Optimods, both for AM and for FM. Some of the ideas come from Orban’s desire for “purity” of audio; others come from carefully watching the competition. Although having a large market share of operating processors, Orban knows he is not alone in the industry, and with the change to digital signal processing, it is imperative that the Optimods stay on the “cutting edge” of technology.

Into the Digital Age
In 1992 Bob Orban suggested that the analog audio processing methods were “mature” and any real major steps ahead would have to come from digital methods. This has proven not only true from the feature standpoint, but as we move toward adoption of IBOC (In Band, on channel) digital transmission, extremely valuable. Orban notes that digital processing is a wonderful way to “provide repeatability of settings and performance. With something of the complexity of the 9100 there are already 60 or 70 “tweaks” in order to make it work consistently as expected. The moment you go digital, you solve all those problems.” Ogonowski adds, “There are no tweaks, no tight component tolerance problems.” That said, Orban and Ogonowski both point out it also makes it easier for a station to destroy the audio. From their standpoint as “purists,” sometimes it seems “the congregation not only ignores the sermon, but goes out to sin again.”  This, of course, doesn’t stop Orban from building processors with wide capabilities. Clearly, to a large extent, the market is customer driven, as often by programming as by the engineering department. The Optimod 8400 was designed to please both sides of the station. With digital signal processing (DSP), and especially the current Optimod 8400, the customer has a whole lot greater control and more choices to make in setting up the processing. Software downloads can update the processor without having to buy a new box. Orban has several programmers working on the software code, and continues to upgrade it. The Optimod 8400 sports version 3.0 of the software, available on the Orban web site for download. How do Bob and Greg feel about IBOC? They are solidly in favor of digital transmission, for its ability to put cleaner audio on the air, with less multipathing. They would have liked to see the
Eureka system at 128 kb adopted here, which would provide the “next level of audio quality.” But, they definitely are supporters for some form of IBOC. On FM, for example it removes pre-emphasis based artifacts allows more transparent audio. The Optimod 8400HD is ready for IBOC now, and on the air in Los Angeles. Plug-ins will allow standard 8400s to be upgraded. Nevertheless, Orban expects it to be a tough sell in the marketplace. After some 40 years of efforts toward providing broadcasters with the tools to make loud and clean audio, Bob Orban is not discouraged that so many stations push the level closer to loud than clean. He just keeps trying to find ways to “narrow the gap” between those two seemingly conflicting goals. Finally, I asked what Bob’s favorite “tweak” to his processor might be, hoping he’d give me a “secret” to pass on. His reply? “Since I designed all the stock settings to make myself happy, I really recommend the defaults!” Ogonowski echos that, since “all the tweaks are now incorporated in the latest models and versions, the best tweak is version 3.0 software.”  Processor manufacturers have come and gone. Concepts and ideas have been improved upon, so that broadcasters today can transmit higher fidelity and cleaner audio quality than ever before. As Bob Orban and his crew power ahead into more digital signal processing and IBOC, we can be sure the Optimod will continue to be a driving innovator in broadcast audio.

Barry Mishkind
Radio Guide -