Sunday, February 15, 2015

Do you have skills that are irrelevant today?

Back in the day, I used to be a gunslinger; no, not a Colt 45 or a Peacemaker but a soldering gun. When riding patrol in the control room of a radio or television station there were no strays; wires with loose ends that escaped my eagle eye. At the end of each project every wire and cable was tacked down and neatly tied into the wire bundles that ran up and down the edges of the racks of equipment.

Like all of my broadcast engineering buddies, I was a fair to middlin’ wire wrangler, back in the days when it was an important skill. There were literally dozens of pieces of equipment in a radio station and literally hundreds in a television station that relied on solid connections between them to bring the programming to the audience. Soldering was a skill that one learned early in a career. A good background in soldering was a must. I remember learning to solder at home as a teenager. There were three types of solder in use back then; solid core, acid core and resin core. I rarely used acid core solder because it was needed to connect metals that had been oxidized and most of my work was indoors. Solid core was used for larger connections where lots of solder was required. One had to paste a resin flux on these connections to make the solder flow over it evenly.

Resin core solder was my ammunition of choice. It came in rolls of either thin (32 / 1000 of an inch) or thick (1/8 inch) coiled around a small metal spool. The thin solder was usually used to bond components like resistors, transistors and capacitors to a circuit board. The thicker solder was for bonding wires to connectors or to wiring blocks.

During my career, I have been involved in the building of new control rooms and the complete rewiring of existing control rooms when I would spend weeks on end sitting on the floor behind a patch panel rack connecting all the wires and cables to wiring blocks then the blocks to patch panels which were the mainstay of each studio. The patch panels were important because they could be used to reroute a signal from its default (normal) destination to an alternate. This was important because it was sometimes necessary to remove a piece of equipment from the system to repair it without losing the signal that it carried. It was during these periods of intense construction, that I described my job as “putting wires together”.

Another skill that went hand in hand with soldering was the ability to wrap the bundles of wire together using waxed string. The bundle was started by tying one end of the string around the bundle of wires and then lacing the cables together via a series of underhanded loops until you reached the other end of the bundle where you tied the string down and cut off the end. A neat bundle, with cables all aligned under a series of evenly spaced loops was a thing of beauty. My longest bundle was a little over twelve feet long and took hours to complete. I was as proud of that piece as a master quilter would be over their best quilt. Sadly, that piece is long gone, lost when WIS TV moved their master control room down to the ground floor and replaced it with sales offices. The two racks that held the ends wound up as junk, but I will never forget my bundling masterpiece.

Alas, as time went by, the practice of soldering connections in the broadcast studio fell out of favor. One of the largest contributors was the fact that the solder we used back in those days contained lead. I always thought that sweet smell that came while soldering was due to the resin, but now I know that there was lead contained in that smoke too. These days most soldering is done by robots in a factory environment. This contributed to the increased sophistication and the reduced cost of manufacturing circuit boards. Integrated circuits and microprocessors sounded the death knell of hand soldering. Now it is cheaper and easier to swap out entire circuits (or even pieces of equipment) than it is to take the time to troubleshoot to the component at fault and replace it. As for bundling with waxed string, these days everything is secured with plastic tie wraps.

A few months ago, I had the privilege of helping one of my buddies move five radio stations to a new studio location. I packed my favorite soldering iron and a roll of solder in my kit bag and drove off with visions of making those perfect connections for hours on end. I needn’t have bothered. The only analog wire connections in the station were the microphones to the processor box and the headphone and speaker connections in each studio. Everything else was digital, TCP/IP signals routed through readymade CAT 6 cables; no patch panels, no blocks no soldering at all. Everything was routed from source to destination by telling the master routers where to send the digital signals. Instead of that sweet smell of resin and solder, there was the new smell of computers being unboxed and readymade CAT 6 cables pulled out of their plastic bags and connected to the various blocks on the back of the all those computers. I spent the most of my time there sitting in front of racks mounting, connecting and configuring the over 30 computers that my buddy now reigns over. I am not going to get into the argument of analog .vs. digital sound but he can do something that I only dreamed of doing. If a component fails in the middle of the night, he can log into his system from home and route the signals around the failed component and then come in the next morning and repair the problem. I can tell you there was many a rainy midnight I wished I could have done that. Oh MY!

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