Early this morning, I thought I heard Sufi master Hazrat Inyat Khan whispering to me in Sanskrit. But it was myself disguised as Hazrat Inyat Khan speaking to me.
His words reminded me of being a 23 year old electronics technician faced with fixing yet another broken piece of gear. Hazrat said to me: “Michael, do you remember when you discovered stillness could solve your problems?”.
So many times early in my career I encounter what seemed to be insurmountable problems. Many times, because I was the “fixer”, not someone doing go / no-go tests. I got the no-go stuff and was called on to fix broken things.
Day after day a failed peice of audio gear arrived from one of our customers –– motion picture theater operators. Day after day a new “problem”. An endless supply of broken electronic things stacked up, waiting for me to fix them. Day in and day out, more broken electronic things, each with their own unique issue. It seemed never-ending. I had this job because I was good at fixing broken electronic things, though I rarely enjoyed the struggle.
In retrospect, it seems my 14 years working for this employer, first as a repair tech then as a reduction-to-practice engineer, gave me opportunities to practice stillness and learn stillness is the source that illuminates the way through the darkness of our challenges.
I worked for a company called Kintek, Inc. first in Newton, then later in Waltham, Massachusetts outside of Boston.
Kintek was a sister company of a legendary professional audio product company called dbx Inc. dbx was a pioneer in the field of analog noise reduction and dynamic range modulation systems. We competed very successfully against the much more widely known Dolby Labs.
Dolby was quite well known as a result of their technology licensing arrangements with manufacturers of consumer cassette players. Anyway, my employer dbx Inc. had more channels of professional, analog audio noise reduction installed on tape machines in recording studios than Dolby Labs and was the market leader.
As a result of their success in the recording studio market, dbx Inc. founders David Blackmer and Zaki Abdun-Nabi started Kintek Inc. to manufacture sound systems for the motion picture industry which was undergoing a period of change and improvement.
Up until the release of the first Star Wars movie in 1977 all motion pictures had mono soundtracks. Hard to believe, right? Mono. Like an AM radio dude. One speaker behind the screen just like the first “talkie” in 1927 –– 50 years earlier.
The success of Star Wars with its immersive surround sound technology and booming subwoofer bass changed that and drove a rapid, industry-wide effort to upgrade movie theater sounds systems from archaic mono, to state of the art surround sound. This was the context I walked into one sunny day in May 1980, fresh from my days as a punk rock guitarist (1963 SG with “Gibson Girl” case) in the band Baby Murphy from San Francisco.
My boss said, “Ok Mike, here’s a stack of non-functional dynamic range expanders (a “single ended” noise reduction system used in Kintek’s theater sound system). See if you can fix one. Here’s the schematic. See you later”. Hmmm … a harsh landing after floating in the space of late ’70’s San Francisco paying guitar, collecting unemployment compensation and working two nights a week for pin money as a pizza cook.
Multi-band, analog, linear-decibel, dynamic range expansion. Whoa.
The systems I got to work on were beautiful expressions of the mind of their inventor, a legendary audio product design engineer named David Blackmer –– the “db” in dbx Inc. (the “x” stood for “expansion”). This type of circuit was perfected and patented by Blackmer, it performed the function of “pushing down” the optical soundtrack noise of clicks, pops, scratches and a fine haze of hiss … so the dialog, music and sound effects would be heard more clearly and with more impact. Alchemy. Blackmer designed and perfected the concept. I got to fix them when they broke.
Each Kintek KT-21 Dynamic range expander has about 1000 analog parts, both individual “discrete” components like transistors, resistors and capacitors as well as “integrated circuit chips” –– complete sub assemblies in small 8 or 16 pin packages. The complete cinema sound system was built into a standard 19” wide case with “rack ears” and screwed into a 6 foot tall, floor standing “relay rack” –– a sort of an electrical closet descended from the early days of telephone switching racks and vacuum tube computers like MIT’s “Whirlwind I”.
Complicated. The incoming audio would be split by filters into three parallel processing paths, one each for bass, mid and treble ranges. Then each band would feed both amplitude level monitors and voltage controlled amplifiers. At the output, the three signal bands would be combined again and sent on their merry way to the next 19” wide piece of gear in the system.
There were seven, different, yet related 19” wide boxes in a full Kintek cinema sound system. While I worked on all these pieces of gear, the dynamic range processor was probably my favorite (though the surround sound processor has a special place in my heart) because, well, it did its magic of pushing noise down in real time, NOW, and no one in the audience was the wiser for it.
This equipment would occasionally fail due to heat stress. Projection booths in the early 80’s were still very hot environments that pushed electronic circuits to their operating temperature limits.
Two big projectors with Xenon lamps (and the rare carbon-arc lamp) made the smallish projection booth a place where one could comfortably wear a light shirt in the middle of a New England winter as these booths were often 85 – 90 degrees Fahrenheit. There were more equipment failures due to heat stress than would normally be found in consumer audio equipment operated in the cooler environment of a home.
So I owed my job to a lot of old school, dual-projector, projection booths baking my employer’s equipment to death across the US, Europe, Japan and China.
But stillness … back in Waltham, MA there would be another corpse on my bench.
You know that odd habit guys have when their car breaks down? The one where one dude opens the hood and the two other two dudes stand around peering into the engine compartment? That one. Rarely can one actually see what is wrong. But yet we look. You know why we look? Because looking under the hood is a manly man sanctioned way of getting still and spacious and that leads to fixing things.
I used to do the same thing with the broken electronic gear I had to fix –– take off the covers, and just look. On the surface of it, looking at an electronic system while in a state of stillness is even more absurd than looking into automobile engine compartment. There are no moving parts in an electronic circuit to be observed!
Yet I would look. And wait. And cast a soft gaze that moved from input transformer to output transformer and all 1000 parts in between. Sort of a loving gaze of wonderment that Blackmer had invented this thing, and he and his business partner had built a multimillion dollar company to make them and sell them around the world.
Observing the intricate patchwork of parts and printed circuit board signal traces was like looking at a city from 20,000 feet. Just gazing. Nothing moving, Stillness. Nothing to read, Stillness. Nothing to hear, Stillness.
This is a kind of healing, is it not? –– to separate oneself from disfunction, silently and wordlessly observe the pure, honest, correctness of stillness –– the stillness before functionality resumes, the stillness that is already perfect. Seeing the perfect stillness of an inactive circuit in front of me, gave rise to the “perception of perfect stillness” within me. Healing proceeds from the perception of perfection that already is.
After a few minutes of stillness and gazing, I’d turn my attention to the actual circuit roadmap –– the 2 x 3 foot schematic blueprint, hook up my signal generators and oscilloscope and get to work tracing signals, finding road blocks and replacing failed components. Now, I’d fix those broken things by doing something.
But restoring those electronic corpses to life, bringing health to them again, proceeded from my own spacious stillness, first.