Jiří (or ‘‘Jirka”) Janda, (Yeerka Yahnda) was my first close friend and “partner in crime” in communist Czechoslovakia. Our “crimes” were harmless but unofficial activities we got away with; fun & games right under the authority’s noses!
If Czechoslovakia had been a normal country in 1960, Jiří Janda would have been rich & famous. Jirka, as he was called, was the husband of one of Zdenka’s crew of animators, Irena Jandova. When she heard that I was a fan of “HiFi” sound, she introduced me to Jirka, a passionate music lover and electronics wizard who dreamed impossible dreams. He had managed to find the address of an audio firm in America that would send out free catalogs. That kind of Western literature got through the censors. But catalogs alone do not a sound system make; that took dollars. U.S. dollars then had a value undreamed if in a country that issued non-convertible skrip which pretended to be money.
Stereo sound was still a new wonder in 1960, even in America, all of the 2-channel sound amplifiers available then utilized large glass or metal vacuum tubes, and required heavy transformers. I already had such an amp in New York, and I could hardly lift it. Janda had conceived an all-transistor, light-weight amplifier. He had it all worked out. He was an electronic genius in a country that as yet had virtually no electronics.
I was gaining a new perspective on life. People in communist Prague had lived through such a succession of restrictions, I expected them to be complete zombies, but those very restrictions made many try that much harder to achieve their dreams. Jirka Janda had to make his dreams by hand, including actually making his own printed circuits. Today, our microchips are smaller than a bedbug, and contain a giga-zillion transistors. In those days there were only single individual transistors, each as big as a beetle. In Czechoslovakia there was no stereo of any kind. Jirka could make most everything he needed to demonstrate stereo sound except for three items:
1. The power transistors
2. A stereo phono cartridge and stylus
3. Some stereo LP records
None of these things existed in Czechoslovakia at that time. He hand-crafted his own printed circuit boards, incorporating his revolutionary design, and mounted the simple transistors he was able to wangle. He made his own amplifier case, even the control knobs. He made his own phono turntable and pickup arm. But the actual power transistors, the stereo cartridge, saphire stylus, and the stereo records, could not be made by hand. Here was a role I could play! I pledged to get it all for him on my next trip to New York. He promised in return to build a second amplifier for me. It already had a name and logo: TRANSIWATT! It would be the world’s first all transistor stereo amplifier! In America there were none, and none even in Japan! All amplifiers then on the market still used glass tubes. Of course I agreed. Who would not want to participate in this significant advance in technology?
This is the front control panel of my 1962 Transiwatt, now in daily use by David’s Dad. Note the worn On/Off button from 50 years of steady use. How many commercial amplifiers today are good for a half-century(or more???) It still works perfectly! That’s why I was unable to take it apart to show you the inside. There is the plastic circuit board with a printed circuit of Janda’s design, but there is no chip! An Intel-type integrated chip containing thousands of micrscopic transistors was undreamed of in 1962. Instead, there is a tangle of wires, soldered to dozens of single transistors and resisters! Four large power transistors, (which I bought in New York), are mounted onto the circuit board. There are no heavy transformers. Notice the little jagged line between the 4th & 5th knob. It is nominally an ocilloscope screen image of a distortion-free sound wave-form, but it is actually Jirka’s coded logo, a subtle “J.J.” = Jiří Janda!
The rear panel holds seven old-fashioned 5-pin input connectors. They were the only type of sockets and electronic connectors available here in those days. The speaker sockets were equally crude. Yet the Transiwatt was easily switched from 120 to 220 volts, has an exchangable fuse receptacle, and puts out clean sound even by today’s standards! The top view of the amplifier is nearly square.
Later, Jirka organized a little production line in his “HiFi Club” to produce a refined version of his Transiwatt amplifier for the limited market of stereo enthusiasts. Many of these are still in use today!
To find the specific power transistors he asked for, I had to hunt for the most advanced New York City electronic specialty houses. Jirka had specified the very latest type, I discovered they were difficult to get even in America!
Jirka wrote down the exact specifications of the record playing stylus and cartridge he needed. I figured that he’d be delighted with any kind of stereo cartridge I could get, as there were none at all in Czechoslovakia, But no! Jirka had those catalogs, and he knew the exact brand and model number of the best stereo cartridge, the Shure M3D with a diamond stylus, and that was the one he wanted!
Jirka even had the control knobs machined from aluminum bars which could he found in building construction factories where he had friends. I got the first assimbled unit! Even though I now have a modern, high-powered multimedia Pioneer amp, my old Transiwatt amplifier is actually still in use by my stepson David’s father. It still puts out great 2-channel sound!
Janda wanted only the best, in spite of the fact that even a minimum stereo amp would be far better than what was available here at the time. His determination for only the best made a terrific impression on me. I found that this was typical of the Czech people under communism. They may have had little or nothing, but they always knew which was the best of everything - and that was what they wanted!. I made a prediction right then, that if by some incredible miracle, the Soviets would vanish, and this country would be free, it would virtually overnight become the most bourgeois country in the world. I was right!
This Baby Brownie Kodak shot is the only photo of Jirka Janda I could score – given to me by his widow Irena, who became one of my star animators. She remains our close friend.
After the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Prague, Jiří Janda became the Grand Guru of Czech audio. Working with Austrian backers, he set up his own company to market his many inventions. He was the founding chairman of the editorial board of a slickly printed Czech magazine, STEREO & VIDEO, as technically up to date as any audio-video magazine anywhere.
But back in 1960, when he produced at home the world’s first all-transistor stereo amplifier, he got exactly nowhere. A Czech citizen could not then form a private company, and could not deal with firms abroad. International coproduction could only be done via the official nationalized foreign trade organizations. There was only one producer of electronic equipment, radios, simple TV sets, professional sound systems for movie theaters, etc., and that was the Tesla organization, a typical “National Enterprise.” Such factories were only interested in staying out of trouble, avoiding risky innovation; fulfilling their State-mandated production plans.
Tesla, within the ganglia of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic’s planned economy, would not have been in a position to mass produce and market an advanced consumer product even if it wanted to. As a result, they missed a golden opportunity to get ahead of the Americans and the Japanese in audio and video technology! But Jirka was an uncrushable optimist, and found ways to get his inventions marketed, at least to the small but determined group of audio zealots in the country. If he couldn’t form a company, he could form a “club,” as long as it functioned under the umbrella of a socialist organization. There were clubs for model airplane builders, ham radio enthusiasts, balloonists, and many other potentially “dangerous” types. There were even stamp collector clubs. In this way, the government was pretending to allow these people to pursue their hobbies while at the same time keeping them on a tight leash. No such club could exist outside the system.
So Jirka organized his audio “club”, and managed in this way to produce amplifiers, turntables, and loudspeaker units for the local audio fan market, with his friends working nights and weekends for nothing!
With the pilot amplifier he made from the parts I brought him, including the completed turntable with its one and only stereo cartridge, and the first stereo LPs ever heard in this country, Jirka staged stereo demonstrations at various local “culture halls” and school auditoriums. Thus, seeming to work within the system, he was able, step-by-step, to acquire small quantities of the parts he needed to supply his tiny local market with the first all-transistor stereo amplifiers and speakers in the world!
From my own beginnings here I realized we had to have stereo soundtracks on our films if we wanted them to be marketable in the future. So I brought into the country another technical miracle: the very first stereo tape deck in Czechoslovakia! Stereo became even more important after we won the Oscar. The new film projects that came to us called for stereo soundtracks, but there no stereo-equipped recording studios in this country.
The recording studios which existed used massive Soviet built sound mixing consoles, with control knobs the size of truck hub caps. They couldn’t even record on standard quarter-inch audio tape, but only on bulky 35mm sprocketed magnetic film, with miserable quality, made in East Germany under the stolen trade name Agfa. Quarter-inch recording tape reels could record an hour of music, wheras the 35m recording reels were lmited to about 10 minutes.
Czech movie producers still used 35mm optical film for soundtrack recording, long obsolete in the West. Their sound men snickered when I brought my briefcase-sized Ampex 601-2 stereo tape recorder into the studio to record a 35-piece orchestra for our MUNRO cartoon! It didn’t look like much, and had heavy glass vacuum tubes and two beefy transformers. I also lugged my two Electro-Voice dynamic mikes, and two coils of microphone cable. The Czech sound engineers didn’t trust what looked like toys to them, and set up their usual battery of huge Soviet microphones, one for each section of the orchestra. They said there was no way I could record a full orchestra with that “briefcase” and only two mikes. I couldn’t yet speak Czech, so I just smiled.
Two little volume knobs, one for each channel, were my only controls, plus a pair of the original bulky Koss stereo earphones. The engineers lined up to listen to my tape, and one by one they all nearly fainted. None of them had ever heard stereo. It was a revelation to them! I used that exact tape on our Oscar-winning cartoon, MUNRO!
It would be 20 years before they acquired studio standard stereo equipment. In the meantime I recorded all of my early films with this little Ampex.
Stokowski under my microphones!
Perhaps our most ambitious effort was a plan to record the great maestro Leopold Stokowski, who was due in Prague in 1962. He was then 80 years old, and was scheduled to conduct at the grand Smetana Hall. Czechoslovak Radio technicians were rushing in and out, carrying huge loops of transmission cables and setting up their mono microphones. Jirka Janda and I, and a couple other stalwarts, including Jirka’s sidekick Milan Vosahlo, just as busily loped in, trying to look as much as possible like members of the technical crew. As it was unthinkable that anyone would try to do this without authorization, no one thought to stop us! I carried my tan Ampex recorder, and the others carried my cables, and the two sensational-for-the-time ElektroVoice 666 microphones. These were sturdy enough to drive nails with, and had amazing sound fidelity. There was nothing like them here at the time.
We officiously climbed up to the highest loge on one side of the hall, lowered a string, with which we hauled up one end of my mike cable. Then we scurried down and across, and up to the loge on the other side, lowering the string and hauling up the other end of my cable, to which we had already attached the microphones. So there it was! My cable was stretched across the entire width of Smetana Hall, with my two mikes spaced a couple of meters apart, pointed right to where Leopold Stokowski would soon be majestically gesticulating.
As the concert time approached I climbed up to the right-hand loge where I’d set up my recorder, put on my earphones and listened to the stereo murmuring as the audience filled the hall. However, now occupying this same loge, just in front of me, were the sound technicians from Czech radio; one of them, no doubt hearing my heavy breathing, suddenly turned and asked in Czech, “Who are you?” My Czech at that time consisted of somewhere between three and seven words, but I understood what the man said: “The Maestro has given explicit orders: no recording of the concert allowed!” What could I do? I didn’t want to let down my hi-fi buddies, who had worked so hard on our installation, and who were depending on me to get this recording. There was nothing else to do but brazen it out.
“Where is the Maestro?” I asked. Down behind the stage were the oak-paneled dressing rooms of the soloists and conductor. Around one impenetrable door, guarded by an equally impenetrable, massively-formed woman, were throngs of reporters wanting a glimpse of Stokie. “The Maestro is preparing for his concert, and cannot be disturbed!”
I made my case in English, earnestly enough to at least cause doubt to ripple across the large lady’s face; “only one tiny minute was all I wanted,” etc. etc. She backed through the door while I waited. This was my one chance to escape, and avoid making a total fool of myself, but before I could do what needed to be done: depart! - the door opened just enough for a fleshy finger to emerge and give a beckoning twitch. Suddenly, the fat lady was out and I was in – alone with Leopold Stokowski!
He was lying on his back like a corpse, on a low chaise, with the heavy symphony score on his chest. It appeared he was absorbing the music by osmosis. He did not move, nor in any way recognize my presence. But there he was, lying no more than a foot above the floor. To say my piece, I had no option except to get down on one knee, as the supplicant I was, and begin to babble my plea:
I was blacking-out fast. The aged blue eyes finally fastened onto my sweaty countenance and pronounced one word:
Sic transit gloria mundi. Later that evening Zdenka and I sat in the audience, waiting for the concert to begin. My microphones hung above our heads, deaf to the glorious sounds which ensued. After a long wait, Stokowski shuffled onstage, leaning on a cane, moving one painful step at a time. When he finally made it to the podium, he slowly hung this cane on its edge, then suddenly sprang erect, thrusting his arms and long slender fingers skyward. It was a splendid, vigorous performance.
Ten years later, when Stokowski was 90 years old, he returned to Prague for his last concert here. But he failed to ask for his old friend Gene…
Jirka Janda remained my friend! Over the years we had many ultra-sonic adventures together. His unfailing optimism led him to continuously accomplish the officially and technically impossible. He was a powerful example for me.
Later, when the Sony MiniDisc recorder appeared, a shirt pocket-sized wonder of the time, Jirka was enthralled with its elegance, though it’s been long-since surpassed by tiny iPods. What would Jirka think of those??? The sounds they record and reproduce far surpass my old Ampex, which now seems as big and clumsy as the Soviet monster machines it had once bested. And who knows what’s next? Jirka would surely have an idea! When he died of a kidney infection, I had to face the fact that optimism does have its limits.
During our production of the MGM Tom & Jerry cartoons in 1962 I was using that splendid Ampex to record and edit all of my sound effects in our little apartment. For the T&J film CARMEN GET IT, I had recorded some really robust screams for the diva, singing the role of Carmen. Confronted by Jerry, the mouse, she let out a series of bloodcurdling shrieks.
One of the more extroverted women from the animation studio, Kutula Zbyňková, nearly split the microphone when we recorded her screams during a pause in our music session. Editing the tapes at home in our apartment required playing the screams over and over again, to select and edit them precisely onto the soundtrack.
As I was running these window-rattling skrieks over and over, there was suddenly a furious pounding on our door. There stood two of my male neighbors in attack position, with clenched fists at the ready, prepared to rescue my rape or murder victim! Showing them my tape recorders and even playing them a bit of the recorded screams, did nothing to calm their fury. “This apartment house is not a workshop!” they fumed, and stomped off. I was careful after that to always edit drastic sound effects only through my earphones.
But the most fun, and the biggest sensation, came from my private use of this suitcase-size wonder recorder. For all of us who now take stereo sound for granted, it’s hard to understand the effect this sound had on people here in those days. It was a reaction you might expect from cocaine! When people would put on my earphones and listen to my tapes, they would fall into a trance, close their eyes and shout, “It’s like I’m right inside the orchestra!” Everyone shouted when they had on the headphones, assuming I could not hear them because they were surrounded by this loud, enveloping sound.
When the great Czech puppet film maker Jiří Trnka heard about my stereo machine he invited us to his home, a beautiful renaissance villa on the island of Kampa, just a few steps from our Malá Strana apartment. “Be sure to bring your magic music box,” he added. He wanted his other guests to hear it. The first time he himself had tried the earphones, he immediately rolled back his great leonine head and went into a virtual trance. He was a music lover, as most Czechs are. He always engaged the finest musicians for his films. When he heard the stereo through my earphones, he exclaimed, “It’s better than a real concert!”
The leading jazz groups were eager to have me record them, and I had no objections from club managers to my setting up microphones on their bandstands. I was recording organists in huge Baroque cathedrals, and classical guitarists in homes. That year was a veritable recording orgy! When my old friend Pete Seeger came to Prague in 1964 for a series of concerts, I also recorded him. By that time, 1964, I had upgraded to Crown abd Sony studio quality recorders using large 15” tape reels.
The state gramophone company, Supraphon, later issued several of my tapes on stereo LP discs. They were just beginning to issue stereo by that time, but they had no stereo recordings of the various artists I had recorded on my little Ampex The 1964 Pete Seeger recordings were later issued in full on a double-CD album. You can hear that historic recording here on “Credit” 22. Pete Seeger!
Today I still record my favorites, only now with something that fits into my shirt pocket.