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Q&A: Alexander Arion (Audio Aficionado)

October 23 2012, 13:01

Alexander Arion’s resume lists stints as a musician, technician, service manager, and even owner of an “illegal” research company. In a recent interview he explained how the seeds for his love of music and audio technology were sown in communist Romania.

Below is an abridged version of Arion’s interview in audioXpress November 2012. The issue is now available.

SHANNON: Tell us about your youth. What was it like growing up in Communist Romania in the 1960s? How did this shape your interest in audio?

ALEXANDER: My Romanian youth, which passed away like a dream, had plenty of sad moments, but it had also times of joy and happiness. After World War II, in accordance with the Yalta Convention, Romania and other countries were “given” to Joseph Stalin. The Soviet Union installed a very strong and inhuman regime forcing us to make many changes in our lives. The “Nationalization” (read as confiscation) of all the factories, farms, and in general all the assets and goods were placed in the State’s hands, and uncultured people were promoted to strong government positions.

I was a tall, thin, poor boy, living with my aristocratic grandmother in her house, which was situated in the center of Bucharest, the Romanian capitol. The house was seized by the Communist authorities, and soon new “neighbors” arrived and “made themselves at home.”

Having no income, my grandmother sold some family jewels and, at 14 years old, I went to work singing in some child choruses that participated in movies and theater plays. One day, I found a mysterious old instrument that looked like a guitar in my grandmother’s attic. I eventually started playing it in a nearby park and attracted people my age, especially girls! That was the beginning of a long and lovely musical career that led to audio electronics.

SHANNON: How did you first become interested in electronics?

ALEXANDER: In Romania, under the “Iron Curtain” of Communism, information was scarce because the Communist government was “protecting” the people from the “bad” Capitalist influences of the free world. Our musical “experience” was shaped by what was playing on the radio, which was limited to Romanian popular music, and a few Russian and Italian songs.

One day, a new movie came to town, and that was the start of my revelation. The movie was actually a musical called “The Young Ones” (1961), starring singer Cliff Richard. For the first time, I saw an actual band producing magnificent sounds. After the movie, I knew I wanted to play the electric guitar! I also wanted to build the guitar I saw in the movie, and I wanted it to have the same guitar sound I heard in the movie. But due to my lack of knowledge, I did not understand anything about construction, sound, or electronics, so it was time to go back to school.

Arion at Sony with colleagues

SHANNON: You have a degree in electronics engineering from The Technical University of Bucharest (Romania). What made you decide to go into electronics engineering?

ALEXANDER: Two friends and I decided to make an “illegal” laboratory and an “illegal company.” (Private businesses were not allowed in Communist Romania.) We established our business in my grandmother’s attic. It was a mystic place where we experimented with electronics and tried to build different things we needed. And, we needed a lot because nothing was for sale in local stores. Since no private labs were permitted, we lived in fear that the “Economic Militia” would come barging in and asking questions about the parts and materials we were using. We had some friends who provided us with the parts, mainly they were stolen from factories! Little by little, the attic lab became a professional lab. We took information about our next projects (e.g., amplifiers, guitar pick-ups, etc.) from Italian and French magazines we found.

Much later, I discovered an important book, the Audio Cyclopedia by Howard M. Tremaine (1959 edition) and things became much clearer to me. After high school, I attended an engineering technical school. After three years of study, I received my diploma and began working in the audio Hi-Fi field in a state-run cooperative for another three years. To gain a more technical knowledge, I decided to continue my studies, and after five years, I became a proud Diplomat Electronics Engineer.

But due to my social origin, all those years of school meant nothing because there were no engineering jobs for me in the state-controlled institutions. My ancestors were wealthy people, so I decided to leave my country…

SHANNON: What projects are you currently working on?

ALEXANDER: I’m working on an 811A single-ended power stage, which is a student’s small amp. Another SE project I have going is something called The Russian Connection Nr2. I am also working on an IPod/Bluetooth-compatible power stage.

SHANNON: Do you have any advice for audioXpress readers who are considering making audio technology improvements to their equipment?

ALEXANDER: Yes, only one thing. If you choose a hobby as a lifetime profession, then you must seriously pursue it because this may be the key to your happiness. I have many hobbies (e.g., tin toy soldiers molds, old tubes, and old stamps), but none of them were my life’s dream. That dream revolved around tube amplifiers and making music. So read and try to perfect yourself every day, and the results shall come.

SHANNON: Much has changed in audio technology during the past few decades. What changes do you consider positive? Any negative?

ALEXANDER: All changes could be considered  positive, but only after a lot of verification. Do not forget the controversial fights between analog and digital, tube and solid state, single ended versus push-pull, and many others.

With regard to the analog versus digital debate, in my opinion, it is preferable to maintain the “live situation” that analog provides as it happens, even with some mistakes, because life is full of them!

A good sound engineer, working in a modern recording studio, could easily correct all the faults with the help of a computer, but I like to hear the wrong slide a guitarist did on his guitar neck, someone coughing during a symphonic concert, and many other so-called mistakes. If that is how it happened, there is no need to erase the slight imperfections. That is life, so leave it alone!

And, don’t forget that many new musicians still like to record their songs in old and imperfect analog studios. My students are deeply convinced that the music of the 1960s will be ours, forever.

Refer to the audioXpress November for the rest of the interview.

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