What WFMT and “Star Wars” have in common might surprise you

By Mary Mazurek |

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Cockpit of the Millennium Falcon from http://starwars.com

The cockpit of the Millennium Falcon (Source: StarWars.com)

In Solo: A Star Wars Story, the Millennium Falcon jumps to hyperspace to narrowly escape the tentacles of the menacing summa‐ verminoth to complete the Kessel run in record‐breaking time. We then learn how the cocky Corellian smuggler Han Solo comes to pilot “the fastest ship in the galaxy” with his Wookiee co‐pilot Chewbacca. In a galaxy not so far away, I discovered that WFMT has an unexpected connection with Star Wars besides the music of John Williams. It’s actually a tool. It’s not a laser cannon or a blaster, but it is something that makes them sound great.

That tool is an amplifier realized by Richard Schram, president and CEO of Parasound, whom I met this past April at the Axpona Audio Expo. Parasound was listed in the onscreen credits for multiple Star Wars movies. Producer Rick McCallum said, “Parasound THX Home Theater products were used during the sound design and editing phases of Star Wars Episodes One and Two. The transparency and accuracy of the sound enabled us to make critical sound decisions at every stage in the post production process.”

It’s not the Millennium Falcon, but the music control room of the Fay and Daniel Levin Performance Studio here at WFMT does resemble a cockpit with all of its lights, switches, and controls, and utilizes one of Schram’s creations. The A21 amplifier, connected from the mixing console to B&W 802 Nautilus speakers, is one of the tools that helps make our live in‐studio performances sound great. It also turns out that WFMT was one of Schram’s major inspirations for building such high‐quality pieces of audio equipment.

WFMT Radio Control Room

A view of the Fay and Daniel Levin Performance Studio at WFMT from the control room, which has more in common with the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon than you might think

Schram told me that Parasound, started in 1982, was the outgrowth of a number of experiences in the audio industry, which included affiliations with Pacific Stereo and CBS but that his passion for music dates back much further than that to a source in which we are all familiar.

He told me, “It was all about the music, and it all started with WFMT. I grew up in Wilmette, and there was always music in our house. Before I was able to buy records, there were three radio stations that influenced me and WFMT was the most important (WEFM and WNIB also were among the three). I learned a lot about music, and my tastes were guided by what I could hear [on the radio].”

WFMT has always been dedicated to excellence in programming, and Schram followed suit in producing audio components of the highest quality. However, instead of building an amplifier costing $40,000, he takes a much more practical approach, to produce very reasonably priced yet superb products by focusing on the areas that matter most. In partnership with engineer John Curl, they make the most of the copper, aluminum, and steel that goes into their products.

 

Front view Parasound A21 amplifier source: http://www.parasound.com

Front view Parasound A21 amplifier (Source: http://www.parasound.com)

With over 40 years of experience, Schram knows when the parts matter and pays attention to how music passes through them. The most important parts of an amplifier are the parts that create power, so he indicates that the transformer can’t be shortcut. He insists on a steel core with heavy copper windings, which are then encased in epoxy and covered with a steel case for both silence and to catch any stray radiation. The copper wire windings are responsible for better dynamics and bass response. This is the main reason why quality amplifiers are so large and heavy.

Then Parasound chooses power supply filter capacitors, which provide a reservoir for power, to support audio quality. At the final stage, he selects output transistors that handle higher voltage and current, but in addition, also a very wide bandwidth, which results in very low distortion. Manufacturing is conducted in Taiwan in factories owned by audio enthusiasts. The result is reasonably priced amplifiers that often outperform ones costing thousands of dollars more.

Rear view Parasound A21 amplifier

Rear view Parasound A21 amplifier (Source: http://www.parasound.com)

The hi‐fi industry can sometimes be compared with the fashion industry, with new releases every year. However, Schram’s philosophy differs. Parasound is dedicated to “getting it right,” so their products change very little upon their release. Also, unlike with major manufacturers, consumers learn about Parasound products primarily by word-of-mouth. And their products appeal to both consumer hi‐fi aficionados and pro audio users, as exemplified by its use in Star Wars.

Schram attributes this to the quality and reliability of his products. “A lot of really wonderful people use our products because they are reliable and have recommended our products to their clients, and this is a part of the business that I take particular pride in because it is a business where the product has to perform. The people who buy our products could buy anything. They’ve replaced a number of products that don’t sound as good as ours.” Some of those entities are Lucasfilm, of course, as well as Skywalker Sound, Disney Pixar, Warner Bros. Entertainment, Apple, and WFMT.

So the next time that you listen to laser cannon fire or tune in to hear Live from WFMT, Impromptu, Introductions, or Folkstage, know that the Parasound A21 amplifier is helping us get the mix right.


Author and veteran WFMT audio engineer Mary Mazurek mixes the music for Live from WFMT and Impromptu using the Parasound A21 amplifier. She feels confident that she could make the Kessel run in less than “12 parsecs” if a parsec was actually a unit of time.