AC/DC, AEROSMITH, AMERICA, BAY CITY ROLLERS, BEACH BOYS, BILLY JOEL, BLACK SABBATH, BLONDIE, BOB SEGER, BOB WEIR, BOB WELCH, BOOTSY COLLINS, BOSTON, BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (CLARENCE CLEMONS, STEVE VAN ZANDT), CHIC (NILE RODGERS), DERRINGER, EARTH WIND & FIRE, ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA, ELVIN BISHOP, FLEETWOOD MAC, FOGHAT, FOREIGNER, FRANK ZAPPA, HEART, HEATWAVE, JANIS IAN, JOHNNY GUITAR WATSON, KANSAS, KISS, L.T.D., MAHOGANY RUSH, MANDRE, NEKTAR, PAT TRAVERS, PETER FRAMPTON, PETER GABRIEL, PINK FLOYD, RANDY BACHMAN, ROLLING STONES, RUFUS, STEPHEN STILLS, STEVE MILLER, STYX, A TASTE OF HONEY, THE 5TH DIMENSION, THE GRATEFUL DEAD, THIN LIZZY, TOM PETTY, TODD RUNDGREN, VAN HALEN, YES, ZZ TOP.
If one of your heroes is in this list, we recommend checking the period of time going between 1977 and 1981: likely, they were playing with a Schaffer-Vega Diversity System. There were way more than these names, yet only a total of about 1000 units were ever manufactured.
In 1975 American inventor Ken Schaffer created the first dependable, beautiful sounding wireless system for electric guitar and bass. Little did he know he was also creating a circuit that would transform the sound of rock and roll.
The original Schaffer-Vega Diversity System (SVDS) was the first reliably working and beautifully sounding wireless system for musicians or, in general, stage performers. Other wireless microphone systems pre-dated the SVDS, but never became widely adopted because even the best of them lacked reliability (fade-outs, police and taxi dispatch calls!) and their sound was nothing to cherish, especially at high decibel rock n’ roll sound levels. This inspired genius inventor Ken Schaffer to add his own secret sauce and the Schaffer-Vega was born.
The first prototypes saw light in 1976 and in 1977, full production was running. Many incredibly famous performers bought one (or two! Pink Floyd 20!) – at the time extremely expensive. The SVDS was actually used well beyond 1981 (year of cessation of production), as it was a very well built unit. In mid-2014, three still-perfectly working units were cloned – only their audio circuitry was – to recreate as faithfully as possible the original sound of the Schaffer-Vega Diversity System.
Schaffer’s design incorporated ingenious pre-processing circuits to preserve the integrity of the wireless signal. Notably, a mirror-image paired compressor and expander increased the radio circuit’s dynamic range to over 100 dB, 35 dB greater than the theoretical maximum that could otherwise previously be achieved within the bandwidth limits covering wireless systems by the US FCC.
Beyond the staging freedom afforded by Schaffer’s wireless, many A-list players discovered something unintended: the sonic result was pure magic! The wireless design’s unique preprocessing enriched their signal with copious amounts of harmonic content unlike anything they’d ever heard. News traveled fast. Schaffer’s wireless units became the system of choice for nearly every major artist of the mid-70s to mid-80s.
Schaffer ceased production of the Schaffer-Vega Diversity System in 1982 to pursue other interests. Soon, new, stricter FCC regulations on wireless specifications prohibited fully-analog wireless systems of its caliber from being used. SVDS artists – including AC/DC – were forced to move on… the legendary “Schaffer Sound” slipped into obscurity.
IN SEARCH OF THE LOST TONE
Across the world, in Rome, renowned AC/DC aficionado Fil “SoloDallas” Olivieri had been obsessed by Angus Young’s signature tone for more than 30 years. In pursuit of that sound for more than 30 years, Olivieri had bought and duplicated every piece of equipment Angus was known to use. But something was missing…
Eventually, he happened onto a 1984 interview with Angus Young in Guitar Player magazine (“Angus Young: Seriously”, Guitar Player, February 1984). A question was asked about the recording of AC/DC’s iconic Back in Black album: “Do you use any effects?” Young’s reply was “I just have a Schaffer-Vega wireless system.” That next month, in Guitar World Magazine, he elaborated: “Yeah, I use the Schaffer-Vega. I’ve been using that since ’77. On the receiver you’ve got like a monitor switch you can boost the signal and in the transmitter you’ve got the same sort of thing. You can really give a guitar hell with ‘em. I have used the remote in the studio and it worked really good.”
What? Why had Olivieri never heard mention of this before? He scoured the globe trying to find one of these elusive 40 year old units. (Only 1000-odd were ever made.)
What could be there in a wireless system that would cause Angus Young to use it even in the studio, just feet from his amps? It may sound sort of strange that a wireless system may be worthy of just an audio circuitry replication. The Schaffer-Vega Diversity System was used by many artists of the magic era of the 1970s, even in the studio. It is really the case with Angus, who began using it from 1977 to at least 1984 (documented), in the studio, recording with it all the solos and overdubbing some rhythm parts of Powerage, Highway To Hell, Back in Black, For Those About To Rock and Flick Of The Switch.
What could be there in a wireless system that would have caused Angus Young to use it even in the studio, just feet from his amps?
THE MISSING LINK
The Schaffer-Vega Diversity System (SVDS) had already succeeded in its raison d’être: revolutionizing rock ‘n roll staging. Less known is the fact that many SVDS users took their units into the studio with them and recorded with it. The Schaffer-Vega system introduced a new twist to a process called “companding.” Angus used the SVDS’ proprietary processing and companding to shape his sound and create his unmistakable signature.
Not without some hesitation, Fil finally reached Ken Schaffer – pleading for Schaffer’s help in getting his hands on one of these magical units. Awestruck by Fil’s 30 year dedication and perseverance, Ken’s last two remaining “souvenir” units were on their way from the back of his closet to a “better home,” Fil’s, in Rome.
Olivieri: “Finally getting these units was a dream come true for me, as that sound had been haunting me almost all of my life. Indeed, once the Schaffer-Vega was in connected, there, for the first time in 30 years, were those pure tones sought after by everyone. Schaffer’s system was the secret ingredient in creating these sounds.”
Moments after Fil plugged one of his numerous Gibson SG’s into the 37 year old SVDS transmitter, ran the receiver into his Plexi… Instant Angus!
It took only a few demos before the 15,000 member SoloDallas blog’s community of tone-hunters began scrambling to get one of these magical units. It was then that Fil asked Schaffer to condone his producing a replica – an audio replica, not a wireless – of the SVDS to be used for those – like himself – in love with that iconic sound. A team of electrical engineers in Rome and Vienna were retained to retroengineer the SVDS –requiring, too, a worldwide search to procure components that had been discontinued decades earlier. Early prototypes of the Replica were introduced, quietly at NAMM, in January, 2014, certification completed, and production begun in Vienna in March, and fulfillment to SoloDallas blog preorders commenced in May. Recipient of unit #1 was Angus himself, who used it throughout “Rock or Bust,” AC/DC’s first album in eight years. He’d rediscovered the secret to the best tone he’d ever had!
Angus got his sound back.
Keep in mind that AC/DC’s Back in Black is one of the best-selling albums of all time. Much of the lead guitar tone of Angus Young from that magic era is due to the Schaffer-Vega. The SVDS sported a clean boost, a compressor and an expander (companding) in its audio circuitry, allowing it to further overdrive the amplifiers and add a unique signature to the sound. As with all guitar effects or sound effects in general in the known universe, some will like it and some won’t. We have tested the original Schaffer-Vega and its Replica extensively for two years and published many videos with it.
Scores of the Replicas’ initial users found that both versions of the Replica indeed contributed the SVDS’s legendary character through a wide variety of amplifiers – not only tube, but also cheap solid state – and even emulation software. Its signature tone still makes the difference, being recognizable as that sound: a definitive replication of the audio effect of the original SVDS.