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MASS (Appeal) Connectors

Inside the origins, development, and applications of one of the most popular and recognized pro audio components...

By Al Keltz February 24, 2014

While they’ve become one of the most popular and recognized multipin connectors in pro audio, the back-story of how MASS connectors came to have such impact shouldn’t be overlooked.

Interestingly, MASS connectors weren’t even intended for audio applications; rather, they were originally developed for use in oil exploration. Oil company engineers connected seismographs with miles of cable in areas suspected of containing oil deposits.

Explosive charges were then buried along the lines and detonated. The resulting echo “signatures” were captured by the seismographs and transmitted along multipair cables to a central location. There, a composite picture of the underlying geological structures could be determined and analyzed for the prospect of containing oil deposits. It was the connecting of these cables that necessitated a large contact count connector.

The characteristics that this connector possessed in oil exploration also made it ideal for multi-channel audio:

     – Rugged and able to withstand many connection cycles.

     – Resist the elements as it would be outdoors and often laying on the ground
       exposed to dirt, sun and rain.

     – Hermaphroditic (asexual, genderless) so that any connector could be mated to
       any other.

       This eliminated the need to keep track of the usual malefemale
       connector configuration. (Imagine laying out a mile of cable only to find that you’re
       holding onto the wrong end!)

     – Many pins and sockets, 88 each for a total of 176 contacts.

Unique Factors

While Whirlwind wasn’t the first company to bring MASS connectors to market, they’ve contributed significantly to their proliferation in audio applications.

Look familiar? An old-style Whirlwind W4.

Back in the late 1970s, several providers began using multipin connectors as a means to provide disconnects for faster and easier setup and teardown.

Whirlwind, already producing the Medusa snakes and getting into microphone splitters, saw the addition of multipin disconnects was a logical addition. Several multipin connector systems were used, but in the early 1980s, a connector produced at the time by ITT/Cannon had some unique features that gave it the edge.

At the time, these connectors were rather plentiful, and 176 contacts could transport the number of channels required by the use of large format audio mixing consoles that were becoming more popular.

The Cannon MASS connector became Whirlwind’s standard in 1986, called the W4. A smaller connector was also available with 122 contacts and that was added to the mix a short time later as the W3.

MASS Connectors rapidly became accepted in the industry due to their reliability, capacity to handle a large number of channels and because they were offered as the standard disconnect by Whirlwind, already a dominant player in this field.

Need that in solder (left) or crimp style?

However, a few years after the adoption of MASS connectors, the technique used to explore for oil began to change. Satellite imaging was proving to be an accurate and less expensive method of mapping geological structures and began replacing the dynamite/seismograph approach.

ITT/Cannon cut back on production but connectors were still available.

And then the unthinkable happened. During transport at the Cannon factory, the tooling for the W4 was dropped from a forklift, causing damage beyond repair.

Cannon believed that re-tooling wasn’t worth the effort due to the reduction in demand for the connector and the existing supply was deemed sufficient to last until the connector’s usefulness had expired. That door slammed shut and in 1989, Cannon abandoned its multipin connectors.

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