VU Meters: It’s a Quest on Cloth

20th March 2020

If you like VU meters and your hi-fi just isn’t providing the necessary hardware required, what do you do? Where do you go? Paul Rigby discovers a hidden world for the VU junky

Well, actually, it’s not that hidden.

To me and ultimately, to you. But it takes a bit of finding, initially. Let me explain.

I like VU meters. I don’t know why. Maybe its the Luddite in me. I love new technology but I love old technology more. VU meters look old fashioned and vaguely Victorian. Something from the steam age, perhaps?

The first generation of VU meter, the style with the bouncing measuring wire, roaming jauntily over those finely etched numbers and mysteriously, arching bars are my favourite.

But hey, I’m not elitist in my Luddism. I’ll make room for the new boys and their fancy, illuminated, glowing bar meters, rising vertically, block by block like the thrustingly pointed finger pose of John Travolta in the classic disco film, Saturday Night Fever or ranging horizontally like a new empire made from Lego.

This version of the VU meter was like something you might have found in the BBC TV technology series, Tomorrow’s World. A revolutionary promise of a better future. Something that looked amazing on TV but was slightly more prosaic in real life.

I liked and still like the illuminated bar meter but must admit that I also see it as one might view a member of the family who, bedevilled and scarred by the whims of fashion, knows not the difference between style and kitsch.

So yes, I like the bar meter but the delicacy of the wired VU meter is, to me, poetry in motion. I love the fact that it looks like a piece of movable sculpture but also derives from something as bland sounding as the New Standard Volume Indicator and Reference Level (published in 1940 from initial work done in 1939).

I also love the fact that the VU meter serves as an adornment but can also be pressed into use as an essential tool. I don’t know how many of my cassette tape sound signals have benefitted from their monitoring. The core music itself hanging in the balance, the very nature and form of its existence dependent on their performance. The waveforms reacting in response to the sound signal measured by a pair of VU meters. Without my VUs, my music would have either sounded as dull as dishwater or unlistenable in a sea of distortion.

So, the VU meter as form and function, then. As art and tool. Practical and theoretical.

VU meters in modern hi-fi are a relative rarity. You will mainly find these delicacies plugged into vintage gear. Obtaining a regular fix of (V)olume (U)nits can thus be problematic.

And yet, there is a material crutch you can depend on. One that sends a warm glow, blooming across the body, every time you glance down or peek into a nearby mirror.

You can, I can now confirm via thorough testing, wear a VU meter. Well, no. Not a real VU meter. A pictorial representation of the same. I bought my first VU meter-adorned T-Shirt about two weeks ago.

I was so happy with it, I bought another, wholly different VU Meter T-shirt a few days back. From a different retailer, with a different piece of VU ‘art’ upon it’s tummy area.

I am now bitten by the standards so formally listed as ANSI C16.5-1942, British Standard BS 6840 and IEC 60268-17.

The search is also now on for as many VU Meter T-Shirts as I can get my hands on. I have (or will shortly have) a grand total of two. I aim to add noughts onto that figure. Assuming that this is not a false dawn and that such treasures can be scrounged.

I aim to stand proudly in the queue for the till at M&S, a small basket of food in one hand, the other gesticulating firmly to the puzzled old lady standing in front of me, narrowed of eye and quizzical of brow as she gazes at my colourful chest, responding, “Yes, madam, it may appear that I am currently residing in the red zone but I can assure you that I do have decibels to spare!”

It will be a proud moment.

If you have ever woken from your slumber, possibly on a decorous Spring morning, thrown open the bedroom window in your jim jams and exclaimed to the waiting birdies and assorted flora and fauna, “The reading of the volume indicator shall be 0 VU when it is connected to an AC voltage equal to 1.228 Volts RMS across a 600 ohm resistance!” And then felt all the better for it, then join me in my quest to not only see the VU meter alive and in motion but literally close to our hearts. Via the use of a T-shirt.

My first purchase was made via TeePublic (above) at this link (I have no affiliation, I hasten to add). I went for the more expensive ‘Heavyweight T-Shirt’ model in the hope of extending its wear life and attaining full bodily comfort. Price was £21.43 inc P&P. You may be lucky and find a deal, though. They do come and go. I am very happy with this example: comfortable and stylish.

My next purchase has been made via Reddbubble (above, again no affiliation) from this link. I will need to report back on this sample when it arrives.

Until then, may your peaks be averaged out and you troughs be of short duration.