Speaker Stories

    My First Speakers

    Issue 158

    As promised back in my article, “Shop Class” (Issue 151), it was time to build some speakers. I had already built a preamp from a Popular Electronics article, but had no way to really use it. Here’s how the odyssey of my personal audio addiction began.

    The fall of 1970 was a rude awakening in my young life. I moved into Aden Hall at the University of Colorado and found myself face to face with some of the craziest people I had ever seen. I had grown up quite sheltered by my family and my rural environment. There was no such thing as diversity in my high school. The first time I had ever heard of marijuana was when I was a junior, and a senior got busted for having it in his locker. No one in my class knew what it was, but now that I was in college I was surrounded by all the above and a whole lot more.

     

    Some of the crazy residents of Aden Hall in 1970. The author is second from left in the rear. You can see from the hairstyles that we were well represented by California and the Northeast. Many of us left freshman year with more hair than this. Why invest in haircuts when you could buy pizza and avoid the horrendous dorm food?

    Some of the crazy residents of Aden Hall in 1970. The author is second from left in the rear. You can see from the hairstyles that we were well represented by California and the Northeast. Many of us left freshman year with more hair than this. Why invest in haircuts when you could buy pizza and avoid the horrendous dorm food?

     

    Sometimes you just needed a break from all the craziness of the university atmosphere. To amuse ourselves on an afternoon when we didn’t have classes, we’d often mount an expedition to the University Hill district, also known as The Hill, which was on the opposite side of campus from the dorm.

    The first stop was usually at Jones Drug and Camera to drop off film to be processed. Jones was right on the corner after you left the campus and crossed over Broadway, and was the home of all things Nikon. That’s where the trouble usually began, because then it was time to run the gauntlet. The sidewalks were full of transients leaning up against the buildings. No, not the transients you read about in circuits analysis class. These were street people, and these were the years the people of Boulder now affectionately refer to as the counterculture years. There were so many street people, they were like flying buttresses holding up the walls of the cathedral of merchandising. Every one of them would try to sell you some illicit substance. This egregiously aggravated the merchants, as this area was formerly the domain of the fraternity houses, and customers with money to spend were being blocked from entering the shops by the aggressive nature of the transients, or maybe just the smell. It was all bad for the area’s traditional businesses. Of course, some enterprising new businesses sprang up, such as a custom clothing shop for women, where tie dye bedspreads were turned into dresses for earth mothers.

    The city tried to clean all this up in 1971, but probably ended up making the counterculture revolution persistent in Boulder even to the present day. How did they decide to clean it up? Bring in the storm troopers and smash some heads. The Riot of ’71 happened, leaving many businesses in shambles. Jones Drug and Camera put bars on the windows, making it look more like Jones Drug and Jail. The Colorado Bookstore had beautiful two-story windows that were simply bricked in. This was the first time that 18-year-olds were eligible to vote, and it all changed the political landscape of Boulder forever. But I digress.

    Once we got past the transients, we’d take a right on 13th Street and duck into the Round the Corner restaurant. They had really great burgers at good prices even if the atmosphere was a little Pavlovian. It was perfect for students on an allowance. There was no table service and tipping was forbidden. You sat at a table in a booth with a telephone. Using the telephone, you placed your order and when it was ready, the telephone would ring. Everyone immediately began to salivate and tablemates were dispatched to fetch the food and beverages. My favorite was the mushroom Swiss burger with sour cream sauce. Yum!

    Now with a full belly, the next stop was Albums on the Hill, a funky vinyl shop back then that still exists today. Occasionally they had live music. We spent a lot of time there auditioning albums, rarely buying anything. None of us in the dorm had a turntable.

     

    Albums on the Hill, Boulder, Colorado. From bouldercoloradousa.com.

    Albums on the Hill, Boulder, Colorado. From bouldercoloradousa.com.

     

    Then it was off to mumse the salesman in the audio store a few doors down. They had some nice gear. They usually weren’t busy and we could get away with spending a good amount of time there learning about hi-fi. The salesman was great and spent a lot of effort educating us. The owner, on the other hand, wore underwear that was too tight. They sold Marantz electronics, Bose, AR, and Dodecahedron speakers. It was the era of swag lamps and shag carpets, and many people thought the Dodecahedrons were pretty cool.

    The part that interested me most was that they sold kits to build your own speakers. They came with a complete set of plans, along with the drivers and crossovers. You just built the boxes, installed the components, and added the finish of your choice. Simple. After pondering this possibility for a while and determining I didn’t have the woodworking skills or funds to build the Dodecahedron rip-offs, I purchased a kit that had two 12-inch woofers, two midrange horns, two dome tweeters, and crossovers. I remember paying $125 for it. I had the components shipped back home.

    The Hill basically had two watering holes, The Sink, and Tulagi. The common belief at that time was that 3.2 percent beer was too weak to get drunk on; however, there was a certain contingent that did their best to prove those believers wrong. We had one resident in the dorm who came home from The Sink wearing the toilet seat around his neck. Another night, I needed to use the communal restroom, which was down the hall from my dorm room. I couldn’t get in. It was full of road barricades with blinking yellow lights. Yep, same perp. The campus police weren’t amused with his prank and read him the riot act. They confiscated the barricades and left him to think about how much trouble he could have been in. It didn’t sink in. With that reputation in mind, we tended to avoid The Sink, as we had a higher calling. We were questing for live music.

    Instead of The Sink, the last stop on our expedition was often Tulagi. It’s often been described as an urban roadhouse. Booking manager Chuck Morris was learning the ropes of concert promotion and brought a lot of good acts to town. Zephyr played there a lot. Tommy Bolin, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, and ZZ Top played there. Stephen Stills lived in the foothills above Boulder and was known to frequent Tulagi. You could always tell when he was in town as he drove a canary yellow Mercedes Unimog. And, you may have heard about a band named Eagles that rehearsed there to get their act together before striking out on tour.

    You could often drop in at the Tule and catch a band rehearsing or doing a sound check, and there would be no admission charge during the day. Well, not exactly. They sold Coors by the glass and it was 25 cents a draft, perfect for that student budget, even if it was just 3.2 beer, and that’s how we paid for admission.

     

    Tulagi. From the Elevations Credit Union website.

    Tulagi. From the Elevations Credit Union website.

     

    That was usually the end of our expedition. We’d take the long way back to the dorm to avoid the transients, after having had a nice afternoon, occasionally stopping at The Spoke bicycle shop to practice our jaw-dropping exercises.

    At the end of the school year, I went back home to build the speakers with the components waiting for me. I was promptly ushered off to the barbershop for a haircut and then led through the Inquisition by my parents about having purchased the speaker kit.

    The first step in constructing the speakers was to recruit my father’s friend Carl, who had a nice woodworking shop in his basement. He agreed to help, so I purchased the plywood needed to build the cabinets, loaded it into the pickup truck, and we headed over to his house. Carl took a good look at the plans and a scowl came over his face. The plans didn’t allow for the width of the saw kerf, so we had to recalculate all the dimensions. I got yelled at for that one also by the old man.

    We went home and I assembled the speaker boxes, adding some insulation for sound damping. I had no idea how to work with wood veneer at the time, so I covered the boxes with wood-grained Formica, which was readily available and cheap. Contact cement and I weren’t good friends, so the Formica eventually delaminated, but I learned a lot.

    When everything was finished, I drove the speakers with my preamp thru an ancient but gigantic mono Philco tube radio with a line-input RCA jack. It all sounded good until you turned up the volume. Hey, what kid didn’t want to? I needed a real amplifier. And so, I sold my 1967 Mosrite bass guitar to help finance my new audio addiction. She was a beautiful candy apple red with dual pickups, a zero-fret nut, low action, and a short scale, and I knew I would miss her. But at the time, I was more into listening to music than making it.

     

    Mosrite "The Ventures" model bass, circa 1966.

    Mosrite “The Ventures” model bass, circa 1966.

     

    They say that what goes around comes around, and in 2013 it did. As I was sitting around wondering just how much trouble I could get into in my future retirement, the thought came to me that playing music again could occupy a lot of time. I started surfing the web and found the Chicago Music Exchange. They had an extensive collection of vintage Mosrite guitars for sale. As I dug deeper, I found my old bass guitar. I knew the moment I saw the back of it that it was mine, as it had a nasty nick in exactly the same place where I’d left it. Somehow it had made it to Chicago. I negotiated the price down to only 10 times what I had sold it for. Off to the luthier it went for some adjustment to the neck and some new strings, and it was ready to play again. The candy apple red finish had darkened a little over time and there were a few belt buckle scratches on the back, but it still sounded great. On the other hand, the original case stank of mildew and immediately went into the trash.

    One of the truths of life is that you never know the next curveball that will be pitched to you. As I sat down to write this piece, pondering whatever happened to those speakers, I was contacted by my college-era roommate, who I hadn’t talked to in 45 years. He found me from reading the first article I had written in Copper, “When I Was a Boy” (Issue 150). He remarked that he had kept the speakers up until three years ago, when he sold the house he had lived in for 42 years. I don’t remember selling the speakers to him. They say if you remember the 1970s, you weren’t there. I guess I must have been, or maybe I just have age-related brain corrosion.

    My roommate had recovered the speakers in walnut veneer and finished them with Watco oil. Over the years, he’d replaced the drivers with more modern components. It’s funny, but he never mentioned how good they sounded, only how heavy they were. He left them behind when he moved out.

    The new owner painted them black and added new grill cloth in keeping with his decorating style. Here they are now in their third incarnation. It’s amazing to think those speakers are still bringing joy into people’s lives 50 years later.

     

    One of Jack's original speakers.

    One of Jack’s original speakers.

     

    Follow-up:

    Boulder had a vibrant music scene in the 1970s. Another 3.2 bar in town, The Dark Horse, also routinely brought national acts, such as Chuck Berry, to their stage. The University of Colorado brought Fleetwood Mac to their field house in 1972. It was a fabulous concert at the time of the Future Games album. Yes, Fleetwood Mac was an English blues band long before they went POP with Buckingham and Nicks, but this was the start of the transition, led by Bob Welch.

    Chuck Morris went on to start his own club in Denver, Ebbets Field. As far as I can remember, it’s the only venue wrapped in orange shag carpet. Yes, even the walls. Chuck became a big-time promoter, booking many national acts to Red Rocks Amphitheatre and other venues.

    For more information on the music scene in Colorado back in the hey days, check out the Colorado Music Experience website.

     

    Speaker photos courtesy of the anonymous new owner.

    Aden Zoo photo credit unknown, maybe Snake (the toilet seat guy), since he’s not in the picture.

    About The Author

    After surviving a misguided youth, the author briefly dabbled in civil engineering and professional photography. Facing bankruptcy, he found his true calling as a software engineer. He spent the last 25 years of his career writing device drivers, firmware, protocol stacks, engineering specifications and documentation. He now plays the bass with a Hartke LH1000 stack producing 1 kW. If he enjoys his music this much, so should his neighbors.

    4 comments on “My First Speakers”

    1. Too bad the speaker kit instructions didn’t include placement recommendations. But those would likely have been lost long before the third owner anyway. ;^)

    2. CU ’77. many great concerts on the Hill etc., before the town ruined Pearl St. Arden Hall I do not recall, but gigantic Libby Hall- those memories were burned in.

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