Reliable, No-Nonsense Audio Expertise since 1990
Reliable, No-Nonsense Audio Expertise since 1990








About 15 years into my career, I interviewed for a gig with one of the nation’s largest A/V staging companies. When I started telling the regional GM how I got into this profession, their director of audio had just walked in, and asked sarcastically if it was a blow to my head. I didn’t think of it at the time, but in hindsight, it probably was a blow to my head!

When I was in first grade (around 1977), I was in my elementary school's filmmaking class, and we were shooting simplistic pen-and-paper animations on silent 8mm color film. I was sitting on the edge of a chair in a darkened room, and another guy in my class, thinking the chair was empty, yanked it out from under me. I fell backwards and conked my head on a concrete block wall. (I still vividly remember stumbling my way back to my homeroom, leaving a trail of puke all over the carpeted hallway. My apologies to the janitorial staff, who must have really had fun cleaning it up.)

Since then, my main interests were sound, music, and electronics in general. (I never dabbled in filmmaking again until briefly in fifth or sixth grade, when my Stepmom had an 8mm film camera similar to the one we used in first grade. However, the stuff I shot would probably have made anyone watching it hurl the way I did after the chair incident.) While I was growing up, my Dad generally listened to music for relaxation (he rarely watched any TV other than baseball and Monty Python), and my Mom played piano, also for relaxation. (She had an upright piano in the living room - a converted Hobart M Cable player piano. Sadly it couldn’t be tuned properly due to structural quirks; it was always 1.5 steps flat. I’m not sure if this why I don’t have perfect pitch, but nonetheless I immediately notice anything that’s even slightly out of tune.) Dad’s preferences were (and still are) mostly classical and opera, but he went through a phase (in the late 1970s) where he listened to a lot of Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. (He also has an audiophile streak, and has owned respectable mid-grade equipment - which he maintained well - for as long as I can remember.) My Mom played mostly classical pieces; she had a pretty thick stack of sheet music on top of the piano and was a good sight-reader. (I remember her playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata very well.) In my extended family, my maternal Grandmother played and taught piano and viola, and performed in regional ensembles around her home of Lancaster, PA. My paternal Aunt Elizabeth (in Boston) is an opera singer and also performs in church choirs. Both had made their own recordings (on 1/4” tape) of many of their performances and rehearsals.

My parents’ choices of toys for me started with Legos, Tinkertoys, and Lincoln Logs - so I learned very early on that if I wanted some nifty new gadget, I had to make it myself. (I probably wouldn’t have been able to build the stuff here if it wasn’t for that forced resourcefulness at an early age.) As I got older and my parents became more aware of my other interests, they started getting me the occasional electronics kit from Radio Shack - the breadboard sets with pre-printed schematic overlays and coil spring terminals. I also recall getting a portable phonograph - a black Emerson suitcase-style job with stereo speakers.

Around 1978 or so (when I was in second grade), my Dad did some major upgrades to his stereo - he replaced his Kenwood amplifier with a JVC receiver equipped with a 5-band graphic EQ, and bought his first cassette deck: A Hitachi 2-head model with high-impedance ¼” mic inputs on the front. (He still has the JVC receiver, and it still works perfectly.) This spawned his new hobby: Making cassette recordings of orchestra concerts broadcast by our local NPR affiliate. It also spawned my discovery of the nasty things EQ can do. I remember jacking the sliders up and down randomly during the applause at the end of a concert, and at one point making the ovation sound something like tin cans being dragged behind a newlywed couple’s car. (Fortunately I was smart enough to NOT press the button that would have inserted the EQ into the cassette deck’s record feed.)

Eventually, I figured out that a speaker is really just a microphone in reverse, so I wired up a Rat Shack 2” driver with a ¼” plug and about 20’ of lamp cord. I then convinced Mom and Dad to get together so we could record her playing piano - our first family attempt at making an acoustical recording. All went well until my Dad pressed RECORD (not knowing that this would set the cassette deck to input monitor) while the stereo’s volume was up. I was holding the would-be mic only a few feet away from the speakers, and we got our first taste of feedback - around 800 and 1.2K as I recall.

We still pulled off the recording, but I don’t think it survived through the ages. Between the feedback, the common-mode noise from the 20’ of lamp cord, and my not yet knowing how to solder, it was probably unusable anyway.

In addition to climbing the learning curves of his new toys and hobby, my Dad also had to figure out how to keep my grubby paws off his gear. The solution came on Christmas of 1978, when I got a Radio Shanty portable cassette recorder (an upright red plastic horror with a tinted cassette door and sliding carry handle - a classic example of the tackiest 1970s industrial designs that went in and out with disco), and some 60 minute tape stock.

I used this new technology to make some recordings of Mom playing piano, but better yet, I filled up something like two or three 60-minute tapes recording myself banging on cookie tins. (This was before the German industrial band Einstuerzende Nuebauten formed, so no, I wasn’t copycatting.) I don’t think any of those recordings survived either, and the cookie tin sessions in particular would have been priceless. (Or embarrassing, so maybe it’s better that they’ve been lost…)

By this time the Legos, Tinkertoys, and Lincoln Logs had been mostly forgotten, and my new hobby was picking up old gadgets (like radios and small appliances) at garage sales, tearing them apart, and using some of the parts to build something else that may or may not have been a practical device. I always kept speaker and microphone elements, and built my own speaker cabinets out of shoeboxes. I also wound my own electromagnets, one of which I rigged to a Tonka crane with a working boom. (I kept Radical Shaft pretty well cleaned out of 6-volt lantern batteries - the ones with binding post terminals - since I had not yet learned Ohm’s Law.)

If I really wanted to challenge myself I would have tried to put the disemboweled appliance back together exactly the way it was. But if nothing else I learned that real life is much more complicated than Legos, Tinkertoys, and Lincoln Logs.

Throughout elementary school I stepped up to making crude PA systems out of cassette recorder mics, battery-powered amplifiers (also sourced from Radio Shack), and my shoebox speakers. I also started acquiring used portable ¼” tape recorders from garage sales, which I ran until they conked out and couldn’t be repaired due to lack of parts. Most of these machines were solid-state battery-powered models made for notetaking and language lab applications, and ran at lower speeds (3.75 IPS tops) with 3” or 5” reels. (One of them was a puke green 3M Wollensak.) But the most unique one that I scrounged up was a Voice of Music vacuum tube large-format portable (7” reels) from around the late 1950s or early 1960s. This beauty ran at 7.5 IPS, had a couple different track formats, mechanical pushbutton transport controls (like on cassette decks), a two-way speaker with a 6x9 woofer, and a ¼” hi-Z mic input. (It came with a groovy dynamic mic in a cast aluminum housing.) Its coolest feature was the “Magic Eye” audio level meter, which resembled Pac-Man but in green. The idea was that if it had an overbite, you were in clipping or tape saturation (the manual wasn’t clear about it).

I had the Voice of Music unit from 6th grade to maybe 8th grade. It was built like a tank, with a wood outer shell, cast aluminum deck, and a steel chassis. It had to be repaired once, but kept on going. At one point I used it for transferring my Aunt’s recital recordings (made roughly 25 years earlier) to cassette.

I don’t remember what happened to the Voice of Music, but in 8th grade (1984) I bought a used Sony mid-grade consumer ¼” machine from the early 1970s - my first 3-head unit. (It was ¼-track stereo, with a big knob for transport control.) This machine - with the right tape stock - smoked even the early ‘80s high-end cassette decks. (Although Dolby noise reduction did give cassette a slightly lower noise floor.) It was the first time I realized how good analog ¼” tape at 7.5 IPS can sound compared to the other consumer formats of the day. (Even though I occasionally paged through my Dad’s issues of High Fidelity Magazine I wasn’t yet fully aware of the efforts of these two little Dutch and Japanese electronics manufacturers, who had jointly figured out how to digitally encode audio and data onto shiny 5" optical discs. And as I write this I just realized I should get in touch with my Aunt about transferring those cassette transfers to said shiny 5" optical discs, now that another 25 years has gone by…)

One cool thing about the Sony: It had separate record enable buttons for each track, mechanically interlocked with the transport knob. So I discovered overdubbing, but then also discovered that sync playback (from the record head) was required for overdubbing to really work right. This machine couldn’t do that, but my friends and I had way too much fun using it for tape echo - especially with the stereo volume up and a live mic to create some really wild regenerative feedback. (Hey, there wasn’t much else for junior high and high school kids to do in Ames, Iowa…)

It was also in 8th grade that I started taking instrument lessons and multitrack recording classes at a local government-funded not-for-profit, the Media Arts Workshop. They had an eight-track studio with a Tascam M308 8-input mixer, Tascam 38 ½” 8-track, Revox A77 ¼” 2-track, Furman spring reverb, and JBL 3-way monitors that may have been L112s. This was when I first started to seriously learn pro audio from audio pros.

My guitar teacher at the MAW had a PA system that he rented out for a local music festival every summer. One summer I helped him as a stage tech - my first live sound experience. His rig consisted of a Sunn 16x2 mixer, with no outboard at all, and a Ross 1/3 octave EQ for the one monitor mix he ran from front-of-house. (He had no EQ on the mains, unless the mixer had a built-in 10-band graphic - a detail I don’t recall.) He had built his own stage monitor wedges (all 15” 2-way bi-amp), and his mains were a stacked modular 3-way system, typical of the era. It actually sounded pretty good.

In my sophomore year of high school, I started a mobile disc jockey business with a friend of mine, who had a passion for spinning records. (I handled the business and technical end of things, while he dealt with the creative.) We picked up various pieces of used gear (including a pair of Peavey SP1 speakers and a GLI DJ mixer), which we augmented with our home stereo playback stuff, and went to work plastering flyers all over town. We thought that in a college town we would do pretty well, with all the Greek Row parties and so forth, but in reality our two bigger, long-established competitors had the whole market locked up and we barely got any work. But, it was a good learning experience.

I eventually left the business, but my partner carried on with it as best as he could, and in my senior year he asked me to help him with a club install. I also spent a lot of time helping him build gear.

By this time I was absolutely certain my college major would be something audio-production related, but I still took a year off between high school and college, just for a break. During that year I promoted myself as a freelance live sound engineer and picked up a few band gigs here and there. (The first of those gigs will be described in detail elsewhere in this site very soon.) Mostly they were with local and regional cover bands; none of them lasted but they were worth it nonetheless.

I wound up at Georgia State University in Atlanta mainly because I vacillated for too long on my college decision; GSU was one of the few major universities left on my list that took late applications. While in Atlanta I volunteered to do audio for a music magazine-format TV show that was shot in a public access cable studio. This was the ultimate baptism-by-fire lesson in how to get more out of less: All I had to work with was a Shure M68 mixer and a few EV 635 “Buchanan Hammer” omni mics - and that for covering rock bands playing live!

I transferred to Columbia College in Chicago because I wanted a more formal education in live sound and the technical aspects of audio. (Also, as a Midwesterner raised by a Northeastern family I had trouble fitting in around Georgia.) But, it ended up being a great decision, and I met a lot of people who really believed in me and gave me some much needed boosts early on. I am eternally grateful and owe many thanks to Jack Alexander and Doug Jones at Columbia College, Darius Lawrence at Direct Sound Advantage, Gary Cobb at ARS Recording, and Mike Konopka at Thundertone Audio for seeing the potential in the eccentric young brat that I was back then, and steering me towards some excellent opportunities. Without them my career would not be what it is today!







Phone 312-301-2111

E-mail patmccarthy@spmaudio.com

Copyright 2010-2014 by Samuel Patrick McCarthy

Last updated 10/08/2014

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