Let’s start out with a few basics. This article is for the average person with a standard stereo receiver, not a snazzy Surround Sound set-up. It concerns markedly improving your enjoyment of music on CDs/vinyl/radio, though it could also apply to the enhancement of movie audio, if you have your DVR plugged into said receiver. Oh, and “a skillion” might be a tiny exaggeration.
The presumption here is you have satisfactory speakers already hooked up to the Front Speaker inputs in the rear of the receiver. There’s also a fairly good chance that, when you performed that wiring, it was the last time you looked in the back of the unit and have since forgotten (or paid no attention to the fact) there’s also a pair of Rear Speaker inputs.
However, now that you’ve been re-enlightened, the fun is about to begin. Being no dummy, you figured I’m going to tell you “Go out and buy a pair of top-grade speakers to mount as rear speakers.” You’d be correct…and also wrong.
Yes, you will need to go grab a pair of speakers to locate on the back wall. BUT, I recommend getting small moderate-priced speakers rather than the equivalent of what you already have serving as front speakers.
First off, this is where the “chump change” comes in. Secondly, they weigh tens of pounds lighter, a major consideration when it comes to mounting them and feeling confident they won’t be ripping massive holes in the plaster and/or tumbling down to destroy whatever lies beneath.
You can also use door moulding as a sturdy prop.
For my personal set-up, I got a pair of small triangular shelves, put them in the corners, and supported each with a few medium nails; and the speakers have remained safe and in place for over a decade. Placing them on a corner shelf versus flush to the rear wall also allows for pivoting, a desirable option for “tuning” them to the room.
(Naturally, it’s better to have the sound waves aimed more towards the listener, particularly because the main speakers will be overpowering the secondary ones. It’s just physics. Or science. Or something.)
Now comes the primary reason you go for the little cheaper speakers. If you moaned, “But not getting matching speakers all around means the rear ones will sound different than the front,” I reply “PRECISELY.” (And quit whining. It’s annoying.)
Your economical new best friends will most certainly not have the bass oomphs of their big brothers nor will they be as loud. This is a very good thing. As they say in Berlin, “Viva le difference!”
Remember, these additional speakers are designed to supplement the front ones. That’s the key to the whole shebang.
What you now have is a pair of rear speakers that are more sensitive to the highs and midrange tones on the recording. Most of the time, you won’t hear anything specifically coming from a rear speaker, though it’s plenty cool when you do. Instead, you’ll notice, for example, a high-hat pattern that sounds like it’s on your left and three feet from the back wall, or maybe a synthesizer riff on your right and much more prominent (than with just front speakers), seemingly floating midway between front and rear.
Although the original albums weren’t recorded in quadraphonic sound, you are more or less replicating it to a fairly high degree. I use “more or less” because the effect varies from album to album and, due to the dynamic nature–that’s fancy talk for which instruments are used and how prominent they are–of the recording’s mix, the effect may even vary from track to track.
In other words, with the four-speaker set-up, you will hear an ear-pleasing difference in each tune, but not every song will suddenly blow you away. Just want to clarify that in order to avoid creating unreasonable expectations.
Nonetheless, you’ll occasionally come upon a track that will sound ASTOUNDINGLY better and quite quadraphonic-y, as if the best recording engineer in the world—that would be my pal Bob Clearmountain, by the way—got hold of the master tapes and created a fantastic new mix.
This should give you an idea of what I mean by small-size speakers.
Two other tips. Get yourself some quality speaker wire. For some bizarre reason, the thicker the gauge, the lower the number; and after doing some homework, I upgraded to 14-gauge for the rear speakers. Originally had generic thin wires, and there was a marked difference upon swapping them out.
Secondly, none of the above will mean a hill of Mister Beans if you don’t set your receiver to be pumping the sound to both sets of speakers. This is achieved by the highly technical process of pushing a button on the front of the damn thing.
Originally posted on my other blog in July of 2015, this seemed more appropriate here.
The Tower Theater in Upper Darby, PA (on the western border of Philadelphia) was a year-round movie house for decades, and going back even further, presented vaudeville acts after opening in the late Twenties. Seating three thousand, and with remarkable acoustics, it became a rock palace in the early Seventies, and is situated two blocks from the Upper Darby Municipal Building.
That’s where I come in. I carry a badge.
Okay, Dragnet fans, it isn’t a badge per se; it’s an Upper Darby Health Department inspector’s ID card. And I no longer carry it. But I was a member of the Department on January 28, 1977, when the following took place. No names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Certain higher-ups in the Township hierarchy were not keen on the Tower as a concert venue, for all the usual reasons. I, on the other hand, considered it the greatest thing to ever happen in the history of my hometown.
Wow, major acts in a relatively intimate setting–versus the mammoth downtown hockey arenas that were standard in that era–performed ten minutes from my home! I was a “walking encyclopedia” of rock at the time and absolutely CERTAIN I was going to be a rock star myself in the near future. How cool would it be to receive a standing ovation for a blistering drum solo on the very same stage upon which I graduated high school a few years earlier?!?
As much as a few local bigwigs frowned upon the Tower, the remainder of the health inspectors dreaded the site considerably more. A proper inspection meant not only eyeballing the concession stand, but also looking over every row in a building with a steep double-balcony as well as large subterranean lounges. My coworkers averaged about 35 years older than your narrator, so scaling Mount Tower for an hour was no treat for aging legs at the end of a shift. (One could only gain access to the Theater on late afternoons on concert dates, as it was locked up and unattended all other times.)
My elders saw the dreaded Tower inspection as one huge pain in the ass. I, being too young to legally buy a beer in the burg, and an adamant supporter of having concerts in my backyard, saw it as an opportunity.
I could serve as an unofficial liaison between the local administration squares and the powerful Electric Factory (who owned and operated the Tower) and perhaps get a chance to schmooze with Genuine Rock Stars. As you may have guessed, the remaining inspectors were to a one overjoyed when “the kid” of the Department magnanimously volunteered to be permanent Tower inspector year-round.
[FYI, to avoid any allegations of corruption, inspectors were assigned different areas of the township on a rotation that changed every three months, meaning each would eventually be assigned to the district including the landmark theater. Thus, the unanimous approval.]
I thoroughly enjoyed the Tower inspections, with occasional bonuses such as hearing Mott The Hoople playing a brief soundcheck, and signing autographs for hysterical Bay City Rollers fans who insisted I must be “somebody” because, after all, I was carrying a clipboard and just walked out the door of a building containing the Rollers’ equipment(!)
Nothing, however, topped the time I was the sole member of the “audience” for a Kinks performance.
There I was, flashlight in hand, in the otherwise-dark second mezzanine, dutifully ensuring the building had been cleaned thoroughly since the last concert. While I was protecting the public from the hazards of empty soda cups and lost lighters, The Kinks came onstage and plugged in; and as a long-term fan of the band, I was delighted over the prospect of hearing two or three tunes.
After the first song, I heard a familiar voice half-joking about whether there were ghosts in the balcony, the speaker having seen a ball of light floating around in the upper deck…which, of course, was me and my trusty flashlight making the rounds.
Pointing the light at myself, I waved a friendly “hello.” I don’t recall specifically what was said next, but it was delivered with what Yanks might call “that extremely polite method mastered solely by Englishmen.” Translated into Philadelphian, the message was “Yo, pal, your light is really gettin’ on my nerves.” With that, the man at the mic asked if I wouldn’t mind just having a seat while they continued.
I willingly complied, for three reasons. First, it was Ray Davies; secondly, I’m a wonderful human being; and, thirdly, IT WAS RAY FREAKING DAVIES.
Holy frijoles, a bona fide legend was asking me to do him a favor…and that “favor” involved being the only person in the audience as The Kinks performed live. Didn’t exactly need my arm twisted by roadies.
What could possibly be better than hearing another song or two from a band I greatly admired?
Well, I would eventually learn the Tower show that night was the first on their U.S. tour, and in order to be sure all the equipment made it overseas in working order and to familiarize themselves with the P.A. they had rented, Davies decided they should perform the entire set.
By the time I got out of there, it was dark, the Health Department office had been closed over an hour and I’d missed dinner. But who cared? I was far too excited to have an appetite anyway. Besides, I had to phone every Kinks fan I knew, to ask them to “guess what I did today.”
(And, hey, if you want to get technical about it, I actually got paid to listen to a Kinks concert as an audience of one. Not a bad day at the office.)
The trust between the artists and the Kids grew to the point where we could be depended upon for occasional errands and to provide rides.
My “personal highlight” of the Sigma Sound vigil came one dawn when Ava Cherry popped out of the studio on a mission to get a round of coffee and pastries for some of the people still recording. You can guess who leapt forward to volunteer to take her to the seedy White Tower—the only nearby place open 24/7—a half-mile away.
We must have been quite the sight to the bleary-eyed truckers and the like, propping themselves up on the diner counter: Ava, the gorgeous black woman with short blonde hair and very stylish clothing; and her “escort,” a 5’8” 138-pound starchild.
The return trip was equally as adventuresome. We were passing through the strip that housed various peepshow and porn magazine venues, when Ava decided it would be a laugh to pick up some, um, “adult reading” for David.
In all honesty, if she asked with a smile, I would have driven her to Bermuda. The problem was, parking was forbidden on that block; and, furthermore, it was about to switch from two- to one-way traffic to accommodate the morning rush–and we were facing the wrong direction!
I sat nervously in the car with the engine running, not exactly sure what I’d do if someone gave Ava trouble in the shop or one of Rizzo’s stormtroopers rolled up and insisted I move along while she was still inside.
Was slightly relieved when the beauty came back to the car unscathed…but that was only because she didn’t have much cash left after paying for the breakfast goodies and needed to “borrow” the whopping seven dollars I had in my pocket.
A few minutes later, we were back on the way to Sigma, narrowly averting the traffic-direction-change deadline. Not only had I proven myself to be trustworthy, made a new striking friend and had a fantastic story to tell, but I’d also earned a bonus.
After the full album recording session ended, Ava confessed she had fallen in love with yours truly, dumped David and we began living together in Paris.
Okay, that didn’t happen. But what did transpire was: the next time the band appeared in concert, Ava waved to me from the stage. Jaw somewhere around my navel, I pointed to myself as if to ask “Are you waving at ME?,” eliciting a nod and laugh from the singer.
My sister, seated to my right, gently nudged me to also confirm it, at which point I was ready to fall off my chair. Swoon, swoon.
Despite what one may have been misled to believe by revisionist historians, the Seventies was not one wacky moment after another for carefree youths in zany clothing.
Philadelphia in the summer of 1974 was no exception. Frank Rizzo, the former Police Commissioner who made his bones as a hardnosed, head-knocking cop, had been elected Mayor, to illustrate just how blue-collar conservative the city was at that point. Hardly a warm environment for the sort of young person who preferred gold-painted platform shoes.
The hippie movement sputtered to its death in the early third of the decade, and there was a new freak in town, the glitter rock kid.
It can’t be overstated how integral rock music was to the vast majority of youth culture in the first half of the Seventies. The subgenres that appealed to them may have differed, but only the squarest of the squarest did not have an extensive album collection and regularly attend concerts.
Obviously, much was the keystone; but it transcended notes blaring out of a loudspeaker. You styled your long hair and chose your clothes based on doing your best to look like the very rock stars you idolized. It wasn’t simply some weekend warrior costume; it was a lifestyle and commitment.
Back in early-Seventies Philly, glitter (more recently called “glam”) had taken off, spearheaded by the god of the theatrical rock scene, David Bowie, who had twice sold out a string of back-to-back concerts at the Tower Theater. Alienated adolescents from all parts of the city and its environs finally had a rallying point. Bowie owned this town by the summer of ’74.
I was in a band and had befriended our keyboard player’s brother, future culinary wizard Danny Liberatoscioli, whose group of friends was fanatical about all things Bowie. Your narrator was a moderate-level Bowie fan, and that was only a recent conversion. However, they were a lively bunch and mostly female, so I gradually began spending time with them on assorted evenings.
August 8th. Danny et al were practically levitating over some exciting news that trickled down the Bowie grapevine: David would be returning to town to record new music at the legendary Sigma Sound studio!!!
[Said grapevine also always knew which hotel the Bowie entourage would be occupying, regardless of the city. The FBI should be so proficient!]
I should also point out that the average age of the group was sixteen and most had neither driver’s license nor car—which makes the following more extraordinary.
Full of vigor and with nothing that could possibly be of higher priority, we packed into a car, heading to Sigma in an attempt to confirm whether the rumors were on the level. Something was definitely up; upon arrival, there were already several Bowie diehards milling about and a Cadillac limo parked directly outside the studio.
Little else to do but wait around and see what happened next.
Sigma Sound was located a few blocks north of the commercial district of Center City, just outside the Chinatown section, and the rare passerbys from dusk til dawn were primarily “winos.” We, all dolled up like Martians recently beamed down from the mothership, blended in about as well as a My Cousin Vinny family reunion on a dude ranch.
Nonetheless, the anticipation was electrifying and it was a kick being around so many fellow kooks from remote corners of the region. And when a certain British crooner emerged—“Oh, my God, it’s true, he’s really here!!!”—it was impossible not to get caught up in the excitement, especially while immersed in what was very reminiscent of those old newsreel scenes of Beatlemaniacs losing their minds when face-to-face with the Liverpool quartet.
I had never been within reaching distance of a REAL ROCK STAR, fully intend to become one myself, and idolized several. So, even though I had yet to become a staunch Bowiephile, this encounter was a Very Big Deal to me.
Thus it began.
For a stretch of fifteen days, from evening to the wee smalls, a rotating tribe of what was to be dubbed “the Sigma Kids” kept vigil outside of the Barclay hotel when David and the musicians were there, tailed them to the studio, and waited for hours on end, sitting on the sidewalk and steps outside Sigma until the session was over and we could get another glimpse and a moment of small-talk.
After a few days, the lot of us providing no indications of being a nuisance or threat, the Kids and the performers developed a genuine rapport. Carlos Alomar and wife Robin Clark were as caught up in the whirlwind as most of us and extremely fan-friendly. Carlos had established himself on the R&B circuit but this was his first foray into the colossal rock scene, thus it was a bit of a culture shock, albeit a highly enjoyable experience.
Same could be said for the then-unknown Luther Vandross who, although he didn’t spend as much time associating with the Kids, was always very personable.
Of course there were the Bowie “veterans” as well, such as guitarist Earl Slick, David’s longtime friend and singer Warren Peace, and backup singer (and Bowie paramour) Ava Cherry, on whom I immediately developed a massive crush.
Bowie’s personal assistant Corrine “Coco” Schwab—who got her job by answering a newspaper ad!—was another entourage member who grew comfortable among us and I believe was a liaison of sorts, ensuring her boss we had nothing but good intentions. (This would be crucial for what was to occur later, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)
Although there were a few dozen Sigma Kids in total, we weren’t all there constantly. On the average, I’d say the head count was fifteen at the studio, maybe one-third of that at the hotel. Oh, and about four-to-one female-to-male.
Some of the girls were age 14—but only chronologically—and I oft wondered what kind of (if any) fireworks went off when they returned home at 3 a.m. after spending six hours loitering around Skid Row.
There were roughly a dozen who made up the core of the vigil-keepers, i.e. the ones most frequently present, and we eventually settled into a groove. A couple of people brought blankets so we wouldn’t have to sit directly on the filthy pavement; someone always seemed to have a radio; everyone got used to each other after a while; and we were relatively quiet, patiently awaiting the next flurry of activity.
Sigma owner Joe Tarsia was more bemused than annoyed by us, eventually earning the nickname “Uncle Joe.” And later in the vigil, one of the engineers would occasionally open a studio window while they were listening to a playback, kindly giving us a special reward for our perseverance.
Then things got REALLY interesting.
August 23. Bowie had been fairly satisfied with the tracks they had laid down, and that night’s session would be the last. As such, he had a treat in mind that would enormously eclipse any engineer opening a window for a few minutes.
David personally approached those of us he recognized as comprising the core and extended an invitation that had been unprecedented in music history: When the session that night concluded, there would be a listening party…and we were invited!
There was also one stipulation. “This is only for the people I invite. If anyone else shows up, it’s off.”
The party itself. The session didn’t wrap until very early in the morning (one report said 5 a.m.), and much to the invitees’ relief, all kept their promise to keep the party hush-hush. We were ushered inside, where Bowie’s bodyguard frisked each of us and checked handbags for recording equipment.
Some folding chairs had been placed around the studio and there were cups of red wine on a tray. I selected a seat where a few chairs were centered midway between the speakers. When the rest of the Kids sat closer to the front, I didn’t want to be “that guy” who sat secluded towards the back like the official party wallflower, so I moved up a few spots towards the front, perching on a piano stool.
The music began playing, and it was nothing like we expected, starting with what would be the album’s title track “Young Americans.” When the Beatles reference came through the speakers, I turned to see if anyone else “got it”…and, sure enough, there was the author sitting in one of those chairs I’d abandoned.
Yes, I inadvertently blew an opportunity to be sitting right next to David Bowie the very first time anyone heard one of his classic recordings. The Simpsons didn’t exist yet, but I may have originated the emphatic “Doh!” that very moment.
Turned out David was quite keen on gauging our reactions. As everyone knows now, Bowie was taking his music in an entirely different direction, and he had no idea whether it would be accepted by the audience currently wearing a groove in his latest studio effort, Diamond Dogs. We weren’t ass-kissers from the record company or media. We were that very audience he was concerned about. We were quite literally the young Americans.
After all the material was played, including some that never made the album, there was a brief silence. I believe it was a cross between digesting what we just heard and the feeling of “So what do we do now?”
We were impressed by the music—who wouldn’t be?—but no one wanted the party to be over. Then one of the Kids uttered the magic words that broke the spell.
“Play it again!”
It was as though everyone exhaled simultaneously. “Play it again” they did, and we began dancing, performers and Kids together, like giddy, slightly buzzed friends at a wedding reception. Photographer Dagmar snapped away, and unbeknownst to us at the time, those pictures would end up on the front page of the Sunday paper, in several magazines and book over the years and even in the 2007 Young Americans reissue’s CD booklet.
[One shot captured me dancing with Ava Cherry, and to my very very deep dismay, although processed (but unused) for the Sunday newspaper story, it apparently has disappeared. Ah, well.]
By the time the second run-through ended, it “felt right” for the party to break up. The adrenaline that had us wide awake and shaking our butts at 5 a.m. had dissipated, the sun had begun to rise and none of us wished to make a pest of himself.
Thank Yous and Goodbyes were exchanged, and all the Kids went home.
I doubt any of us slept when we got there.
Sidebar regarding getting invited to the listening party: Sigma Kid Stewart and I were the only two standing outside the Barclay the afternoon we received our invitations. When our future party host moved on, Stewart and I just looked at each other like “Wait, we just got invited to a party by David Bowie, right?” as if to reassure each other there was no misinterpretation or hallucination involved.
Stewart had short spiked hair tinted with henna to give it a reddish tone and, if I remember correctly, shaved eyebrows. Needless to say, he was a hardcore Bowie fan. He also no-showed the party.
Surprised? What you need to understand is, David Bowie touched people in a very special way and was Messianic to many young folks at a confusing age in a challenging time period. There were certain Sigma Kids who were literally struck speechless and too overwhelmed to get closer than several feet from David when he entered or left the studio.
Stewart wasn’t like that, but all I can presume was that the thought of actually socializing with his idol was more than he figured he could handle.