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    Speaker Building Update II: Crafted Like a Journeyman

    2011 - 04.05

    The latest installment of my progress on the set of loudspeakers for my bro: Woodwork on the cabinets has been completed! I used woodglue and screwed rectangular 3/4″ strips to the inner edges to hold it all together. Tip for the speaker builder: when putting screws into MDF, always drill a pilot hole beforehand, because MDF really does not want to accept any screws. Also, when screwing into the unfinished ‘side’ of the MDF (as opposed to the finished face), be careful to stop once the screw gets as far in as it needs to go. Continuing until the screwhead contacts the wood will split the wood, as MDF is simply made of many composited layers. These layers can easily be split apart from the side.

    As I was putting it together, I used silicone sealant to cover up all seams on the inside. My previous designs used caulk instead. I think I like the silicone a little bit better. It seems to ‘flow’ more and it’s easier to move around versus caulk. Although it does have a nasty odor… which probably promotes the growth of new, more powerful brain cells, I’m sure. Still, it’s supposed to be more resistant to cracking than caulk, and if these suckers are going to be pumping out jams for at least a decade to come, longevity is good.

    Last weekend I got outside with my router and a dustmask to try out my roundover bit and smooth off the edges. I used a belt sander to get rid of any imperfections in how well the boards lined up (some of the edges stuck out, maybe 1/16″ or so), and then I used wood putty to try to fill up any seams that were left open. I used a half inch roundover bit to curve the edges, which worked well. Since the MDF thickness was 3/4″ I thought about going out and getting a 1″ bit, which might’ve helped camoflage the joints (in theory?), but the close proximity of the woofer hole to the edge nixed that idea. Just one little juncture in this art of compromises.

    I’m very pleased with the roundover bit. I first tested out on a spare piece of plywood and it cuts a very smooth curve which is pleasing to the hand. Something tells me this sucker is going to get some use in future projects… These routering and sanding steps were probably the nastiest part of the whole process. When you use either of these tools on MDF, it emits a large amount of superfine dust that gets everywhere. It’s a serious mess. I used a mask to stop myself from breathing it, and did my work in the driveway with the garage door closed. When I came inside, I immediately put my clothes in the washer and took a shower to get it out of my arm hair, my eyebrows… everywhere. MDF, while an ideal material for loudspeakers, is a pain to work with. Oak might be a better choice, if you’re open to spending a little more money.

    That evening I put on an initial coat of paint. White primer. That’ll prepare the surface to accept whatever tone he chooses (update: emerald GREEN!). I could veneer them, but eh… my main speakers have veneer and I’ve seen over the last decade how easily it peels back as it ages and chips off. Maybe I didn’t do the best possible job applying it, but still. I think paint and some kind of sealant (still deciding) should produce a more resiliant finish that will stand the test of time. I doubt I’d ever use veneer again, after moving these monsterous mains many times. (It’s really moving when they’re susceptible to damage. And they WILL get damaged, no matter how careful you think you are being).


    Stay tuned for updates.  The next time you see these, they will be a vibrant emerald green…

    Progenitor of Jams, Beats, Vibes… the Birth of EMOTIONS, Dawg.

    2011 - 03.22

    This weekend I spent a lot of time working on a project I’m excited about: new speakers. These speakers are not for myself, they’ll be a birthday gift for my little brother, but still! Building loudspeakers is something I’m definitely passionate about, although this is the first time I’m mentioning it on the site. So let’s get into it!

    First of all, why is this cool? Well, a ton of reasons. Building speakers is an art of trade-offs. There is, and never will be such thing as ‘perfect’ speakers. Every system is a compromise in some sense, with strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others. For example, the two main strengths in the ones I’m making right now are a high efficiency rating of 91dB (pretty good! This means that given less power, these speakers play louder than most), and a very smooth frequency response. The smooth frequency response was my main goal; important because my brother is going to recording school. If he’s going to be using these to audition recordings and potentially do mastering, it’s critically important that they don’t add their own ‘color’ to the sound. Speakers with choppy response curves can still sound great, but they add their own personality to the tone, which does not copy over to any other stereo setup. So it would be a terrible idea to master a recording on a system with a response curve that has lots of peaks and valleys. The weaknesses would be that I maybe didn’t get as deep of a bass response as I would’ve wished, and the price went a little higher because I insisted on drivers with good responses. In order to try to keep the costs down but still use good components, I omitted a midrange and used only two drivers per channel. For the enclosure, I chose to use a port to get what bass I could. I’d prefer a sealed box, but again, these are the compromises that you get forced into making. It’s part of what keeps it interesting.

    There’s also the brand name aspect too. Just like having your favorite sports team or buying new shoes from your favorite brand, getting speakers from a particular maker is sort of exciting in and of itself. This time around I picked a tweeter from a Danish brand I’ve always wished I could afford, Scan Speak. Scan Speak is very highly regarded in the industry, and with that awesome pedigree comes an accompanying price tag. I’m guessing the recent economic downturn led them to eschew their typical snobiness and produce a series of drivers ‘for the people’ called their “discovery” series. Maybe it’s called that because it’s my opportunity to “discover” what it’s like to listen to Scan Speak (on the cheap)? This I look forward to.

    Something else very neat about speaker building is how long lasting it is. I built myself a pair in high school, and with one driver replacement (right midrange went bad) they’ve been serving me faithfully ever since. That’s well over a decade of listening. GOOD listening! I built another set for my buddy Luke, probably over a decade ago as well. Not long ago he told me he’s still lovin’ them and they continue to serve as his main listening system. That’s so rad! It brings me joy to think about this; the construction that I’m setting in motion in my garage today will last for decades. These are long term actions right now.

    And more than that–these things will be making MUSIC! There will be huge moments of rocking out, when you’re getting ready to go do something great and you put on some tracks to pump yourself up! There will be mellow times late in the night when you come home and put on some chill vibes before you wind down for bed. Sad songs for when you just need to wallow in despair for a while, or daily anthems to get you into the groove of doing what you need to get done. These things are mood machines. Life enhancers. Tone establishers. Music colors our lives, it shapes our feelings. All those emotions will be flowing forth from these paper cones and cloth domes. I love that idea. LOVE IT!

    In the morning, I cook myself an omelet with red onion, cheddar, and spinach. Filled up and ready for action, I head out to the garage. The sun is searingly bright and as I step out, I hear a crescendoing rumble in the sky. Before I can even step out onto the driveway, I say to myself aloud, “what the hell IS that?!” As I pass under the garage door I look up and see one of the biggest propeller planes I’ve ever seen flying very, very low overhead. It’s a 4-engine passenger plane, like one of those vintage prop-airliners from the 60s or something. Very unusual, and a pitch-perfect start to the day. It’s like a good omen. I watch it lumbering slowly across the sky in a wide arc as it turns toward the nearby municipal airport, slipping away behind the treeline.

    Making speakers is something I love doing so much that if I could choose one thing to do for the rest of my days, building speakers would be near the top of the list. While I was out in the garage, I thought back to Geoff Marcy and his story of picking what he wanted to do with his life. Things weren’t going good and he knew he had to make a decision to go in a new direction. He thought, well, what I really want to do is find planets even though it seems like a crazy idea. There’s really no money, glory, or fame in it, but I just want to do this because that’s what makes me happy. I could say the same thing about speakers.

    So here I am, out in the garage, doing one of the things I love best! It is literally an ideal spring day, with temperatures in the high 70s and a nice cool breeze. I’m out with my measuring tape, drawing lines and slicing wood panels with my circular saw. There’s brown aviator sunglasses on my nose, to protect against wood chips and the blinding Texas sun. A few mistakes here, a curse word there, and a course correction gets me back on track. By the day’s end I will begin to see the cabinets take shape, and there are very nice looking flush-mount circles cut with my new router for the drivers. This is a new skill I have learned today, seen in the lead picture at the top. A neat speaker cutting jig helped me get just the right cut. Using these new tools is gratifying.

    Mid afternoon I uncap my water bottle and take a huge swig of the cool refreshment inside. Stopping to assess my progress, it’s uncanny how quiet and peaceful things are between the rounds of power tools. Birds chirp somewhere in the trees and the streets are empty. No one else is here, no one super into this the way I am. It feels like this instant is a triumphant moment, but without anyone else around who ‘gets it’ enough to chime in and say “oh man, what’s happening right now is so sweeeet!!” The absence of conversation feels both ironically strange yet somehow appropriate in an inexplicable way. Here I am, by myself in the garage, making it happen, “blowing it up” so to speak. I guess this sums up what it’s like being into niche hobbies, hey?

    There’s a tiny bit of red sunburn on my neck and a mix of sawdust and sweat on my brow. I am in an odd mode of excitedly rushing to get to the next step yet leisurely configuring the power tools for my next operations. Occasionally a dog-walker goes by, curiously eyeing the piles of wood, my setup of sawhorses, and various power tools strewn about. Sporadic flocks of kids fill up the air with sound as they pass down the block. Now and then I hear the distant roar of a power saw from someone else’s garage. It’s a great day to get some work done. Maybe once an hour I stop and look around, conscious that I’m doing something I love, which I only get to do once every few years. Building loudspeakers is expensive. And time intensive. A whole lot of planning goes into picking the drivers, crossover points, cabinet design; this is sort of a sacred moment, The Moment Of Genesis when ideas begin to take physical form.

    There may be no money, glory, or fame in it, but I have a lot of love for the speaker building art. I don’t think I could ever make a living off of it, even if I decided I was willing to risk it all to try. But I hope to build many more sets over the years, to share my love of high-fidelity sound, and help give to other people the experiences that their own DJing can give to themselves, with crisp detail in the playback.