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A sound pioneer's resonating chords

KEEBLE MCFARLANE

Saturday, March 05, 2011    

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LIKE many others, I have been following with considerable interest the reminiscences of Leslie Galbraith in fellow columnist Mark Wignall's Sunday space about the part he and others played in the development of electronic sound reproduction in Jamaica.

As we are aware, the sound system is an outgrowth of radio, which, in its early incarnation, used vacuum tubes to snatch modulated magnetic radiation from the ether and convert it into a form the human ear can detect.

A trailblazer in broadcast journalism, Edward R Murrow, once described the radio set as "a box with lights and wires", and that was my exact impression the first time I peered through the perforated hardboard back of my parents' five-tube RCA table radio. It was a wondrous sight — glowing glass tubes and shiny cans encasing the capacitors. Thus began my love affair with radio, the medium in which I was fortunate to work for several decades.

Later on, a fancy seven-tube Grundig radio with three loudspeakers opened my ears to the possibilities of true wide-range sound reproduction. At around this time — the mid-1950s — we began to see some of the first high fidelity amplifiers, record-players and loudspeakers then emerging from factories in the United States, Britain and Europe as these economies bounced back from the devastation of World War Two.


The first high fidelity system I owned was a modest affair, in keeping with income limitations and the narrow range of available options. The amplifier was made by the US firm Allied Radio, long ago absorbed by the giant Radio Shack chain. Although the Knight-Kit produced only 16 watts per channel, a pair of fairly efficient loudspeakers could use that to fill our modest living room at a fair volume. The music came from a Garrard record-changer, supplied by a pioneering firm, Stanley Motta Limited.

This is when I met Leslie Galbraith. He ran the workshop and parts department for Wonards, a prominent appliance dealership in downtown Kingston. Many of us who frequented the store were interested mainly in the well-stocked record department with its comfortable listening rooms furnished by Mr Gallie (as he was generally known) with some small, simple-to-operate systems which produced surprisingly good sound.

I wanted something which would do justice to my brand-new, second-hand amplifier. It was just about impossible to find a ready-made speaker system in those days. The ones that did exist were either way out of our price range or were of poor design and slapped together with cheap parts to produce mediocre sound.

The practice was to buy the speaker components piece by piece and get an enclosure built to fit the components as well as your living space. Since space was at a premium in my humble abode, the speakers had to take up as little floor space as possible.

So off I went to confer with Gallie and we hit upon a solution. The little speakers in the sound rooms at Wonards used eight-inch woofers in a small tower. So we scaled up the dimensions to accommodate a 10-inch woofer in a much taller tower. I procured a pair of Goodman's woofers from Motta's, secured a Pioneer horn tweeter and matching crossover from Finzi and Gadpaille, and then went to see friendly cabinet-maker Vincy to construct the speakers.

It was a success, and I gave my father the speakers when I migrated to Canada 40-odd years ago. They are still around, and I am sure we could improve their sound with some modern drivers and minor tweaking of the enclosure.

I was part of a small circle of music and sound enthusiasts who regularly conferred with each other and with Gallie about developments and about our evolving sound systems. Apart from being very knowledgeable and accommodating, he was a person of impeccable integrity. Once, when my amplifier misbehaved, I took it to his home where he also had a workshop. He subsequently informed me that thieves had broken in and had stolen a number of items including my amplifier. So, at his own expense, he acquired a similar Knight-Kit which came as a bunch of parts and instructions in a box. Since he was very busy at the time, he didn't know when he'd be able to put the thing together and I undertook to do it myself. It turned out to be an instructive and satisfying exercise and worked perfectly.

While at RJR I had to do voice reports to be included in the newscasts. Whenever possible the other reporters and I would go back to the station and put the reports together to ensure the best sound quality. But sometimes we had to send them over the telephone and the quality was tinny and occasionally hard to hear.

I raised with the station's engineers the subject of using our tape machines to send reports over the phone. They told me the telephone company didn't like anyone interfering with their equipment. They were unenthusiastic so I dropped the subject.

One day, at the end of a news conference with the head of the phone company, I told him of my desire and what our engineers had told me. He agreed that they didn't like everybody tampering with their equipment, but it was quite all right for us to connect our tape recorders to the phone. I discussed the matter with Gallie, who assured me that a simple circuit would do the trick. It cost only a couple of pounds (the currency in use at the time) and my boss told me to get Gallie to make up a couple. Gallie came through, and I used the little gadget for the rest of my time with RJR, sending reports from Gordon House and points much further away,

As Gallie explained in his notes, you couldn't buy amplifiers off the shelf as you can in almost any village these days. If you wanted an amplifier, you had to see Gallie, Hedley Jones or another of their select group. A popular circuit in those days was called the Williamson, from the fellow who first designed it. It was reasonably powerful and the sound was fairly clean. It also lent itself to modification and improvement, something Gallie and the others were always doing.

But Gallie told me about a special request most sound-system operators made when putting in their orders. They liked to have lots of coloured lights decorating the front panel of their amplifiers. This required a source of low voltage which very few of the power transformers available at the time could supply. Gallie found one particular brand which could do that, and when the supply dried up he imported a coil-winder from England and wound those transformers himself!

I had lost track of Gallie until Mark published his articles, and was able to trace him to his home in Florida, where he has been for the past 15 years or so. He was as happy to hear from me as I was to speak to him. I thanked him for reminding those of us who were around at the time, and to enlighten those who came much later, about the roots of the sound revolution which was responsible, in no small part, for the music Jamaica has contributed to the world through the Skatalites, Carlos Malcolm, Byron Lee, Toots and the Maytals, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley and a whole host of others.

And thank you, Gallie, for your not so small part in that revolution.

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