18 March 2016|
If you’ve been around the car audio game for any part of the past three decades, chances are you’ve heard of Mark Eldridge or his 1987 Toyota 4Runner. Probably both. Known throughout the car audio world as one of its mightiest heroes, Mark has won countless sound competitions at the highest level with his own vehicles, and has helped others on the various competition teams he has been a part of do the same. He’s worked with the best of the best, tackled some great feats of engineering and is a veritable fountain of knowledge and inspiration for legions of up-and-comers.
Eldridge’s life extends well beyond the sound-off competition scene. The married father of three has long dedicated himself to the understanding and advancement of quality audio, and has focused much of his attention within the car audio arena. Eldridge owns and operates Mobile Soundstage Engineering (MSE) in Bixby, Oklahoma. In addition to building some pretty incredible autosound vehicles, he holds regular Car Audio Advanced Sound Quality Seminars where rookies, amateurs and professionals alike can learn about the fundamentals as well as the latest trends and techniques pertaining to the car audio and mobile electronics industries. He also works for the Team Sales manufacturers rep firm.
We’ve never actually featured any of his builds in PASMAG, but he was kind enough to spend some time with us and bend our ears about how he’s managed to make a name for himself in the crazy world of speakers, amps and kick-ass installs. He is a car audio legend in every respect, so read on friends and learn a thing or two.
PASMAG: You’ve been in the car audio / mobile electronics industry for as long as I can personally remember. How and when did it all get started for you?
ME: Man, I’ve been into music since I don’t even know when. My dad had records, and I always enjoyed having music in the house. When he finally got a new sound system and I got my hands and ears on his old record player (I was eight, I think), that was the real start of everything with music and audio for me. And even before I got my first vehicle, I was learning about car stereos. As soon as I finally got my used '74 Chevy Blazer in '79, I started on the audio system. I ripped out the factory AM radio and put in a huge Pioneer 8 track tape player under the dash.
PASMAG: 8-track? We’re going there? Okay...
ME: Yeah, 8-track with 6x9 dual cones in the back and tweeters on top of the dash. And then I got a Clarion EQ Booster and put in a Pioneer KE-2000 electronic cassette deck, and it was on! Great sounding music. That’s where it all started for me. It’s always been about the music.
PASMAG: So, what do you do these days?
ME: Several different things keep me busy, and they are all related to sound and music. I work as a mobile electronics representative for several manufacturers as part of Team Sales, owned by Brian Tolley and Mark Couch. We cover the four states of Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. I have Oklahoma and Arkansas, and we work with JL Audio, Wet Sounds, K40, Audio Control, Compustar, Power Bass, and a few other brands. It’s all good high-end stuff, which is perfect for me, and I get to work with guys at the stores I’ve known for many years.
PASMAG: As somebody that’s been in the car audio and mobile electronics industry for many years (doing many different things from competition to engineering, fabricating to teaching and everything in between), what is most important to you?
ME: It’s all about sound and making cars sound good. It’s all about the audio performance. Getting loud is great, but if it doesn’t sound good when it’s getting loud, then it’s just not doing it. It really is all about the sound. That’s why I enjoy working with Team Sales and the brands we work rep. They make great products that get loud and sound good.
I also host training seminars as part of what I do with Mobile Sound Stage Engineering. The Advanced Sound Quality Workshop is a full two-day, I don’t know, 20 hours or more, on how to make cars sound good. We start with the music, how it is produced, and why some recorded music just sounds better than others. We get into the human hearing system, how we hear and perceive sound. We cover speaker placement, vehicle interior acoustics, component selection and all that stuff. And, we set up a simulated vehicle interior, then work with speaker placement, tuning, etc. It’s a very full two days. I’ve taught these classes all over the U.S. and around the World.
I also teach classes at many of the industry conferences like MERA Knowledgefest, and they are always related to music and sound.
The installations I’ve done at MSE, every one of them has been for somebody who wants a great sounding audio system. They want some flash too, they want to have a nice looking install, but the most important thing is how it sounds.
PASMAG: That’s pretty cool. Why don’t we talk about some of your builds? Do you have a build or an accomplishment that you’re the most well-known for?
ME: I’m known for my two personal competition vehicles. There’s the 1987 Toyota 4Runner that I ran for, jeez, so many years, from '92 up through '03, or actually into '05. And then there’s the NASCAR Sprint Cup car I’ve been running since '07. It took me a couple of years after selling the 4Runnner to get this one done, but it has a full-blown audio system in it.
In total, well over 350 competition event wins and numerous major event and show appearances have been logged, with more to come.
IASCA / USACi / MECA / dB Drag Alma Gates Industry Sportsmanship Award: 2013
MECA Alma Gates Lifetime Achievement Award: 2013, 2015
MECA Master World Champion: 2004, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015
MECA Culbertson Cup SQ Award: 2010, 2011, 2012
MECA Best of Show SQ: 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014
MECA SQ 2-Seat World Champion: 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015
MECA Extreme Install World Champion: 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014
IASCA World Finals Triple Crown Champion: 2012, 2014
IASCA ISQC Champion: 2005, 2012, 2014
IASCA Expert World Champion: 1995, 1996, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2012, 2013
IASCA Expert Solo World Champion: 2014, 2015
USACi Expert World Champion: 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2009, 2012, 2013
USACi World Finals Best of Show: 2000, 2009
USACi Pro 1001+ World Champion: 1996
USACi World Finals Best of Show Pro: 1996
SLAP Expert Ultimate National Champion: 2003, 2004
SLAP Finals Best Ultimate Sound Quality: 2003
SLAP Finals Best Ultimate Installation: 2004
CMAA Pro 1001+ National Champion: 1995, 1996
CMAA National Finals Best of Show Pro: 1995, 1996
Aggieland Invitational Champion: 2013, 2014
SVR Invitational Champion: 2004
SISC / Perry Invitational Champion: 1996, 1997, 2000, 2001
Autofest Best of Show SQ, SQL, Install, & SQ2 Champion: 2009
Deep South Nationals Champion: 2008, 2009
Texas Summer Showdown Champion: 2009
Tulsa Top Gun Invitational Champion: 2010
SBN Champion: 1996, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2010
SBN ISQC Champion: 2004, 2010
MES Invitational Champion: 1997
CES Booth Vehicle Display: 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009
SEMA Booth Vehicle Display: 2008
MERA Knowledgefest Display: 2007, 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014
Oklahoma Special Olympics Display: 2008, 2009
NASCAR Vehicle Display at 15 NASCAR Races: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011
Prelude to the Dream (Eldora Speedway) Display: 2008, 2009, 2010
This is a partial list of the major titles, awards, and some of the major show/event appearances to date.
PASMAG: Long live the 4Runner! But has it actually raced in a NASCAR series?
ME: It did, yeah. Casey Atwood raced it for Ray Evernham in the 2002 NASCAR (then) Winston Cup Series. It was raced seven times. I’ve got the history of the car (it’s written on the driveshaft actually), but I know it ran in Michigan, Pocono, Indianapolis, Fontana, Kansas and Las Vegas. It ran on the bigger flat tracks.
PASMAG: So, it’s long since retired, and is just a show piece these days?
ME: Well, let’s not go that far. It is a show piece, but we do get it on the track and it still goes fast, man. Russ Dugger is a buddy of mine and races stock cars in ARCA and NASCAR, and we’ll take the car out take turns scaring the crap out one another. We still take the car out to the Hallett Motor Racing Circuit just west of Tulsa (or any other track we can get on) and hammer on it!
The car has also been on display at many NASCAR races, SEMA, CES, and lots of other major automotive industry events.
PASMAG: Cool! I read somewhere that the car is used in some charity events and stuff like that. Tell me more.
ME: That’s been the most important thing about this car - we’ve raised money for different charities, including The Little Light House here in Tulsa, which is a great charity that helps kids with physical disabilities do things they otherwise couldn’t or wouldn’t have a chance to do. We’ve done auctions where we’ve auctioned off ride-alongs in the car to support Little Light House and the Folds of Honor Foundation, which provides scholarships to the spouses and children of fallen soldiers. I’ve done car shows for them for a number of years, where we donate all the proceeds to the Folds of Honor Foundation. The car is a big part of that effort, and we’ve done a number of things like that that have worked really well.
One of the most memorable events was when Russ gave his friend’s son Andrew, who has muscular dystrophy but absolutely loves NASCAR racing, the experience of a lifetime. After talking to Andrewís father, Russ was like, "Man is there any way we can get him in the car and give him a ride?" I was like, “I don’t know, we’ll definitely try.” I mean it’s got doors, but it still has all the roll cage tubing and everything. And Andrew has very little muscular control, so getting him in and out of the car, much less having him sit firmly in place during the ride, were major considerations. We did figure it out, got him in the car, put a helmet on him, and really strapped him down for some hot laps with Russ in the driver’s seat against a Lamborghini, Ferrari, Porsche, Mercedes and some other really cool cars. All the cars had video cameras on them, and we had a camera focused on Andrew inside. Man, we watched the video afterwards and Andrew just had the biggest smile on his face you have ever seen. It was the coolest thing ever! It was just awesome!
PASMAG: That’s fantastic!
ME: Like I said, that’s the most important stuff the car has ever done. I mean it’s won World Championships, it’s done all that stuff, but, to see Andrew as happy as he was, and how the car brings a smile to other kids’ faces as well, that is the coolest.
PASMAG: Let’s not forget this thing is packing a pretty formidable sound system, too. That said, which of your installs is your favorite and why?
ME: I don’t really have a favorite. I look at all of them differently - kind of like how I look at music differently. You can look at one and go “Wow, it’s really cool because of this, but then this one over here is really cool because of this.” You know, if I look at the 4Runner, it had, oh I don’t even know how many different installations in there. I had the under-dash horns for a little while. Then I rebuilt the whole dash and made the top of the dash and windshield parts of the horns. That was really cool. And then I took those out and cut the firewall out, put the speakers way out, halfway out to the hood, just conventional drivers. It sounded great! In the back of the truck, I started with PPI and JL Audio, then had Kicker stuff in there with the big sloping wall - ski slope if you want to call it that - coming down the back. I had MTX stuff for a while - liquid-cooled amps in the side windows - and the last version had the JBL stuff in there with the whole fighter jet on fire theme, which was really cool. I learned a lot working on the 4Runner, but all that said, the (NASCAR) car I’ve got now happens to have the best-sounding system I’ve ever built in it. I can go and drive the hell out of it as fast as I want to, and when I’m done driving I can listen to a killer audio system, so, you know, there’s always that.
PASMAG: It’s not a combination you’d expect. that’s for sure. Do you compete with this car, too?
ME: Oh yeah, I’ve been competing with the cup car since ’08. When I first started working on it, I didn’t intend to compete with it. I was looking at it as an experimental platform for some things I had wanted to try in a car but never had the platform to do it. But when it was done, it sounded great and I couldn’t stay away from the competition.
It’s got a pretty extensive build too. Head lights, turn signals, and everything needed to be street legal outside. Hand painted custom graphics. Full custom acoustically designed interior. The audio system has an Alpine 9861 head unit that plays anything I need it to, a couple of dbx DriveRack 482 processors, two JL Audio HD750/1 sub amps, four HD 600/4 amps for high frequency signals, four pairs of C5-650 separates (three pairs up front in a very special array configuration, and one pair in the rear for ambient fill), plus a pair of 12W6v3 subs in the kick panels. It’s also got an Xbox and audio in the trunk for entertainment at shows. And then there is the 450+ horsepower motor under the hood, with the full NASCAR drivetrain and chassis. We can get into deep detail if you guys want to do a full feature on the car at some point.
PASMAG: Rad! Sounds like a great idea for a future issue. Let’s talk about your competition background a little bit.
ME: Yeah. Well, this car is in the Expert class. I always compete in the highest possible class there is. I want to be in that Sprint Cup-type class where there is just nothing more competitive. I’ve been competing with that mindset since ’95. I competed once back in ’92 when I was just getting started, but ’93 was my first real competition season, and I competed in the Amateur 251 to 500 class, then went to Pro 251 to 500 the next year. Then in ’95, myself and Chad Clodner, Eric Stevens, Mike Mineo and a bunch of other guys jumped into the IASCA Expert class. We all wanted to go to the highest possible competition level we could, so we decided to go there. We didn’t talk about it to each other, we just all did it, so it was really cool. It was the first year the Expert Class became really competitive. I’ve been competing in the Expert class ever since in IASCA and USACi, and in the Master Class in MECA.
PASMAG: How many championships have you won? Other awards you’ve taken home?
ME: You know, I don’t even know the count. I know it’s over 80 World, National, and Invitational Championships at this point, but I’m not sure, I don’t have an exact number. But it’s been in IASCA, CMAA, TOW, USAC, SLAP and MECA organizations. I even competed in dB Drag one year!
PASMAG: Did you lose a bet?!
ME: No, DB Drag has the Psychlone format where they measure RTA and then they do a little bit of install stuff, and then they do SPL differently. It’s designed for a more real-world group of vehicles and systems, not just purely maximum SPL. And no I’m not going against any of the Steve Cooks’ or any of those guys. They’d launch me into outer space.
Winning the World Championships mean a lot, but there are lots of great events that are just as important and, in some respects, more important for SQ competitors! The Southeastern Invitational in Perry, Georgia, the Steel Valley Regionals in West Virginia, and other shows where you compete on Saturday and qualify for the championship round on Sunday are really competitive. More recently it’s been the Aggieland Invitational in College Station, Texas. I like this one each year partly because Texas A&M is also my Alma Mater. Chris Pate has been running that show, at Mobile Toys. Just doing those shows - where it’s not just you and the people in one class; it’s everybody that wants to compete, all together - and you get judged by multiple judges, average the scores, and see who comes out on top. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you don’t. But you always learn something and you always have a good time. And hopefully, you get to listen to everyone else’s cars too.
PASMAG: How on Earth did this all come about with the NASCAR race car idea anyway?
ME: One day Richard Clark and I were talking about what would be the ultimate car to build a quality sound system in. Almost at the same time, we both said “a NASCAR race car!” Basically, you have the outer shell and you have the roll cage and you don’t have any other structure inside the car that you have to modify or get out of the way. So at the time, it was like “Okay, yeah that’s cool but it’s never going to happen.”
Then during the CES in 2004, I was talking with Todd Goodnight (one the great guys in the industry who I’d known for a long time) during the annual Sirius Satellite Radio party. After a while, he looks at me and asks “Man, when are you going to sell that 4Runner and build something else?” I looked at him and say, “When you sell me one of your Sprint Cup cars to put a system in.” Sirius was sponsoring Evernham Motorsports at the time, and Todd says, “Okay, hang on a minute.” I was thinking, “Yeah right.” Todd went over and spoke with Roger Vennewald, came back a few minutes later and says, “Okay, where do you want the car shipped?” I was beside myself, but he says “We’ve got a spare car we’re going to ship you.” So, we worked it out and I ended up buying the car and building it. And you know what? I’d love to build another Sprint Cup car if given the chance. I’ve got some new ideas that would take the concept even further, especially for the charity work and ride-alongs. But this one is what it is, and it’s pretty cool!
PASMAG: If you were more into SPL, would you want one of the NASCAR Camping World trucks?
ME: No, there’s not enough room to do what you need to do for an SPL system. SPL is a little different. You need to have some space and a race truck wouldn’t do it. It’s a little small!
PASMAG: Fair enough. Have you ever seen an installation by someone else and thought “Man I wish I had done that, that’s so cool?”
ME: Oh yeah, all the time. You walk around, especially in years past, I’d look at some of the stuff Speaker Works did with the Buick Grand National. Then Richard Clark bought it from them, and took it even further. (I actually got to work on that car, we were going to rebuild it in 1998, but it didn’t develop. But just looking at some of the work in that car and going “Wow, that’s cool!” Then taking those ideas and building on them.) And some of the stuff any number of guys have done. Chad Klodner’s Mustang back in the mid ‘90s still blows me away. The quality of work he did in that car is one that pushed me to go to the extremes I have. I loved competing with him and being friends with him, too. I learned a lot from Chad. We’d help each other when needed, even when we were in the same class.
That brings up another thing. Sorry about the sideline here - If you’ve been in this industry a while and you’ve done well, you probably didn’t get where you are without some help along the way. Don’t get me wrong, because to excel at anything, you have to have the internal drive and desire to push hard, try new ideas, push your own limits, to learn from successes and failures, put in the thousands of hours needed to be the best possible and to persevere. No one else can do that for you. But we’re not in a vacuum, and we do learn from those around us. You may see something and go “That’s really cool, I’m gonna need to work on that” or “I’m never doing that.” Someone may show you a new fabrication technique, or you attend a class or seminar, then take that knowledge and incorporate it into your own skill set. Again, nothing can replace the thousands of hours and effort needed for an individual to acquire the skills to build a top-notch competition and/or show vehicle. But I like to give credit where credit is due, for the help I have received along my own path. None of them were going to do this for me. It was on me to make it happen. But, without their help and guidance, I doubt I’d be where I am right now.
PASMAG: Have you ever built a car for somebody and you wished you didn’t have to give it back to them?
ME: No, because if I’m building a car for somebody else and when I’m done they look at it and they are totally happy about it, then that’s the most important thing. The most recent example for me is Ben Vollmer’s Acura Legend. It was originally Harry Kimura’s car that Speaker Works built in the early 1990s.
This is a cool deal here. When I first got into car audio competition and I was learning about how the competition scene worked, I was reading about the Acura Legend that Harry owned. This was back in the early ‘90s and I’m like “Man, I want to build a car that can compete and do as well and sound as good as that car does.” Then, about four years ago, Ben Vollmer calls me and says “Hey, I bought Harry’s old Legend from Speaker Works, do you want to rebuild it for me?” That was so cool! One of the several full-circle events for me over the years. I got to completely rebuild that car from hood to trunk, top to bottom, every part of that car that had so much history in it already, and to take it and push it to another level. It’s back out on the circuit now, so people can see it again. I had all the magazine articles for that car from years past, and I gave them all to Ben so he could kind of put together a whole collection of the history of that car. That was really neat.
PASMAG: That’s pretty exceptional! Was that the most challenging build you’ve had to work on to date? Considering the pedigree?
ME: I tend to make them all challenging. I mean seriously. What it comes down to is every vehicle is different, and I always push my own limits. When you want to maximize the sound quality of any particular system, you’ve got to look at what you have as far as the palette to work with, and then push the boundaries of what you know, to make it sounds as good as possible. Even if you take the same speakers and put them in two different cars, they can sound totally different. You have to understand the acoustical properties of the listening environment, understand how the human hearing system works, and then look at what you have, and design the system within the limitations and boundaries at hand. They are all challenging, and there’s no car (at least that I’ve ever heard) that sounds perfect. Unlike a home or studio system, you’re not between the speakers, the speakers are all over the place, you got reflections near you, on top of you, you might have somebody next to you yapping in the other seat! So, when trying to overcome the acoustical problems you have at hand and maximize the sound quality, there are always trade-offs and choices, and you have to decide what’s most important, and what can be compromised. There’s no perfect solution for that in a car. Maybe someday there will be, but there’s not right now.
PASMAG: Are there any strange or bizarre projects you have been a part of?
ME: Yeah, SPL vehicles. LOL!. When I was working for Autosound 2000 in 1997, Tim Maynor had this old hydraulic repair van that everybody called ‘the bread truck’ that he wanted to compete in for SPL. Dave Navone, Richard Clark and I were looking at this thing and Tim was like, “Man, you know I’ve competed and done a wall of 18 15-inch subs, and I’m hitting 162 dB in USAC legal SPL, and mid 160s in dB Drag, but I want to break those records.” We were all like, “Well what can we do?” Later, Richard and I were talking, and I brought up an idea that came about in 1994 when Doug Winker, Chris Lewis and I were coming up with ideas to break the SPL record then - about doing something totally off the wall. The idea was to have one gigantic speaker that would move so much air and get so loud that nothing could compete with it. I did some calculations, and it was obvious that Chris, Doug and I could not build a speaker like that, so we shelved the idea. But Richard had the people and tools available to do it. He said, “Okay, maybe we can build that.”
We then met with Dr. Eugene Patronis, a professor of physics at Georgia Tech - and probably the smartest man I have ever met in the audio industry - and started talking about wanting to hit around 180 dB in a vehicle. I had done some preliminary calculations that predicted it would take 255 10-inch woofers, or one five-foot diameter woofer that moves six inches. (Remember all you SPL competitors, we were going for 180 dB everywhere inside the cabin, not just at one tiny point at a very specifically placed microphone tip against the windshield.) Dr. Patronis started giggling and said let’s do the one woofer, so we started on it. With only six weeks before the 1997 Finals, we designed and built it. Dr. Patronis did some serious calculations and design work. We got several engineers and machinists at Concept Designs involved, and they built the motor structure for it. I built the frame, the cone. Richard designed the structure between the motor and the cone, and coordinated the whole thing. The surround was initially one of the most difficult pieces of the puzzle, but it worked out. Let me tell you, a five-foot diameter woofer that moves six inches peak to peak is insane!
It was really cool to build that woofer and take that whole concept to the World Finals. Moving through the qualifying rounds, it did well at lower than max output. We didn’t want to break anything in the early rounds. Then just before the final round against the Team Gates Bronco, Alma filed a protest because the computer used to control the woofer’s output was not installed in the vehicle. It was an external device. (She was right.) So, for that round, Richard had to try to control everything manually with a couple of cables and no computer. When the round started, the five-foot woofer did one forward stroke of the cone, then broke instantly, but hit 167 dB on that single stroke! It sounded like an explosion! The truck jumped and sounded like it was coming apart. People were diving for cover (Wayne Harris included). But Alma’s Bronco hit 169.4 dB and won. Shortly after that, the broken parts of the woofer were redesigned, but it was outlawed from competition by all of the organizations anyhow, so it never competed again. It did 167 dB with one forward stroke of the cone, which is amazing! If it had gone for just two seconds, it would have hit, well, a lot higher.
Another was when I ran the Tech Department at Kicker. Alma Gates brought her Bronco to be part of the Kicker Competition Group in 1999. She and her team in Phoenix had already accomplished so much, and taken the SPL competition arena to new levels. But she wanted to take it further, so we helped re-design the entire system with Scott Owens and his crew. Later, she brought the Bronco to Stillwater for us to work on directly at Kicker. We re-designed the interior, developed new woofers just for that application, and essentially maintained and showed the Bronco for a couple of years. I don’t even know how many people at Kicker were a part of the Gate’s Bronco project, but it was a bunch of us. Very cool to work with so many people on a single project, all with the common goal to make it as good and as loud as possible. Alma was one of the most competitive persons I’ve ever met. And she was super nice too.
PASMAG: That is insane! What are you doing these days?
Right now I’m working with Team MSE/JL Audio. We have about 15 guys all over the country running JL Audio gear in all sorts of sound quality competitions. They’re a super group of people. Basically we go to shows and hang out, share information, help each other, help tune cars, etc. We just enjoy car audio and have a good time together.
PASMAG: What do you do outside of the car audio world?
ME: Several things. I run the technical department at my church, so I manage all the sound systems and maintain all the technical aspects of the sound system there. Mixing live sound is so different than what we do in car audio. The person on the sound board at any live musical event really is as important as the musicians. Regardless of how good the performers are, the sound person can make them sound great, or really bad.
I also play drums - been doing that again for a number of years now. I am working with a band here in Tulsa, and at church about once a month or so. It’s great to be able to connect the creation side of music as a musician and the reproduction of it on a sound system in a car or in a home - connect the beginning and the end.
I also started a new company this year called Artisan Customs where I’m making custom exotic wood products for musicians. Drumstick holders, guitar hangers and stuff like that. Just really cool stuff, and I’m getting ready to launch that website.
PASMAG: That’s pretty cool.
ME: Yeah it’s fun! These days, being almost 53 now, sometimes it’s a welcome change to look at a piece of wood thinking “What does this piece of wood want to be?” versus crawling up under the dash of a car to connect wires. I still love doing installations and being creative in car audio, but it’s nice to have a secondary outlet to express creativity and not have to crawl about under the dash so much.
PASMAG: Well that’s a perfect segue for me to ask who or what have been your biggest inspirations?
ME: Hmm. It depends what area you’re looking at. The music is where it all started, so I guess that would be my biggest influence. A brief side-bar here. None of this, you and I would not be talking, we would not have this industry, if it wasn’t for the musicians creating music to begin with. To me, that’s why it’s so important to keep the music first and foremost in everything I do. The music has always been the single biggest influence on me.
As for naming all of the people that have influenced me over the years? Holy cow! I don’t think it’s possible. I’ll mention some, knowing I am leaving out many. (Sorry about that.) Kyle Davis and I were best friends in high school and college in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and we re-worked everything home and car audio we possibly could. When I first started reading Car Audio in 1990, of course it was Richard Clark, Dave Navone and the Holdaway’s from Speakerworks. You could also list many of the major SQ competitors from the early ‘90s too. I ended up working with Dave, Richard and Patrick Poovey at Autosound 2000 later on, and that was one of the most significant learning periods in my life. Manville Smith has been there since 1990. His wife, Ellen, was the first person to begin teaching me how to listen critically, and evaluate audio systems properly. Other big influences include Doug Winker, Robert Ables, Chris Lewis, Dan Merritt, Chad Claus and all the guys I’ve been friends with since the mid ‘90s. Robert was my co-pilot for almost every show I went to for many years. Greg Davis helped me with my first sponsorship with Kicker in 1994, and we’ve been close ever since. Gary Biggs, who I still see almost every day, has been a huge factor ever since we started working together in the Kicker Competition Group days. Of course there’s also the late Alma Gates, and I could just go on and on and on.
There is no way possible to list all of the people and companies that have helped me in some way over the past 35+ years. Some I have known for many years, and others only recently. But each has been a significant influence. Assistance with fabrication, education and research, help in the competition lanes, learning the basics of sound, how to listen critically and tune audio systems, providing materials and content for the MSE SQ classes, and often shaping and refining the way I look at things. Great people and companies, every one of them.
The following list is of those that I consider to have had the most significant and positive influences on my path from where I started to where I am now:
Family (Linda, Robin, Krista, Tara), Kyle Davis, Richard Clark, David Navone, Patrick Poovey, Ellen Smith, Manville Smith, Walter Barno, Greg Davis, Doug Winker, Robert Ables, Chad Claus, Dan Merritt, Mike Daily, Chris Lewis, Chad Klodner, Gary Biggs, Rob Rice, Alma Gates, Scott Roark, Jason Plank, Steve Irby, John Myers, Chris Dragon, Andy Wehmeyer, Steve Turrissi, Bill Hamze, Steve Cook, Ben Vollmer, Todd Luliak, Steve Stern, Todd Sucherman, Autosound 2000, JL Audio, Kicker, MTX, JBL, Sirius.
PASMAG: You worked with these people at different shops over the years?
ME: Well no, I have never worked directly for a car audio retail store. These are all people I’ve worked with from manufacturers, competition teams, from some stores in areas where I lived and, many times, just because of the desire to make cars sound better. That’s what it’s always been about. Many of my friendships have developed because of the common desire to make the audio sound as good as possible.
A big turning point for me was attending the Autosound 2000 seminar in 1990, where I met Richard and Dave. That’s where I really started learning how to learn. In the years following, I helped with many of their seminars, kept learning and improving my own abilities, and eventually worked for them full-time. That all led to creating Mobile Soundstage Engineering and, now, I am teaching some of the same information and techniques I learned from them, along with a whole lot more information that I have developed. Another full-circle deal for me.
And, you know, just times like working with Greg Davis when he was at Kicker - I knew him for a while before I even worked at Kicker - he’s just a great guy. He’d give me good input and good insight, and offered me my first sponsorship in 1994. Then he was instrumental in my getting hired with Kicker and worked there for five years with him. Chris Dragon at JBL/ Harmon, I’ve known him forever and, in 2003, we were talking about competition, and he asked if I wanted to help run their new competition team? I was like “Yeah.” So, just having those kind of relationships over the years; I couldn’t look back at my career, look at where I started and where I am now, and even imagine all of the different connections, paths and different directions I’ve taken over the years. It’s impossible. I was a pilot in the U.S. Air Force when I started learning about car audio competition and attended that first Autosound 2000 seminar in 1990. Go figure. So yes, there are literally hundreds of people who’ve influenced me in different ways over the years. Many thanks to every one of you!
PASMAG: How long do you spend on a project vehicle? What’s the most time consuming project you’ve worked on? Was it worth it?
ME: For any vehicle, there’s a limit, a goal, a date you’re trying to get it done by and, because of the totally custom nature of what we do, that date doesn’t always get met, unfortunately. It might be 500 or 1,000 hours, depending on the end goals. On Ben Vollmer’s car for example, I don’t remember how much time I had in when it was done, but probably 2,000 hours or so, which is more than initially planned. But it was a complete rebuild, all new dash, all new panels, moving everything behind the dash to make room for the audio system.
Several demo vehicles we did for Kicker, JBL and some others were each in the 500 to 750 hour range.
As for my 4Runner, if we were to look at the time I put into it over the years (there were so many different versions of it), it’s probably in the 6,000- or 7,000-hour range over the 17 years I worked on it. But that was the platform on which I experimented, tried new things and learned so much for so long.
The 4Runner started off with Nakamichi and ADS gear when I first got it, and then shifted to Precision Power and JL Audio in my early days of competition. Then it went to Kicker in 1994, which was another complete rebuild. In 1996, Autosound 2000 got hired to do the MTX Thunderforce program, so that was another complete rebuild. After two years, that ended, and I went to work for Kicker for five years, and did two-and-a-half complete rebuilds of the 4Runner system while there. Then in 2003, Gary Biggs and I went to work with the JBL team, and that meant a major, complete rebuild. So, I don’t look at it as time just to do a build on the 4Runner. I look at it as a major platform for my education. I worked on a number of vehicles before and during the 4Runner years, but I figure maybe 75 per cent of what I know now I learned while working with that 4Runner.
PASMAG: Where is the 4Runner now?
ME: You know, I don’t know. The night before the 2005 CES opened, I was told by JBL that my contract was ending. So that night, I printed out a ‘For Sale’ sign, put it on the 4Runner and ended up selling it to JBL’s distributor in Spain.
PASMAG: So it’s in Spain?
ME: At this point, I don’t know. It could be anywhere. For a couple of years, I got emails from some guys who had seen and heard it in different places like the Sinsheim Trade Show and several other events in Europe. But for the past several years, I have not heard a word. I don’t know where it’s at. Not sure I want to know.
A lot of people ask if I’m sorry it’s gone. I’m really not! I loved working on it, and learned a lot in those 17 years. But quite honestly, after listening to one last Stevie Ray Vaughn song (Rude Mood), rolling it into the shipping container and then sending it off to Spain, I was happy to see it go. Time to move on to the Sprint Cup car.
PASMAG: Cool, so your 4Runner is your all-time favorite build then?
ME: Well, no, it’s up there, but I love the car I’ve got now ñ the Cup car ñ because it sounds so amazingly good and it’s fast. It does everything I’d want a car to do. It goes fast, it’s safe, it sounds great, it shows off well, it attracts attention. I mean, how many people have a sound quality competition car that’s won numerous World Championships, and can also go out on the track and run it at 150 mph until it runs out of gas? And if street tires are put on, it can go out on the street too. How many can do that?
PASMAG: You can count them all on one hand.
ME: Yeah, the 4Runner couldn’t do that. It was tagged and ‘street legal,’ but I didn’t feel safe driving it over about 30 mph!
PASMAG: LOL! What is your daily driver?
ME: My daily driver is a Chevy HD 2500. It’s a four-wheel-drive pickup, and is what I use to haul my car trailer around.
PASMAG: Do you have a system in there too?
ME: Yeah. It’s a simple system, representative of what a consumer might want in a vehicle. It’s got a nice Kenwood head unit, a JL Audio XD 700/5 amplifier, two sets of the JL Audio C3-650 components and a Stealth Box in the center console with a 10W3v3 inside. It’s something I can take to a store, do a demo for anyone, and it sounds really good. It’s not my Cup car, but for a system that somebody’s going to spend a few thousand dollars on and enjoy every day, it’s perfect.
PASMAG: What advice do you have for PASMAG readers that are just getting into car audio?
ME: If you love music, focus on the music. Make your system sound great. Loud if you want it, but make it sound great at the same time. A nice audio system in your home is a necessity too; something other than a car. But most importantly, spend some time listening to live music. Todd Sucherman put it something like this; How many times do you remember listening to music on an audio system or watching a video (car audio systems included), and going ‘Wow, I’ll never forget that experience.’ Now, think about the times you have been at live musical performances, and you can probably remember almost all of them, for different reasons. There’s an emotional connection you get at a live performance that just doesn’t translate through an audio reproduction system. I love listening to music on a great sounding audio system, but given the choice, I will go to a live concert over listening to a car audio system every time
When it comes to the audio system in your car, you have to set goals and be realistic about them. If you want to compete in the car audio competition scene and go win a World Championship in the Pro, Ultimate, Master or Expert classes, you need to be realistic about what that is going to take, and it’s not going to be easy, cheap or quick. But, if you want your daily driver to sound really good and enjoy it every day, that’s a whole different ball-game, and much more achievable in an affordable, shorter time frame.
Take some well-recorded music you enjoy and really learn what it sounds like on a nice home or studio system before trying to tune your car audio system. Know what your end goals are, how you want the system to sound, and work with people that can help you attain that.
There are many more considerations, but these come to mind first.
PASMAG: Very well said. If the person is more interested in joining the car audio competition world, what would that checklist look like?
ME: You’ve got to learn about the competition scene first. Go to some shows, talk to the judges, talk to the competitors, look at the organizations and read the rule book(s) because you need to learn all the different aspects before you jump in. I’ve seen too many people build a system for competition, but have never really talked to or worked with experienced competitors and judges, or even listened to some of the better cars on the circuit. They simply got the rule book, read through it, and started building. After a few shows, they learned that they needed to rebuild major parts of their systems to sound better and be more competitive. Don’t go that route. You might be able to learn it all on your own, but there are many people out there that can shorten your learning curve. You just have to get in touch with them.
Plus, it’s fun to go to a bigger car audio shows and listen to all of the cars. One thing you’ll notice is that they all sound somewhat different. We are all trying to achieve the elusive goal of perfect sound. But you might listen to five different cars and go “Wow I like this one because of this, and this one because of that, but I like mine because it does this.” The way you learn what you like best is to go out there and get the exposure; listen to the best car audio systems on the circuit now, ask questions and learn.
You need to understand how different acoustical properties and elements affect the sound. Just because something looks like it might help with the sound quality does not mean it will work. An example is placing mids and tweeters on top of the dash, hoping to improve the perceived stage height. Sure, the sound is coming from up higher than in the kick panels, but now the reflection off the windshield, arriving a millisecond after the direct sound from the speakers, will screw up the stage depth, image placement and tonal balance. This is just one example. Spend time learning about sound, acoustics, music, etc.
Something I would really, really like to qualify here is this. Be careful what you read and try to ‘learn’ on the Internet, especially when related to sound. There is some good information there, but unfortunately there is a lot more bad information being spread around in the forums and other sites. You know, the laws of physics are the laws of physics, human physiology is human physiology, and the way we hear and perceive sound has never changed. Just because some ‘expert’ behind a computer screen wants to say it isn’t so won’t change that.
More times than I can count, I have offered advice on a forum to some question that guys are having trouble addressing (something that I have a lot of experience with) only to be met by a keyboard commando firing back with their version of ‘what they think really works.’ I’m not active on the forums much anymore because it’s not worth my time to argue with some of these guys. I’d rather work through email, phone and by teaching classes on these subjects.
There’s some good information out there, but there’s so much misinformation, it just drives me crazy. Be careful what you try to learn from the Internet.
A quick plug for the MSE classes here: If you want to learn more about sound quality, the Advanced Sound Quality Seminar is a great class for anybody who wants to get deep into this kind of information. There are other good sources out there too, and I’m not going to be one that says my techniques are the only way to get there. But if you want a good, solid foundation on which to build your sound quality related knowledge base, we can get you hooked up.
PASMAG: What’s next for you?
ME: Honestly, I don’t know. Installation wise, I don’t have a palette yet. I know I’ll be teaching sound quality classes, helping others make their systems sound as good as possible, working with Team MSE/JL Audio, and playing drums every chance I get. Whatever ends up in my shop, it will be related to making music sound as good as possible. That much I do know.