Al’s Audio Museum 


Equipment and Known Dates

Comments

This museum hopes to incorporate both a performance space and low-power FM transmitter in a coffee-house setting.

Theme Song: Just A Memory, Paul Whiteman & Orchestra, 1927 

Reading/Viewing List

The Fabulous Phonograph

America On Record

American Popular Song

Empire of the Air


Links

Party Pages

60s Songs List


One man’s love of music creates lifetime quest for high fidelity.

photo by W S Farmayan

Al Howard Richey (1923-2008) was my dad. Although a chemical engineer by profession, he loved music so much that he dedicated countless hours devising better methods for listening. He spent many evenings and weekends building amplifiers, speaker cabinets, tuners, preamps, and even turntables and tone arms. I was there, of course, and this upbringing led me to a career in radio. More about me later . . .

After Al passed on in May, our family began to go through his effects. Dad never threw anything away, and his collection of vintage audio equipment tells the story of technology's development from the Victrola era to the compact disk.

Most all these items remain in storage awaiting a place to be displayed. About half still works, the rest needs fixing. The museum will consist of Heathkit, Dynaco, Eico, Rek-O-Kut, Sony, Bogen, Sun, Koss, Pioneer, BSR, Technics, Shure, Pickering, and lots other equipment from the 1940s on.

My goal is to create a room where a visitor can hear 78s and LPs on a monophonic system and stereo records with a two-speaker setup. A listener will be able to experience technological change and development first-hand.

Stay tuned . . .

- Howie Richey

The Story Unfolds

What follows is a narrative about how this idea is gaining strength.  I’ll add bits and pieces about meetings with remarkable people and intersperse memories from my upbringing, education, and employments. It’s a work always in progress, so please check back often!

My first contact in Austin in late August of 2008 was with Clay Shorkey, director of the Texas Music Museum. This seems like an ideal place to put my exhibit but, alas, the museum holds no space of its own. Intead, it shows its posters, musician biographies, and talking machines in the hallways and conference room of an East Austin office building. I helped Clay and his co-workers prepare their current feature on Texas Country Classics.

In September, I sat down with John Wheat, who coordinates sound archives at UT’s Center for American History. Besides being a published historian, John also shares my status as a former producer on KUT Radio. We both have visited mainly broadcast-focused virtual collections at KZQX. He gave me many more names of folks who’d likely cotton to my quest. He, too, wishes his center had more space.

Next was a lunch with Karl Miller, who for many years was in charge of recordings at UT’s fine arts library. Karl now catalogs sounds at the PCL on campus. Additionally, Karl issues historical recordings on his own Pierian label. He and I enjoyed a stimulating conversation about preserving and archiving 78s and piano rolls. His dismay at the rapid deterioration and scarcity of old audio equipment was a great encouragement to my project. Karl gave me more contacts, as well.

That same sunny afternoon, I visited two pillars in the antique sound field. First was Jim Cartwright, owner of Immortal Performances, a vintage record store he runs out of his West Austin residence. Not only recordings, Jim’s displays include dozens of acoustic Victrolas, gramophones, Edison players, and tape machines. I got to hear a cylinder, Diamond Disk, and Orthophonic exponential horn—mighty loud!

From there, I high-tailed it to Ken Caswell’s cottage near Lake Austin. He owns two reproducing pianos that, with specially encoded paper “software,” recreate exact performances by composers and students of the past. Karl and Ken expertly miked these pianos to make digital recordings for the Pierian CDs. Ken also demonstrated two more Orthophonic players, one of which is a record changer. Enough time was left in the day for me to visit Austin Stereo, one of several repair shops offering to help me restore the vintage equipment.

* * * * *

I grew up in a house full of music. The melodies, harmonies, and rhythms I heard from infancy came from one big single-element speaker in a corner of the living room. Easily 90% of these sounds were classical music, since that was my dad’s favorite. Al’s yearning to clearly perceive the tunes of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms played by orchestras, chamber ensembles, and solo instruments drove him to ceaselessly experiment with new and better devices.

AHR’s upbringing in San Antonio as the second son of a lumberman and housewife didn’t foretell anything overtly technical or musical. His mother, Ella Esther Frick Richey, however, played a baby-grand piano that she had bought with her own money earned from renting rooms. “Merker,” as we called our grandmother, often performed duets with her sister Francis and neighbor, Mrs. Robinson. Throughout her life, Merker loved attending the San Antonio Symphony concerts, early on with her German-born mom.

Father Alfred played “at” the piano somewhat and enjoyed waltzes. My dad’s brother, Elmore, practiced violin as a youth, and an unplayed guitar looked nice atop the piano. The family owned a wind-up record player and table-top radio, through which the family heard such popular favorites as Bob Wills and, perhaps, the NBC Symphony Orchestra broadcasts every Sunday evening beginning in 1937.

Al always claimed he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but he actually did, in a sense. His only instrument ever was a harmonica that he picked up one day and immediately played. He modified it by mounting it sideways inside a tin can, sealing the edges of the hole with wax. This configuration gave the reeds a certain tone, and covering the can’s opening produced a distinctive vibrato.

My dad left home in 1941 to attend Rice University, then called Rice Institute, to study engineering. I recall his telling me about a professor or friend in Houston who introduced him to the joys of classical music. Even then, the orchestral style wasn’t widely popular among average Americans. It was considered “long-haired music,” a term that might have originated from the renowned composer/performer Ignacy Paderewski’s unconventionally lengthy locks. (Conductor Leopold Stokowski also wore his hair long.) The first record my dad purchased was Lawrence Tibbett doing Largo al Factotum on one side and the Toreador Song on the other. 

By the time AHR moved to South Texas after college to begin his career at the Celanese Chemical Company around 1946, he was hooked on the classics.

* * * * *

On October 14, I connected with two important outfits. First was Tube Dreams, a microbusiness in South Austin that specializes in selling and repairing modern and vintage tube components. Proprieter Simon Hill’s story is similar to mine in that he also grew up watching his dad build electronic kits. Simon’s technical backgound also informs his work at IBM. He sold me a set of capacitors and resistors to replace critical parts on the mighty Dynaco ST-70. I just can’t wait to plug in the soldering iron!

Later that evening, I attended a board meeting of the Texas Music Museum, held in the conference room where many of the museum’s exhibits can be seen. Here I was fortunate to get acquainted with other involved persons such as a music teacher, video archivist, learning resource center manager, and local venue program coodinator. The group discussed future shows, fundraising, collections policy, and major museum goals. Their path and mine will surely run parallel, if not tangential.

* * * * *

My 40-watt pencil-type soldering iron heated up nicely. After assuring that the tip was properly tinned, I set about removing old components and replacing them in the Dynakit. Nothing smells quite like the rosin core in lead/tin solder, and odors often take us back to the past like few other sensations. Soon everything seemed in order, so I reattached the bottom cover and prepared to test.

One must always connect speakers to the outputs of tube-type amps. I did so with a pair of metal-cabineted TEAC bookshelf units that dad had. On went the power switch, and the tubes began to light up. Soon music blared forth with good sound. I traced a slight hum in a channel to one of the 7199s, and still need to replace the matched-pair EL34s. Otherwise, the ST-70 is alive again.

 * * * * *

The next two significant steps forward in the museum’s evolution happened during the Thanksgiving holiday. In Corpus to pick up my mom, I searched the broad shelf at the back of the garage for more treasures. Inside cardboard boxes and plastic bags were more and older components. These I lined up on carpet atop the hood of dad's Toyota pickup for this photograph:

Just out of frame is a lime-green speaker box that I barely remember. My older sister, Betty, said it had been her first phonograph and had included an amp chassis inside. Everything else I dusted off and loaded into mom’s Chevrolet Equinox.

My family followed our tradition of gathering at some family property in a rural setting in South Central Texas. I needed a way to display this growing collection of vintage equipment and figured some open shelves would do nicely. Using lumber salvaged from Al’s childhood home in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of San Antonio, I built a five-foot tall rack with three levels seven feet wide. My young nephew, Aidan Farmayan, helped me with assembly and installation. A photo of the finished product graces the top of this website.

rack from left


The components are lined up chronologically, mostly. On the top shelf, in order left to right, are the Knight, Sun, and Bogen amps, Heath crossover network, and Heath tape recorder. On the middle shelf are the Williamson preamp and tuner, EICO and Dyna preamps, Sony reel-to-reel tape player, my childhood 78 rpm turntable, and the Williamson amp and power supply. The bottom shelf is wider to accommodate turntables: Rek-O-Kut three-speed idler, fine-cabinet two-speed, BSR four-speed, and 33-rpm Rek-O-Kut belt. On the cedar chest beneath stands a rougher two-speed turntable. There’s more: a horn tweeter encased in the same style as the 12” ducted-port Jensen cabinets and my second Heathkit, a three-tube, regeneration-circuit shortwave radio sit in a nearby room.

Al Richey met his sweetheart, Hannah Habeeb, at his Celanese Chemical Company job in Corpus not long after he moved there, and they were married in August of 1947. Within a year, they became the proud parents of a precocious baby girl whom they named Elizabeth. Yours truly came along in September, 1952, but, despite being a committed and involved father and breadwinner, Al continued to amass audio equipment and recordings. 

I enjoy tying family birthdays to momentous historical events: my big sister, Betty, arrived at about the same time as the long-playing record (debuted by Columbia), my 1952 nativity roughly corresponds with RCA’s introduction of the 45, and sister Rosemary is as old as rock ‘n’ roll (1955). I fondly remember the big, single speaker in the living room corner from which issued melodies of Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner. Betty had her own little system in the bedroom, where we listened to our 7” yellow 78-rpm kiddie songs such as Home on the Range, Wizard of Oz, and Yankee Doodle.

It was in those early days that I first experienced the aroma of rosin-flux solder, mentioned above. Eventually, the Internet will be able to transmit smells, but, meantime, I can describe that smoke as darkly sweet, reminiscent of a pine-wood fire. Indeed, it’s made from conifer sap and helps adhesion. Electronic solder itself is an alloy: 60% lead, 40% tin, with a melting point of 374 F. Dad owned some antiquated soldering irons without internal heating elements that needed warming on a stove. I remember his electric one—big and bulky. Only once did I grab the wrong end. 

Al always assured good sound wherever he traveled. As a family, we’d frequently visit his mom and brother, Elmore, in San Antonio. Dad set them up with a succession of record players, usually cast-offs of his own. The Knight amp engages my first memory; it sat in the parlor atop a speaker cabinet with curved corners (lost). To lessen acoustic feedback, the turntable was placed in the adjacent dining room. Uncle Elmore arranged his record collection geographically, as he did the house decorations. He had Egyptian, Texas, and European rooms.

My youngest sister, Carol, took her first breath in 1958, just after our growing family had moved to a new house, which dad had designed. Her birth roughly corresponded to the introduction of stereophonic sound. It should be no surprise that our home got the first stereo on the block.  Like other experimenters of the age, dad cobbled together several mismatched components to achieve  dual-speaker audio. Within a year, I was helping him build his Dynaco Stereo 70 amp and EICO stereo preamp, both kits.

Matching amplification demanded matching reproducers. My grandfather Alfred E. Richey was a lumberman and carpenter by trade, and his father, E. L. Richey the First, was a genuine cabinetmaker. Consequently, Al also held a reverence for wood. With a design adapted from a Jensen booklet, dad and I built two bass reflex ducted-ports speaker cabinets of  ” plywood.  In those times, our theater of operation moved from the dining room table and its electronic parts to the garage for cross-cutting, hammering, drilling, and painting. But always, whether via solder or sawdust, the goal was high fidelity. I’ve retained those same woodworking skills, and many tools as well, passing them along to my son, Sol.

Dad’s other priorities were obvious: last house to get air conditioning and color television, but the first with a tape recorder, dating from around 1961.

That first tape recorder was a Heathkit. Monophonic, it consisted of an upper mechanical section and a lower electronics component, both of which Dad mounted on a rack made of 2x4s and molding. Being vertically mounted, the drive portion used “keepers” to attach the reels to their spindles. These keepers we made from sliced pieces of rubber high-pressure tubing. The electronics consisted of a preamp for the ceramic microphone, record and playback volume potentiometers, input selector, and other controls. The coolest feature was its “magic eye” tube with a blue-green V that monitored recording levels.

The recorder sat atop Dad’s slide-front speaker cabinet, which 8” cone was powered by the Bogen amp. This combo stood against the south wall of my bedroom, the one I shared with little sister Carol. The whole family produced several memorable recordings there. In no time, I was making my own tapes of all kinds of kid fun, including free-form mock radio programs with sisters and school friends. Some of these I’ve digitized as MP3s.

But the main system was always in the living room. Those big Jensen cabinets with their 12” drivers pumped out stereo sound from the EICO preamp and Dynaco ST-70 amp. Often yours truly would stand on a hassock and conduct the symphony that issued forth. Dad introduced me to all the classics, which I still deeply love. Gradually, especially as big sister Betty became interested in rock ‘n’ roll, Al would tolerate other sounds being played. He wouldn’t profess liking much of that popular music, but appreciated their high fidelity as good “test records.”

Dad had built a plywood record player cabinet at the “old house” on Southland Drive. It held both equipment and LPs. When we moved to the new, Al-designed home on Dolphin Place in 1957, he made sure the cabinet fit in the living room coat closet. This would ostensibly keep the children from messing with the system, but nothing stopped us, of course. Otherwise, however, only the speakers were visible between the other furniture.

Al H. Richey

Al H. Richey, 2003

What follows are notes in desperate need of editing, but posted nonetheless.

Peter, Paul and Mary’s first album—enjoyed by all. Dad called them “parts per million.”

Destination Stereo—first stereo LP we got, its mix quite “ping-pongy,” with nothing in the middle

History of Boston Symphony and Pops—only 98, a great record from 1956

Peter and the Wolf—several versions, including Elmore’s, narrated by Eleanor Roosevelt; mine’s by David Bowie

Young Persons’ Guide to the Orchestra/Carnival of the Animals—spoken by Hugh Downs, verses by Ogden Nash

“Night on Bald Mountain”—from Fantasia

Nutcracker Suite—used to play it year-round

Chet Atkins, My Favorite Guitars—although by a Country artist, a fun “test record”

Don Giovanni—first complete opera, a box set, also early stereo

Die Fledermaus—gala presentation with “Anything You Can Do” and “Summertime”

Marriage of Figaro—second complete opera

Victor Herbert—“In Old New York” and “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” on a couple albums

The living room held everything: stereo, TV, sewing machine.

I promoted the safe handling of vinyl—permit required.

Procession/progression of turntables, tone arms, and cartridges

“Turn that down,” my mom would cry. Dad replied “But that’s how it was written!”

Capturing TV sound—After the old set was moved into my bedroom, I figured how to tap the signal from the speaker through a dropping resistor and into a tape recorder input. With this rigged, I dubbed “Cocktails For Two” from some local talent show telecast, not knowing it was Spike Jones.

Spacial stereo—From a magazine article, Dad and I learned how to hook up a third speaker from the two hot terminals of both channels. That produced the difference between the speakers, as opposed to the sum. It gave an echo or ambience for the rear of the listening room. I employ this method even today, everywhere.

Headphones—Another remarkable addition to our sound enjoyment, Dad got Koss headphone sets. With a Heathkit junction box, we could listen to two at once, each with separate L/R volume controls. They used two ” phone jacks each. What clarity, what detail!

My first control panel was made of cardboard and had knobs and switches for play. Seeing me using that, Dad suggested I become a disc jockey—so I did.

The horn tweeter, constructed to match the mighty Jensen cabinets, featured a built-in crossover network to protect it from low notes. Dad also built a Heath tube-type CN with wider setting ranges, but still mono. He never got another horn.

Our first stereo tape deck was just a Sony player without a cabinet. The subsequent Sony recorder included sound with/on sound and three heads: erase, record, playback.

Sometime in the late 60s, Dad went through a Richard Tauber phase, ordering Odeon and other record labels through the mail. The foremost interpreter of Franz Lehar operettas, Tauber (dove auf Deutsch) also performed Schubert lieder and made movies such as Lilac or Blossom Time. This fad exposed me to little-known music companies, composers, and artists.

Kelly Music Shop stood in the same shopping center as Uncle William’s Buxtons Jewelers, a place where I could hike or bike. Operated by Gene ________, whose name wasn’t Kelly, the store sold LPs and 45s plus styli and other components. I think the man may have cut me some deals because he knew Dad and I called him by name. He had an enormous listening room in his house, which Dad once visited. An entire wall of speakers was disguised behind a curtain. Other places to buy records included Woolco with its 99 bargain-basement singles and Sol Green’s music store over on Alameda near Ray High School.

50s 45s, especially Victor Red Seal Classical—RCA’s version of an LP because of their microgrooves. The vinyl was clear red.

“Rhythm of the Rain”—One of Betty’s earliest singles, she glued “Cascade” from a dishwashing detergent box onto the label.

Bobby Vee’s greatest hits—Betty adored this Buddy Holly knock-off.

Meet the Beatles—Early in 1964, after JPGR appeared on Ed Sullivan that memorable time, we got the introductory Capitol release in mono.

Beach Boys’ Surfer Girl—Before the British Invasion, those sand/sea bums held supreme.

KEYS was our local pop station, 1440 Khz on our dial, with studios downtown behind a picture window. Betty loved DJ Johnny Marks.

Since CC had no FM station at first, Dad took his Heath tuner and tape recorder to San Antonio to listen and record an aircheck. I remember ads for Saint Jon’s Bread and “They Came To Cordura” plus rockin’ Lloyd Price singing “Come Into My Heart.” Alas, that irreplaceable tape was stolen from me in 1981 during an armed robbery at Rancho Richey.

“I Like It Like That” was the first song I heard that turned me on to the rock ‘n’ roll beat.

“Sukiyaki” as a single was a much beloved song we all enjoyed.

“Wipe Out” was another Betty favorite during her surf-bunny phase.

I remember the front porch light showing through the venetian blinds onto the living room floor, giving it a striped appearance that I could vary.

One summer, after Dad’s KLH speakers became the main living room equipment, I built a discotheque in garage with one of the Jensens up on the shelf. I’m not sure which amp I used, but I played many 78s and 45s out there. I wanted the sound to be loud enough to reach the playground a block away. At one point, Mrs. Poehlmann next door asked me to turn it down.

* * * * *

When I was first and going through all the equipment and documentation, I found that Dad had saved every purchase receipt. I foolishly discarded them, thinking that none of the stuff would ever need to be returned. Only when I realized that I was assembling a museum did I recognize and regret this error. I can reconstruct some of the dates, but will have to remain content with general times, such as years, of when Dad got this or that component. In them days, what he didn’t buy locally he’d mail-order from catalogs or magazines. This involved sending a cashier’s check and order form via US Mail and getting a package delivered a few weeks later.

* * * * *

On a late February weekend, I bought from my South Austin audio restoration chum two matched EL34s and two 7199 substitutes and sockets. These I installed and biased. There’s good sound with only a slight hum from both teeny speakers. The ST-70 is fully rehabilitated, and I’m looking for a place to use it.

To be continued . . .