Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Wiring the Neptune Theater

Fred was one of the more creative loons around back in the late seventies. He used to hang out with us when we worked at the Neptune Theater back then; we were showing the Rocky Horror Picture Show Friday and Saturday night at Midnight so there were big crowds and lots of action. Nerds like Fred and I always had a bit of a hard time finding any action, so the RHPS was nice: a big party every Friday and Saturday night, and we were effectively invited!
Fred bought wrecked Cadillacs for next to nothing and put together souped up over engined super charged big convertibles and traveled in insane style. He found an app note on how to build a 72v amplifier using new power amplifier ICs. He bought 8 of them and mounted them in big heat sinks and built in a preamp stage; when he was done the amplifier was almost oo heavy for one person to move - some serious metal and heft there.. We ran the projector's sound into that.
Next we took a few hundred feet of high end audio wire and threaded it through a pipe to the space above the booth. From there we crawled through the beams under the ceiling that support the lath and plaster shell below us, rolling out wire behind us as we went. Back stage we brought down the wire and connected it to 2 huge "corner horn" folded Klipsch speakers with 15" drivers and expensive horn mid-range and tweeters. The best bass money could buy at that point, it was used to simulate sonic booms. Good stuff, very loud. Very, very loud. You know how car stereo fanatics overbuild their car systems to the point that the bass is painfully loud and unavoidable even outside of the car? The Netpune was like that, only huge.
Friday night at 11:45 they'd start letting the kids in. We're playing a Zoro serial with Hendrix's "Hey Joe" for sound while the seats start filling up. We wait until they start yelling "turn it up" and then we crank it. Hendrix's licks screaming and wailing, drums thumping heavily. Rocky Horror rocks out like never before, guitars and keyboards punchy and loud, bass booming away and resonating like mad. Sellout crowds with plenty of liquor and drugs being noisy completely drowned out by the Frankenstein sound system. Pretty darn cool!
The loudest bass noises notes ring and resonate, booming out into the auditorium and shaking your gut and vibrating your seat. The Neptune's booth was a concrete bunker designed to keep the noise of the projectors from escaping to the auditorium, so it's pretty well sound proofed. Concrete walls and double glassed windows make it hard to hear the sound during the movie from inside the booth so we have an extra speaker in the booth that we can turn up if needed. The noise with the new amp and speakers was so loud that it overwhelmed the sound proofing, thundering into the booth, drowning out the projector noise and making all the film reels rattle and shake. The empty big aluminum reels were shaking right off of the work space table top and dropping to the floor. Fred's power amp was hardly even warm, those new transistors were amazing!
I wandered down to the lobby and hung out in the concessions stand as the movie wound down and the bonus "There's A Light"/"Sweet Transvestite" secion kicks in, the Neptune always used to replay reel 2 at the end so that the audience left on a triumphant high with Frank the sweet transvestite still strutting his stuff, rather than lying dead and murdered. As the final words of Franks big intro ring out - "I see you shiver with antici" "Say it!" "...pation." Loud using his trained singing voice: "What may be the rain," quieter "isn't really to blame, So I'll remove the cause" - chuckle and lips twitching, "...but not the symptom" and the button is pushed and he disappears up the lift. The lights go on, the curtains open and it's a wrap, the show is over and the crowd starts ambling out.
The crowd wasn't as amped up as usual, more like shell shocked. At the time I thought they were very quiet, now I realize they might not have been quite as quiet as I was thinking, since my hearing probably took a little damage. Their's did too, though, and I think it really was quite a bit quieter than normal. The show that night was more of a sensory overload than usual, and the Rocky Horror Picture Show was pretty much always a sensory overload with loud rock music and rice and cards and toast flying through the air and everyone singing along and screaming their favorite interjections on cue. We hasd to put some effort into it, but we managed to overwhelm everyone's expectations.
Over the next week we installed stereo optical detectors for the sound in the projector using photodiodes and wired up a better input arrangement, giving us better sound and gain. We also turned it down a bit for the remaining weekends and only cranked it all the way up in private. We'd have a short stereo concert around 11:10 while the theater was empty, just before letting in the Rocky Horror Picture Show audience. A few buddies and I would play something by Chuck Berry or Led Zeppelin or a good synthesizer workout like "Funeral For A Friend" by Elton John (the system handled that sort of synthesized sine wave music brilliantly) and we'd go insane with the volume. We'd grab a soft drink and head up to the center of the balcony, front row, and enjoy our own custom built stereo cranked to painful levels in our huge listening room that seats more than 800 and feel like the coolest kids on the planet.
You never realize how good you have things at the time; I definitely had some peak experiences at the Neptune.

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