NOTIONS SOUND AND UNSOUND

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YOU’VE GOT A POINT: McGowan’s company now builds and sells many different types of high-quality audio equipment. (Photo courtesy of PS Audio)

 

 

High-end stereo manufacturer PS Audio founder Paul McGowan—a DJ with Armed Forces Network during the Vietnam era—stumbled upon the bliss of pure recorded sound while trying to do something else.

 

by Steve Stark

Talking to Paul McGowan, founder of PS Audio in Boulder, Colorado, and a former DJ and radio personality on Armed Forces Network in Germany during the Vietnam era, you quickly encounter facts that strain credulity—except that they’re facts. The interviews with Elton John and Cat Stevens. The stereo shop inside of a waterbed store. The $10,000 intended for a first-of-its-kind synthesizer that walked away in someone’s pocket.

And then there’s the story of how McGowan got into the stereo business by failing spectacularly at what he most wanted to do, which is where the $10,000 comes in.

Today, McGowan doesn’t sound like a man who’s lost a great deal, some of it foolishly, but it’s clear that the central passion in his life—music—has brought him to where he ought to be. Almost in spite of himself.

Back in the early 1970s, when McGowan got out of the Army, the former Signal Corpsman had a dream and a plan. While stationed in Munich and working for Armed Forces Network (AFN) Radio, McGowan had gone to an Emerson, Lake and Palmer concert and fallen in love. He’d always been interested in electronics, he said, but that ELP performance was life-changing for him.

“That was the first time I had ever seen a Moog synthesizer. I was smitten,” he said in an April interview with Army AL&T. “I knew how circuits worked. I knew how amplifiers worked. But I couldn’t imagine for the life of me how this collection of wires, lights and things could make that sound. And I was just, I had to know.”

For McGowan, that intersection of music and electronics was where he wanted to be. Whether that was DJing on the radio, building electronics or recording music, he learned, he said, “by the seat of my pants.”

SYNTHETIC SOUND

These days, anyone can make a computer or smartphone play synthetic, digital music. You can play almost any instrument and create a virtual, digital orchestra on a personal computer. But that’s digital. The Moog synthesizer was analog.

The original Moog synthesizer was invented in 1964 by Robert Moog, and it gained wide exposure with 1968’s “Switched-On Bach,” an album by Wendy Carlos. In McGowan’s view, Moog’s synthesizer had one drawback. It didn’t play chords. “If you go back to some of those older recordings, you’ll notice that they play a one-note line. Edgar Winter’s ‘Frankenstein,’ if you remember that.” On the tune, Winter plays cascades of notes, but can only do so sequentially.

“I wanted to be the first in the world to design a polyphonic synthesizer where you could play all 10 notes at one time, actually, and no one had done that before.”

This burning desire was prelude to a major fail. “If you could say anything about me, it’s I’m one of those crazy diehard entrepreneurial guys who cannot imagine failing.”

THE HINGE DECADE

The 1970s were a hinge decade in which vast troves of enabling technology developed during World War II and then the Cold War and the space program began to evolve into great inventions. The synthesizer can be seen as a metaphor for the vast changes that were taking place in society.

It was to this world in 1973 that Paul McGowan returned to civilian life from the Army, still wet behind the ears, almost self-destructively impulsive, but with big dreams. By his own admission, he had no business sense.

The Army had provided him with more than he might have liked to admit. In Germany, McGowan had met an American woman named Terri Douglas with whom he developed an intense bond. Heedless shenanigans in Munich landed him in a German jail and cost him his gig as a DJ at AFN, as well as a promising start to a career in music production. He got shipped back to Fort Benning, Georgia. Terri—not yet his wife; they were married in 1977—came back to the States with him. They drove from Georgia to California in a Volkswagen van on a trip that included biblical rain, a bizarre storm of white frogs and other craziness. Once in California, McGowan went to work as a DJ at a radio station that, as McGowan put it, was “broke.” But not quite as broke as he was. 

MIC CHECK: During his time in the service, McGowan worked as a DJ for AFN Radio in Germany. (Photo courtesy of Paul McGowan)

MAKE IT OR BREAK IT

With visions of greatness (or delusions of grandeur) dancing in his head, McGowan reasoned that to make his synthesizer polyphonic, he might need to build multiple synthesizers into one.

What he needed that he didn’t have was money. With a business plan showing $1 million (in 1974 money) in revenue the first year and a firm handshake, he went to the bank, looking for a loan. But he had no product and no orders. McGowan was nothing if not persistent. “I went out and convinced a local supermarket magnate … and his son to invest $10,000.”

That’s nearly $65,000 in today’s money.

His called his company “Infinitizer, for infinite synthesizer. … I had actually reached out to Walter [now Wendy] Carlos, [who] did ‘Switched-On Bach,’ and [she] was going to be my first customer.”

McGowan had written a long letter to Carlos, including a detailed sketch of his plan for the Infinitizer. Carlos surprised him with a thoughtful reply that included suggestions for improvements. McGowan was probably one of the few people in the world who understood how painstaking and tedious the creation of “Switched-On Bach” had been, because the Moog wasn’t polyphonic. He understood the thousands of hours that Carlos would have had to spend layering track upon track to achieve the sound.

“With $10,000 in my back pocket,” and no business sense, McGowan “went to a local subcontractor and handed in the entire amount.” That turned out to be one of the worst—or best, depending on the viewpoint—decisions he ever made. The contractor ran off with the money within six months. “It was gone and we were out of business. And that happened pretty quick.”

It was a painful education, and it was hardly inevitable in the early 1970s that McGowan would land on his feet and continue his quest to fuse music and electronics. Indeed, McGowan’s dream and his company were in serious trouble.

“Knowledge is essential, but sometimes, so are ignorance and gut instinct,” he wrote in “99% True,” his 2019 memoir.

THE PREAMP SERENDIPITY

“I was supporting myself and my wife, Terri, as a disc jockey at a local radio station,” he said. His “fledgling business wasn’t doing too good at building synthesizers,” but the manager of the station needed new phono preamps.

Phono preamps serve two functions. One is to amplify the small, tinny sound created by the vibrations of the phono stylus in the grooves of the LP. The other is to address the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) curve.

The RIAA curve, McGowan said, is part of the reason the LP has its name. “The lower the frequency cut into a record, the wider the groove on the vinyl. In order to save room enabling longer play, during the disc-mastering process the low frequencies are severely reduced while the high frequency levels are exaggerated. When you play back the vinyl, these frequency differences must be reversed so that it [the recording] sounds correct.”

Without a good preamp, the station would broadcast unpleasant noise to its listeners.

At this point, Infinitizer hadn’t yet gone belly-up, but things were not looking good.

The station manager told McGowan, ” ‘If you build that for us, I’ll pay for it.’ So, I went out and figured out how to build a phono preamp.” He had no tools other than books and a soldering iron. Neither did he have any way of measuring how good his phono preamp’s sound was. He went to one of the radio station’s sponsors and to see if he could test it on the sponsor’s equipment.

This was the guy with the stereo store within the waterbed store, McGowan said.

The sponsor said, ” ‘I’m not letting you hook that thing up to any of my expensive stereo equipment.’ ” Instead, the sponsor said to talk to his waterbed installer, Stan Warren. “So, he introduced me to Stan. I went to Stan’s house. We played it.” Stan liked it a lot. “He said, ‘This sounds remarkable.’ I said, ‘OK, great.’ And I was thrilled because that meant the radio station would be happy.”

Stan Warren was an audiophile, except, at the time, McGowan had no idea what an audiophile was. He lived in “a little shack in Orcutt, California, and the floor was wooden and kind of bouncy. He had literally drilled four holes through his living room floor and put four stakes into the earth below it and build a table that his turntable could sit on so that you wouldn’t have any rumble when you were walking.”

Warren came by McGowan’s house and, impressed with the sound of the preamps, told McGowan that he wanted to give him $500 for half of the company. McGowan had just lost his Infinitizer company and gone through bankruptcy a month or two before, and was confused. Warren said, ” ‘No. The stereo company. We’re going to call it Paul and Stan Audio.’ And I said, ‘Who are we going to sell them to?’ and he goes, ‘Audiophiles.’ ”

And thus was PS Audio born.

LAST CENTURY’S STARTUP

In an era when there was no such thing as a website or a Best Buy or Amazon.com, how did an enterprising startup gain traction for its product? From the start, McGowan and Warren knew their customer. He was a man. Maybe older. He had discretionary income. He was as obsessed with music and sound as were Paul and Stan. He was maybe also the kind of audio snob who worked at a stereo store and would never have allowed the product in the store. “We never had any dealers. Dealers didn’t want to pay any attention to us. I mean, if you think they were snobs, think about us walking in with a little tiny homemade box that we were trying to sell for $60.” Actually, $59.95, or nearly $400 in today’s dollars. “And they would look at us and go, ‘You’re out of your freakin’ mind. Get out.’ ”

They went “factory direct” to their customers. One audio magazine allowed them to place an ad on credit. Their ad read, “Rediscover your records” for $59.95. They guaranteed that customers could hook their preamp up to their system and it would blow them away. “If you don’t [like it], send it back, and we’ll give you your money back, guaranteed.” All a potential customer got was an address.

“At first, there were just inquiries,” McGowan said. PS Audio had no brochure, so they just wrote back hundreds of replies. “And before you know it, people started sending $59.95 checks in. We took that money and went out and bought parts and hand-built every one of those things ourselves. And just drip by drip, slowly but surely, we built the business, literally, by hand. I mean we did everything. We stuffed the PC [printed circuit] boards, we silkscreened the chassis. We bent the metal, we cut the metal, we punched it.” PS Audio components, nearly 50 years later, retain that original look.

CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK: McGowan got his love of electronics from his father, Don. (Photo courtesy of Paul McGowan)

TASTES EVOLVE

At first, Stan Warren was the audiophile and Paul McGowan was the entrepreneur and electronics-builder. As McGowan learned more and more about reproducing recorded sound, Warren learned more and more about circuits.

“Stan was our listener. He was amazing. He could just say, ‘Nope, that’s—I can hear that that cymbal’s off,” McGowan said. “I couldn’t hear any of it. So it took it took me a good six months of daily listening and being tutored till I finally went, ‘Oh, of course,’ and then I finally became a ‘golden ear.’ ”

As McGowan learned more, his focus shifted away from the creation of sound via electronic wizardry and flashing lights to reproducing sound at the highest possible fidelity.

McGowan compared learning to understand and appreciate the sound of a high quality stereo system to learning to appreciate fine wine or fine food. Some of the skill is innate, and whatever isn’t can be acquired if the listener puts in the effort.

McGowan said that the two biggest things in listening to recorded music are tonal balance and imaging. Some people are more sensitive to the tonal balance of recorded music. Most people, he said, are very sensitive to imaging. That “image,” which is imaginary in the most literal way, is something that most listeners are not likely to get while listening to streaming audio on smart speakers and over earphones or earbuds.

“If you were to walk into our listening room [at PS Audio] today, and I sat you down and put on something, the first thing that you’d probably notice that you’ve not heard before … none of the sound comes from the speakers.” The speakers in the listening room, he said, are “seven-and-a-half-foot-tall towers in front of you, and yet no sound is coming from them. And the idea of a great stereo is this imaginary soundstage where you can literally hear that, well, that guy’s about there, and the other one’s just to his left about over there. But [the speakers] actually sound like people playing in the room.”

This image of the music being played over “these big-ass speakers” is not something that you get with headphones on. “You have to hear it on a properly set up pair of speakers.”

This is all imaginary. It’s your brain taking stereo sound heard by your two ears and interpreting it. “The soundstage is 10 feet deep and it’s 20 feet wide, approximately. And then I put on another piece of gear and, all of a sudden, the soundstage shrinks, the actual size of this image that you’re getting literally shrinks, or the musicians seem bunched together, as opposed to spread apart.”

That is only part of the magic that McGowan loves about high-end stereo equipment. One thing it cannot and may never do is have the same fullness and presence as live music. You can tell live music, anyone can, regardless of the source, “even someone strumming a guitar,” McGowan said. “Or I can be walking down the street and somebody is playing a piano in their house, or even an electric guitar. And I can tell.”

BACK IN THE SADDLE: McGowan now leads the company he founded in 1973, having left to pursue another opportunity in 1990, and then returning to PS Audio in 1997. (Photo courtesy of PS Audio)

A DIFFERENT LEVEL OF QUALITY

Back in the day when McGowan’s former partner was selling stereos out of a waterbed store, the quality of most stereo equipment wasn’t as good as it might have been. McGowan said the manufacturers didn’t know sound but they did know their customers. McIntosh, the venerable high-end audio company, never had very good sound, he said.

But he gives McIntosh credit for knowing its audience. “They’re a company that puts bling first. And they really understand who their market is.” That said, however, “They put very little effort into how it sounds.”

When CDs came onto the scene, he said, they didn’t sound very good, but that was because “a company like Sony that doesn’t care about sound made it, and Philips.”

PS Audio embraced it. “It sounded like crap … compared to vinyl, but I knew, technically, that that was just because it was in its infancy.” Indeed, PS Audio was one of the first companies to look for the pure heart of CD—it took out the factory electronics of a Philips Magnavox CD player and replaced them with audiophile electronics. Current PS Audio gear builds from that legacy of trying to create the purest audio. The prices of PS Audio gear reflect the high end. They sell an amplifier called Sprout that doesn’t top $1,000, but the price of the rest of their gear could buy you a respectable used car.

Their customers are, like McGowan, audiophiles. In a sense, it’s a demographic that never really changes. PS Audio’s customers are somebody’s dad. Maybe Grandad. “Our median age is probably 55 to 60,” he said. “The question every few years comes up, well, what’s going to happen to your audience when we all die, because we’re all old guys?”

The brand is such that “you get to a point where a small percentage of people have enough disposable income that they can start playing with their hobbies. And a small percentage want something better. You see it in wine, cars, photography, and audio’s no different.”

He summed it up as that “38 or 40-until-you-die kind of demographic.”

A DEPARTURE AND A RETURN

Stan Warren, the S in PS Audio, left the company in the 1980s to form his own company to compete with PS Audio. He hasn’t spoken to McGowan in years.

In 1990, McGowan left the company to join Arnie Nudell in founding Genesis Loudspeakers. PS Audio did OK for a time, but in 1997, it was clear that the company was foundering in a competitive market. McGowan bought the name back and decided to run it himself.

Never short of ideas, he had a just-maybe crazy idea for clean power—not in the sense of green, eco-friendly power, but in the sense of power that wouldn’t muddy sound. If a stereo playing great music at the highest quality is a recipe, clean power is one of the most important ingredients.

Today, sound quality is McGowan’s singular focus. When he rescued his former company after buying back the name of PS Audio in 1997, he intended to keep it small. Just a mom-and-pop shop. Today, the company employs 53 people and, in addition to its electronic equipment and the Octave record label, PS Audio has a magazine called Copper, a new recording studio for Octave and, as is always the case with McGowan, wild and just-maybe-achievable dreams.

ROADS LESS TRAVELED

If the PS Audio gig doesn’t work out, McGowan could always get back into business as his alter ego Woody Short. Back when he was the program director for the local rock-and-roll station, before PS Audio became his bread and butter, the owner of that station also owned an AM station with a country and western format.

McGowan agreed to do a talk program—this was long before radical talk radio came to rule the AM radio waves. “I won’t bore you with the whole story but it got pretty crazy. It was a very conservative town and I am not a very conservative person.” A call-in show without callers wasn’t going to last, he reasoned. McGowan, as Woody Short, would espouse views antithetical to those of the listeners just to wind them up, “and people would call up and pray for my soul and they would yell at me.”

Once, in a shop, he overheard folks talking about his show. “I said, ‘So you listen to that Woody Short guy?’ and they said ‘I hate that [so and so]. If he ever walked into my store, I’d shoot him.’ ” McGowan asked, ” ‘If you dislike the show so much, why do you listen?’ He goes, ‘I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I gotta know what he’s doing. That guy is destroying our community.’ ”

There was money in it. But McGowan’s sights were elsewhere. “As an entrepreneur you do what you’ve got to do,” he said. There were other directions his life could have taken, as well.

He had a buddy during his AFN days in Germany named Giorgio Moroder, a musician, producer and “a big synthesizer guy,” which is how McGowan had got to know him.

Moroder had a studio called Musicland where most rock luminaries of the era recorded albums—Queen, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones among them.

At that time, Moroder had a side business that he was trying to get out of, McGowan said. He recorded German-language versions of popular music for radio play in Germany. McGowan and Terri were going to take that over from Moroder.

Instead of taking over Moroder’s business, McGowan, undisciplined and impulsive, disastrously bungled that opportunity. After a blowup with his superior officer, within 24 hours he was on his way back to Fort Benning, Georgia, “and my life was over.” Except, of course, his life was really just starting. (For the full scoop on that bit of McGowan short-sightedness, his memoir has all the sordid details.)

—STEVE STARK

 

AN ARTIST

Had he taken a path that was a little more straight and narrow, McGowan might have ended up in another, perhaps related, line of work. McGowan’s entrepreneurial drive came from his father. The older man was a big influence on him as much for what he did as a family man as for what he didn’t or couldn’t do professionally. He was a salesman, something he hated. “He was an artist, a sculptor and a painter, but he just couldn’t support his family doing that,” McGowan said. His sense of frustration as McGowan grew up was responsible for McGowan’s stubborn unwillingness to settle.

“I determined from that experience with my father that I would never do something that I didn’t want to do unless it was in the service of getting to something else,” he said.

All of the steps and missteps in his career were in the end all stepping stones to his dream of a remarkable sound, recorded music with presence, image, a force of nature reproduced that can sweep you in and keep you within its dream.

Now, with PS Audio, McGowan is himself an artist—a sculptor and painter of sound, and absolutely in his element.

 


 

For more information on McGowan’s company, go to PSAudio.com. For more information on his personal life, go to paulmcgowan.com.

STEVE STARK is senior editor of Army AL&T magazine. He holds an M.A. in creative writing from Hollins University and a B.A. in English from George Mason University. He is Level II certified in program management. In addition to more than two decades of editing and writing about the military and science and technology, he is, as Stephen Stark, the best-selling ghostwriter of several consumer health-oriented books and an award-winning novelist.   



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