Tooled Up (Warning: Contains Reminiscences And Trade Names)


When I embarked on the clock project about which I wrote in a previous article (“The Smallest Show On Earth,” March 2012), I did a lot of the early circuit prototyping myself, and in preparation for that, I had to go hunting for a set of tools that I’d not used in quite a while. It was a shock to discover that my toolbox, once the home of a fine collection of items devoted to the care and maintenance of electrical and electronic equipment, now mostly housed a rather different collection, mainly to do with the more mundane domestic world of carpentry and plumbing repairs. True, there was a neon mains-testing screwdriver, a pair of serviceable pliers, and a few other bits and pieces that vaguely suggested electronics, but where were the specialist tools that I’d used on a daily basis when I was—ay, there’s the rub—much, much younger?

I searched in vain. Somewhere along the way, I’d lost, loaned, or had purloined almost every one of the tools that had been my constant companions back in those circuit-building and fault-finding days of yore. To cope with the pressing demands of the day, I went to a local hardware store and purchased a reasonably priced and reasonably efficient set of tools: side cutters, needle-nosed pliers, a project board track-cutter, a cheap bench vise, and soldering iron, and set to work.

A little digression: my father was a radio-ham and had spent much of the Second World War installing and repairing radio and radar equipment in a range of bombers and fighters. As the youngest in a family that had so far showed neither interest in, nor aptitude for, things electrical, my father was therefore delighted when, at a tender age, I stuck my fingers in a live lamp socket to see what made the bulb glow, and I was soon schooled in the fine art of soldering and basic circuit construction, the main difference being that vacuum tubes were involved and, among other things, I learned quite quickly how not to touch live high-tension connections.

I also learned the resistor color code, something that’s stayed with me ever since and that I still use to this day. There’s a services mnemonic for it, to do with virgins, but I was obviously too young for that, so the order of “black, brown, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, grey, white” simply became embedded in a bit of my brain and has stayed ever since, as has the ability to solder. I rather assumed that anyone who was working in theatre sound also had been through some basic training that involved things like making up cables, but I was to be proved wrong many years ago.

The Revox tape recorder was still king of the theatrical playback system in those days, and I was prepping a tour with a couple of young fellows as my sound crew. We needed some remote start boxes made up, and I tasked the guys with making up the cables. I was shocked—shocked, I say—to discover that neither of these two seemingly efficient young gentlemen knew how to solder, and so an impromptu lesson was held on the spot. Since then, I’m happy to say that each of them has risen through the ranks, one to become an award-winning sound designer in his own right and the other to become one of the most sought-after production sound engineers in the country. I like to think that my lesson that day instilled in both of them a degree of self-confidence that propelled them to the giddy heights that they occupy today. Personally, I think that basic soldering skills should be taught in drama colleges as an integral part of the degree course, alongside deconstructing Chekhov and cable coiling, but back to the matter in hand.

As I began to work on the project, it became obvious that, although the tools I’d bought were okay, they really weren’t what I’d become used to, and my dissatisfaction started to grow. Eventually, I finished the initial work and handed the project over to the professionals, who took the basis of my strip-board designs, laughed at them, and produced something infinitely more classy, using surface-mount technology and a whole bunch of computer stuff that’s way out of my league.

But there was a nagging itch at the back of my mind that wouldn’t go away: I’d built quite a lot of electronic stuff over the years; heck, I even built my first computer, admittedly from a kit, but it was a big kit, not one of those little Sinclair/Timex kits, and I’d always made my own microphone and speaker cables and other audio interconnects. At some point, however, convenience had dictated that it was easier just to pay out a bit more and buy them ready-made.

On this occasion, though, the nagging turned into a fairly heavy tap on the shoulder when I was asked to do a location recording in a cathedral that would involve running very long lengths of balanced, two-channel mic cable, and my small stock wouldn’t cut it. I checked prices for good quality prefabricated microphone cables, blanched, and, almost coincidentally, discovered a stash of unused XLR connectors tucked away in a closet. That tipped the balance, and I decided to make the cables myself, partly as a money-saving exercise, partly because I wanted to reassure myself that I still could. However, before I began, there were a few things that needed putting right; I needed to be properly tooled up.

Out went the cheap vise; in came a workbench-clamp-based PanaVise, courtesy of eBay. A similar story with the soldering iron: gone was the clunky version with a stiff cable that dragged at the handle, and in came a well used, but still functioning, Weller soldering station. High-quality cutters and pliers from long-established manufacturers replaced the budget versions, and I began to make cables. At the end of an eight-hour stint, I’d made up 14 assorted cables and adapters, and prepped and soldered 32 three- and five-pin XLRs, without a single fault. Needless to say, I was slow at first but gradually sped up as all the old skills came surging back. What’s more, I managed to avoid something that I was well known for in the past, the fine art of finger soldering. Nary a scorch-mark nor a blister marred the fingers that are currently hammering away at this article, something of which I’m really rather proud.

My latest purchase—I’m an inveterate eBay-er with an eye for a bargain—is a barely used Dremel, complete with the flexible shaft and a fine set of drills, cutters, engravers, grinders, and polishers, and I am about to start building a fairly intricate mechanism for another project that has just popped up. Now all I need is a shed.

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John Leonard is an award-winning designer who has been working in theatre sound for 40 years. In his spare time, he records anything that makes an interesting noise in high-definition surround sound. His two libraries, The Voice Of Poseidon and The Sounds Of Flight, are available online at Live Design readers receive a 30% discount with the code LDM30.

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