Steve McCormack: It's All In The Details Page 2
Harley: Tell me about Tiptoes.
McCormack: Tiptoes. The Mod Squad's most famous invention. It's hard to remember now that when we brought Tiptoes out in the market there was no such product available. It was the first of its kind. We believed there were some people in England and possibly in the United States using some kind of similar technique—either screwing products to the floor or mounting them on screws or putting speakers on hard objects of some kind or another. But to the best of my knowledge there was no similar product available.
We had heard some comment that someone had put their turntable on hard points and that the sound was improved. There is a tendency to dismiss all sorts of claims like that as nonsense, but I had learned not to toss those sorts of things away lightly. You never knew what would work and be a cost-effective improvement. So when I came back, Richard Vandersteen sent me pieces that were prototypical of the small Tiptoes. I put them under the Oracle turntable and, lo and behold, I felt they made a very clear improvement in the performance.
We had some made up and I sent them out to friends and other people to try. They all reported unanimously that not only was there an improvement, but that they wanted more. I designed a tall Tiptoe and we went into production of it. We experimented with materials—various metal alloys and other materials—and realized that all these things affected the sound.
Tiptoes were not a commercial success initially. We had to convince people to try them. I can remember we spent a lot of years going to CES where we had very skeptical people standing toe-to-toe wanting to know how these things worked. To this day no one has really demonstrated how they operate or has graphs, charts, measurements, spectral analyses, etc., to show literally what is going on with Tiptoes. There's a lot of conjecture; you hear a lot of wild claims about what they do and how they do it. Some people call them coupling feet, others call them decoupling feet. I have my own opinions on that subject. We really had to get a lot of them out there and get the product in the public's hands. As soon as people tried them, they could tell. Boom—it was successful right away—as soon as people would try it.
Harley: That technique is well accepted today.
McCormack: Absolutely. It's hard to find a high-end product today that doesn't have some sort of pointed coupling-foot system associated with it.
Harley: How much importance do you ascribe to the various aspects of high-end product design—circuit topology, passive components, active parts, execution? What's your design philosophy?
McCormack: My design philosophy is design by ear and build by hand. Use the best designs and parts you have access to. But designing by ear is the key criterion.
In this context, we're talking about an individual doing a design—it's me putting my personal stamp on it. I also feel very strongly that the execution of a given idea outweighs the design type. There's another way to say that: how well you execute a given design puts a limit on the available performance from that design. A given design can perform poorly, very well, or extremely well. There can be a spectrum of results from a given design depending on how well it's executed.
But the design type or topology sets a limit on what is possible for that design. The two things work hand in hand; a good design poorly executed is still going to perform poorly. Execution is a central issue in high-end design.
Harley: How do you define execution—parts quality, build, layout?
McCormack: It's everything that goes into it. High-end audio is a game of details, of inches. As a high-end designer—and all high-end designers are faced with this—we often have thousands of choices to make about individual parts selection, layout, board material, chassis materials, wiring, switches, and jacks. It's endless, in a sense. But it is that attention to detail and the fact that you have to make those choices by doing listening tests. You have to do it with an idea in mind about what you're trying to achieve. Those are the things that go into making a high-end design really successful.
I don't think it's possible to design high-end products by committee, so to speak, or have a group of people trying to reach a consensus opinion. You end up with products that may be physically beautiful but sonically are often mediocre. It's that personal attention to detail and choices.