Steve McCormack: It's All In The Details

Steve McCormack has carved out an unusual niche for himself in high-end audio. While working as a hi-fi salesman, Steve successfully modified an amplifier for a customer and promptly decided that there was a market for improving the sonic performance of other companies' products. Thus The Mod Squad was born, a company Steve and long-time partner Joyce Dudney Fleming established to offer high-end modification services.

Then came Tiptoes, the now-ubiquitous aluminum cones that made The Mod Squad a familiar name to audiophiles. Other products followed—including the highly regarded Line Drive and Phono Drive—that shifted The Mod Squad's emphasis away from tweaking and toward designing and manufacturing their own components. Going another step in that direction, Steve's products are now marketed under the McCormack brand name (footnote 1). (The McCormack DNA-1 power amplifier is reviewed in this issue.)

During a visit to audition the DNA-1 in my listening room, Steve expressed some fascinating ideas about the relationship between the musical experience and electronic design. I grabbed my tape recorder and began by asking Steve how he first got involved in audio...

Steve McCormack: How I got started in audio...That's like ancient history these days. Somebody was jokingly telling me that I'm part of the audio establishment now. I got a laugh out of that.

It goes back to my interest in music as a teenager and how that led to an interest in equipment. I didn't have any formal schooling in electronics, but I had a Marantz compact system when I was in college. That was all I knew of high-quality stereo systems. Some of the people there had more sophisticated systems; a lot of it was Dynaco or Heathkit stuff they had built. So I sold the stereo system I had and bought some Dynakits—a Stereo 80, a PAT 4, a pair of Dynaco A25 speakers, an AR turntable, and Shure M91ED cartridge. I built both the kits in one 14-hour marathon session. When I got it all done, I hooked it up and no music came out. I was crushed after working that hard for that long to not have the reward of music. I ended up fixing it and heard marvelous music—better than I'd ever had before, better than I even knew about at the time. And that's when I got the bug. That was 1971.

I started building kits for other people, wound up in the Navy in San Diego, and developed a strong interest in music and recording. I also began to have professional aspirations as a recording engineer. I worked in a hi-fi store as a salesman, took recording classes, started doing my own recording, and was learning the retail end of the business. In 1975 I went to work for [Los Angeles retailer] Jonas Miller Sound.

Robert Harley: Is that where you started modifying equipment?

McCormack: Yes. There was a central event there that got me involved in that. We were selling Quad speakers and electronics—the Quad 405 amplifier was a relatively new product. We had been selling those Quad amps with the Visonik model 30 speakers from Germany—one of the first minimonitors to come into the country. M&K (Miller and Kreisel) was making a subwoofer for that system called the Goliath. It had a passive crossover with variable crossover points. But with the Visoniks, some of the crossover points could make for a pretty nasty reactive load—very difficult to drive.

A few people got these systems who had Quad 405 amplifiers, took them home, turned them up, and as soon as a bass-drum note would come along, the most God-awful sound you've ever heard would come out of the speakers. Like some kind of ugly electronic arc sound—like lightning striking the speakers. That was the amplifier going into protection. So a couple of these people came back and wanted their money back or new equipment or to make some change. Ken Kreisel suggested I take out the amplifier's current-limiting circuit. So he pointed out to me on the schematic where the current limiting was and I took out the appropriate circuitry.

And not only did it fix the problem, but it sounded great. It now had some of the best bass we'd heard at the time. So that planted the seed of the notion of modifying equipment to make it work better or sound better or do more of what you wanted it to do. I began to do that for myself and on the side for other people. That was the genesis of modifying equipment.

Harley: Was it was that experience that led you to believe you could do things the original designers didn't think of or didn't want to spend the money on?

McCormack: It became reasonably clear that even high-end products were not should I say it? I don't mean to run any of these products down. In fact, that's one thing I was trying to make clear at the time. I wasn't modifying any of these products because I thought they were bad, it's just that I felt they could be improved upon.

Some of the things I did were not cost-effective; they would have wildly inflated the cost of the product in production. I was doing things that weren't necessarily practical for the manufacturers to do. Certainly later on, after I learned more about circuit design, I perhaps had some insights that the original designers hadn't had and was able to improve the product's performance that way. A lot of what I was doing early on was using materials and construction techniques, ways of putting parts in, using wire—it was mostly parts-oriented at first—that were just impractical for manufacturers to do. Now I think we see high-end products taken to an extreme that they weren't taken to in those days. There is a market for those products now, but at the time even some of the relatively high-end products could be improved upon by using techniques that are much more common today.

Harley: Could you elaborate on how you made the transition from working in a hi-fi store and modifying customers' equipment to running The Mod Squad? That's a big jump.

Footnote 1: McCormack Audio was acquired in July 1998 by Bill Conrad and Lew Johnson.—Ed.