Whilst a fairly high percentage of people I call friends were marching against the government cuts, I was sat in a dark room in East London, using a soldering iron for the first time. I’d bought a ticket for a workshop in DIY speakers with Technology Will Save Us, an organisation that describe themselves as a ‘haberdashery for technology’.
I had been sucked in by the lovely image they used on the promotional materials for the course, which they were running in conjunction with The School of Life and it was reassuring to find, on arrival, that there were pretty much as many women as men. We are not alone, ladies.
I was also keen to better understand soundsystems and how they work. I’ve spent hundreds of hours standing in front of speaker stacks and interviewed countless people about soundsystem culture without ever understanding anything about the engineering that goes into it. It’s one thing to fetishise the idea of deadlocked soundmen with toolbelts at Metalheadz and quite another to start finding out what they actually did.
I’ve become interested in the idea of living from scratch, and the idea that we should start re-skilling for the future. I reckon that people who can grow food, build basic structures, and who can mend and re-shape existing objects are going to be in demand over coming decades as the world inevitably becomes more localised. Apart from anything else, the upward shift of fuel prices makes overseas production a lot more expensive. Malcolm McLaren was the first person I heard talking about this, way back in the late ’90s. Someone asked him what he considered the most punk thing anyone can do now. His answer: “don’t buy anything.”
Bethany and Daniel from Tech Will Save Us have a similar view point. They believe that there’s a shift happening towards people wanting to become producers of technology rather than just consumers, and whilst it’s clearly a small shift at the moment, it’s something that will gain momentum simply because that’s the direction the world is heading in. I still think we reached peak globalisation when we lost Concord: we used to be able to do something that we can’t do now.
But anyway, that’s some distance from the soldering iron at my workshop desk.
After a brief electronics lesson that explained basic circuitry (that an electrical charge needs a resistor to make sure it doesn’t overload the thing it’s providing power to; that capacitors just store energy short-term for when it’s needed, like for a powerful bass drop in a track) I fitted my components together. I managed to solder the input wires for the transducer back to front, but fortunately this was only an aesthetic issue, not a technical one. It was bit like colouring by numbers but at least I now knew what the bits did, more or less. It was very satisfying to discover that a volume control is just a variable resistor, something I’m going to remember next time I crank up some OutKast in my front room.
The challenge then was to work out what surface to use to build a basic speaker. Matt, a robotics and economics teacher at a Hackney secondary school stuck his transducer to a styrofoam lid. Dave, a data software developer from Liverpool with an interest in building synthesisers and a Les Savvy Favs T Shirt built his in two parts. A chap further down the bench broke up some styrofoam and ended up covered in it, like confetti. One guy, an engineer by trade, built a very-nice looking pair of speakers from cardboard. Pop in a pair of USB batteries (a brilliant idea, now available in US Wal-Mart stores and online in the UK), connect your portable music device and voila! We had sound.
My speaker now sits in my kitchen. It works. It’s not the greatest sound but it’s a definite improvement on my iPhone’s inbuilt speaker and it’s not far off my kitchen CD player, as long as I don’t mind the music playing quietly. Next time some kid gets on my nerves by playing music on his or her phone on the bus I might just whip out my DIY speaker. That’ll show ’em.