Alex Rosner on Building the Perfect Disco Soundsystem

From the DJ History archives: How the audiophile sensibility shaped New York’s most exuberant dancefloors

From David Mancuso’s fabled Loft parties to Nicky Siano’s Gallery, the golden age of New York disco was driven by powerful and truly immersive soundsystems. However, at that time, the technology was in its infancy, and creating a flawless, custom-built rig required passionate audiophiles who were as familiar with the business end of a soldering iron as they were with the way sound flows through a space.

DJ History

Defense industry engineer Alex Rosner was one such man, and in the late 1960s a chance encounter with some shoddy speakers in a Queens steakhouse would set him on a path to designing many of the most legendary set-ups in clubland history.

Here, Rosner talks Bill Brewster through a relentlessly innovative career – from creating what may be the world’s first cueing-capable mixer and collaborating with Mancuso on the invention of the now-ubiquitous speaker array to installing equipment that would help to make the reputations of pioneering figures aplenty.

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So, how did you get into building soundsystems?

It wasn’t my intention… I was having dinner one night in a restaurant, where there was a discotheque. The sound was terrible, so I [wrote] “Your sound stinks” on my business card and put it under an ashtray. When I got up to get my wife’s coat, my best friend, who I was with at the time, took the card and handed it to the owner. The owner came up to me and said, “You’re right! Can you come and help me?” It was called Andirons [Steak House] in Flushing, Queens.

From there, I met somebody at the World’s Fair in 1965, where I built the first stereophonic disco system. Up until then, it had all been mono. There was no equipment available at the time. There were no mixers, no stereo mixers, no cueing devices – nothing. I had to invent the wheel until the Bozak mixer came along. I helped Bozak design his mixer – I gave him suggestions, so he could make it better, and that was the standard in the industry for a while until the Urei came along.

When did the Bozak come in?

In 1968, around about. Louis Bozak… He passed away recently.

What prompted him to devise it?

He didn’t devise it, either. He already had a ten-channel input mixer. I suggested to him that he only needed to make minor modifications to that unit to make into a stereophonic disco mixer. He thought it was a good idea, so he did it, and right off the bat he did it the right way. That became the standard, and he only modified it once. It stayed for ten or 15 years.

What was your interest in sound?

I was a sound engineer, but it was my hobby. At the time, I was working as an engineer in the defense industry. But by 1967, I quit my job and went into building soundsystems full-time.

Did you literally have to construct the soundsystems for clubs?

Yeah. I mean, I used existing amplifiers and existing loudspeakers and turntables that were on the market, but the cueing devices and mixers were not available, so I had to sort of build them from scratch.

What equipment were you using from existing parts?

For turntables we were using Thorens TD-124, the standard of the industry at that time. It had a quick start. You slide the lever and it lifts up the plate and stops the record. It was primitive, but effective. The problem with that turntable was that there was a lot of rumble. So for stereophonic application it wasn’t so good. It was only when the TD-125 came along later… That was much better. [Later], they came up with other techniques, like direct-drive. Then that became standard for turntables. So far as pre-amps and mixers, the Bozak was the standard. Before that, I used one that I had developed, which was a real primitive arrangement.

Was it a simple flick switch?

Right. It was a switch with a couple of levers that were faders, and then it had another switch that [allowed you to] cue up on either turntable, regardless of which one was being fed to the dancefloor. For amplifiers we used McIntosh, which was very high quality. One of the early systems used two McIntosh units… It was very effective. The loudspeakers were by Altec. Then JBL came in shortly thereafter, and I used their loudspeakers.

Which were the first systems you constructed?

The first one was at the New York World’s Fair in 1965, for the Canada Pavilion and the Carnival Pavilion. One was called Carnival-a-Go-Go and the other Canada-a-Go-Go.

They were specifically made for music?

They were playing rhythm & blues, all kinds. Anything that people would dance to.

They were operated by disc jockeys?

Yes, but nobody noteworthy.

Where was the first club system?

The first was the Ginza… That club was originally built by the owner himself. [He] had built the system himself, because he was an engineer. He invited me to come and listen to [it], so I did, and I pointed out to him that it had a mono Altec mixer. In those days, the standard in the industry before Bozak was the Altec 1567-A, which was a mono mixer with no cueing provisions. It was nice and good-sounding, but he only had one amplifier, so when I told him he needed to make some modifications for reliability purposes, he kind of laughed at me. I was embarrassed and left.

About three months later, he called me in the middle of the night. The system had died and could I come and help him? He was rather in a panic. I’ll never forget this, because it was a very important lesson in reliability for me. This is a pivotal moment that you could say inspired me to get into this business. This was still 1965, maybe 1966. Anyway, I got down there in about 20 minutes. When I walked in, the place was deserted. The girls were up in these little cages, they were sitting there with their legs dangling out and just not doing much. And there was a couple sitting at the bar. [The owner], who was normally very calm, was very excited and very nervous, and he asked me whether I could fix it as quick as possible.

The image in my mind was that this was like a chariot in a desert in wartime. The chariot was the soundsystem, and it could not stop.

So, sure enough, the amplifier that he had, even though it was excellent, had a blown internal fuse – I guess it was a bad tube. So I walked in there, put a new fuse in, put two new tubes in and got it working. It [took] about half an hour, roughly, from when I walked in. It was difficult to work because the girls were very pretty, [and wearing hardly any clothes]… It was distracting. I was kind of a square guy. I wasn’t used to that.

Finally, when I was finished [the owner] was so grateful. Then he started to calm down, and I couldn’t resist it: “Why are you so excited? You’re lucky. It’s a Wednesday night and there’s nobody here. If it was a Saturday night, I could understand you being like this, but there’s nobody here. What’s the problem?” He go about two inches from my face and said, “When I called you at one o’clock this morning, this place was packed with people. The business I lost tonight, I could’ve bought a new system.”

When I heard that, the image in my mind was that this was like a chariot in a desert in wartime. The chariot was the soundsystem, and it could not stop. You had to build in such a way that there were enough horses in front, so that if a horse died you could chop it loose and keep going. You’d have concentric wheels on the hub so that if a wheel broke, another wheel would carry its weight. And under no circumstances could the chariot stop, because if it stopped, you get shot and you’d be dead. He hired me to do the entire system, which was the first one I did. Thirty years later, we’re now talking about 400 or 500 systems.

So how did you come across Francis [Grasso] and co.?

I met him at some club he was playing at. I don’t know whether it was a club where I did the soundsystem or not. I never [usually] hung out in clubs where I’d put in the soundsystem. I’d go to clubs where I hadn’t. I’d persuade the owner that they needed a proper soundsystem.

You installed the system at the Sanctuary, didn’t you?


Wasn’t that the first place where Grasso had had some kind of cueing system, [which allowed the DJ to cue up a record before bringing it into the mix]?

He worked at the Haven before that. I did the Haven too. The cueing system [there] was one of my old-fashioned adventures. They called it the Rosie because it was painted red. It was really primitive and not very good.

But it did the job?

It did the job. Nobody could complain, because there was nothing else around.

What was the difference with the Sanctuary? Steve [D’Acquisto] said it was so much better than anything that was around then.

It’s just a matter of quality. See, I was an audiophile. I applied audiophile techniques – high fidelity – to commercial sound, which, until then, had never been done. Most commercial soundsystems sounded lousy. I made them sound good by putting in good components – there were no secrets. It was just a matter of persuading the owner that he had to spend the money to put in the proper components. I knew where to put the loudspeakers. I knew how many to use. After that, little by little, I started using subwoofers and tweeter arrays. The tweeter arrays were actually David [Mancuso]’s idea. He told me to build them, and I said that I didn’t think it was a good idea. He said, “I don’t care what you think, just make it anyway.” I did, and it was a wonderful idea.

Where does the name tweeter come from?

A tweeter’s what you call a high-frequency transducer, which plays high-frequency sound.

So it was an existing term already?

Right. A tweeter array is where you have a tweeter facing north, south, east and west. Basically, you have four of them in some kind of enclosure, so that all four are mounted like a chandelier above the dancefloor. And that idea was David’s.

You thought it wouldn’t work. Why was that?

I didn’t think was a bad idea. I just thought it was too much. He wanted two of them [per channel], which would have been eight tweeters. Normally in a soundsystem, there’s one tweeter per channel – he wanted eight. I thought it would be too much high-frequency [sound], but I was wrong. It was so high up, that’s not where the pain level is – that’s not where the hardness is. The more you have up there the better, so it was actually a terrific idea. How he got inspired to think of it, you would have to ask him. I had this fellow, Angelo Di Giuseppe – he built the wooden enclosures, and I got four JBL tweeters and put them in there. Crossover at that time was about 5 KHz, and it worked great. From there on, I used them in every club I worked in.

Do you remember when this was?

Yeah, I’d say it was 1971.

How did you come across David?

I was introduced by a mutual friend. He said I should stop by and look at his club, because I could be of some service to him. Which I was. I rebuilt his system for him, and made his sound much better. He had what was basically a home system. When I got through with it, it was a disco system. When I first went to his club and saw the excitement and energy there, it was very inspirational to me. At that point I thought discos were a wonderful idea. There was a mix of sexual orientation, there was a mix of races, of economic groups… The common denominator was music. I thought that was good thing. I remember ripping off my shirt and dancing. I loved the music. It was the real stuff. It was terrific, and at that time I was in-between wives, so it was the right time.

From there, where did you go?

I don’t really remember the names of the clubs, but there were a lot, and they came quite quick. Many of them were gay clubs. The gay club owners were willing to put their money where their mouths were and to invest in high-quality soundsystems. These were relatively small clubs – it was before Studio 54. I never really like clubs like that. The largest club I ever did was the Copacabana. That was much later, and it went on for a long, long time – in fact, it’s still in business but on a different site. The real big clubs, like Studio 54 and the Paradise Garage... The Paradise Garage, I did the actual original design there… Richard Long, he and the owner became lovers, and I guess he took the job away from me.

You didn’t actually install the system then?

No, I did the preliminary design. Richard Long did the installation.

What other elements did you install in the Loft that made it different?

It was the way it was configured. I put in Klipschorn [speakers], and I bi-amplified it, tri-amplified it. At that time, that was something new that wasn’t done. Even today, even though David knows a lot about sound, he calls me and asks me to make final adjustments. It’s subtle aspects of the balance, you might say, that made the place sound good.

My whole family were musicians. I played several instruments. I knew what orchestral music was supposed to sound like when amplified. That knowledge helped me to set these systems up, so they would sound proper. Since I knew electronics – I’m a graduate electronics engineer – I was able to make the connection. That, really, was what qualified me, plus there was a tremendous interest – I really liked it. To this day, I like the concept of the discotheque. I like the concept of reproduced music, as opposed to live music, and I thought that the technology was available to make things sound good and realistic. I experimented a lot.

I went to the World’s Fair, and I had to make it sound like an orchestra was playing behind [an acoustically transparent] curtain. What I didn’t realize at the time is that the audience prefers to be enveloped in the music, as opposed to being hit with it from one direction, which is what an orchestra would do. But an orchestra is a live phenomenon, and the liveness makes up for the fact that the music does not surround the audience. When the orchestra is not there, you only have the loudspeakers, so no matter how realistic they are, it’s better to wrap the audience with loudspeakers, rather than have the sound only coming from one area.

Later on, after the World’s Fair, I realized it was better to have the sound around, so what I did was I developed a technique [with] mid-range loudspeakers with the bass speakers on the floor, and two flying tweeter-arrays over the dancefloor. That four-way arrangement – the tweeters are one; the upper and lower mid-range [are two and] three; the bass speakers are four – that became the standard of the industry. I wrote a technical paper for the Audio Engineering Society Convention, which I read and got published. It was the only paper on disco that was ever published in [their] journal. That’s how it became the standard. Everybody just took those ideas and went with them. Today, there isn’t a club that doesn’t have tweeter arrays.

The soundsystem is just a tool in the hands of the artist. But without the tool, the artist can’t do too much.

When was this paper published? Is it possible to get it from a library?

I have copies… If you hold on a moment I’ll look up the date on it – July 1979.

What was your inspiration? Just being a fan of music?

Yeah. At that time I was into Latin music. Latin music was somewhat related to black music, African music and jazz. That was something I was really into. It was a natural transition.

Do you think Mancuso was influential, because he was both a music fan and audiophile?

That’s right. No question about it. The soundsystem is just a tool in the hands of the artist. But without the tool, the artist can’t do too much. The tool in the hands of a lousy artist is a lousy machine. You need both to make it successful. David Mancuso and – I can’t think of his name…

Michael Cappello? Steve D’Acquisto? Francis Grasso? Nicky Siano? Walter Gibbons?

Walter Gibbons! All the guys you mentioned, I did all their clubs.

You’re still installing soundsystems?

Yeah, but in the last ten years I’ve been mostly installing systems in houses of worship. It just evolved that way. The premier churches – I’ve just finished Trinity Church downtown. They need soundsystems, so they can be heard by their parishioners.

That’s odd, since people like D’Acquisto often talk about those early clubs being like places of worship.

No question about it. It was a spiritual experience. I really can’t describe it. It was truly inspirational. There was a lot to it. There was a guy named George Freeman, who had Galaxy 21 – a club where Walter Gibbons played – and he often talked about that. He said it was a spiritual experience. When he said that, I said, “Yeah, that’s not far off.”

I remember him making me install a volume control so that Walter couldn’t play too loud. There was a hidden volume control in his office. When Walter found out, he quit. I got Walter to come back, and they kissed and made up. I had tried to talk the owner out of putting this volume control in. I said, “You should talk to Walter and agree on sound levels.” He said, “No. Walter doesn’t agree with me. I’m the boss, I own this club and I pay you to fix the soundsystem, so you do as I say.” So I put it in, then Walter quit and all the people went with him. Then George had no business, so he had to get Walter back and get rid of the volume control.

How long was he gone?

About a week.

Very quick then.

Yeah. It was a bad idea. You can’t take the gas pedal away from the driver.

Who were your favorite DJs from that period?

Nicky Siano was terrific. I loved him.

The lighting wasn’t important. It wasn’t the meal; it was the dessert.

Why was he so good?

He built excitement. Same with Walter. And of course, David. And Steve D’Acquisto – he worked at this club Tamburlaine. I built the system there. They just knew how to build excitement without making the music overly loud. They played beautiful, exciting music. They got people really excited on the dancefloor, and happy to be there, so they’d want to come back.

They knew how to do it. It was done with music. It wasn’t done with mirrors and smoke. They didn’t do it with lights – believe me, the lighting systems there were very limited. I learned through experience, there was no schools for these things. I did one club called Tuesday – a jazz club. On opening night, the lights failed. The owner took a 200 watt light bulb, put it on an extension cord – it was one of these work lights – plugged it un upstairs in the bar and hung it in the corner of the room. The party went on like nothing happened.

I just scratched my head and thought, “Gee, can you imagine what would’ve happened if the soundsystem had failed?” That’s when I realized that the lighting wasn’t important. It wasn’t the meal; it was the dessert. It was not an essential ingredient in the club. So I always told the owners, “Listen, if you’re low on money, put in a decent soundsystem and put in whatever lighting you can. You can always improve the lighting later. What makes the club is the soundsystem.”

I never put in a lousy soundsystem. I was always able to persuade the owners to put up the money to have a decent soundsystem. Richard Long was the only one that did decent quality work at that time. All the others were cheap stuff. Richard befriended the rich gay owners, and he started doing really big clubs. He did a few clubs here and a couple of the clubs, he didn’t do so well, so I had to go in and re-do them. That’s how it was.

Do you feel lucky that you were the right guy in the right place at the right time?

Yeah. I guess I do. I had a good time. I made money and I established myself in business. There was a period when I primarily did discotheques… As disco started to die, I did more schools and home theaters, and then the church market opened up – Jewish temples, Catholic churches. There isn’t a religion I haven’t done. Now, I’m doing a mosque.

This interview was conducted in October 1998. © DJ History

By Bill Brewster on February 15, 2018

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