The poetry of life can often arrive when you come full circle. It’s when you end at the beginning and realize what the journey has been about.
Okay… so let’s go back to the beginning…
It all started more than a decade ago during a conversation with “C,” the owner of the world’s largest collection of original Western Electric theatre equipment. “C” was telling me that the steel and plywood WE horns are the cheap ones. The “real deal” he said, are the solid wood horns. “You will never understand how they can sound until you’ve heard solid wooden horns, big ones!”
My idea at that time was to “simply” find an original solid wood Western Electric 12a horn or two!
Having already owned original steel 16a and plywood 15a horns, that were made in large numbers and are not really that hard to come by (and then there are also replicas are around) I figured it couldn’t be that difficult. But as I quickly discovered, solid wood versions of 12a and 13a are as rare as hens’ teeth and priced accordingly.
In addition, there are a small number of people on this planet that want to own original 12a or 13a horns, badly. And they mostly have very, very…deep pockets. These guys will snap up originals in a blink. So, what were my chances of getting my hands on some?
This was the reason why I started fabricating these wonderful sound-making machines, which are deeply anchored in the history of sound reproduction when the end result was the only goal, before the commands of commercial margins and mass production took over.
Of course, it took some time before I managed to make my first WE12a horn. I launched myself on what was to become a formidable voyage, sparing no time or cost to achieve my goal: crafting replica solid wood Western Electric horns as close as possible to originals.
My articles on this blog are testament to this journey. I am happy to have people on all five continents that have trusted me to fabricate horns for them over the years. Most understand my goals are and today the proud owners of some truly exceptional sound making systems. I am proud to have inspired others to follow in my steps and set to making solid wood horns. Today with 13Audio, I am proud to be the undisputed reference for handmade replicas of the solid wood horns. I hold this reputation and it’s the very reason I can write the following story.
It was my reputation that prompted “A” to reach out and write that cryptic email that arrived in my inbox around 11p.m. one evening. “Do you know what I am looking at?” followed by two images.
How long did it take to react?…honestly…it was late in the evening and immediately I knew that sleep wasn’t going to come easy. Anyone even remotely interested in Western Electric knows how rare these ancient sound monsters are!
We are not talking about the plywood or steel mass-produced horns. No… we are talking about horns made entirely by hand with hundreds of pieces of wood each having complex shapes, secured together with hide glue and nails, slow craft….the way things used to be done.
I know this so well, as I replicate the very gestures that employed more than ninety-five years ago at the talking machine company in Camden, New Jersey, USA. The 12a stands as the voices of pioneers of the “talkies”, as material evidence that handcrafted manufacturing of that time was exceptional, that the technology itself was groundbreaking. And we know that not many were made unlike the 15a and 16a that were pumped out in thousands. (As these cheaper horns made in-house by Western Electric populated the theaters instructions were issued to “destroy” the 12a and 13a when replaced….so small numbers followed by instructions to destroy….we can call any 12a and 13a remaining as “survivors”!)
So, any solid wood 12a or 13a surfacing today is just exceptional!
“A” it turns out, is located in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. And, purely by chance, he came across these horns one day when the owner of a barn in a nearby town stopped by his place for a coffee while on his way to the dumpster. What was he about dump?: two hulking horns that had been stored in his barn for decades.
Since “A” is in the audio world he knew these horns should not be destined for the trash heap. He also knew of my reputation and reached out to me.
The background of these particular horns is really quite fascinating:
Jim Thorpe, PA, USA mid 1926 the Mauch Chunk opera house installed one pair of Western Electric 12a horns.
The exact date isn’t clear but it’s very late 1925 or early 1926. The town Jim Thorpe is less than 100 miles from the very place the 12a horns where made in Camden NJ. The theatre hosted 800 seats so it’s very probable that the amplifiers used were the 46 model. They would have had no bass, no tweeters, as at this early stage the system was full range not wide range. Just imagine back in 1925/26 local farmers, workers and gents experiencing their very first screening of animated film with synchronized sound! (I sometimes wonder what in my lifetime could have had a similar impact. This was a major turning point in public entertainment and set into motion was to become a multibillion worldwide industry.)
The story is that these 12a horns remained hanging for nearly 30 years fulfilling their function. Then in the 50’s, the cinema ceased activity. The event of democratized usage of cars had the audience flee to modern cinemas setup in towns nearby… the horns retired and were put into storage on the premises. They stayed there for a further 30 years until the 80’s when the theatre was renovated at that time to meet the modern standards and again attract an audience. The “old junk” was mostly scrapped yet miraculously these two 12a horns were put into storage in a nearby barn.
The horns aged, ninety-six or ninety-seven, having basically been effectively used for thirty years, then stored for a further sixty-six, were faced with a fate like many others… to be destroyed. It’s almost miraculous that they ended up making their way to me!
But this is where the poetry of life comes into play…
After receiving the initial email from “A” I contacted him immediately. He told me the whole story and we discussed in length how to proceed. It was decided that any money I paid for these horns would go to conservatory efforts and used for renovation works on the historic building of the town.
So, after a lot of back and forth, eventually arranging packing and shipment, they landed at my place on May 26th 2021.
Yes, they need some work, yes, they are ninety-seven years old. But who else is better qualified to renovate these horns than me?
To say I am happy would be an understatement. This journey has come full circle. I am certain that had I found these horns or any other original WE12 or 13a horns a decade ago things would not be the same. As it turned out, not getting originals put me on the road to self-crafting these fabulous objects. I’ve spent the last decade perfecting my craft to replicate them as closely as possible.
It’s the energy I put into this that made waves, that gained me a reputation, and that enabled this pair of original 12a horns to find their way to me.