Only in Cambridge

Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, probably a few years before our story. I’m never quite sure which one’s which…

Get comfortable, everybody; it’s story time.

Long ago in a galaxy far away, I worked from its beginnings at a small, start-up hi-fi manufacturer in Cambridge, Massachusetts called Apt Corporation. Best remembered for the Apt/Holman preamplifier, Apt was co-founded by a couple of ex-Advent engineers (the Apt One power amp was just as innovative, but is less well remembered today). Frank Kampmann, a former MIT prodigy, one of the original blue-box phone-phreaks, and a crackerjack practical double-E, was the self-proclaimed entrepreneurial expert; Tom Holman, who had already won notice with the Advent Model 300 receiver, which audiophiles the world around had uncovered as a dirt-cheap but great-sounding preamp, was the director of engineering and “ideas” guy. Holman would go on to achieve fame at Lucasfilm as the originator of THX and home-THX and coiner of “5.1 channels,” among many other achievements.

In the early days there were just four or five of us, including Tom and Frank. We spent our days (and nights), prototyping, testing, conjuring up a distribution network (my role): doing pretty much everything the old-fashioned way, including silk-screening circuit boards by hand and then blithely washing them in tubs of trichloroethylene. Why none of us, as far as I know, developed skin cancer I do not know to this day.

Anyway, time passed, as it has a way of doing in oft-told tales, and one early-spring day in I suppose 1978, Tom announced that his brother was in town and was dropping by with a colleague for a look at the Apt “factory” (one half of one floor of a former Advent engineering space on Sidney Street), and bite of supper. By then a half-dozen or so added employees were finishing perhaps a dozen preamps a day. Lots of people from within and without the audio world dropped by for a look at the Apt doings, so that much was unremarkable. But with the further intelligence that Holman’s brother was the road manager for prog-rockers Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, who were playing the Boston Garden that night, and that the “colleague” was either Greg Lake or Carl Palmer (I honestly can’t remember which, I just know it wasn’t Keith Emerson), the sound of a half-dozen jaws quietly dropping could be heard. Not because of the imminent arrival of a gen-u-wine rock star, but because Holman then (as now) had the mien of a high-school math teacher or perhaps a junior university instructor, and the notion that he had a brother living the daily life of a big-time rock act (albeit one in the twilight of its high period) seemed amazingly incongruous and indescribably droll.

In time the pair arrived, the ELP member in the expected rock-star regalia and haircut, Tom’s brother Terry, though a bit more professional, looking nothing like a high-school math teacher though like his sibling, outgoing and personable. The factory visit culminated as usual with a demonstration of our house system – always impressive since this consisted of Snell Acoustics Type A’s, bi-amplified by four bridged Apt One amplifiers and an Apt/Holman preamp, playing pirated Deutsche Grammophon half-inch master clones on a Studer A80, and thus sounded very different from any consumer hi-fi system anyone, including rockstars, had heard at the time.

The visit was slotted in between the band’s soundcheck and their headliner’s curtain at 9:30 or 10:00 – the Garden was only 10 minutes away by cab across the Charles – so around 7 o’clock five or six of us walked up Sidney Street and across Mass Ave. to Main, for a bite of supper at La Groceria, more or less the official Apt restaurant and a Cambridge landmark for sophisticated Italian cuisine. (At that time this meant only that not every dish was necessarily swimming in marinara sauce).

A fairly convivial meal at our usual corner table ensued, with a surprising number of bottles of Chianti consumed. I can’t report any actual conversation because I frankly don’t remember any. (The wine might’ve had something to do with this.) But I do recall that a couple of tables away a young fellow who could only have been an MIT post-doc or junior faculty (the joint was a regular MIT hangout) was dining with his date. Often, we’d notice them looking pointedly at our table, whispering, and seemingly summoning the courage to approach; I won’t say that our celebrity guest was visibly preening, but he clearly had noticed being noticed.

And indeed, as we were finishing our wine, quaffing espressos, and managing the check, our neighbor made his way over. Completely ignoring the slouching rockstar, he addressed Holman saying, “You’re Tom Holman the engineer, aren’t you? My apartment is just two doors down; if I run, and grab my Advent 300, will you autograph the schematic label on the bottom?”

Only in Cambridge.

Rob Sabin's picture
Awesome, Dan.