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A Celebration of Australian Creativity and Ingenuity
Initially, and for sentimental reasons, this was a story I wished I didn’t have to write, however on reflection it was an opportunity and privilege to honour an individual who made his mark and to also celebrate the innate creativity and ingenuity resident in our industry. It was suggested that I offer this particular piece as I was there and for a time close to the subject matter.
Our story begins early in 1962 when two school friends John Woodhead and Gary Nessel founded Strauss Sound Systems; little did they know their initiative would ultimately become an industry legend. Today John is as active as ever producing high quality speaker cabinets and sadly Gary passed away on Thursday afternoon the 2nd of April 2015, approaching 68 years of age, this tribute is dedicated to his memory.
I commenced working at Strauss Sound Systems in the mid-1960s; the company was located in a small flat above a shop at 264 Toorak Road, South Yarra. By the time I joined business ownership had changed, John Potter had replaced John Woodhead as Gary Nessels partner. Before moving on it is important to set the scene, a backdrop to the evolution of Strauss. The youth of the day had abandoned conservatism and abolished conformity; this was evident in fashion and the explosion of colour, the likes of which had never been witnessed before or since. In the absence of computers, mobile phones and their by products, this generation had music and its companion pop culture to call their own, it was their leisure, communication and spiritual nourishment, the world was rocking and so was Strauss. In those days Sound Reinforcement was a rarity and for many, undiscovered. The energy and information delivered in performance came directly off stage from instrument amplifiers; the vocal PA and a drummer(s) performing without any intervening technology, balance and dynamics was totally controlled by the artists. Needless to say competence in this area of performance would contribute to the success or failure of an act.
The Strauss response was to create high power premium quality amplification, placing performance above meaningless features all driven by a close engagement with the burgeoning client community. Initially Strauss electronics were based on known circuitry, but as a result of client expectation combined with free thinking and a first principle design approach, unique techniques and technologies soon evolved. The same was the case with speaker systems, at the time our most successful enclosure for guitar was a 4 x 12 open back column (deployed in pairs) and for bass a 2 x 15 or 1 x 18 sealed enclosure (deployed singly or in multiples). At one point I recall we produced an amplifier deploying 8 x KT88s valves and 6 x KT88 systems were not unknown. Guitar amplifiers were designated Strauss Polka, Bass amplifiers Strauss Emperor and Vocal PA’s Strauss Minuet. These are the product pillars that formed the foundation of the legend.
At the time the six Australian states where akin to different countries, as one of many examples, each produced and consumed their own brand of beer and there was virtually no cross border trading. Likewise most states had one or more amplification producers for example; Melbourne-Strauss, Sydney-Lenard, Brisbane-Vase and Adelaide-Wright. However it was Strauss that transcended all borders with most popular bands of the era choosing Strauss amplification. Melbourne was the centre of the Australian live music scene at the time which no doubt assisted our market acceptance; however it is also generally agreed that Strauss products had achieved remarkably high performance standards. Furthermore, it was quite possible Strauss systems were the equal of, or better than anything available worldwide, a possibility reinforced many times by touring international acts. In the late 1960s we moved to a much larger factory facility at 4 Commercial Road, Highett enabling the introduction of new initiatives including the Strauss Mouse and the lower cost Lancer range of amplifiers. It was in 1969 that design and prototyping of the proposed next generation of Strauss premium products began, including the Warrior, Warlord, Bandit and Hurricane and we also began experimenting with transistors, however the party was about to end for this ground-breaking entity led by Gary Nessel.
Whilst the reputation of the company was second to none and ahead of the game in terms of technology, we were all aware of financial pressures and management deficiencies. The end came quickly, creditors met on Tuesday the 17th of March 1970 and the next day the curtains were drawn on Strauss Sound Systems, however the basis for the legend had been established. Not long after the enforced closure John Woodhead purchased the assets of Strauss from the receiver and invited Gary Nessel to join him in partnership again, he accepted and they named the new initiative Nova Sound. Many of the Strauss Sound System team joined the new entity but I was committed to a different path, and from this time my recollection is based on third party input and not my own first hand experiences. Nova Sound introduced new Strauss products including the magnificent Warrior guitar amplifier that deployed 6 x KT88 valves and was revered and used by many of the leading musicians of the day, Nova supplied all stage equipment for the legendary Sunbury Festival. Additional funding was required for a specific project (the John Lennon tour that did not eventuate) and John’s uncle Al Butler invested becoming the third partner. Partnership difficulties were soon obvious, Gary Nessel departed, bought out by Al, and sometime later John also departed, leaving Al Butler the sole proprietor. From this point Nova Sound focussed on the rapidly developing Sound Reinforcement sector, producing world class systems and devices for sale and rental. In the ensuing decades John Woodhead established himself as a leading speaker cabinet maker and today heads up Aranmar Acoustics based in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. Gary Nessel established a number of ventures based around ideas, usually ahead of the rest including large transducer voice coils (4 inch), synthetic speaker enclosures and speaker processing, all of which was unknown at the time, but standard practise today. Unfortunately he was rarely able to resource his creativity which at times was nothing short of brilliant.
Unrestrained, enigmatic, an original, Gary Nessel left an indelible mark on those he worked and engaged with. Like many he had his demons and like all was flawed, however he was generous and caring, I vividly recall his charisma, inspirational qualities and can-do spirit. He was a free thinker, not bogged down in industry protocol; his strength was transducer and speaker system design he would transcend the technical into the intuitive. Working at Strauss Sound Systems in the creative environment established by Gary Nessel ultimately had a significant influence on me, particularly some four and half decade later when I determined to create a range of critical listening systems, Gary there are some of your genes in Grover Notting for which I thank you. To Denise and family we think of you, John you are not forgotten, to Gary’s friends and colleagues as long as you remember him, he will live on. Rest In Peace Gary you gave it your best shot.
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