By Daniel Sozomenu ♦ Photos by Marc Urbano ♦ Re-printed with permission
Do-it-yourselfer Rick McCallum has taken on a lot of complex projects over the years, but none quite as challenging as the install in his '96 Tacoma SE pickup.
GOOD FIT: McCallum placed two 6 1/2-inch midbass drivers in each door and a 6 1/2-inch mid and 1-inch tweeter in each kickpanel, as well as a series of signal processors in a custom center console.
Rick McCallum can definitely be called an enthusiast, but a more accurate description would be all - out fanatic. And the term doesn't just apply to his obsession with the stereo system he designed and installed in his 1996 Toyota Tacoma SE either. McCallum, a 49-year-old fire-control technician and career Navy man stationed in San Diego, has modified and raced bicycles and cars, designed home - stereo speaker systems, rebuilt amplifier, and even schemed out and constructed constructed his own homes. Even so, McCallum professes that working on the sound system in his Tacoma has been the "most intense and challenging thing I've done - and also the most rewarding." That may be a surprising statement coming from a hands-on hobbyist who's successfully taken on various endeavors endeavors without formal training. But it's not surprising when viewed against the fruit of his ever-evolving car-stereo quest as exhibited in the Tacoma's system.
The DIY (do-it-yourself) setup in McCallum's pickup isn't exactly the most complex design seen on the International Auto Sound Challenge (IASCA) competition circuit, where he pits the sound and installation against those of systems typically done by professionals in the 601+Pro Street class.
CONSOLE MATE: A custom center console fabricated out of MDF and covered in carpet holds two Image Dynamics EQs and an ID crossover between the seats as well as an ID D/A converter in a portion of it just below the dash.
McCallum's fairly modest home base also didn't allow for the most optimal DIY installation setting. “I have no garage,” he reports. “In fact, it's hard to even find parking on my street.” So he did all of the install work in his backyard, and while the climate of La Jolla, a suburb of San Diego, offers many nice days to tinker outdoors, 40-hour work weeks meant that precious daylight hours were scarce. “It was a tough process,” he concedes.
But what the system lacks in complexity - and McCallum lacks in resources - is made up for by his obsession with installation caliber. For example, McCallum estimates that he's invested over 300 hours alone in lining, cramming spraying, and coaxing sound-damping material into every crevice and cranny in the truck's body. “The Tacoma is of very light construction and comes with very little sound deadening from the factory,” he details. “I knew some major work was in store to make it quiet and free of resonances.” That "major work" translated into multiple layers of various sound-deadening materials on several of the truck's surfaces, including six layers on the doors. “I needed to combat the energy of dual 6 1/2-midbass drivers in each door,” McCallum maintains. Even all of the cables and wiring throughout the truck were treated to prevent potential rattling.
McCallum used a variety of materials, but most prevalent in the truck is RAAMmat, an aluminum - backed damping sheet that he came across while searching a local distributor for industrial sealants and coatings. Combined with Ensolite foam throughout much of the installation, McCallum says that the material is very successful in lowering the body panels' resonant frequencies. Its predominance in the install is due as much to McCallum's yen for innovation as it is that he's turned the material into a proprietary brand that he sells on eBay and through car stereo forums. “I searched every online and local source looking for a sound - deadening mat that would be both effective and low in cost,” he recalls. “I thought, 'Why not try selling some and see how it goes?'”
With the truck thoroughly quieted, McCallum turned to the process of auditioning and selecting the electronics for his system. “My goal was to use the finest components I could afford,” he says. &ldquot;But I'm not wealthy, and I work hard to get these kinds of toys.”
TWO INTO ONE: The stock Tacoma head unit was retained (above); the self-hiding faceplate of the Alpine CDA-7969 CD tuner installed in a storage slot beneath the stock head makes it appear that there's only one usable head in the dash (top).
The Tacoma system begins with Alpine's CDA-7969 CD tuner, which fits in a DIN-size storage slot below the factory cassette deck.
The stock head unit was retained (but isn't functional) and, combined with the Alpine CDA-7969's self-hiding faceplate, offers visual security from prying eyes. Law-abiding folks trained to look for the head unit - namely, IASCA sound-quality judges - have likewise been fooled. “I've had judges point to the stock deck and ask me, 'Are you using that for your source?'” McCallum chuckles. The Alpine head has been modified to allow digital coaxial output for use with an external digital-to-external (D/A) converter, and it's powered directly from the battery. “None of the audio componentry is wired off the ignition,” claims McCallum, and the separate dash switch for head-unit power attests to that.
McCallum fabricated a custom, multi-tiered center console out of 5/8-inch medium-density fiberboard (MDF) to house the signal-processing gear. Closest to the dash is the Image Dynamics DAC-20 D/A converter. “I bought this piece used, and it was still incredibly expensive,” he says. “But it's worth every penny.” Plexiglas is recessed into the console over the DAC-20 to protect the unit's exposed internals.
UNDERCOVER PROCESSOR: The two Image Dynamics EQs and ID crossover (above), as well as an Arc Audio sub crossover (below left) and ID D/A converter (below right), can all be covered by panels made from perforated aluminum wrapped in black carpet.
Situated behind the DAC-20 is an Arc Audio MX-1 crossover. Three Image Dynamics signal processors sit in a plateau directly between the front seats: an IDX-24 crossover and a pair of IDQ-31 equalizers. The IDX-24 routes high, midrange, and mid-bass signals to the corresponding amplifiers, while its subwoofer output feeds into the Arc Audio MX-1 crossover. The MX-1 and the trio of Image Dynamics processors can be hidden for both visual and physical protection with custom covers made from perforated aluminum and black carpet. Remote gains from the two subwoofer amps and a system - volume rocker switch are affixed to the front of this compartment within easy reach of the driver, and a fuse panel for the system electronics is mounted on its rear side.
Each rebuilt door panel received a pair of Image Dynamics 6 1/2-inch midbass drivers (above right) that get covered with hand-formed grilles (right); a second, identical grille shrouds the kick (left).
Two Image Dynamics CX62 6 1/2-inch midbass drivers are sculpted into each door. Mounting the dual drivers in each door wasn't an easy task. McCallum had to move the window track and install power windows and power locks to create clearance as well as add a vertical aluminum channel inside the door for reinforcement. The door panels were reupholstered to mimic the color and shape of the factory panels. Two layers of 5/8-inch MDF form a speaker baffle to mount the midbass in the stock speaker / map pocket location. Hand-formed 1/4-inch ABS plastic grilles, also designed t retain the stock look, are wrapped in grille cloth and protect the drivers. The grilles are oversized by design to allow for system flexibility, just in case McCallum wants to change something.
ARC OF AMPS: Three Arc Audio amps are in line along the back wall of the Tacoma's cab, while another Arc amp is mounted on the top of an enclosure for two Image Dynamics 12-inch subs (left); a perforated aluminum cover panel fits over the amps.
Behind the truck's seats in the extra - cab area are four Arc Audio amplifiers and a pair of Image Dynamics 12-inch subwoofers. Three of the amplifiers - a pair of Arc Audio ARC1500 DR Class D amps and an Arc Audio ARC4150 CXLR - are in a line along the rear wall of the cab. To do this, McCallum installed a mounting cage made from perforated aluminum, to which the amps are affixed. The modular cage, which uses the stock bolt holes for the ditched rear fold-down seats, is removable in 15 minutes, McCallum claims. The amps' fuses were bypassed internally - with Arc's blessing - so that system fusing could be consolidated into main power-distribution blocks that protrude from the cage between the amps. A second Arc Audio ARC4150 CXLR sits below the other amps and between the subwoofers, mounted on a hinged panel that lifts up for access to a storage compartment that holds an array of tools and the jack.
The two Image Dynamics iDMAX12 D2 12-inch subwoofers are mounted in enclosures that extend to the truck floor and incorporate 1.3 cubic feet of air space each. The enclosures' fiberglass bottoms were molded to the contour of the floor pan while a 3/4-inch Plexiglas panel in each enclosure's front panel offers a view of the driver inside. The other sides of the boxes are made from 3/4-inch MDF, and the top baffle is comprised of two layers of 1/2-inch MDF separated by a sheet of RAAMmat.
McCallum is currently fabricating custom rear seats to perch atop the subwoofers. "My overall design philosophy was to always have back seats and storage," he proclaims. “It's still a truck, after all, and I use it all the time - just about every day, in fact - to haul things. It's my daily driver - and my only vehicle!”
To keep the juice flowing in the Tacoma, McCallum rewound the factory alternator to output 120 amperes (as opposed to the stock 70 amps). All engine-compartment wiring was upgraded to 4-guage Stinger cable, and a 1/0-guage Stinger power cable feeds the stereo system. An Optima Yellow Top battery replaces the factory offering. McCallum furnished custom aluminum brackets and a Plexiglas cover to complement and protect the batter.
Speaking like a true fanatic, McCallum asserts that the system is never done. “Each time I install something,” he observes, “I know what to do better next time. Out of everything I've ever done, the learning curve is the steepest with car stereo.” Usually pressed for time to work on his truck, McCallum looks forward to retiring from military service next year and opening his own high-end custom install shop. “I like the people I've been dealing with in the car-stereo world,” he concludes, “and I'm going to make my living in this field. It's not going to be a regular retail shop, just a place where I do custom stuff; I don't want the headaches of a regular retail outlet. I do wish that I'd gotten into it all a long time ago, though.” Steep learning curve notwithstanding, chances are good that Rick McCallum will conquer that goal as well.
Compared with some of today's high-tech, high-dollar multimedia systems, the rather simple setup in Rick McCallum's 1996 Toyota Tacoma SE pickup is like a throwback to the heyday of car stereo when sound quality - not how many monitors you can install in a vehicle - was paramount. And that ranks high in my book. While Rick admits that he's obsessive when it comes to install quality - and he frequently apologized for the fact that he's somewhat limited by his DIY circumstances - it's apparent that his primary focus has been to make the Tacoma's system sing. On that level, I'd have to say that he's definitely succeeded.
I first cued up Bluesiana Triangle (Windham Hill Jazz) and sampled the three opening tracks. On the opener, "Heads Up," the saxophone was dead center in the soundstage and it imaged high above the dash, while the boundaries of the soundstage extended beyond the doors of the truck and deeply out onto the hood. The horn was slightly brassy, however, and the bass was a little bit tubby. On the next cut, "Life's a One Way Ticket", the opening drum drop was dynamic, with palpable skin tone. The imaging was spot on, with the vocal centered, and the rest of the instruments were properly arrayed around it. The piano had an incredibly realistic sound and the entire mix was immaculately detailed. The loose jazz/blues jam of "Shoo Fly Don't Bother Me" had an incredibly tight sound, yet the soundstage was spacious. The track's abundance of low-bass percussion all emanated from in front of me, and the flute solo hovered way above the dash.
Next, I cued up Luka Bloom's Turf (Reprise) and was immediately impressed with the way the system handled the midbass "torture tests" in the tracks "Cold Comfort" and "True Blue." Not only was the midbass rich and accurate, with little overhang, but the attack and decay were almost perfect. And the vocals had just the right amount of resonance - not an easy thing to accomplish. Again, the soundstage was so deep you could practically "see" into it, and the vocals were cemented center. Only the top end was a little overly bright. Lastly, I checked out Alejandro Escovedo's Thirteen Years (Watermelon). In "The Ballad of the Sun and the Moon" and "Try, Try, Try," the detail of the various instruments was remarkable and the mass of string instruments on both tracks was clearly delineated so that you could pick out each one in the mix. The soundstage was so deep that Escovedo's voice sounded like it was coming from within the engine compartment.
Rick McCallum may sweat over every little detail in the Tacoma's installation, and he's done a decent job considering he installed everything himself. (Frankly, I could nitpick the installation way more than I could the sound of the system.) But as far as the quality of the audio, McCallum's system ranks right up there with the best of them, DIY or otherwise.