The Sound of Music… at Sea!

Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call
Wanted to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall
You’ve seen it all, you’ve seen it all
Watched the men who rode you
Switch from sails to steam

In your belly you hold the treasures few have ever seen
Most of them dream, most of them dreams

A Pirate Looks At Forty
Jimmy Buffett

As a musician, I have always loved listening to music when I’m on the water. Many of you have asked or written me about the sound system on Vigilant so here you go.

Just a heads up, this is an unusually comprehensive report weaved around my story. I’m going to talk about the evolution of my marine sound platforms over time and then move on to discuss the musical content I play and love.

If you’re serious about music and boating, this story’s for you!

My Sound of Music Background

It all began back in 1979 when Jens rigged up a tape player with an external loud speaker on our 25′ C&C sailboat and nowadays I can’t imagine being on a boat without music.

My modern approach to music began in the late 90’s. My friends Steve King and Gary McGrath both had lake boats with built in high-end automobile quality CD player stereos. I loved cruising around their lakes and listening to tunes.

Unfortunately, once we picked up enough speed to get up on plane, the sound of the air and the engines pretty much drowned out the music.

My Four Sound Platforms

In 2001 when I bought my first new boat – the Boston Whaler 26 Outrage, I knew I’d be making 20-30 minutes runs across Buzzards Bay at 35 MPH and that I’d want to be able to hear the music, so I told Larry Russo “I want a custom stereo we can hear clearly when running wide open!”

Little did I realize that my twin 200 HP Mercury Optimax’s howled like a motorcycle wide open and cranked out over 100 decibels of ambient noise. Impressively, Larry found someone to install a stereo that did indeed drown out the big Merc’s.

The Alpine Set Up

The sound was loud and clear and the installer did it very economically. The head unit was an Alpine FM/CD player with some extra power. I think this was a stock unit on BMW convertibles. I don’t know the specs, but it had to be cranking out at least 75 Watts RMS per channel.

stereo-9.jpg
The head unit was mounted in the electronics box over the helm and powered two high quality Alpine speakers pointing straight down

The Alpine set up was very loud and clear. This was not just due to the quality of the components, but also their placement. By firing down from the tee-top, they were very close to the ears of anyone sitting at the helm or in the bench in front of the center console. I also think tee-top acted like a passive speaker spreading the sound around the interior of the cockpit.

The Alpines covered the highs and mids, but to drown the Merc’s and the sea wind, we needed low end kick. For this, Russo went with twin 10″ Alpine subs and a 250 watt Class D amp.

Stereo 8

Once again, the strategic placement enhanced the sound. By firing low and under the gunwale, the booming bass reflected off the fiberglass cockpit and covered ever square inch of the Whaler.

The JL Audio World

In 2007 I began shopping for Mean Kitty – our 33′ Hydraports Center Console. I had relied heavily on the advice on The Hull Truth in selecting the Hydrasports 3300CC and likewise, I tapped their members before ordering her sound system.

This is when I first learned of JL Audio’s marine line of of sound equipment. Since I was spending close to $150,000 on Mean Kitty, I decided to spare nothing.

We ended up with 8 speakers and 1,000 watts of super clean power.

Stereo 11.png

The highs and mids were covered with JL Coax speakers and the lows came through two 10″ subs.

Stereo 10'

Once again placement was critical. The subs fired on either side of helm seats and reflected inside the cockpit. I had pairs of coaxial speakers firing across the bow, helm, and rear cockpit. In the Whaler, the sound at the rear bench and far bow wasn’t that great, but in Mean Kitty every inch enjoyed loud clear sound.

In addition, the Mean Kitty had two zones. This allowed me to turn the volume down in the bow “pit” where Mrs. Horne often held court while maintaining drown out volume at the helm.

Civilized Sound on Tenacity

In 2015 we moved on from center consoles and acquired our first enclosed boat. With a budget north of $500,000 I once again didn’t skimp on the sound.

Stereo 12

This was the first electronics I had SK Marine install and as you can see, it included $3,000 in components and an equal amount in labor.

I replaced the stock Fusion speakers in the cabin with JL’s larger 7.7″ coaxials. I also had two installed in the cockpit firing to stern and 2 10″ subs in the stern firing forward.

I duplicated the amp power I had in Mean Kitty and kept the Fusions in the Galley and Forward Stateroom on the stock Fusion 700 head unit.

The whole cabin thing changed my world of sound. For one thing, we didn’t as much volume inside the cabin. In fact, because we were no longer cruising in an open air center console, we did even need that much volume in the rear cockpit.

In terms of the configuration we installed, I think it was a bit flawed. The JL coaxial’s sounded fine, but the two 10.5″ JL subwoofers mounted under the seats in the rear really never got bass inside Tenacity. 

Today’s Sound on Vigilant

As you may know, we only had two seasons with Tenacity before moving up to Vigilant and her extra sleeping quarters.

When were in the final decision making period on the new boat, we visited with Tina and Bill Root at Wentworth By The Sea. Bill had the stock sound system that came from Back Cove on their 41. It sounded pretty good, but lacked bass. Bill said he’d probably be adding a sub woofer during the off season and I started to rethink the sound on Vigilant.

The first decision was to keep the Fusions that came from the factory. Everything I read said they were on par with the JL’s and I was paying for them anyways.

Stereo 1

I added two more Fusions in the overhang in the cockpit firing down like the old Alpines in the Whaler.

Stereo 4

Following Bill Roots’ advice, I added three sub woofers; two in the access doors near the steps in the cockpit and one under the dining table in the salon.

Stereo 3

With 13 speakers, I knew I needed power. I put in two JL Class A amps for all Fusions and a big Class D for the the subs. SK mounted these in “basement” – the walk in hold under the helm.

Stereo 6

The other change we made was to set up three zones. I can independently adjust the volume in the staterooms, salon, and cockpit. This also enables me to mute everything but the salon in the morning when I watch news on TV.

Unlike Tenacity, Vigilant has plenty of low end thump. The only change I may be making next year is to mount two mini Bose speakers above the helm and the L shaped couch to port and create a 4th zone. I like to listen to music while Mrs. Horne is holding court in the main couch in the salon.

By the way, Back Cove ships one of the best head units made as a standard feature – the Fusion AV-750.

Stereo 2

Platform Lessons Learned

  1. Power is more important than speakers – JL Audio amps are great and not all that expensive.
  2. Speaker placement matters more than power or speakers – You want to fire inside the cockpit or the cabin.
  3. Sub woofers are a must – Not only do they let the lows pump through, but with a proper cross-over setting, they allow you to send more power to the highs. Of course there’s nothing like feeling the bass shake the hull.

The Music I Play

The Whaler and Mean Kitty relied on data CD’s for music. I could burn about 160 songs on a data CD which wasn’t bad. I have 6,000 songs on iTunes that are well suited for a wide variety of musical genres. I created special mixes for all sorts of moods; Country, Blues, Rock, Folk, Sitting on an Anchor, Going Fast at High Volumes, etc…

About halfway through our 6 years with Mean Kitty, I upgraded the head unit and installed a jack for an iPod in the center console cabin. The head unit was integrated with the iPod which enabled me to change mixes and skip songs from the helm.

By the time Tenacity and Vigilant came along the world of music had also changed. Now, everything was on my iPhone which was connected via Bluetooth. At the beginning of the 2015 season, I loaded all my favorite boating mixes on my iPhone and that’s what we listened too – for a while.

In the land of Mean Kitty, we seldom ran for more than 45 minutes (the time it took to get from Mattapoisett to Edgartown). For these short runs, an iTune mix was fine.

Venturing longer treks to Newport, Block Island, and Plymouth in Tenacity, meant we’d be running for hours on end. I suddenly found myself getting sick of the songs on my mixes.

Enter Streaming Services

I’ve been an XM Satellite Radio user since 2007. I like B.B. King’s Bluesville, Coffee House, and Margaritaville, but they seem to play from a rather narrow playlist.

In 2015 I upgraded my Pandora license to No Ads for $5.99/ month and now that’s my go-to source of music on the boat.  Having no commercial interruptions provides my guests with a near mix musical experience. And Pandora is half the price of Spotify and Apple Music, although when you consider the cost of boating, what’s another six bucks a month?

Pandora is powered by The Music Genome Project, which I think makes it special. This mix engine continuously collects “like” and “dislike” data from users and generates playlist for various stations. A station can be an artist, a song, or just about anything the engine recognizes.

Here are my favorites and why..

Barcelona Nights is an iconic Spanish Guitar instrumental. I love the song and the richness of the channel. There are virtually no vocals on any song, which makes it perfect background music for conversation. You do have dislike Girl from Imphanima from time to time or a different version will play every half hour.
Wagon Wheel is also a rich channel with a lot of songs. Since it was a bit of a crossover hit, you get some Margaritaville songs along with contemporary country.
Margaritaville gets you Jimmy Buffett, Reggae, and songs like “It’s 5:00 Somewhere”.
Sergio Mendes is similar to Barcelona Nights, but includes a lot of vocals from his Brazil 66 singers. If I’m cruising along and Mas Que Nada comes on I swear I’m living in a music video!
So many great pop hits from the 1970’s where to begin? I’ve tried CSNY, The Beatles, the Doors, and all have let me down due to their narrow selections. For some reason the Donovan channel is rich with all the songs I remember from High School and College.

Not only do I love most of the music on these five channels, but they also let me set the musical background for every crowd and mood.

Live Music is Best

I have a rare black Breedlove dreadnaught that I keep in the shower on Vigilant. I also have a playlist of singalong favorites.

Combine this with some of our top gunkholes and you’ve got everything you need for a memorable summer day on the ocean.

There aren’t too many things in life that consistently touch our souls, but music and the ocean are two of the best.

That’s why I always put them together…

Dave

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