The postman might always ring twice, but The Chief texts only once. My flashing phone alerted me that my new assignment was in. At first, I thought I was heading to Pennsylvania. Then, however, I re-read the message and discovered that my new mission was to scout out a PA in Milwaukee WI.
Most of my knowledge of the largest Wisconsin city is courtesy of Mr. Alice Cooper in “Wayne’s World.” So, the name means “the good land” in Algonquin, it’s home to three Socialist mayors, etc. Milwaukee also conjures up images of beer, cheese and, perhaps, Jeffrey Dahmer. Even if I didn’t find an outstanding system to not really buy, I felt confident that I’d be in for some interesting cuisine. I just hoped that a frothy head wouldn’t cost me an arm and a leg. (Excuse the cannibal humor.)
I stepped off the plane and inhaled a deep lungful of Wisconsin’s dairy air. It smelled surprisingly good. I headed away from the lovely shores of Lake Michigan—which does a damn good ocean impression—to shop in a few western suburbs.
Uncle Bob’s Music Center
10220 W. Greenfield Ave.
West Allis WI 53214
West Allis is a blue-collar ’burb just south and a little west of downtown Milwaukee. It’s named after the now-defunct Allis-Chalmers manufacturing plant. The city still has a bedraggled air of failed factory about it, but it’s got some funky-cool parts, too: eclectic mom-and-pop shops, for instance, and at least one “uncle” music operation—Uncle Bob’s. That’s where I headed first.
The outside of Uncle Bob’s is a bit dingy, calling to mind a pawn shop. There is odd wrought-iron fencing that lines the inside of the windows, which makes them appear barred and uninviting. The inside isn’t much of an improvement. I walked in to find two older guys chatting about some relationship issue—“Dames…can’t live with ’em…”—but I was greeted within a couple of minutes, when the behind-the-counter fella said he’d be right with me.
I walked further into the store. Within moments, another avuncular guy behind another counter offered to help me. I explained that I was looking for a PA system for my neighborhood organization to use for block parties, for open mics and for playing music from an iPhone. I said I was on a fact-finding mission to see what we could get for around $500, confessing that I knew next to nothing about pro audio. “Great! Then I can really rip you off!” he joked with a laugh.
Then, he patiently explained, in detail, how a system works and what equipment I would need to accomplish my goals. He pulled up a Peavey PVi 6500 on his computer, explaining that, for around $350, it was a powered mixer. Then, he searched for some Peavey PR 12 speakers, which were $200 each. He acknowledged that that setup, which would cost about $750, might be a little high, price-wise. However, he said it’d be easier to use (Portable! Bluetooth-ready!) and more rain-resistant than his second recommendation. That’d be a Mackie Mix8 mixer ($75) with two Alto TX12 powered speakers ($200 each).
He demonstrated the Mackie system in action. With two mic/line inputs and two stereo 1/4-inch line inputs, plus lo, mid and hi EQ controls for each channel, it had more knobs than a frat party at 2am. It seemed daunting for a novice. When my sales guy cranked up some Little River Band, “Help Is On Its Way”…literally. As I watched him connect components and spin the dials, I gained a rudimentary understanding of a PA system. I’d feel like a real badass if I could actually learn to work the thing.
He was still keener on the Peavey setup, though. He mentioned that there were two repair shops in Milwaukee, and that they really stood behind their products. All in all, he was helpful. Uncle Bob’s was a good shopping experience.
Cascio Interstate Music SuperStore
13819 W. National Ave.
New Berlin WI 53151
Cascio Interstate Music is a long, low-slung building on a busy street in New Berlin, a sleepy bedroom community further southwest of Milwaukee that seemingly has nothing to do with its Teutonic namesake.
Cascio is not much to look at from the outside; inside, though, it’s a gorgeous store. It’s very inviting, with nice lighting, a huge drum department and a robust lesson area. It made me want to hang around and browse. This is, indeed, a superstore that looks like it sells MI gear very well.
Upon walking in, I was immediately greeted by one of two women at the front desk. So grand is Cascio that it needs a pair of receptionists. I was directed to the pro-audio area, midway back in the hugely long store. There, I found a half-dozen dudes standing around, shooting the shaving cream with some outside rep. When I asked who could help me, they elected yet another dude in absentia. I waited while he was paged.
The product specialist was fairly helpful, but not terribly enthusiastic. When I explained what I was looking for and my rather minimalist budget, he immediately went in for the metaphorical kill. He showed me the Yamaha STAGEPAS 600i all-in-one portable PA system ($899 at retail) on his computer. Cha-ching! He did mention that they’d been shipped an open-box unit from Yamaha that could be mine for the low, low price of $750. Even that, however, was still a full 50 percent more than I had intended to spend.
When I bristled at the prices, he steered me down the powered speaker road, recommending Yamaha DBR10s ($399 each) or a pair of Behringer 10-inch, 300-watters ($199 each). He recommended a little Mackie mixer to go along with them: the Mix5 ($50) or the Mix8 ($75), which I’d seen at Uncle Bob’s. The only gear he physically showed me was the Mackie mixer. Even that, though, was just the box; there was no actual demo of what it could do and how to work it.
In passing, he mentioned the Fender Passport, as well as the Samson Expedition XP1000. Both options were in the $800 range. Then, he suggested that Craigslist was maybe more my speed.
He handed me the ceremonial business card on my way out. I got the distinct impression, however, that he wouldn’t be waiting by the phone for me to call.
17135 W. Bluemound Rd. #A
Brookfield WI 53005
The next suburb north of New Berlin is Brookfield. It’s posh in parts, but it’s largely strip malls for a multi-mile stretch of its main commercial corridor of Bluemound Rd. (Strangely, it’s also spelled “Blue Mound” on some street signs. I guess the city planners just agreed to disagree on that one.)
Nestled near the bosom of a Hooters in a retail nest is Guitar Center, flanked by some military recruiting offices and a chiropractor. The store is all but invisible from the highly trafficked street. Upon walking in, I was greeted by two sales guys chatting; they directed me to the pro-audio area in back. Then, my wait began.
One pro-audio guy was helping a customer with some layaway situation. The other guy was on the phone. For a really long time. It was almost as though I could feel my spine start to curve and my knee and hip joints give way. I was growing old in Guitar Center, waiting for someone—anyone—to help me. Had I not been on a vital spy mission, I would certainly have hit the highway.
When he finally came over, after approximately 15 minutes, there was nary a whiff of an apology for the wait. When I explained the situation and my paltry budget, he gave me sort of an “S.O.L.” look; nevertheless, he proceeded to point to gear that totaled about $900. He didn’t show me any products in action or, really, explain anything at all. The only pearl of wisdom he dropped was that being outside would require far more powerful speakers than those meant for inside.
For another 15 minutes or so, he struggled to search the GC computer system for part numbers to provide a verbal quote. I was treated to five(!) full-on, loud, almost theatrical yawns. He didn’t even bother to try to suppress them, nor did he crack a joke about it. Wow.
White House of Music
2101 Springdale Rd.
Waukesha WI 53186
Traveling still farther west from Milwaukee, one runs into (“gets lost in” might be more accurate) Waukesha. It’s an odd mix of lovely, large, old houses and dumpy-ass shacks, all set upon many confusing one-way streets. The city is the gateway to Lake Country, where things take a wealthier and more conservative turn. Waukesha is a blotch of red in the typically blue bastion of southeastern Wisconsin.
White House of Music is located at a major intersection, making it one of the few things that are easy to find in Waukesha. With its portico perched proudly upon four classic columns, the store pays homage to the real White House, while also delivering a stellar pun on the owner’s last name. The place exudes a certain grandeur; to walk inside is to confirm that it is, indeed, a classy operation.
A woman at the front desk greeted me immediately, and then referred me to her pro-audio colleague. The sales rep resembled a slenderer Santa Claus, and he was just as jovial. Boy, did he deliver a great gift of knowledge, patience and professionalism to this secret agent, who’d grown weary by that point.
He listened to what I wanted, asked some questions to clarify and then steered me to a very simple, user-friendly solution that was within my budget. Halle-freakin’-llujah!
He plugged in a Powerwerks PW50 speaker ($129), connected a mic and asked me to stand midway across the large, bright, well-organized store. His voice came through loud and clear, even though the speaker was set only at half-volume.
He recommended getting a pair of the Powerwerks PW100T speakers ($199 each) for twice the wattage and not too much more money. He said the speakers have been named a product of the year (at NAMM, I assumed) for a couple of years running, and he really thought they were great. With two channels (per speaker) plus an input for a phone, it was by far the simplest solution anyone had recommended. He also said we’d need two 30-foot cables ($25 each) to wire the speakers together. And, he noted, we’d benefit from a pair of optional speaker stands: SSP7950 models, from On-Stage, for $149.
He mentioned that he’d never had a Powerwerks speaker returned. Once, a drummer came in and complained about the product, but, as it turned out, he’d had everything cranked full throttle. When the rep put all the settings back to where they were supposed to be—and explained the situation to the drummer—the unit worked fine. (Is anyone appreciating my restraint in not launching into a drummer joke here?)
The rep also commented that he used the same setup he was recommending to me to amplify two mics and two acoustic guitars for a gig at the Waukesha County Fair; it performed well. That seemed like a good endorsement to me.
The man even suggested that we could rent out the system to other organizations that might have a use for it, thus recouping some of the costs for our neighborhood. The guy was really speaking my language.
He gave me his card. I left the store feeling confident that I could figure out how to plug everything in and amp up our block party.
Although the rep at Uncle Bob’s was helpful, I’m happy to elect White House of Music for my purchase. Although all four of my store visits were during slow weekday mornings, some salespeople made me feel like I was wasting their time. With five locations in the metro Milwaukee area, White House of Music would get my vote for any music gear, accessories or print purchases I’d be making.
After all my arduous shopping, your trusty sleuth earned a few cold local brews and a side of mozzarella sticks. Mwahahaha! Watch for my expense report, Chief. It’s in the mail.