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Gene Czerwinski (1927-2010)

Gene Czerwinski

The founder of Cerwin-Vega, Eugene Czerwinski, passed away on August 6, 2010 at the age of 83. Although he is no longer with us, this former aerospace engineer leaves an impressive legacy of “firsts” and accomplishments. In 1957, he created the world’s first solid-state hi-fi component power amplifier, a monster capable of a then-unheard-of 125 watts RMS. Czerwinski always had a passion for impressive bass reproduction. In 1964, in the era when loud rock music was taking form, he designed an 18-inch woofer capable of 130 dB. A decade later, he developed the Sensurround double-18 subwoofers that produced ultra-low bass reproduction designed to designed to simulate seismic events in movie theaters for the release of the film Earthquake, a technology that garnered a special Scientific and Engineering Academy Award in 1974. Cerwin-Vega was always known in both the consumer and pro audio industries, especially for its robust subwoofers, and with the rise of home theater and DJ markets, always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. Czerwinski sold the company to the Stanton Group in 2002.

We were recently contacted by noted recording engineer/producer Drew Daniels, who wanted to share some of his memories of Gene Czerwinski in his own words. More than just a simple obituary, Daniels’ recollections offer a wonderful insight into a true pioneer of modern pro audio, who will not soon be forgotten.

—George Petersen

Remembering Gene Czerwinski
By Drew Daniels

I began my association with the audio industry when I took a part time job at Vega (later Cerwin-Vega) right out of high school while attending Los Angeles Valley Junior College, where I was a music major. I was attracted to Vega after meeting a guitarist who played a Benson amplifier containing Vega 12-inch speakers. I had known JBL speakers intimately for a dozen years to that point and became curious about another local loudspeaker maker that competed at that time, with the orange JBL/Fender OEM loudspeakers that were much more expensive.

Gene Czerwinski helped me in more ways than technical; he was essentially an iconoclast to the core, having embraced the folk-rock and protest culture of the late ’60s. He was exceptionally flexible with employee time needs, easily adjusting my work schedules to my outside activities such as class schedules when I moved to UCLA, breaks for musical touring, and late morning starts to accommodate late night club gigging. Gene could always be counted on to give me back my $2/hour job building power amplifiers—in the prototype stages—from parts scavenged from local electronic surplus stores. Gene was an immediate hero to me because he recorded music and musicians, something I had been doing for a long time. His recordings were superb, clear and musical, revealing the performance and artistic intent, things I valued as a musician, and pursued with new determination guided by his taped examples.

An Engineer’s Engineer
Let it be known that Gene was an engineer’s engineer. His mastery of solid state, AC, DC, electromagnetics and thermodynamics was top flight. It was routine for Gene to draw an amplifier schematic on one side of an A size quadrille page using only a slide rule and some reference books and charts. He would simply hand me the sheet of paper and say, “Go build this.” The designs included a small tri-filar transformer between the front-end gain stage and the output stage. The transformer was based around a standard core and bobbin, and the instructions to use two gauges of wire, to start all three windings together and stop the primary at so many turns, continuing the secondaries to a final number of turns. The thermistors were the only components purchased new. Gene would hold a power transformer in his hand and declare, “This should be good for about 160 watts,” and within a percent, the amp’s output power would track his prediction. These amplifiers worked every time, and rarely even needed tweaking of the bias pots. I still consider that feat amazing inasmuch as it required such a deep and innate understanding of the amplifier circuit, topology and little peculiarities, like thermal behavior.

I loved Gene more than I could ever repay, for his easy instruction in
the most arcane engineering subjects even when asked on a whim. He
found it as easy to be instructive and whimsical, as did he serious
engineering, for his physics, mechanics, thermodynamics and more,
seemed to be innate in him, such that sharing was quite automatic. This
kind of education has immeasurable value.

During Gene’s earlier aerospace career at Bendix, he built some of the
first solid state power amps, one of which he showed photos of and
described as an all-Germanium 20,000-watt pulse amp used for SONAR
buoys towed by helicopter. He loved to relate the tale of the
helicopter pilot who tested the SONAR buoy the first time out. The
amplifier pulse drew so much alternator power that the helicopter
dropped 10 feet, scaring hell out of the pilot and causing the instant
re-design of the amplifier with an added large capacitor bank to store
up and supply the power for the pulses.

Gene also knew all the things I later heard repeated by engineers at
JBL, where I went to work in the late ’70s; things like line array
physics, infinite line arrays, bass coupling characteristics, tuned
pipe and horn acoustics, the psychoacoustics of music and musical and
auditory illusions, and on and on—a complete intellect. Also fluent in
music and art, Gene widened my young horizons in both areas, for which
I am eternally grateful. He had a truly beautiful sense of humor too.
It was well developed and he used it to great effect not only to
entertain but to make points of argument and to obtain consensus when
discussions became heated. He encouraged me not to give up my music
just because engineering had captured my attention and passion. Today I
am so much more complete because of his encouragement.

Gene Czerwinski was a quiet, confident and powerful but soft-spoken
intellect, who was generally dismissive of organizing just about
anything. He promoted the value of people learning things through
curiosity more than the value of the same information organized into an
academic setting. While he appeared quirky and odd to many engineers,
those that “got him” were privileged to know a special man who
enlightened, entertained and made the world a lot more interesting to
those within his circle. I am honored to call myself one of his circle
and to have known him. I will miss him more than I know.

Cerwin-Vega CEO Timothy Dorwart remembers Gene Czerwinski on Cerwin-Vega’s Website.