NAME BEHIND THE NAME Bruce Jackson
Bill Putnam Jr.
AudioTechnology THE MAGAZINE FOR SOUND ENGINEERS & RECORDING MUSICIANS
FEATURE stories of recording sessions involving particular valve equipment – often simplistically recounted ad nauseum by marketing departments that thankfully don’t also write history books – while others are convinced that ‘vintage’ equipment will improve their ability to record, mix and produce music on par with ‘classic’ recordings from the past. Some people even develop ‘friendships’ with retro gear, describing it as ‘sexy’ and ‘desirable’. I know I do… I say it all the time! The wave of popularity vintage gear has ridden in recent years has lead to an unexpected phenomenon. Companies are now falling over one another like stampeding blind men to corner a slice of the market, regardless of whether they’re steeped in ‘old timey’ design or not. It’s even got to the point now where there are – in at least one case – several companies claiming heredity over a single brand name, causing even the most naïve consumer to grow cynical.
NAME BEHIND THE NAME
BILL PUTNAM JR. – Universal Audio Name one person who’s serious about pro audio who hasn’t heard of the 1176. Anybody…? Yep, I thought so. Text: Andy Stewart
It must seem peculiar to older audio engineers to see the number of brands from bygone eras resuscitated in the 21st century. There are so many iconic names reappearing in the marketplace from the heady days of the hula hoop and Sputnik that you might be forgiven for thinking this is 1957, not 2007. And if you believe that every plug-in on the market which claims to be the ‘second cousin twice removed’ of one of these original designs actually has something in common with the gear beyond the faceplate, then you probably believe (as many did in Britain in 1957) that spaghetti grows on trees. Names like Pultec, Telefunken, Neve, Fairchild and EMI – to name a few – are back with a vengeance and proving popular amongst a generation of audio folk who’ve been all but starved of overtones, (good) harmonic distortion, transformers and tape saturation. Many engineers now lean romantically towards glowing amber VUs like plants towards sunlight. But VUs don’t always denote quality – they never did. Regardless, people are gobbling up ‘retro’ gear for a complex combination of reasons, the dominant of which is still (hopefully) the search for the aural colours and textures that have arguably been endangered by mass production lines and profiteering. There are also myriad other reasons: some are convinced by the mythical AT 2
There are lots of companies riding this ‘retro wave’ but most of them are either ‘hanging out wide’ on their 10-foot guns only pretending to be ‘living the lifestyle’, or under the water poised to attack the hapless but well-intentioned newbie. There’s one company, however, whose ‘stable of classics’ is comprised of some truly legendary products, most notably the UREI 1176LN and Teletronix LA-2A – what’s more, they even make credible digital recreations of them. The company is of course Universal Audio, and its owner is the son of one of the most well known American sound engineers and audio equipment designers of all time, Bill Putnam. Bill Putnam Jr. is by name and heredity the man charged with preserving his father’s substantial legacy and driving American pro audio equipment design and manufacture into the 21st century. I caught up with Bill – and several other members of the staff – in Santa Cruz recently and quickly discovered that there’s far more to this company than a penchant for Bakelite knobs. UNIVERSAL APPEAL Andy Stewart: Bill, can we start by talking about what makes the ‘modern’ Universal Audio tick? Presumably the aims of the company today aren’t the same as they were when your father started back in the ’40s, given that analogue gear is often used more as a ‘spice’ these days than a main ingredient…
Bill Putnam Jr: I’m glad you asked that because it’s something I love to think about. I can’t say I have a definitive answer but I love to bring this very thing up as a point of conversation with people. I think there are a couple of potential answers to it. The real point of analogue gear right now is to use it as a colour – after all, ‘sanitary’, ‘clean’ and ‘static’ is easy to find elsewhere. The question is, ‘what’s the goal and why do we like this vintage stuff so much?’ In some objective sense it isn’t any better or more musical than a very ‘clean’ thing and some people certainly argue that ‘clean’ is preferable. I remember when one of my engineers first started working here, he couldn’t believe I wanted our preamps and compressors to be anything other
than a ‘wire with gain’. His assertion was: ‘I do my best to make something that’s transparent; it should just sound like a wire, have no sound as such. And I’m like, ‘Well, no, there’s musicality to this old stuff and I don’t want you to ‘fix’ it’. To me there’s something fundamentally important about the way these devices distort; the non-linearities they produce are very ‘musical’… but that’s just my opinion. You could just as easily argue that these characteristics are simply what we’ve grown accustomed to. Sure, you might like the sound of an 1176 on snare – but this preference might simply be because you grew up listening to that sound on so many Zeppelin albums. So, is it what we’ve gotten used to or is it a little bit of both? AS: Well, presumably it’s both. The gear wouldn’t have developed cult status if it hadn’t been intrinsically good. Outboard gear like the 1176 has only become iconic because over decades it’s proven itself on countless occasions to work and sound great. BP: Yeah, I agree. And importantly, the people who were designing the equipment – including my father – were designing it with music in mind and that’s what made some of it so good. My dad was into specs too, of course – I remember watching him run frequency response curves and looking at the square waves on an oscilloscope all the time – but at the end of the day, it was listening, ears and music that mattered most. Putting a sine wave through a piece of gear and looking at it on an oscilloscope is all very well but that’s not what we use these things for. They’re supposed to make music. The most humbling aspect of being in this industry is that it’s really the music that matters, not all this gear stuff that we geek out on all the time. I’m a gear geek and I love technology, but at the end of the day the only reason I’m doing this is because I’m not a very good musician, and this is compensation! It’s all about the music that goes through the gear. People who’ve designed great stuff with gear – like my dad, like George Massenberg – have understood this. Critically they have both been users of their own gear. AS: Presumably you’re in the perfect position then to assert that what makes gear great isn’t always something you could measure on a spectrum analyser, and that ‘good’ isn’t necessarily expected to equate to the highest ‘spec’. BP: I think what’s important today is to make gear that can broaden a person’s sonic palette. And it amazes me still when people ask, ‘should I buy your pre or should I buy a Manly pre?’ because there’s effectively no answer to that question. I always answer with: ‘What are you buying it for? What are you going to do with it? What mics are you using?’ Listening is the only way to find out what works and, frankly, there’s no such thing as ‘better’ on a philosophical level. You can’t answer that in this business, right? THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE MUSICAL AS: There’s often a gulf between what a designer perceives to be ‘good’ and what musicians and mix engineers want. In terms of Universal Audio gear, do you just ad lib this philosophy?
BP: Well, I think the philosophy’s changed a little bit from when we first relaunched Universal Audio. When UA first began in its modern form my brother and I talked a lot about its design principles. My brother and I are quite different: he’s very much an analogue soul – he owns an API console, loves outboard gear and analogue tape, and he’s also a very good musician and songwriter. I, on the other hand, have always been an avid listener and more technically minded. I studied physics and electrical engineering at grad school and focused mainly on digital signal processing, and I always knew I wanted to apply that learning to audio and acoustics. So it was really through our differences that we recognised the potential for the company to embrace both design philosophies: digital and analogue. In the end we concluded that there’s no right and wrong to any of this. So we combined the two camps together. AS: My impression previously was that UA was principally an analogue company with a digital arm tacked onto it – coming here it’s obvious that this isn’t the case. BP: Well, from day one we realised we were going to develop digital and analogue gear in equal measure. And let me tell you, it was a challenge to get those original analogue designs to market in a very pure, great-sounding form. As you know, people have done analogue recreations of these ‘classics’ before, but they’ve always fallen into the trap – as we did ourselves initially – of trying to make them ‘better’. You know, one of us would say: ‘Oh, I can make this design better by changing that resistor,’ or ‘there’s a problem with that meter circuit,’ or ‘I know how to make the 1176LN quieter.’ In that situation my brother used to just slap me (across the phone) and say: “Anything different is wrong!”. And he was right. AS: But you obviously can’t apply that philosophy to UAD cards for instance… BP: No, of course. And the digital gear is every bit as important to us as the analogue designs, so we really wanted to take the ‘soul’ of the analogue gear and somehow encode that digitally. With our other newer analogue designs we’ve also tried to take the essence of some of the original gear and expand on that heritage. But again, it all comes back to the palette – we have stuff like the 110 that can be very clean, and the 610, which has a very distinctive sound that’s great for some things and not right for others. A BRIEF HISTORY LESSON AS: Was there much of gap between the demise of the old UA and the birth of the new one?
BP: There was definitely a gap. My dad started the original Universal Audio in the ’40s, which later turned into UREI in the late ’60s… around ’67 that was.
“Putting a sine wave through a piece of gear and looking at it on an oscilloscope is all very well but that’s not what we use these things for. They’re supposed to make music.” Bill Putnam and Nat King Cole
RAISED BY BILL PUTNAM Bill Putnam Jr: I was brought up on music by my dad, who introduced me to big bands at a very young age. And being the famous engineer that he was, many of his friends were great musicians, guys like Bing Crosby and Les Paul, so as a kid I was surrounded by all these great musical talents. I didn’t really start playing music myself until I was about 20 – the guitar. My dad was very much into the musical side, much more so than I am. He sang, played piano, read scores, recorded and produced, so he was very musical, but he was also very technical.
I learned most of my early engineering and math from him. He and I used to build radios together all the time. And that launched me on a technical career. Back in my father’s day, if you wanted a piece of equipment you had to make it yourself – that’s how all this started. He just had to make his own stuff for his own studio. He began his career as a chief engineer for a radio station and in World War II he was in the signal corps, delaying audio broadcasts for re-broadcast on the west coast. Then when he came out of the service he – naturally – started a recording studio!
Then, in the early ’80s he sold UREI to Harman Electronics due mainly to health problems. He wanted to focus on family and those types of things – his priorities changed, I guess you’d say. AS: Did you have much to do with your dad’s company back then? BP: Yeah I did. I would hang around the studios, AT 3
especially when people like Bing Crosby were coming in; I’d always want to go see that! But it was my older brother who really experienced the company during its heyday, during the ’60s when my dad was recording a lot of stuff. By the time my dad had me he’d already turned more into the business executive. He’d come in to record special acts but he wasn’t mixing a new act every night. He was very much focussed on design by then, which is what he loved as much as anything. I spent a lot of time with him in the lab working on speakers and power amps mainly. So my shared experiences with him were more of the technical side of his personality, less on seeing him behind the console. He actually built the test labs at our house so it was difficult to avoid really! We had a 45-foot trailer pulled into our front yard at one stage, which was equipped with a 30-foot scaffolding that hauled speakers up into the air to get them away from reflections so he could make free-space measurements. He wasn’t you’re average dad, that’s for sure! MODERN PERSPECTIVE AS: Does the modern incarnation of UA feel linked to the past in a visceral kind of way, given that most of the original ‘classics’ are often no longer used for the purpose they were originally intended?
Solo 610s in the hatchery: (top) All the analogue hardware at UA is hand-made in Santa Cruz, under the one roof. Face of a legend: (above) The legendary Teletronix LA-2A re-issue is hand assembled as it was all those years ago. Hands on: (opposite) The LA-2A under construction. Maria Carillo (pictured) has made more of these legenday compressors than most people have had hot breakfasts!
“I’m a gear geek and I love
technology, but at the end of the day the only reason I’m doing this is because I’m not a very good musician, and this is compensation!”
BP: I think it does, but then it would be hard for it not to, I guess. You know what’s different though – and let me just be careful about how I say this – there’s a lot more attention to detail and scrutiny of products now than ever before. With computers being as powerful as they are today, you can analyse specifications to the ‘nth’ degree, far more so than I ever remember my dad doing. And I think this is primarily because the world has changed, and gear is used in so many different ways now. For instance, my dad would never have taken a distorted kick drum track and tucked it behind his ‘clean’ kick drum; he probably never even dreamt of doing that! But we can do that sort of thing now; it’s an extra tool in our production palette. But because there’s so much gear in the world now, so much technology and so much capacity for mangling a sound, you can get lost in the gear, lost in the manuals and forget about the music. It’s easy to obsess over this stuff and sometimes it’s hard to know where to stop. So I think, in that sense, the company feels different but it’s mainly because the world we live in is different. I certainly don’t think my father cared any less about the equipment – au contraire. What has changed is that his designs are used today in ways he probably never thought possible.
Bill Putnam Jr: One of the things I always think about is: what is art? And one of my philosophies is that art is the thing that happens when everything else goes bad. People draw the best out of all sorts of equipment. Stuff like old digital gear and some of the early synths that may have been used in the ‘cheesiest’ sort of way when they first came out are being embraced for their so-called ‘flaws’. and turned it into music. To me, that’s true art; to take something with subjectively severe
‘limitations’ and use it in a very musical, new way. Leave it to the artist to figure out how to make something aesthetically beautiful out of gear that has grit and grunge – the very things that designers and engineers often say you don’t want in a piece of gear. The aspiration of many designers is to produce a perfectly clean thing. Well, the grit, the grunge, the garbage can be someone else’s music. That’s the interesting place where technology leaves off and art begins.
THE MAGAZINE FOR SOUND ENGINEERS & RECORDING MUSICIANS
BUT IS IT U-ART
Bill Putnam Jr.
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these devices might appear to be chaotic, they aren’t actually chaotic at all”
UAD plug-ins braniac, Dave Berners.
PLUG-IN MASTER An Interview with UAD plug-in developer, Dave Berners. Dave Berners is one of the ‘minds’ of Universal Audio; a quietly spoken, subtly humorous guy with a brain the size of a planet, you might say. Dave studied electrical engineering at MIT, did his masters degree at California Tech and his PhD at Stanford. He’s now building plug-ins for UA by day while lecturing in electronic engineering at Stanford by night. Dave has worked on the UAD software since the company’s rebirth – along with Jonathan Abel, (who was Dave’s lecturer at one point, as well as one of the co-owners of UA up until a few months ago, and a digital mastermind himself). Dave seems to keep his own hours, often working back late crunching numbers just for fun. It was during one of these evenings that Dave and I had a chat about how plug-in ‘emulations’ actually work and miraculously there was the odd sentence I understood! I started on the front foot by asking Dave if the UA plugs did anything more than just emulate the faceplates of classic gear…
Dave Berners: Yes they do. Andy Stewart: So how do you digitally emulate, for instance, something like the Neve 33609 compressor, which presumably has so many non-linear characteristics as to be almost chaotic? Now given that I won’t understand a word of your response I guess I should just leave the room! DB: Oh gosh, there’s a lot of different ways to look at it. To begin with, I’d contest that the 33609 is predictable in the sense that we can model it and get our model to do the same thing that the real unit does, so in that sense it’s totally predictable. It’s just that it’s not linear. By that I mean, if you put two identical input signals through the compressor at different volumes, and the threshold setting of the compressor acts upon the louder of the two signals, the two outputs won’t correspond in volume or character. That’s a non-linear system. AS: Hang on, I think I understood part of that… so by that definition any compressor is non-linear? DB: Yeah, well, yes and no… actually I’d have to say ‘yes’ to that question. Compression itself is a non-linear effect, in that, presumably, you have a threshold for when the compression starts, otherwise it’s not a compressor! What this means AT 6
is that if your signal’s under the threshold, you don’t get any compression, whereas if the signal’s above the threshold, you do. So that in itself is fundamentally non-linear. But if you strip off the dynamics behaviour for a moment and, for the sake of argument, make the attack and release so slow that they can hardly do anything, in that scenario there’s a possibility for what I call ‘audio path non-linearities’. Which means that, even when the compressor isn’t really trying to do anything, you’re still getting some sort of distortion, saturation or clipping. AS: …based on, for instance, a different gain structure if nothing else… just running a hotter signal through the unit you mean? DB: Right. And so depending on how the thing’s designed, that can either be significant or insignificant. And to that extent there are a lot of technologies that are basically linear until they clip – the perfect example of this might be a digital recorder. In equipment like that, people aren’t usually pleased by that type of distortion. If they hear clipping they back off a little. And so if I wanted to model something like that – unless it’s a piece of gear that always used to clip things – I wouldn’t implement that because it would massively increase the cost of designing the plug-in for no practical application. But when there’s gradual saturation, or ‘warmth’ as people like to call it – as is the case with the 33609 – of somewhere between two and eight percent total harmonic distortion (which is a healthy amount), I put that in. When something’s non-linear, you could do all the listening tests in the world and someone could later come up with a different signal and something unpredictable could happen. AS: This is where I find emulations puzzling. How do you possibly predict the endless array of input sources? Surely that’s impossible. DB: Well even though these devices might appear to be chaotic, they aren’t actually chaotic at all. A 33609 compressor, for example, is very complicated but it’s also very rigidly defined and none of the outputs are random in any way. If you didn’t know what components were in the original device, but instead had to guess what made up the circuit by simply looking at the output signals, then sure, you’d have a really hard task because the
device is so complex that it appears to be chaotic. That’s why we’re so comfortable with our method of modelling these things at UA, because we don’t just look at inputs and try to extrapolate from that what the outputs might be to some unknown input because we don’t (and can’t possibly) know that. We simply cannot determine what’s in there by doing measurements either. It’s impossible. It’s not just hard, it’s impossible! But if we make a model of the behaviour based on what we know to be inside the hardware unit, then it’s a totally different situation and way more predictable. AS: So what you’re saying is that you model circuits and components, rather than guessing outcomes based on unknowable inputs, is that correct? The software is like a digital emulation of the circuit itself. DB: Exactly. For example, if there’s a diode bridge in a device that creates distortion – because of the fact that we know how diodes work – we have real physics models for what happens within a diode, so we don’t have to just put in a signal and look at what comes out and then guess what the diode is doing, we know what the diode is doing. Based on that, we can come up with a set of specialised inputs and characterise the behaviour. In other words, we know the entire class of behaviours that a diode can exhibit. We know the physical model for that device’s behaviour. But if we didn’t know what that component was, we’d be helpless. So what we do is we analyse every component that’s inside a device and model everything that could possibly have any relevant effect. AS: … too easy!
AudioTechnology THE MAGAZINE FOR SOUND ENGINEERS & RECORDING MUSICIANS
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NAME BEHIND THE NAME: Uli Behringer, Behringer Inc
In 20 years of turning audio manufacturing on its head Uli Behringer’s exhortation has been the same: “just listen.” Uli, we’re all ears. Text: Christopher Holder
The word ‘Behringer’ immediately polarises people. In equal measure it elicits smiles and frowns. In some cases the mention of the word prompts anger, finger waggling, fabulous tales, and statements that start with; ‘what you fail to understand…’ Few surnames have launched quite so many posts on audio forums: claims and counter claims; lives transformed and language that would make Courtney Love blush. Behringer Inc has just turned 20 and, according to popular opinion, in that time it’s been everything that’s wrong and right with audio. But whether you’re a big fan or the most trenchant detractor, I think it’s fair to make the observation that Behringer has been resolutely beige – it’s relentlessly pressed into every aspect of audio without any obvious signs of passion or personality. You don’t buy Behringer for its flair or character; they’re items that get a job done at the right price. Saying that, the formula has worked, you just need to take a look at the company’s trajectory as evidence – it’s been ballistic: from Uli’s garage, to a warehouse down the street, to a factory, to partnering with a Chinese operation, to owning and running his own factory with thousands of employees — Behringer City, no less — in mainland China. In 20 short years Behringer has become the most prolific and one of the most successful audio equipment operations the world has ever seen. But unlike the proverbial tornado in a junkyard magically forming a jumbo jet, the success hasn’t been some bizarre fluke, on the contrary, Uli Behringer has left little to chance. The journey has seen a lot of painstaking planning, calculated risks, business acumen and a genuine belief that he was changing the lives of struggling muso’s and engineers around the globe. TUTTI FRUTTI Central to the Behringer credo is affordability. But keeping prices low has meant Uli and his CEO Michael Deeb needed to keep a vice-like grip on costs and manufacturing. When I was invited to tour the Behringer factory in early 2007 I was struck by the focus on manufacturing ‘processes’, almost to the exclusion of everything else – the inference appeared to be: saving on a nut or a blob of solder here and there was more important than the sound.
It reinforced the notion that everything about Behringer was relentless and inevitable. But enough’s enough, stung by this author’s accusation of his company lacking ‘soul’, Uli has turned his business “upside down”. The recent NAMM exhibition in the U.S. saw Uli jamming with muso’s, captivating journos, just generally being charismatic and cool… here’s a man on a mission: overhauling the Behringer image from beige to paisley; changing the flavour from vanilla to tutti frutti. Interesting times. 20 YEARS HARD LABOUR CH: It’s been a remarkable 20 years Uli. You’ve come from maverick upstart to audio mogul in a short time. Do you feel vindicated?
UB: For the first few years many people didn’t understand what we were doing, or they didn’t think what we were doing was possible. And if people tell me I can’t do something then I’ll do my best to prove them wrong. That’s the maverick in me, then and now. But the first few years were tough – even banks didn’t believe in my plans.
CH: Right. So there’s a bank out there kicking itself right now! UB: Yes, the Deutsche Bank. For many years as a student I was a customer of the Deutsche Bank and every week I would deposit the money I earned playing piano – a few hundred bucks every week. The manager always said, “Mr. Behringer, one day if you need credit, no problem, knock on our door.” So anyway, the time came when I wanted to build new premises, so I put on my best Sunday suit, walked to the Deutsche Bank, knocked on the door and they said, “Mr. Behringer, as much as we’d like to accompany you on your way forward, we don’t believe in your idea.” And this was when I had a 100% security from my mother, the guarantor – so there was no risk on their part, they simply did not want to support me. I walked out almost in tears I was so disappointed. I wanted US$200,000 and they wouldn’t give it to me, so I found a little bank around the corner and the guy said, “Of course, we’ll do this.” Luckily enough, we never really needed a credit line, we just reinvested our profit. I read the book by Mr Kakehashi, the founder of Roland, who I think is a most inspiring person. His book, ‘My Life for Music’, mentions similar early experiences: The products he chose were the ones he could turn over in three months. So he got a six-month credit line from suppliers, which allowed him to get the components, build the products, ship them, sell them and use the profits to pay the bills. That sharpened his instincts for exactly what the customer needed. CH: What were those early days like? UB: In those days we had five or six people on staff. We had a little lunch table where we sat together; there were no management issues or language barriers or time zones, we just discussed things and did it right away. Looking back, in many aspects they were crazy times, but fun times too. People were so motivated, trying to help, working late, sometimes weekends – nothing was too much of a bother. It’s something that we still have today, but we’re a bit more organized now…
You have to inspire people to say, ‘C’mon, we’ll do this together’. I think I’ve been able to convince a few people along the way.
CH: How did you make that transition from cottage industry to big industry? UB: Everything starts with someone who ignites something. Ultimately you have to be passionate to do something and you have to find people who believe in you. You have to inspire people to say, ‘C’mon, we’ll do this together’. I think I’ve been able to convince a few people along the way. CH: So what where you making and how were you making it? UB: In the early days we produced de-noisers, which were perfectly suited to the eight-track machines of the day. Initially, we sold three a month, we ramped up production by 10 a week and I remember thinking, “We must be near saturation level”! Now we’re producing 2.5 million products a year, and I think the sky’s the limit. But it was fun how we built that stuff. We had a metal shop around the corner which built the chassis, the PCBs came from another smaller factory, and we also bought a lot of surplus material from TV companies (Bosch, Siemens) – I would go to this warehouse, walk in and climb the shelves to try to find the stuff I wanted. I was able to buy a lot of
Uli positions himself in the box seat of a pilot run of the MX9000 mixing console in the China factory (1998). AT 9
components at a much lower cost that way. CH: So you were on a mission to cut costs from the beginning. Why was that?
EX-1 Edison Stereo Image Processor.
MDX2000 Composer Audio Interactive Dynamics Processor.
Studio Exciter one of Uli’s first commercial designs.
UB: When I moved from Switzerland to Germany in 1982 I studied classical piano and sound recording at the Robert Schumann Institute. But this school only had two microphones for 200 students. That was it. So you had to wait three months to borrow that gear even for a few hours. I had no chance of becoming a sound engineer in that environment! I needed equipment. I looked at what was available, opened the lid and thought, “Why does this cost $2000 when the components inside are worth just $100?” Without considering the business implications I thought: I can make this stuff. And my friends said that if I was making one for myself to make one for them too. So I’d sold 10 pieces before I had actually built them! Then it was 50 pieces, and so on. So it became apparent that a lot of people were in the same boat as myself – musicians simply couldn’t afford equipment. MADE IN CHINA CH: When did you realise your fortunes would be inevitably linked with China?
UB: In the early days I bought a lot of components from importers and distributors who bought stuff from China and I discovered that if you really want to pursue the dream to build great gear at a great price, Europe was the wrong place to do it. So as early as 1990 I hopped on a plane and went to China.
The UB1 synthesiser… unlikely to be spotted on eBay.
In China I soon discovered that these guys’ favourite saying is “No problem”. So if you believed them, you’d think they could do everything – I should have been more wary. So you’d get these wonderful samples, and then they’d send you a final shipment of ‘bananas’ – and I’m sure a lot of manufacturers who read this article will have gone through the same experience. CH: So the factories and sub contractors had their own agendas?
Combinator: “It’s a four-band stereo compressor with ‘pre-emphasis’ especially for radio stations. It’s a component graveyard – 1600, in fact (I know because I had to program the machine that inserted them). It’s a phenomenal-sounding compressor in my opinion – no pumping, no artifacts. Unfortunately, it was just too expensive to make and we spent a lot of time designing that product. But it was definitely a milestone in our company’s history. There wasn’t a similar product on the market at the time. Nowadays, it’s a highly sought after piece of equipment, sold at a much higher price than its original market value.
UB: Yes. They’re trying to maximise profits too of course, so they can just as easily change priorities to other customers – they chase the money, so your supply-chain gets screwed up or, worse, they start to substitute your components with stuff you haven’t specified. You walk in and tell them how to do things and that approach only lasts for the time you’re there – you walk out of the factory and things go back to the old routine. You can’t control quality that way. And again, many people who manufacture in China will know exactly what I’m talking about. Ultimately, I figured out you can’t do business by fax, and back then email wasn’t what it is today. You had to be on site. So in 1997 I moved to Hong Kong. That was a real turning point. Up until then we were constantly struggling to get enough units built. CH: Was it a case of running to catch up with demand?
DDX 3216: 32-channel, 16-bus, 24-bit digital mixer. We spent five years designing that mixer and it was a masterpiece – six SHARC DSPs… very powerful. From a commercial point of view it probably wasn’t a wise move, but we felt we needed to do a digital mixer.
UB: I was constantly using my cash to finance production again, and getting enough manufacturing equipment in and designing new gear for sale. In those days we didn’t plan for infrastructure properly; it was a case of putting fires out.
We don’t want to be the cheapest and we are not the cheapest any more – we will never win that race.
CH: And more recently you’ve taken a step further and actually established your own factory in China. UB: That’s right, we’re one of the very few who have decided to go the hard way and build our own plant. That was about seven years ago now, and it was a very wise move. We’re now totally in control of our own destiny; it’s the only way we can provide the quality that you see today. HOW LOW CAN YOU GO? CH: Behringer led the low-cost charge but how low can prices go?
UB: For many years our mantra was ‘double the features, half the price’, but that hasn’t been the case for some time now. We don’t want to be the cheapest and we’re not the cheapest any more – we will never win that race. Our investment goes into quality and quality costs money. So we definitely go for added value. ‘Added value’ doesn’t necessarily mean more and more features; I think it’s more about refining the user interface. You want to make it super-intuitive for people to use, you want to automate a lot of functions and I think that’s the next direction. We work on convergence of technologies and invest heavily in R&D. We have R&D centres in China, the U.S. and Germany and employ about 160 R&D engineers – they’re the heart of our company. CH: What makes you bounce out of bed in the morning?
UB: I enjoy working with great people. Having great people around me is phenomenal and I always appreciate having people around who are better than me. If you want to be successful in life you have to hire people who complement your weaknesses, and it’s worth remembering that there’s always someone better than you.
Behringer Inc might now have thousands of employees worldwide but Uli Behringer has always got a kick out of R&D. (Above) Blueprints of the B212A PA are scrutinised back in 1997.
I admire a lot of people in our company and have a great urge to learn myself. I’m an avid reader, which helps me to learn from people better than me. You can’t afford to stop learning. My mum is 78 years old; she went back to university when she was 60, graduated at 65, watches CNN and calls me up to say; “Have you heard about the latest merger?” And that’s the stuff that keeps you young, that’s the trick to staying motivated. Again, you only need to look at [Roland’s] Mr Kakehashi. He’s over 80 and still involved in R&D. You gotta keep learning, that’s the fun in life – to improve yourself and give other people a chance to improve themselves. POST SCRIPT: CHANGE FOR THE BETTER So how exactly is Uli turning his company ‘upside down’? Uli reiterates the phrase ‘leaders not followers’ time and again; millions are being spent on R&D; and while others are laying off staff, Behringer is on a hiring spree. Will this amount to a raft of world-beating products? Only time will tell. But what is obvious from my interview with Uli is that we’re witnessing a generational change, and the New Behringer will look, feel and probably sound quite different.
NIFTY LINK Go online to download previous Uli Behringer correspondence, where he responds to readers’ copycat claims and to Chris’s ‘no soul’ observations. You can also view Chris’s video diary of his 2007 factory tour. audiotechnology.com.au
NAME BEHIND THE NAME BURGESS MACNEAL: SONTEC & ITI Sightings of Burgess ‘Mr Sontec’ Macneal are rare, and interviews even rarer. So lovers of fine audio design settle back, pour yourself a glass of something short and smooth… and enjoy. Text: Andy Stewart
Sprinkled in between the big names of the audio industry at last year’s AES trade conference were countless boutique manufacturers offering everything from ‘better than original’ U47 replicas to 500-series rack module EQs. There were even re-issues of esoteric ’70s keyboards replete with their associated snarls of patch cords… all who saw were amazed! There was also a Mellotron on show, but no-one responsible for it wanted to tell you who made the tapes… oh no, that was far too big a secret to divulge… national security would have been compromised. Amongst this fever pitch of ‘re-issued classics’ was an impressive white EQ ‘replicating’ the now almost legendary, nay mythical, Sontec equaliser. Now the Sontec was the stereo EQ that started our whole love affair with fully-parametric equalisation back in the early ’70s, and replicating it seemed mildly scandalous, I thought. Having said that, if it was any good I could imagine it might prove quite popular provided it didn’t cost anything like the sums of money that currently change hands when a Sontec comes up for sale. But surely a faithful reissue would be impossible to make, regardless. The construction of an original Sontec EQ is a marvellous thing; dialling in an EQ setting on one of these babies is like cracking a safe. After nuclear war the three things left standing will surely be my old Studer, the Sontec EQ and Uluru. Anyone who owns an original (and there are a small handful of lucky individuals in Australia who do) swears by them. They’re like the EQ equivalent of a Neve BCM10 – at parties, to say you own a Sontec is to immediately draw a crowd… or clear the room, I’m not sure which.
On the so-called ‘Sontec’ stand was an old gentleman who appeared to know a thing or two about it, and as I wandered past he was busily showing some eager customers the various control knobs and switches. They seemed impressed. But I kept walking; I’d seen enough replicas for one day and my feet were killing me. So I wandered around the corner and sat down on Joe Malone’s stand for a breather. No sooner had I alighted on his couch than Joe was at me: “You’ve just gotta go over to the ITI stand and meet Burgess Macneal, He’s a total legend.” “Who?” I responded. “Burgess Macneal… Mr Sontec!” said Joe, looking both excited and stunned that I didn’t know the name. “Really, I just assumed the EQ I just saw was a re-issued copy.” “No, no, this is the real deal!” So, with renewed enthusiasm, I went back over to Burgess’s stand, introduced myself and asked him if he might like to have a chat about the history of Sontec, and the bona fides of the ‘replica’ now turned ‘new original’ sitting in front of me. “Why sure, but why would you want to interview an old man like me?” he said with a wry grin. So began our three-hour conversation. What started out in a busy New York trade hall, ended with Burgess, his wife and I carrying out some Sontec EQs in the half light of a closed down venue to avoid the massive costs of getting the Teamsters Union representatives to move the gear from the stand to the doorway. I started by asking him how he came to be a ‘pro-audio lifer’ and
after that, barely spoke again… FROM RAGS TO SWITCHES Burgess Macneal: I first became interested in recording as a child, when I recorded myself playing piano (very badly) with a friend’s wire recorder. It was one of those recorders where splicing involved knotting the wires together. The piano was truly awful and the recorder wasn’t much better, so the recordings were just miserably thin sounding. From there I got into hi-fi and eventually bought a nice mono recorder called a Berlant, which was nowhere near as expensive as an Ampex, but a good tape recorder nonetheless. I’d made enough money in the printing business when I was young that I could pay my school bills and have money left over. I was 17 or 18.
As a youngster, I went to what was then called an ‘engineering’ high school in Baltimore. There you were taught how to operate steam boilers, you learnt the stress testing of metal, you learnt hydraulics, you even learnt how to design bridges. By the time you got through, you’d learnt calculus and all kinds of stuff. But I never actually graduated from the course due to illness, and I never wanted to go into engineering anyway because my grades were so lousy. Soon after engineering school, I fell in with a fella who had a stereo recorder and two very good condenser microphones. He, in turn, had a friend who was the assistant manager of the Baltimore Symphony, and at that time the orchestra needed to make a recording of themselves to enter a contest. So we said, ‘well, we’ll do it!’ – not knowing a thing about recording at that stage. So we went and made the recording, and incredibly, the thing came in first place for ‘sound quality and engineering’ – which didn’t make the symphony very happy – but we thought we were hot stuff. So we figured, ‘why don’t we open a studio?’ So we did. We moved into an FM broadcasting studio with nothing more than a couple of Ampex machines, my Berlant and some microphones. A couple of years before this I’d started to do some design work with tubes. I built some power amps that actually worked – they weighed a ton but they worked. And I’d read about these things called pan pots, so I built a tube mixer with pan pots – you couldn’t buy anything that had those back then. So all this stuff gradually came together in the studio: we used my home-made tube mixer and the two-track equipment of course – that’s all there was at that time. Andy Stewart: What year was this Burgess? BM: We opened the studio in 1958 or ’59. It was a primitive time, with the advent of stereo LPs only just beginning, and in varying degrees of quality. There were a bunch of audio nuts at the station and we did some recordings there. Some of them were good and some of them weren’t. The studio wasn’t that good in all honesty. It was small, but it was something to do. Then we got requests from the Baltimore Symphony: ‘could we do broadcasts?’. So we bought the first stereo microphone that Neumann imported into the US. It was called an SM2, serial number 102, and we hung it from the ceiling. SAME AS IT EVER WAS Talking to Burgess revealed just how little things
have changed in the audio industry over the decades. Despite the technical revolutions that have flowed through in the last 50 years, the ‘studio enthusiast’ has always worked extremely hard to make ends meet. The common thread has always been a passion for sound, and long working hours. It’s consistently been a world where discussions about business models and profit margins seem to drift into the background like reverb… BM: We were so busy trying to find customers and get the new recording studio going that we didn’t watch out for our business very well. Then one day we discovered that if we were in business six more months we’d be out of business because we were losing money. We had a quick meeting, and decided, ‘well, we could make pressings of the recordings we were doing’. We weren’t too bright you see; we didn’t know this would be very difficult! So, without knowing just how difficult, we borrowed money from a bank and bought what was probably the only mono fusion press ever made by Mr Gerry Mentor – one of the founding members of the AES. It was an intriguing process, where you took a round disc of plastic, and a back sheet of microscopic granules of pure vinyl; put them into this mould with the two labels; and closed the thing in what was called the ‘hot press’. When you took it out again you had a record. They were very good machines, because the vinyl was really hard, so the high-end was really great compared to commercial records where the plastic was softer in order to mould it faster. But we soon outstripped the capacity of that machine and decided to buy ‘real’ presses. Unfortunately, steam presses drive you up the wall, so we moved the pressing plant to downtown Baltimore four blocks from ‘District Steam’, which supplied high-pressure steam services to a lot of the buildings. We found a location in the basement of a large building, set up two presses there and ran ourselves a pressing plant business! But before that we had to start cutting. We had probably the second Neumann lathe in the US – a manual lathe, not an automated one. There we did cutting, we sent the plating out, we sent out the manufacturing of the labels, and we made records, and we made money… all of which supported the studio until it could eventually stand on its own two feet. We mostly survived by doing commercials. I was working two jobs: in the day time I’d be at the pressing plant, and at night, when my partner had gone home, I’d do music sessions. In the process I accidentally wound up doing a song that sold big time. After that, producers started calling us saying, ‘can we come down and record with you?’. When they’d turn up, however, they’d see the studio, and go, ‘you recorded that hit song here?’. And we’d say, ‘yes sir!’. FOUR YEARS LATER After four years working two jobs and hellish hours, Burgess met up with a young man who would go on to change one particular aspect of the recorded music industry forever. Coincidentally, they’d both been to the same school but had never crossed paths due to their age difference…
“ We could have written
a book entitled; ‘Three hundred ways not to build an equaliser’..
CONSOLE RESURFACES George [Massenburg], of course, moved almost all the studio stuff from the ITI auction to the West Coast. But one of the things he didn’t move was the ITI console. The console was leased to a group who were building a recording studio on a houseboat, floating on Baltimore harbour, and it wasn’t too long before the houseboat sank with the console on it! Luckily it didn’t go down too far, because it was moored, but it sure wreaked havoc on the 16-track machine and the Dolbys! Apparently the console washed up okay and modules of it are still being used today!
BM: I was in the studio one day and in the door AT 13
“ When George came in, it didn’t take me long to realise he was a very smart young man who seemed very interested in recording.
walks Dean Jensen (Jensen Transformers) and in tow was little George Massenburg – who at that time was about 15 or 16. Dean and George lived two houses apart and knew each other well. When George came in, it didn’t take me long to realise he was a very smart young man who seemed very interested in recording. We got along real well and the two of them helped me with a console I was building at the time. We didn’t know what we were doing, and built this thing using new untried ICs that were available at the time – an interesting process, shall we say. The console eventually worked alright, but there was a lot of yelling and screaming. We learned a lot of things to never ever do again. AS: What were these things? BM: Never use untried ICs for starters. And never put a console in an operating room and build it there. Build it someplace else and move it in. We didn’t have anywhere else to build it and we (optimistically) thought we could finish it off while my business partner was away… big mistake. Meanwhile, the pressing plant had grown, with four machines up and running – business was good. But there were serious philosophical differences between my partner and I, and eventually we sold the business to a company called ITI, who were getting into audio/video production at the time. ITI was, at that time, in the process of designing and gearing up to build a small colour movie camera and they had this enormous building, so we moved the pressing plant and recording studio in there. The only thing we lacked for all the new studios was consoles. So the president of the company said ‘let’s go to New York, and look at consoles at the AES show’, so we did. THE BIG EYE OPENER But when we got to New York – in 1968 I think – and the president saw the prices, he was shocked:
‘hey these things are expensive! We have an engineering department, why don’t we build our own?’. George looked at me and smiled, I looked at George and smiled. What George and I wound up doing was designing a console that was way ahead of its time. Unfortunately, there’s only two of them, because it was all logic controlled, believe it or not. You could press an input button and assign it to any number of outputs, you could press an output button and assign any number of inputs to it. You could even ‘query’ it. By which I mean, you could press an output button and see what inputs were connected; you could press an input and see what outputs it was connected to, including the reverb channels and the auxiliary monitors. I designed the architecture while George worked on mic preamps and all the rest. But we still had an equaliser that didn’t work and we tried everything to fix it. We also had a fella who was an engineering student at Princeton University, and the three of us tried and tried to resolve the equaliser problem… we could have written a book entitled; ‘300 ways not to build an equaliser’. We finally got close, but it still didn’t do what we wanted it to. A Pultec’s not bad, we thought, but it doesn’t do this and didn’t do that. So we kept at it. BREAKING THROUGH BM (continues): Eventually we broke through the barrier. George was doing recording sessions at the time – at night in the makeshift studio using the equipment we’d salvaged from the other building. Then one night, he came into the lab after a session and worked on it some more, and finally found the ‘magic bullet’ that made it work. The next morning, when I arrived at eight o’clock, driven into my office door was a knife holding a white piece of cardboard that said, ‘This is it, this works!’.
It was crude, it was noisy, it had distortion, but it worked. Obviously there have been a
lot of refinements to EQs since then, but that breakthrough forged the way ahead. At the same time we’d also been trying to design input and output stages for the amplifiers – we got an output stage to work but we hated the input stages. Finally the chief engineer at ITI said, ‘hey, I’ve designed amplifiers before’, so he designed an input stage which we glued to our output stage, and that amplifier (with two variations) are used in the ITI equaliser. It has no slew rate, it’s got a bit of second harmonic distortion, but its really warm and really punchy. FROM DESIGN TO MARKET AS: Did you ever intend to sell the equaliser back then?
BM: Well, interestingly, George looked at me and said, ‘do you think we could sell this EQ?’. And I said, ‘I’ve been ready to ask you the same question… I think it’s saleable’. So we talked the boss into getting the engineering people to put it into a package – very much like the Sontec front panel people recognise today. Following on from that, George and I attended the AES show (in New York in 1971). And to our knowledge no-one was doing the live demos on the floor at that time, so we brought an Ampex machine and two sets of headphones. This was a big mistake, because within the first three hours we had people queueing down the aisle. The next day, we had people down the aisle and around the corner, because people were ringing and telling their friends to come and hear the new equaliser! We took so many orders for this thing, I couldn’t tell you. We got back to Baltimore at the end of the show and reported in that we should start making these things in quantity immediately. The ITI engineering manager and chief shareholders had a meeting and decided they were going to make 10 a month and keep them scarce. MAKING THE SONTEC BM: They were a bit labour intensive, but conveniently ITI had all these manufacturing people sitting around with nothing to do, because their colour camera was still on the drawing board. ITI then hired a professional salesman to help sell the equaliser and pretty soon the orders came in. They were still only going to make 10 a month, but at least they were selling all of them, which paid the bills.
AS: What was the model number of this EQ called? BM: The original unit was called the ME – the Mastering Equaliser 230 – and it sold for $1460 in 1971. This equaliser lasted not quite 10 months. Being video guys, ITI didn’t believe that absolute clarity of audio was important (unlike us!), and worse still, the unit inverted polarity from input to output – you can probably imagine what kind of a commotion this caused among the buyers! We had to recall just about every equaliser and put a little extra block of two amplifiers near the power supply to invert the signal and get it back out in phase. AS: To invert the inverted signal? BM: Exactly. Which was a real fiasco, and didn’t help the reputation. On the other hand, people were forgiving, because it was a new model. The other problem was the unit wasn’t very robust. If
you wiggled the front panel controls, the boards inside came loose, because they plugged into the front panel from the back. This was not a good idea. So it wasn’t long before the MEP 230 came out. The ‘P’ was added to mean ‘pots’. That was around about the time we started work on a mastering equaliser, and that was an MES, which stood for ‘Mastering Equaliser: Switches’. We then made a mastering equaliser for our own mastering room – the cutting room – it was the only one in the world. George and I sketched it out on a piece of paper, picked the frequencies, gave it to the engineering guys and they made it. The same frequencies are being used today, but what people don’t realise is that we didn’t research the frequencies at all, we simply said, ‘hey, let’s divide it up in half octaves here, and third octaves there’. We did it with a slide rule and that was how the MES got its frequencies, and how the original equaliser came into existence. It looked exactly like the one here with me now, except that it had a Gotham Audio logo on it. AS: Gotham? BM: ITI figured I was too busy managing the whole audio division, so they had someone else sell them. I was okay with that; Gotham were good people, although the president of the company told us that maybe he might sell five of the mastering equalisers – maybe a maximum of 10 – because in his words, ‘there was no need for it’. He only sold one! We’ve since sold over 400. Then, still in the early ’70s, a strange thing happened, and ironically it was the incident that drove the spike into the ITI coffin. We were at an AES show in Los Angeles when a gentleman from Paris came up to the stand, pointed to the backdrop of pictures of the ITI console and said, ‘is that the ITI console?’ ‘It sure is,’ I said proudly. ‘Could you make me one?’ ‘Make you one? I certainly could,’ I blurted. Thankfully I knew exactly what it cost, so when he asked ‘how much?’ I said ‘75k’. The next morning he appears with a cheque drawn from a Paris bank for $10,000. Soon after this incident another gentleman arrived and said, ‘I understand that so and so just bought a console from you’. I said, ‘yes, he did.’ ‘Well they’re our major competitor,’ he went on… ‘So I want one bigger and better. Can you make it?’
“ driven into my office door
was a knife holding a white piece of cardboard that said, ‘This is it, this works!’
‘How much bigger and better?’ I inquired politely, and he says he wants one with more channels, and I say, ‘sure, I can do that’. I think I told him $95,000, I can’t remember, but he said, ‘I’ll bring you a deposit.’ And he did. So needless to say we rush back to our hotel that evening and phone the Baltimore office with the great news that we just sold two ITI consoles! The president then says, ‘I’ll call the engineering guys and call you right back.’ 20 minutes later he calls back and says, ‘the engineering guys don’t want to build consoles’… BODY BLOW BM: Well, as far as George and I were concerned, that was pretty much the death blow. Soon after AT 15
that incident George and the salesman both left the company. The salesman, at least, saw the writing on the wall – ‘if you can’t give me products to sell, why am I here?’ Eventually I left ITI as well. By this time ITI was getting into all kinds of financial difficulties. Then one day, the bank decided to shut the place down. The company sat in the building for months and months while the bank figured out how to sell it, and finally in January of 1975 – in a driving snowstorm – they had an auction. At the auction, George Massenburg – with Earth, Wind & Fire’s backing – bought the entire big studio, a company in Nashville bought the mastering lab – if you want to call it that – and I bought the pressing plant. Moral of the story: if you save your pennies you eventually get stuck with record presses! Looking back on it, I often wonder to myself, what was I thinking! When the auction was over, they’d sold a lot of miscellaneous stuff. They’d sold resistors, capacitors and all the hardware. ‘But what happened to the equalisers?’. I looked around, and there, under a tarpaulin on the floor, was all the engineering, drawings, front panels, and chassis – all kinds of stuff. I said to the auctioneer, ‘How much for this pile of junk?’. He said, ‘give me $75’. So I did, and consequently became the owner of ITI. That was a really exciting day. George was like, “you actually bought it?” “I actually bought it,” I said. “… for 75 bucks!” THE $75 COMPANY BM: We quickly found new premises for the pressing plant gear, moved the important stuff into our very, very small house, and started to make the Sontec equalisers in the front room, with my wife doing the assembly and yours truly procuring parts. We eventually re-hired many of ITI’s good people, and went back into manufacturing. I went out and started selling the mastering equaliser, which at that stage nobody had ever really used before. Sterling Sound bought the first one, which is still there in use I think. After that, people started saying, ‘they’re using it at Sterling… we need one’.
AS: So what made the Sontec EQ so popular; what gave it its character? BM: Well, good question. Remember the Sontec was designed as a mastering EQ – for cutting vinyl. A cutting lathe needs to be able to control what’s known as the ‘preview’ channel, because it’s 6/10 ths of a revolution of an LP ahead of the ‘cutting’ channel. The computer has to know exactly where everything is and how big it’s going to be, so it can space the grooves apart the right way. Neumann lathes – the automatic lathes – would do all that for you. But most people would try to have one equaliser and sort of fudge the other channel by moving the gain control up and down. The Sontec was the first equaliser that allowed you to adjust the program and the preview, particularly in the bass – which should be in phase – which made the disc a lot better and reduced their reject rate, because you no longer had to worry about overcutting. If you set up the lathe correctly, you were going to get a good disc. This made engineers very happy, clients happy… AT 16
everyone was happy. And although people liked the original ITI equaliser, George Massenburg and I agreed that we preferred a faster more neutral-sounding equaliser for mastering. And so we went ahead and designed the boards – the earliest Sontec boards – via the telephone. George was in Los Angeles; I was in Baltimore. AS: How did that work? BM: I was the parts person: ‘Okay, you need this kind of transistor, let me see if I can find it’. We were taking the prototypes to Doug Saks’ mastering lab, to fine tune things there... which may explain why people say that this is the closest thing to a tube they’ve ever heard in solid state equipment, because it was developed listening to tube equipment. But we had significant problems. We couldn’t get the first stages of these things to work in any way that made us happy. Then one night I was reading a book about switching transistors, and they were talking about how large the geometry inside a switching transistor was compared to a signal transistor. And I thought, well, if the geometry is bigger, the resistance is lower, and if the resistance is lower that means it has less noise. Why couldn’t we use a switching transistor? So I called George and George didn’t laugh, and he said ‘well, I can try it’. And he built a new front end using a pair of switching transistors, which had enormous surface area inside them, and it worked like a charm! What’s more, it actually sounded good: it was fast, it was stable under the right circumstances, and it didn’t catch fire… it drew a lot of current, but it sounded great. George eventually wrote me another note saying: ‘This is, and always will be, the world’s best-sounding amplifier’. I think he was right… he doesn’t think he was right. SONTEC IN THE 21ST CENTURY Hearing all this history pour from Burgess was like peering through a looking glass into the whole history of audio. But what of the here and now? Some 36 years later and Burgess is still exhibiting his wares at the AES (as is George Massenburg). From what little I knew, Sontec hadn’t existed as a company for decades and Burgess Macneal was almost mythical in his elusiveness – the pro audio equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster. So what does the Sontec EQ consist of nowadays… and I had to ask him where he’d been hiding all these years.
BM: Well, I’ve always been here. And as for the Mastering Equaliser, it’s the same… well no… I’m half lying. Here’s the deal: The unit was originally designed to be semi modular. When the ITI unit was first built they were using a military connector. So when we did our first Sontec, we built exactly the same board, the same size, with the same connectors in the same locations, so we could just drop it in. That way people with ITI boards, could drop in Sontec boards and get back to operating again. These first Sontec boards are to a large extent very similar to the present ones, except for the tuning amplifiers. At that time we were using an IC, and it was the best IC available, but it was a long time ago – we made those boards up to around 1987. At that point I went into a complete
redesign. Originally they were called MEP 250A, 250B, 250C and they were all – internally and structurally – very different to this. I went back and redesigned the thing to go into a discrete amplifier at the tuning stage. Which did two things: 1: it made it quieter in the EQ mode, and; 2: it gave it about 6dB more headroom in the equalisation circuits, which most people don’t notice unless they push the originals really hard. With the new amplifier I found by changing two resistors it became a lot more ‘crash’ resistant. That’s been the major change. AS: What do you mean by ‘crash’? BM: If you push an amplifier too hard, it clips. And unlike tubes, transistors clip hard and you’ve got all kinds of garbage coming out. So by moving the clipping level up 6dB, it became a lot harder to push the equaliser into overload when EQing. There have been minor changes in components too. The earlier modules were ‘potted’, whereas the later versions – from 1988 onwards – have little plug-in boards, no potting, and they work fine. AS: So the switching on these new ones is all ‘original’? BM: The switches that ITI used, and the people that made them, went out of production long ago. We subsequently found a good substitute, after a long time searching, and we used them for about eight years. But then I grew unhappy with them after reports of noise and people having to clean them started filtering in. I inquired about repairs with the supply company, only to discover that they’d been bought by somebody bigger, and they, in turn, by somebody bigger still. From there someone had decided that these were military grade and you could only buy a thousand at a time, at some ridiculous price, and we said ‘that’s enough of that’. I eventually discovered Shallco and told them what I wanted. Initially they said they couldn’t do it, but after looking through their catalogue and saying, ‘couldn’t you take one side of this switch and one side of this other switch and put it with this body?’ they said, ‘I guess we could try it’. After a few reworks I still needed the positive feel, but without the ‘click’. They said, ‘we already make a switch like that!’. The new one works like a champ. IN & OUT OF PRODUCTION? AS: One thing that confuses me about all this Burgess is… has Sontec always been in production?
BM: Yes. With the Sontec we’ve been in continuous production since the spring of ’75. There was a period in the late ’70s and early ’80s when digital equalisers first appeared and business for analogue mastering equalisers disappeared. But eventually it went crazy again after the people that bought digital EQs started to revert back to analogue. The Sontec equaliser hasn’t changed much at all in that time; people’s perceptions have just swung back. You don’t want to fool around with a unit that does exactly what people expect it to do. AS: Well especially now that they’ve become a classic. People are more concerned with what
Most of the Sontec equalisers I make are now 9dB models [boost and cut] and that’s a result of the Japanese wanting 6dB, and this being a compromise. So, effectively, we’re a large shop. I make everything modularly, and if you want a 9dB that does this, I take those switches, this front panel, and those boards, plug it all together in the chassis and voila! AS: So, you’ve basically got Sontec building blocks that piece together. BM: Exactly. Modularity has its plusses. THE HOME OF SONTEC AS: Do you still do all this in Baltimore?
BM: We don’t do any of this in Baltimore. My wife and I had wanted to move out of Baltimore for quite a while, so we eventually found what I call ‘Little Italy’ – a rural county in Virginia with a lot of farming, basic manufacturing… and very nice people. Pearisburg is the name of the town – a beautiful place with a population of about 2500, where half the county is national forest, filled with deer and bear and trout streams. When we first discovered it, the only trouble was it had no commercial rental property to speak of. But then one fateful day we had a meeting with a local real estate agent at his home, where, over lunch, his wife said, ‘did you show them the old school?’. He said, ‘oh they wouldn’t be interested in that dump’. And my wife and I say, ‘Dump? Let’s look at it!’ Turns out it wasn’t a dump, but rather, 16,000 square feet of abandoned elementary school on seven acres! So we talked to the school board that owned it, and they said, ‘well, we’ll have to have a meeting’. We explained we were definitely interested in the building, and that we were keen to sign a lease. They said, ‘let’s not get excited Mr Macneal. We can’t do anything hasty, we’ve got to talk about this, think about it, and talk to some other people in the government’. At which point a fellow sitting two seats down from my wife – who’s the editor of the county newspaper (and a lawyer) – gets up, and says: ‘gentleman, I can visualise the headline in the paper next week: ‘School Board Scares Away First New Industrial Company To Move Into This County In 10 Years’. So they called an ‘executive session’ in the bathroom, and five minutes later came out and said, ‘Okay, let’s type up a lease immediately.’ After this was done they paused and said, ‘now of course we’re going to have to charge you more than what the last tenants paid. And I said, ‘how much is that going to be?’. And they said, ‘we’re going to have to charge you $500 a month’. Well, we were paying $6000 for our manufacturing
And that’s where we are today and I love it. We live in one end of the building, my wife’s piano business is up the hallway, and further up the hallway is Sontec/ITI, which takes up 40% of the building. AS: So then… I guess the last question is, ‘how do I get myself on the list for getting one of these?’ BM: Send me an email. AS: If I jump up and down, can I get higher on the list? BM: I haven’t read your story yet… Never let it be said that I’m not candid, sometimes to my detriment! How desperate are you, when do you need it? AS: I’m not in a real hurry. BM: Good, then you’ll have to wait, but it’ll be worth it!
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BM: Well, that’s 100% true, but making them the same is now almost impossible because you can’t get parts. The transistor industry, for instance, stopped making some of the products 15 years ago. Trying to get those transistors sourced is a major headache. And we’ve even gone to the extent of having one transistor custom made for us.
facility in Baltimore and my wife had to kick me under the table to keep me from laughing! So I said, ‘well it’s tough, but I guess we’ll have to deal with that’. They even put a clause in the lease stating that it’s continuously renewable at the same rate. I’m definitely in hick-town!
hasn’t change than what has.
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NAME BEHIND THE NAME Rupert Neve – Rupert Neve Designs
Rupert Neve’s name is arguably the most famous and most recognised in pro audio… more often for his classic designs of the ’60 and ’70s. But Mr Neve continues to design and innovate, once again with a company that bears his name. Text: Andy Stewart
No name is more familiar to people in the audio industry than that of Rupert Neve. ‘Neve’ is everywhere: in studios throughout the world, on the floors of every trade show, in the halls of every audio school, and on the lips of anyone who’s ever taken their job in this industry seriously. From the youngest, most inexperienced engineer to the most famous producer on the planet, Rupert Neve is seen by all as one of the founding fathers of the modern-day industry. His original designs are the stuff of legend, his name embedded into the audio lexicon like a CNN news reporter. Some of his older console designs, like the BCM10 for example, are so highly prized that they’re pursued by gear junkies like knights in search of the Holy Grail. And I should know, I’m just putting my sword and suit of armour away now… (Clang!) Countless companies have tried to copy Rupert Neve’s designs. Many small-time operators have made good livings restoring and trading in secondhand Neve gear, while others have just out-and-out ripped him off. Owners of old Neve equipment walk around with a certain arrogance, as if to say; “I own a Neve, what does your setup consist of?” In the same way that the head bully at my school once caused an hysterical crowd to form around a small pinch of ‘herbs’ in a silver foil wrapper, people will gather around even the tiniest Neve circuit and get all excited: “…apparently it’s out of a Neve talkback amp!” But regardless of all of this, one thing’s for sure, Rupert Neve’s designs have resonated through the audio world for decades, setting the benchmark for other designers and profoundly affecting the tone and fidelity of every piece of audio that has passed through their circuitry. Rupert’s legacy is perhaps more keenly felt today than ever before, and the reason for this is simply attributable to the irrefutable sonic qualities of his designs. At 80, Rupert has been designing transformers, consoles, tape recorders and outboard equipment for well over 50 years. His credentials and depth of experience are formidable indeed, and yet he remains as inspired by the pursuit of excellence today as he has ever been. With the birth of his new company, Rupert Neve Designs, and the release of its new Portico range of outboard processors, Rupert shows no signs whatsoever of slowing down… FULL STEAM AHEAD Andy Stewart: I am amazed, Rupert, that your desire to produce new and innovative audio products seems as healthy as it’s ever been…
Rupert Neve: Well Andy, I try to be an innovator… THE PORTICO RANGE (SO FAR)
AS: Some years ago you moved to the Lone Star State and now your company is based there. Is the Portico range entirely made in Texas? RN: Yes it is. We have a two-acre property in Wimberley and this is where I have my office and lab... and where I have a dedicated team of 12 people. The actual production occurs in two places. There’s a fantastic sub-contractor in San Marcos, about 15 miles on down the road, which does brilliant work for us, and there’s a second manufacturer in San Antonio, which also does an extraordinary job. We have our own testers on their premises and they go absolutely over-the-top to make sure the quality is superb. They’ve been fantastic for us.
AS: Has the new range of Portico outboard been born out of a new-found freedom and independence then, or simply a passion to continually improve on your designs? RN: It’s a progression, really. I started many years ago now with ideas built on from the old valve circuits that I’d grown up with and designed myself in the early days. Then, when transistors came along, nobody really knew what to make of them and the first attempts to use them in audio amplifiers were really disappointing. They were noisy and possessed unacceptable levels of highorder harmonic distortion, but their advantages were that they were small, cheap and didn’t produce a lot of heat. When I started putting together some circuits that other people had published, however, I didn’t like their sound at all and couldn’t figure out why people were so excited about them. AS: What were the key motivators behind your designs at that stage, given your dislike for transistors? RN: My main focus – which I suppose is what started this whole journey for me – was the issue of reliability. In those early days of broadcast, public address, and recording, you didn’t get a second chance, so reliability was crucial. As an engineer, if you messed up the recording of a public performance, that was it – you were given your marching orders the next day! There was no ‘take two’ – and certainly no editing possible – so the equipment had to be reliable above all other considerations, even beyond quality. But when people began to produce transistor consoles and other audio equipment, they tried to go too far with the technology, and the new designs were unreliable. Transistors had heat-related problems and their performance figures changed with temperature. So when I started out I said to myself, ‘right, whatever I do here has to be absolutely reliable’. What this meant in practise was that I overdesigned everything, and competitors of the day were laughing at me, saying ‘Rupert Neve is mad for not taking advantage of these wonderful little transistors. He uses really big ones and he overdesigns everything!’ But the point was my designs never failed and, in fact, many of them are still in use today. AS: Can you explain what some of this ‘over engineering’ entailed, and would you say that this is still an aspect of your design philosophy today? RN: I hope so, yes. The Portico range is still designed and manufactured applying the original principles of reliability and perhaps some overdesigning, making sure the circuitry is single-sided [see definition on page 66] and doesn’t produce high-order harmonics – or if I’m using integrated circuits I make sure they’re used in such a fashion that they’re not producing those harmonics. Over-designing is simply making sure that the components you’re using are the right components for the job. It’s not so much that they’re better components, more that they’re the right ones. But typically we’re using resistors and capacitors in the new equipment that are a lot more expensive than, let’s say, a transistor radio manufacturer would use, because he or she is designing with a limited lifespan in mind and they need to get AT 19
the price right down. Our audio circuits, on the other hand, are made with thru-hole components (which look just like they used to in the old days, albeit a little smaller) that are soldered into place, meticulously tested, selected and quality controlled in a way that no volume manufacturer could ever afford to do. And of course the real key is, I’ve been a transformer designer all my life, so I use transformers… which are expensive. WHAT’S IN A NAME? AS: Is it odd for you to be releasing the new Portico range into a marketplace where many of your competitors use the Neve brand name, either directly or by association? That must be frustrating, surely?
RN: Well it is frustrating, and I can’t understand any designer wanting to do that, frankly. There are people who try and copy an old design but it’s never going to be as good as the original, and in any case the original is itself now a thing of the past. What we’re producing now is far ahead in terms of actual sonic performance. Nevertheless, people still insist on asking the question: “Is your new design as good as one of your old modules?” But the fact is, it’s just totally different. If you go out and buy a 1950s sports car and then ask the question: “Is it as good as the latest Maserati released last week?” – it’s impossible to say. I mean, how do you define ‘good’? AS: Well it’s obviously a subjective realm of discussion. It’s as much about sonic preferences as empirical facts, wouldn’t you say?
“There are people who try and copy an old design but it’s never going to be as good as the original”
RN: Well, you have to combine the two aspects into any design and to do that you have to start right back at the microphone front end. Microphones themselves have improved enormously in recent years, but users don’t very often understand that to get the best out of a microphone it has to feed into a circuit
Rupert Neve and Travis McDaniel perform quality inspection on a 5012 duo mic pre.
that would meet the approval of the designer of that microphone. A microphone is not a power generator; it’s a voltage generator. It has to feed into a high impedance to get the maximum possible level and therefore keep your signalto-noise ratio high. You also have to bear in mind that if you’ve got a length of cable – which is inevitable – between your microphone and your microphone preamp, that cable will also influence the behaviour of the microphone to some extent. This is where my team and I do a lot of our work these days, on the measurement side: trying a number of different microphones and talking to the microphone designers and manufacturers to make sure that what the microphone is feeding into is going to give it the best possible chance of sounding good. That’s why in the new Portico range we give the mic preamplifier a very high input impedance, so the microphone doesn’t have to do a lot of hard work. This makes sure the microphone always gives of its best. The preamps also have a lower noise floor than ever before and the frequency response is tailored to produce the kind of sound that I think people like… a lot of it is subjective, of course, more so than ever perhaps. AS: I can only assume you’re convinced that there’s still a market for good quality equipment that is primarily focused on superb design then… RN: ‘There’s always room at the top’, is one of my favourite sayings, and I think we’re now seeing a swing back to high quality. So yes, if you focus on the top and aspire to superlative design, I think you’re always going to strike a chord with someone who wants it. Marketing is a pyramid with a rarefied peak at the top where a few of the high-end people are struggling to provide really beautiful equipment at a price that’s affordable, but is necessarily quite expensive. It’s a very small industry, we have to remember, and it’s very hard work to get a successful design to market, sell it and make a profit. THE TAPE EMULATOR AS: If we can focus on the new Portico 5042 ‘Tape Emulator’ for a moment [see last issue’s review], was there one machine in particular that you were trying to emulate during the design phase of that device? Obviously, there have been so many machines over the years, so many different tape stocks, levels of maintenance etc…
RN: We based our measurements on a two-track Studer. And as you say, we could have spent a great deal of time measuring many different tape machines but I avoided that idea and just took one as a point of reference. Rather than testing endless machines and their different characteristics, I mainly drew from my own experiences of designing and manufacturing tape machines – that played a big part in the design process. What we eventually came up with was a design that is effectively the circuit that you would find inside a tape recorder. By simply putting a small ‘tape head’ into the 5042 – you have to bear in mind that a tape head is just a transformer, but without the gap in it or moving tape passing over it, obviously – you can drive that with the same circuit that’s been around for many years and then pick off the response as you would AT 20
RN: No, but the signal is compressed because it goes into this tiny tape head and it has exactly the same effect as you’d get on an actual tape recorder. The unit itself will produce different frequency responses and different harmonic content depending on the tape’s speed and the type of tape – as you say, there are many different types of tape – and how you’ve got the machine adjusted and so on. That compression characteristic is not all there, but there’s a limit to what you can do without actually having moving tape. But I’d say it does about 85 percent of what I would expect a tape machine to sound like. It has a limited dynamic range; you’ve still got to be careful not to overload it. The dynamic range of any of the Portico line amplifiers is much higher than on the tape emulator’s ‘head’ (I think I’m right in saying that we’ve kept that to not more than about 50dB), whereas you’ve got 100dB of dynamic range on the Portico line amplifier. Consequently, you’ve got to use the emulator carefully, as you would an actual tape machine… But as to all the variants, as I say, there’s a limit to what you can do with a unit of this size. But next year we’ll be bringing out a much more elaborate piece of equipment with a lot more switches and adjustments on it to simulate a number of different tape recorders, although it will be more expensive. AS: Most engineers, particularly young engineers, employ the services of a tape machine to do ‘radical’ things to the sound these days, rather than merely store information. Were these ‘failures’ and ‘shortcomings’ – if you like – of linear analogue tape something you considered incorporating into the 5042’s design? RN: In the days of tape recorders the designers were doing their best to make a really accurate means of storing sound and reproducing it. The strange thing today is that the ‘failures’ are what people seem to celebrate in the designs. It’s part nostalgia and part well-considered desire for these ‘shortcomings’. But I don’t think they want too many failures; people want a tape recorder that really works well and sounds good. An awful lot of listening went into this to make it sound desirable and, as you alluded
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AS: But presumably the transformer doesn’t emulate the dynamic effects of the tape itself…
from a replay head. You then EQ it and raise its level so that it’s going through exactly the same processes as it would have done in the old tape recorders.
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The fact is, it does clean things up and there are aspects of the analogue circuit that fill in the cracks, as it were, and make it sound sweeter and smoother. Some of the new designs on the bench that we’ll be releasing in the near future will really start to make people sit up and take notice. AS: When you say that you’ve fixed the problems of the past and made the new designs ‘21st century’, is there debate, either with yourself or your new company, about whether or not you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater when you ‘clean things up’? RN: No, because what you’re cleaning up are some of the undesirable things like noise, and then if you look at some of the old modules and do some careful measuring you’d find that there were a number of artefacts that you really would not want. When you take those out it sounds even better, and that’s what we’ve done. Rupert Neve and Tom Leonardis, President of RND’s contract manufacturer, discuss production in front of the thru-hole wave solder machine.
“when we find something that’s beautiful to listen to then I want to analyse that and find out why. That’s my all-consuming interest”
to earlier, there are a lot of tape recorders of different vintages that didn’t sound good at all and people would not want to use them for this kind of musical effect. So having disposed of those machines, you try and design a piece of gear that’s going to embody the desirable features of a tape machine’s sound, if you like, minus the cost of the actual tape and the moving parts. It comes back to subjective opinion again – I didn’t set out to make a bad tape recorder, I set out to try and make something that was going to sound like what I thought people were hearing when they were nostalgically wishing they had an old tape recorder. THE SELF-EMPLOYED AS: Has being your own boss again made realising your new ideas easier?
RN: Well, I’ve worked with Amek and others and am very pleased to have done so, but it’s not quite the same as being your own boss. I’ve brought some of my new ideas to the table in the past and everyone has looked as me as if I’m mad! But being my own boss now, I can do what I like, which is nice. The fun of it is that I can go back to finding out why, for instance, a CD recording doesn’t sound all that satisfactory. So I get involved in frequent day-long discussions about that. The fact of the matter is, the sound will never be as good as when you’re using single-sided amplifiers. What we’re designing now is some single-sided circuitry that’s very similar to my old designs, but cleaned up and brought into the 21st century. They sound sweet and clean and devoid of all the problems of the old days.
RN: Well, Andy, that’s a very important point, and specifications today really don’t mean a great deal. We all talk subjectively when we review a piece of equipment and you can publish all the minute figures you like and it doesn’t mean anything to most people. That’s not entirely anyone’s fault, we’ve just never really found a satisfactory way of defining, on paper, the performance of a piece of equipment that is going to tell you what something really sounds like. But even so, the specs have to be there, you’ve got to understand what something’s limits are, what it’s capable of doing before you can even venture to listen to it… at least that’s my opinion. A few years ago, when I was working for Amek, we were designing new transformers and some new circuitry, and during the process we got the distortion figures down to almost unmeasurable levels. It was really astonishingly good, if I do say so myself. It was fairly expensive to do because we had to make sure that none of the IC or transistors were under any kind of stress. There was no highorder distortion in the signal; it was squeaky clean in every way that I could think of. Some of my engineering friends were very complimentary about it too, saying things like: “How on earth did you do it Rupert?” But the fact was that stuff actually didn’t sound that wonderful. Those enviable specifications were not reflected in a better sound at all.
It still amazes me that just putting a CD through the Portico line amplifiers makes it sound better straight away. There are psycho-acoustic reasons why this is so, that’s why I want to enable people to have a pair of these line amplifiers, because things sound better than without them!
AS: That’s what I was alluding to earlier, when I asked about ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’. Specifications don’t tell the whole story, and these supposedly ‘better’ specifications that so many designers publish aren’t necessarily related to superior sound quality.
AS: So how is the sound ‘improved’? I’ve always thought that perhaps the horse had bolted once the sound was converted into the digital domain. Once you have a digital signal, how does going back through single-sided analogue circuitry somehow restore integrity to the signal?
RN: Well, I think that’s right. And I think we’ve got to go back to psychoacoustics and what it is that we’re actually listening to. The ear itself – your hearing mechanism – is full of non-linear processing, if you like, and it’s an extremely interesting area of study. You’d think that if you reproduced a sound through a distortion-less
RN: That’s a very hard question to answer, really. AT 22
SLAVE TO SPECS AS: Given the amount of gear out there boasting similar specifications – even though it all sounds quite different – do you ever feel enslaved by specifications, or throw your hands in the air and wish that you didn’t have to even publish your specs any more?
channel it ought to sound absolutely superb. But it’s not always the case. You can take that distortionless channel and a first-class microphone and all the rest of it, and it still won’t sound like the original. If you were to make two recordings of an artist, one in a wonderful concert location that you love, and another in a location where the acoustics are pretty terrible, the singer won’t sound the same or give the same performance. You can try and combat this, but you will never succeed because it will never be – and can never be – the same. But when we find something that’s beautiful to listen to then I want to analyse that and find out why. That’s my all-consuming interest.
memory). It’s built around differentiating between the ambient sound, which is non-coherent, and the direct sound, which is coherent. You can play with these using directional microphones, sum and difference techniques and so on, which is what we’ve done. It’s a very powerful unit that’s very hard to describe! I’ll just have to get one to you to have a look at! AS: I’ll look forward to it. When is it due to come out? RN: We’ve just released it to production, so it should be out within a month or two. AS: Thanks for your time Rupert. RN: My pleasure!
AS: Is this interest going to lead to designs and equipment that we’ve never seen before?
“we’ve just never really found a satisfactory way of defining, on paper, the performance of a piece of equipment that is going to tell you what something really sounds like” SINGLE-SIDED CIRCUITRY A single-sided circuit consists of an amplifying element that handles the whole of the signal excursion as opposed to a Push-Pull amplifier where two devices are arranged so that one device handles the positive half cycle and the other, the negative half cycle. Getting the two halves to ‘cross over’ seamlessly is always the problem and it gives rise to artefacts that are classed as high order harmonic distortion components. Actually they’re usually not harmonics, being unrelated to the signal frequency but to the switching “splatt” that takes place when one half of the circuit takes over from the other. A single-sided circuit has no such problems but is not as ‘efficient’ in terms of power. Most I.C.s are Push-Pull: they need to be efficient or they would get way too hot! – RN.
RN: I hope so. I’m letting the cat out of the bag here a bit, but certainly the Portico range is just the start of things. There are four pieces out there at the moment and we’re planning on another four or five over the course of the next few months; each one is going to have a different slant on traditional equipment and hopefully will be very useful in filling in the gaps in the market and making sounds that are already recorded sound sweeter. Then we go onto the next range, which is still a year or so away, and there I can really have fun. I’m working on new circuitry now, which we couldn’t fit into the Portico range. It will be more expensive so it won’t be for everyone, unfortunately. One of the new designs is a stereo field editor (which is coming out shortly) which is something that’s very dear to my heart because it enables us to manipulate, if you like, room acoustics and change the relationship between the direct and the reverberant sound, and the apparent location of a soloist in a mix and so on, all done from acoustic knowledge. What you’ve got with any stereo recording is whatever the engineer believes you want to hear. And many recording engineers have been brought up to think that almost any ambience is bad and you want to get as close as you can to the sound. But it’s all getting a little bit too dry and uninteresting in my opinion. I’ve always felt that not enough of the concert hall is present in these recordings and I’d like to have more. (I like to hear the audience coughing from time to time!) AS: What has spawned this interest? RN: Years ago I did some recordings in St John’s College, Cambridge, and it was amazing how that, even in the dead of night through these massive stone walls, there’s low frequency ambient sound coming through – I know I shouldn’t carry on about this – but it all contributes to a very small degree to what you hear in the recording. You couldn’t record the choir in any other location and use artificial ambience to make it sound the same. You can come close but you can’t get it like the real thing. So I got those old recordings that I made in the ’70s and with the Stereo Field Editor I can give you more of St John’s college chapel or less of it, I can change the relative position of the choir and the organ and so on and so forth. I think it’s a very fun thing and it’s very powerful as well. AS: Is this new device a simulator; by that I mean, is it loaded with samples, or impulse responses, of these places or not? RN: No, we don’t sample them (apart from my AT 23
THE NAME BEHIND THE NAME John Meyer – Meyer Sound Laboratories
Meyer Sound has been at the forefront of sound reinforcement innovation for 25 years. Christopher Holder gets an insight into how it all happened and what lies ahead.
When AT kicked off the ‘Name Behind the Name’ series of articles we had in mind to offer an insight into the personalities behind the audio brands, rather than a procession of bland corporate profiles. Which is just as well because it’s nigh on impossible to talk about Meyer Sound without delving into the mind and character of its founder, John Meyer. Don’t let the ZZ Top beard fool you, there’s nothing that isn’t razor sharp about John Meyer. In fact, when you talk to John you promptly feel like a single-processor PC trying to interface with a multi-processor mainframe… it’s hard to process all the gigaflops of multi-threaded data flying your way. Posing a question to John may not elicit a response like anything you expected… he may not even address your question at all… but you can be guaranteed that what comes out of his mouth is undoubtedly more interesting and pertinent than anything you may have envisaged. You simply have to hold on tight and hang on for the ride. Out of the Dark Ages To chart the history of John and Helen Meyer’s company is to chart the progress of the modern PA market that we know today. When John applied his considerable intellect to the design of PA speakers in the late ’60s, public address systems for bands were nothing short of primitive by today’s standards. It wasn’t uncommon for world famous bands to erect Frankenstein boxes based on cinema speaker components (if they were lucky!) with very indifferent results. Sure, live concerts were popular events, but no one had figured out, or bothered to figure out, a way of covering the paying public with half-acceptable amplified sound.
So, back in the late '60s John was a young graduate with a passion for music and a knack for building PA speakers. Not shy of attention he set up some prototype boxes at a nearby showground in the San Francisco Bay Area. The speakers in question were configured as a quad system and used exponential horns (some as large as eight feet long/ high) attached to 30-inch Electrovoice drivers. Needless to say newspaper reporters and local audio professionals dropped by to hear and see what all the fuss was about. Among the gathering throng AT 24
of rubberneckers were Frank Zappa, Steve Miller, Pink Floyd and members of the Grateful Dead. From these humble beginnings it quickly became apparent John Meyer was going to be the mad audio professor of choice for the LSD generation of A-List musicians. The 1970s proved to be the ‘apprenticeship’ years for John Meyer. He spent his time designing, researching and getting his hands dirty building and configuring concert systems for high-profile acts across the US. He knew full well that good audio design had to go hand in hand with an intimate understanding of the day-to-day practicalities of what a musician or sound engineer had to contend with. In 1979 Meyer Sound finally ‘set up shop’. But, surprisingly, it wasn’t a new PA product that proved the catalyst – it was a studio monitor. Early Days Christopher Holder: John, by the time you and Helen Meyer started Meyer Sound you’d built FOH systems and floor monitors for (Bay Area rental company) McCunes Sound Service in the ’70s. Why launch your own company with the ACD studio monitor?
John Meyer: The idea was to build a powerful monitor and use that technology to launch into other areas. We started by searching the globe for high-powered drivers that were linear. At that time virtually every high-powered driver was designed for guitar cabinets and was built to distort. But we found one company that was also making guitar speakers but they hadn’t got around to making their driver designs distort yet – they’d built a 100W speaker that was clean. So we used that in the ACD studio monitor. And it attracted a lot of attention. It was clean and powerful. They weren’t like current studio monitors which change their frequency response with level – this was different. People from [film production company] Zoetrope came by, and thought they’d be good speakers for the opening of Apocalypse Now. So for three months we worked at the movie theatre in San Francisco where the film was to be premiered. Along with the monitors, we built the subs for the napalm explosions, generally
(Left) John Meyer performing FFT testing on prototypes of the 500 Series of loudspeakers in the mid 1980s. (Middle) John Meyer as he appears today. (Right) The quadraphonic Glyph system John Meyer built and installed in Pepperland (circa 1969), a nightclub in San Rafael, California. This system attracted attention from many artists and led to a position designing loudspeakers for McCune Sound Service. The Glyph was featured in the Last Whole Earth Catalogue, where Catalogue founder Stewart Brand dubbed it “The first loud sound I’ve heard that didn’t make me want to run.”
just developing the technologies. In short, things started to connect with the players that would help with our launch into the industry. CH: How did the studio monitor design translate into success in the live sound market? JM: First up we tried the studio monitor on stage, but it wasn’t quite powerful enough. So then we evolved it into the Ultra monitor. Here was the smallest, most powerful speaker that anyone had every heard. It would do over 120dB… this thing would just tear people’s heads off on stage, which is what they wanted at that time. They wanted it really loud so they could hear it above their amp’ed drums and backline equipment. CH: Sounds like you were very much working hand in glove with the end users – the musicians? JM: One of the things I’ve learned is that you’ve got to satisfy the musicians first. If the monitors don’t work, it doesn’t matter about anything else – you’re dead. So it’s only when the band’s happy with the monitors that you can start to think about the PA – the house system. And that led into us working on the design of the MSL-3. CH: Which, apart from sounding amazing, was famous for being the first PA cabinet to use trapezoidal geometry. What led you to the trapezoidal design? JM: We wanted a product that people could buy more and more of – start with a small system and add to it as necessary. One of the things that was happening at the time, and it happened at McCunes too with my first products… you build these cabinets so that a few would sound good, but as soon as you put 10 or 20 together they start sounding bad again. We were determined to develop a system that, when you moved from four to eight to 16 or 32, the power would increase but the sound wouldn’t start degrading. CH: What was it about the design of the MSL-3 that made it work in large arrays as opposed to what had gone before it? JM: It worked because we figured out how to put boxes next to each other. Which sounds simple but
took a lot of work. We started out by putting 60 of these neat little 12-inch drivers we had into a huge barrel-shaped speaker. We found the variation in the low beam from the system was more serious than we thought it would be from a direct radiator system like this. We were seeing a lot of low beam – 10 or 15dB as we moved across the front. Then we decided to experiment with multiple horn-loaded drivers (rather than direct radiators), because we knew that’d work a little bit better… All up, we spent about a year experimenting with horns, figuring out a way of coupling things together so it didn’t get worse and worse when you put more and more together. And, in the end, that was really the secret to the MSL3 – being able to array these cabinets and hold up their characteristics, so people could put these big systems together. That was the hardest part – figuring that out. CH: And I guess it’s easy to forget that you were fundamentally doing everything from scratch here… You didn’t have a lot of precedents already in the marketplace. JM: We had a lot of things to overcome. It wasn’t just a matter of building a product that sounded good – it had to last. For example, drivers: in those days, if you drove them too much the magnetic fields would slip. Mostly, driver designs were held together just with their magnetic field. Which was fine, but one big whack would move the voice coil. We talked with JBL about adapting one of their older driver designs that had a keeper ring. You have to think about these things. I mean, people are initially very careful with a new system, but after 50 days of a tour things change – people start slamming gear into the truck, slamming gear down the ramp. They’re tired, and the delicacy goes out the window. You have to know this. CH: It’s about knowing who your customer is, I guess? JM: Exactly. It’s important for people to understand the trade that they’re going into. It’s not just a ‘thing’ that you’re building, it has to fit into a culture; it has to work for the people using it. It has to be roadworthy.
CH: And it sounds like you were intimately linked with the musicians of the day to fine-tune your designs? JM: The bands were very helpful. They gave us time to set things up. In the early days it wasn’t uncommon for us to spend a week with the Grateful Dead setting systems up. Meanwhile, the big audio companies were just downright nasty. They found the whole live music scene irritating and thought the whole thing would just go away. For example, when we tried to get some special drivers built they’d demand that we order 10,000 units… you didn’t get any help from the big companies. You just had to appeal to the bands themselves. Also the record companies at the time were enormously supportive. It wasn’t until later that they decided these band tours should make money. These tours weren’t making money in the early days, they were being subsidised by the record companies. They were just ways of promoting the album. Feeling the Power CH: Meyer speaker designs are almost entirely selfpowered. What started you down the road to that design philosophy? JM: From the very early days, before Meyer Sound, I was keen on the advantages of a powered design. But back in the early ’70s people had their favourite amp company and those relationships were very entrenched. So to accommodate people’s preferences we started making processors to allow people to use their favourite amps – Crown, Crest, or whoever. Then in the ’80s those allegiances became a problem when the amp companies started dictating to their customers what size amplifiers they should be using with our products – they started to take a ‘we know best’ attitude, spec’ing overly powerful amps for our products. The amp companies simply thought that the higher the rail voltage the better – but this was from people who seemed to have no idea that their amps weren’t driving a resistor, but actually driving something that has force and energy and it only takes one peak of very high voltage to break things. It’s like jarring, like dropping a glass on a table – you get to a certain point and it shatters. We couldn’t convince the amp people to stop doing this, AT 25
The Grateful Dead in concert with an MSL-3-based system and 650R2 subs at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, California, summer 1983.
Stevie Wonder listening through a UM-1 UltraMonitor.
so about eight or nine years ago we decided, in order to keep our stuff from breaking, we would have to start supplying the amps ourselves. So, the short answer is: the amp companies forced us. Saying that, I always liked the idea of selling powered designs, so I didn’t take too much convincing. CH: But bringing your existing customers around to the idea of a powered design mustn’t have been easy. There are plenty of benefits to having the amps in with the speakers but it’s a different way of thinking, isn’t it? JM: It was actually Disney that helped us on that front. Disney was embarking on producing the Beauty & the Beast Broadway show. They’d never done a Broadway show before, and they didn’t like all the noise the amplifiers made on stage and backstage, so they came to us and told us as much. The question was: could we power the speakers so they wouldn’t have all the noise on stage? That was funny because everyone in Broadway had got used to the noise but Disney was new to theatre and didn’t see why they had to put up with it. So that’s what we did. We supplied a powered system without all the noise. And, Disney being Disney, people started to think – if they did it for Disney it must be okay from a safety point of view. In fact, because it was a Disney show we found that the permits we required to hang all this power in the air arrived AT 26
much quicker than they normally would. So it was that show that gave us the opportunity to launch the powered speakers and gave the new designs quite a bit of instant credibility in the market. We had no idea it would become so much a part of our business. We thought that if it became 50 percent of our business it would be amazing. Of course now the bulk of our work is all powered. CH: Why is it that so few of your competitors have gone down that powered route? JM: Once you go to a powered product it’s a huge commitment. One of the nice things about unpowered products is that, for some reason, the industry and the government don’t pay too much attention – they just don’t think about them. But as soon as you power it, they take a lot of interest. All the agencies get really interested and they want it to be fireproof, and they want $50,000 worth of testing done on it – they don’t see it as some industrial speaker anymore, they see it as something consumers can plug in and play with. So it shifts the responsibility back onto the manufacturer tremendously. We’re lucky. It wasn’t nearly as expensive 10 years ago as it is now to jump through those hoops. It’d be hard for us to start a company making powered speakers right now. CH: So, in essence, the whole powered design
philosophy wasn’t so much about addressing technical issues as it was about making sure you knew what amps people were using? JM: Both. Powering our speakers meant we could guarantee a level of performance and it also makes our gear user-friendly. For example, you don’t have to figure out ground loops anymore. We have about 24 ground loop connections per speaker. You could do that in an amp rack like we used to – but that takes about two weeks! It’s extremely hard. You can mess around with these things for days to hunt down a hum. Meanwhile, if that’s done for you in manufacturing – which admittedly takes a lot of time – it means you’re guaranteed of the results every time. That’s the exciting thing – being able to solve things before you get to the show. Saying that, obviously not everyone is convinced of the benefits of our powered designs. Someone once said to me: “The engineer won’t have anything to do.” I couldn’t believe it. “Are you serious? You can’t be serious! You won’t be setting up amp racks, but there will be plenty to do on a show without worrying about amp racks!” CH: Meyer Sound now makes the bulk of its components on site, at your factory in Berkeley. Obviously you care about making sure everything is built to your exact spec and when it’s under your
roof you can best ensure that. With the march of exacting manufacturing tolerances and hi-tech design methods, are speaker systems easier or harder to ‘drive’ than they were 20 years ago?
Meanwhile, the LD3 processor is digitally controlled but the processing is still analogue. Can you give me the scoop… when are we going to see a Meyer digital speaker controller?
JM: When you talk about modern PA’s it’s hard not to talk about line arrays. Line arrays are all the rage, and the interesting thing about line arrays is that they’re actually quite hard to use… in the sense that they’re not intuitive. What was nice about the MSL3 and MSL4 was that they were very intuitive – you just keep making the arrays bigger and bigger and it covers a wider and wider area. Line arrays are the complete opposite: the longer you make the array the more the sound keeps changing (because of the coupling and the length effect). So you need more technology to tell people what’s going to happen.
JM: We’re seriously working on it. It’s part of our overall SIM strategy to have that measurement technology and in the same package be able to control the speakers. The reason we think we can make a contribution is that I think people launched their digital processors prematurely. For starters, for us to build a device that goes in front of our speakers it has to have at least 115dB dynamic range otherwise you get hiss.
Also, line arrays are often hard to fit into a room – they’re great for large outdoor shows but getting them into just about any room is a challenge. To me a line array is like someone who comes in and wants to buy a zoom lens. It’s just going to take one kinda picture. You feel like saying to them that they’d actually be better off with the regular fixed lens. But people think you’re not catering for what they want. CH: Which brings us to the LD3 processor for your line array systems. Is it almost a case of: ‘You really want a line array? Here you go, buy ours. But if you’re going to use a line array, try this to make it sound as good as it can’? JM: Right. So rather than explain how complicated they are – which no one wants to hear – the LD3 is about creating a product that helps people use a line array that’s expressed in terms that they understand. We like to talk about frequency and phase, array gain and the length of the array affecting the coupling efficiency, and all these intellectual concepts… but no one has the first clue what you’re talking about. A few engineers who work on this stuff all the time will have a feel for what you’re talking about, but the rest will just hope they’ll remember it long enough to do something with it. But engineers do know how many speakers they have in the array, they know how far away they are from the speakers and they can measure the temperature and humidity – and they’re the terms we use on the LD3. It allows you to get your system ‘flat’ and you can tweak it to your own tastes from there. CH: Are there still too many technical barriers then? In other words, are we making things unnecessarily hard to operate? (Top) John Meyer sitting on the arm on which loudspeakers are mounted for testing in Meyer Sound’s anechoic chamber, circa mid1990s. (Middle) The original SIM 1 system, based on a Hewlett Packard dual-FFT analyser. The ‘SIMCAD’ name was shortlived. (Bottom) Meyer Sound associate and former employee Bob McCarthy working with SIM 1.
JM: In many cases I think we are. For example, I got the idea for the LD3 from driving a car. It doesn’t ask me what fuel mixture I’d like – I’d hate to have to guess that, seeing I could burn out the engine if I’m wrong. I’d much rather just step on a pedal and have it go forward and turn the steering wheel and have it go right, than have a series of very complicated command structures. Just imagine what driving a car would be like if it was designed by a software company! Of course, I’m not going to name names, but there’s only one software company whose software is so hard to use that it breaks the computer just about every other day… It’s insane! Digital Gospel According to Meyer CH: Meyer’s SIM DSP-based audio analyser is into its third generation, so you’ve obviously done a lot of work as a company in the world of digital.
CH: And currently you’re not seeing that? JM: We’ve found that most digital speaker management systems aren’t put on enough voltage, so they clip – instead of setting the output voltage at around 20V they set them for just a couple of volts. They came out with the technology before it was quite ready. People have jumped the gun. It’s got to be as transparent as analogue before you get people excited. Otherwise, what’s the point? We don’t want to go backwards. CH: So you’re not overly impressed with what’s on the market already? JM: I can tell you that it’s shocking to see some of the stuff people are building. It’s like the early days of transistors – they’re not being very careful, or they don’t think it matters. But it matters a lot. Digital is different. The distortions that digital creates are different to distortions that we’re used to. People used to analogue distortions can’t put their finger on digital distortions. Again, like the early days of transistors, it was hard to say what was wrong with those amplifiers. They were measuring perfectly. Magazines were quoting .0001% distortion. But they didn’t sound very good. CH: Is it a case of the measurement devices letting us down? JM: Traditional measurement devices aren’t cutting it. That’s why we’re now building tools to hear those distortions… like SIM 3. And those distortions can be quite serious. They just show up differently. They can look like broadband noise – no harm in that – but it’s broadband noise with an edge because it’s synchronous to something. It winds up sounding ‘edgy’ because a lot of harmonics are attached to what’s going on. You really need to figure out what’s going wrong out there and then you have to build instruments – not the other way around. CH: Amongst certain parts of the digital cognoscenti it’s almost like you aren’t allowed to hear distortion because you can’t measure it. JM: That’s right – if you say anything in the negative they get mad. But if a lot of people are complaining it’s worth investigating. I’ve found a lot of things that way: just going out and observing; listening to what people are talking about; setting things up exactly the way it was when people were complaining; and measuring it. We feel we can make a contribution to digital. We have the LD3, which is digitally controlled analogue and a good step in the right direction. We’ll then try and make a digital version of that and have that analogue ‘equivalent’ to compare it against. I’m probably saying more than I should, but there you go… there’s your scoop! AT 27
THE NAME BEHIND THE NAME
Peter Freedman – Rode Microphones
In the first of a series of occasional interviews with the ‘people behind the brands’ Christopher Holder talks to Rode Microphones’ Peter Freedman about how he turned his fortunes around to make Rode one of the biggest audio success stories of the last decade.
The extraordinary rise of Rode Microphones has been swift and smooth. Virtually every mic the company has released in its 12-year history seems to have effortlessly gelled with the market – filling a niche, at the right price. Rode sells around 60,000 condenser microphones every year to every corner of the globe. This is not an editorial pat on the back for this Australian manufacturer, simply a statement of fact – Rode is an enormously successful audio company. Overseeing operations is the company’s owner and CEO, Peter Freedman. What with Rode’s meteoric rise you’d probably think he had the Midas touch – gold dots as far as the eye can see. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The fact is, Rode Microphones could almost be described as the last throw of the dice for a man who took his father’s long-established and successful pro audio installation business and all but flushed it down the toilet. After Henry Freedman’s untimely death in the mid ‘80s, Freedman Electronics, under a young Peter’s stewardship, went from being a pioneering and highly respected pro audio institution to being the Bi-Lo of audio – purveying whatever would sell, and a lot of things that didn’t. So Peter Freedman understands what it’s like to know debt, despair, and virtual bankruptcy, which
no doubt makes the success of Rode all the more sweet. In fact, this enormous disparity of ‘zero to hero’ goes a long way to describing the man himself – he’s a character of extremes. Peter Freedman, came from a comfortable middle class background, he’s patently smart, shrewd and well read, but could happily pass himself off as a Bogan/Westie. The personal trappings of success (the cars, the first class travel, the house on the hill) sit unselfconsciously alongside his earring, his colourful language and bravado of a benevolent dictator. He loves the fact that he’s made high quality studio mics accessible to the masses; but selling crate loads of mics isn’t enough, he craves the accolades of his ‘peers’. Furthermore, Rode’s success is based on playing the international stage, but he hates the fact that ‘globalisation’ translates into an excuse for not ‘making’ anything in Australia anymore. In short, he knows he’s a paradox… and he loves it. LOSING THE LOT Christopher Holder: Can you tell me about Freedman Electronics?
Peter Freedman: My father’s greatest love was always audio electronics. My mother was Swedish and they moved from London to Stockholm before I was born. He was chief engineer for an electronics/telecommunications company in Sweden for a number of years before being offered the
opportunity to take on the distribution of Dynacord products in Australia. So in the mid ‘60s we immigrated to Sydney and he opened up Freedman Electronics in Liverpool Rd, Ashfield. CH: And you obviously developed a love for audio from that upbringing? PF: My earliest memories were in my old man’s workshop. As a teenager I’d work for him after school and on weekends… What’s not to love? It’s nightclubs, it’s sex, it’s late nights… it’s a young man’s paradise. CH: But then in the mid ‘80s you lost your Dad and inherited sole responsibility of Freedman Electronics. What was that like? PF: For starters I don’t recommend anyone work with their parents – not a good idea. I loved my Dad but we were always knocking heads. I was always arguing that we should expand; we should do this, that or the other, and he’d flatly say, ‘no’ – of course, in retrospect he was totally right. So after my Dad died I was like, ‘I can do whatever I want now’. First thing I did was borrow a lot of money to build up the business. For the first couple of years we did alright. In fact we tripled our turnover in one year – which might sound good, but you can’t sustain that sort of growth. We got to the end of the ‘80s and by then I’d geared up this big machine to do nightclub installations. I was importing lighting, importing loudspeakers… And then, of course, the economy took a dive. I was sitting on about $400,000 dollars worth of debt and my sales dried up – everything came to a grinding halt. After a few months things got progressively worse and before long the debt escalated. I thought I was going to have a heart attack at this point – I was 108kg, the bank took my house, I’d f**ked my father’s business… I wanted to kill myself for a while there. But what can you do? You have a family, commitments to staff, and you might want to run away but you can’t. You’ve just got to plod along and do what you can. CH: Pretty bleak… PF: Sure. But a turning point came when I met up with a bloke who I’d known for a long time. I first met him when he was a sales rep for a company called Carlsboro in the UK during the 70’s. That was Colin Hill. One thing I do pride myself on is being able to take opportunities. And the other thing I know is that to get out of trouble you need good salesmen. Colin loved everything about Australia so I offered him a job on the spot. He was my first 'lieutenant', and gave me the breathing space to get some perspective. CH: And thus the first stirrings of what would become Rode? PF: Well, that story dates back to 1981 when I went to a trade show in Shanghai. Freedman Electronics had a lot of dealings with China – we were building our own speaker cabinets and importing various components from there – and on this occasion I saw what looked like a Neumann U87 copy and I bought one as a sample. At the time we weren’t in the studio market. I’d sold the odd recording mic but there were hardly any home studios at that time.
There were ‘porta studios’ and then there was the upper end of the market that bought Neumanns and AKGs – so there wasn’t a market. So I stored this mic away. Around 10 years later when I was thinking about what else we could sell, I pulled the mic out and I said to Colin, ‘take this around to some of the shops and see what they say’. He came back and said, ‘there’s a lot of interest in this thing’. So I brought in 20 of those Chinese mics and… they were shit – noisy, two out of the 20 weren’t working at all… I opened them up, and saw they’d used crappy components, and the soldered joints were bad. So we fixed up the parts, made a board mod here and there and got them to a point where we could sell them. They weren’t super quiet – about 25dBA noise, which is kinda like hearing a shower in the background compared to what we’re doing now – but they worked. And that was the beginning of Rode. FROM CHINA WITH LOVE CH: That was the first NT1?
PF: Nothing to do with the current NT1, but, yes, the NT1. They were Chinese and we just imported them. Our core business was still club installs, but we set aside a service bench in the warehouse so we could pull them apart, clean them up, have the Rode name engraved on them… pop in a brochure and away they went. That started to bring in a little bit of money – nothing to write home about, but it started to grow. CH: What sort of numbers are we talking about? PF: We were doing 100 a year – and that was pretty good for that type of thing. I remember thinking ‘if we can do 500 mics a year we’ve made it’. I just couldn’t get my head around that kind of quantity then. Now we do more than 12,000 NT1As a year! CH: So you had a mic that was selling okay in Australia. Where to from there? PF: I regularly went to China to meet the people I was dealing with. On one such trip I found another factory that was making a slightly better product. So I got samples from them and that was the beginning of the NT2. We made some mods, made them look a little bit more acceptable and started selling those. CH: So, nothing international yet? No sales to the US for example? PF: No, but I’d been to NAMM shows in LA before and I thought, ‘I wonder if there’s any chance of flogging these overseas?’. So I went to NAMM and walked around the exhibition with an NT2 in my pocket – like a guy selling watches. I met a few people there but there was no real interest. So I traipsed around the streets of LA. My first stop was to a few studios – like Capitol and Ocean Way and A&M. Obviously they’re big-name studios, but I just rang them up, put on my best Paul Hogan Aussie accent and told them I’d love to have their opinion on this mic. They were nice, and I started to get names, which I dropped when I went to music stores in LA. After visiting various places without luck I went to West LA Music and probably spent most of the day demo’ing and talking to them. Eventually I struck a deal to supply them 100 mics! That just wiped me. That was like a year’s worth of sales in Australia, and to one store – in LA! It was then that I knew we were onto something. I walked out of there with tears in my eyes thinking ‘this could be it’. AT 29
The original Freedman Electronics pro audio store in Liverpool Rd. Ashfield in Sydney's west. (Photo taken in 1967)
All the tubes used in the mics are 'burnt in' – where each valve is put under a load to determine which will fail.
Peter Freedman on his microphones
From there we had the nerve to exhibit at the following year’s NAMM in 1993. We took a little booth jammed between a guy selling steel drums and a huge garbage bin – it was like a joke. But in the first three hours we stitched up distribution for Japan, Canada, England, France… we’d cracked it. We subsequently appointed Event Electronics as our US distributor who were a major part of our success in the US market. They continued as our distributors until we opened our own office and warehouse three years ago.
NT1 – “Empowered a lot of people. The first mic that allowed them to make quality records. The everyday man’s studio mic.” NT2 – “The mic that built Rode.” Classic – “Me wanting to take on the big boys.” NTV – “A valve mic at a lower cost. Pure performance, no extras.” Broadcaster – “Studio sound on air. We’re going to look at that area again.” Classic II – “Evolution of our signature series. The best we make.” NT3 – “Desert island mic. Being battery operated it can go anywhere. Versatile.” NTK – “Evolution of the NTV. Learning more about what we could do.” NT1000 – “I was going to knock the NT1 on the head, but the new design was too good and the NT1 was selling too well. Decided to keep both.” NT4 – “The first truly pro one-shot stereo mic where you don’t really need to know what you’re doing, and is affordable.” NT5 – “Our version of a Neumann KM miniature mics and they’re selling in huge numbers. I’m actually surprised, I thought that market was mostly covered.” NT1A – “Better performance, and given a cosmetic boost.” NT2000 – “Continuously variable polar pattern. Killer product. No mic like it. And sounds sweet.” K2 – “Like a C12. The new HF1 design represents the best capsule product we’ve ever made.” S1 – “The Rode sound on stage. Feedback-free, built like a tank, low handling noise, great frequency response, there’s not a mic around better than it. And affordable.”
CH: ‘Cracking it’ was all based on what you’d done with the NT2. Can you tell me some more about what modifications you’d made to that mic to ensure it was of good quality? PF: As I say, the mic came from this other Chinese manufacturer I discovered. From there I consulted a guy in the US called Jim Williams from a company called Audio Upgrades – he’s still around doing upgrades to consoles and microphones… bit of a guru. He came up with a circuit – which I subsequently found out wasn’t his, but based on a Schoeps circuit. Nonetheless, not taking anything away from Jim, he showed me the difference good audio design could make. The sound quality he got with his circuit compared to what we were doing with the old NT1 circuit was like night and day – really good FETs, better components, better layout, nice electronic balancing… And that completely changed the mic into what people loved about the NT2 – it became quite a special product. And that was the building of Rode – that circuit, our quality control and our marketing. CH: And it wasn’t that long before you released the first Rode Classic valve mic? PF: That’s right. At the time I noticed that the AKG C12 re-issue phenomenon was quite hot, and I thought there was an obvious need for a more affordable valve mic. It was also around that time I started doing my own metal work in Australia – in Mudgee. CH: So this was a watershed. You’d gone from effectively selling ‘hotted up’ Chinese mics to taking
steps to doing it yourself. Was it a case of going from just finding something that you could spruik to actually caring about microphones? PF: Yeah, I guess it was. When I started working on the Classic I thought, ‘you know what, we can actually be a real microphone company’. From then on my aspirations were to build everything to do with the product. And the amount of work that went into developing the first Classic was insane. CH: How did you go about sourcing and selecting your vacuum tubes for the Classic? PF: I looked at the esoteric stuff and did some listening. I found that the sound of the 6072 valve was well suited to our circuit. I had a look at what the old AKG C12s had used – because that’s a lovely sounding mic – and I investigated how to buy those components. The best one, with the lowest microphonics and the sweetest sound, was the GE JAN [General Electric Joint Army Navy]. And, luckily I was able to source those original tubes (they’d been out of production for 20-odd years) and managed to buy 25,000 of them. These days you can’t buy those tubes for less that 40 or 50 dollars US apiece. And the Classic to this day still has that valve. TAKING CONTROL CH: So describe to me how the plans for in-house manufacturing progressed from those early Chinese microphone days up to the present?
PF: We outgrew our little warehouse in Rydalmere – a few laminex tables and a few women sitting there with soldering irons. From the proceeds of the NT2’s success we saved a lot of money and bought an ex-RTA technical workshop in Rhodes. That was the start of Rode becoming a real manufacturer, with real machinery, test gear and engineering staff. For example, during that time I bought our first ‘pick and place’ machine for automating the building of printed circuit boards. That was a big deal and really improved the specs of our mics. CH: But the site still didn’t involve the holy grail of your own capsule making?
PF: Everyone knows that labour in China is very cheap, but that’s not the issue for us. That’s why I like taking people around our factory. For example, take that printed circuit board machine… how are the expensive local labour costs hurting me there? There is no labour! And if you do it the hi-tech way, the tolerances are just that much better than using manual labour. CH: Yet, you’ve gone from having the cheapest mics around to being undercut by the Chinese-made mics. Doesn’t that affect business? PF: It’s not all about price. With manufacturing in the western world, if we’re smart, we have a lot more to trade on than that. Rode has built up a huge brand name. We also have an edge on technology, we invest millions into R&D – something you can’t do if you’re selling mics for $20. I don’t see people flocking to buy Chinese guitars if it’s a Fender or Gibson they aspire to own, just because they’re cheap! And when the Chinese products go up in quality, which they must to survive, so will the price. Right now all these ‘suppliers’ are saying, “my Chinese mic is cheaper than your Chinese mic”. It’s a dead-end street. I would need to be double or triple the price for Rode to lose real sales. Rode has brand integrity, and it has the extra value-added stuff. For example, we have never ever charged for service and repairs. We don’t make a song and dance of the fact, but it’s true. And I love it. As far as I’m concerned, the more ‘cheap’ product that comes into the market the better. It just introduces more people to what’s out there, and people aspire to having quality. CH: One aspect of the Rode sound that this magazine has had a recurring quibble with is the tendency to accentuate sibilance. Is that a criticism that you’ve looked into?
Another example: a lot of well known black rappers in The States love the old Classic and the NTV. If you’ve got a really deep ballsy voice, I’ve not heard better. For some string instruments, nah, I don’t like it so much. A super-sibilant girl’s voice… I don’t like it. No mic manufacturer would suggest their designs are great on everything, and we’re no different. So, yeah, we have our sound, and I don’t have the nuts to stop making a flavour that a lot of people love. I’m making Jack Daniels and you’re telling me that a lot of people don’t like Jack Daniels. Okay, that’s fine. But rather than change my Jack Daniels recipe I’d rather start another little thing on the side and make single malt whisky. CH: You’re referring to the new HF1 capsule, as found in the NT2000 and K2? PF: I’ve changed the sound of that capsule to make the NT2000 and K2 sound much more like what people refer to as the ultimate references. Sonic flavours such as the Neumann U47 and AKG C12 are definitely bench marks. CH: But obviously they’re mics with track records that date back decades. It’s a very brave reviewer or studio pro that goes out on a limb and says, ‘forget about the $20,000 mic because the $2,000 K2 is better’. Unless the newcomer is cloned on a subatomic level there will be differences. PF: Sure, I guess all I’m getting at is that I’m not just in this game for the money. I love music. I love great audio design. And I love making things. I think Rode is writing its own history and in the end I’m after the ultimate accolades. I’m a bit like a muso who wants to be on the top of the charts. I want the company to become one of the all-time legends. CH: The problem with legend status is that it generally comes posthumously… PF: So I guess it’ll have to wait… I’m not planning on dying any time soon!
Rode's new factory affords the company the facility to make its own capsules for the first time.
THE MAGAZINE FOR SOUND ENGINEERS & RECORDING MUSICIANS
CH: Every other high-volume audio manufacturer seems to be throwing their lot in with the Chinese but you’re doing the complete opposite. Are you right and are they all wrong?
PF: Rode microphones have a sound… and it’s why our customers buy the mics! But that sound doesn’t suit everyone or everything. You should hear some of the studio sessions I’ve been to. You sit back and you think ‘that’s as good a sound as I’ve ever heard’, and you find out it was one of my NT1000s or something. Then a certain style of female vocalist may sing into it – and ouch, it’s not the right mic.
PF: And that was one of the main reasons for our third move to our current factory in Silverwater. I bought this new factory a few years ago and I spent over a million bucks doing it up. That way I could have the full-on clean room lab – lapping machines, the sputtering machines – to do capsules in a big way.
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THE NAME BEHIND THE NAME Tom Hidley – Westlake/Eastlake Audio
As one of the world's most influencial acousticians, Tom Hidley has always had plenty to say about the past, present and future of studio design. Andy Stewart interrupts Tom during a pre-retirement fact-finding holiday in Queensland, putting paid any hopes for a quiet life in Australia.
Acoustic design theory is one of the most contentious and confusing topics in audio, and as one of the world’s best known and influential figures in the field throughout the last four decades, Tom Hidley is no stranger to controversy. Beginning his foray into studio design way back in 1965, and as founder of Westlake and Eastlake Audio in the ’70s, Tom has had a huge impact on the history of modern recorded music as we know it – both in terms of our approach to tracking and mixing and the sonic performance of modern recordings. In the ’70s, many of the world’s top producers wouldn’t work in any other space: “If you’re not hiring a Westlake room, I’m not doin’ it!” Tom Hidley was the inventor of the Westlake ‘turn-key’ studio solution, for which there was even a written guarantee. He succeeded in packaging the unpackageable, rationalising the chaotic minefield of equipment and acoustic treatments into a single purchasable item – something almost unimaginable today. It was Tom who developed the whole concept of studios possessing sonic parity regardless of where on the planet they happened to be, his rooms allowing an engineer to take a master tape from one place to another, lace up the reels and be ready for work – in theory at least. A studio owner who could boast a Westlake Audio facility back then was, without a doubt, at a distinct advantage. And even after three decades – an eternity in terms of technological advancement – Westlake rooms remain scattered throughout the world, some working, others looking a little passé. Regardless, their influence on room design resonates throughout the studio world even now. Highly successful in his field, Tom has designed more acoustic environments than he cares to remember, several of which are now legendary.
He has theorised about acoustic spaces, written about them, designed and constructed them for longer than many of us have been on this earth, and although he now claims to be retired (for the second time in his career), his passion and insightful commentary on acoustics (and anything else you care to discuss) remain undiminished. Primarily responsible for much of what we understand today about frequencies below 60Hz – how they affect rooms, and what materials should be used to manage them – Tom is, in many respects, the king of bottom end. A quietly spoken, considered man, he comes across as a gentle soul, but beneath his mild-mannered exterior and shock of white hair lies a powerhouse of experience and knowledge that is vociferous, and virtually unparalleled in the industry. I caught up with Tom in Brisbane recently while he was on holiday in Australia, and although I was reluctant to disturb him on his trip, he seemed more than happy for me to do so. During our discussion an interesting fact (among many) arose; that he and his wife intend to move to Australia next year, for, as he puts it; “The sunshine, the clean air and the beautiful fresh produce!” Retirement may be on his mind, but I can’t imagine he’ll be getting much rest once people get wind of his new place of residence… THE BIRTH OF WESTLAKE AUDIO Andy Stewart: Years ago when I first started in this business, I never really knew whether Westlake was a concept, a product or a design technique… Can you explain to me what it was and how it got started?
Tom Hidley: The Westlake name originated from the town I was living in at the time, Westlake Village, which is an hour up the Californian coast almost into Ventura County. I started the company
in 1969 in my garage. Westlake was principally selling package electronics; that is, everything from the microphone to the final monitor system, amplifiers and consoles.
From the owner of Manor Studios (above): "When we decided to rebuild, we wanted the Manor Studio to be simply the best and most up to date facility of its kind. Tom Hidley said he could design it, provide materials and supervisory labour, so that complete re-construction would be finished within 30 days of demolition of our old studio and control room. He's done it!" Richard Branson circa 1975.
AS: So you were building entire systems for people, not just Westlake products? TH: That’s right, we had MCI and 3M tape machines, MCI and API consoles, and all manner of studio equipment, but we also built the studios to house those systems. Westlake was selling the complete electronic package, while at the same time designing and building the studio. By the time the company set up shop on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, I was designing the studios, our sales department was selling and packaging the gear, and our carpenters were building the rooms. “From design to downbeat” was the Westlake motto of the day. Later when I left the company, sold it and went to Europe, I started a new company, Eastlake Audio, which was primarily focused on the design, construction and supply of monitors. The reason for the change of focus was that the industry was moving so quickly; I felt that no single person or company could do it all and get it all right. Even keeping up with the technology of the day was difficult. I had to specialise in what I felt I did best – designing acoustic environments. AS: What made you sell Westlake Audio so soon after it was established? TH: I had an argument with the other stockholders about expansion soon after we’d successfully completed three new studios in Europe: one for The Moody Blues back in 1973-74; Manor Studios in the countryside near Oxford in the UK for Richard Branson; and Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland for Anita Kerr in ’75. I returned to the US from those ’75 releases – the two rooms were released a week apart – absolutely elated, thinking this was a new hit concept. I went back to my LA office and said, “Guys, we have to expand and open a European office.” But, hands down, everybody was against me. So I said, “All right I’m out of here. You guys own Westlake, this is the financial settlement and I’m gone.” It was just politics. So that was how Westlake and I parted company and why Eastlake came into being in 1975. AS: For how long were you at the Eastlake helm? TH: Up until 1980. That’s when I sold it, retired, went to live in Hawaii and lay on the beach. But I got restless doing that because I couldn’t get certain unresolved acoustic questions out of my mind. I was always asking myself, “How could I have made my rooms better? What areas of understanding could be opened up that will take us to the next level?” The fact is I was never satisfied with anything I did. For a time there through the ’70s my acoustic designs really progressed, and each new studio construction yielded a better product than the one before. It was like peeling back the onion, as more and more design ideas were put into practice, each studio taught us something new. But by around 1978/79 the acoustic development and learning curves seemed to plateau. The designs had reached their peak and I couldn’t squeeze any more out of them. That was about the time I thought, well, I don’t have anything more to contribute so I’d better back off. That’s when I sold Eastlake Audio and retired.
AS: Why had your designs run out of their capacity for improvement? TH: It was principally the room design. It’s important to remember that back then we were learning as we went – there were no books written on it at the time, so there were inevitably successes and failures – mistakes were part and parcel of the learning curve. There were inherent core flaws in those earlier rooms, and until they were remedied, the room designs weren’t going to improve sonically. In simple terms, the rooms were often misrepresenting what the speakers put out – for a number of interacting reasons – and we couldn’t quite work out why. AS: So how did you break through the barrier? TH: One day I was lying on the beach in Hawaii after I retired the first time, and it suddenly occurred to me. I postulated that maybe there was a reflection problem built into the rooms that was constant throughout my designs. Sure enough I was right and ultimately that was the turning point of the design. I left the beach, went back to Switzerland, and into business in ’86, trading under my own name, where I immediately set about putting some of these new design criteria into the structures of my new rooms. And, sure enough, the sonic difference was obvious. The sonic barrier that had existed up through and including any of my rooms up to 1979 was gone. AS: So what was the barrier? TH: All the acoustic problems in our rooms that were evident up to and including 1979 were the result of hard surfaces near the monitor wall, and hard surfaces in the ceiling forward of the engineer. There were other major things that were dealt with as well. Wood floors that resonated due to low frequency emission out of the monitor wall was another issue. A wood frame monitor wall system (with three angles to it, in the case of most music control rooms) vibrates whenever a monitor’s low frequency is energised. It occurred to me when I was lying on the beach (it’s a good place to work things out I find!) that the timber-framed monitor wall structure wasn’t completely transferring the speaker energy into the aural part of the room. Some of the energy was going into the structure of the walls and the floor, which meant that the structure,
particularly the monitor wall, was subtracting certain frequencies from the monitors, which was obviously affecting the overall room response. So I asked myself, “How can I improve the stability and isolation of the monitor wall?” I figured the answer was mass. With this in mind, the next room I built [in 1985 while still retired] consisted of a wood-framed monitor wall in-filled with concrete, from the top down through the stud system to the floor. There was also an inner box for each monitor within the wall comprised of four inches of concrete. The monitor was now in a rigid wall system with 1/8inch airspace allowing normal and requisite cabinet flexing, but encased in concrete. This meant that there was no (or minimal) transfer of low-frequency energy from the box to the wall system because the wall was rigid and stable. It’s the way I’ve done it ever since. Now suddenly, when you do that, the bass stiffens up in the room because there’s no flop and motion on the monitor wall... You can put the palm of your hand on the wall while the speakers are pumping out 120dB SPL low end into the room and you won’t feel a thing. It’s stable, very stable. AS: So the concrete wall system and the soffitmounted speakers are primarily about bottom-end control? TH: That’s right. The wall and room size establishes the height and angle of the monitors and provides a mounting surface that’s flush with the front of the speaker cabinets. If a monitor is free-standing or hanging in a room, the extreme lows will wrap right around the sides, go to the wall behind, hit that wall, and reflect back into the room, delayed a few milliseconds. When this reflection re-combines with the original signal the phase discrepancy between them loosens the low end emanating from the woofer. I can tell you that at 10Hz (down in the infrasonic range) freestanding systems measured a metre in front, a metre behind, and a metre on the side of the speakers will yield exactly the same pressure from all sides of the cabinet due to the low-end ‘wrap’. So the soffit mounting serves a two-fold process: to keep the image phase correct and also to stabilise AT 33
wall to the other and the finishes. You can get rid of a lot of high-frequency and mid-frequency nastiness between parallel walls just by inserting a simple cotton velour drape down one of the walls, but that doesn’t change the low-end character that a parallel rigid wall system will present to the room. Parallel walls will present a bump and a dip (a standing wave), and the distance between the walls will determine the frequency. Those things are mathematical, there’s nothing abstract about them.
'The Guarantee of Acoustical Performance' was one of the many 'radical' aspects of the Westlake Audio phenomenon in the '70s. Included in the guarantee were control room response tolerances, high frequency dispersion statistics and the accuracy of the control room's stereo imaging characteristics. Studio rooms had guaranteed decay times across several frequencies, a revolutionary focus on seperation and isolation, and even included a fixed or movable drum 'cage'! Room 'control' was facilitated through the advent of the 'active ceiling design' which theoretically emulated an 'infinite third dimension' like that of an amphitheatre. The written guarantee [this particular copy of which was lifted out of the centrefold of Studio Sound, circa 1974] not only offered assurances about acoustical performance, but also construction costs, equipment selection and supply, even studio management. Try finding a guarantee like that in the 21st century! 'If you'll sign here please we'll get underway...'
the bottom end and isolate the speakers from the structure. I’ve always argued that flush mounting speakers is a better way to set them up than having them free-standing. It was something that I learned when I worked at JBL in the ’50s. But like anything, there are good and bad ways to soffit-mount speakers. PROBLEM ROOMS – SOME DO’S & DON’TS TH: Room design is a semi-repeatable process but there are certain rules that you must abide by, and if you don’t, certain things will happen. We don’t know what all the permutations are yet, but after 40 years we do know what the bulk of them are. Most of the fundamental problems have already been explored and dealt with over the years, but again, I have to say, it’s a semi trial and error thing. It’s also a very subjective field. The reality is people hear differently.
AS: But isn’t there a strange contradiction in that? How do you tread that fine line where, on the one hand, acoustics is entirely subjective because people hear differently, and on the other, you have measuring devices and mathematics to provide substantive ‘proof ’? TH: There are certain things that are related to math in the design of a room, and others that relate to subjectivity, and they can co-exist. There’s also, at this point in time, a set of known situations – of construction, of geometry, of reflections – that influence a design. It’s generally known what a design’s net result will be prior to the construction phase because you’ve done it before and you know what the result was previously – and, all things being equal, the outcome is repeatable. Time has also established a significant list of absolute ‘do-nots’, particularly in control room design… AS: In simple terms, what are some of these basic rules, given that most people nowadays work primarily at home and probably break several rules of acoustic theory, in many cases without even realising it? TH: Well, for instance, in the home, virtually everyone endures parallel walls. That’s a mid band and a low-end standing wave problem. Sometimes it’s a high frequency problem, it all depends on the type of room and the angles, the distance from one
Another rule of thumb is, never use monitors that are ‘too big’ (low frequency-wise) for your room. If you have a monitor system that goes down to 20Hz and you attempt to put it in a room that’s incapable of reproducing that frequency, what will happen? The monitor will attempt to produce 20Hz and the room will say, “Sorry, I can’t deal with that.” The result is like air in a balloon; as you come from both sides and start squeezing, something’s going to pop out between your fingers. If you put a monitor that goes down to 20Hz into a room that only has a 30 or 40Hz capability in wave distance, you’re going to create a huge bump about an octave above the fundamental frequency that the monitor’s producing. And you’ll never get rid of that bump, because you’re introducing something into that room that shouldn’t be introduced (Wavelength Physics). If you’re going to build a small control room, match the monitor’s low frequency capability to the size of the room! (half the wavelength of a room’s longest dimension should equal the maximum low frequency from the room’s monitor.) You can size your monitor downward in frequency as long as the room possesses the dimensions to carry it. THE SOUND OF SURROUND AS: What about the whole surround sound dilemma? If a stereo room has a typical ‘send and receive’ design (forward-firing monitors with the engineering facing towards them), doesn’t placing surround monitoring in such a room basically throw the whole design principle out the window?
TH: Sure it does. AS: What’s the difference then between the design of a 5.1 room and a stereo room in your opinion? Are they radically different? TH: This is a really controversial subject. Let me say up front that I am a purist. I have a music background, I don’t like things that aren’t naturally musical and I reject things that introduce colouration – electronic or acoustic – into a control room’s musical product. That doesn’t mean I don’t build and design 5.1 rooms, I do. However, I believe the way 5.1 rooms are currently expected to be built is incorrect from a sonic perspective. Now, that puts me at odds with the establishment and the expected norms of today, but I don’t care, I have those feelings, I’m honest with you and I’m up front about them. I’ll also go one step further and say that, in my opinion, a well-designed 5.1 room will never attain the sonic purity that a stereo room is capable of. Now a stereo pair with a centre monitor forming a three-monitor front is okay. But you don’t have a phantom centre then, you have a locked centre. AS: By a locked centre, I presume you mean an actual centre? A real source, not just the illusion of a centre speaker... TH: Correct… stereo has a phantom centre. A
AS: Is it possible to design a room that’s timeless or is acoustic theory inexorably bound up in fashion like everything else? TH: Well certainly what was designed and built in the ’70s and ’80s, from my perspective – and I speak now only of my own history as I view it – was based on experimentation and learning. I was a long way from knowing it all – and still am. I think any acoustic designer that tells you he went in and built a near-perfect environment on his first or second attempt is kidding himself. For me it was very much an evolutionary process; I’d build a room, listen to
...never use monitors that are ‘too big’ for your room... like air in a balloon... as you start squeezing, something’s going to pop out between your fingers.
it, measure it, and then say, “Okay, next time we’ll try this, next time we’ll try that.” Eventually I began to learn what worked and what didn’t. As far as your question of a timeless room goes, it would have to be defined as ‘nature’ – a ‘nonenvironment’ environment. It’s been my goal for 40 years – I’m still trying. AS: How would you define an 'honest' control room? TH: These days mixes must ‘travel’ – they’re compatible whether you come from a small room that’s well designed or a large room that’s well designed. You’ll perceive a difference in the cubic volume of the room, because of the
reverb time differentials, with extremely large rooms versus extremely small rooms, but good rooms won’t change your perception of the mix. That’s ultimately what you want from a control room: an honest reference. Simply put, a control room should be an analytical and accurate environment that allows you to correctly and intelligently make tonal and spatial judgements because your monitoring reference to the room, to your ears, to your brain processing, is an accurate entity and combination. It begins with correct room design and correct monitor selection for the room.
‘locked centre’ is the centre-stage vocalist with the band behind left and right. That’s fine. Reproducing that with three monitors? Great. However, in my opinion, you should never build those three monitors in a wrap monitor configuration monitor wall, they should be built on a straight horizontal wall – for the purest sonic effect. With a threeangled monitor wall you will never get the locked centre to musically fully phase-gel when panning from centre to left or right. The trajectory of sound into the room from the monitor wall is what it’s all about for acoustic phase coherency. It’s one of the mandatory things that you have to have if you want sonic neutrality via absolute phase trajectory symmetry. And that doesn’t exist in the typical 5.1 setup or curved front monitor wall. AS: Obviously most people place the front three speakers of a surround system in an arc in an attempt to time-align the centre speaker. Is this a mistake in your opinion? TH: It is. The standard surround configuration is a circle, and you put all five monitors around its perimeter. I’m doing this right now in Hong Kong in one of the rooms that we’re building. But absolute phase-linearity between left and centre, or right and centre, is unachievable in this arrangement. The centre monitor, which comes in at a different trajectory and a different angle to the mid and high frequencies from the left and right instantly creates phase distortion, you can hear it. Sibilance worsens, brass instruments become edgy – things become kind of electronic sounding, a little pitched. The open musical natural character of the stereo pair is downgraded by the centre speaker when centre material is panned to partial left or right if the centre is flanked by left and right monitors that are angled in towards the listener. So I don’t abide by the wrap monitor front wall. Although I’m the one that started that damn thing in 1969 at Record Plant Third Street, Los Angeles! I did it because the monitors we were using there had very bad horizontal dispersion. When you ran them straight into the room you couldn’t hear the top end unless you slid up and down the console. So, to overcome that, we angled them in. It seemed like a smart idea at the time... unfortunately that has stuck
in the industry ever since. People do it everywhere now – sorry! AS: How then do you embrace the idea of designing a surround room if you find 5.1 systems so unpalatable? TH: I don’t like it. I think it’s wrong… but clients demand it. Why? Because the industry has put it forward as a standard and they require it to be able to work compatibly with the industry’s accepted norms. It is my opinion that surround sound was introduced and promoted to emphasise ‘special effects’ in the film industry and not as a musical format. But as with so many things in life, a good start can, and frequently is, drawn away from its original good intention and downgraded in future applications not originally envisaged or intended. To me, surround sound for music is just a gimmick. AS: In principle, did you feel the same way about quadraphonic rooms back in the ’70s? You seemed to embrace that concept at the time... TH: Yes, we built quadraphonic rooms at Westlake. We even had a quad mix demo room with an API console at its heart. We used it to demonstrate electronic equipment. AS: As a design principle then, is 5.1 a dead end (no pun intended) in your opinion? TH: A 5.1 room with surround material will never give you the sonic purity you can get from a twochannel room. As I said earlier, I’m happy to accept a three-channel front (straight horizontal wall), but if there are to be surrounds they should never, in my opinion, be used for handling music product, only effects, reverberant reflections or applause as originally intended by the film industry. I don’t fight that at all, because that’s natural. What I fight is the placement of music all the way around you in defiance of a visual cue. It’s a gimmick and I find it very offensive. But do I design it and build 5.1 rooms? Yes. If I want to work, that’s what I’ve got to do. Do I like it? No. Is it right? In my opinion, no. AS: So when you’re building these rooms do you try and explain the pitfalls to clients or convince them not to go surround? TH: If the client is capable of understanding it, I’ll sit and talk with them and explain the situation. But in the end, they’re working in a market that demands this format. I can’t advise them not to embrace the format in the face of that demand. Surround sound has become far too engrained to ignore. Will it come and go like quad? Probably not. RETIREMENT? AS: I heard a rumour that you were contemplating moving here.
TH: That’s true. My wife and I will be moving to Australia next year. I have a four-year retirement visa. I’m really looking forward to it. AS: It will be interesting to see how you feel about Australia when you come back permanently. You might find a queue developing to engage your services. TH: I’ll love it. The people, the food, the weather… you name it. Those are the main fundamental ingredients of life. AT 35
THE NAME BEHIND THE NAME
Al Smart – Smart Research Living incognito in an anonymous Melbourne suburb is one of the world’s most highly credentialled and enigmatic audio designers. Andy Stewart asks: ‘would the real Al Smart please step forward?’
Mention the name Al Smart to an audio professional and he or she will immediately think ‘compression’. Ask an audio professional what Al Smart looks like or how old he is and none of them will have a clue. The fact is, Al Smart is an enigma. I finally met up with Al at his house in Melbourne recently after several phone conversations. When I arrived at the address, I knocked politely on the neatly painted front door, and as it swung open, there he was: Al Smart’s… son, or was it his nephew? Frankly, I had no idea, but then the revelation came. Like a cornered CIA agent who has just realised his number’s up, the gentleman at the door revealed to me, somewhat reluctantly: “I am Al Smart.” For whatever reason, I had figured Al to be ‘an older gentleman’. Given the number of audio designs attributed to him, I had assumed him to be about 60, but the guy standing in front of me was barely 40. Either Al was an electronics ‘Mozart’ who had completed his first compressor designs by the age of eight, or somewhere along the line my wires had been put out of phase by a series of misnomers. Al Smart’s name is globally synonymous with high quality compression. His two designs, laconically dubbed the C1 and C2, can be found everywhere in the world, from mastering suites to front of house rigs, and regardless of the environment, the role they play is almost always a vital one. The renown of these units is probably best illustrated by the fact that most studios and freelance engineers in AT 36
Australia have a ‘NOC list’ of everyone who owns a Smart compressor, just in case one needs to be borrowed for an important session. Born in Singapore and raised in England, Al has worked for SSL, designed and built numerous studios – including Peter Gabriel’s Real World and Jamiroquai’s private home studio – freelance engineered for artists such as Peter Gabriel, Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell, as well as developed a boutique range of electronic equipment that sells by reputation alone. The company he owns and runs is Smart Research, but unlike most of his ‘rivals’, Al never advertises or promotes any of his products, choosing instead to let the gear sell itself. Although this restricts the reach of the brand name into the wider community, the rarified air that Smart Research resides in suits him just fine. I interrogated Al for several hours and managed to extract quite a bit of information out of him… I told him that unless he co-operated AT would publish his photograph – which we’ve done anyway. GET SMART Andy [McLaren] Stewart: So Al, where do these famous compressors of yours get made?
Al Smart: Well, there’s a workshop in England and one here in Melbourne. The Australian manufacturing is done at Assemblease in Richmond, and I and one other person test that equipment in batches once it arrives here from the factory. We’re not a major volume outfit: for example in Australia we do batches of about 25 C2s every few months,
which is great for me because, at that quantity, I’ve got the time to personally guarantee what goes in the box – I don’t have to delegate the quality control to someone else. At this scale, I can guarantee what I’m manufacturing and still deal directly with customers. I don’t want to compete with the large volume manufacturers like Focusrite or Manley, but I like to think Smart Research offers something that doesn’t really exist elsewhere in the industry. AMS: The company’s obviously not motivated by money then, if that’s the case? AS: I hope not. The company certainly wasn’t borne out of a desire to make money. I’ve been playing with electronics since I was seven and that’s what I’m still doing really. I know a lot of the ‘big guns’ in the audio industry started out the same way – and in many ways it’s a clichéd story – but I still love making this stuff, even though the workload becomes very intense at times. The phone rings all day and night too, and I can hardly bear to look at my email inbox sometimes. But the truth is, my love of audio and designing new stuff is what drives me, and it hasn’t got on top of me yet! AMS: Apart from when you were seven, pulling apart electronics, when did you get drawn to the audio industry? The impression I get is that you worked for SSL for a long time. Is that actually myth or truth? AS: No, no, that’s true. I suppose it all started back in the very late ’70s at the local eight-track studio when I was 16, and from that point on, school and study was completely displaced by the lure of studios and electronics. Soon after that, I was employed by Wave Studios in London where I was engineering and also doing maintenance. From there I moved over to an electronics company called Digital Audio Systems that was doing everything from rebuilding old Neve consoles to hiring out digital Sony equipment like PCM encoders and 5630s. I was involved in general electronics within the company; so for instance, I was taking apart second-hand Neves and resizing them, building custom monitoring panels, things like that. AMS: So when did SSL enter the frame? AS: When I was about 20. SSL was taking off at that point, with maybe 20 employees and the orders rolling in. By some fluke or other I met Colin Sanders – who had basically designed the original SSL on the back of napkins and fag packets at two in the morning during sessions in the little studio called Huge!, which he owned at the time. I got involved in one such session as an engineer, despite the fact that I’d never worked on an SSL before. I just pretended I knew exactly what I was doing and bluffed my way in! I then proceeded to overdrive every signal path I could find, as I fumbled my way around the SSL, repeatedly insulting the console for good measure to disguise my incompetence, not realising that its designer, Colin Sanders, was sitting next to me!
kind of pedantic but technical view they needed for the console’s acceptance. At that stage, as an unknown manufacturer, SSL needed to satisfy very pedantic customers – like me – with their new console. During that session, I was very demanding of the studio, and inadvertently showed that I was electronically capable enough to fix any complaints I might have myself. He was also interested at that point in developing a multitrack recorder (we were using one of the few UK-made machines for the session, which was an A80 transport with electronics made by Colin Broad). At the time I was building a one-inch eight-track recorder, using new electronics and an Otari halfinch transport that I had machined new guides and bearings for, so I guess this was of mild interest to him also, although it never came to fruition. This was right when the company started to grow, and the E–Series was still really only a prototype, so it was essential to test them hypercritically in their final environment. When I commissioned the first 6K at Townhouse for example, I fixed and fed back over 200 faults on it that had been passed through testing at the factory. In the two years that followed I commissioned around 40 consoles including Townhouse, Abbey Road, Air Studios, SARM and George Benson’s studio in Hawaii. The job took me all around the world, which was fabulous. AMS: You were supervising the installs, getting the consoles up and running? AS: Yeah. So when you bought a console – and when the crates arrived – I would arrive soon after and attempt to make the thing go… properly! AMS: And you had a few strong hands to lift the consoles into place I hope?! AS: Yeah, well they were usually already in the studio by the time I arrived[!], although there were a few occasions when I got to see them dangling from cranes, that sort of thing. I remember wedging one in a stairwell at Good Earth in London once… the console had to take two turns down the stairs into a basement. In their enthusiasm to get the console in, the guys that were lifting it kept saying to me, “Mate, we’ll get it in there, don’t you worry.” After they stumbled down the stairwell and wedged it
in tight, with no hope of retreat, we had to get a Kango hammer to demolish the building around it so they could move it in, which they duly did. That was a memorable install. Tony Visconti who owned the studio at that time was very impressed with the encounter! THE BIRTH OF SMART RESEARCH AMS: Can you tell me about the birth of the C1 compressor? The myth has always been that the SSL bus compressor and the Smart C1 are identical, and in my experience, the C1 is often called an SSL compressor. Did you in fact, as legend would have it, design the SSL quad compressor?
AS: No, no. What happened was that after I left SSL I went to work as chief engineer at Eddy Grant’s Blue Wave Studios in Barbados. While I was there I decided to build an outboard unit, but without the instability and output drive issues associated with those early SSL consoles. I loved the SSL Quad bus compressor, so I built myself a couple of them, but from then on someone else was always borrowing them – I could never get my hands on one, even for my own sessions! AMS: That sounds remarkably like what still happens today… AS: …so I just had to keep building more and more of them in the hope that one day I might be able to use one myself! AMS: So you clearly knew how the SSL bus compressor was constructed, how it functioned and the details of its circuit then? AS: That’s true. Obviously as an SSL engineer I knew all the existing circuitry. The C1 was based entirely on the SSL compressor and that was how the myth that I’d designed the Quad compressor developed. If you compare the C1 circuit to the SSL circuit, probably 50% of the components are the same. It’s the sidechain that’s the key to the way it sounds. The dynamic process is the same, which gives it its essential flavour, but the C1 had added sidechain components; different VCAs; and outputs. One other area I wanted to change was that of stereo linking, to make a wider image possible. There are different schools of thought as to how best to handle image shift in stereo compressors electronically, but
AMS: You didn’t know who he was at that point? AS: No! He just sat there and very politely took the insults, knowing full well I had no idea what I was doing. But, somehow, as a result of that session I was offered a job with SSL commissioning [installing] new consoles. I think I’d impressed Colin by doing a head geometry line up on both their tape machines before starting the session, and demonstrating the AT 37
The Smart C1 (top) and C2 compressors are among the most influential external rack units on the market; widely regarded among engineers as some of the best mix-bus compressors available.
– basically it just added lots of ‘musical’ compression to things like drums and guitars. It quickly became renowned for its bombastic sound and I wanted to include that flavour in the C2 design, and take it further by adding the ‘Crush’ switch. What I’m dying to do now is cater to all those customers that want a bit more control over the ‘Crush’ flavour. In the C2, the ‘Crush’ control is engaged via a single switch: so it’s either in or it’s out – although you can obviously moderate it by the side chain settings you use. But there are other aspects of this type of ‘treatment’ compressor that I’m keen to look into further. That’s the plan anyway. SMART TONE AMS: How would you characterise the C1 and the C2 in terms of the ‘tone’ they impart? Are they ‘midrange’ compressors as some people describe them: by this I mean, do they appear to exaggerate the midrange the harder they compress in your opinion?
Australian manufacturing of Smart Research products is done at Assemblease in Richmond. This photo shows component parts of the C2 waiting patiently for their day in the sun…
by auditioning the different possibilities it was a clear choice to use a different method to SSL. Then later came the C2, which was designed in Australia and based around an entirely different signal path to the C1. For instance, the C2 is completely balanced internally. I went right back to fundamentals with the design and also dealt with one of my favourite thorny issues: output drive. One of the things I wanted to do in the C2 was to further improve the output, as a powerful, discrete transistor output stage helps guard against loading problems; like long cables affecting the tone of the signal. Slew rate, headroom, and distortion are commonly far worse in real situations as a result of op-amp output stages than ever imagined in R&D or test departments. So I designed the C2’s output such that, for instance, live customers could drive a multicore without fearing what might arrive at the stage 300 metres away. AMS: Presumably the C1’s design remains unchanged though? Or did you retrospectively ‘hot it up’ as you developed the C2? AS: No, I left the C1 alone because it had an established reputation. That’s essentially why the C2 came about: having all these new ideas meant that rather than ‘improve’ the design of the C1, it was time to design a second compressor. The C2 is definitely a sonic improvement on the C1, although the C1 is still used and preferred by many of my customers.
CRUSH AMS: Conceptually, can you tell me where the C2’s ‘Crush’ feature came from?
AS: The idea behind ‘Crush’ [a feature specific to the C2 compressor] was to extend the characteristics of the C1 into a more aggressive area. A lot of people were using the C1 to slam drum overheads and, in some cases, whole mixes – and they still do – and I wanted to offer more extreme possibilities in that direction while also increasing purity and resilience at the heart of the design. Fisher Lane Farm had asked me to investigate an obscure FET compressor they had; people were using frequency selective compression in modified Dolby A cards; talkback compressors for recording; and the areas of FET distortion and ‘stressing’ were just natural extensions of that trend. The rest of the C2’s design was aimed more at mastering clients who have a different set of criteria to recording and mix engineers. So noise floor, headroom, distortion, and a lower compression ratio of 1.5:1 were also on the ‘improvements’ list (the C1’s lowest ratio is 2:1). I also wanted to add ‘power fail bypass’, and the ability to meter in bypass for live and broadcast clients, as well as other things. Thus the C2 was born. AMS: And presumably the C2 was trying to retain some of the characteristic tone the C1 had quickly become famous for? Or am I warping history here? AS: Recording studios were routinely using the C1 as a mix-bus compressor, but they were also using it in extreme situations – and the C1 was great at that
AS: Yeah, well this is a thorny issue in many ways. Neither one is electrically frequency-conscious as such: if you feed 100Hz or 1kHz into them they’ll compress those frequencies by the same amount, but I think the issue of ‘low-end tone’ is mainly determined by when you start compressing slow waveforms with a fixed side chain speed. At 100kHz the sidechain is nowhere near reacting within the length of a single waveform because the cycles are so short. But as you come down the spectrum you eventually reach the territory where the compressor’s reacting within a single cycle of a signal. When this happens, you’re beginning to generate distortion. If you slow down the speed of this reaction time to accommodate low frequencies, you won’t produce as many artefacts, but your compressor will become so slow that it will effectively be useless. The fact is you have to dive in and get your hands dirty some time, while manipulating these artefacts for the best sounding result. AMS: So clearly it’s better for a compressor to act on one or more cycles of a given frequency rather than a fraction of a single frequency. AS: Exactly, but the trouble is, you’re trying to impart a ‘one size fits all’ response across the frequency spectrum, which is a physical impossibility. To put this in perspective, at 50Hz one cycle is 20 milliseconds, and the slowest attack time we have is 30 milliseconds, so for most real world situations there will be significant harmonics being added below midrange frequencies. IN THE WINGS AMS: Can you tell me about any new gear you have planned – you’ve already alluded to a third compressor I do believe?
AS: Oh, well, I can, but it’s dangerous in a way, to sit here and mouth off about things I’d love to do because they might just be wishful thinking. But certainly I need to explore the compression issue more. There’s definitely at least one more compressor to make. AMS: Can you give me a ‘potted version’ of the design philosophy behind this proposed third compressor as you envisage it now? Is it based on the shortcomings of the C1 and C2, or is it inspired by what they have already achieved? AS: I guess, as I indicated earlier, I’m hoping to
One-Offs for the Real World
AMS: …this headphone monitoring system was
expand on the ‘Crush’ feature. There’s been very positive reaction to the C2 since it was released and the area is wide open to investigation. I’d really like to explore the grungy region of compression more – the strident kinds of gain reduction. AMS: It’s certainly true that as the world moves inexorably into the digital domain, analogue compression is one of the crucial flavours that remain highly prized. AS: And yet everyone’s different. I’m still confounded by who buys the C1 and the C2: both compressors are used in a variety of applications and the overlap is enormous, which surprises me. For instance they both get used in the ‘invisible compression’ arena – like mastering – so I guess even in that area the musical flavours they impart are beneficial to the program information. AMS: No question about it. And probably the reason why you find it hard to distinguish between C1 and C2 owners is that most people require both at some point, depending on what they’re doing – different aspects of a mix require different styles of compression… and that’s true of mastering as well. AS: That’s true. And as an engineer, what you probably can’t afford to do is end up getting typecast for the style of compression you apply. Variety is important. RARE ARTEFACTS AMS: How do you judge what’s good and bad about an artefact when you design your equipment? Obviously no test measurement is going to actually say, ‘This is good for rock ‘n’ roll, that’s bad for rock ‘n’ roll’. Is it once again down to that old chestnut of using your ears?
AS: In many ways it is, certainly. Building equipment is no different to mixing a record in many respects. You have your preferences and tricks you’ve picked up along the way. You put in stuff you like to hear, you tune out stuff you don’t. But there are two different areas to consider here. I can always say that lower noise, lower distortion and better headroom are improvements as a backdrop to other processes that you then use to superimpose character. I like most equipment to give me a choice between passing exactly what went in, or altering it along the way: particularly consoles. For instance, a large valve console seems an insane idea to me because, as the main infrastructure of your studio, you can never escape the constraints of its sound. But don’t get me wrong; I love the flavour of valve gear, I just don’t like the idea of it being an inescapable flavour in a console.
like a forerunner to in-ear monitoring then? AS: That’s right. It used in-ear moulds, over Sony earpieces, and was actually built for Tears for Fears. It was an idea waiting to happen because the need had always been there, and at that point there was nothing you could buy that worked. But the system was a one-off – they
didn’t get produced in any quantity. I really got a kick out of building that stuff: I enjoy providing audio solutions for people so their lives get easier. I hate to think where all that stuff is now though – probably rusting in someone’s basement somewhere.
AMS: So, given that ‘flexibility’ seems to be high on your list of design criteria, will your third compressor design be more versatile than the others? AS: Actually, I’m probably going to contradict myself here. In the area of outboard gear I think I’d like to take the shackles off and go wholly for a particular sound. I see lots of exploration possible in that area, because analogue flavours seem to be more important than ever. Even in mastering, people are using analogue devices more and more to add ‘flavour’ to recordings that have none. AMS: And flavoursome analogue gear is what strikes a chord with people these days, perhaps more so than ever before. I guess, ‘technically perfect’ gear doesn’t always equate to ‘musically perfect’ in that sense? AS: That’s right. The imperfections are often what give equipment their flavour. This point came up in a conversation I had last week with Mark Stent at Olympic Studios in London who’s thinking about a custom made console so he can pre-mix and run projects in parallel to his existing G series SSL. The G’s a crucial part of Mark’s sound: he likes to overdrive it because he loves the musical distortion it produces – if you listen to a Bjork or a Massive Attack record, the sound is astounding and that’s one of the things he does to get that. So to that end the new SSL AWS900s or Sony Oxfords can’t really help him, as it’s the inherent G crosstalk and breakthrough that’s a blessing for him in that scenario. Again, actually lots of FET distortion… I’d say compressor ‘number three’ will work along those lines in all likelihood… but I’m not promising anything!
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work for a couple of years as well. I was basically a travelling factory – as the musicians came across a problem, I would build the solution. I built things like radio headphone monitoring systems out of communications transmitters, things like that.
AS: It’s really only in recent years that I’ve been more seriously manufacturing. Before that I was mainly building one-offs for people. For instance I built Real World for Peter Gabriel with Mike Large, who I worked with at SSL. I did pretty much all the electronics and installation work at Real World, and I supported Peter’s live
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NAME BEHIND THE NAME Roger Quested – Quested Monitors Quested is one of the most respected names in monitoring on the planet, counting Trevor Horn and Hans Zimmer as devotees. But there’s a lot more to the Roger Quested story than a handy knack with soft domes and crossovers. Text: Andy Stewart
He was a renowned studio engineer in England in the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s and today he’s a widely acclaimed acoustician and speaker manufacturer with a penchant for large and expensive soffit-mounted monitor designs. He’s a riddle wrapped in an enigma (to paraphrase Winston Churchill), a shy and laconic man not known for rabbiting on about his own expertise or eventful past. In fact, at times it’s difficult to get a word out of Roger Quested at all. His British wit is as dry as an Australian summer and when faced with excitable ‘audio dweebs’ he projects an enigmatic mixture of diffidence, reluctance and genuine humility. He refuses all flattery, deflecting praise like a martial artist and his self-effacing nature is almost impenetrable: “I just make speakers… I dunno what all the fuss is about.” And yet Roger has much to skite about. He’s been instrumental in the design of many major studios the world over and his speakers of all shapes and sizes take pride of place in countless facilities large and small (including my own). As an engineer he’s worked with bands such as The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Kinks, Paul AT 40
Simon, Cat Stevens, Rick Springfield… even a young Clive James, and that’s just the very short list. But perhaps one of his earliest experiences as an impressionable assistant engineer is his most memorable; working on and bearing witness to one of the most famous debut rock albums of all time, Led Zeppelin 1. Led Zeppelin 1 was a seminal rock album of the late ’60s where Roger worked with the legendary Glyn Johns, whom he credits as being a significant and influential figure: “Glyn was an amazing engineer and a real mentor to me in the early days. I owe him a lot really.” Glyn and Roger famously recorded John Bonham’s fantastic drum sound on Led Zeppelin 1 with only four mics, and yet this particular story wasn’t told to me by Roger himself, but rather, a third party who seemed to find the tale of the recording method far more enthralling. Roger himself stood quite still and stared through his round-rimmed glasses as if to say: ‘Do I really need to be hearing this story again?’, speaking only when a fact was incorrectly told or an embellishment took the story too far: Third Party: “Did you know that Roger recorded
the drums on Led Zeppelin 1 at Olympic with just three mics?! That’s just amazing, isn’t it?” Roger: “… it was four mics, actually… and I was just the assistant.” I caught up with Roger Quested recently while he was in Australia to attend the SMPTE trade show in Sydney – and it was there that we had a long and hilarious chat about speaker design and a sprinkling of his engineering past. I use the term ‘hilarious’ relatively because on the previous day when we spoke, Roger wasn’t feeling the best, it must be said. He’d had a terrible flight over, the bright lights in the trade hall were driving him batty and his dislike for public appearances was palpable. If he’d had his way I suspect he would have run screaming from the trade hall, never to return. So it was with some degree of trepidation that I’d organised to interview him on camera for the AT website – something I rarely do, and something Roger seemed reticent about… to say the least. So it was probably just as well that when the time came to film the interview, the camera up and died and I was reduced to recording our conversation on an analogue cassette. But instead
of this technical hitch sending the interview downhill like a billycart, Roger sparked up and talked openly about his speaker designs in a refreshingly humble and direct way. THE QUESTED PHILOSOPHY Roger Quested: I never try to sell speakers. I just say to people; ‘listen to them, compare them with other brands and decide what you want’. But unfortunately not many people do that. It’s the minority of customers that actually go and listen to different things and say, ‘I like the sound of those speakers best, I think I’ll buy those’.
I’ve never looked into the physics of speaker design much either. I tend to design with my ears mainly. The fact is, I became a speaker designer by accident in many ways – my background is in audio engineering. The very first speakers I built were simply designed to replace a blown pair of soffit-mounted speakers at a studio I was managing, so I didn’t even think about the design as such, only the quality of the components. I just built something to fit into the space the previous speakers occupied. Andy Stewart: You’re one of very few people, it seems, who still designs and builds specialist soffit-mounted speakers [speakers that are mounted in a wall], and perhaps the only one who would profess to rely so heavily on his ears. Can you tell me what defines a soffit-mounted speaker, in your opinion? RQ: Basically, if you take any of the speakers that I’ve designed to go into soffits – I’m talking about the Quested 212s and 412s, for example – and put them on stands, they’ll start rolling off at about 200Hz; way too high to sound any good. Conversely, if they’re soffit-mounted in a well-constructed room, they’ll be flat to 20Hz. Frankly, I’ve never been all that interested in why they work. I guess it has something to do with the surface area of the baffle because the 210s, which have a big surface area compared to the size of the drivers, work very well free-standing. But when you get something like the 415, where around 80% of the baffle is covered in driver units and ports, it doesn’t work so well unless it’s soffited. For other speakers, like the nearfield VS2108 for example, you wouldn’t gain anything by putting that in a soffit. AS: The VS2108 has quite an extended bottom end. Presumably if you put that speaker in a ‘half space’, you’d just end up with too much bass. Is that what you’re driving at? RQ: Exactly. AS: You must have seen countless ‘free-standing’ nearfield monitors incorrectly placed in soffits over the years… RQ: I have, and what I advise people to do if they’re really determined to have that soffitmounted ‘look’, is to build a simple framework, then cover it in fabric so that it looks like a soffit but doesn’t behave like one. AS: Your soffit-mounted speakers are certainly well known, but it’s the nearfields that are surely the most common of all Quested speakers nowadays. How and when did you start designing those? RQ: Well, the development behind all of my
speakers starts with work on the drive units themselves, and then I make the electronics that link these components together as simply as possible, whether they’re active crossovers or passive. When you look at the passive crossover of the VS2108 for example, you’ll notice that it only has about five components, whereas some speaker crossovers have 10 or 12. If you make the crossover simple it’s going to have a more effortless, open sound to it. The same applies to the active ones, with the EQ. To keep the box size down you have to introduce a very shallow 6dB per octave – even less – low frequency lift in it. You can get the same result without it of course, but you’d have to have a box three times as big! Once you’ve worked on high quality components you then add a decent amplifier. One thing I often notice with other people’s two-way active designs is that they tend to feed too little power to the tweeters. For the high-end driver you’re not using a lot of RMS power, but that’s no reason to afford them less – you still need the headroom. In the VS2108A, we’re feeding 120 Watts to the bass driver, but we’re also sending 100 Watts to the tweeter. I learnt this technique at the very beginning of my design career while working on the prototypes of my big three-way active systems. We had three Yamaha amps at the time: a PC5002 on the low end, two PC2002s at 450W on the mids, and a PC1002 at 100W per channel on the tweeter. Initially what was happening was that we were blowing up tweeters (rated at 25W) all the time, but as soon as we put double that amount (200W) on the tweeter… no problems at all!
“Led Zeppelin 1’s sound is
mainly the sound of very competent people in there getting on with it.”
Two ways to build nearfields
AS: I imagine the instinct must have initially been to back off the power supplied to the tweeter rather than increase it. RQ: That’s right. AS: So it was the levels of distortion then that was blowing them up, rather than sheer power? RQ: Yes, it’s square waves that kill tweeters – transient square waves off the amplifier. It’s obviously a law of diminishing returns once you reach a certain degree of amplification, but in principle the more power and headroom you’ve got, the better a speaker’s going to sound. NECESSITY – MOTHER OF ALL INVENTION Like so many of the early speaker designers in the pro audio industry, Roger Quested found himself at the forefront of speaker development out of sheer frustration with the studio monitors he’d been forced to work with for so long...
RQ: I started building speakers because I simply couldn’t find any I liked. At the time (around 1982) I was managing a studio in London called Dick James music, and I’d worked there as a freelance engineer in the past. They’d had Eastlake monitors originally, which had two bass drivers and a compression driver that were – when you worked all day – a bit tiring, to say the least. Somewhat bizarrely, between the time I agreed to become the studio manager and my first day on the job, they changed the monitors to UREI 815s, which sounded much nicer than the compression drivers in the Eastlakes, but the problem was they used to break all the time because all the low bass was going through the
RQ: A two-way speaker – as with all speaker design – is full of compromises, and the main problem with a two-way design is that the smaller you make it, the less bass it naturally generates. A three-way speaker, on the other hand is going to be physically bigger and more expensive. (We’re just making the finishing touches to the smallest three-way speaker we’ve ever offered right now, actually; a single 10-inch bass driver, with a soft-dome midrange and tweeter.) With the S-series Questeds, the two-way nearfield with the six-inch driver (the S6) is marginally better for vocals and accurate speech representation. The next size up, the S7, has
the nicest balance overall, but by the time you go up to the eight-inch driver, the S8, the extra bass out of the driver causes the midrange to suffer a bit. AS: Suffer how? RQ: Well it doesn’t have quite the clarity of the S7. I mean we’re talking very subtle changes here, but of course, if you were to go up to a 10-inch two-way system, I’d find that balance unacceptable. AS: So the 10-inch driver is the tipping point at which you’d say you have to have a dedicated midrange driver, hence the new three-way? RQ: Well, in my mind, if you have a 10-inch driver you need a midrange component, yes.
Mixing Pink Floyd’s Obscured By Clouds
“I guess Abbey Road would
have been the most famous studio around the world, but the two most prolific studios in London at that time were Morgan and Trident.”
Roger Quested: I only saw this Pink Floyd photo for the first time six months ago. It was taken when we were mixing the film soundtrack Obscured by Clouds in Studio 3 at Morgan. I remember that session quite well actually because it involved a notorious drama with ‘two’ bass tracks. I hadn’t recorded the soundtrack – I only mixed it – so I wasn’t familiar with the music before the session. The band came in with the tapes, and on one of the songs there were two tracks of bass, which is why Roger Waters is sitting where he is in the
photo, right next to me at the console. I’d been trying to mix the two bass tracks together – manually of course – on his cue commands but it wasn’t working out. He kept saying to me: “Okay change it over… now… oh you’ve missed it!” So in the end I said, “well this is just impossible, you keep giving me the cues after they’ve gone! So I tell you what, I’ll put the bass parts on two faders and you can do it yourself.” So Roger [Waters] sat there while we tried to mix the song to ¼-inch, and he just kept getting it wrong, over and over. We
dual-concentric cone. We had English producer, Gus Dudgeon, in the studio remixing Elton John at one point and he broke one twice a week. This was a crazy state of affairs so as soon as he’d finished the project I started looking around to see what else was out there. I was originally intending to use a 10-inch Tannoy dual-concentric for the mid and tops, and get a couple of 15-inch bass drivers to fill the room, but before that happened I stumbled across this ProAc hi-fi system which I thought sounded excellent. I spoke to the guy who owned the company and he said the midrange was made by ATC, so I got a couple of those and four Gauss bass drivers… but do you think I could find a decent tweeter? I mean, there weren’t any! So what I eventually used as a tweeter was an Audax driver, which the company actually sold as a high/mid hi-fi component. This was okay up to 16kHz – and in the studio you didn’t want or need anything flat to 20kHz anyway – so I tried that and it worked out very well. I set them up in the studio and eventually one of the freelance engineers approached me and asked if I would make a similar pair for a friend of his who was rebuilding a studio nearby. I agreed and pretty soon the word got around. Before I knew it, I was building speakers for Trident, Sarm West, Abbey Road, Westside, and Townhouse. RE-QUESTED NEARFIELDS AS: When did you build your first Quested nearfield monitor?
RQ: I guess in about ’85 or ’86. All the initial sales were of big soffits, of course, but at one point a couple of producers asked me if I could make something like an NS10, only a bit more powerful
John Bonham’s drum kit on Led Zeppelin 1 was recorded with only four mics, two of them the Legenday Neumann U67 (floor tom and a single overhead). The bass drum was captured with an AKG D20 (pictured middle) AT 42
and the snare mic was a ribbon, the beyerdynamic M160 (far right). The rest of the drum sound on this classic album is comprised mainly of spill!
were switching between Bass 1 and Bass 2 – the new bass and the old bass, or whatever it was – but he never got it right. In the end everyone was getting a bit pissed off because there was a bit of tension in the band by this time, and everyone just wanted to get it done. So, eventually, while the band members were making a cup of tea, I went around the back of the console and plugged one of the bass tracks – which had nothing wrong with it at all – into both faders so in the end Roger was just switching between two faders of the same thing. After a few more
goes at it he eventually said: “I think that one was alright”. So I said, “I’m not sure, I’d better check it” and needless to say it was alright, and that was that. The console we’re mixing on in this photo is a Cadac and the tape machine was a 3M. Morgan had a long association with Cadac. We had the first console they ever made, which was an eight-bus console. We beta tested for them and from memory that was the first in-line console they made. The person standing on Roger’s left is Richard Wright from Pink Floyd. And I still have that shirt.
and a bit more accurate. This request eventually gave rise to the H108, which was designed to be as small as possible and still work. Funnily enough, we’re selling more of those now then we ever have. AS: And then you designed the larger passive VS2108, is that correct? RQ: No, actually the next nearfield I developed was intended to be an ‘active’ [powered] version of the H108. AS: I always thought the VS2108A started life as a passive speaker… RQ: No, it started out as an H108, and then (I can’t remember why, I think it was because of Genelec), I decided to make a powered version of it. But since there wasn’t enough room at the back of the 108’s cabinet to dissipate the heat from the amplifier, I had to make the box bigger. So that became the VS2108A. Soon after it was released I got a call from a guy from a studio in New York – a very big facility with something like 20 rooms at the time – who said: ‘We’ve tried everything and we’re going to go with your H108 because it’s the best sounding nearfield we can find… we just wish it had a bit more bass’. This call came on a Friday afternoon, so I said: ‘I’ll call you back on Monday’. Over the course of that weekend I experimented with putting the H108 crossover in the active VS2108 cabinet without the amplifier, because in a bigger box you’ve naturally got more bass. I quickly re-tuned the cabinet and sent a pair over to New York the following week, and when they heard them they ordered 40! Personally, I think I still prefer the H108. In fact, it’s still what I listen to at home.
ROGER QUESTED: THE ENGINEER AS: Can we go back further to when you first started engineering in the ’60s. What do you remember of your first session as an assistant?
RQ: My first session as an assistant engineer came at the beginning of ’68 at Olympic Studios in London, recording the Rolling Stones’ Jumping Jack Flash for Top of the Pops. It was quite an interesting first job actually because the film editor had cut the footage up without listening to the soundtrack, so you can imagine what it sounded like. And yet somehow Charlie Watts, who some people argue isn’t the most flamboyant drummer in the world, managed to play along to the picture, and then the band overdubbed the other bits afterwards onto the eight-track recorder.
A soft spot for soffits? A lot of people these days seem to think a soffited speaker is merely one that has a piece of cloth surrounding its front edge, although I’d wager most facilities with these types of walls are simply trying to get away with looking professional. In many respects the last decade has witnessed a great ‘unlearning’ of how soffit-mounted speakers function and for people like Roger Quested, who designs speakers specifically to work in this way, the frustrations of commissioning speakers for rooms must be unbearable at times. When this idea was put to Roger he nodded agreeably for some time, and then spoke… RQ: There are people who don’t have a clue what’s involved in soffit-mounting speakers, that’s for sure! For instance, I was once asked to visit a studio that apparently had a ‘problem’ with its monitoring, and when I got there I quickly ascertained that the ‘design’ had in fact been simply copied from another studio – from a photograph no less! And incredibly the owners didn’t actually realise that there was supposed to be anything solid behind the fabric of the soffit wall. The studio looked like the photo it had copied, but it certainly didn’t sound like it… and they couldn’t understand why! AS: And the sound of a badly designed room is usually then blamed on the monitors most of the time! That must drive you insane, does it? RQ: Well, the quality of studio design is worse now than it was 10 years ago. You couldn’t make a living out of designing studios these days, so more often than not it’s now left to architects whose expertise is in designing sports centres and shopping malls. Consequently, there’s a huge amount of glass in a lot of studios now. Some people have glass floor to ceiling, and although it looks spectacular – clients (and architects) love it – it doesn’t sound too good. The reaction is nearly always then to find out what the speakers are and blame them for the poor sound! AS: So are you still enjoying designing speakers after all these years, given this climate? RQ: Sometimes I get fed up with it, although it’s not usually designing speakers that frustrates me, it’s more the difficulties of running a business worldwide that can be trying sometimes. On those days I’d sooner be in the garden tending the tomatoes and the beans! But then every so often I’ll get a call from one of my existing customers, people like Trevor Horn or Hans Zimmer, to tell me; ‘your speakers have improved the way I work’. And that makes it all worthwhile again. It happened to me again this week actually. There’s a young guy with a studio here in Sydney, in Surry Hills, a very realistic guy, who doesn’t think he’s going to make a fortune in the studio, but he wants to set up things properly. It was quite uplifting to be reminded that there’s still someone in the business who wants to do it properly, not just as cheaply as possible. It’s always nice to be reminded of that sort of thing.
AS: So they recorded the track to the film? That’s bizarre! RQ: It was quite bizarre andit was the only time I ever saw that happen. And of course, Mick Jagger was there at the Olympic session, cursing the editor all the while, not realising he was standing right behind him! Olympic was a great studio to train in, we used to do jingles from eight o’clock in the morning and feature films at night. AS: What was the first album you worked on at Olympic? RQ: The first album I worked on there was Led Zeppelin 1 – as an assistant to Glyn Johns. That was an amazing week in the studio, that’s for sure. The whole album was finished in a week. From the start of the session to the end of the last mix took seven days to complete, mainly because of budgetary constraints obviously. None of the band members were wealthy guys back then. I mean, John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page were session musicians, so they did earn some money, and I’d met John a few times before because he used to do a lot of sessions at Olympic on bass and keyboards. But the other two members of Led Zeppelin were penniless. John Bonham, for instance, was so broke he used to come down to the studio on the train and jump off before it got into the station so he didn’t have to pay the fare! One thing I vividly remember was the mic setup around his kit during that session. There was an AKG D20 on the bass drum, a Neumann U67 on the floor tom and another one placed as an overhead, with a Beyerdynamic M160 on the snare. And to this day I still get people saying to me things like, ‘I put those mics up and it doesn’t sound anything like that’. AS: Was the whole band set up in the room together?
RQ: It was just the sound of energy, pure energy in the room. Led Zeppelin 1’s sound is mainly the sound of very competent people in there getting on with it. I mean, there was no time to waste, they just got in there and did it. I only recently got the album on CD actually, and it sounds twice as loud as modern recordings even though there’s no more level on it, it just sounds louder because of the energy levels in the room. AS: What board was Led Zeppelin 1 recorded through, do you recall? RQ: I don’t think it had a name back then. The tech guy there was Dick Swettenham; a very clever guy, who later started the company, Helios. So although the console didn’t have a name I guess it was – to all intents and purposes – a Helios, given that Dick made it. It started off as a four-bus console. Then when the studio took delivery of the eight-track 3M recorder, Dick added four knobs for the extra four groups – there were no chassis expansion packs back then! It was a goodsounding board. AS: And after your time at Olympic you moved to Morgan Studios, is that right? RQ: Yep, I moved to Morgan [in Northwest London], where I stayed for a long time. Originally Morgan consisted of just one eighttrack room and the place was working 24-hours a day, with two engineers. It was booked solid all the time, so much so that we had two builders permanently on staff there for a few years building extra rooms. We ended up with four rooms, and eventually the original studio was made into a bar and restaurant. AS: What albums of note did you record there? RQ: We used to do loads of stuff. I mean, at one point we had – and I don’t think it would happen nowadays – four albums that we’d recorded in the American Top 20 at one time: Cat Stevens, Jethro Tull, John Denver, and The Kinks. I guess Abbey Road would have been the most famous studio around the world, but the two most prolific studios in London at that time were Morgan and Trident. Trident recorded David Bowie and Elton John but in terms of sales we would have been the most prolific. But my memory is not as good as it used to be. I remember recording The Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies there in 1971, mainly because I used to live in Muswell Hill, just down the road. Actually The Kinks were one of my very first customers when I started Quested. They built their own studio in ’86 and bought two pairs of monitors off me back then!
RQ: It was. We were in Olympic’s main room, Studio 1, which was big enough to record orchestral music, so there was plenty of room to fit the band in there with all their instruments. It was a great sounding room. Most of the vocals were recorded live with Robert Plant in there with the rest of the band, with everyone performing at once. A couple of vocal bits were changed here and there, but most of it was live. AS: Is that what created the ‘sound’ of that album more than anything else, would you say?
NAME BEHIND THE NAME JOE MALONE: JLM AUDIO In a world dominated by mass production and max profit, JLM Audio prefers to build great circuits. But the brand name is less familiar than the name behind it: Joe Malone is the man behind this Queensland venture… Text: Brad Watts
Once you’ve used well-designed, hand-built audio equipment, it’s very hard to go back. Apart from the superior quality of the signal path, there’s the satisfaction of grabbing a smooth, well-made pot; then there are the ‘mmm, good ‘n’ sturdy’ military precision casings; the ‘exacto’ panel etching, and the unalloyed joy to be experienced from an oh-so-perfectly-weighted and tastefully-lit VU meter. Joe Malone is a man who appreciates great audio kit – real sonic character, smooth pots, sturdy cases and quality VUs are his bread and butter. As Joe escorts me down into the bowels of his inner Brisbane worker’s cottage – a venue that was once the hangout of the Go-Betweens – we eventually arrive at his basement workshop. It’s here that I suddenly find myself plunged into audio-tech nirvana. I’m surrounded by countless drawers of electronic parts – capacitors and resistors by the bucketful; and chickenhead knobs and potentiometers by the truckload. At first glance, the workshop has a touch of the anarchic about it, but first impressions deceive – JLM Audio is a well-oiled, ready-for-combat machine. Each and every drawer is meticulously labelled, and each tool and wotsit most definitely has its place. Joe’s two cohorts, Matt and James, busy themselves at their soldering stations. James is organising a pile of the JLM Class-A
‘99V’ op-amps, and I’m privileged enough to see what actually goes into the unit before the resin surrounds the components – firstly for thermal stability, and perhaps just as importantly, shielding them from any unscrupulous ‘copycat’ eyeballs. Sitting on Joe’s bench are a stack of vintage microphones, snug in their cases. The two that grab my immediate attention are a pair of Telefunken U47s. They’re in extraordinarily good condition for their age. So good, in fact, that initially I didn’t believe they were genuine… but sure enough, being a vintage audio ‘tragic’ I had to have a closer look – and they’re gems. Joe explains that he had to buy someone’s entire collection, which also includes one of the best AKG C12s either of us has ever seen. I’m already wondering when I can move in. Hmm. Joe and Brad… roomies… that could work. GOING IT MALONE Brad Watts: So when did JLM Audio kick off?
Joe Malone: I’ve been making JLM gear for over 20 years now. Our business grew up through work from local and international bands, and in 2002 we finally set JLM up as a company. We’ve had so much success of late with our new 500 series gear that we’re moving into somewhere bigger to keep things running smoothly. The new building has plenty of space and a really high ceiling, so it
“ people tend to pay far
too much attention to the technical specs of a product and not to what the real story is, which simply involves using your ears.
should be a pretty cool place to work. We won’t necessarily be expanding – we’ll just have the room we need to keep things under control. VINTAGE CHEESE After further perusal of the JLM Aladdin’s cave, I spot various top-notch items of vintage equipment…
JM: We buy heaps of vintage gear. They’re nice bits of kit to own, and we do hire certain stuff out to folk around Brisbane. My original AKG C24 is super rare – one of the first few hundred serial numbers – I reckon it’s recorded half the stuff done in Brisbane. I’ve also got an AKG C28a, it’s
Fully loaded: The JLM 500-series rack custom built for AT’s very own Gavin Hammond, includes 99v and TG500 preamps, two PEQ500 EQs and two headphone mixers.
like a valve 451E with removable capsules – that’s really cool. There’s also Neve compressors and Pultec EQs that I’ve slowly reconditioned; they all get hired out as well. It’s my own little fun collection. BW: So compared to the revered classics, how do you think cheaper mass-produced gear stacks up? JM: (laughs) See the funny thing about that end of the market is, I can’t understand why some of those manufacturers didn’t spend five dollars extra and make a decent preamp. There’s no reason for it really. And it seems to me that people pay far too much attention to the technical specs of a product and not to what the real story is, which simply involves using your ears – what it sounds like. Plus there’s a lot of stuff out there that’s really difficult to service. Some pieces of gear have to be entirely dismantled – all the knobs taken off and pots unbolted from the front panel – before you can get in there to replace a two-dollar component. We’re also really big into the feel of things. I can’t believe some bits of supposedly nice kit that have weak and wobbly pots and controls. For mine, it’s gotta be built like a tank and feel really good to use – I love that stuff!
The Dual 99v mic preamplifier.
ON THE RACK Sitting on the shelf next to the vintage esoterica is one of Joe’s new 500 series racks. These use a standard API ‘lunchbox’ chassis and power supply, and accept the new JLM 500 series preamps and EQ units. This one turns out to have been commissioned by none other than AT’s own Gavin Hammond…
JM: This is the most elaborate one we’ve made so far. We’ve combined two of the mixers to make a 12:2 headphone mixer. We’ve then added some VU meters to take up some of the unused space in the rack unit. The mixer section is completely separate from the preamps and EQ; there’s actually 12 inputs at the back, and if you don’t plug into these rear TRS points, the pre and EQ modules are half-normalised into the mixer section.
The JLM PEQ500 ‘Pultec styled’ passive equaliser.
BW: So why has Gavin gone for one of each preamp type, rather than a pair of each?
JM: Variety mainly. The (single channel) Dual99v is just massive on vocals, while the TG500 is huge on guitars. Both the TG500 and Dual99v have variable impedance, which gives each pre a huge range of tonal balance. He’s only gone for one of each for the extra flavour options, and there’s not enough space in the lunchbox for two of each type. If he needs to process stereo material afterwards, it’s just a case of running both sides through the pre and matching the files up afterwards. The 500 series gear has just flown out the door recently. After redesigning our preamps and EQ to run on the 16V rails (that any 500 series lunchbox uses) and keep the same headroom characteristics, they’ve been a massive hit for us. BW: I know you do a lot of ‘kits’ that anyone confident with a soldering iron can put together. What came first, building custom gear or the kits? JM: Building gear. I started building gear because I couldn’t afford the good vintage stuff for myself. I’d gotten used to playing with this stuff in the studio – Pultecs and Neves etc – and just had to have some of that gear myself. The only way to make that happen was to build my own. The kits kinda came out of that ethic. Magoo (Black Box Recording, Brisbane) still has one of our original LA-2A clones, and they were built 18 or 19 years ago. The JLM99v was developed in early 2001 through to 2004. I was building lots of different discrete op-amp topologies, to see what sounded best in different applications and what could run on high voltage rails for extended headroom. The first kit was the Dual99v kit, which came out in 2004. At that time I was racking heaps of old vintage gear, a process that involved several repetitive bits that I was hand making for each job. So, first came a five-rail power supply designed to power almost any audio device. Then I developed a kit to provide 48V phantom power, pad and phase switching to old Neve line amps that were getting converted to mic pres. I call that the ‘Go-Between’, which was a literal name as well a tribute to the Go-Betweens, who I’d worked with at different times. AT 45
They were originally only made to help me rack old gear quickly and more efficiently. Then it led me to thinking that perhaps some DIY guys might want to use them. So I worked out the pricing and mentioned them on some forums and the orders just started rolling in. Everything was selling so well that I fine-tuned the power supply design into a neater five-rail, called the Powerstation, and a newer three-rail power supply, called the AC/DC. Then I started designing a Go-Between Plus, which accidentally grew into the Baby Animal mic pre. That’s turned into our most popular kit to date. The kits have grown into their own thing, with three or four new kits every year to date. GOOD FROM BAD BW: Is there any single thing that separates the good mic preamps from the bad ones?
500-series modules are all the rage again, with numerous companies releasing modules in this classic form factor. The JLM PEQ500 (left) and the Dual 99v500 are proving hugely popular worldwide.
JM: I think the biggest thing is that most people are using the wrong types of pre’s, especially if they’re recording rock music. There are some good preamp designs but I think they’re used for the wrong purpose. There’s a preamp design that’s been used by SSL and Amek, based on a topology that was actually designed by Graeme Cohan, an Australian guy who worked for National Semiconductor. It’s a very pure and fast preamp and a configuration that’s great for recording at a distance in a good room – like most orchestral work. But it’s not so good when you’re shoving a mic three inches from a snare drum and having to deal with a really accelerated transient speed and tonal imbalance. BW: What’s brought that about then? Do you think there’s been too much of an emphasis on so-called ‘clean’ signal paths? For example, we’ve been through an era where if something couldn’t pass a 20Hz to 20kHz signal it was considered rubbish.
Not for much longer: Joe Malone in the ‘dungeon’.
JM: The 20-20 spec is a good basic test, but it doesn’t tell you anything about how the pre will sound for warmth or colour. Our Dual99v and TG500 both test 20-20k but they sound nothing like each other. That’s why people are going for all this vintage stuff, like the V76s and what have you, because they can’t believe how fat it sounds. I think this is the real issue. When you’re close-miking an instrument, especially drums, it’s almost a case of two wrongs resulting in a right. There’s so much brightness and the mic is so close to the sound source that you want a pre that will absorb some of that attack. Transformers in the preamp path will do that for you. To a degree, transformers will absorb sound like your ears do. So, for my money, close miking really requires the warmth of a transformer. Most people are close miking these days, but you don’t want that transient speed sent through the pre and into a digital recording system, which in itself is a very fast medium. The result just doesn’t gel together very well. The older Neve pre’s almost take that approach a little bit too far, so in our version of the old 1073 or 1290, we actually use a faster output transformer that stays flat under all loads. The old Neves can vary a lot, depending on the output load. BW: You mean the output impedance of the preamp?
JM: Totally. People don’t realise that. With an old Neve module, where the output is sent into a 10k Ω Digi 002 or something, suddenly there’s a 3-4dB bump in the top end. Then you go into a 600Ω load and you’re struggling to get to 20kHz. This is the trouble, people take vintage gear out of the era it was used in and combine it with all their new stuff, which is all high impedance and hotter levels – and often end up with less than ideal results. A lot of the vintage remakes or clones will sound different when plugged into different devices – it’s an unpredictable topology. We don’t like that to become an extra variable in the recording process. The JLM design philosophy is to keep our ‘fat’ sound happening no matter what our pre’s are teamed with. The variable input impedance control on some of our units is really good. We’re also really into making things with clear starting points on the controls. For example, our impedance controls will have a centre detent that denotes the best starting point. Our Dual99V pre is set up with 5dB steps and a 5dB trim control – so you can’t go wrong with your signal-to-noise, you’re forced to do it the right way. But then, if you know what you’re doing and want to get a bit more ‘sound’ or colour out of the unit, the trim control can be switched so it becomes a full-on fader – you can overdrive the pre 10-15dB and really get it to start welling up and changing its colour. Both our TG500 and Dual99V preamps have this same feature, and we’re about to do a Neve 1290-style pre as well. We just like to keep things operationally sensible. 500 GOOD REASONS BW: I noticed you have a little 500 series Pultec… is that based on an EQP-1A?
JM: The PEQ500 you’re talking about has similar features to a Pultec EQP-1A, but it’s certainly not the same. We wanted to outdo most Pultec-clones, so the unit’s got way more frequencies to choose from and ours can do the same job as a Pultec 1R [a quite rare Pultec design with a switchable shelf]. When you press the Q control, a blue LED lets you know the unit is in shelving mode. The boost control becomes a shelf and the Q control affects the slope into the shelf. Plus, the circuit is driven by our 99V op-amp on the way in, so there are no impedance changes when you alter the EQ setting. The input impedance of an original Pultec will change continually. With full treble boost with full Q the input impedance gets down to about 150Ω, which most modern gear can’t drive properly. The PEQ500 has been designed so that, no matter what you’re using it for, you won’t have to worry about these sorts of impedance mismatches. BW: So what’s the attraction of the 500 series form factor? JM: It’s cool because everyone can start with a single channel and build up the ‘lunchbox’ as they go. With the more traditional racks you’re stuck with formats of two or four. With these lunchbox racks we can build to a certain size and spec, then the customer can pick and choose their flavours. We’ve even built a mixer in this format – the first company to ever do that. With the mixer module you can use it to directly monitor signals
for latency-free recording, you can even use it to sub-mix stuff back into your DAW. It’s a superclean summing section and one of the few devices we make where we intentionally don’t add any colour. We’ve got plans for new 500 series products, compressors specifically. Eventually we’ll be making our own lunchbox unit that will hold eight modules, with the power supply at the back rather than taking up front space. Then we’ll probably be looking at some kind of single unit rack that will accept the 500 series modules as well. BAM – THANKYOU MA’AM BW: I had no idea you were building monitors as well. Can you tell me a little about them?
JM: The BAMs? They’re based on time alignment concepts similar to what Dunlavy came up with. There’s mechanical time alignment and then there’s an electronic equivalent. Dunlavy never continued with the concept, but we’ve gone ahead with built-in amplification, and we use full active extension roll-off and a full mathematical engine for the crossover – it doesn’t use a filter as such and isn’t found in any other speaker. It’s all-analogue circuitry, but what it results in is, if you put a square wave into these monitors, three metres away from the front of the monitors
you won’t see the tweeter and woofer signals torn apart into a triangle waveform. The square-wave is reassembled. They’re a very fast-sounding speaker and there are three 140W amps in each cabinet so they pack quite a wallop. We’ve cheated a little bit with some extra porting in the cabinet (Dunlavy always kept to sealed designs) but the results are pretty astounding. We’ve probably got about 40 sets out there in studios at the moment. I’ve had offers from companies to actually make them in the US but I’m not keen on letting these get out of my hands and mass produced – the smallest errors in construction could end up with some less than optimum-sounding monitors – I’m basically not prepared to let anyone else look after the quality control. JOE – GOING BANANAS After a smattering of listening tracks I’m suitably impressed with Joe’s monitors. The bottom end is quite incredible and, as Joe suggests, the vocal effects seem to almost hang behind the main vocal parts like a different entity. The image is also surprisingly deep, a testament to the speed and time alignment of the monitors. As you can see from the pics, the BAM monitors are a ported, dual bass driver design, akin to the D’appolito concept [two drivers either side of a central tweeter], but Joe shows me a smaller prototype that uses a single bass driver and tweeter that’s yet
to be put into production. The rationale is: people want the BAM sound in a more portable cab. Of course, finding myself in the bowels of the JLM Audio powerhouse, I couldn’t help enquiring about getting a few Neve modules I’d collected over the years, racked and powered up. The workroom goes quiet… Joe explains that vintage retrofits is a market JLM is attempting to avoid. Sure, there’s always the odd rebuild he can’t say no to but as far as JLM Audio is concerned there are bigger and better fish to be frying. And after having a listen to the JLM devices and taking on some of the JLM ethic and advice, I’m thinking there’s probably a better and easier way. Vintage gear is just that – vintage. It constantly needs maintenance and can often be nowhere near as good as a combination of old-school transformer technology combined with modern sense and design. Joe Malone is a fellow who combines these virtues extremely well.
THE NAME BEHIND THE NAME
Bruce Jackson – Apogee, Jands, Lake Technology
Whether it’s mixing Elvis, Bruce Springsteen or Barbra Striesand live, starting Apogee out of a garage or masterminding leading-edge live sound DSP processor development, Bruce Jackson has a tale or two to tell. Andy Stewart listens.
Not too many people in the world have packed more into their careers than Bruce Jackson. Bruce is one of those people who seems to have had so many experiences in his life that when you do a rough calculation on how old he must be, the number would seem to indicate that he’s been dead for several decades. In actual fact, Bruce is scarcely in his 50s and is as passionate, open-minded and motivated by advancements in audio technology today as he has ever been. From building his own radio station, establishing Jands, getting his pilot’s licence and mixing Elvis Presley live, all before the ripe old age of 22, Bruce Jackson hasn’t exactly been sitting around twiddling his thumbs. Names behind Bruce’s name include several familiar audio brands such as the aforementioned Jands (an acronym of Jackson and Storey), Apogee Electronics, and these days, Lake Technology. If we were to include other names for which Bruce has designed equipment, toured the world as front of house engineer or simply had a guiding hand in supporting, the list of names would trail off the page, down the hall and out the door. The abridged version of this rollcall includes Clair Brothers, Fairlight, ProTools, Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Striesand, Dianna Ross, Johnny Cash, Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart and the Faces, Barry White, Jefferson Airplane and Ozzy Ozborne… just to name a few. As some may have surmised from this extraordinary (partial) CV, Bruce has spent a decent chunk of his adult life in the United States. It was in that country that his considerable talent for live engineering and penchant for electronic wizardry was able to fully express itself, and where he set up his world-renown pro audio company, Apogee Electronics in a garage in Santa Monica. Bruce Jackson has always worked at the cutting edge of technological advancement, but unlike many others in the audio industry, his youthful perspective has never waned. As most people gain experience and become established in a field of expertise a strange and ironic process begins to engulf them. Their knowledge and skill – the very thing that defines them as experts – tends to date
them, and the learning of new ‘tricks’ becomes harder and harder until eventually they’re outmoded. No so with Bruce. He’s as cutting edge now as he has ever been. Ideas are in plentiful supply and there is always a new and innovative audio solution just around the corner. When I caught up with Bruce at Lake Technology’s headquarters in Sydney recently, he greeted me at the door resplendent in blue denim jeans, a striped shirt and white running shoes. Cutting edge in audio he may me, a fashion consultant he is not. Bruce Jackson: Yeah, well, I’m always getting criticised around here for my fashion sense. But it wouldn’t matter what I wore, these younger guys at Lake are determined to act as a constant reminder that I’m the old guy around here. I don’t feel like an old guy until I look in the mirror, but I can’t be blamed for that, surely! THE WONDER YEARS Andy Stewart: If we can take a few steps back in time, do you remember how you first became ensnared in the audio industry?
BJ: I was pretty young when I first started meddling with audio equipment. As a kid I just enjoyed electronics. I had a little lab under the house in Point Piper, which coincidentally, was right next door to where Kim Ryrie [co-founder of Fairlight] had a setup under his grandmother’s house. Kim, in fact, named his company after the hydrofoil that went past us every day – The Fairlight. One day when Kim was searching for a company name, the Fairlight went by, and the rest is history. When we were about 17, Phil Storey and I started Jands out of our respective bedrooms and the Altona, Point Piper address was the registered office. I lived in the boatshed next to the pool and had my little setup down there by the water. Not a bad spot actually – in fact, last time the house was sold it officially became the most expensive house in Australia! It was a spectacular place to grow up, that’s for sure. AS: What was Jands all about at its inception? BJ: Jands was just two eager electronics enthusiasts – myself and Phil – who built
whatever the hell they felt like. Well before the name Jands even existed we were building TV sets out of radar tubes, guitar amps and speaker columns out of second-hand bit and pieces – that sort of thing. I will always remember how exciting it was building something with my own hands and hearing this great sound coming out of it – or at least I thought it was great sound at the time. Those early successes were what inspired us. Around that time, Phil, myself and a bunch of other friends at Vaucluse Boys High School decided to build a little radio station out of all these old disposal parts. We used to broadcast illegally after school, up the end of the AM band. The antenna for our broadcast ran from one end of the school to the other, which consequently made it really, really efficient – too efficient as it turned out. We thought we were broadcasting across the neighbourhood when, in fact, we were actually transmitting right across Sydney. But eventually the PMG van triangulated in on us, busted us and shut us down. But it was fun while it lasted. Later, when Phil and I went on to university together we teamed up with Roger Foley who had a rental company called LSD Fog and we started building stuff for him. Pretty soon though we realised that we could do this ourselves, and the real Jands was born. We moved from our very exotic location in Point Piper to Rose Bay where we had an office above a florist shop. We designed and built everything there: lighting rigs, amplifiers, dimmers, PAs… it was totally hands-on. We designed the printed circuit boards, etched them, drilled them and put the components in. The next thing we knew Jands started to become really successful and the rental thing started to pay for us to design new stuff, and it just went from success to success. But we were young and eventually we got the shits with each other and sold out to four guys who still own the company today. Phil went and worked for them and I took off overseas. AS: Why were you headed in that direction? BJ: Around that time (1969 I think) I met Roy Clair from Clair Brothers during a Australian tour of Blood, Sweat and Tears, which was the AT 49
SAE [a US audio brand] product. It was during my tenure at Clair Brothers that Elvis Presley started touring again. Initially many different sound companies did Elvis’ sound on a regional basis. Fortunately (for me, as it turned out) most had problems with hanging the sound and logistics, and as a result Clair Brothers got the gig. So before I knew it I’d become Elvis’ touring engineer. It was an exciting time, and a period of great innovation. It was the first time a live show had hung the sound system (although the Ice Show had previously hung a very basic rig) – not for sound quality reasons, which is why they do it now, but so The Colonel [Elvis’ manager] could sell every seat in the house. We were the first to hang the PA from chain hoists mounted upside down; a standard practise nowadays. The PAs were much smaller then of course, but I still don’t know how we ever got away with it. It was all evolving and real seat-of-the-pants stuff.
AS: How long did you work with Elvis for? BJ: I mixed and ran the sound for Elvis for six years. I think I was about 21 when I started with him. AS: Most young engineers are still doing their SAE degree at that stage of their career! Did it seem like a big deal at the time?
1. Mixing Bruce Springsteen at the LA Coliseum. 2. The Lake Technology crew including Bruce Jackson and David McGrath (second left). 3. An early photo of a ‘flown’ PA that Bruce affectionately describes as the ‘Flying Junkyard’. 4. Bruce today at the workbench at Lake Technology offices in Sydney. 5. The ‘boatshed’ where Bruce had his first electronics setup – life was tough on the mean streets of Point Piper! 6. “What do all these buttons do again?” ...at the helm of two Clair ‘foldaway’ consoles (which Bruce himself designed) during the ‘Born in the USA’ Springsteen concert at Wembley stadium.
first time we’d seen a really big, high quality PA in Australia. I remember the gig was at Randwick racecourse, and I knew a way in over the back fence. So myself and Russell Dalliston (who went on to become chief engineer at Channel Nine) snuck in and saw the show. We were so keen to know more about the PA that we just went up and spoke to Roy and asked him a whole stack of questions about it. The short version of this story is that I ended up becoming friends with Roy, and soon after that, did a tour with Johnny Cash as Front of House engineer using the same PA. Before I knew it I was over in The States visiting the Clair Brothers facility in Pennsylvania, which, at that time, consisted of a small barn outside of Lititz – the Pennsylvania Dutch area where the Amish live. Clair Brothers was a regional PA company back then that did shows in east coast areas – before the days when tours went with one sound company across the whole country. I stayed and worked for Clair Brothers for several years, and while I was there I designed (along with Ron Borthwick) the foldout console, which I subsequently used regularly on tour with Bruce Springsteen during the 1980s. We built 10 of these consoles and they were the Clair mainstay for a dozen years (see pic left). It was the first live console to use parametric EQ. My parametric EQ also became the first parametric EQ in hi-fi as an
BJ: Nup. I had no idea. It was just a lot of work; you’re tired all the time, working strange hours and constantly travelling to the next destination. I did hundreds and hundreds of shows with Elvis across mainland United States and Hawaii. We would travel around in four or five different jet planes: Elvis had his own plane; the band had theirs; The Colonel had his plane; and concessions and crew yet another. Finally, the manager of RCA would travel ahead of us in his Learjet. At our hotels, there was a similar setup. Elvis would have his own floor, as would The Colonel and everyone else had their own rooms. As you might imagine, this separateness wasn’t exactly conducive to keeping the group together; there wasn’t a lot of chit chat about preparations for the next gig or anything like that. Elvis was kept very isolated. It was an amazing time, though, especially when we travelled down south where everyone just loved Elvis like family. We’d get treated like royalty down there – police escorts, all that stuff. I remember one time where I mentioned to the police captain in Alexandria, Louisiana, that I was a self-confessed aviation nut and the next day he sent a sergeant over to pick me up and fly me in the police helicopter all the way down the Mississippi to Baton Rouge. Most performers don’t get treated like that let alone the engineer. They just loved Elvis so much they’d fall over themselves to please us in any way they could. AS: Did Elvis play an active role in the setup at all? BJ: No. That kind of interaction didn’t really exist in those early days. There was no touring sound company or production values as such. For instance, the only lights we used were follow spots. There wasn’t even a sound check, and foldback was mixed from the house console. It was chaotic really, by today’s standards. You just had to do the best you could, and hopefully you’d
be lucky enough to get through the night. Some nights would work well and others would be a total train wreck. After a while it became selfevident that Elvis’ ability to hear himself on stage was crucial to the show’s success, so I pushed for the establishment of an engineering role that would involve a stage PA and an engineer to manage it. AS: Does this mean we have Bruce Jackson to thank for inventing the role of foldback engineer as we know it today? BJ: No, not really. It was more that its time had just come. People had been putting monitors around the place for years before that. But it had become increasingly obvious to me that making Elvis comfortable on stage was a specific task all its own, not just part of front of house duties. But it took time to convince people of that. AS: Did you take on the role of foldback engineer when the management finally acquiesced? BJ: For a time there I was doing both, and a guy called Charlie (who was Elvis’ army buddy, acoustic guitarist and set list caller) would communicate with me via headset and send me messages like ‘turn this up’ or ‘turn that down’ – this was before the days of foldback consoles. But yes, eventually I became ‘foldback’ engineer on the tour because Elvis wanted me to be right there next to him and that’s all he really cared about. He wanted me to watch him all the time and would look for approval when he had done unusually well. I would sit beside the stage with Elvis’ girlfriend (whoever that happened to be at the time) and record producer, Felton Jarvis. But because there was no sound check, Elvis would walk out on stage and have absolutely no idea what to expect. It was very stressful for all of us. I remember a number of times he stopped the show and had me come up and stand right next to him while he sang with 20,000 people watching. Eventually we all agreed that this approach was insane and from that point, Felton and I would meet before every show and make some attempt at preparations. But there was still no concept of sound check… Elvis never did a check of his foldback… ever. AS: Did anyone ever rehearse? BJ: Sort of. I would fly down from Pennsylvania to Memphis in my little plane (which is about 800 miles), with the back full of mic stands, leads, monitors and bits and pieces, and be met on the tarmac by Elvis’ bodyguards. They’d unload the gear out of the plane and we’d drive back to Graceland where I’d set up in the racquetball court. But often that’s as far as rehearsal would progress. Generally, the band and I would just sit around in the Jungle Room watching TV, waiting for Elvis to come downstairs. We’d watch all the food going upstairs to his room, but he’d never show. That was the extent of rehearsal most of the time. Then we’d go off on tour… AS: That must have made some of the shows quite ‘interesting’? BJ: On tour Elvis wouldn’t talk to the band off stage, but he was very sensitive to what was going on during the shows themselves. It would only take a small mistake for Elvis to give you the sideways glance over the shoulder. If you
got one of those you knew that you’d better not make that mistake again. He was very sensitive and tuned in, but totally isolated by his guys in the end. In a strange kind of way that made him very freeform too, and no two gigs were ever the same. I remember one night he was doing a show in front of thousands of people and before I knew it he’d broken into a performance of Happy Birthday… for me: “Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s my sound engineer Bruce Jackson’s birthday today, so without further ado… happy birthday to you…” which was amazing, and very embarrassing. FAIR FLIGHT AS: What role did you play in Fairlight’s development?
BJ: When Kim [Ryrie] and Peter [Vogel], who started Fairlight, finally got the sampler up and running, their main problem was that they didn’t really have any contacts in the international music business. So I helped them out by setting up distribution in the US, where I was friends with a whole bunch of musicians like Rick Wakeman and Tony Bonjovi (who built the Power Station in New York City). Tony was kind enough to let me set it up in an unfinished studio he had [John Bonjovi is his nephew, and got his start sweeping the floor before Tony got him his first record contract]. I flew all over the US promoting Fairlight in my private plane for almost a year before anyone bought one. Remember, this was the first music sampler ever made, so it wasn’t as if people were automatically into it – the concept was entirely foreign at that stage. I remember taking it into Power Station with Bruce Springsteen and he said; “Ah yeah, BJ that’s great, but what am I gonna do with it?”. Then out of the blue I got this phone call from Herbie Hancock, who said he knew this guy in California who would buy two. Later that same day I got a call from Stevie Wonder saying he really wanted to check it out. So I put the sampler in the back of the plane and took off for California. I flew solo for 15 hours, (only stopping for fuel and a pee), landed in Los Angeles and took the Fairlight straight over to Herbie’s house. Soon after, Geordie Hormel [self-styled singer songwriter and owner of The Village Recorder in LA] came by in his motor home and said that it was just what he’d been looking for, so he said: “I’ll take two”. And I said, “but they’re $27,500 each,” and he said “… I’ll take two.” At my next house call, Stevie Wonder bought one on the spot and signed a personal check with his thumb print. He then talked me into taking it out on tour with him on his Secret Life of Plants tour and before long Fairlight was finally up and running.
ProTools HD – The Bruce Connection AS: Can you tell us a bit about the role you played in the development of the ProTools HD converters? BJ: Peter Gotcher and Evan Brooks started Digidesign at the same time I started Apogee. They were making drum sample chips. We’ve been friends over the years and, in fact, Peter recently joined the Dolby board and advised on its first public offering. Digidesign had taken a lot of criticism over the sound of its converters in early products. In fact, I traded on the improvements we could make when we sold Apogee converters. After I sold out of Apogee, Digidesign approached me for advice on improving the sound quality. So I said, “give me a system.” I gave them a bunch of advice, which they took on board, but the main thing I did was to hook them up with my friend Ed Meitner who subsequently designed the discrete circuitry and a whole bunch of other stuff in the HD unit – although I don’t think he ever even asked them for any money for it! Ed’s since made significant improvements to the Super Audio CD format with his company EMM Labs. My general feeling is that new formats like SACD will always have a hard time taking off in the market place unless there’s a really substantial difference in the sound quality, not just an incremental improvement.
CAREER AVERAGE AS: Your career is rare in that it seems to cover the live arena and the studio world in equal measure. How did you come to be so heavily involved in studio-based developments, or has that demarcation never existed in your mind?
BJ: My friend Bruce Brown, who built tape recorders and mixing consoles many years ago, was my inspiration in that world. Bruce is a great guy. He ran the studio at Alberts… forever. I always had a keen interest in the studio side of things but, of course, my expertise was in the live world. I was initially inspired by my AT 51
disappointment in the sound of digital audio, but because I’d worked closely with the Fairlight I was well aware of its potential – and weaknesses: like noise and inharmonic distortion – that’s what inspired me to start up Apogee in my garage at home in Santa Monica. AS: What aspects of digital equipment did you look to improve? BJ: We just started with filters, the weaknesses of clocks, and we quickly established a patent on low-jitter clocks. The first design that got Apogee kicked off was a filter for the digital converters in Sony 3324, Otari and Mitsubishi digital tape machines. We figured if we sold a few thousand filters we’d be doing pretty well – in the end we sold 30,000, which was a great success.
I remember one night [Elvis] was doing a show in front of 20,000 people and before I knew it he’d broken into a performance of Happy Birthday… for me
Elvis has left the building… or has he? There’s a stage… there’s even an access tunnel for a quick-fire exit, but where the hell is the PA? Given the power of concert public address systems at the time and the size of this venue, it’s hard to see how anyone heard a dickie bird over the screaming fans once Elvis hit the stage.
While on tour in Japan with Springsteen, I was given one of the very first CD players. I went out and bought some CDs and it was all very exciting – but when I listened to it through the PA that night it was just horrible; my cassette sounded way better. It turned out that the Japanese had developed these textbook filters with extremely steep roll-offs, resulting in the phase being twisted around a couple of times at high frequency – it was way, way out. So we said, ‘do we really need these incredibly steep filters? What if we try and straighten out the phase.’ So we experimented and quickly discovered that you didn’t really need to protect for full amplitude signals at 20kHz because when you look at a regular mix, you’ve got a lot of energy
down low, but it tapers off pretty heavily as you get up towards 20kHz. The filters we made had much gentler roll-offs and they were also linear phase. We also looked at a whole bunch of other things: intermodulation distortion, the choice of amplifiers, resistors and capacitors – we made a much better ‘mouse trap’ and the results were amazing. Then we got together with a mathematician and started playing with ideas to make better dither and that ended up resulting in the UV22 algorithm. We realised that whatever aspect of a digital device we turned our attention to could be noticeably improved. It was great to have my own team of engineers to do whatever seemed like a good idea. MYTHS AND SAMPLES AS: What’s your feeling about the market’s current preoccupation with sample rate and bit depth specifications?
BJ: People will always be impressed by numerical improvements on specs sheets. For example, they’ll always say that 192k sampling rates are better than 96k sampling rates, when in reality there’s a whole bunch of other influencing factors responsible for any audible improvements. For instance, everyone talks about having these 24-bit converters, but right there is the biggest lie that ever was – no-one’s got a 24-bit converter! Converters have a dynamic range of around 6dB per bit, so 24-bit converters should theoretically have a dynamic range of 144dB. No-one has even
There are other areas where you can make a significant improvement in the digital chain. For instance, Dave McGrath at Lake has recently developed a radically improved Bi-Quad filter (which is something you use every time you touch a digital board’s EQ) by making some small changes, which have improved the low frequency noise and distortion problems significantly. These are where the real, audible improvements to digital technology are taking place. INNOVATION AS: What’s it like to be an innovator these days in a climate where so many ideas get ‘borrowed’ by other companies before you’ve had a chance to recoup your development costs?
BJ: First off, there are lots of people with lots of ideas but taking that idea and turning it into something tangible takes a lot of work. An idea itself is relatively cheap, but developing and manufacturing that idea into a saleable product these days takes a hell of a lot of effort and investment. For instance, the project I embarked on with David McGrath and Ed Meitner that resulted in the Clair I/O [otherwise know as the Lake Contour albeit with slightly different software] was bank-rolled by Clair Brothers in the US with my estimated development cost of around $800,000. Two million dollars (and then some) later we were still developing it. No one person could ever do it. You need a really strong team with expertise in all different areas of software and hardware.
AS: So, effectively, the cutting-edge nature of the designs doubles as a form of copyright protection? BJ: Exactly. But having the technology doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to capitalise on the mass market. To do that you have to have a totally different mindset. Unfortunately, in my career I’ve been driven by perfectionism, and try as I might, I find it very difficult to work any other way. But at some point you’ve just got to let go. I’m slowly getting better at it in the sense that I’m learning how to get more out of less these days. But I don’t think something’s worth doing unless you do it as well as you possibly can, that’s what gets me up in the morning; knowing that I’m doing the best I can, and always learning something new. You’ve got to surround yourself with the best people, keep learning and stay openminded. AS: Presumably that’s what you’ve achieved with David McGrath at Lake Technology. And given that Dolby has just bought the company I assumed they’d agree? BJ: Surrounding yourself with the best people costs a lot of money. David McGrath co-founded Lake and has seen his share of company financial ups and downs… just as I did with Apogee. I really enjoy working with David and our team here at Lake. We feel really fortunate that Dolby recently took full control of Lake. They’re very excited about building their Lake division’s presence in the live sound, installation and studio worlds. We have a wealth of technology for in-ear monitoring, reverb and lots of other fun stuff and Dolby are right there with the backing to make it happen… much more than we could ever have achieved on our own. With the combined talents at Lake Technology and Dolby, there are exciting times ahead. AS: Are you still flying? BJ: Yeah, that’s my obsession. I’ve still got a little plane in a hanger in Santa Monica that I miss terribly. I’m thinking of flying it out here actually, which will be my next big adventure, but my wife’s not too keen on the idea.
THE MAGAZINE FOR SOUND ENGINEERS & RECORDING MUSICIANS
Another example of this is a listening test of audio sampled at 44.1k or 96k. The typical remark from listeners is that 96k sounds substantially better, and simplistically, this difference is inevitably attributed to the higher sampling rate, because it’s the only specification they can point to that has been substantially ‘improved’ (because the number is much larger!). My opinion is that, most of the time, what’s actually making things sound better in a converter is usually a number of other components that you never hear about. The fact is, well done 44.1k-sampled CDs played back on the right equipment can sound pretty amazing.
Thankfully, all this technology we’ve built is very difficult to copy. There’s a limit to what people can emulate. What we’ve got in the Lake Contour and Mesa that’s creating these new ways of shaping EQ is state-of-the-art technology and not available in the technical literature. So I think it’s going to be a while before anyone’s able to copy our designs, other than superficially, perhaps.
come close to that in reality. They’re what I call ‘marketing’ bits. Those last few bits are certainly in the data you’re recording, but the real question is do they mean anything? And the answer is ‘no’ – they’re essentially meaningless. But we’re so brainwashed into thinking we’ve got to have 24-bit converters that now we’re loathe to buy anything else. Converters these days only have a maximum dynamic range of around 120dB – which equates to around 20 bits of meaningful data.
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Published on Oct 26, 2009