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Most of us in the sound reinforcement business would probably agree in recognizing John Meyer, co-founder of Meyer Sound, as one of the most relevant individuals in the industry. His career began in 1967, when he assembled an amplification system for Steve Miller’s performance at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival. Two years later John invented the Glyph, a system that attracted the attention of musicians including Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin and Frank Zappa. In the early 1970s, John helped establish an acoustics laboratory at the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland, where he conducted research on low-distortion horns and integrated, large-scale loudspeaker systems.
In 1979, after returning to California, John and his wife, Helen Meyer, founded Meyer Sound Laboratories, Inc., where, to this day, he oversees research and development of new products at the company’s Berkeley headquarters. John and Meyer Sound have received 38 patents. Among many others, John is the proud recipient of the Audio Engineering Society’s Silver Award.
We thank Mr. Meyer for kindly accepting to be interviewed by Doctor ProAudio. Questions combine forum users' suggestions as well as editorial ones.
DRIVEN BY CUSTOMER NEEDS
¤ [Doctor ProAudio] - Let’s start from the beginning. How and when did you become interested in sound? What made you decide to pursue a career in sound reinforcement?
¤ [John Meyer] - I started pretty young. My uncle worked doing sound for Disney, which was probably my first exposure to audio. Then, as a kid, I worked at KPFA (Berkeley-based Pacifica Radio’s flagship station). That was when I really got interested in audio technology like tape recorders, transmitters, and so on.
I received my radiotelephone third class license at 12 years old, and my second class license when I was 15. Back in those days, everyone on the radio had to have a license, and many people considered the second class license to be the most difficult to earn since it had the most extensive exam and covered a lot of technical theory. When I got to Oakland High School, I continued down that path, building mixers (there were no off-the-shelf mixers available in those days) and helping to show movies on campus during lunch hours.
The thing that got me going in sound reinforcement was when Steve Miller asked me to put together a higher fidelity rig for Lonnie Turner, his bassist, to use at the Monterey Pop Festival in ‘67. Within a couple of years of that I developed the Glyph loudspeaker system, which got me a job designing loudspeakers for McCune Sound Service, and that eventually led me to co-found Meyer Sound with my wife, Helen.
¤ [DoPA] - Not a lot is spoken about you wife, Helen. How important has her role been in the company?
¤ [JM] - Helen and I have been a true partnership since the beginning. We founded Meyer Sound together, and the company could not be what it is today without her work. Helen directs sales and marketing, handles countless other business issues, and stays in constant contact with customers. I couldn’t have the focus to direct technology and product development at Meyer Sound if I didn’t know she was managing the company’s operations the whole time.
It’s not quite true that a lot is not said about her, either. Last year Helen was given a Women of Distinction award by the East Bay Business Times, and, as far back as 1990, the Audio Engineering Society awarded her a citation for her unique contributions to the audio industry. She’s also been featured in newspaper and magazine profiles, not only for her work at Meyer Sound, but for her involvement in local arts and education including the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the Mark Morris Dance Group, among others.
¤ [DoPA] - Your official bio includes references to your participation in a few Mythbusters episodes. Except for a few notable exceptions for companies that make domestic as well as professional equipment (such as Bose and JBL), most sound reinforcement equipment manufacturers are not known to the general public. Out of curiosity, have you noticed Mythbusters making yourself and your company more of a household name?
¤ [JM] - We really enjoy those guys. They like to have fun, but they also have a genuine curiosity about things, the result being that we are able to try some interesting things on their behalf. For the “Brown Note” episode, for instance, we were able to generate extreme levels of sound pressure at near-earthquake frequencies. That was a fascinating experience that strongly influenced the design of our Pearson Theatre.
As to “Mythbusters” increasing our profile, I don’t know about being a “household word,” but I think more people know who we are, that we’re serious about our science, and that we like having a little fun with it sometimes.
¤ [DoPA] - 10 years ago line arrays were a French oddity and now they are all over the place, even though they cannot offer all of the possibilities of conventional arrays, such as a variable horizontal coverage angle (with a few notable exceptions). Are line arrays here to stay? What comes next?
¤ [JM] - Yes, line arrays are here to stay. They represent an excellent solution to a certain set of needs. We would never make a product just because it’s in style; we make curvilinear array products because they serve our customers well for many situations.
As you note, however, they are not a panacea, not the best choice in all cases. Horizontal arrays of trapezoidal cabinets are still very much the right approach for a lot of circumstances.
There are also a variety of special cases requiring less common strategies, such as the problem of attaining intelligibility at the far end of a stadium, which our SB-1 and SB-2 sound beams do by using parabolic focusing and wave field synthesis principles. Or fill and spot-coverage applications, where an array is not called for. That’s the kind of use our new UPQ-1P was designed for: it’s a trapezoidal cabinet that’s not designed for arraying.
This is why we have several very different types of loudspeaker products in our product line, and why we are always engaged in research to figure out better ways to meet users’ needs.
In fact, since you ask what’s next, I’ll tell you that we have been working together with CNMAT (UC Berkeley’s Center for New Music and Audio Technology) on a different approach to wave field synthesis, where the wave field is generated by a spherical loudspeaker with many small, individually microprocessor-controlled drivers, as opposed to the more common approach of lining the boundaries of the room with drivers. The loudspeaker can be made to behave like a natural, physical sound source, which holds incredibly exciting possibilities, both for new kinds of loudspeakers, and for better measurement.
¤ [DoPA] - A criticism often heard of Meyer Sound is the lack of extended technical information in terms of curves such as frequency response, impedance, coverage angle, or distortion. Why is that? It can be argued that, for example, a potential buyer should be able to see how coverage angle varies with frequency and not just a single number.
¤ [JM] - Let’s start by separating technical information on system performance from information on component performance. In a self-powered system, system performance is all that matters: that’s the point of it being self-powered and where tremendous labor is saved and performance gained.
Our MAPP Online Pro™ program will give you very high resolution data on system performance – including coverage and frequency response at any position relative to the sound system. In fact, we measure our products at one degree increments of rotation and 1/48th octave frequency resolution to insure that the data accurately reflect the complex behavior of the loudspeaker, that is, magnitude and phase across frequency. This allows us to not only give accurate information on how a cabinet performs, but phase-accurate information on how an array performs, or even an entire installation.
We do not skimp on system performance information, and I don’t think there is anywhere users can get a better picture of how coverage angle varies with frequency, how frequency response varies with position, or how SPL varies with position, in theoretical or actual applications.
Component-level specifications, like impedance or crossover curves, are not relevant data for a self-powered system, and, in fact, would be misleading, because they represent only a few data points about a sophisticated system in which the interaction of components has been closely managed in the design process.
Distortion figures do appear on our datasheets.
¤ [DoPA] - Meyer Sound clearly does things her own way. Along those lines, when most companies are increasing outsourcing Meyer Sound has gone the other way, going from buying transducers from other companies to manufacturing your own speakers. Can you tell us about the process of becoming a transducer manufacturer? It surely has not been an easy ride.
¤ [JM] - When I was at McCune’s I realized that the complete lack of consistency and reliability in loudspeakers was a fundamental problem. The work that I did between that time and 1979, when we founded Meyer Sound, just reinforced that idea. In the earliest days of Meyer Sound, we bought drivers from other manufacturers, but the consistency and reliability were so poor that we had to hand-modify each and every driver, and, even then, our rejection rate was much too high.
Our goal was to produce products of the highest quality and consistency. That’s what the Meyer Sound brand has always been about. Consistency was not only necessary to achieve the level of performance we wanted, but also to enable servicing that could maintain the performance; we hold to extremely tight tolerances here.
The only way we could get the consistency we needed was to have standardized parts. But years of research and experience showed us that we just could not get outside vendors to even meet our tolerances, let alone deliver that quality consistently. The market just couldn’t meet our standards, so we really had no choice but to start doing critical core processes in house. It was purely a utilitarian decision.
That decision brought with it a unique set of challenges. Every time we develop a new product we have to grapple with a number of new unknowns. On the plus side, however, being equipped to manufacture things ourselves gives us the freedom to develop new and exciting tools and processes, and to acquire new knowledge along the way.
For example, the HD-1 studio monitor became a product more or less by accident. It was originally developed to test microphones for SIM. One of our employees at the time brought Grammy-winning engineer Roger Nichols by and played him the HD-1 – there was only one of them in existence at that time – and Roger wouldn’t leave me alone until I agreed to make another and let him use them on the Rickie Lee Jones album he was mixing (“Flying Cowboys”).
One of the best things about our manufacturing operation is the team we’ve assembled for development and production. The way that team works together is how we are able to surmount the issues we face with each new product. Any good science should allow others to contribute.
¤ [DoPA] - You have always been an activist for integrated systems. Lately companies such as Nexo and L’Acoustics are joining others like d&b audiotechnik in coming up with controller amplifiers for their systems. Will we see something like that from Meyer Sound, for those applications where self-powered systems may not be appropriate?
¤ [JM] - Well, that’s the approach we started with nearly 30 years ago! We even made our own external amplifier for a while.
There are reasons to have an external amplifier in a controlled system, but, frankly, I can’t think of more than a few specific situations I’ve seen since the mid-’90s, when we were able to start making fully self-powered systems, where a self-powered system was not the better choice. For several years, we had only one product left in our line that was not self-powered: the MM-4. You have no idea how constantly we were asked to make a self-powered version of it. It was a tricky job to do well in a package that small, but now people are really loving the MM-4XP.
However, we don’t close our minds to ideas. If a good reason to make a system with an external controller and amplifier arises, we can do it. It’s one of the advantages of having development and manufacturing literally under the same roof.
¤ [DoPA] - Will we see Meyer Sound using some sort of Ethernet based signal and control & monitoring data transport in the future?
¤ [JM] - While at this point I can’t say that our implement will be based on EtherNet specifically, I can say that we are developing network based control and monitoring systems for our products.
¤ [DoPA] - Education is an essential part of Meyer Sound’s approach. Your seminars are well regarded among attendees, who have been educated in unintuitive concepts such as phase and interference. What are your plans for the future on this? (A number of users expressed their desire for Meyer schools in their respective countries)
¤ [JM] - We have always believed strongly that the more people understand sound and sound systems, the better the quality of sound will be that we all get to hear. The great part about our seminar program is that people find those concepts you’re talking about much more intuitive once they understand the underlying mechanisms at work.
We have been expanding our education program as fast as we can manage for several years now. We significantly stepped up our seminars in the U.S., built a theatre at our factory for holding classes and events, are currently focusing on growing our European education program, and, at the same time as all that, have increased the number of seminars held in Asia, Mexico, and Australia. In 2007, we conducted 79 seminars worldwide. That’s a Meyer Sound seminar somewhere in the world every four days. In 2008 we held 126 seminars in 29 countries — that’s more than one every three days!
Our plans for the future are simple: do more of what we’re doing and do it better. Seriously. I already mentioned our research partnership with CNMAT, we’ve had similar partnerships in the past, such as with Stanford, and we are now partnering with institutions like Full Sail University and ESAMA (Superior School for AudioVisual Media) in Andalusia, Spain, where we set up a scholarship. Our support for education is a growing, international effort.
¤ [DoPA] - The UPA-1, which will soon celebrate its 30th anniversary, remains your top selling product. What’s the secret of its continued success?
¤ [JM] - It’s no secret, it’s simple: the UPA is an outstanding design that has become a dependable, industry standard. It’s performance still ranks as first-rate, and its characteristics are widely known and understood. It also was the first trapezoidal-shaped loudspeaker cabinet, which allowed for arraying clusters. The trapezoidal shape was one of Meyer Sound’s first design patents.
The UPA-1 was developed out of the technology used in the Ultra Monitor. After the subwoofer we developed for “Apocalypse Now,” the Ultra Monitor was Meyer Sound’s first product, and the beginning of our long relationship with the Grateful Dead.
The Ultra Monitor came about because there was a need for a powerful monitor that an audience could see over. At first, nobody would use it because it was so small. At that time, the industry’s idea of what constituted a powerful loudspeaker was still linked to physical size.
Anyway, shortly after we created the Ultra Monitor we talked to Abe Jacob (the dean of Broadway sound designers), who needed something small and powerful for his theatrical sound designs. So we changed the box and the horn and came up with the UPA-1. At that time, it was not yet self-powered.
Abe loved it because it was loud, extremely clean, small, and tough, so he used it in the original 1981 London production of “Cats.” It quickly became very popular on Broadway and in London’s West End. It still is, too, in fact, we don’t update the design very often because theatre sound designers, as well as the rest of our customers, demand that it be consistent from year to year. When we developed the self-powered version, the UPA-1P, we were very careful not to make significant changes in its performance characteristics.
¤ [DoPA] - What is you approach to designing a speaker system?
¤ [JM] - It’s always driven by customer needs. We spend a lot of time talking to the people who are working in the market we want to succeed in. We work with the people who have real knowledge of their profession. A lot of our products get defined almost organically from the feedback we get from customers, and from working with them to solve their audio issues.
When we have identified the goal we want to achieve with a new product, then we work out the right combination of the visual aspect and the stuff inside the package (the technology). We take our direction from that and then we do whatever R&D is necessary to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way and get what we need.
¤ [DoPA] - Why does the Galileo preocessor have such a limited choice for crossover types?
¤ [JM] - Galileo was designed to provide system drive for Meyer Sound self-powered loudspeakers. It can certainly be used with other systems, and we are always open to hearing requests from our users. But the fact is that there is little need for crossover filters in a system drive unit for a self-powered system.
"THE REAL REVOLUTION WILL COME BY MAKING THINGS SIMPLER"
¤ [DoPA] - If you could not manufacture speakers, what we would you like to manufacture?
¤ [JM] - I was interested in optics – I love astronomy – but I thought that most of the major innovations would already have been accomplished by the time I would have begun my career. There was more room for growth in the sound industry.
While I certainly believe in knowing theory, I’m not someone who is focused on it; I don’t conduct research for its own sake. I’m much more interested in creating from a practical standpoint. I like to take a hands-on approach. That’s why I’m so involved with measurement: I believe strongly in empirical data.
¤ [DoPA] - Which way do you see the industry going on in the future?
¤ [JM] - It’s a complicated time in audio. There’s so much technology developing so fast. We are seeing so many variations in equipment and so many different media. Most of the equipment is complicated to use, as well, and that is a major issue.
We have to simplify our tools and make them more intuitive and user-friendly. Most people are not “power users,” and we want our products to be operable by all of our customers. It’s a real challenge. The real revolution will come by making things simpler.
¤ [DoPA] - Which way do you see Meyer Sound going on in the future?
¤ [JM] - We will be doing what I was just talking about. Meyer Sound products are not fancy shells around complicated systems; it’s not technology for the sake of technology. What we are dedicated to is the idea of technology for the sake of functionality, so we will be moving even more in the direction of simplification.
We want to perfect the fundamentals, be able to duplicate a customer’s problem, and offer that customer a streamlined solution to the problem that produces perfect results every time.
Our Constellation system is a perfect example. The technology involved in Constellation is considerable. It would be nice if it didn’t need to be, but that’s what it takes to solve the user’s problem. And yet, both the basic objective – flexible acoustics – and the actual method of operation – recalling presets by touching one of a small number of “buttons” on a touchscreen controller – are very straightforward. It’s science and advanced technology in a package that is very easy to use and understand.
Other Interviews »» Brock Adamson (Adamson), Carlo Lastrucci (Powersoft), François Deffarges (Nexo), Pat Quilter (QSC), Robert Scovill (Digidesign Venue, in Spanish)
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