30 Years of SynAudCon Synergy

Random Thoughts by Jim Brown

SynAudCon Synergy – Jim Brown takes you on a walk though audio history helps all of us appreciate where we have been and provides a visions for where we are going.

When Brenda asked me to say a few words at the Syn-Aud-Con reunion (me a few words?), it took me only a few beats to choose a topic. It was Synergy, one of several great gifts Don and Carolyn Davis gave our industry. What were the others? First, a respect for all of those giants who have come before us, and upon whose shoulders we stand. In each class, I learned the names of more of them – men like Hilliard, Klipsch, Fletcher, Sabine, and Olson. Later, the list grew to include Peutz, Heyser, D’Antonio, Kolbe, and Chips Davis.

Second was the insatiable curiosity that led Don, and us, off in all directions in search of new insights, new questions, and new answers, and the irrepressible nature that let no sacred cows stand in his way. It was this curiosity that led him to ask, “What if we’ve been doing it wrong in control room design for years, making the front end live and the rear end dead. Maybe we should be doing it the other way around.” Not long after, Chips Davis, who was in that class, called Don, excitedly saying, “I’ve done it!” “What have you done,” Don replied? “I’ve built that control room you talked about!” This concept, which was to be called Live-End- Dead-End (LEDE) (Don also understood marketing) was only one of many major examples of the Synergy upon which Syn-Aud-Con is built. Not only did it change how control rooms are designed, it established the careers of a dozen or more of the consultants who are leaders in our industry – guys like Chips, Russ Berger, Doug Jones, Glen Meeks, Bob Todrank, Neil Muncy, Neil Grant, Charlie Bilello, Hellmuth Kolbe, Peter D’Antonio, Kurt Graffy, Ron McKay, and Ben Kok.

But that was only the beginning of the LEDE idea. Nick Colleran had been thinking about a sound absorbing material for a few years, both on his own, and as a result of attending a Syn-Aud-Con class. His search led him to the manufacturer of Sonex, who had tried to enter the studio market but had gotten nowhere – until Nick took the leap to market it and Syn-Aud-Con helped him do it. Nick’s business (currently Acoustics First) is only one of many either spawned, or given a big boost, by Syn-Aud-Con. Among them are New Frontier Electronics (who brought us SurgeX), Benchmark Media, and RPG Diffusors.

RPG is another interesting story. Peter D’Antonio was a university prof who volunteered to help a friend with a recording studio. That led him to Syn-Aud-Con. Along with him, he brought a strong background in math and physics, including Manfred Schroeder’s Quadratic Residue Diffusion thinking. It wasn’t long before that concept turned the hard rear wall into diffusors, and LEDE rooms started sounding even better! Peter, along with Neil Muncy and Charlie Bilello, further refined the concept with the “reflection-free-zone” between the loudspeaker and the listener.

At Northwestern University, Puddie Rogers was doing landmark research on pinnae cues. Although one of her professors stole her work after she died young of cancer, Gary Kendall and Bill Martens and Doug Jones picked it up and ran with it. I had a small part in that one – I introduced Gary to Doug! Gary and Bill have published extensively on their work, and along with Doug, developed LEDR, a series of test recordings that can be used to evaluate the quality of an LEDE control room. Doug also worked with at least one network television show to use pinnae cues to enhance their stereo soundtracks. So let’s see – out of that one idea (LEDE) alone, we have modern control room design, Sonex QRD’s, pinnae cue research, a dozen or more designers, and at least four companies! Available Equipment before 1960

Going back to his days at Altec, Don developed one-third octave equalization and got a major manufacturer to build an analyzer. Out of that came IVIE’s wonderful portable instruments (the IE-30 is one of the best thought-out designs I’ve ever seen), and, much later, the Audio Toolbox.

But it was Dick Heyser who really got the revolution in audio moving. Time Delay Spectrometry, which he had patented and published in 1967, had languished with little attention until somehow it came to Don’s attention nearly a decade later, just in time to help Don and Cecil Cable articulate the concepts that would become LEDE! The July 1977 edition of the newsletter was a real landmark – in it, readers were treated to an introduction to TDS concepts, an article entitled, “’Dead’ Rear Wall in Control Room Wrong?,” and descriptions of some new products — Ed Long’s new Time-Aligned Studio Monitor Sytem (the UREI 813), Brock Jabara’s new Hot Spot monitor, Jensen Transformers, the Woodhead Ground Loop Impedance Tester (GLIT), a new delay from IRPI, Al Feirstein’s Acoustilog Reverb Timers, and RTA’s from Crown, IVIE, and Communications Company. And to top it off, there were photos of Cecil Cable and Don Davis in classes where they had already begun to take TDS on the road! The next year would see the introduction of the pressure recording process and Ken Wahrenbrock’s implementation of it, the PZM, and Chips’ first LEDE control room!

Equipment from 1970 - 80 era

And that wasn’t all that was going on. From the beginning, Don and Carolyn had been teaching us to design sound systems for coverage and intelligibility, building upon the work of Dutch acoustician Victor Peutz and his own work at Altec. Within another year, there was a three-day workshop on Intelligibility lectured by Mr. Peutz himself, workshops on TDS taught by Dick Heyser, and workshops on control room design by Chips. The years that followed saw workshops on loudspeaker design (Patronis and Don Keele), more on TDS, control room design (Ron McKay, Chips, and Hellmuth Kolbe), Grounding and Shielding (Ed Lethert, Topper Sowden), and the landmark 1986 Intelligibility workshop that led to much of the current work on that topic. SynAudCon Synergy - Old SynAudCon Slide Rule

And then there’s sound system design software. Don started us out with slide rules, and within a few years had ported those equations to the HP35 and HP41 calculators (and talked us all into buying them). In a few years, Syn-Aud-Con grads had developed spreadsheets to run the same equations on their new personal computers, and Farrell Becker presented an AES paper on the Polar technique he had developed that modeled audience areas to polar graph paper. Just about the time I had that one figured out (and had used it for several systems), John Prohs and David Harris showed us their new Sphere program, which modeled a room to the surface of a plastic sphere. I bought John’s demo set of spheres and overlays at the end of the workshop where he first presented them, and used them for several dozen systems. By then, it ran on the computer part of my TEF machine.

The next stage of that revolution began with the development of modeling software for computers – CADP, CADP2, Modeler, Ulysses, LARA, and EASE. All of these programs allowed us to do far more, and do it far more quickly, than we had only a year or two earlier. But the most exciting one of them all was EASE, partly because it did more, but mostly because it had an open database that was not limited to a few affiliated manufacturers. In a few years, the developers of EASE began working on Auralisation, a technique that would eventually allow us to listen to what our designs would sound like, even before the room itself had been built! EASE is not the only software to do this, but it was the first that we could run on our own desktop computers, not on a Cray at a vendor’s factory.

Similar histories could be told about other products of Synergy – Peter Mapp’s work on intelligibility, Bill Whitlock and Neil Muncy’s work on power, grounding and interconnection, my work on RF and stereo, applications of PZM microphones, Ed Long’s time-aligned crossovers, and Ahnert and Steinke’s Delta Stereophony. Modern measurement systems have evolved from RTA to TDS to FFT, MLS, WinMLS, and now EASERA. In 1978 TDS required $50,000 worth (1978 dollars) of HP and GenRad equipment that nearly filled a small van. Now everything I need fits under my airline seat and runs on my laptop, and I can post process the data on my flight home!

Equipment in the 1990 - 2000 era

Modern DSP began with TOA’s SAORI and DACsys, but MediaMatrix (spearheaded by Syn-Aud-Con grads Rich Zweibel and Ray Rayburn) shoved it into overdrive with early systems at a Disney theme park and the US Senate! What used to require three racks full of gear now fits into a few rack spaces and costs far less. The Senate system would have been impossible before Mediamatrix, and so would many of today’s current applications for it.

Craig Janssen showed us how to use bass arrays for low frequency pattern control, and I’ve used them in almost every project since. After attending the 1982 Loudspeaker Design Workshop, Don Keele designed a family of asymmetrical horns (including the JBL 4660). Dave Gunness designed several more for EV, then moved to EAW where he developed the 900 system, their high power steered array that is one of the most exciting system designs I’ve ever seen. And talk about synergy – the Janssen and Gunness collaboration has been another winner.

Virtually every Working Group of the AES Standards Committee includes Syn-Aud-Con grads, and so do many Technical Committees; many of us are in leadership positions. Some of my closest friends are people I first met at Syn-Aud-Con, some of them nearly 30 years ago, some only recently.

Synergy also includes the questions asked on the reflector, the late night conversations after the exhibits close, and in the bar after the classes and workshops. It’s the great teachers – guys like Doug Jones, Gene Patronis, Rick Thomas, Peter Mapp, Kurt Graffy, Peter D’Antonio, Bill Whitlock, Neil Muncy, and Craig Janssen. And it’s the entrepreneurs who take their own ideas, as well as some of ours, and turn them into products that we can use in our systems. Many of them are also Syn- Aud-Con sponsors.

The day after my recitation of this list of accomplishments at the NSCA Syn-Aud-Con reunion I was walking around the show floor and heard two themes repeated over and over. First, “I had no idea we had accomplished so much,” and “Where would our industry be without Syn-Aud-Con?” The question, of course, is interesting. I have no doubt that the people who made all of these things happen would have done something interesting in their professional lives, and would have made contributions to our industry. But I’m equally convinced that few of us would have gotten nearly as far without Don and Carolyn’s gifts of Synergy, their curiosity, and their respect for those who have gone before.

I learned Electrical Engineering at the University of Cincinnati, but I learned about pro audio, acoustics, sound system design, intelligibility, the human perception of audio, power and grounding for audio, and countless other things in Syn-Aud-Con classes and workshops. My work on EMC is, of course, based on the engineering principles I learned in ham radio as a boy, and at the university, but it was the Synergy of conversations with Neil Muncy and interchange on the Syn-Aud-Con reflector that allowed me to tie SCIN and pin 1 problems to RFI interference.

With all this talk about the grand achievements of earlier days, its easy to lose sight of Pat and Brenda’s contribution. Yes, they’ve carried the torch, and carried it well. We never thought anyone could reach the high standard that Don and Carolyn established, but they actually exceeded it! Nearly 30 years after attending my first Syn-Aud-Con class, I still learn things from Pat’s well organized, well researched classes. And they’re still organizing workshops, bringing together the best and brightest they can talk into spending months of preparation for little compensation beyond the satisfaction of having contributed to the Synergy. Pat is at the forefront of acoustic prediction and measurement, beta tests most of the software, and is interacting with the people writing them. Their classes and workshops still are the standard by which others are judged, with high standards for presentation, facilities, and accommodations.

So the next time you’re in your favorite coffee shop or watering hole, lift a glass to Pat, Brenda, Don, Carolyn, and those thousands of Syn-Aud-Con grads who have contributed to the Synergy. In one of those watering holes, I said that “Experience is having already made that mistake.” Bruce Olson replied that, “No, experience is having made that mistake often enough to see a pattern.” Synergy is sharing of those mistakes, and that experience with others, so that we may all see those patterns sooner, with greater clarity, and from other perspectives. Viva Synergy! Viva Syn-Aud-Con!