John Meyer, who with his wife, Helen, founded Meyer SoundLaboratories 25 years ago, has always taken a different approach toseeing (and hearing!) the world. There are plenty of companiesspecializing in professional loudspeaker systems, but the Meyer way hasalways been different.
Perhaps the “Laboratories” part of the company nameprovides a clue, as Meyer has always been scientific and empirical inhis methods. In 1973, he was invited to do research and establish anacoustics lab at the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies inMontreux, Switzerland, which led to a patent on an HF compressiondriver that reduced distortion to a tenth of conventional designs. Morerecently, Meyer has incorporated technologies from other disciplinesinto products such as the company’s high-end X-10 studio monitors,which use patented Pressure-Sensing Active Control, a sophisticatedfeedback circuit originally developed for control systems on the AirForce’s stealth aircraft.
During the years, Meyer has been known for looking at old problemsin new ways. Though many appeared radical at first, some of his ideasbecame industry norms within a few years. In 1980, he patented thetrapezoidal, arrayable enclosure — today, a common concept usedby every touring loudspeaker manufacturer. Meyer also led the industrywith concepts such as the Source-Independent Measurement system (thisallowed for tuning rooms during the show while the audience waspresent), and he developed both the notion of using electronicprocessing to optimize speaker performance and the self-powered prosound reinforcement speaker. In 1999, Meyer did the“impossible” again, this time with the PSW-6 High-PowerCardioid Subwoofer, using a unique six-woofer enclosure (four front/tworear) and sophisticated phase-manipulation circuitry to achieve acardioid directional pattern, putting in more bass frequencies when youwant them and less unwanted LF reverb in the room.
Now, as Meyer Sound Labs kicks off its silver anniversary, wedecided to solicit Meyer’s views on live sound technologies, looking atwhere we’ve been and perhaps giving insight into what the next five, 10or 25 years may bring.
Live sound 25 years ago was a pretty different landscape thantoday. Where are we headed next?
The sound systems evolved originally from a very ad hoc kind of thing,with rental companies building custom sound systems for bands. TheMcCunes, Clair Bros. and other companies came up in this medium of rock’n’ roll sound in the ’70s; nothing [existing] worked, so there was alot of home-grown equipment being built. Then slowly, companies like usstarted surfacing to create products that were more generic for soundcompanies that didn’t want to build all their own gear.
But the systems were and are still designed around having veryhighly skilled people to run these systems. Essentially what we havetoday is a racecar mentality of sound, with highly sophisticated gearbuilt for highly sophisticated talent. This creates a limit as to howfar we can go in that scenario.
It’s getting too complicated to try to teach everybody everythingthey need to know about dealing with air compensation. We’re trying tobuild systems that are more function-oriented. For example, we justcame out with a product called an LD-3. Rather than trying to teachpeople about air attenuation, gains of arrays and how to do all of thiswith digital EQ or whatever, we’re aiming the product more at function.You just enter the number and type of arrays, the humidity, temperatureand distance, instead of giving all this data as EQ functions. I thinkwe’ll see more and more of this paradigm shift in equipment over thenext five or 10 years. It’s a new way of thinking about what we’retrying to accomplish.
Doesn’t this come down to the user interface?
Digital consoles with layers and layers of controls and features aremore like the digital cameras that have so many options and menuswithin menus that you can lose your point-and-shoot mentality. On theSony I was using the other day, I had to press three buttons to get itto work in automatic mode. It used to be you could simply pick up acamera and shoot a picture. We’re in that same kind of place in theP.A. world, where stuff is very complicated.
Sound is moving out of the rock ‘n’ roll mentality and going intochurches, theme parks and other venues where people want to have goodsound. But it’s one thing to staff up dozens of pros to do a high-techtouring show, and it’s another thing to do 30 shows at theme parks andchurches. In a lot of those installations, there may be a “rocketscientist” mixing engineer who’s the wizard that understands itall, but usually you have people who only know how to flip a coupleswitches to power up the system and hope it works.
Right now, we’re still in a very raw state of sound systems, whereit takes very high skill to know how to work these things. Somethinghas to bridge this gap to make using systems as easy as knowing how todrive a car.
It’s kind of like driving a car where you sit behind the wheeland a voice comes up and says, “Select axle ratio,” whenall you want to do is drive.
And it’s not like you can just turn all this stuff off. You have toset each of these to be off, and the digital control of sound systemsrequires a lot of things to be set before they will function. It limitsthe amount of people who can use modern sound systems to a very highdegree.
We’re kind of lost in a sea of complexity. I think we may just haveto stand back, look at the whole problem and decide if this is the bestsolution for everybody, or if this is a good solution for 5 percent ofthe users with the other 95 percent suffering as a result.
Why are we still using wood cabinets?
Wood is very light and very tough. We’ve looked at the honeycombmaterial that the aircraft industry likes, which is half the weight ofwood but 16 times the cost of wood. Graphite is about twice the weight,so if you build something of aluminum and graphite in a honeycombstructure, you’re dealing with materials that are about 10 timesheavier than wood — very thin, very strong and very expensive.Honeycombs are also prone to being ripped and torn, but as you makethem thicker, they lose their advantage over wood.
Polymers tend to be heavy, and we’ve experimented with graphite andFiberglas skins, but in cabinetry, we haven’t found that alternatematerials save you enough weight to be worth their expense over wood.Wood is a tough material that lasts a long time and is easy to repair.There are other ways to save weight, such as using neodymium drivers,but in many loudspeakers, the wood cabinet is just a small part of theweight, especially when you add rigging components that are strongenough to hold 16 cabinets strung in a row with 7:1 safety margins.
The dynamic loudspeaker was invented 80 years ago. After allthis time, cones seem a rather arcane way of moving air and modulatingit. Will we still have speaker cones 25 years from now?
This is like the question of whether we’d still have tires on cars 25years from now. Generally, we see the first hints of a replacement 20years in advance. That’s pretty much been the history, althoughsometimes things move much faster. In replacing car tires, one solutioncame from blowing large amounts of air under the vehicle, blowing dirtall over the neighborhood — that wasn’t too popular. Right now,there’s no glimpse of a replacement, so tires are probably here to stayfor a while.
But in terms of cones, we need to move air to get sound. One way isto ionize the air directly and move it with some sort of electrostaticfield. This no-membrane approach has been tried: You take a bunch ofneedles, like a big pincushion, charge them up, spew electrons in theair, charge the field and modulate them with some kind of AC field. Butthe field moves around, the ions don’t stay in one place, theefficiency sucks, you end up with a hard-to-control dispersing fieldand you get ozone on the side.
There was also the flame loudspeaker that Ampex developed, where yousalt a big flame with sodium and modulate the flame. But those thingsdisappeared, and generally, ionizing the air directly hasn’t workedout; much like the acoustical refrigerator, which seemed interestingbut had a lot of problems and couldn’t compete against compressor-typerefrigeration.
Paper also has a lot of problems. But one of the reasons we usepaper is because it’s naturally designed to flex. Most materials areeither work-harden or work-soften. All metals are work-harden. If youbend a coat hanger long enough, the metal crystallizes and it breaks.If you bend nylon long enough, it softens and breaks. Wood is veryneutral, and when it flexes, it doesn’t change its characteristic so itdoesn’t make noise. When metal flexes, it makes noise, like a metalclicker toy. If done properly, wood can change its state without makingnoise. It’s a reasonable solution until something more elegant comesalong.
Why don’t we have modulated compressed-airsystems?
The military has used systems with modulated airstreams, but it takesa lot of air. It’s noisy, it hisses and it is hard to control. They’regiving that up, and we’ve been doing more work with NASA using directradiators. They’re quieter and by using a lot of speakers, you cancreate a lot of power.
Pushing air with membranes, such as electrostatics, has been wellexplored, but it’s hard to get much power out of such a system, whichtakes us back to using a cone — paper, Mylar, metal or whatever— to move air. From an engineering perspective, we have to askhow accurately can this be achieved and can we do this at lowdistortion? Since we’re stuck with cones — or tires — wehave to make the best cones or tires we can, as the whole car or systemis dependent on how well the tires perform.
I feel that way about speakers. Cones are the available technology,so our motive is to look at the cone and study its limitations, such asmass and weight, because once put into motion, it will have its ownmomentum and won’t stop instantly. We can use electronics to help withthis, much in the same way that a car has a mechanical suspension toabsorb bumps. A more clever way would be to scan the ground in front ofthe car with a laser and anticipate the bump with a servo mechanismthat adjusts the suspension before it hits the bump. With our X-10studio monitors, we have the ability to “read” what thespeaker is doing with a microphone and use feedback — like in anamplifier — to correct and add energy, forcing the speaker tobehave in a linear way.
Until we see an alternate solution, the key is to refine thatsolution so we can create as accurate an image of the original aspossible. That’s why I’ve always liked the idea of combining electroniccontrol with speakers as part of the same working group.
Isn’t the room the ultimate challenge?
As we build more directional products and line arrays that direct thesound at the area where the audience is, we’re developing betterproducts, especially in some venues where it’s hard to get them to doanything [acoustically] about the space, such as churches andhistorical buildings.
That sounds incredibly simple.
These ideas can take years to figure out. At our installation inCarnegie Hall, we were able to design a system that really does put thesound exactly where it needs to go, but we were only able to do thatbecause the system can be struck for their classical programs. There weproved that if we didn’t hit the walls, we could greatly improve theintelligibility of the space.
As we move out of this high-tech world of rock ‘n’ roll touring intochurches and other venues, it becomes more apparent to me that we needto build products that are designed for people who have volunteers towork these shows. That’s what the future will have to solve.
But you’ve got to be practical. One time, some movie companieswanted to be able to scan the number of people in the audience, analyzethe response and feed the system with antisounds so they wouldn’t haveto put walls between movie theaters. When they asked me what I thoughtabout it, I told them it would be a lot easier just to build someconcrete walls between the cinemas [Laughs].
George Petersen is the editorial director of Mix.
MEYER SOUND MILESTONES
A lot can happen in 25 years. Here are some highlights in thehistory of Meyer Sound:
Meyer Sound Laboratories founded by John and Helen Meyer. John Meyerpatents low-distortion horn design (later used in UM-1 and UPA-1). Thecompany unveils its CEU (Control Electronics Unit) active loudspeakercrossover/processor, first used in theater subwoofers for 70mm releaseof Apocalypse Now. The UM-1 UltraMonitor, the first high-SPL,active, processed stage monitor debuts.
John Meyer patents the trapezoidal arrayable cabinet, first used inthe UPA-1 compact wide-coverage, powered FOH speaker.
SIM (Source Independent Measurement) is introduced, allowing soundsystem performance measurement/optimization to be made during musicevents. (1986 TEC Award)
HD-1 high-definition studio monitors are introduced, beginning thetrend of active, powered studio loudspeakers. (1990 TEC Award)
SIM enters its second generation, with the SIM II, which receivesR&D 100 Award from R&D magazine.
The MSL-4, the first high-SPL, self-powered sound reinforcementloudspeaker, is shown and is named LDI magazine’s “SoundProduct of the Year.”
Meyer creates powered versions of some of its other speakers,including the UPA-1P and UPA-2P, awarded “Sound Product of theYear” by Theater Crafts International magazine.
Meyer unveils SB-1 Parabolic Long-Throw Sound Beam speaker, whichuses a parabolic dish to project high-SPL sound over longdistances.
The PSW-6 High-Power Cardioid Subwoofer — the firstdirectional low-frequency reproducer — debuts. (1999 TECAward)
The X-10 — a high-performance studio monitor using PressureSensing Active Control technology to compare input and output levels— is unveiled. The system provides consistent LF reproduction,regardless of playback level. MAPP (Multipurpose Acoustical PredictionProgram) is introduced, allowing engineers and contractors to accessadvanced acoustical analysis programs in the field by linking to a hostcomputer at Meyer Sound via Internet. Meyer’s compact, poweredwide-coverage UPM-1P speaker receives a TEC Award.
Meyer unveils the M3D, the company’s first line array product, whichuses a patent-pending REM (Ribbon Emulation Manifold) horn design tomimic the smooth sound of ribbon tweeters from conventional high-SPLcompression drivers.
Meyer debuts two curvilinear array systems (compact M2D andultra-compact M1D), which allow line array use in small venues. (Named“Sound Product of the Year” by Entertainment Designmagazine)
At Frankfurt Musikmesse, MILO — a high-power curvilinear arraysystem — is shown, allowing the creation of full curvilineararrays, with the larger, long-throw MILO cabinets as mains and the M2Dsas near-field fills. At AES NYC, Meyer releases SIM 3, the thirdgeneration of its Source Independent Measurement system, which costs afraction of earlier SIM units, while offering far more power, with theability to calculate 300 Fast Fourier Transforms per second.