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John Meyer Q&A

What inspired you early on? In the 1950s, I grew up with KPFA [public radio, Berkeley, Calif.]. I got my third-class-restricted FCC license at age 12;

John Meyer

What inspired you early on?

In the 1950s, I grew up with KPFA [public radio, Berkeley, Calif.]. I got my third-class-restricted FCC license at age 12; then I could run Alan Rich’s show. I later studied and got my second-class license; but as a teenager, there was no way I could get a first-class license where the test covered trigonometry.

My uncle was in Southern California doing sound at Walt Disney’s for the Mouseketeers [on The Mickey Mouse Club] show and Spin and Marty. I’d go down there and watch him work, but my family — being from the dramatic arts — wanted me to audition to be a Mouseketeer. I had zero interest in that, but I was interested in the technology. We did some early binaural broadcasts at KPFA, which required using two radio stations. That really fascinated me.

I wanted to learn more about P.A.s. The first experiments I did were at McCune [Harry McCune Sound in San Francisco].

I also met Steve Miller while I was working at a hi-fi store in Berkeley in 1966. He had just formed a band and wanted to do something with hi-fi gear — we carried Klipsch and stuff like that, but everything was blowing up. We even talked to Klipsch about using La Scalas as a front end, but it just tore them to shreds. We burned up a whole system at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.

McCune was an Altec dealer, so everything they used was Altec, but I wound up using Gauss and built a horn-loaded, double-18 box with Gauss drivers and the rest was Altec parts. One thing that became clear to me was the need to form a company to figure out more systematic solutions to problems, like why 15-inch loudspeakers weren’t behaving like they should and instead created nonlinearities, like a guitar speaker.

How did Meyer’s first product, the UM-1 UltraMonitor, come about?

I built the UltraMonitor for Starship. They wanted a high-power monitor that was compact and wouldn’t block the audience’s view. We first tried a studio monitor from Switzerland, but it died a dismal death — it couldn’t handle 110, much less 120dB continuous peaks. We created the UM-1 and there were people in the industry who refused to listen to it, simply because they didn’t believe that such specs could come out of such a little space.

Didn’t some of that skepticism also stem from the use of control electronics?

The processing was really the only way we could keep the UM-1 alive, especially running 300-watt amps into parts that only handled 50 watts continuous. It was all about creating something to keep the customers happy. They wanted to run bass drums into this poor thing, which meant we had to do some tricks, like taking out some of the bass when the voice was on. This only happened very quickly on an on-demand basis, but there were people who checked out the processor on the bench and thought it was crunching this all the time. It actually only did this when it was under stress — to survive as opposed to suddenly blowing out.

Meyer seems very involved with film sound with the launch of your new Acheron and Cinema Experience products. What are some of the obstacles in this area?

Things like 32 bits or 192kHz are not difficult anymore. In fact, it seems like all the technology obstacles are gone. All we have to figure out now is how to communicate what it is we want to do. It’s really shifted from trying to put information between sprockets. It’s probably going to come from a satellite and be loaded at night.

Are there any frontiers left in audio?

The big thing will be figuring out how we can really create positional imaging. It’s believed that we should be able to project an image from a screen with some unknown number of parts and project a sound image that would allow you to walk 180 degrees around it. There are two possibilities about this: Either we’ll be where the mythological Greeks were in flying or we’ll stumble upon it.

One interesting thing coming out of all this research is that positioning may not all have to do with delay in terms of how the ears work. It may have something to do with things that are occurring differentially. It’s been suggested that we might be able to see the interference pattern directly, as well as indirectly. So as you move around, you start to solve this image that’s coming from multiple sources.

Just because we can’t see something doesn’t mean it can’t exist…

We’ve sure learned that through science. We used to think that the atom was the smallest thing. Why do scientists always think they’re done? The odds of truly being “done” are astronomically small.