INSIGHTS: Interview with John Meyer
founder and "loudspeaker design guru" at Meyer Sound Labs
Interviewed by Mel Lambert in January 1997
John Meyer is one of those very rare individuals driven by a single cause: to improve the quality of sound reproduction. Although he may lack a formal scientific background, he's paid his dues within the touring sound community, building as he went an enviable understanding of the physics of sound propagation, and the mechanism by which we can overcome the inherent limitations of any loudspeaker design. It is no exaggeration to say that Meyer Sound Laboratories, based in Berkeley, California, has pushed the envelope of technology further than just about any other firm, and yet which does not rest on its collective laurels. With a third of its talented staff committed to engineering research, Meyer Sound is definitely at the cutting edge of not only live-sound , but also studio monitor design and innovation.
Meyer Sound products are in regular use at such installed venues as Walt Disney World EPCOT Center and Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando; Boston Symphony Hall, El Teatro Gran Rex , Buenos Aires, and The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon, England; at music festivals, such as the "Telluride Bluegrass Festival" and the "Montreux Jazz Festival;" and in live theater shows, such as "Les Miserables" and "Beauty and the Beast."
Born in 1943 in Oakland, California, John Meyer followed engineering studies at Heald Institute of Technology, before joining the staff of Harry McCune Sound Service, a San Francisco multimedia rental firm for which he designed several loudspeaker systems. Invited to Montreux, Switzerland, in 1973 to consult for the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies, Meyer embarked on an extensive program of research into the myriad sources of non-linearity in audio transducers. The fruits of these studies include a body of fascinating data on distortion sources in microphones, along with an ultra-low distortion horn driver design, for which he was awarded U.S. Patent No. 4,152,552. Upon his return to the U.S. in 1975, Meyer worked as a consultant in sound contracting and served as technical director for a direct-to-disc audiophile record company. In 1979, he founded Meyer Sound Laboratories, Inc., the professional loudspeaker manufacturing company of which he is president. John Meyer is also a Fellow of the Audio Engineering Society.
Have you always been interested in sound?
Yes. I remember as a little kid taking out a book on how to make sound - it showed a gear and a battery; if you put that in series with a speaker it would make a clicking sound. By moving that wheel around in a circle and interrupting the battery, it would make a musical sound from the speaker. We had a sound department at Oakland High where we ran movies during lunch. We had a pretty sophisticated sound system; in electronics shop we built things like mixers. So that also gave me a lot of practical experience in high school. By that time I had also gotten my license to operate a radio station, and worked at a KPFA and KPFB [San Francisco], where we experimented with binaural sound in the late Fifties. So I grew up in that world of high tech, and understood linearity and quality transmitters.
Was audio your first choice of a career?
Yes it was. I always felt bad when I went to concerts - I remember, in particular, a Donovan concert at Oakland Coliseum - because the sound was so bad that no one could hear. I knew that it should be possible [to improve the quality of live sound], so I could contribute by building systems that would be very high quality. I always wanted to develop sound-system design to bridge the gap between an audience and the artist.
And you found that the commercial systems didn't perform the way you thought they should?
Very much so. My first start was a company I set up in 1969, called Glyph. We built large, eight- foot by eight-foot exponential horns, and then a four-foot horn with Altec-Lansing parts. We also built a flying, quadraphonic sound system in the San Rafael Ballroom, called Pepperland; our first groups were Pink Floyd, Steve Miller and Joan Baez. We [handled sound] for a bunch of people right away. And that led me to a job at McCune Sound, where I built the horn-loaded tri-amplified JM3.
During the early Seventies while I was with McCune, the company was doing rental work for the concert industry. We handled sound for Creedence Clearwater, Grateful Dead, Elvis Presley and Herb Alpert. We did the "Cool Jazz Tour," which was a stadium tour, and got into a lot of concert work.
In 1973 you were you invited to the Institute of Advanced Music Studies in Montreux, Switzerland. How did that come about?
I was starting to do more classical work at McCune; outdoor concerts at Stanford, and symphony music. I got involved with the Institute, which was contemplating building a high quality PA sound system for classical music. My primary search was to discover the origins of non-linearity in audio transducers. One of the things that became very clear was that horns were a very good way of controlling sound. But we needed some way - a horn or lens - to control the sound and keep it off the walls and the ceiling. But horns were known to produce quite a bit of distortion. Eventually I came up with a way of countering this distortion, for which I was awarded a patent.
What, in essence, did you came up with in your horn design?
Basically, there was couple of different approaches. One was using an analog multiplier, calculating the distortion and then subtracting it from the input. We did a variation of that theme using electronics and some mechanical means [to provide] first-order correction. The problem with horns is that air is non-linear [it does not transmit sound the same for all frequencies]. You have to move the driver in a non-linear way in order to compensate for this, and create linear sound. It was a combination of electronics and mechanics.
And these developments became part of the Meyer Sound processors that you later built into your active systems?
Yes. We have been slowly implementing it over the years. You have to have somebody build special drivers for you. We have kept refining the process so that each generation we make gets better, with lower distortion. Theoretically, we should be able to get to a very high levels of pressure. Air by itself is around 3% efficient at 130 dB-SPL, so we were able to lower this by more than 10 times, and in laboratory and field by about three times.
Basically, you're pre-conditioning the signal to take into account the non-linearity response at certain frequencies of the horn and its interaction with air?
And that principle is now incorporated in both your PA and studio systems?
Yes, to a degree. Now that we have self-powered systems it's much easier to implement these kinds of things than when you have to use a separate power amplifier. Integrated systems allow us to build a product where everything is much tighter coupled.
The [touring-sound] industry was starting to plateau because there were too many unknowns that would keep you from getting it perfect.
After you returned from Switzerland, you must have had a lot of design ideas. In 1979 you set up Meyer Sound Laboratories with your wife, Helen. Was the company established with the idea of manufacturing systems that incorporated some of these new technologies you'd investigated in Montreux?
Yes. Our charter was to build equipment that wasn't available to the audio trade; it had nothing to do with what anyone else was doing. We wanted to be very out-front so that people who were involved with us weren't looking at the competition.
Your first product was a custom-designed woofer for theaters showing "Apocalypse Now." How did that connection come about?
We built a studio monitor in Switzerland called ACD, which I was demonstrating in Berkeley. Tom Scott [engineer at film director Francis Ford Coppola's original Zeotrope Studios] heard about it, and we started talking. The studio wanted to have this low-frequency sound for the napalm explosion during the helicopters attack in "Apocalypse." So we built a special sub-woofer that would go down to 30 cycles and be linear; we tried it out at the North Point [Theater, San Francisco]. Coppola said he really wanted to feel that low-frequency sound strongly.
Then we started showing it to the Grateful Dead, and it started to become popular in rock and roll. It ended up being a double 18-inch in a sixth-order box, so it wouldn't be big.
Meyer Sound's next product was the UM1 Ultra Monitor, again using this ultra-low distortion driver in a bi-amplified stage monitor cabinet with your patented horn and control electronics unit. This is where you're pre-distorting the signal to ensure linear overall response?
The Ultra Monitor's performance was controlled by suspension and how the driver is functioning. You can do it physically or electronically. Most of the pre-distortion work of the Ultra Monitor was done in the driver itself; the driver causes frequency variations that we pick up with the electronics. Technically, they're both designed to make this work.
Who did you get to make this special driver for you.
We first modified drivers built for us by Yamaha in Japan, and we bought about 95% of the output. Now we work with several vendors, and do more of the assembly work here in the company.
The UM1 was followed in 1880 by the UPA1, which was a first speaker cabinet designed to be arrayed.
We started recognizing that when we put a lot of my horn-loaded JM3 speakers together, they started losing their fidelity. We tried to figure out what this was, and discovered that there was a lot of interaction between cabinets that wasn't disappearing with distance. We put a lot of work in the UPA to get the cabinets to work next to each other. The cabinet is trapezoid. Now in products like our [self-powered] CQ-1 and CQ-2, we can refine that coupling to an even higher degree.
The UPA was, to my knowledge, the first effort to get [PA cabinets] to array. Back in the Thirties, the first real arrays were multi-cellular exponential horns; they were multiple-section horns made by Jensen and Altec. They pretty much disappeared because when you walked in front of them you could really hear the sound lobes.
And in 1981 you unveiled the MSL-10, a high power, high-Q system, What was the thinking there?
We had a job to do at the Oakland Coliseum. They wanted the audience and the players to be able to hear the system. I wanted to make sure that an array would work. It eventually led to the development of our MSL- 3; the MSL- 10 was a perfect way to try it in a fixed, stadium situation. If that worked well we would go back and break it into pieces, so that users could put them together depending on the size they needed. We wanted to really understand what array systems were going to sound like in a stadium.
So it's better to build a large-format system, and then divide it down?
Yes. That's what we told Starship and Grateful Dead, who we were first going to try it on the open stadium, to make sure it all worked. We did a sound demonstration, to make sure that their pieces would work.
How do you think the live-sound industry has changed in the past decade and a half? Has it become more demanding in terms of quality and power?
In the Seventies, I thought that sound was terrible. Overall levels have increased to a point where it's starting to plateau again; pretty much when you go to concerts you can hear above the screaming of the people. Overall, as a professional community, we've made a lot of gains, but I think that we're just barely started in terms of what can be done - multi-channel sound has not been explored yet.
Big doesn't necessarily mean beautiful in live sound. What advise would you offer for somebody designing a sound system?
As our field becomes more professional, and more solvent, a lot of people come to the market thinking that this would be a great place to make some money. You see a lot of consumer-type companies coming into the marketplace to sell something that looks like a "professional" loudspeaker. The problem is that there is more to making a sound system work than having a trapezoid box. Like how to work in overload, and power fluctuations - things that you need to know about. You should stick with the people who have the experience. For example, I'm not a believer in moving sound through digital fiber optics, if there is a possibility of it causing problems during a concert. If something goes wrong in a small town where are you going to get parts? Radio Shack? We can't afford to have the sound stopped because the fiber gets wet!
I would also think that cabinetry design - the ruggedness and mounting hardware - is also very important?
We don't ever want an accident to occur. We tie all the tops of the cabinets, through the sides and bottoms; the bigger systems are completely wrapped in steel either inside or outside. I've seen trapezoid boxes - copies of mine made in Switzerland - with the top off, the whole rigging held in the air, and the box is on the ground. The lid was just glued on. They're not copying from experience of doing sound. I see corporations come into professional sound from the home entertainment business, and they don't get it. They suddenly decide that making a loud speaker would be fun!
We have always implemented a policy of 100% quality control. Every major component we make is tested upon arrival at our factory, graded for specific performance characteristics, and re-tested in its final system. I believe that, through such attention to detail, we can produced audio components that provide the truest possible account of performances.
Meyer Sound has supplied live-sound systems for a wide variety of touring companies, permanent installations and other system integrators. What are your favorite installations?
I like doing opera. The installation we did with the [San Francisco] Civic Auditorium for live opera sounds wonderful. To hear an opera reproduced in a [large auditorium] without being aware of the sound system is a great experience.
The Grateful Dead was fun because they always had plenty of equipment and nothing was in overload. The last thing I did with the Dead was to cancel 10-15 dB of the low-frequency sound that spilled onto the stage between 30 and 100 cycl