John Meyer

Jan 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By George Petersen


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John Meyer, who with his wife, Helen, founded Meyer Sound Laboratories 25 years ago, has always taken a different approach to seeing (and hearing!) the world. There are plenty of companies specializing in professional loudspeaker systems, but the Meyer way has always been different.

Perhaps the “Laboratories” part of the company name provides a clue, as Meyer has always been scientific and empirical in his methods. In 1973, he was invited to do research and establish an acoustics lab at the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Montreux, Switzerland, which led to a patent on an HF compression driver that reduced distortion to a tenth of conventional designs. More recently, Meyer has incorporated technologies from other disciplines into products such as the company's high-end X-10 studio monitors, which use patented Pressure-Sensing Active Control, a sophisticated feedback circuit originally developed for control systems on the Air Force's stealth aircraft.

During the years, Meyer has been known for looking at old problems in new ways. Though many appeared radical at first, some of his ideas became industry norms within a few years. In 1980, he patented the trapezoidal, arrayable enclosure — today, a common concept used by every touring loudspeaker manufacturer. Meyer also led the industry with concepts such as the Source-Independent Measurement system (this allowed for tuning rooms during the show while the audience was present), and he developed both the notion of using electronic processing to optimize speaker performance and the self-powered pro sound reinforcement speaker. In 1999, Meyer did the “impossible” again, this time with the PSW-6 High-Power Cardioid Subwoofer, using a unique six-woofer enclosure (four front/two rear) and sophisticated phase-manipulation circuitry to achieve a cardioid directional pattern, putting in more bass frequencies when you want them and less unwanted LF reverb in the room.

Now, as Meyer Sound Labs kicks off its silver anniversary, we decided to solicit Meyer's views on live sound technologies, looking at where we've been and perhaps giving insight into what the next five, 10 or 25 years may bring.

Live sound 25 years ago was a pretty different landscape than today. 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. The McCunes, Clair Bros. and other companies came up in this medium of rock 'n' roll sound in the '70s; nothing [existing] worked, so there was a lot of home-grown equipment being built. Then slowly, companies like us started surfacing to create products that were more generic for sound companies that didn't want to build all their own gear.

But the systems were and are still designed around having very highly skilled people to run these systems. Essentially what we have today is a racecar mentality of sound, with highly sophisticated gear built for highly sophisticated talent. This creates a limit as to how far we can go in that scenario.

It's getting too complicated to try to teach everybody everything they need to know about dealing with air compensation. We're trying to build systems that are more function-oriented. For example, we just came out with a product called an LD-3. Rather than trying to teach people about air attenuation, gains of arrays and how to do all of this with digital EQ or whatever, we're aiming the product more at function. You just enter the number and type of arrays, the humidity, temperature and distance, instead of giving all this data as EQ functions. I think we'll see more and more of this paradigm shift in equipment over the next five or 10 years. It's a new way of thinking about what we're trying to accomplish.

Doesn't this come down to the user interface?
Digital consoles with layers and layers of controls and features are more like the digital cameras that have so many options and menus within menus that you can lose your point-and-shoot mentality. On the Sony I was using the other day, I had to press three buttons to get it to work in automatic mode. It used to be you could simply pick up a camera and shoot a picture. We're in that same kind of place in the P.A. world, where stuff is very complicated.

Sound is moving out of the rock 'n' roll mentality and going into churches, theme parks and other venues where people want to have good sound. But it's one thing to staff up dozens of pros to do a high-tech touring show, and it's another thing to do 30 shows at theme parks and churches. In a lot of those installations, there may be a “rocket scientist” mixing engineer who's the wizard that understands it all, but usually you have people who only know how to flip a couple switches to power up the system and hope it works.

Right now, we're still in a very raw state of sound systems, where it takes very high skill to know how to work these things. Something has to bridge this gap to make using systems as easy as knowing how to drive a car.

It's kind of like driving a car where you sit behind the wheel and a voice comes up and says, “Select axle ratio,” when all you want to do is drive.
And it's not like you can just turn all this stuff off. You have to set each of these to be off, and the digital control of sound systems requires a lot of things to be set before they will function. It limits the amount of people who can use modern sound systems to a very high degree.

We're kind of lost in a sea of complexity. I think we may just have to stand back, look at the whole problem and decide if this is the best solution for everybody, or if this is a good solution for 5 percent of the 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 honeycomb material that the aircraft industry likes, which is half the weight of wood but 16 times the cost of wood. Graphite is about twice the weight, so if you build something of aluminum and graphite in a honeycomb structure, you're dealing with materials that are about 10 times heavier than wood — very thin, very strong and very expensive. Honeycombs are also prone to being ripped and torn, but as you make them thicker, they lose their advantage over wood.

Polymers tend to be heavy, and we've experimented with graphite and Fiberglas skins, but in cabinetry, we haven't found that alternate materials 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 the weight, especially when you add rigging components that are strong enough to hold 16 cabinets strung in a row with 7:1 safety margins.

The dynamic loudspeaker was invented 80 years ago. After all this time, cones seem a rather arcane way of moving air and modulating it. Will we still have speaker cones 25 years from now?
This is like the question of whether we'd still have tires on cars 25 years from now. Generally, we see the first hints of a replacement 20 years in advance. That's pretty much been the history, although sometimes things move much faster. In replacing car tires, one solution came from blowing large amounts of air under the vehicle, blowing dirt all over the neighborhood — that wasn't too popular. Right now, there's no glimpse of a replacement, so tires are probably here to stay for a while.

But in terms of cones, we need to move air to get sound. One way is to ionize the air directly and move it with some sort of electrostatic field. This no-membrane approach has been tried: You take a bunch of needles, like a big pincushion, charge them up, spew electrons in the air, charge the field and modulate them with some kind of AC field. But the field moves around, the ions don't stay in one place, the efficiency sucks, you end up with a hard-to-control dispersing field and you get ozone on the side.

There was also the flame loudspeaker that Ampex developed, where you salt a big flame with sodium and modulate the flame. But those things disappeared, and generally, ionizing the air directly hasn't worked out; much like the acoustical refrigerator, which seemed interesting but had a lot of problems and couldn't compete against compressor-type refrigeration.

Paper also has a lot of problems. But one of the reasons we use paper is because it's naturally designed to flex. Most materials are either work-harden or work-soften. All metals are work-harden. If you bend a coat hanger long enough, the metal crystallizes and it breaks. If you bend nylon long enough, it softens and breaks. Wood is very neutral, and when it flexes, it doesn't change its characteristic so it doesn't make noise. When metal flexes, it makes noise, like a metal clicker toy. If done properly, wood can change its state without making noise. It's a reasonable solution until something more elegant comes along.

Why don't we have modulated compressed-air systems?
The military has used systems with modulated airstreams, but it takes a lot of air. It's noisy, it hisses and it is hard to control. They're giving that up, and we've been doing more work with NASA using direct radiators. They're quieter and by using a lot of speakers, you can create a lot of power.

Pushing air with membranes, such as electrostatics, has been well explored, but it's hard to get much power out of such a system, which takes us back to using a cone — paper, Mylar, metal or whatever — to move air. From an engineering perspective, we have to ask how accurately can this be achieved and can we do this at low distortion? Since we're stuck with cones — or tires — we have to make the best cones or tires we can, as the whole car or system is 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 as mass and weight, because once put into motion, it will have its own momentum and won't stop instantly. We can use electronics to help with this, much in the same way that a car has a mechanical suspension to absorb bumps. A more clever way would be to scan the ground in front of the car with a laser and anticipate the bump with a servo mechanism that adjusts the suspension before it hits the bump. With our X-10 studio monitors, we have the ability to “read” what the speaker is doing with a microphone and use feedback — like in an amplifier — to correct and add energy, forcing the speaker to behave in a linear way.

Until we see an alternate solution, the key is to refine that solution so we can create as accurate an image of the original as possible. That's why I've always liked the idea of combining electronic control 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 the sound at the area where the audience is, we're developing better products, especially in some venues where it's hard to get them to do anything [acoustically] about the space, such as churches and historical buildings.

That sounds incredibly simple.
These ideas can take years to figure out. At our installation in Carnegie Hall, we were able to design a system that really does put the sound exactly where it needs to go, but we were only able to do that because the system can be struck for their classical programs. There we proved that if we didn't hit the walls, we could greatly improve the intelligibility of the space.

As we move out of this high-tech world of rock 'n' roll touring into churches and other venues, it becomes more apparent to me that we need to build products that are designed for people who have volunteers to work these shows. That's what the future will have to solve.

But you've got to be practical. One time, some movie companies wanted to be able to scan the number of people in the audience, analyze the response and feed the system with antisounds so they wouldn't have to put walls between movie theaters. When they asked me what I thought about it, I told them it would be a lot easier just to build some concrete walls between the cinemas [Laughs].

George Petersen is the editorial director of Mix.


A lot can happen in 25 years. Here are some highlights in the history of Meyer Sound:


Meyer Sound Laboratories founded by John and Helen Meyer. John Meyer patents low-distortion horn design (later used in UM-1 and UPA-1). The company unveils its CEU (Control Electronics Unit) active loudspeaker crossover/processor, first used in theater subwoofers for 70mm release of Apocalypse Now. The UM-1 UltraMonitor, the first high-SPL, active, processed stage monitor debuts.


John Meyer patents the trapezoidal arrayable cabinet, first used in the UPA-1 compact wide-coverage, powered FOH speaker.


SIM (Source Independent Measurement) is introduced, allowing sound system performance measurement/optimization to be made during music events. (1986 TEC Award)


HD-1 high-definition studio monitors are introduced, beginning the trend of active, powered studio loudspeakers. (1990 TEC Award)


SIM enters its second generation, with the SIM II, which receives R&D 100 Award from R&D magazine.


The MSL-4, the first high-SPL, self-powered sound reinforcement loudspeaker, is shown and is named LDI magazine's “Sound Product of the Year.”


Meyer creates powered versions of some of its other speakers, including the UPA-1P and UPA-2P, awarded “Sound Product of the Year” by Theater Crafts International magazine.


Meyer unveils SB-1 Parabolic Long-Throw Sound Beam speaker, which uses a parabolic dish to project high-SPL sound over long distances.


The PSW-6 High-Power Cardioid Subwoofer — the first directional low-frequency reproducer — debuts. (1999 TEC Award)


The X-10 — a high-performance studio monitor using Pressure Sensing Active Control technology to compare input and output levels — is unveiled. The system provides consistent LF reproduction, regardless of playback level. MAPP (Multipurpose Acoustical Prediction Program) is introduced, allowing engineers and contractors to access advanced acoustical analysis programs in the field by linking to a host computer at Meyer Sound via Internet. Meyer's compact, powered wide-coverage UPM-1P speaker receives a TEC Award.


Meyer unveils the M3D, the company's first line array product, which uses a patent-pending REM (Ribbon Emulation Manifold) horn design to mimic the smooth sound of ribbon tweeters from conventional high-SPL compression drivers.


Meyer debuts two curvilinear array systems (compact M2D and ultra-compact M1D), which allow line array use in small venues. (Named “Sound Product of the Year” by Entertainment Design magazine)


At Frankfurt Musikmesse, MILO — a high-power curvilinear array system — is shown, allowing the creation of full curvilinear arrays, with the larger, long-throw MILO cabinets as mains and the M2Ds as near-field fills. At AES NYC, Meyer releases SIM 3, the third generation of its Source Independent Measurement system, which costs a fraction of earlier SIM units, while offering far more power, with the ability to calculate 300 Fast Fourier Transforms per second.

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