Early in my career, a production manager told me the only way he could make sure he had “perfect” sound reproduction for Philip Glass' live shows was by demanding Meyer speakers. As a sound designer and mixer, I have used tools from Meyer in every major event in my career. Whether other designers chose them — from mixing Abe Jacob's design for Cats, to a mass held by Pope John Paul II in Giants Stadium — or whether I selected them to solve an unusual design problem (MSL-2s on the Big Apple Circus and the first set of powered UPAs on Blue Man Group/Chicago), I have been impressed by the company's dedication to sound reproduction, quality manufacturing, service, and direct interaction with customers.
This month, The USITT Sound Commission presents “An Evening With John & Helen Meyer” on Friday, March 21 in Houston, where the Meyers will talk about their lives in audio and their long connection to theatre sound. They will also be honored with the Harold Burris-Meyer Distinguished Career in Sound Award. I jumped at the chance to interview them, to try to garner some insight on John, the designer, and Helen, the business manager, and the Meyers as people, not just industry icons.
LD: How and when did you meet one another?
Helen Meyer: We first met because we were neighbors in Berkeley. I wasn't really into cooking, so I invited John to come over to help me make some tea.
On our first official date, John took me to a high-end hi-fi store in Berkeley to listen to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on a pair of Klipsch horns. This was his idea of a big date. I'd never heard sound like that before. It was great!
LD: How did you get your start designing loudspeakers?
HM: One night in the late ‘60s, we went to a Donovan concert at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena (now the Oracle Arena), and we really couldn't hear anything. The sound was so bad that, if someone next to you was talking or rustled a program, you couldn't hear anything on stage.
John turned to me and told me he could build better speakers.
John Meyer: I thought it was really unfair to the musicians and the audience that no one could hear the music. So, I decided to build something better. Not long after that, I started working for McCune Sound, and while gearing my efforts toward specialty work, invented the JM3, a horn-loaded, tri-amplified loudspeaker. The JM3 became a big success and is still used today.
LD: Why did you decide to start your own company?
JM: I started to do more classical work at McCune, with outdoor concerts at Stanford and symphony music when I first got involved with the Institute of Advanced Music Studies in Montreux, Switzerland. The Institute was exploring the idea of building a high quality PA system for classical music and invited me to go and do some research. My primary goal was to discover the origins of non-linearity in audio transducers. While it became clear that horns were a good way of controlling sound, we needed to find some way to control the sound and keep it off the walls and the ceiling. Eventually, I came up with a way of countering this distortion, for which I was awarded a patent.
HM: When we got back to the US in 1975, John worked as a consultant in sound contracting and served as a technical director for a direct-to-disc audiophile record company for a while. He had a lot of design ideas, and in 1979, he felt it was time for a change. Just like he'd decided at the Donovan concert that he was going to build better concert sound systems, he came home one night and announced that he had rented a building in San Leandro and that he was starting his own company.
LD: Did you initially envision it as a family venture or partnership?
HM: The decision to make it a “family business” happened organically. John has always been incredibly passionate about audio, and I knew immediately that if I didn't become part of the company, I would never see my husband. I had no idea how to run a business [laughs]. I had a friend show me how to use a spreadsheet for accounting and learned on the ground.
LD: What was Meyer Sound's very first product?
JM: Meyer Sound's first product was the 650-R, which we developed in 1979 for Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now because the studio wanted to have low-frequency sound for the napalm explosion in the helicopter attack scene. In the end, a handful of 70mm theatres were selected for the install of the 650s, including the Ziegfeld Cinema in New York City, where I believe they are still in use.
LD: What's the top selling product right now?
HM: The UPA — now available in a self-powered version, the UPA-1P — which we first created for Abe Jacob, remains our all-time best-selling product, 28 years since it was first introduced!
LD: How did you develop the UPA?
HM: John and Abe had worked together at McCune Sound, and Abe had started to do some major producing for Broadway shows. In 1980, Abe came to John and said, “Build me something I can use for Broadway shows.” John suggested that Abe just use the Ultra Monitor, which had just been designed for Jefferson Starship, but it didn't look like a theatre product, and people thought he was joking.
JM: So we repackaged it in our patented trapezoidal box, creating the first array-able loudspeakers, and suddenly, the theatre people could relate to it.
HM: Thanks to Abe, who soon after the creation of the UPA specified it for all his projects, the UPA has become almost ubiquitous on Broadway and in West End theatre productions for over 20 years. Autograph Sound's Andrew Bruce played a critical role in establishing the UPA on the West End.
LD: How did you first get involved with theatre?
HM: Professionally, it was all through Abe Jacob. Without him, we would have never been able to do it. From a personal perspective, Broadway theatre has always been of great interest to me, as has local repertory theatre.
JM: I've basically been involved in theatre since I was a kid. I started acting when I was seven, and it has always been part of my life in a variety of ways. In fact, my early involvement in theatre led to my interest in radio, which then evolved into my passion for sound and the technology behind it.
LD: Is there something inherently unique about creating products for theatre?
JM: In dealing with sound for theatre, the big issues are size, power, portability, and rigging. Theatre is hard because sound systems have to be small. You're fighting for space with lights, flies — all sorts of things. When we came out with the UPA, it was so small that it totally changed the way that people design sound systems for the theatre. At the time, adding processors into the mix just wasn't done…Meyer Sound loudspeakers were the only loudspeakers that had the added benefit of coming with a processor at the time.
LD: How and why do you take the time to know customers personally?
HM: We value the long-term relationships that we have with them, and it's reciprocal. They have really helped us along the way to do what we do. Our ultimate goal is to meet the needs of our customers and to provide the best experience possible to them and to audiences. Our customers tend to come to John with a specific challenge, and they inspire him to find the best solution.
JM: Really, one of the first examples of this was how we worked with Abe Jacob to create the UPA…but it's just one of many examples of being close to customers, as it is with Major Tom's Lars Brogaard, Broadway sound designer Tony Meola, Cirque du Soleil, and many others. Our goal is both to serve them but also to get their input to ensure that our products are truly useful.
LD: Has Meyer considered outsourcing manufacturing?
HM: No, we know that a lot of companies do this, but it doesn't make sense for us given the types of products we build and our overall company philosophy. By manufacturing at our headquarters, we're both able to guarantee the highest level of quality for each box and ensure that each is consistent from one to another and over time. Also, we believe strongly in supporting our local economy and community…Berkeley is our home, and keeping jobs here, particularly the manufacturing jobs, has been very important for the local economy. While some might think it's more cost effective to manufacture overseas, in the end, it's actually more efficient for us to oversee production here because quality control and consistency from product-to-product is part of what people buy when they buy a Meyer Sound loudspeaker.
LD: When you're not working, what do you like to do?
HM: Spending time with our grandchildren, Milo and Elodie, for whom two of the company's most popular products are named, is my favorite thing to do when I'm not working. I'm also closely involved with local and national arts organizations like Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Mark Morris Dance Group.
JM: Spending time with the grandchildren is at the top of my list too, but I'm also really interested in astronomy, painting, model trains, and photography, to name a few.
LD: What's the next big thing for you?
JM: We're currently developing a new product using digital technology that has the potential to completely change the way sound designers work. It's still under wraps at this stage, but the idea is not to simply mirror analog technology with digital, but to use the unique nature of the medium to do things that haven't been done before.
Jim van Bergen is a sound designer and mixer working at PRG Audio in New York.