It's an understatement to say that Electro-Voice has had significant impact on the world of professional sound reinforcement almost since its inception.
>From humble beginnings almost 70 years ago in the basement of the Century Tire & Rubber Company in South Bend, IN, the company has traditionally brought forth cutting-edge audio technology. Now part of Telex Communications, Electro-Voice (EV) continues down that path, taking an approach of applying meticulous research and development to creating user-first solutions.
EV vice president of marketing Alan Shirley, who joined the company earlier this year, notes that a recent focus has been loudspeakers. The core of this effort is defined most prominently by the X-Array(TM) Series of full-range systems, which made its debut on the 1997-98 Rolling Stones' Bridges To Babylon world concert tour. As veteran pro audio journalist Richard Buskin, writing about the tour, pointed out, "Quite simply, X-Array is the best concert sound to date in an outdoor stadium environment. Great separation on the instruments, clear musical riffs, and easily decipherable lyrics."
Since that dramatic introduction, X-Array has gone on to establish itself within the mainstream of live sound reinforcement. Subsequently, EV developed a line of X-Array loudspeakers specifically tailored for the fixed installation market (called Xi Series(TM)), which also have gained acceptance in higher end applications like performing arts centers, large music venues, and houses of worship.
"X-Array took about 70 years to develop," laughs Mike O'Neill, director of research and development for EV. "Some of the technologies and improvements in X-Array were developed by going back and properly applying some of the discoveries and principles that were written by the pioneers of our industry. We just figured out how to do it."
O'Neill rides herd over a 28,000-sq.-ft., standalone R & D facility in Buchanan, MI, also the home of EV's headquarters and main production facility, a thoroughly industrial place where things like loudspeaker baskets are formed from raw aluminum. (The company also has several satellite production facilities.) Outfitted with the latest product design tools and staffed by more than 35 engineers and technicians, the R & D center represents the heart and soul of EV, a place where numerous technologies have been refined and brought to life, with X-Array serving as only one of the more recent examples.
"We embarked on the path to X-Array when it became clear that our previous high-end loudspeakers were becoming a bit long in the tooth," explains Jim Long, director, strategic projects for EV, who has been with the company for nearly half of its life. "At the same time, we felt the market in general was searching for a new loudspeaker, something that would step beyond everything else out there. We didn't want to provide a 'me too' solution."
The journey that resulted in X-Array took about three years. Performance of the earliest prototype versions indicated that progress had been made, but something was still missing. "We started doing demonstrations of these prototypes for customers, and universally, they told us, 'Your bass is great, your highs are great, but the midrange is lacking,'" says Long. Thus began the painstaking research referred to by O'Neill, where landmark work on the principles of horn design by Harry Olson, among others, was revisited and analyzed.
Over the course of two years, close to 30 acoustical and mechanical refinements were made in the midrange horn and driver, resulting in a unique breakthrough EV terms Ring Mode Decoupling (RMD(TM)). The improvement in performance can't be defined with standard electro-acoustic measurement tools; rather it's a subtlety of distinctly better vocal clarity only detectable by the human ear.
As work continued on Xi Series models tailored for fixed installation purposes, EV approached several leading system design consultants, including Craig Janssen of Acoustic Dimensions, to develop, incorporate, and further refine several technologies. This collaborative process is a bedrock tenet in the company's heritage, dating back to co-founders Al Kahn and Lou Burroughs. The duo had begun producing microphones for their fledgling public address hire business, and they soon found a need for higher quality mics in both PA and broadcast markets.
Their first major breakthrough occurred in 1934, with the development of the humbucking coil, which drastically cut the negative effects of stray electromagnetic noise that had previously hampered microphones. Other improvements soon followed, with Kahn and Burroughs traveling the country to show off their new technology and most importantly, to gather valuable input to further improve their products. Burroughs, in particular, was synonymous with this approach, with his frequent trips often referred to as the "Dr. Burroughs Medicine Show."
"It's fair to say that Xi Series was shaped by an interchange of ideas, helping to spur our development team to a new level," states Long. Further, many of the concepts created during the entire X-Array process have been utilized in other EV loudspeakers, including the popular Sx Series, which derives its roots from the legendary 100S and System 200 portable systems devised 20 years ago.
While loudspeakers have been a primary focus, Shirley points out that other product categories haven't exactly been ignored. P Series power amplifiers, for example, were developed concurrently with X-Array, and were selected by db Sound for the Stones tour. Harry Witz of db noted the choice was made only after several days of exhaustive A-to-B comparisons of the three P Series with almost every viable touring amp models.
Digital signal processing has also drawn a fair amount of attention. While a perfect fit with X-Array, EV's 24-bit Merlin ISP-100, including a user-friendly software interface, provides optimization of loudspeaker and/or array performance parameters along with supplying other valuable system processing and routing functions. A more powerful version of Merlin was expected to hit the market at press time, in time for a full launch at the 1999 Audio Engineering Society (AES) convention in New York.
"What this all adds up to is a cohesive line of higher-end products that integrate well together or stand alone independently within a system," Long says. In addition to all of the impressive product work the company is spearheading an ongoing, aggressive educational effort on behalf of the its worldwide customer base. This year in the US alone, EV is conducting 10 modern-day "medicine shows," where the focus over the course of two days is placed upon key system design and product issues. At about half of these sessions, Robert Coffeen, PDE, a renowned electro-acoustic consultant, backs up EV's own efforts with seminars reflecting his considerable design experience.
Incorporated in mid-1930 just as the US--and the world--plunged into the Great Depression, Electro-Voice offers a chronicle rich with parallels to many linchpins of 20th-century history and popular culture.
The company's unusual name was inspired by legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne. Recovering from an illness which made it difficult to supervise activities on the team's four practice fields, he had a tower constructed which overlooked all four fields. Kahn and Burroughs were contacted to design a PA system for the tower, devising a four-speaker system with a microphone and switching mechanism by which Rockne could bark orders to each of the four squads. He reportedly called this system his "electric voice," which was adapted to Electro-Voice.
At the time Burroughs and Kahn began developing microphones, the market was virtually monopolized by Western Electric. However, this technology was targeted primarily toward parent company Bell Telephone's rapidly expanding telephone business, relying upon delicate carbon ribbon elements not well suited for performance applications. Through their landmark efforts, the duo became one of the primary forces behind breaking "Ma Bell's" microphone monopoly. By the late 1930s, EV offered a wide range of dynamic mics exceeding customer expectations in every phase, also employing modern manufacturing procedures that kept prices low.
The outbreak of World War II spurred more innovation, and with a purpose. At the time, radio communications in combat situations were estimated to have only a 20% success rate. The problem: mics in use at the time picked up as much or more battle noise than they did the human voice. Kahn and Burroughs designed a mic using a 180-degree phase shift to cancel background noise, and engineered it to be attached to the helmet. Called the T-45, it raised the success rate to 90%, and was considered so vital that a Marine Corps office later confided to Kahn that the US landing at Guadalcanal was held up several weeks until the troops could be equipped with the mic in order to reduce casualties. The company received a citation from the War Department for its contributions, and it was during this time the company transferred to its current Buchanan, MI, headquarters to meet growing demands.
The T-45 and other noise-cancelling mics remained a staple in the commercial aviation market for decades, with this same technology utilized on early Mercury and Gemini space missions. And, EV specially designed microphones for the Skylab space station, and even though threatened by a lost heat shield, this equipment functioned without failure during Skylab's entire six-year mission.
Hundreds of developments in microphone technology followed, including implementation of synthetic plastic that made dynamic mics suitable for studio use and the patented Variable-D(R) design found in the broadcast legend RE20 as well as several other models. A decade ago, EV introduced the audio world to the power of neodymium, a rare-earth element four times stronger than conventional magnets and now employed in mics produced by a divers e group of manufacturers.
"I can't stress enough the impact that EV's founders, and Lou Burroughs in particular, still have on us," Long says. "Lou set the tone for tirelessly seeking answers, and that attitude still seems to permeate our halls to this day."
The 50s saw focus expand to loudspeakers, initially concentrating on consumer audio products such as the renowned Patrician series. Gradually, focus shifted to commercial loudspeakers. Also during this period, EV created the first large anachoic chamber outside of an academic research facility, which added a new level to the sophistication of both microphone and loudspeaker testing and development efforts. Meanwhile, performers ranging from Elvis to the Beatles utilized EV mics, and in 1963, the company became one of very few manufacturers to receive an Academy Award for technical achievement, specifically for the 642 Cardiline(R) mic.
By 1967, Kahn and Burroughs were ready to move on to a well-earned retirement and sold their creation to Gulton Industries, which also acquired several other pro audio manufacturers. EV continued to grow and prosper, allowed to exist in relative autonomy through the mid-80s, when Gulton was acquired by Mark IV Industries. Under a structure created by EV (and later Mark IV Audio) president Robert Pabst, EV was strategically aligned with several other top-line pro audio companies, a formula that met with mixed success. One thing remains unaltered, however--a commitment to pushing the technology envelope. It was during this period that the breakthroughs with neodymium and Manifold Technology(R) loudspeakers, among numerous others, were introduced to the world.
At press time, EV announced that the company will be moving about 100 administrative jobs to Telex headquarters in Minneapolis, MN over the next 18 months. Some 190 jobs will remain in Buchanan with the company's engineering and manufacturing operations.
"We're constantly evaluating new directions and technologies. One intriguing area is powered loudspeakers, which appear to have a lot of potential and interest. And of course, the unabated march of digital advancements has a direct and indirect effect on so many things we do, both in the lab and in the field," concludes Shirley. "It's certainly an exciting time to be in professional audio, and to have the opportunity to rise to the challenge of creating products that make a difference."