When people think of San Francisco in the late 60s, they naturally picture hippies, Haight Ashbury, and all that music: Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and of course, the Grateful Dead. But people had to be able to hear what these bands were playing, so among those young, eager musicians, fans, and groupies who found their way to the Bay Area during that time were a contingent of technicians and engineers who designed and maintained the sound systems. Some of them had backgrounds in audio, some were just friends of the musicians who wanted to help out, and, sure, some were just there for the party, but all of these novice audiophiles had a genuine love of the music, and a desire to make it sound as crisp and clear as possible.
Not that it was very easy to accomplish such a feat back then. Equipment was primitive, the crew wasn't terribly well trained (or terribly sober, for that matter), and, quite frankly, many of the bands and fans were more interested in the "experience" of a concert than in the clarity of the music.
"I have a pretty extensive collection of tapes from those days," says Bob Co hen, founder and former president of Clear-Com Systems, which recently moved from Berkeley, CA, to nearby Emeryville. "Maybe only one out of every 10 tapes I recorded has anything decent on it. You hear a lot of musicians who are out of tune or out of key. Everybody was pretty stoned; they weren't paying too much attention."
"It was kind of crazy, because everybody was trying to bring hi-fi gear into concerts and stadiums," adds John Meyer, founder of Berkeley, CA-based Meyer Sound Labs. "Nobody even knew anything about power. We were using circuit breakers so big that it took a half a day just to find an electrician with a big enough car."
Interestingly, however, many of those early sound engineers and technicians--like Cohen and Meyer--not only stayed in the Bay Area, they stayed in the audio business. Many ended up forming companies that built the kinds of products that were unheard of in the 60s: self-powered speakers, intercom systems, digital consoles, digital anything. Today, San Francisco boasts more audio manufacturers than just about any other city in the world: Apogee Sound, Otari, Digidesign, Euphonix, E-mu Systems, Dolby, and the aforementioned Meyer and Clear-Com are among those who call the Bay Area home. Not coincidentally, two of ED's sister publications, Mix and Electronic Musician, are also based there.
The music may have brought many of these entrepreneurs to the area, but there are myriad factors that have kept them there: the climate, the politics, the restaurants, the people. It's also an attractive location for businesses: a port city with easy access to Asia; a talent-rich technological pool, thanks to Silicon Valley. But anybody who's ever been to San Francisco is also well aware of the beauty of its surroundings: the Golden Gate, Napa Valley, the redwoods, Fisherman's Wharf.
"Silicon Valley grew up here for any number of reasons," notes Milt McNally, the current president of Clear-Com. "But in reality, if San Francisco was a terrible place to live, people would have gone someplace else."
The same could be said of the audio industry. Cohen, a native of New York, moved to San Francisco in the early 60s because of the folk music scene. Ken DeLoria, president and founder of the Petaluma-based Apogee Sound, also hails from the Eastern US and moved to San Francisco in the late 70s, after spending several years "oscillating back and forth between coasts." John Meyer, however, was a hometown boy, growing up in Berkeley. Meyer was interested in audio from a young age; his earliest involvement with sound came as a youngster at the local radio station KPFA in the late 50s. "It was a very progressive radio station," he notes. "They were making binaural broadcasts, so even back then, the area was pretty famous for doing things with sound." Meyer's alma mater, Oakland High, was one of the first schools in the country to have its own audio department. "We had a sound crew that would build consoles and things like that," he says.
One of Meyer's early professional projects was handling the sound for Steve Miller at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival in 1967; from there, he ended up at McCune Sound Service. McCune is something of a legend in the Bay Area, being one of the first audio rental companies around. Founded by Harry McCune, the company supplied a variety of rental equipment, and eventually made some of their own, which was used on tours and other projects.
"There was a lot of action going on there," recalls DeLoria, who worked at McCune himself for over seven years. "There were a lot of engineers who came through there and went on to develop careers in their own right, either in manufacturing or in engineering. In addition to myself and John [Meyer], Bob Cavin, our head engineer at Apogee, was at McCune for years, and Pat Maloney, one of our guys in operations, was with McCune for at least 10 years. It was very fertile."
"When I started working at McCune," Meyer recalls, "they had begun to put a lot of money intotrying to build reliable sound systems. We had done Creedence Clearwater Revival's last tour, but it was hard because they were looking for a certain fidelity, and here we were using hi-fi gear in the Oakland Coliseum. The manufacturers around at the time didn't really understand rock and roll, and they were kind of nasty about it. That's why we started making our own stuff at McCune, and that's why so many other people started making their own stuff. Showco and Clair Brothers had begun doing the same thing."
But this was the early 70s, and even though people may have started paying a little more attention to the sound quality at concerts, it still was not necessarily the top priority of a rock-and-roll show. "Making it through 10 shows in a row without any failure was the goal back then," says Meyer. "Making through an entire tour was a really big goal. But in the early 70s, people didn't care if the sound went off for half an hour and came back on. They'd just go party."
McCune continued to do well in the touring industry, creating the famed "wall of sound" for the Grateful Dead. "We had started working with the Grateful Dead a lot, because they had made a commitment that they wanted the very best, state-of-the-art sound," Meyer says. "They felt this was very important. We built them this 'wall of sound,' and they came into McCune's and I told them that the speakers would also be great for Creedence. And they just said, 'Okay. Why don't you do it?' It wasn't just business then, everyone was interested in anything that could make the sound better. "
McCune thrived in the concert market during early 70s, and even branched out into theatre, supplying equipment for East Coast companies like ProMix and Masque Sound. "Here was this rental company doing exceptionally good work," says DeLoria, "making really quality audio for the time. You could go to a concert and actually hear the guitars, and hear what was being sung. I think that attracted a lot of people who were interested in becoming engineers or who had engineering experience: 'We want to be part of a company where the product actually sounds good.'"
DeLoria, Meyer, and others at McCune all worked to improve the quality and durability of the speakers. The problem was, once McCune had come up with a speaker that filled the immediate needs of its client base, the company began to lose interest in taking it any further. Meyer decided to go it alone; he and his wife Helen, vice president of Meyer, moved to Switzerland with the idea of forming his own company. DeLoria stayed on, but also saw the writing on the wall.
"I kept getting more and more interested in the manufacturing side, with the idea of making products that were repeatable. And I had wanted McCune to become a serious manufacturer, but they wouldn't support it," says DeLoria. "I approached Harry McCune several times and said, 'Why don't you set up a real manufacturing division and brand these products with your name and sell them to other sound companies?' But he was dead set against it. He said, 'If we're going to sell somebody something, then we can't rent it to them. It will kill the rental market.' And from his standpoint, that worked; he had a successful, thriving company. But I could see where things were going."
Specifically, DeLoria saw Meyer's new speakers, which he felt were going to be very popular with the audio market, especially the theatre crowd. "This hold that McCune had on Broadway--because they were the only ones who had the small speakers that sounded any good--started to erode as companies like Masque and Sound Associates started buying up large inventories of Meyer product," DeLoria says. "ProMix started buying Meyer product too, and that's when it occurred to me to leave McCune and start my own manufacturing company. And the ProMix people said, 'We'll buy your products immediately.' I almost literally started Apogee on that promise with them."
Though not affiliated with McCune, Cohen followed a similar path. An electronics engineer and a huge fan of the music coming out of San Francisco in the 60s, particularly the folk scene, Cohen taped many of the musicians he saw perform. Several of those acts, including Jefferson Airplane, Boz Scaggs, and Jesse Colin Young, found out what he was doing and asked him to record their concerts. Eventually, he became their overall sound man, putting together entire systems for bands, building his own consoles and other equipment. Cohen worked briefly for Bill Graham, building the sound system at the Fillmore, then joined forces with Chet Helms to produce concerts at the Avalon Ballroom. "It was environmental theatre," Cohen says of those shows. "It was light, sound, music; it was an experience. Chet would book the bands, and I would take care of the sound."
Those concerts ended around 1970, and Cohen found himself with a lot of equipment, so he formed a rental sound company, which worked on such projects as the LA Love-In, the Human Be-In, and the infamous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. It was during this time that Cohen realized he needed to communicate from his mixing console to his assistants backstage. He thought he could just buy one, but when he realized that none existed, he worked with Charlie Butten, a touring sound engineer, to create one.
"I did the development, engineering, and product marketing on it," Cohen says. "I tried it out on concerts every weekend, kept modifying and improving it. And within a couple of months, we had a pretty good working prototype, which was a beltpack with all the electronics on it, no central amplifier, just a central power supply and a microphone cable.
"And then the lighting people for some of these shows saw this system, and said, 'Boy, we could use that,'" Cohen continues. "'Could you make us one?' I said, 'Well, here, take mine. I'll build another one.' And then the bands saw them and they wanted one as well, so they could mix onstage. Next thing I know I'm renting 400 sq. ft. of warehouse space on South Market at four cents a square foot, building intercoms."
John and Helen Meyer formed Meyer Sound in the late 70s, but spent nearly six years before that in Switzerland, where John set up an acoustics lab at the Institute for Advanced Studies. While there, he designed a high-frequency horn driver and a modular loudspeaker system, two concepts that would serve Meyer Sound well. But, as Meyer recalls, there was something of a cultural divide between his company and the Swiss way of doing business. "We were talking to Swiss TV and radio companies, and had made some incredible prototypes, really advanced stuff for the early 70s," he notes. "We showed it to them, and they wanted to know who was going to repair it for the next 20 years, how long we had been in business, that sort of thing. They wouldn't possibly buy from a company that wasn't at least 50 years old. And we realized we could go back to America, form a company, build it up and go back to Europe and sell it with no problem, because then they wouldn't judge the size of the company." In 1979, John and Helen p acked up and moved back to Berkeley.
Apogee, a short drive north of the city in Petaluma, in the heart of wine country, began in DeLoria's house in 1985 with three employees; today the company features over 80. "Things were pretty slow for the first few months," DeLoria recalls. "We were developing products, but we were also doing little repairs around the neighborhood, fixing Burger King sound systems, all kinds of pickup work. But in April of 86, we made our first sale to a Broadway show, six AE-2s, our under-balcony speakers, for a touring production of Dreamgirls. Otts Munderloh, the sound designer on the show, liked what he heard and started talking to us about more speakers for the front of house. We went from three people, then up to five; by AES in the fall of that year, we had about 18-20, and by the end of the year, we had about 30. And it just kept going up."
Cohen's intercoms drew attention not only from the rock-and-roll community, but from theatre as well; demand was so great that he decided to close his rental shop and get into manufacturing full time. Cohen established Clear-Com in San Francisco in 1968, and stayed there nearly two decades until escalating costs convinced him to move the company to Berkeley in the mid-80s. By the late 90s, Clear-Com employed over 120 people and was manufacturing 135 different products, but Cohen had gone from being an engineer to being an executive. "I thought to myself, I'm 60 years old, it's getting harder and harder, and it's work of a type I'm not comfortable with. So I decided to retire." In 1997, Cohen sold Clear-Com to the Vitec Group, and retired in 1998. McNally, who joined the company five years ago, took over as president and oversaw the company's recent relocation to a 50,000-sq.-ft. space in Emeryville.
"We stayed in the area largely because of continuity," McNally notes. "It's easy for businesses to talk about pulling up roots. Certainly with the cost overheads associated with doing business in Northern California, it's tempting to say, 'Let's move to Iowa or Nebraska.' But the reality is, we have a 30-year history here. We have an employee base that's well-trained and amazingly long-term. So what we did was look for the most cost-effective place we could find, but still remain in the Bay Area, so that we wouldn't disrupt our employees. In the end, we only moved three miles down the street."
Today, all three companies remain firmly ensconced in the San Francisco area. And though the city and its environs haven't always been terribly pro-business, there are plenty of intangible reasons why these and other audio companies have made the Bay Area their home.
"Since I've lived here all my life, it's hard for me to be objective," Meyer says. "It's sort of like living in the Redwood Forest and wondering why there are all these redwood trees. It's hard to believe you don't see that sort of thing wherever you go."
"Let's not forget the environment here," adds DeLoria. "It's not terribly cold in the winter, it's not ridiculously hot in the summer. That mild weather had enabled us to take speaker systems outdoors and listen to them for our own developmental purposes. Just last night [in November], we were out until 8pm, tweaking one of our linear array models. You wouldn't have that opportunity in the Midwest or East, when it's 20 below; you don't want to listen, all you want to do is get inside."
Perhaps McNally sums it up best: "As long as the earth doesn't shake, and we don't get another el nino, we'll be fine right where we are."