| By Andrew Gilbert
As a kid growing up in Montclair, John Meyer took many trips down to Southern California to visit the Disney Studios where his uncle worked as a sound technician on “The Mickey Mouse Club.” Already fascinated by radio technology, he wasn’t starstruck by Annette Funicello or wowed by the razzle-dazzle of show business. What made the most profound impression was the action behind the scenes, the rigorous rehearsals, the careful attention to detail, and the exacting team effort required to put on a seamless production.
“Everyone sees the half-hour version, but to prepare for that half hour is so much work and so many people are involved,” says Meyer. “They allow you to think it all happens in a half hour and then everyone goes home. That’s part of the illusion. But they practice all day long so that you can see one half hour of polished work.”
Meyer, 68, has devoted his life and genius to developing technologies that allow musicians to make the most out of those polished moments in the spotlight. He and his wife, Helen Meyer, 64, founded Berkeley-based Meyer Sound in 1979. Some 33 years later, the company is bigger than ever, with a track record of visionary innovations that have transformed the way we hear the world by reinventing and refining the art of electronic sound amplification.
Manufacturing high-end systems employed by an international roster of touring rock and pop stars (recent clients include Robert Plant, Judas Priest, Dolly Parton, and Slightly Stoopid), Broadway shows, theaters, auditoriums, and nightclubs, the privately owned company is a global force. Yet it’s a company where thinking locally is also deeply ingrained in the culture.
Meyer Sound systems can be found in numerous local venues, from Zellerbach Hall and the Paramount Theatre to the Starry Plough and Freight & Salvage. Without calling attention to its largesse, the company has provided support to numerous local organizations over the years, including Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Lawrence Hall of Science, California Shakespeare Theater, Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, and the Crowden Music Center.
Like the Disney techies and production staff, Meyer speakers and amplifiers work behind the scenes, unobtrusive and mostly unobserved. That’s particularly true when it comes to Western classical music, where traditionalists who put a premium on a “pure” unplugged experience have long shunned amplification, or sound reinforcement.
I first became aware of Meyer Sound’s innovative work when discussing Zellerbach’s 2006 renovation with Robert Cole, then director of Cal Performances. As a veteran classical conductor, he was intimately familiar with all the arguments against amplification, but he couldn’t get over possibilities opened up by a Meyer system, which can accommodate a symphony orchestra, Hindustani percussion ensemble, or jazz big band.
“It’s a stealth project,” Cole said. “There’s never been a system like this developed, that makes possible anything we want to do. We can do a Baroque opera and have it sound great and still hear the singers. When Lorin Maazel was here with the Arturo Toscanini Orchestra, that was a big test. He’s pretty discerning, and it worked fantastically well. He loved it, and the orchestra loved it.”
Hiding in plain sight seems to be a company ethic. Meyer Sound moved to its present location on San Pablo Avenue just north of Ashby in 1983, and the facility couldn’t be less impressive—a passing pedestrian merely sees a storefront with a nondescript concrete facade and narrow slit windows.
But stepping through the front door is like entering a wonderland where advanced R&D takes place next to handcrafted manufacturing. Several dozen patent certificates line the walls of the reception area, along with a forest of awards for various Meyer innovations.
While widely revered in the business for its elegantly designed, durable, high-quality gear, Meyer systems were long pigeonholed as more suited for jazz concerts than rock ’n’ roll. But around 2001, orders started rolling in after a series of high-profile tours used Meyer equipment, culminating in Metallica’s celebrated return to the road with St. Anger.
These days, Meyer Sound is one of Berkeley’s larger employers, with 250 people working in facilities that sprawl outward from the San Pablo Avenue offices, including a manufacturing plant that takes up the first floor of the Heinz Building.
For a person blissfully ignorant of audio technology—someone who doesn’t know a voice coil from a cone—touring the Meyer facilities can quickly become overwhelming. But it’s easy enough to understand the thread connecting everything that happens inside as a tireless quest for quality control and consistency.
Meyer doesn’t just manufacture almost all of the interior components of their systems on-site—the company also buys the paper that goes into speaker cones from the same stand of trees in Oregon to ensure that each batch is as identical as possible, and controls temperature and humidity as the cones are molded and impregnated with resin.
Rather than using a cost-efficient assembly line model, Meyer speakers are put together by a single worker who collects all the elements on a cart. Before being sold, every speaker is compared to a reference speaker and if the sound reproduction isn’t a near perfect match, the new one is rejected and dissected to figure out where things went wrong.
Just when you start wondering where all this perfectionism leads, the tour culminates with a visit to the company’s 57-seat Pearson Theatre, designed by Berkeley-based architects Marcy Wong and Donn Logan. Recognized with an Architecture Merit award from the United States Institute for Theatre Technology, the Pearson is outfitted with a Meyer Sound EXP system and Constellation, an electroacoustic technology designed to create a variety of acoustic spaces ranging from an intimate recital hall to a world-class concert hall.
For a demonstration of the theater’s capabilities, we watch a 10-minute naval battle sequence from the 2003 Russell Crowe swashbuckler Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which won an Academy Award for sound editing. Instead of feeling bludgeoned with volume, I find the experience so visceral and immersive I can’t help but duck the incoming cannonballs and check my clothes for splinters from shattered planks.
Sitting down with the Meyers after the tour offers a window into the yin and yang partnership that makes the company so effective. John is the intellectual catalyst, the restless inventor and conceptualist always looking for new ways to solve problems and expand sonic possibilities. Helen is the heart of the company, the people person who facilitates sales and manages the company’s important relationships. They met as neighbors on Etna Street in Berkeley when she was an undergrad at Cal in the early ’70s.
“We were friends for six months before we started dating,” she says. “We’d go to movies and go for walks, and he used to talk. I never met anyone who could talk so much. We’d have people over and he’d be there talking for the whole evening, and I would just sit there and be in awe that someone could talk so much.”
Indeed, an interview with John Meyer isn’t much of a conversation. With his scraggly beard and faraway gaze, he’s the quintessential Berkeley visionary, an exacting idealist who has built a transformative company around his very particular obsessions. Like the scene at Disney that impressed him as a youth, he’s surrounded himself with extremely talented people all working toward a singular goal. (As Steve Bush, my tour guide, puts it, “Mission one is to make good stuff. Mission two is to sell lots of good stuff.”)
The history of electronic sound amplification is a story of fitful progress. As a young man working at Berkeley Custom, a downtown stereo and hi-fi store, Meyer first jumped into building his own gear when a guitarist named Steve Miller approached him to build a speaker system for his rising psychedelic blues band. Meyer’s system made quite an impression at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. By 1971, Meyer was working at McCune Sound Service, which pioneered an easily transportable integrated speaker system that proved its mettle on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s last tour.
In the mid-1970s, looking to develop a system designed for the acoustic cadences and delicate dynamics of Western classical music, Meyer delved into pure research at the Institute of Advanced Music Studies in Montreux, Switzerland, where he designed some of the founding technologies at Meyer Sound Laboratories. The quest isn’t merely to reproduce sound as accurately as possible, it’s to create systems that are durable and consistent, so that a speaker built in 2005 sounds identical to the same model built in 1995.
In a world governed by planned obsolescence, where phones, computers, and televisions are regularly discarded for the latest new and improved version, professional sound reinforcement holds to an entirely different set of expectations and rules. Part of the success of an Andrew Lloyd Webber show is the consistency between each touring production. And pop stars want to sound the same in Wichita as they do in Boston.
“The large audio companies don’t want to start all over again,” Meyer says. “Because they spend all this effort and money in the beginning with the sound designers and they just want to be able to duplicate it. If there’s no consistency, or they can’t replace something, a year later the show has to be done all over again because the equipment disappeared, so right away we saw a real opportunity in building systems for consistency and longevity.”
Among Meyer’s most innovative inventions is SIM, which stands for Source Independent Measurement analyzer. The system earned Meyer Sound an R&D 100 Award, which is like a Nobel Prize for technological achievement. Created partly through a series of experiments conducted during Grateful Dead concerts, SIM allows sound engineers to measure a sound system’s output using the music itself as the reference signal.
In the days before SIM, sound engineers calibrated a public address system before the concert in an empty venue, using random white or pink noise. But a room’s acoustic properties change when you add an audience, or raise the temperature or humidity. SIM allows the sound engineer to continuously adjust the setting while the show is going on. “That was a game changer,” says veteran sound engineer Lee Brenkman.
“[SIM] was really developed with the Grateful Dead’s help, in the sense they really allowed John to practice it and try it out in their concerts,” says Helen matter-of-factly, as though praising a kind neighbor. “They were really generous about that.”
Today, though, Meyer is worried about the future of high fidelity. He was on the scene when hi-fi record systems went mainstream in the early 1960s. With the rise of iPods and digital musical distribution via severely compressed MP3 files, and the lamentable quality of cell phone reception, he sees a world that has lost touch with the power of full-spectrum sound.
“High fidelity has disappeared again,” Meyer says. “It wasn’t there in the 1940s. In the ’50s it made this big leap, but the compression for today’s consumer audio electronics has made it worse again. This generation has yet to rediscover what high fidelity means.”
But through their commitment to East Bay arts and education, the Meyers (whose children attended Berkeley and Albany public schools) are doing their best to ensure that the rising generation appreciates beautiful sound reproduction. For example, the company has worked with the Crowden Music Center in Berkeley to outfit the newly renovated theater with a state-of-the-art system.
“It’s a science lesson as well for our students,” says Doris Fukaawa, Crowden’s executive director. “We’re not going to change acoustics to make you better than you are. You have to produce the sound,” she says.
But before the installation of the Meyer system, even the musically astute youngsters who attend Crowden “didn’t understand how important acoustics are for musicians,” Fukaawa says. “Now, with the touch of a button, they understand how acoustics change.”
For John Meyer, who has spent his life teasing out sonic riddles, that’s the sound of hope.
A freelancer since 1989, Andrew Gilbert writes about jazz, international, and American roots music for numerous publications.