JBL's Michael MacDonald, Surrounded By Sound

JBL's Michael MacDonald, Surrounded By Sound

JBL's Michael MacDonaldSCN: As someone who has been involved in pro audio since the '70s, how has sound system design evolved from a "black art" into a science?

Michael MacDonald: The science has become better understood and system performance more consistent using predictive and analysis software tools available today. This has given a larger group of practitioners the ability to provide very usable systems. When I started, the best designers were the ones who had the opportunity to learn by making the most mistakes and/or who had apprenticed with the old guard designers. Today a young person can go to one of the many good schools and get a really good foundation.

Also, it's interesting how line arrays were the dominant PA technology in the '50s and '60s, then horns in the '70s and '80s, then back to line arrays in the '90s. Will we be back to horns in the future, perhaps in a new hybrid form? As Don Davis, the founder of SynAudCon, used to say "The ancients have stolen our ideas."

SCN: In a future likely to be dense with automation and integration of systems within intelligent buildings, where does audio fit into the mix?

At the start of a long and storied career in audio, Michael MacDonald gets familiar with the FOH position at the Monterey County Fair in 1979.
SCN: How would you finish the following sentences?
I hung my first speaker... in Long Beach arena in 1978. I was working for Sound West in San Diego. We did a Jazz show in Long Beach and we flew the PA. In those days we used a "basket" fly system, basically a four-sided, tubular steel cage with the PA boxes stacked and ratchet-strapped inside. Then you would fly the cage. All of this was necessary because the speaker boxes did not have any kind of fly points at the time. The whole affair was a pain because aiming the HF devices was a tricky ground operation that you could only check once flown, then you might have to lower the PA and tweak the arrangement of the boxes to get the corrected aim and center of gravity.

The strangest system I ever designed was... While I can't claim total design credit, I have no doubt that the strangest systems I have seen are large minaret systems that are in Mosques mostly found in Islamic countries in the Middle East. It is amazing to see 100kW systems (or larger) that are very mid-range based (vocal) with lots of drivers, belting out prayers at 135dB+ SPL that can be heard from miles away.

At the Closing Ceremonies for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, with Mikeal Stewart (right), now vice president of ATK.
Always... check you own AC mains power with a meter at the breaker panel yourself, a reversed neutral and hot leg is just too painful.

Never... do an event that has a key vocal without a "hot back-up" mic standing by. This is a simple rule but I am always amazed at how strictly enforced Murphy's Law is when it comes to mic failure, but only when it really counts.

Kirsten Nelson is a freelance content producer who translates the expertise and passion of technologists into the vernacular of an audience curious about their creations. Nelson has written about audio and video technology in all its permutations for almost 20 years; she was the editor of SCN for 17 years. Her experience in the commercial AV and acoustics design and integration market has also led her to develop presentation programs and events for AVIXA and SCN, deliver keynote speeches, and moderate and participate in panel discussions. In addition to technology, she also writes about motorcycles—she is a MotoGP super fan.