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?
MM: While audio is a critical part of the communications mix, it has never been the glitzy part, but it will always have to be there. That said, the audio community has been making solid progress towards improved sound quality and will continue to make refinements over time.
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.
I don't take my work home with me, but... actually I think everyone in the sound business takes their work with them everywhere. It is work that becomes pervasive. What is really funny is when my wife, Kathleen, starts to comment on the sound quality of a movie or live performance. That cracks me up, because for the first 15 years we were married she would have been happier if I did not comment every time I found the sound in a venue sub-par, now she is frequently the one to point out poor sound.
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.
More people need to... walk the full audience listening area on every project they are involved with. It is really easy to get lazy and sit at the console and think that everything sounds fine. Almost every time I walk a venue I pick up some issue from a driver being blown to an amp being powered down to a bird's nest being in a horn. With today's line array systems if one element is not working there will be parts of the house that will just not hear. We as a group owe everyone in the audience a great listening experience.