An Interview with Richard Smith of Audience
by Jim Merod -- Positive Feedback
Richard Smith, the design guru and technical force for Audience audio products, passed away shortly after this interview took place at his home in Escondido, California. Richard was a passionate man given to intense listening and experimental work with each aspect of the musical chain and audio signal path. On this occasion, late Spring of 2006, Richard was joined by his partner, John McDonald of Audience, and by Jim Merod of BluePort Jazz. This interview had been planned a long while; each of the participants recognized its timeliness.
Richard Smith: ...early 80s in the Sidereal Akustic shop working on the Model 4 loudspeakers.
Jim Merod: Richard, that pair of subs inside of one cabinet, or is it one humongous sub...?
Richard Smith: ...two cabinets connected.
JM: I'm flat out amazed at the sound here. I originally wanted to talk about music, first, and then your craftsmanship and various technical details of your work. Hearing this, let's reverse that. What was the design concept behind what we're listening to?
RS: I would say this basically: get around the limitations that most systems have. Remove what's in the way
of the music, like crossover networks, which are a big obstacle. People talk about how to judge a great crossover network. To me
the best crossover network is none at all. They all damage music. And once it's damaged, you can't fix it.
JM: How do you get the crossover network out?
RS: By using a full range speaker that doesn't require it... although, to get the bottom octave, you do need a subwoofer. This system is flat down to 60 hertz. Minus four point six db at 60 hertz. It's pretty amazing what two inch drivers can do.
JM: Four two inch drivers?
JM: Say a word about the metal in the construction of those drivers.
RS: Spun aluminum with a ceramic layer.
JM: The sound is completely open and transparent in all the recordings we've heard, including my own masters. So let me ask you something. You've used a word here that I would use the word, too; "system". When you employ the notion of a "system" to describe a pair speakers with four two inch spun aluminum ceramic-coated drivers, plus a set of subs, it implies more than the drivers. It also implies that the cabinet and other things are involved crucially. Outline the elements of this system, please.
RS: In this case it's merely the drivers and the cabinet... but the cabinet has different aspects as far as loading on the driver and as far as the diffraction affect.
JM: The cabinet seems to get completely out of the way.
RS: Right. You don't want any panel resonance. And people comment on how wonderful this speaker looks.
JM: It is beautiful.
RS: There was never any regard given to the looks in our design work. It's all "form follows function." It was not designed to look this way. It was just designed to perform this way. How it looks, is simply the way it looks. We were lucky it has a pleasing appearance.
JM: It's appearance reminds me of Opera. It's operatic when I look at it.
RS: That's interesting.
JM: I can't explain why, just my eccentricity. I think of La Scala or something like that when I look at the
gracefulness of this system.
RS: That's a nice name, La Scala... something Klipsch might use.
JM: (Laughs) Have they already used that name?
RS: I think so. (Laughs)
JM: Okay, but perhaps the main thing Klipsch has in common with these speakers is that they were, and still are, very efficient speakers.
RS: Right. People can use them with a single ended triode amp if they can drive a four ohm load. That's not a great load for a single ended triode.
JM: Did you have to do anything special to maintain that stability?
RS: No, just four sixteen ohm drivers in parallel. You end up with four ohms.
JM: I know you feel that your very big speakers that follow these will be more glorious, that their grandeur will be immense. Talk to me about where these fit into the incremental speaker steps that follow this creation.
RS: This set up is the smallest. We can have four or five larger models. The next size will be eight drivers and then sixteen. Then twenty-four and thirty-two.
JM: I hope I'm invited to the party when you have a thirty-two driver ceremony.
RS: They'll have to be in a ten foot high room because twenty-four drivers, such as these, are the most you can fit under an eight foot ceiling because you get what's called an infinite line array. If you picture the floor and ceiling as mirrors, you would see the line array going on infinitely in both directions. That's why it also acts acoustically as though it did extend on and on.
JM: "Infinite line array"...who came up with that phrase?
RS: I don't know. It's a term in regular use because it describes what these speakers do acoustically. It's as though the floor and ceiling vanish—as though the speakers were literally that size without restriction since, effectively, that is their true performance in that particular room.
JM: I'm going to switch to my original thought about us sharing time together... sharing thinking together. Richard, talk to me about your musical history. As a kid you got interested in music before your interest in speakers took off. So please talk about you and music.
RS: I think my first exposure to music was the radio. My mom had the radio on a lot. She listened to
what was then mostly the pop stations, but those were really jazz then. I didn't know that's what it was, but I heard all those standards when they first came out, because my mom played the radio. I can't say I liked those songs a whole lot. I just heard them.
JM: Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, and Tony Bennett, right?
RS: Yes, and Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. It was only later that I really appreciated
what I'd heard.
JM: Because you took it so much for grantedat the time.
RS: Right, that's what it was. It's not that I disliked it... it was just there, but not my favorite. My favorite music became rock and roll, when it first started, because it reached me.
JM: What rock groups?
RS: I'm at a loss... something called The Green Door. I don't know if you remember it, but stuff by Guy Mitchell, who did 'You Are My Butterfly'. Then Elvis came along after I was into this stuff for a year or two. Early rock, the very first of it. That's what I liked. Bill Haley. After that, Jerry Lee Lewis came along. I just loved that.
JM: Chuck Berry, of course, and Little Richard.
RS: What I liked about Chuck Berry wasn't so much him, although I did like him. It wasn't him playing guitar.
It was his piano player. That guy was awesome. His solos were fantastic. And he went unnoticed for years. I read articles about him recently.
JM: A few years ago I a saw Chuck Berry documentary, with that very pianist. I remember being impressed for the first time, but I can't remember his name.
RS: Great solos. I used to do Chuck's guitar solos vocally when I was taking a bath as a kid. My mom would knock on the door and tell me to be quiet.
JM: (Laughing) It never worked, right...and then you moved past rock and roll.
RS: Exactly. I remember, when I was just twelve or thirteen, there was this liquor store where we used to buy candy bars. Outside they had a piano with a speaker in the ceiling on an overhang inside. The music they played, so they'd have some real class, was jazz.
JM: Where was this?
RS: Thousand Oaks, back when the population was one thousand.
JM: The population of the trees and the people, both.
RS: Right. Something attracted me there, mostly drums and the ride cymbal, I think. Most jazz used the ride cymbal. That had an appeal to me that I couldn't get over. I just loved it. But I was not a jazz fan. I remember we went to visit my cousin once. Her boyfriend was in two bands, a rock band that did Ventures covers and another band that did jazz. We walked into his friend's house, rich people. They had a huge living room. Back then audio was mono. They had a big Altec A7 speaker, the best thing I'd ever heard. I walked in and it was jazz and I was knocked over. I asked, what's that? The guy looked at me like I was a complete idiot.
JM: How old were you?
RS: About twelve or thirteen. The guy said "Miles Davis." That was the first time I heard Miles. I recognized the name.
JM: Do you remember which album this was?
RS: Not at all. But an A7 can sound real with that tube amp that they were using. Who knows what record player. And who knows what the rest of that system was. I have no idea, but I knew that speaker.
JM: What year was that?
RS: '57 maybe, or '58.
JM: It could have been a Columbia six-eye vinyl, but it was probably one of the Prestige recordings from '56.
RS: It had that Prestige sound, not the Columbia sound.
JM: There you go... there's a real difference.
RS: It was just incredible.
JM: The first time you had a sound in mind in order to create speakers, or any other components... when did that occur?
RS: You mean the idea that I could make a speaker system?
JM: No, although that's interesting, too, but at a certain point you must've decided you could do better than what you were hearing.
RS: I didn't really want to make speakers. A guy I worked with, at Beverly Stereo, was not an engineer but he designed their house brand of speakers, the entire line. He had speakers he designed at home that were just kick ass killers. They were big. He called them "control monitors." They were the best thing I'd ever heard, so I asked him how he did it. He said it was easy... just don't use cheap components. He used all CTS drivers. Back then they were the biggest driver company in the world, but nobody I knew had ever heard of them. So I built speakers on my own. Simple, but now I had something to listen to. I never thought I'd do anything great, but my brother in law wanted me to help him build a few speakers. I tried to talk him out of it. I told him to buy Advents and he'd be much better off. But he liked doing things himself, just for the fun of it. So he talked me into it. Well, there was something about that speaker which was not great, but better than a lot of things I'd heard. So that gave me an idea. I sold what I had just made to buy drivers, lumber and what I needed to start building speakers. I went through one trial after another until I finally had one good enough to sell. My brother in law and I started our own speaker company then. We made a batch of those speakers and sold them by word of mouth.
JM: The cabinets were made out of pine?
RS: No, they were mdf with a hard wood top and bottom.
JM: Did you glue like a crazy guy and clamp them?
RS: Yeah, it was a pretty nice cabinet...one inch mdf.
JM: No veneer?
RS: No, but a solid hard wood top and solid hard wood bottom and a grill that went all the way around the middle. So we didn't need veneer. They had two ten inch woofers, two inch dome midrange drivers, and two, believe it or not, Piezo tweeters.
JM: Where did you put those?
RS: Front and back. The one on the back end was slightly up. And it opened the speaker up. A few years later the Piezo had a higher cross over frequency. They're great, but everyone tried to cross them over too low and they sounded bad and got a bad reputation.
JM: I have to tell you, Piezo microphones are the bane of my existence.
RS: (Laughing) Really?
JM: Do you know how many clubs I've gone into where Piezo mics are stuck to the underside of the piano, taped on for PA use? Then the PA bleeds into my recording microphones. The worst circumstance imaginable.
RS: Well, we crossed them over at ten kHz, because the two inch mid went up to ten kHz easily. So it ended up being a really nice sounding speaker. Even to this day it sounds good.
JM: You kept a pair?
RS: No, but I know people who have them. My brother still has a pair. I always think they're gong to sound terrible. But I'm always pleasantly surprised. They actually sound okay, not great, but you don't hear anything glaringly wrong.
JM: This is a silly question, but a serious question, too. Artists—whether they're musicians or electronics and speaker designers—are always dissatisfied with their work. Artists have an ideal in mind, virtually impossible to attain. Have you created anything that gives you a sense of satisfaction so that you might say to yourself... well, maybe it could be better but I can't make it any better right now?
RS: I don't know if I'd put it that way. I would say about this speaker we're listening to here today that I achieved the goal I was looking for. But it will be fully achieved only when we do the big ones and then again when we do our center channel for multi channel audio. The center channel is going to be a departure from this system but it will be very interesting.
JM: Coincident drivers?
RS: No, their radiation pattern will be similar to a multi-cellular horn. We'll use these drivers.
JM: Why did you decide on that?
RS: Because I got to looking at a Bozak studio monitor and saw the way they arranged their tweeters. I thought it would be absolutely perfect for a center channel. It was not my idea, but as a center channel speaker it has great potential. But that won't be known for sure until we build some. We have the drawings just about ready in AutoCAD and so we're just about ready to build some.
JM: Talk to me about recordings that you've made during various points in your career.
RS: I did a few live. In school I took sound recording classes for a couple of semesters and that's where I did most of it. I recorded mostly folk music and classical piano. And Handel's Messiah more times than I want to remember, using four microphones.
JM: It can be done well if your microphones are in the right places.
RS: We did the best we could. Some equipment was very good and some was compromised. But hearing that piece over and over again, night after night, wore on me after awhile. I did some live recordings after that, mainly using one stereo mic.
JM: Which one?
RS: The top of the line Sony which is actually a very natural sounding mic.
JM: The ECM 93?
RS: Something like that, very natural sounding.
JM: An amazing microphone. They don't make it anymore.
RS: I know and it's just a wonderful mike. I sent it straight into a Revox... pretty nice.
JM: I'd love to hear those recordings.
RS: I wish I had one of them but I have some of it on cassettes somewhere.
JM: I don't mean it to stump you, but you've designed a lot. You've experimented a lot as an engineer. Across all of that learning on your part, is there a set of principles or rules, call them guidelines, that direct your choices?
RS: I just try to build on whatever we've achieved. I just wait until I find a weakness and then try to improve on it from there. Sometimes you think that you have reached that Holy Grail, only to find out sometime later that flaws begin to show up as you get used to it. When that happens, I try to figure out what's wrong and fix it. That's the way I proceed. I don't really listen to what other people are doing. I listen to what we're doing.
JM: You want to keep yourself on your own path.
RS: Yes. Compared to what I have heard elsewhere, I feel we're doing fairly well. So I'd rather stick to what we're doing. Keep on that path.
JM: I'm here to attest that you're doing better than fairly well; way better. Do you feel a new degree of gratification with this new speaker system?
RS: I do. I'm not going to bed anymore thinking about what's wrong with this speaker.
JM: When we think about sound, the Holy Grail is always live sound. At least that's what I believe. Others will quarrel. But the absolute ideal is no recording and no speaker...utter transparency, correct?
JM: From your point of view, what audio elements do we hear in live sound when it is unadulterated by PA systems and uncolored by bad room acoustics? What are the magical components of live sound as you understand them?
RS: Phase coherence is one of the main things. Another is proper bass response because most speakers suffer in the low end more than anywhere else. That and phase accuracy. It goes back to crossovers. As soon as you introduce a crossover, you have phase problems. People thought, in the past, as long as it's close it's okay.
JM: You're beyond that now.
RS: Yes, because we essentially got rid of crossovers. Other people do that, too. You've got your Fostex speakers and your Lowthers and others. I would not include ribbons because they're usually only good down to about three hundred hertz. That's not low enough.
JM: From three hundred hertz on up, or thereabout, a ribbon is amazing.
RS: Right, in most ways. This speaker design emulates a ribbon because you don't have any interference
between the drivers.
JM: It does seem that's true.
RS: The difference here is the dynamics, the excursion that ribbons cannot achieve. We have a low end and a dynamic ability that goes beyond ribbons, but with the speed of a ribbon since the moving mass on each driver, the total moving mass, is only one and a half grams. The rise time is similar to an electrostatic speaker. That's why they're quick.
JM: I heard real quickness here.
RS: What's really nice, if you have a long array, is that distortion levels are similar to an amplifier. They're a bit higher on this, because four drivers have to work harder, but if you have eight or sixteen or more drivers your distortion levels go way down.
JM: Why is there no comb filtering with four two inch tweeters lined up as you have them here?
RS: They're close enough so most of their bandwidth remains coherent. Thus, you don't have that problem. Where you do have a problem is up pretty high but it doesn't tend to be audible. Not that it isn't there, but I don't think it's audible.
JM: It would have to be there, but I've not heard it today.
RS: If it's below ten kHz, you're pretty much all right. What happens above that is not going to be such a problem. These speakers are flat, by the way, up past twenty hertz. That's an in room response, because they're basically flat from sixty to twenty kHz with usable response beyond that - up to forty something.
JM: That has to be part of the secret involved in what we've heard here. Do you have a memory of a "eureka moment" in your engineering career, a time when you were struggling with something—perhaps even confused or in a crisis—and all of a sudden you try something and find, "Voila, I've got it."
RS: That's tough. I think it's been incremental things more than one break through.
JM: Which makes you a sane man.
RS: I don't know about that, but nothing really stands out that way. It's always been a step by step thing.
JM: Would you say your work as an engineer is divided between what you've read and learned theoretically, intellectually, and what you've discovered experimentally out of your own devising? How would you put that relationship together?
RS: I don't know. You may be asking for something different than what I do. More than anything, there's simplicity in my work. I look for the simplest approach to achieve an end. When you complicate things, you start putting up obstacles. The answer itself creates more questions.
JM: What a beautiful answer. How did the Audience line of cables come forward?
RS: Basically from me searching for wire that I thought sounded like music, combining it with connectors...
JM: What's interesting to me is your philosophy, your commitment to simplicity. The cables themselves seem to replicate
that philosophy perfectly.
RS: What they do is pay attention indirectly to time domain.
JM: Say more about that.
RS: You want a cable that responds to sound quickly. And that doesn't overreact and doesn't store energy and release it back into the audio signal out of time.
JM: We're always hearing about reflections inside of cables. Your wire is non-braided, I think.
RS: It's not braided. And you're right. Reflections are a problem at certain lengths, however most audio interconnects in most systems are not really affected by the reflection problem. Only when you get up, probably close to a hundred feet or more.
JM: That's my favorite length for everything.(Laughing)
RS: (Laughs) That's when you start having reflections. And yes, people talk about that, but it's really transmission line problems. Wire doesn't become a transmission line until very long lengths. I believe in minimizing those effects anyway. But I still think it's the time coherence that's crucial, how little a cable hangs on to the signal.
JM: You've obviously experimented with silver and silver copper alloys and a variety of copper configurations. Is there something beyond the philosophy of simplicity that's emerged in all that?
RS: Experimenting with solid cores, stranded silver and copper, and plated wires and un-plated wires... generally, for the most part, I've preferred stranded copper even during my solid core phase. I did go through a solid core stage myself. I did have some silver in my system for awhile and I thought it just sounded wonderful. After about a year, I decided that it was beautifying everything, so I went back to copper. It sounded much more natural. It doesn't beautify but it allows audio beauty through when it's there. I feel that a properly made stranded copper is where it's at, as long as it's properly made. And that's a big deal. Most Audience cables embody a coax design. Not all,
but most of them. I think that's right for audio interconnects. That's the way to go.
JM: Do you have in mind some wild and crazy audio component you want to design but which is so bizarre that it's hard to know how to approach?
RS: Right now I want to do an all out multi-channel system that would be five or more long arrays with four of these subs in a room. That's what I want to do right now, but it's slightly out of my reach at the moment.
JM: But not impossible.
RS: Just out of my reach at the moment. I'm hoping within a year or two we can do it. That'll be the system by which all other systems will be judged.
JM: A system verified by the old Ella Fitzgerald test... "live or Memorex?"
RS: Definitely. Blindfold someone. They're not going to know which is real.
JM: The ultimate test.
RS: I can't wait to hear it. My experience tells me that things like this end up better than you imagine. I can only imagine just so far, so I can't wait to hear this.
JM: I would like to end by asking you and John McDonald, who's here in the room with us, if you each could say a word or two about how you came to collaborate with one another. John, first and you get the last word, Richard.
John McDonald: We met when Richard used to come to my health food store. I had a pair of Bose speakers and a Macintosh Amplifier.
RS: Bose 901s.
JMc: Bose 901s in the store. That, of course, got Richard's attention.
JM: Those were the ultimate "hi-fi machines."
JMc: That's right and that's how we started talking about speakers. That opened the subject. Then I heard Richard's model 1s that he was talking about a while ago. And I remember how they sound. I was impressed. I think by that time you also had the model 3, didn't you, Richard?
RS: The flat ones.
JMc: Yes, the flat ones. They go against the wall. Killer. They are to this day when I hear them. They're outstanding.
JM: What are those? I'm intrigued.
RS: A single ten inch woofer, a Peerless four inch mid-range and a Peerless tweeter.
JM: Are there any more of those left that we could hear?
RS: Yes, one pair. You actually should hear them, but you'd have to go up to Three Rivers to hear them.
JM: (Laughing) Maybe Jack Kerouac or Norman Mailer will go with me.
RS: They're in a large room at a resort.
JM: Please continue your story of your joint venture.
JMc: Well, I heard Richard's speakers and it's all history from there. A few years later we decided to go into business together and we started Sidereal Akustic. And we came out with his Model 4, which is that speaker over there, the tall one. And we developed the SiderealKap, which was Richard's first capacitor design.
JM: I think everyone knows about that.
JMc: Martin Collums reviewed it in Hi-Fi News & Record Review.
JM: For a business man running a health food store who cares about music, Richard shook your world up in a fairly surprising way, I'd say.
JMc: You could say that.
JM: Richard, give us your version of this collaboration. What were the elements that attracted you to collaborating? I don't think anybody accuses John of being a crazy man, like you and me.
RS: I don't know about that.
JM: Guys devoted to sound are often crazy guys.
RS: Well, it wasn't my idea. John approached me and asked me if I wanted to start a business.
JM: Proving that he's as crazy as we are.
RS: I was doing a business hobby. I'd built ten pairs of speakers, selling them by word of mouth. Back then I had a big radial arm saw in my garage, so I'd just buy the mdf and design a speaker and build ten pairs. Sell them off. Start again.
JM: A passion.
RS: Yeah, and I sold every one I ever made. Ten pairs at a time.
JM: They were probably all gifts, undersold.
RS: That's right. I made enough so I had enough to build the next batch. I'd expand my business a little. Buy some tools. But I kept that as a complete separate entity from my personal finances.
JM: A good trick.
RS: I expanded in a small way, just used what I made. And I had at some point hired a friend's son to come in and help me build cabinets. At that time I was working full time for the phone company. I didn't really have time to do this, but if I was in the neighborhood during my lunch break, I'd stop by and see how he was doing. I was outside. I drove a truck, doing telephone repair. So I had freedom some days. So that was a lot of fun. We had a great time.
JM: That gave you not only a physical and emotional freedom from the constraints of the job but also creative freedom.
RS: Yes, I had an outlet. At night I'd wait until my son and wife went to bed and I'd put on some music. I'd usually design speakers by candle light and I did all the calculations with graph paper and a calculator. I'd do the design on graph paper, counting the squares to get my dimensions right, a calculator to figure out what the dimensions should be to get a certain loading on the drivers and the complex cabinet. It looks simple on the outside but there are all kinds of things going on in there. Much more than meets the eye.
JM: How does it now stand against your
contemporary tests of perfection?
RS: That old speaker is pretty darn good, even today. It's a darn good speaker from forty hertz on up. It's natural sounding. It's nice.
JM: Maybe Dan Del Fiorentino at the Museum of Making Music, in Carlsbad, would put those speakers in their collection of musical instruments.
RS: I also have the first CD player made down below, the first commercially available CD player from Phillips, the one that Meridian modified and started their business with. We used to modify them, too, but we didn't start our business there.
JM: Did you pay any attention to David Blackmer's DBX stuff?
RS: Yeah, but mainly because I read all the pro magazines. I always have and I still do.
JM: I have one of his original DBX compact disc players that allow you to dial in acoustic ambience... an amazing box. My final question is this. Of all the things you've done so far, as an engineer and an artist, which is the one that gives you the greatest sense of achievement?
RS: This speaker, definitely, this design concept, all the versions of it, and basically this concept. I've been working towards it for over twenty years. This design idea has taken a while to get to this point.
JM: You've allowed me to invade your territory and I've been kind of blown away actually, Richard.
RS: That's nice to hear.
JM: I heard your early iterations and always thought you had something going, that you were close to a breakthrough. And now you did it. Here it is. Congratulations.
RS: Thank you. I'm glad you like it. That's the fun of it. That's what it's all about.