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Parnelli Audio Innovator Brock Adamson

by Kevin M. Mitchell • in
  • December 2018
  • Features
• Created: December 12, 2018

Brilliant. Driven. A perfectionist. A keen intellect. A bit of a curmudgeon. These are the words that come up again and again in describing Brock Adamson. A man of few words when someone wants him to talk about his personal life, he prefers his work does his talking for him. And it does.

Over the years, Adamson Systems has taken innovative approaches to solving problems in speaker technology. A few notables among these have been the MH225, which was the first use of an acoustical waveguide in a commercial loudspeaker system; the successful Metrix and SpekTrix lines; the Y-Axis line array (with its Co-Linear Drive Module); the SD-21 21-inch, Kevlar cone driver used in the T21 line-arrayable subwoofer cabinet, with its AIR rigging system; the E-Series E15/E12 line arrays with their central aluminum-framed E-Capsule mid/high section and Autolock rigging. Serious stuff.

Y-axis Co-Linear Drive Module

Yet since the beginning, president/CEO head designer Brock Adamson envisioned a method of reproducing sound which, even at extremely high levels, would retain the integrity of the original waveform and preserve the subtleties of symmetry, coherency and intelligibility — nuances most often lost in translation.

But what is not nuanced was his revolutionary Y-Axis 18 system, and the speakers that followed. They rocked the world and finally made Adamson a formidable company in the U.S. market as suddenly acts like INXS, Linkin Park, and John Legend insisted on it. Audio houses including Atomic Professional Audio, Big House Sound and Sound Image were a few early adapters here in the states. “From an engineering standpoint, he’s brilliant and also is a really good transducer designer,” Sound Image’s Dave Shadoan says. “His is one of the few if only audio companies that build their own transducers as most just purchase that from another maker. Everything about how he designs and builds speakers is unique.”

Jesse Adamson

His work ethic and high intelligence is as legendary as his speakers. “When he gets his claws into something, he keeps going until he makes it happen,” his son Jesse, currently with Sound Image, who worked for him over a decade, says. “He learns faster and absorbs more than any human being I’ve ever come across.” The high standards Brock holds to himself he also holds others to as well. “He will squeeze out every ounce of performance from a person. You don’t know your own capacity until you work for Brock. Many people just can’t cut it.”

“He’s right 99 percent of the time — that’s what makes him difficult to work for!” says Brian Fraser, an engineer with Adamson. “He gets the best out of his employees.”

“Brock doesn’t cut corners when it comes to product development, which is why the company has always had great products and a solid reputation,” says James Oliver, Director of Marketing and Sales. “There’s no other side of him besides audio. He’s obsessed. There’s not one angle of his life he approaches that isn’t related to his business. He likes to build.”

Brock Adamson shares a moment with Kenton Forsythe, Parnelli Audio Innovator of 2011.

‡‡         Standing the Shoulder of Giants

Adamson was born in Vancouver, one of four siblings. His father Alan was an innovator himself — an executive at American Can, a visionary inventor holding several patents in his own right. As a teen, Brock Adamson became a bit of a rebel, and according to his son Jesse, a bona fide hippie. He developed a love of motorcycles and learned about the mechanics of them by transforming them into choppers. By 1977, he had moved out and was living in a woodshed built into a mountain and was sporting a ZZ Top-worthy beard. There he built wood cabinets, a skill that would come in handy soon enough. “I was around the bands and got stuck with the P.A. — building stuff,” Brock Adamson says. “I actually started off building studio monitors. We didn’t have the kind of test equipment that’s so common now.”

Early on, Adamson approached his work not only as an audiologist, but also as an anthropologist. “Our ability to survive is based on night hearing. The human voice and our hearing are part of our physiology that distinguishes us from simpler life forms. Our speech patterns and our hearing are matched to our evolution as human beings. When in danger, we developed the ability to whisper, which is entirely comprised of consonants and falls in a specific frequency range. When safe and happy, our speech patterns include vowels that occupy a different frequency range and are significantly louder.” He adds all of our musical instruments are based on this structure.

Brock Adamson

“Back in the beginning of things, we had to work with our ears. This was in the time before Richard Heyser introduced the TEF measurement system.” (Time-Energy-Frequency is a term acousticians use concerned with the propagation of sound through a space — the science of considering the behavior of certain space at various frequencies and energy levels.) The highly advanced TEF system came out in 1983 — about the time Adamson started his company.

Immediately he hit a problem: Vancouver had a struggling economy and little access to manufacturing tools. After working as an audio consultant for Expo 86, he headed east to Ontario where there were robust sources for the machine tool industry and manufacturing. It was helpful that he had family there, and his brother-in-law was conveniently the Crown distributor for Canada who owned a TEF-10 unit. “It was this big suitcase with the CPM operating system,” he says. “I wound up with that as my test equipment. Prior to that, I had to rely on a sweep generator synchronized to a chart-recording device. Moving up to the TEF analyzer in the mid-1980s was an incredible thing.”

Around this time, he would also come into contact with another expert is acoustics that would forever influence his work: Dr. Floyd Toole. “He’d heard that I had a TEF analyzer and invited me to bring my TEF unit to Ottawa, where he had Richard Heyser as a guest speaker,” he recalls. “Heyser was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories at the time and invented the TEF [and Time Delay Spectrometry] process. I jumped at the opportunity.”

There was a big meeting with four brainiacs up there: Stanley Lipshitz the mathematician, John Vanderkooy the physicist, Toole the acoustician, and Heyser — the rocket scientist. “Here were these guys, having a chalk war on the blackboard, flinging formulas on the board like spaghetti. We all had a good time, but for me, it was a great introduction to some serious people in the audio research world.”

Fun Canadian not-so-trivial fact: Since 1916, Canada operated the National Research Council, a facility that built an anechoic chamber in the 1950s, and “at some point, Floyd got in there with a bunch of acoustical people and convinced the government that it would be a good idea to pay a Canadian acoustical researcher to investigate listener preferences as related to loudspeaker measurements. That body of work stimulated the growth of the consumer loudspeaker industry in Canada.”

The ES15 large-format line array remains the flagship of the Adamson line.

‡‡         Embracing the Science of Audio

To this day, Adamson loves to talk at length about how Toole’s research of measuring the output of a loudspeaker translates to understanding what it was doing to the listener in the whole listening field, and how it is not just some arbitrary measurement. “That has always spurred my interest in measuring loudspeakers, and today, we use far more sophisticated systems, such as Klippel Near Field Scanner to get 3D acoustic information of a complex array.”

For him, the overriding principle is balancing the power response and the response within the listening field, especially in the big commercial environment that is more reverberant than your average living room. “We were engaged in those discussions with the National Research Council since the late 80’s,” he says. “I had grumbled out loud that it’s fine to talk about little consumer loudspeakers, but some of us have to deal with huge rooms and issues like directivity, large midrange horns and so on.”

In saying that to Toole, his reply was something cryptic, like, “The answer to the question is not always found where you’re looking” — meaning a room of consumer guys. Toole then led him to Dr. Earl Geddes, a distinguished mathematician, audiologist and a pioneer in Waveguide Theory. Geddes shared his research with Adamson, which was instrumental in developing the Adamson MH225 speaker in late 1980s, which brought him to the forefront of the pro audio world.

“There’s a great learning experience there with the waveguide boundary effects, and the acoustic particle movement inside the waveguides, horns and sound chambers, and all that information came forward and affected the way we do line array sound chambers as well. Some really good people — Geddes, Lipshitz, Heyser, Toole, Vanderkooy — fed me some extremely valuable information at this time. You can’t ask for a better brain trust than that. I was privileged to hear what they had to say.”

Geddes questioned the conventional wisdom of the day on horn activity, and Adamson took it to heart when he pointed out that walls in venues rarely meet the wavefront at a precisely 90-degree angle. “Because if it doesn’t, then the particle movement cannot be in contact with the wall of the waveguide. It’s as obvious as riding a bike.” It gave Adamson a greater understanding of how acoustic particles respond and how air vibrates back and forth, front to back. Adamson’s conclusion was that if you place a plane surface aligned of the center of the axis of a point source, the sound will travel down both boundaries of the surface. “If it’s perfectly aligned to that source, the wave will travel without interference. If the plane surface is inclined slightly, reflections will result. So, Geddes’ point is that in a first-order of approximation, the boundary of your waveguide has to be at a right angle to the moving wavefront. Otherwise reflections and chaotic sound transmission will result.”

Speakers with Kevlar instead of paper cones are designed to withstand the test of time.

‡‡         The Innovation of Kevlar

In one of the more innovative — and risky — moves he ever made, Adamson passed over traditional paper for his cones in favor of Kevlar. (Kevlar is a heat-resistant, strong synthetic fiber used in everything from marching drumheads to bulletproof vests.) “It’s much more expensive, but gives us not only long-term durability, but also long-term repeatability that paper just can’t do,” Adamson says. “The bottom line is that you can measure the physical difference in a paper loudspeaker that’s been in the field for a year, because it fatigues, and you cannot measure the physical difference in a Kevlar cone that’s been in the field for five or 10 years. Kevlar also has very good properties for midrange — it doesn’t have the same degree of internal loss that paper has, but Kevlar has just enough internal loss to provide sufficient damping, to prevent ringing.”

While Adamson was still a “boutique” speaker manufacturer in the 1980s, struggling as young companies do, he made a decisive choice that would forever set his company apart from others: He decided to build proprietary drivers rather than simply buying what was manufactured on the market. “I started designing our first midrange driver in Vancouver in 1986,” Adamson says. “That was one of the first frustrations about being in Vancouver then. The big issue was in following my goal to build Kevlar cones since it all came from the Great Lakes area. The automotive industry drives a lot of that technology in that region. The first actual driver we produced that we placed in a product was the M200 that went in the MH225 and we followed that a year later with the 18.”

Together with Paul [Bauman], who would become director of engineering at Adamson, they experimented with a combination of paper and Kevlar cones. In time, the company evolved and moved to Kevlar across the board. “Kevlar is a pain in the ass to work with, and maybe that’s why people can’t figure it out,” Adamson says. “The Brits gave me a patent on it, but the U.S. declined because someone with the Army had patented it for something entirely different, but it’s still at patent.” (How important is Kevlar? When you visit their plant and get a tour, you see everything but the room where Kevlar happens — it’s off limits.)

Part of the new IS series, Adamson’s IS10 line arrays are designed specifically for integration/installation applications.

‡‡         Breakthroughs and Transitions

When Adamson moved from Vancouver, he left his son Jesse there with his ex-wife. Jesse would also develop a love of audio, playing in bands and mixing for them, and would re-connect with his father in his later teens. Jesse then too moved to Ontario, and he and Adamson designed and built a recording studio for Canadian hip hop artist Choclair together. He’d be asked by his father to work for Adamson Systems “temporarily.” This evolved into a permanent gig as Director of Marketing & Sales, and then Vice President.

In 1999, Adamson Systems released the Y Axis, which was the second line array system. Brock says it was one of those “brilliant moments in a company where everyone pitches in. From the time I cooked the ideas up on the Y axis project, we worked literally day and night and turned out the first product in 90 days. We had our production team working so late though the night that we ended up crashing at the warehouse. We took that to heart and it grew the company substantially.”

Following in 2002 was the Y10. Jesse notes that, “in the years 2003-2006, we were growing at a rate of 50 to 65 percent annually.” Then, in 2006, the groundbreaking T21dual-21 sub was released to great acclaim.

But there was another challenge: While the Canadian market already knew of Adamson products, and they had established themselves with great success in Europe, the U.S. market was more challenging to crack. The Y-Axis series opened that door. INXS FOH engineer James McCullagh was an early adopter, and he took it out on tour in 2006. The production manager of the tour was Jim Digby.

“I flew to Mexico and did a series of shows with them after [Adamson engineer] Ben [Cabot] and I did some of the Canadian dates,” Jesse tells. “Jim loved it, recognizing that the Y18 was something that he had never heard before. At that time, the Y18 and T21 combination was quite a bit more powerful than most systems in the market.” Digby liked it so much that he approached the company about another tour — one that would become another critical breakthrough.

“The tour wound up being the Linkin Park Minutes to Midnight tour in 2007. Jim introduced me to Ken ‘Pooch’ Van Druten. I met with Pooch in Texas at a ZZ Top show on a Y18 system that was provided by Big House Sound. Pooch loved the system and we landed the tour. This was a pinnacle breakthrough for us in global touring. Atomic Professional Audio partnered with Audio Analysts to provide the system for the tour in the U.S. In Europe, we worked with a variety of audio vendors including MPM from France as well as SSE in the U.K.” Sound Image also adopted the system in 2008 and put it to work on the John Legend tour. The system had finally broken into mainstream American touring. (Jesse would join Sound Image in 2013.)

In 2010, Ben Cabot led Adamson’s engineering team and brought the E15 to life. Adamson began beta testing with four key partners: Sound Image and Eighth Day Sound in the U.S., Norwest Productions in Australia, and Wigwam Acoustics in the U.K. Since then, the E15 system has been adopted by companies around the world and is currently on tour with acts like Drake, Imagine Dragons and BTS, among others.

With Cabot taking a more prominent role in the development of loudspeaker systems, Adamson has had more time to focus on the corporate growth and expansion. “Ben has been making a lot of things happen here,” Adamson says. “The core technologies came from established Adamson products. Ben refined many of these elements with sophisticated simulation software systems and produced a superior product.” The two worked together with Australian engineer Ewan McDonald from Australia, and “Ben was instrumental in bringing that product to life. That was the first example of Ben tackling and coordinating a project in such a capacity.”

When it’s mentioned that in meeting and speaking with many of the employees that he seems to be held in high esteem, typical of Adamson, he shoots back: “Well, I’ve been accused of being a mean SOB too. I think it all depends on the type of person that gets hired. If you’re lucky, you get people you can develop a mutual respect for immediately; if you’re careless, and hire someone with different expectations and efficiency levels, it’ll end badly. The thing that drives us today is the desire to have stronger, better people around.”

“Brock has been able to get the right players and right pieces, and now has the ability to step back from some product development,” says Oliver. “I think the division has allowed others to share some of the weight, freeing him from being involved in every aspect of our company, allowing him to work with Ben and lever technologies for new, even better products. Brock doesn’t have a traditional way of approaching research. Everything he builds, he builds himself. He prefers to figure out how to do it better himself.”

At the O Son Do Camiño Festival in Spain, SBA Radical Sound provided an Adamson E-Series system.

While other speaker makers look to Asia to manufacture their products, Adamson wouldn’t think of it. He bought 40 acres of industrial land in Port Perry, northeast of Toronto. Staying true to the maxim, “if you want it done right, do it yourself,” he actually formed a construction company just do build the manufacturing plant to his specifications. Staying a Canadian company is challenging economically, but it’s important in terms of committing to the quality of the products that roll out of it.

“Eventually, loudspeakers will become loudspeaker systems, and much more tightly integrated than they were 10 years ago,” Adamson says, looking to the future. “In another 10 years, we’ll see a complete integration, and there will be some companies that don’t survive that. I want us to be one of the companies that understands the hardware, firmware and software side of it as we do with our electronics.”

This article contains portions of a Q&A FRONT of HOUSE editor George Petersen did with Brock Adamson in 2013.

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