From the time he invented the parametric EQ in the 1960s, to the founding and operation of his company, GML (George Massenburg Labs), and his current projects in electronic design, George Massenburg has had a long and distinguished relationship with the development of professional audio equipment. He's also widely known for his outstanding work as a recording engineer, mix engineer, producer and most recently as a champion of surround sound mixing (see issue #54). He's recorded over eight hundred albums, created the highly respected GML computer- assisted moving fader automation system that helped to revolutionize mixing as well as coveted compressors, limiters and equalizers. He edited and co- authored the "Delivery Recommendations for Master Recordings" for the AES, is a consultant to The Grand Ole Opry, a member of the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library Of Congress and an Adjunct Professor at McGill University and The Berklee School of Music.
One of the things that sets you apart from most successful engineer/ producers is that you're well known for groundbreaking accomplishments in audio design. What is it that motivates you to work in audio technology?
When I feel I lack a piece of gear, or if some box or process or technology is blocking me from doing something that I really want to do, then nothing stops me from designing, building, or re-engineering it. When you look deeply into something you notice a range of things about it, from, "Wow. The designer must not have been feeling too good on the day when he put this knob there, because it doesn't make any sense," or, "This guy is clearly incompetent." Starting there, it goes all the way to, "Wow this is brilliant. I wish I had thought of that." Bill Putnam Sr.'s designs are in this second category. When stuff doesn't work right I go crazy if I can't fix it. If I can't fix it, I have to redesign it. If I can't redesign it, then I'm going to look around for somebody who can. Nothing stops me!
What are the influential changes happening on the technological side of the industry at this time?
Well that's tough. Several groups of us at the AES have organized technical committees and we investigate and report regularly on the state of various technologies in different areas like automotive sound, coating technologies or digital libraries and archives. I find that a lot of those technologies have something to report. I don't feel like professional audio exists anymore, so there's nothing to report there. I think that what's left of the professional community is either designing things themselves, hybridizing new pieces with old pieces or borrowing from the pro-sumer — the vast midrange whose pipeline has been so overloaded with new products that it's really hard to tell what's good or bad, because it takes so long to get through them all. I don't think there's anything much new. I think what is new is people making stuff cheaper, manufacturing in China, trying to make a lot of money, marketing with the usual lies or misrepresentations — whatever you want to call them — people not building products to a need so much as to a market, or more often towards making marketing easy. You know the single bit recorder [DSD] fits very nicely into a marketing channel. It has some claims, and I think that Ayataka Nishio's work on single bit extended to the Korg products. . . that's pretty cool, but man, that's one little whimper in a hurricane of mediocre technology. I think what you meant to say is, "Is there anything really advanced?" And I don't think we've advanced anything. What we've advanced is productization.
I know that you're working on a new compressor now. Can you talk about it?
We've been looking to update our 8900 Dynamic Range Controller [compressor/limiter]. It's very expensive to build and it's very hard to build and, not incidentally, hard to learn. It's not consumer demand that raises the price on it, it's the incredible intricacy of these little analog computer boards that date back to designs in the early '70s. On one hand it's amazing that it has lasted this long, on the other hand, it's time for us to get off our asses and do it better and make the way it does it better.
Would you describe what you mean by an "analog computer"? That's probably unfamiliar terminology to a lot of people.
When you hear the word "computer" you probably think of anything from the TRS-80 to the latest Dell, Gateway or Mac. But when I hear the word "computer" it dates back to the '50s and to a lot of different technologies. The computer I started out with was analog. It was a Heathkit box that had a whole lot of operational amplifiers [op amps] in it, and you could characterize signal processing using operational amplifiers. We simulated these blocks and put analog components around them and they would be an analog (in the small "a" sense of the word) to a real physical process. We made a block...