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Inside Views: dbx

The second of our series that takes a behind the scenes look at companies and design personnel involved in recording and hi-tech products. This month Paul Gilby talks to Scott Berdell of dbx.

The series that takes a behind the scenes look at companies and design personnel working in the field of music and recording technology.

When you ask someone who dbx are, they'll probably reply that it's an American company that makes noise reduction systems for tape machines, or that they remember using one of their compressors in the studio once! The name is familiar to many if not all of us. However, there's a lot more to dbx than meets the eye.

Scott Berdell is the Director of the Professional Products Division at dbx in America and whilst attending the recent APRS exhibition in London, I managed to talk to him and discover more about the VCA chips in Solid State Logic mixing desks, the dbx approach to digital technology and even received an answer to the question, 'how many compressors have dbx sold?'. But I began by asking Scott how dbx first started.

"It was started in 1971, literally in a garage, by David Blackmer and Zaki Abdun-nabi (he's from Baghdad). The key devices that started the ball rolling were the VCA and RMS detector circuits, and the reasons are straightforward. It is the only log/linear VCA that offers cost-effective performance. The RMS detector - the reason for that is its ability to model the human ear in terms of acting as a signal detector.

On the product side, the first dbx product was the 81W RMS meter with 130dB dynamic range and that lasted for 14 years. Second was Type I noise reduction, but almost simultaneously the third product followed, which was the original 160 Compressor/Limiter from dbx - that was actually a 'hard-knee' compressor in those days. The first 'over-easy' compressor which dbx made was the model 165 which was introduced in 1975 and is still our top of the line compressor. We've modified it a few times, but basically it remains the same machine."

Could you tell us something about the way in which the R&D team handle product design?

"Well, one of the areas that we focus on as a company is the way that we approach product development through our engineering staff who are either musicians, studio engineers or from a sound reinforcement background at the very least. A good example of product development is the model 163 compressor. Les Tyler was an engineer who came in from a small studio in New York, he had to have multi-channel compression that was relatively low-cost and was easy to use. Out of that came the original model 163 which had a selling price of about 180 dollars I think. That's one of the methods that form part of our interactive design philosophy. Les had a problem in the studio and by talking with other engineers a product evolved that did the job. That process continues today and it's how we try to approach any new product development. It's a very important part of our philosophy and it's one that's very common amongst pro-audio companies.

The recent development of our 18-bit Analogue-to-Digital convertor is, I think, another indication of the way in which we approach product development. For this, we've been out talking and listening to what engineers have to say about digital sound. There's a perceived problem with pro-digital audio. 16 bits just aren't quite good enough. Why? Because consumer audio is 16-bit technology too. There has to be what we call a 'production edge' - a difference - you have to have a space to work in because even in the best console in the world, if you take 24 tracks and mix them down to a 2-track machine, you'll have a guaranteed minimum of half a dB noise per channel added.

If you don't have a 10, 12 or 16dB edge over a consumer product, which is today likely to be a Compact Disc, then you're going to hear the noise. The studio needs an edge and we think 18-bit is going to give them that edge with its 106dB dynamic range.

Other concerns or perceived problems with pro-digital audio have been sampling rates and analogue domain filtering. So we approached the digital audio problem and asked what we could do. Out of that came an 18-bit A-to-D convertor and also a 20-bit... but that's still a little in the future. Our 18-bit convertor is pretty near 'integration' and an AES (Audio Engineering Society) paper has already been published on it.

The advantages of this 18-bit convertor are pretty straightforward. It has a sampling rate in excess of 6 Megahertz (!) and all filtering is done in the digital domain. More than that, we're not prepared to talk about at this point, because we are working on it right now and there's still a little way to go before it becomes a reality.

The reason I mentioned this is because of the future. Obviously analogue signal processing still has a lengthy time frame of existence, but in the pro-audio world, digital is the magic word and out of an 18-bit convertor can come digital signal processors. One of the reasons why we've not moved into that domain previously is because we've known what was coming down the road towards us."

You've spoken about the history and design of dbx products, but what about the numbers you're selling?

"My own personal goal has been a very aggressive one - simply to dominate the compressor/limiter market of the world! And if we look today at the sales quantities - say we take the 160 model, the original comp/lim from dbx - in its 8 or 9 year life we have sold around 19,000 units. Since the introduction of the model 160X in 1979, we've now sold more than 32,000 160X units. That's a huge amount of units. Everytime I speak to friends in the business and I talk of the numbers we're shipping they say....'how many?'!

If we look at the combination of our three popular comp/lims - the 163X, 166 and 160X - we ship around 1,400 of those units per month, and that's getting pretty close to high volume manufacturing which, of course, gives us a very competitive edge. We're able to go 'off-shore' for our production, ie. Taiwan, because we're part of the much bigger BSR group of companies and each company within the group is bringing something into the operation. What we at dbx bring into a Taiwanese production situation are the techniques that they didn't have, and what they bring in, is cost-effective manufacturing which we don't have - very few non-Japanese audio companies have that capability.

The manufacturing threshold problem is how many are you going to commit to in runs of 5,000 pieces. Most companies in the audio business couldn't finance that. Well, fortunately we have grown from a little business that started in a garage to a point where we can look at manufacturing quantities at those levels. We have, through group capability, the finance and all those points are advantages that smaller companies don't have.

The advantage that the small companies do have, is their close access to the market. As you grow the structure of the company increases, perhaps the people who started the company are becoming more and more involved in the running of the business and management, maybe those people were the ones that generated the sparks of inspiration that allowed you to grow, and as they become more removed from the market, those sparks start to disappear and sometimes the company does as well! That's very dangerous."

Obviously any growing company involved in product development will always rely on new blood coming into generate the ideas, but those new people will also come from different backgrounds. That surely must have an effect on the direction and growth of the company as it pushes the original people up the ladder?

"Exactly! Within a plan for successful growth, it's very important that you don't lose touch with the field. Within dbx, I'm pretty reasonably criticised for spending so much time in the field, usually around four to five months per year. Well, all I can do is point to a model 166 and a 163X, whose sales are both direct results of field activity, and say, 'Well, we don't have any other five or six thousand piece products that sell at that volume in a given year'. That's the reason you spend time in the field, to talk to people, to listen. If you don't have time to go into the studio and do the mix anymore, at least you can sit down next to the engineer and talk to him after a session. Listen to him pound the table and find out what he wants."


As a company, dbx have been successful in spreading their wings to encompass areas of sales that others have failed to exploit. We now hear that dbx are involved in television sound. What's happening there?

"Well, dbx manufacture a number of items which we licence to other manufacturers. Just one example are the VCA chips which are used by Solid State Logic in their mixing desks. The use of our product in that form has given us yet another advantage, from the point of both sales and spreading our name. However, sometimes it's not always a good thing in terms of identity. One of the most common questions we are asked is - 'I would like to look at the dbx system'. We say: 'Which system sir? We have five different noise reduction systems, which one would you like to talk about?'!

And the one which most people have heard of is dbx Type II noise reduction, which is for low-speed tape machines and cassette players. Type I is for professional audio use and, of course, that is also very well known.

However, there are other systems: one's a broadcast satellite system, and another is a stereo television system in the USA. The growth of those systems through OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturers) use by other manufacturers has really helped spread the name of dbx in the field. A crazy example in the States is in the television market. It's big business, because every year in America 20 million televisions are sold. On the new range of stereo TV sets that are coming out, dbx circuitry is involved and our logo on the front panel is, in many cases, larger than the brand name of the manufacturers. They're using our name to help them sell the TV sets, not their own! They feel that it gives them 'audio credibility' and that's currently a major problem in television sales.

Right now the US is going through a major upheaval in TV and video production. People are re-equipping for stereo sound and it's a market that is going to grow tremendously in the near future. It's going to be a slow process that will result in higher quality TV stereo sound and bring it in line with consumer Hi-Fi."

Could you outline in more detail the dbx involvement in the TV stereo sound system?

"We're dealing with the problem of improving the dynamic range of the stereo sound.

The transmission system is a two-phase design produced by a company called Zenith and allows Frequency Modulation and Amplitude Modulation of the signal. Both of the transmission signals are compressed using a different dbx noise reduction system than is currently on the market. It's a dual processing system that is both a compander and dynamic high frequency filter. The reason for using a new design in this system is that we only had about a 35dB dynamic range to work in. That's not enough to allow traditional noise reduction systems to work so we developed the new system to operate within the limited dynamic range. The signal is, in fact, decoded at local level through circuitry in your own TV set and that's why our logo appears on the front panel.

Fortunately, the circuitry is quite cheap and only adds around 40 dollars to the cost of TV sets in the States. That's not a significant price jump. However, the biggest problem is developing the programme material to broadcast over the stereo system! At the moment the quality is there and it will outpace normal FM radio which only has a 48dB dynamic range. Stereo TV offers an 82dB dynamic range."


The dbx name has always been associated with high quality products. What's the reason for launching the new range of budget signal processors?

"It really is orientated around cost-effectiveness, ease of use and high quality signal processing. What we're sacrificing in the new range is the flexibility, not the quality. For a musician or studio engineer, speed of set-up and ease of use can be very critical in many situations. You see, when you're preparing for a studio session that you are paying for on an hourly basis, you don't want to spend four hours setting up, you want to spend that time playing and recording. We feel the key to making the new units successful in the market place is to help educate the user and so we're heading our campaign with the slogan 'Get the garbage off the tape and keep the tape out of the garbage'.

If you just want to play and have a good time, that's fine. But if you're recording your music or you're serious about how you sound live at gigs, then right after buying your mixer, amps and tape machine, you should look at controlling the sound in some way.

Unfortunately it's difficult to demonstrate a compressor to someone who doesn't understand its merits, because if it's working well you won't hear it in the mix, it just gets on with doing its job. So it's a big temptation for musicians to move into effects that make a very obvious difference like echo and reverb, but your ultimate goal should always be to have a good sound.

If you're recording demo tapes and you want a chance at getting a major recording deal, it's often based on the response of a person who you may never see. Their perception of your music is what counts and they're going to judge it from a different point of view than you. The musician is usually interested in how well he's playing his guitar or keyboards and whether he has all the right patches set up etc. I bet the guy listening to the tape is saying to himself: Can I hear the vocals properly? Do I understand the words? Why can't I hear the drums? What's that noise supposed to be - all those kind of things.

Unfortunately for the musician, the quality of musicianship is probably secondary during that initial listening session at the record company, because if all that those people can hear is a load of distortion and garbage, the melodies and hook lines don't get a chance. It's usually the ones that sound good where the record company can say, 'Yeah - good sound - now let's listen to the song'.

I think that once people start to understand that's the way most record companies are going to judge their material, they'll start to realise the importance of well controlled and good sounding recordings. Production is the key.

Signal processing is all about controlling the mix and that's the core of our business at dbx. We hope the new budget range is going to make musicians aware of the benefits of signal control through first hand experience."


As with most audio companies, dbx have already started to look at digital technology, could you outline your plans?

"In the future there'll be a large number of digital products from dbx. At the moment we are developing product which will emerge as top-end technology and it will probably take some time for versions of those products to come down in price."

Would you say that you are going to stay firmly in the area of signal control rather than expand into digital effects?

"I wouldn't want to limit what it is that we are planning to do at all. But let me say this. From a research and development point of view, I think we probably have one of the strongest audio groups in the United States. Out of that came the first automatic equaliser, the dbx 20-20; after that the first really effective fast compressor/limiter; then 18-bit PCM and stereo TV - all very specific technological milestones which show that the capability for audio development is there. One point is for sure, that no matter where we go in the future, we will not move away from our strength in signal processing.

As an industry that is growing and has a large number of small manufacturers within it, we cannot ignore history. The reality of the consumer business is that the Japanese wiped out European and American Hi-Fi manufacturing during the late 60's and early 70's. The only semi-viable large scale company left is Philips, and even they're struggling! This same situation can happen in the musical instrument and pro-audio industry. Some of the dominant companies in the field today already have Japanese names and I'm convinced that we can learn from what the Japanese have been successful at doing in the past.

One thing is clear, the Japanese are clever refiners, they are not innovators. However, they are capable of throwing tremendous R&D resources into action to yield brute force solutions. Innovation is where the western world holds the edge. To exploit that edge we have to learn how to run our businesses better and see what's about to come down the road and take advantage of it quickly, because if we don't, the Japanese certainly will!

It's important to be aware of the potential. If we don't look at what the future holds for us, we won't have a future! We have to push our energies into the area of innovation and learn to use production technology if we are going to compete."

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Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - Aug 1986

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Feature by Paul Gilby

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