The JBL Story
Paul White drops in on Mark Gander at the JBL factory in North ridge, Los Angeles in the hope of getting a free tour jacket.
To understand how the JBL corporation arrived at the position it now occupies, one has to look back over 50 years to when James Bullough Lansing completed his first professional speaker system and signalled the start of an era.
The first application for high powered professional sound systems was in the cinema, and Lansing's first design incorporated a 15i driver and a compression-driven horn mounted in a large folded horn cabinet and fed via a crossover system. As the audio field expanded, the demand for ultimate perfection moved from the cinema to the recording studio and naturally, JBL explored this avenue as well.
In 1940, Lansing sold the company and when he agreed to continue as Vice President, the new firm of Altec-Lansing was formed, and is still active today, though quite independently of JBL.
When Lansing left in 1945 to go his own way, he formed James B Lansing Sound Incorporated and in 1947, created the D130, an extended range loudspeaker that is remarkable even by today's standards. This unit had a massive four inch edge-wound coil, an aluminium centre dome and used an Alnico V magnet, so using technology that has changed little since then. Today's JBL E130 is really a refined form of this early model.
After Lansing's death in 1949, JBL continued to expand, now under the leadership of Bill Thomas. Nowadays, 36 years on, JBL have what must be the most remarkable loudspeaker factory in the world, with all the work being carried out under one roof on a 44 acre site.
The factory building covers almost a third of a million square feet and is located in North ridge, California in the San Fernando valley. Some 650 people are employed to carry out all the manufacturing from the initial design, through to the finished product. The research department is impressively equipped with such sophisticated test equipment as laser interferometers which are used to develop or refine designs for optimum performance. In the UK, it is unlikely that anywhere other than a ministry research establishment would have access to such a comprehensive range of facilities. Even the tooling for new models is done on site as is the cabinet building for hi-fi, studio and PA enclosures.
Particularly impressive is the quality control exercised at the factory. Crossovers built on site are individually checked to ensure that they are within a 1dB acceptance window across their whole operating range. Every single driver from the most sophisticated high power PA component to the in-car entertainment driver is tested before dispatch, not only for general operation but also for frequency response, polarity and dynamic response, in addition to being given a thorough visual check.
Of course there is some degree of automation in the manufacturing process such as the electrostatic powder coating process and some of the adhesive application stages, but it's surprising just how many operations are still done by hand to give the required quality of product. The edge wound voice coils, for example, are built using round wire that is flattened by a purpose-built machine before being hand wound onto formers and finally hand trimmed. It is this dedication to quality that has enabled JBL to produce a series of loudspeakers that are, though by no means inexpensive, arguably still the most cost-effective method of converting electrical energy in to high quality audio power.
Mark is the Vice President of marketing for JBL Professional Products and he found time to talk about the company's history and present business philosophy as well as raising some interesting points concerning transducer design.
All through JBL's Hi-fi years in the 60s and early 70s when the market was developing, people began to buy JBL parts and recone kits, simply because JBL made large voice coil speakers and large compression drivers. We've tried to take that a step further and really cultivate a relationship with all the major touring acts, certainly in the US, but also internationally. 90-100% of the transducers used by the major companies such as Clair and Showco are JBLs. We work with them almost like racing drivers work with their team, in that they are the people who field test prototypes and we learn which aspects of the equipment we need to change. This development eventually results in the standard product bought by the consumer.
We were involved in the American end of the Live Aid gig, albeit from a distance. Clair Brothers handled the PA and as usual we were called in. Take the Springsteen show, for instance; they used four delay towers in Europe which were made up from some horns that we designed. The horns were six feet six inches wide and two feet tall arranged in an arc, and they wanted to use eight towers instead of four for the US leg. So we designed a variation on the same horn: something we tend to do with most of the sound companies. We'll try to mix and match diaphragms, try a different cone assembly or make a different impedance speaker because of aspects such as four ohm matching. All the major sound companies have their own engineering staff but they work with us very closely. What problems are you having with the speaker? What's it not doing? Is there a variation we can try? Is there a way we can add this coil and that cone and come up with an in-between speaker that'll do the job better or whatever? For example, take the E Series, which is a musical instrument speaker and so is theoretically inappropriate for PA work. A musical instrument speaker traditionally has a rising response, a cone piston and, because the piston tends to narrow, rising actual pressure response results in a flatter power response. For larger arrays you may in fact want flat power up to the crossover point rather than flat pressure, because there's nobody within 30 or 50 feet of the arrays. That is a prime example of a typical dilemma facing us. Should it be flat pressure with the mutual coupling bringing up the low end, or should it be flat power? That's what Claire Brothers have been experimenting with, and Audio Analysts actually had the first of the 2123s out in the market. That was really a field test before the whole PA was built with a prototype speaker that was intended to give us an idea if this was the right thing to do. Now we've finally tooled both the new cone and the new surround and the final version is already in production.
A lot of our development takes place in this fashion. The same applies to the studio side. We have a lot of studios here that we've worked with for a number of years.
"I don't know exactly what the situation is in England, but over here we tend to get pigeon holed as providing 'the West Coast pop sound'..."
Of course there's more to JBL than PA and studio systems; we can cater for home recording enthusiasts here, and many kinds of musicians, not to mention our involvement with in-car entertainment and hi-fi.
Part of our thrust is market specialisation, in that we try to treat ourselves as if we were involved in about half a dozen separate businesses. We treat the music business separately from professional audio and we treat those two separately from sound contracting installation.
The tour business we regard as an isolated special business, and as for the recording business, whether it's home, semi-pro or professional recording, we try to cater for that specific requirement.
Cinema is an example of an area of sound reinforcement that we hadn't tackled at all four or five years ago, but by working with the individual dubbing rooms, studios and sound experts, we found out what problems they were having with (for example) the Altec gear they were using, what they needed, and how our new technology could be put to use. Things like titanium diaphragms or direct radiator loudspeakers could be better adapted, and we invented this new concept for theatre sound systems which was achieved by working very closely with the film studios. Being here in Los Angeles helps, as does the fact that Lansing was the original designer of all the early theatre systems even before he was associated with Altec and before he started this company.
The Academy theatre has a JBL system and there have been a number of papers written on why direct radiator and constant directivity horn types of system are a better compromise given higher rated power amps. The old horn loaded bass bins and multi-cells were used in the days when all your available power was in a 15W valve power amp, so you had to maximise acoustic power and take pot luck in terms of power response with regard to the room, extended bass response or low distortion. The advent of really high power amps has changed all that completely.
We try to treat each individual market in this way (to the greatest possible extent), approaching each of those markets as if they're JBLs' only business.
How closely are you involved with the electronics side?
We're very much involved with electronics through our connection with UREI who, in addition to their studio monitors, build limiters, compressors and equalisers for the world market and domestic broadcast consoles for the huge US market. In terms of marketing approach we actually have individual franchisers; certain dealers stock specific product ranges. At the bottom end, the dealer may not be very sophisticated, and buy nothing but the MI products such as the smaller voice coil speakers and screw-on compression drivers. The more sophisticated MI store that overlaps with pro-sound will sell those as well as the Cabaret speakers and E series loudspeakers. Real pro-sound shops catering for touring bands will sell the two inch compression drivers and flat front Bi-Radial horns. However, they won't have access to the large Bi-Radial horns, automatic microphone mixers, products that are geared to 70 volt transformers, or amps that are specifically designed for the sound contractor or the installer who may be installing a disco, a club or a stadium speech sound system.
How do you see the UK market as compared to your home market?
We have only three definable customer groups within the UK. There are the music shops that only have access to the Cabaret and the MI range of products, then there are the pro-sound companies which have access to almost everything apart from the studio monitors, and finally we have the companies who have access to the studio monitors and virtually nothing else.
"...I know a few people who have taken the twelve inch driver out of their combo and stuck in a JBL, thinking it will automatically be better but this isn't necessarily true."
As a company, we're very much product-orientated, whereas many companies will take one concept and concentrate on it by producing sales aids, nice literature and lots of ads. If anything, we focus more on the engineering, performance and applications of the product. If we had to decide where to concentrate our resources, we'd fall a little short on the advertising and promotion aspects rather than neglect any of the product related areas.
Do you find that anyone of your products tends to get used in different market areas?
Sometimes the same product is suitable for use in two totally different areas in all respects but its appearance. Take, for example the 4610K or the 46710K. In view of this, we've taken systems that were in black utility boxes or portable music boxes and rebuilt them into particle board, walnut covered or oak covered boxes with a grille. They then become ideal for a very nice restaurant or a boardroom. In fact the physical principles were fine all along. The components worked fine in both applications but in one case you need corners and handles and a coat of paint and in another case you need something that can match the decor. You've got to work closely with your end users and understand the differences in their requirements.
I think in the future you'll see some more line array mirror image source designs aimed more directly at the classical market. I don't know exactly what the situation is in England, but over here we tend to get pigeon holed as providing 'the West Coast pop sound' and in some ways I don't think we want to relinquish that. Having said that, it's a more difficult marketing task for us because we don't want to be restricted by pigeon holes. We're not just into re-reflected sound, linear phase or whatever is currently in fashion, we're trying to be both a transducer and an electronics company that integrates all the elements. JBL doesn't sell only one concept, even though from a sales point of view it's easier to just beat somebody over the head to convince them that this is the one magical thing.
Right now we're working on some three inch coil music speakers which will be 12 and 15 inch, designed to give an overdriven distorted sound, whereas the current E110, E120 and E130 give more of a bright edgy sound. As part of that development, we've consulted a number of keyboard and guitar players. I don't want to drop names but we've tried to get some country, some jazz and some pop players who will be representative of the kind of people that use JBL. Again, it's somewhat of a risk getting into this area. You may wonder why we don't just concentrate on the things we're best known for and try and reinforce that image? Well, we would like our customers to think that JBL can offer the best in all of these areas.
I think the fact that we work with musicians to try and prove that we've done the right thing pays off. The worst approach is to do something in a vacuum and then telling people that you have the answer to all their problems. Some people would buy it and like it, and others would say that it's not right at all. If you've done your homework then you have a much better chance of matching the product to the end user and making them happy.
For example, I know a few people who have taken the twelve inch driver out of their combo and stuck in a JBL, thinking it will automatically be better but this isn't necessarily true. In the end they replaced the cheap drivers back in order to get that overload sound.
We actually went through tools and cones that we didn't end up using because you can't really model a lot of stuff. You can use all the science in the world and predict as much as you like, but in the end you've got to send the system out with a bunch of players so they can see how it compares with their old Altec, Celestion or EV.
What's the mechanism of the dirty sound. Is it to do with soft limiting at the extremes of the suspension?
That's a good example. One element is whether the coil is long and overhanging to give it linearity, or whether it's short so that it tends to jump out of the gap and produce more second harmonics. The coil mass relative to the cone mass is important. There's a lot made of coil size diameter but it's actually more important to look at how much mass there is on a coil compared to the mass on the cone. Secondarily, it matters what the depth and shape of the cone is. You can get a four inch coil made of light aluminium to sound just the same as a one or two inch coil that's made out of regular copper wire.
"Too many people are designing networks on theoretical, make-believe speakers."
In fact, you end up juggling all those things at once.
Would you use a corrugated cone rather than a straight sided one, so that it compresses physically as the thing works?
Well that's how to get 'the Celestion sound'. Most of their cones really trash out very badly which is part of their overdrive sound character.
How you get the second harmonics is important. Whether it's because of the suspension limiting the cone excursion in one direction or another, or the coil jumping out of the flux gap in one direction or another, the results sound quite different - it's fascinating.
Do you find that there is a demand for coloured sound in any other areas apart from the rather subjective field of instrument amplification?
Well here's an example of just such a case. In studio monitoring we've had the 2231 around for some years. It replaced the old LE15, 2215 or 2230 and was a foam surround design on a long coil, but had a floppy spider and a suspension which tended to cause a lot of second harmonic distortion. A lot of people loved that. The newer 2235, that is in the 4355, the 4430 and 35 monitors has an even longer coil which gives more control and a stiffer spider, so that when it runs out of coil it limits, rather than flopping and jumping around. It's a huge difference between those two speakers in terms of sound character.
I've actually told some people to take their 2235s out and put E140s in their monitors, and they loved it. That was perfect because most of them are playing pop music and they want to be able to get that fat bass guitar sound from their monitors.
There's nothing wrong with that, so long as you realise the effect you're getting and you don't think that it's a natural sound. Again, it's subjective.
Do you prefer to see cabinet speakers go out of the factory, or are you just as happy to sell drivers where you have little or no control over the effectiveness of the end product?
I think we can put together a better, more integrated system than the majority of people outside. It's true that there are some very sophisticated studio consultants who can probably do better jobs than we can in some cases, but in general we can integrate the components as well as anyone. You've got to have an intimate knowledge of exactly what the transducer is doing to design an enclosure or crossover effectively. Too many people are designing networks on theoretical, make-believe speakers. You have to take a lot of things into account, and we do do our homework. We do our best to communicate some of that in things like AES papers and technical notes. I wouldn't say we're against other people doing it though, and I wouldn't say that we even really prefer one or the other. I think we end with a better representation of the capabilities of our product with a complete JBL system.
There've been a lot of travesties. I've heard bad systems built around JBLs. There are too many people who have one overriding idea. They think that if they reduce the intermodulation distortion in this system, that'll fix linear phase. Unfortunately there's too much physics going on, and too many things happening at once, not just in psychoacoustics, but in terms of raw physics, because you're dealing with a three-dimensional display of energy and there are wild vectors of sound going off in all directions. There's intermodulation, amplitude response, power response, distortion, and many other characteristics, and they can all be mixed and matched. You can walk into a room and say, that sounds alright, I like that. Is it because you like the music, is it because the room sounds good or is there another reason? I don't know, there are lots of ways to approach it. We try to be as objective as possible and not too dogmatic about any one issue. The end goal is to please people with music and that is a goal that we constantly keep in sight.
Feature by Paul White
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