"Renaissance Man": Damon Von Schweikert on Albert Von Schweikert Page 2

Mullins: What was unique about your father and how he approached his work?

Von Schweikert: I think it's an objective observation that the number of products he designed over his career, and even in one year, would exceed his competition at least by double or triple. He has constantly designed that way. But, that said, he would never introduce a product to market unless it was a dramatic and objectively obvious improvement over its predecessor. He definitely rebelled against the whole idea of building a lifecycle into your products, where it is replaced with the next product two years later, but there are only minor tweaks to it. I'm not going to beat on cell phones, but you can look at them and say, "Oh, you added a camera lens, so now it costs twice as much and it's two years later." He never did that. If we found an improvement, a slight improvement, he called that putting it in the bank. Only when we get some more things to put together to make this design really dramatically better, that's when we release it. And often it would be five to seven years before he would come out with a Mark II.

Philosophically, my dad believed through his whole life that you need to assume that we know less about loudspeaker design than we think we do. We think we've got it all figured out. We've got all these different measurement tools, but they're all quantitative measurements; none of them are qualitative. He was always off the reservation when it came to that dogma. As a scientist with an open mind, he left his preconceptions at the door. He did tons of experiments. He always came at it from the mindset that there was so much more to learn than we already knew.

Mullins: Could you provide an example?

Von Schweikert: One controversial point for some people is, if you can't measure it, it doesn't exist. Yeah, I know I'm going to make people angry. But let's just play with that logic. We couldn't measure sound pressure level before the invention of the computer. Clearly people were aware to be able to objectively observe reality around them without a measurement tool. When I was a kid, my dad would ask me about sound. I'd be hearing dramatic differences. One speaker was horribly colored and flawed and the other one sounded natural. But we were looking for the different measurements and I wasn't seeing them. He just looked at me very patiently and said, "Damon, what we have are very crude electronic tools. You'd have to use currently our most complex calculator and evaluator: the human ear-brain mechanism. You know, how we perceive sound." Beginning at CalTech under Richard Heyser, and later on his own, he did a lot of research into what influenced subjectivity.

But I don't want to get involved in trying to change people's minds about this. He'd say, "I'm perfectly happy continuing to design. And if people like it, they like what I do. If they don't, if it's not their thing, that's okay." He just didn't want to get into, I won't say a religious war, it's not that much. But there are online debates whether you can discern break-in or not, for example. It's not measurable.

For one of the experiments he did under Heyser, they designed a two-way speaker. They painted one black and one white—same design. Students did a listening test and filled out a questionnaire: How did this make you feel? What did you think about the musicality? What did you say about the resolution? And by and large, people thought that the white speaker was very open and airy and fun. And the black speaker was more dramatic. The questions and the paint on the speaker led you to believe there was a difference.

Under Dr. Heyser, students had the ability to experiment both from a scientific/engineering standpoint and also from a psychological, and most importantly, psychoacoustics standpoint—understanding how the human ear-brain mechanism works and how it relates to perception.

That's where my dad came up with his thesis about inverse replication in the 1970s. He later refined it and made a more marketing-friendly version of it by saying that speakers should work like a microphone in reverse: It needs to decode inversely to a microphone's encode. That's what he was looking at, radiation patterns and how the human ear perceives sound. And that became the premise of everything he did.

Mullins: What achievements do you consider to be his most significant?

Von Schweikert: In the early to mid-'90s, my dad came up with what turned out to be one of his most influential designs, the VR-4 (later dubbed "Original VR-4"), the first speaker to carry the VR nomenclature (for virtual reality in 4 dimensions: amplitude, phase, time, and space). He was really into William Gibson and cyberpunk stuff, so he loved the concept of virtual reality. He thought that stereo systems were creating this virtual reality of playback in your room that you're experiencing many years later, that you're on a different rotation of time and space.

The VR-4 was a statement product for him but budget focused, priced at under $4000. It had two 8" woofers, a woven carbon-fiber midrange—which was pretty cool at the time—and an aluminum tweeter. Also, it had the Global Access Integration Network (GAIN), which was his baby that he'd been working on. It had the rear-firing tweeter, so it had ambient inverse replication. So, this was the culmination of his theory of microphone in reverse. It was cloth-wrapped to keep the price down. It was a stacking module with isolation between the midrange and woofers to minimize distortion and vibration. He had his first implementation of his cabinet-damping system. So, he had all these great revolutionary things at the time and he was up against the big boys: The Vandersteen 2C was dominant in the entry level to under $5000, and Wilson had staked out above $10,000 with their WATT Puppies.

Mullins: How did the business transition in the latter years with his retirement?

Von Schweikert: I'll be frank: He struggled with giving the reins of his company over to his then–30-year-old son (me). I mean, that probably would seem frightening. Was I ready to take it on? He probably didn't think so. I think he was struggling with it more as a father looking at his less-experienced son more than whether I was objectively up to the task. Which I totally get as a 50-year-old father. This went on for about 15 years, and I didn't totally take the reins until he retired in 2015, when I was 45.

I got a call from my dad that he was kind of done, and that's when I came in and took over as CEO, and he retired. Then, after two weeks, he was ready to come back to work!

During retirement, my dad went a little crazy with his freedom and creativity. He started buying guitars, keyboards, mixing boards, recording equipment. He even wanted to do a YouTube show where he was going to wear a tan trench coat and put some kind of mask on and do spoken word to his recorded music. He was a very creative individual. It wasn't just the scientific elements of him; he was also an artist. He was a renaissance man. I don't know if other people would classify him like that, but as his son, I absolutely would. He was a poet and a painter. He was a songwriter, performer, and engineer.

He would come in to work for a listening session. He'd sit down with his records. And after about an hour, he'd just smile. You know, he worked so hard his whole life. But the other thing too is, it just was him. It didn't feel like work. It was just natural. He finally was able to disengage and really enjoy the fruits of his labor. And I gained an appreciation for just how cool it is that we get to do this for a living. We create something that people love and value and take enjoyment from.

Spla'nin's picture

Thanks for sharing multiple facets on his diamond of a life .. he helped make music reproduction for myself & others better with his gift of discovery & perspectives. Interesting times indeed.

barrows's picture

I only met Albert once, back when the company I was working for at the time was showing at CES, and we were using V-S speakers in our (muti-channel) demo system. I was struck by how soft spoken and respectful Albert was, and he appeared utterly without ego-although our interactions were brief over the course of the show, his humanity made an impression on me. I was shocked and saddened by his passing, a loss not just for the audio community, but for human beings everywhere. Thanks for sharing some of your experiences with your Father Damon.

JulieAudiophile's picture

Thanks for reading, Spla'nin! It was a pleasure speaking with Damon about his father. There were so many great stories that the interview ran quite long (longer than what's here).