Adrian Lucas Witaszczyk: What made you decide to devote your life to sound waves and room acoustics?
Norman Varney: I always enjoy music more when it is produced in an acoustically appropriate setting. I’ve wanted to learn how to control sound for recording and playback neutrality.
Can you describe the moment when you felt it would be your profession?
Since I was four I’ve been playing records, playing drums and recording sounds. Music has been a driving force my entire life.
As far as I know you haven't always dealt with studio rooms, you started with home and car audio systems....
Even when I was a kid, I was the “stereo guy”. We had a family friend who was an audiophile, and I’ve had good equipment since grade school. I sold stereos as a teenager in southern California and ended up owning an established shop that sold relatively high-end home and car equipment in Grass Valley, CA.
Alta Buena Stereo, which you owned for 12 years, was one of the first dealers to handle Surround Sound Incorporated, the first company to bring a Dolby surround sound processor to the consumer market back in 1982. How do you remember those days?
I remember those days as long. Ran the store and then did home installations after hours. I was also one of the only TV display calibrators doing house calls anywhere. Having a shop meant customers could come in and experience a demonstration of sound. You could educate them, they could ask questions and learn and appreciate more about audio. Today, retail hi-fi stores are extremely rare. I believe this is one of the many reasons that there are fewer people that know what hi-fi is. Can you imagine a world without music instrument stores? Those passions might not ever be discovered. My store was fun and I know it brought a lot of joy to people’s lives, which they shared with others. I remember as a young teen (early ‘70s) hanging out at Pacific Stereo and Dimensions In Stereo in Torrance, CA. It was fun and also an education. Those guys we kind enough to teach me what they knew about why things sounded the way they do, how to read spec sheets, what they meant to the performance, etc.
Since 1995, you've been working on more complicated things… What exactly were you doing back then?
I was working for MIT back in those days. I designed video cable, power conditioners and headed their acoustic design and installation businesses. Then I did R&D and design work for Owens Corning. I was also the lead acoustic product developer for Kinetics Noise Control. Did a lot of research around low frequency impacts on floors while there. Built a large scale floor testing apparatus. I also learned a lot about testing resonance and isolation of materials there.
A/V RoomService was founded at the end of 2001, what made you do it? What was the impulse to start this company?
I was working at Owens Corning Science and Technology as a Senior Acoustic Engineer for the Acoustic Systems Business when they were hit with asbestos litigations. They shut down the R&D and nearly shut done their acoustic lab. What they offered me was not very interesting, so they kept me on for six months to get my own business going.
Has this industry changed a lot since then?
Equipment quality is better than ever and even most mid-fi is very good. The ignorance of acoustics is still the biggest problem around the quest for good sound quality.
How much has people's consciousness changed in the sense of sound perception if you look at it from the perspective of that time?
Though equipment quality has improved, I think in general, that people have learned to accept, or grown up with, less quality reproduction. The record makers offer less interesting material, less emotional, less dynamic, and less human element. Consumers are too distracted by their devices to focus on music, and they are not experienced with high quality playback. Again, I’m generalizing here, but MP3 streaming of Beyonce with ear buds while multi-tasking, is not a memorable experience. I would say that today’s teenagers are much less connected with the music of today than they were thirty of forty years ago.
Tell me more about the beginnings of your business, about A/V RoomService ... What were your goals at the beginning of this business? What were you thinking about first of all?
It has always been about sharing the experience of great playback. It is so fun when somebody says, “I’ve never heard that before”, and they want to listen to all their old recordings to have a new and better experience. Smiles on their face, toes tapping, sometimes hairs standing on end or tears running down their cheeks.
So you have a lot of satisfaction with it?
Tell me something about your products, about the A/V RoomService product range…
That really requires a lengthy answer, but in general, besides the FRP system, which has to do with controlling room modes, first order reflections and reverberation times, our other products have to do with controlling vibrations.
We start with RoomDamp2 constrained-layer damping for the room shell, move to smaller vibrations with EVP to prevent them from getting into the structure and/or that may be structurally introduced to the recording or playback equipment.
We are just about to introduce Cable Vibration Protectors (CVP), and are developing several other anti-vibration products for yet smaller vibrations that can effect audio performance.
Sounds interesting... Can you tell me more about it?
I believe that sound quality has much to do with removing the many unwanted (not in the original signal) vibrations that occur in our environments. When they are controlled, the sound is so much more articulate and emotionally involving.
This includes tactile vibrations, audible resonances, ringing, buzzes, rattles, and even mechanical vibrations that can cause equipment errors, etc.
One of the products that impressed me the most was this Equipment Vibration Protectors (EVP), In the press they are presented as the most effective, easiest and least expensive means of controlling unwanted vibrations. You can tell us more about this concept... How did they come into being?
After addressing the structure, the next step is to prevent vibrations from getting into the structure in the first place. EVPs under the source (the loudspeaker cabinets) will prevent speaker cabinet vibrations from being transmitted into the structure and re-radiating back into the listening space, and/or being transmitted into adjacent spaces. They also keep vibrations from entering equipment. It is especially important to isolate sensitive equipment like turntables, tube electronics, digital devices, microphones, etc. The whole idea is to have pure, consistent sound quality without the typical unwanted vibrations interfering.
I can not fail to ask about one more product, your remarkable Frequency Response Panel (FRP) system, I know that you were awarded for it, this system is described as state-of-the-art, what is so unusual about it?
Thank you for asking. The main unique things about are:
1. The panels are not seen. They are concealed with a stretch fabric system.
2. The many panels allow much more control of the desired reverberation times.
3. They offer extend lower frequency control using diaphragmatic technologies.
What is this technologies about?
We use a stiff, but flexible membrane on the surface where the sound energy is removed mechanically in response to the sound wave pressure. This technology allows for an extremely thin low frequency panel, that also leaves the mids and high unaffected. They are to be located in high pressure locations of the room, like the corners and mid-length points of the room. This is different than for mid and high frequency absorber panels, which you locate at high particle velocity points of the sound waves.
BTW, EVP has won several awards as well, including “Accessory Product of the Year” from The Absolute Sound.
Maybe it's a bit of a biased question, but if you were to point out how your offer differs from other commercially available materials used for acoustic adaptation of rooms....
One important point is that our products don’t just come with verbal claims, they come with accredited lab reports regarding proof of performance. For example, the each FRP panel comes with detailed noise reduction co-efficient information.
This information allows for computer modeling for acoustic designers. You don’t have to guess about what panel type, how many, or where- you can plug it into any appropriate software program. You can also test it onsite and change the panels if desired, before the acoustic fabric is applied.
Today a room not only has to sound good, it has to look good... do you pay more attention to the visual aspect when designing your things than ever before?
Well, I work with interior designers for that. I am not one, but I can keep them from making mistakes that would negatively impact the audio, or as is often the case of cinema, visual influence on the picture.
How do you start your work, what does your work start with when you have a client room to adopt?
It starts with questionnaires being answered by the client. This tells us the scope of the project, the goals, the constraints and triggers further questions. It also opens the door to educate the customer regarding acoustics so that they can make informed decisions on the issues that come up.
Let's just say we have the comfort to design a studio room for our studio... Which rooms are best suited for recording studios?
Good size, reverberation controlled rooms that have a low ambient noise floor- meaning outside noise can’t enter and the HVAC system is say RC-20(N) or better. What kind of elements should you pay attention to? Construction methods and materials that are resilient and sealed airtight and don’t buzz or rattle. Elements that must be included in a studio room? Control of noise, room modes, first order reflections, reverberation times. These are the elements of a neutral room that will allow full dynamic range and articulation, and little to no room influence. With such a room, you should be able to record anything without having worry about recording something that you can’t control or remove. I think your audience understands well that you can’t remove reverberation from the recording, as well as trying to compensate for common things like wall cavity resonance. Say your mixing and your room has a nasty room mode- you can’t commit eq compensation to the mix, nor can you listen through it. Bass response is typically the first sound attribute people notice. It is also the most difficult to control.
How important is the thickness of the walls in our room? How does it affect the sound?
It is not just about mass. Mass maybe helpful for noise control, but a concrete bunker does not sound good. It contains the sound and allows it to linger well after the original event has stopped. On the other hand, rice paper walls offer no noise control, nor low frequency support. There is a fine balance between a shell that is too massive and not massive enough.
It turns out that flexible, resilient shell construction can offer good noise control and sound quality. Flexing structures can control both noise and room modes.