Passionate about sound

On the occasion of QSC’s 40th Anniversary, Chris Fitzsimmons was fortunate to catch up with Pat Quilter - co-founder of QSC, one of the driving forces behind the modern power amplifier and a dab hand with a curious instrument called the Lap Steel.

So Pat, tell me about the Lap Steel!

I’ve been playing the lap steel for about 30 years, it’s the original electric version of what we now call the steel guitar, which was invented before the 20th century in Hawaii. The Portuguese cowboys came over in about 1850 to herd cattle, and when they left, they left behind guitars. The Hawaiians are a very musical people but they didn’t understand much about guitar tuning, so they just tuned it to an open chord. The legend goes that one day one of the players ran his pocket-knife down a string and heard that distinctive sound, thus was born a whole new way of playing guitar. In the 20’s they played Hawaiian guitar on wood bodies and in the mid 30’s the electric came in. The one I play is a 50’s twin-necked Fender, which is actually a console guitar – it was originally intended to have legs screwed into it like a table, although I play it on my lap.

You guys recently supplied the complete solution for Center Parcs in France. That’s a world away from building guitar amps in a garage. How did you get here?

When we got started back in ’68 we were at the tail end of what you might call the single-brand sound system concept. If you wanted to have ceiling speakers in your restaurant or a system put in your church, you’d call your local contractor, who might be an Altec house or a Logan house. Each of those companies provided everything required to do the job. He’d come in and choose items A, B and C out of the catalogue and it would all work together very nicely. But of course at the time performance was very limited, and the background music system was in no way ready to be a PA system. But as electric music came out of the clubs, and became more of a concert model obviously you needed much bigger and more specialised systems. So just as QSC was getting started you started to see the dawn of the speciality companies. You had amp companies and speaker companies and console companies, and each of them focused on their one thing and became quite good at it, competing vigorously with the others in their space.

But now we’ve come around full circle. During the roughly 30 year period of analogue interfacing, it happened that there were some de-factor standards which emerged, like 8 Ohm impedance and roughly 1 Volt line levels, that everyone configured their equipment to work with. So, you could pretty much count on being able to plug brand A into brand B and get it to work. But as digital control and monitoring emerged in the 90’s you began to get software reliability issues as well as pure incompatibility. There was no longer any guarantee that brand A would even play with brand B. In fact many companies chose to pursue their digital standards as a proprietary standard to try and get the business.

QSC has always believed in the benefits of competition. Even if it pinches us a little bit, it inspires us to try a little harder and go the extra distance. So we attempted support a couple of open standards that never went anywhere, and were one of the original supporters of Cobranet, which is a perfectly viable format but I’m not sure if it’s ever reached the critical mass required to truly succeed as an open standard.

Between all of those considerations, and the competitive environment in which other major brands have been actively consolidating or acquiring other companies or expanding their own business to become a full service supplier, QSC obviously has to follow suit. So we are now in the middle of a progression towards being a full-service, amplifier, speaker and digital electronics company. All I can really say right now is that we are now making major investments in next generation technology.

The whole idea is that a client will be able to pick up the phone, order a complete system and only have one call to make if there’s a problem. That’s the way it has to be these days. Maybe in another 20 or 30 years when the basic digital technology has become utterly commonplace we’ll see the re-emergence of the speciality companies again. We see right now that it’s back to the position of people needing one company to take responsibility for at least one section of the chain - from desk output to loudspeaker, or the B-chain as the studio guys would put it.

When did you first sit up and think that you needed to take note of the installed market as opposed to performance market.

Actually there was a pretty clear moment in our very early history. we were still just a small group of people and we had run out of money, or gone broke, which is probably a more unvarnished way of saying it, for the third or fourth time. And as it happened, at the same time, Tapco had just come out of nowhere with the first IC based mixing, a little 6-channel mixer that blew the market wide open. It was studio quality and this was a very low price mixer with virtually perfect specs. Transistor based mixing had been pretty imperfect up until then, either that or really expensive.

At the time we reassessed everything we had learned in the five or six years of being in business and we decided that the hardest thing to figure out was the power amp technology, because you have every problem in the book. You’ve got basic electronics, high power handling, transistor breakdown, thermal issues, cooling, heavy parts that need supporting, large transformers and high voltage etc. We made a decision that this was the field we would exploit. The power amplifier technology we developed there became the basis for our first installed sound and touring products.

But then in the 80’s you did Series 3 and Series 1, which were your first real install products right?

Well we did what we would now call “voice of customer” research, but in those days was called going out and listening to people. We heard a number of themes. People wanted modern, high power amplifiers. If possible they wanted to eliminate the cooling fan and also, because amplifiers were unreliable, they wanted a way to change the channels without unhooking the rack. So those were the primary attributes of Series 3. We had our first multi-step, high efficiency linear circuit, which was able to run from regular heat sinks without a fan and it was very successful. But fan cooling became popular for a reason, which is that you can do a lot more cooling for less money, so Series 3 was a premium price line. It was a very good line, and something of a modern classic now. We then went on to incorporate some of those same components into fan cooled platforms that we could sell for considerably less money. Those were Series 1, which gained us entry into the cinema market because of their reliability.

Ok, what about the open architecture issue? We touched on that earlier.

Well here’s the somewhat bitter truth of it. An open standard is never 100% open. First off, if the standard is being actively maintained by whatever enterprise, what is the business model for that? There’s usually a licensing fee. That doesn’t work too well unless you are a semiconductor manufacturer who can embed the license fee in the cost of the electronics. But there is an evolution of any technology, there are always little bugs to fix or desired enhancements. You get into a bit of a pickle if you are one of the larger supporters and you identify a problem and fix it – then you’ve moved the standard along without reference to the other members.

So at the end of the day, some larger enterprise has to take the standard under its wing and then it practically becomes proprietary even if that enterprise is willing and interested in having other people licensed for it. I have to say that our next generation product, whilst QSC is philosophically oriented towards allowing everyone into the boat, will be a QSC driven and QSC based solution, and we’ll have to see about allowing third parties in on a case by case basis. At the same time I want to reassure people that we understand the need for that third party support.

Our next generation product will include at least a Cobranet or an Ethernet bridge, we have to recognise that there are a lot of existing installations out there that we will need to be able to talk to. But in order to get the very most out of our system you would need to use all QSC components.

And what about in another 40 years?

Well 40 years is a very long time, lets try to shoot for 20 shall we! Firstly we should have a much more complete integration between audio and video technology. Audio has been practically perfected for quite a long time. Since at least the 1950s you have been able to reproduce every note the ear is capable of hearing at every volume the ear is capable of tolerating at reasonable fidelity. All that’s really happened since then is that you can do it for more and more people at one time.

We are nowhere close to that with video, the eye is a much greater bandwidth channel, if you like, than audio. Making sunlight bright video with every bit of resolution the eye can see is still a huge channel. I think we’ll see some advances in areas such as psycho-acoustics – that’s an interesting research topic.

Will speakers still look like speakers?

Well you would think that in 40 years some completely new transducer technology would have been developed, I imagine we will see direct neural stimulation in the future for both sound and vision, but that won’t be too important until we can do it for an audience.

One thing you’d perhaps be willing to predict in twenty years would be the advent of reasonably priced active, beam steering systems that are more architecturally un-intrusive than we have now. Possibly arrays of smaller loudspeakers each with their own amplifier. I think in general terms you’ll see a continuation of the trend towards integration of complex problems to make them less-so.

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