By Clive Young
New York (December 5, 2005)–SIA Smaart Live hit the pro audio world just over 10 years ago, ushering a new era of pro audio measurement, with relatively inexpensive computer software handling what costly specialized hardware had taken on previously. While the move was far from a political one, it did nonetheless make high-end audio measurement in a live situation available to the comparative masses instead of just the fortunate few.
Spearheading the creation of Smaart were co-creators Sam Berkow and Alexander Yuill Thornton II (“Thorny”), who began batting the idea around in the early Nineties. Berkow, principal at acoustical consultancy SIA Acoustics (New York), had worked for Bell Laboratories on a video conferencing system. “I had been in charge of the echo canceling system so I was doing a lot of DSP and measurement work, and I needed a better acoustic measurement tool.”
Going out into the field, he would up learning from Thornton. “Thorny was working on the Pavarotti tours and he was looking for how to pull the monitor signal out of microphones–echo canceling–so he was looking for a measurement system.”
Meanwhile, Berkow was also noting the efforts made by the crew at Ultra Sound (Hercules, CA), while working on the Grateful Dead’s live audio. “Don Pierson [now at Meyer Sound Labs] and the guys at Ultra Sound were working with $55,000 B&K analyzers and then later Meyer SIM system, making sound systems sound better and more accurate. I was very impressed by the work they were doing, and spent a lot of time learning from them what it took to measure real sound systems in real room, how to get them to sound good and how to control sound.”
When Thornton and Berkow joined forces to found SIA Software, the first order of business was to dig through four years’ worth of notebooks containing Berkow’s accumulated mathematics and techniques, all developed while discussing the topic with a variety of experts, including John Meyer and Bob McCarthy of Meyer Sound Labs, Tony Agnello at Eventide and Ariel, David Grisinger at Lexicon, Pierson at Ultra Sound,and Gary Elko at Bell Laboratories. With Berkow writing out the algorithms and sketching out the program, SIA Software hired a programmer from Bell Labs to write the actual code in C++, and thus began what would become a two-year effort to wrestle Smaart into existence.
Along the way, however, a funny thing happened. “When we started writing Smaart,” Berkow recalled, “we assumed you’d never be able to run it on a PC because the processor at the time was still a 386. I figured we’d build a little box, use some connection to it and have it do the big DSP work. While we were waiting to figure out how to do that, we finished the software and I just started pulling data off of the sound card a little bit at a time. Pretty soon, I realized that no matter how much I tried to pull, it was always resetting fast enough to update in real time. That’s how it happened–it was the big trend into standard computer hardware being fast enough to be able to manipulate audio. “
SIA Software first demoed the application privately to manufacturers at the 1995 AES Convention in San Francisco, and then began selling it at as an actual product at the 1995 NSCA Expo. Soon JBL licensed the program, branding it as JBL Smaart for a number of years until SIA Software was purchased by EAW in 1999. Both founders returned to their original consultancy fields; Berkow’s SIA Acoustics recently completed work on Remote Recording’s new Mobile Digital Recording facility and was part of the team for the design of Jazz at Lincoln Center as well as number of performance spaces, while Thornton continues to run his Solstice Company (San Rafael, CA) consultancy, providing premium sound design and system optimization.
Today, what initially might have been seen as an ‘out-there’ product is a commonplace sight at many FOH positions–a long way from its unheralded debut a decade ago. “That first NSCA was poorly attended because it was on Mother’s Day in St. Louis,” Berkow recalled with a laugh, “but the first five people who saw it bought a copy, so I thought that was a good sign.”