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Genius!2: Rich Zwiebel and CobraNet #14

The invention helped to change the way the industry works

RICH ZWIEBEL: I started installing mix-minus systems for corporate boardrooms in the 1980s. While the concept was an effective one, we set the levels for each path by – literally – soldering in resistors. This was really impractical and time consuming. You also thought long and hard before changing any levels in the matrix since it required soldering.

Around 1990, I designed the audio conferencing and sound reinforcement systems for American Airlines’ corporate headquarters. This included a large, 65-seat conference room. As I did not want to do any more soldering, I came up with the idea to use a live sound monitor mixer to create the mix, including certain channels out of phase with others, and I added automixers to the console’s insert loops. This allowed me to create a mix-minus with 65 inputs and about 15 outputs. While this worked well, it took forever to set up as there were so many knobs to turn…

At the same time, I was designing a new audio system for the United States Senate Chamber. The Chamber system was using outdated technology. I wanted to do a mix-minus but realised that to adjust level would take 10,000 knobs (100 inputs x 100 outputs) just to cover the Senator’s themselves. (…And of course there were all those other functions such as EQ and limiting on top of that.)

So: if I could have a computer screen with a graphical layout of the Senate Chamber and a way to select any desk, all desks, or any subset of the desks, and then turn a knob, whether it is level, EQ, or any other signal processing, I would be changing the entire selected group of desks at once. That was part of the ‘a-ha!’ moment. The other was just being in the field on a large project such as a stadium and realising that if I felt that I needed to add something such as a delay or limiter… this would result in having to deal with a complex and expensive change order process.

The networked speakers idea came from laying out many large facilities large speakers and realising how inflexible, labour intensive, and expensive that was. The other idea: Configurable DSP, changing wired-together analogue equipment, to drawing pictures on a computer screen, hitting compile and having it ‘become’ that audio system. The idea also included ‘soft’ controls on a computer screen, rather than the hardware-based controls of the time.

What was the disruptive thing about this ‘invention’? Configurable DSP would go on to change the way we design and build audio systems. It ended the old-fashioned method of using individual hardware products that are mounted in equipment racks and then hard-wired together. Instead, people started to use computers to design and use audio systems. This was the fundamental change.

It was a lot of fun to basically change how things are done. Nobody else did this.

In 1992, I was a consultant at the Joiner Rose Group, where I designed both audio systems and acoustical solutions for a wide variety of projects. The company I then created to develop technology, Peak Audio, licensed Configurable DSP to Peavey and it was sold as MediaMatrix, which was the first configurable DSP on the market; it proved to be a game-changer.

The ‘networked speakers’ idea eventually became CobraNet, which we licensed to over 50 companies. This also changed the industry, starting the change from analogue wiring to using networks to transport audio

When we introduced CobraNet, there was another fundamental shift from huge bundles of hard-wired cables with many types of connectors to simply making use of a network to route and transport audio.

These inventions, changed the way our industry works. Most systems in use today use configurable sound processing. The current generation of system designers assume that is how they will set up their system.

And networked audio has become the way audio transport is undertaken worldwide. It would be unusual to see a new large audio system that still depends purely upon analogue wiring.

While I am often credited with these innovations, it really is the great team of engineers that did all the hard work to make these ideas happen. I still work with most of that original team at QSC.

Call it my ‘Genius’ moment: in reality, it took a team of brilliant engineers to turn these ideas into reality.

Pictures: Top: Rich Zwiebel. Bottom: CobraNet was implemented in devices such as the QSC BASIS 922uz, an ‘8×8 CobraNet Enabled Control and Monitoring Signal Processor.

Published earlier this year and sponsored by QSC Audio, Genius!2 is the second edition of Genius!, celebrating those clever people whose inventions have transformed the world of professional audio. The 30-page supplement is also available to read in a handy digital-edition form