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Testing times: PSNEurope meets AP’s Dave Schmoldt

As Audio Precision celebrates 30 years of business in Beaverton, Oregon, does president Dave Schmoldt talk to Dave Robinson? Precisely that

Before working at Audio Precision, Dave Schmoldt was part of a team at Tektronix that, through a collaborative spirit, turned a declining business unit into one of growth and success. He was then recruited to Audio Precision (AP), also located in Beaverton, Oregon, and served seven years as CFO before taking over as president in 2007. Collaboration is one of Schmoldt’s key principles, one he feels is practiced by his team at the leading audio analyser manufacturer in the world.

How did you migrate to AP?
At the time AP was beginning to make its transition from founder management, I was recruited as CFO, just ahead of Al Miksch being hired as President. Al led AP for over six years, but unfortunately passed away. He and I had worked closely on all the major decisions at AP, and so the Board thought I should step into his role, which I did in the latter part of 2007. It’s been a great experience in which I’ve learned a lot. I’m very proud to see how we have grown as a team that practices cross-functional collaboration, particularly when building and implementing a product road map.

Do you like to bring people and ideas together, both inside and outside the company?
Most definitely. We’ve strengthened our own internal collaboration at AP, and actively work in the marketplace as well. Interviewing customers regarding feature development – to determine exactly what their needs are – is a prime example of such work.

That must be a very important part of developing new products: you can only test for parameters within the scope of your own experience. To paraphrase a former politician, you don’t know about the ‘unknown unknowns’.
Yes, absolutely. We love customer feedback and we’re very fortunate to have a customer base that gets in touch with us regularly and often. We treat that like gold. Definitely one of our challenges is that there are more opportunities to address than we can do at one time. Prioritisation is key in determining what we are going to address in the near term.

You try to identify and address the greatest need, among a sea of suggestions?
It’s true. Fortunately, our products are very flexible so there is usually a way to do what the customer wants. The real question is: can we simplify that? A great tool in our APx arsenal is the derived measurement, where you can perform further mathematical computations on acquired data.

How else is the collaboration thing working for you?
We can express that in terms of partnership. For instance we’re partners with G.R.A.S., headquartered in Denmark, as we expand into the electro-acoustic testing market. They give us access to the accessories that are an important part of the test methodology for electro-acoustics. For example: measurement microphones, artificial ears, head and torso simulators – those kind of things. That’s a very good relationship for us.

What was the general response to what you did at PL+S earlier this year?
I really wish we’d been there in the past! It was one of the best trade show responses we’ve ever received, and included a big interest in testing headphones.

Headphones are a very competitive market.
Very much so – in that market, those players want audio tests!

So more people are interested in precision testing?
Yes, interest keeps growing. Audio is proliferating into more consumer and professional products, so you have engineers who have a specialty in another area coming to us to learn how to test audio.

We’ve also seen that people require an ever-expanding amount of digital connections to their devices, and they need to have tests that are relevant to those formats. Ensuring that our analyzer can seamlessly interpret, and work with, those formats is key to enabling the success of our customers’ designs. Of equal importance is organizing the software in such a way that the data makes a lot more sense and gets people to their desired end results quickly and with a minimum degree of error. That’s a major push in the way the APx software’s Sequence Mode works – it’s really designed to take people down a tried and trusted path to getting accurate measurements without having to worry about setting up all the individual parameters.

Who tests the testers? How do we know your machines are as good as an ‘absolute reference’?
In our accredited ISO 17025 calibration lab, we have pieces of gear that perform different tests on our equipment, and are calibrated to deliver very, very precise, known values (e.g., voltage, frequency). If you look at the result of an AP measurement or specification you can trace that back to its dependence on those known values. There’s a chain of authority there.

Since our equipment has, for instance, the lowest THD+N in the world, there is no way for somebody else to test and calibrate that. So we have a way of testing that provides a ratio which establishes the ‘worst case scenario’ for our systems (but is still incredibly low).

An analogy might be: an AP watch would give the most accurate reading, because it’s been set against the best atomic clock back in your lab. If you made watches and had an atomic clock.
I won’t claim to be an expert on atomic clocks but I believe that analogy is in the ballpark. We make sure that the root values from which everything can be derived are coming from fully accredited sources. These sources are maintained to be certain that they’re accurate and all the tests are done in a sealed room. This room is tightly controlled environmentally (temperature and humidity and so forth) because there are always physical elements that can come into play and have to be kept extremely consistent for there to be relevant measurement.

Which particular segments are you focused on at the moment?
We’ve always done electronic audio testing, and now we’ve expanded into electro-acoustic test. Additionally, we are pursuing the design and production testing of hearing aids, which is really kind of an electro-acoustic subset as well. Where do we see more testing needed? We are winning more and more business in contract manufacturing in China. And a lot of our introductions over the years are tackling new segments. We have an excellent PDM module – capable of both generating and analysing PDM streams – and the PDM microphone manufacturers are taking advantage of that. We have a lot of things going on simultaneously.

What about territories?
AP is the de facto industry standard and the global market leader in performance and portfolio breadth. Focusing on Europe for a moment, we’re seeing growth in consumer electronics and medical applications; while geographically speaking, the UK, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Germany are a few of the noteworthy areas.

Is there an educational imperative as well? Do you have to tell people why these tests are important?
A distinct part of our customer base is comprised of experts, well informed in the domain of audio test. But like I was saying before, more and more we encounter engineers from a different discipline, that have been designing some other aspect of devices and all of a sudden they’re given an audio assignment. So our whole approach is consultative. We help to show them how to test for the issues that they want to test for, help solve their problems, their challenges. One of the things we are well known for is having the best technical support in the industry. Then there’s audio.TST, a monthly newsletter we send out, which carries articles of technical content. That way we’re bringing a technical outreach to the market all the time.

Which is AP’s principal area of interest in testing ‘trends’, if there is such a thing?
This idea of convergence in audio tests. What we’ve been pursuing with APx is a strategy where the analyser is able to extend well outside the bounds of the test bench, and is able to cover all audio aspects of the design of a modern product. So by building up our APx line, we have a really comprehensive set of audio I/O that’s fully aligned with those found within a device. Meaning, you can use a single analyser to accurately cover everything: the analogue stages, the digital processing and handling of digital signals and formats, the design of the power amp, the electro-mechanical behavior of the driver speakers, and the enclosure. In short, test the entire thing. Nobody else out there is making a product that can cover all of that.

And, we can get all that data captured in a single format that’s totally transferable between APx products, up and down the platform, and has a totally consistent methodology and report. So the value to manufacturers is substantial: they can trust they’ve tested the entire device, if you will, and identified all the areas that are affecting the performance in a single, unified way. On the production line, you can configure all your test systems the same [as the lab systems], keeping all of your test formatting the same and so on.
That’s really what we’ve been chasing.

How ‘precise’ is Dave Schmoldt?
Well, you know – I’ve been told I’m very precise.

I was worried if I was late for this interview, I might get in trouble.
I’m more interested in the precision of the data. [Laughs] Doing something right at the outset, so you don’t waste time later, that – and quality – is what we strive for here.