“What I do is to try the best I can to solve the problem at hand; however that happens, I really don’t give that much thought." - Tom Danley
July 15, 2011, by Kevin Young
In his role as director of R&D for Danley Sound Labs (DSL), Tom Danley has found a home for his unique talents that offers him more freedom to indulge his passion for invention and problem solving than ever before.
But although the Gainesville, GA-based company is Danley’s professional home, he does most of his work from the northern Illinois suburb where he was born and raised.
When he was growing up, Danley says, the area was far less developed. “Not in the middle of nowhere, but getting there, and literally, on the other side of the tracks. So I spent a lot of time slogging around in the mud and water in the woods.”
Though developers have discovered the area in the interim, it still offers an ideal combination of working environments, he says. “If I have an idea and want to measure something I can go downstairs at 11 pm and see if my idea is right, or if I’m stumped and need to go walk in the woods, I can do that, too.”
While the environment he works from may be familiar, the work the 58-year-old inventor and innovator does with DSL – and has done throughout his career – is almost entirely concerned with the unfamiliar; an ongoing exploration of the fringes of possibility in the development and application of audio technology that goes well beyond sound reinforcement.
Working with NASA hardware contractor Intersonics from 1979 to 1996, Danley designed and built hardware for sounding rockets, the KC-135 zero gravity “vomit comet” and the space shuttle program.
There he was awarded 17 patents for a variety of inventions, among them the Servodrive subwoofer and a variety of acoustic and electromagnetic levitation devices - the first of which was a sound source 100 times more effective than what Intersonic had used previously.
He’s also designed sonic boom simulators for BBN, an outdoor Flow Modulator-based unit for GTRI/NASA - affectionately dubbed “the speaker from hell” - and acted as principal scientific investigator on various research contracts, including one that explored the use of low frequencies to trigger avalanches.
Danley with a Space Shuttle payload at Intersonics.
Danley freely admits that from time to time his fondness for low frequencies has resulted in his scaring the wits out of those around him and himself. One of the early users of the TEF-10, he once demonstrated acoustic levitation in the Charlton Heston-narrated documentary The Mystery of the Sphinx.
Later, in the mid-90s, he was asked back to Egypt to measure the acoustics of the Great Pyramid with a TEF-12+, an experience he covered in detail for a Live Sound International cover feature in July 2000.
“In the pyramid, I scared the heck out of everyone. After the first TEF sweep the producer asked me to turn it up - I also went down lower - and it literally felt like it was shaking the place.” It was just air moving back and forth, he adds, but he moved closer to the chamber entrance anyway. “I tried not to act like it scared me, but, yeah, it did.
“I’d say that’s a bit of a pattern,” he continues with a laugh. “When I was a kid my uncle worked for the telephone company and he gave me a hand cranked generator out of an old telephone. With very little turning it gave you a nasty shock.”
Fascinated by this powerful force he couldn’t see, he decided to share his experience with others. “In third grade I had my entire class, including the teacher, hold hands and let them experience it. The shock wasn’t strong enough to hurt anyone, but it woke you up.”
It was an entirely different invisible force that prompted his lifelong fascination with audio, however - a fascination sparked by his interest in his grandfather’s mono hi-fi and later fueled by a clandestine exploration of the organ loft at the church he attended, where he first encountered “sound you could feel.”
“I used to help my grandfather clean up after services, but sometimes there were more interesting things to do, like exploring.”
Noticing the ladder to the organ loft, Danley asked if he could go up and have a look, but that first exploration was purely recognizance. “Three weeks later I saw the organist come in – she was a little lady that walked real slow, so I was able to sneak into the loft without her seeing me. She started playing and it was like, ‘okay, this is interesting’, but when she hit the pedals I didn’t know whether to run or what. It was just so powerful. That really stuck.”
In the short term, it prompted Danley to learn bass guitar and take regular trips to nearby railway tracks to feel the rumble of passing trains. Long term, it led to the development of the Servodrive subwoofer and ultimately to the creation of products like DSL’s SM Series loudspeakers, Synergy Horn, Tapped Horn and the JH-90 Jericho Horn.
“My father and his brother were inventors,” he continues. “My dad had a workshop, and he got an old motorcycle out of a flooded garage, got it going again and we rode that around the yard. When I was 11, I learned how to arc weld, and I really loved taking things apart.” It was an unusual childhood, he adds, but one that resulted in an insatiable desire to understand how things work and how to make them work more effectively.
Ironically, as passionate as Danley was about that pursuit, he disliked school in general and math in particular. “I took every shop class there was, but I had an attendance problem and math was my weakest thing. I knew how many marbles you could fit in a box car,” he says, laughing, referencing a long ago test question, “and thought what more math do I need than that?”
Doing The Homework
Soon, however, Danley realized that if he wanted to work in audio he needed substantially more knowledge of math and physics. “It was ‘well, you can design a horn if you can do this math’ and that was like, ‘oh no, this is the worst thing’.”
College was never on the menu, he says. “I didn’t think my family could afford it and my grades were so bad it didn’t seem realistic.”
Instead, after high school, he began working at Steamer Sound, a local loudspeaker company started by classmate TC Furlong. Steamer Sound didn’t last, but Danley continued to learn the math and science he’d previously neglected on his own. Still, he found it difficult to sustain a career as a loudspeaker designer financially and often settled for positions as an electronics technician.
Although live sound was only a small part of his career, he points to a gig at a local club, partially owned by Furlong, as a turning point.
Danley with his Servodrive creation – dig the white lab coat!
“It was the John Burns Band in 1974. I brought my reel to reel and plugged it into the mixer and recorded the full range signal.” Later that night, unable to sleep, he hooked the deck up and listened. “I was floored. It wasn’t album perfect, but it was close.”
What struck him was the huge difference between what he’d heard live and what he’d recorded. The realization that the only possible variable was the loudspeakers would substantially inform his future career and inventions.
Another breakthrough came during a stint at Northbrook, IL-based Data Specialties in 1976 after a co-worker gave him a Commodore Vic-20 computer. Seeing its potential, he immediately set about writing a program that cut down the time it took to do the math that was so integral to his work. “It took weeks to write, but you only had to enter the variables and press return to get an answer. Literally, it brought tears to my eyes.”
Eventually he walked across the driveway and applied at Intersonics, landing a job where his unconventional approach to invention was embraced wholeheartedly by company president Roy Whymark.
In addition to his work for NASA, while there Danley invented the Servodrive subwoofer, and with the blessing of Whymark, an audiophile himself, finally had the opportunity to start up a loudspeaker company as a division of Intersonics.
Hearing Servodrive in action on the massive Michael Jackson and U2 tours of the time remains a highlight. “What we did with high intensity acoustics, it was interesting and fun, but sound is what I love.”
Although profitable, Servodrive was tolerated more than encouraged, Danley says, recalling a near collision between visiting NASA representatives and metal rockers Manowar. “They were in their rock and roll clothes and the NASA guys literally plastered their backs against the wall so Manowar could walk by. It was classic, but I knew it wasn’t going to go over well.”
The 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster was the beginning of the end, he says, and in the years that followed, budget cuts and the growing influence of competitor Jet Propulsion Laboratory over decisions concerning what research would be done, and by whom, greatly diminished Intersonics’ role.
And as the NASA contracts dried up, Danley was forced to absorb some personal shocks as well - both the death of his father and the disintegration of his marriage, which left him solely responsible for the care of his two young daughters and threw into stark relief the importance of finding a home for his next inventions that would allow him to fully capitalize on their potential.
He transitioned to serve as chief designer at Sound Physics Labs (SPL) in Chicago, and when that company faltered, decided to license inventions such as the Synergy Horn and Tapped Horn to a pro audio manufacturer.
Danley Sound Labs president Mike Hedden with Tom.
Soon, however, another option presented itself via Mike Hedden – owner of SPL’s biggest distributor. When he floated the idea of forming DSL, Danley jumped at the opportunity.
“When Mike called and said, ‘how’s the speaker business sound?’ I thought it sounded pretty good. But most importantly he’s genuine; what he says, he does, and that’s a wonderful thing.”
While Hedden had never manufactured loudspeakers before, he brings a wealth of business acumen to his role as president of DSL, which allows Danley to focus exclusively on R&D. Since 2005, DSL has grown exponentially and now counts the likes of IMAX, Cirque du Soleil and major educational, sporting and worship facilities worldwide among its clients.
As for the genesis of DSL’s revolutionary loudspeaker technology: “Well, I like things people say you can’t do. I had a friend who said ‘there are speakers that sound good and there are speakers that go loud, but there aren’t any that do both and that sounded like a target to me. So we’ll say, ‘we need a speaker that does this kind of a job’ and then it’s ‘O.K., how do you do that?’”
In the case of the Jericho Horn, the answer was complicated. “The combiner in the Jericho was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Literally, it was four months of saying ‘wow, I wish I hadn’t said I thought I knew how to do this’, but it ended up being very similar to what I’d envisioned.”
In recent applications the box has proven itself a powerful and compact alternative to line array.
“With the interference pattern that a line array produces, if the wind blows, there’s a pronounced comb filtering effect,” he explains. “If you have a speaker like the Jericho that radiates essentially as one single source, the wind has almost no effect. It’s a giant difference in subjective sound quality.”
Although his number one priority is to help keep DSL growing, expanding what’s possible in sound reinforcement has also led Danley to ponder problems well outside the realm of live sound.
“I have ideas that cover a lot of subjects,” he says, among them the possibilities of alternative energy and propulsion technologies utilizing sound. “If you look at the motion and pressure involved with sound, the force that wind applies is actually in the same neighborhood, so I have a couple of ideas about how to capture energy from moving air.”
Clearly, he’s thinking farther outside the box than ever, but pondering problems that would give most people a screaming headache is just another day in paradise for Danley, an extension of what has driven him to invent and innovate his entire life,
“One of the things Roy Whymark said to me was, ‘what’s good about you is that you don’t know what you can’t do.’ What I do is to try the best I can to solve the problem at hand; however that happens, I really don’t give that much thought. You notice something in the mechanical world and you find an electronic analogy to that, or there’s something in the air motion that there’s a mechanical equivalent to.
“But that’s how a lot of good inventions come about - you take a principle from one area and apply it to another it’s never been used in.”
Based in Toronto, Kevin Young is a freelance music and tech writer, professional musician and composer. Find out more about Danley Sound Labs here.