October 12, 2012, by Roland Hemming
Living in Britain, I am in a country steeped in history. A friend of mine’s house was built before a European even “discovered” America, and we are so used to things just being old that we don’t get excited about it.
U.S. writer Bill Bryson noted that there were more, older buildings in the tiny village he lived in Derbyshire than in the whole of Iowa, where he was born.
But like most people, I don’t get involved with history that much, what with working in a forward thinking, technological industry. The equipment changes all the time, companies come and go; people move around and move on. Or so I thought…
A few years ago, a consultancy project led me to southwest London to a company called RG Jones. When wanting some brief details about them, I asked how old the company was. “We are 80 years old this year,” was the reply.
I couldn’t believe it.1926! Did the professional sound industry really exist in 1926? Who needed a PA system back then, and what for? What were the venues? After all, The Eagles didn’t start touring until some time just after that.
So then I was told the story, and like many stories of successful businesses, it all started a bit by accident. In 1926, Reginald Geoffrey Jones worked as a salesman for Milton Products. He worked in a busy market street where he experienced great difficulty competing with the noise level from all the other market traders.
His solution was to use amplified sound. He attached two large horn loudspeakers to the top of his van, so he could be heard through a microphone connected to an amplifier, projecting his sales pitch above all the others.
He then discovered that others wanted to use his PA system, and was soon making more money from hiring than he made from his work with Milton.
This quickly led him into the world of professional audio—launching his career as one of the great pioneers of sound reinforcement in the UK. Within a few years RG Jones had set up in his own business and had established the company in both the rental and sound installation market.
Later, he built his first recording studio in the back room of a house in the grounds of Morden Manor. This studio went on to be one the most well-known independent studios in history; boasting clients such as The Rolling Stones and The Who.
The business grew and RG Jones was soon the preferred sound supplier and installer in the UK. During the Second World War, his mobile PA equipment was used by The Home Guard, The Red Cross and even in the docks at Liverpool for controlling the landing of thousands of American troops in preparation for the D-Day landings.
But the changing world of the recording market meant that the studio closed in 2001.
However, the other parts of the company have continued, and it seems the traditional feel and traditional clients have not gone away. RG Jones has worked on projects such as the VE Day and VJ Day celebrations, the Royal Fireworks for Prince Charles and Diana’s wedding, the Papal Visit in 1982, and Princess Diana’s funeral.
While the church installation market is nothing like the USA, RG Jones looks after a great number of these including St Paul’s and Westminster cathedrals.
Of course, these don’t have the same amount of equipment as some of the “super churches” we hear about, but St Paul’s, for example, has a BSS Soundweb network and a number of active line arrays.
Even today, if you are knighted by HM the Queen at Buckingham Palace, you will be called forward to kneel, using an RG Jones sound system. It also looks after the sound systems at Wimbledon tennis club and Lord’s Cricket Ground.
Reginald Jones died in 1987 having passed the company onto his son, Robin, and in 2004, he retired and sold the company to the management team—most of which had been with the company since Reginald had been alive. (Thankfully, they don’t use any of the original stock.)
However, one wonders what a rock concert would have been like of we had moved forward socially faster than we had moved technologically. We would have had intercom systems that you had to turn a handle on before you could speak, touring amplifiers with valves, punch cards to store the memories on effects processors, radio mic signal strength reported on ticker tape…
I tried to think if anyone else was doing amplified sound earlier than that. St. James and his brother St. John, two disciples of Jesus, were known for their loud voices, as was Polyphemus the one-eyed Cyclops from Homer’s Odyssey. Finally there’s Thor, but his repertoire was rather limited. Only Wagner and Black Sabbath need that amount of thunder.
Finally, if we were to go back in time to the early days of his company and talk to Reginald about professional audio, he would probably be telling us about this new type of loudspeaker that everyone was starting to use, and that it was transforming his work.
The loudspeaker in question is the “line array”— whatever happened to them?
Roland Hemming is an independent audio consultant and project manager based in London.