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Sam I Am

Noted acoustic designer – and Smaart platform creator – Sam Berkow, in profile

By Kevin Young March 11, 2016

Sam Berkow and his creation on the laptop screen, Smaart (in a more recent version).

For Sam Berkow, acoustical design, sound measurement, and audio in general are lifetime passions, the ones that ultimately led him to found SIA Acoustics, and later, SIA Software Company, the creator and developer of the SMAART (now stylized as Smaart) tuning and measurement platform that’s had a tremendous impact on professional audio.

Over time, Berkow has plied his design talents at iconic performing arts and production facilities across a broad spectrum, among them SFJazz Center in San Francisco, AirShow Mastering (Boulder, CO and Takoma Park, MD), Jazz Standard and Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, The Studios at SST, eTown Hall in Boulder, and the Pearl at the Palms in Las Vegas, just as a sampling.

And recently, SIA Acoustics work at the Allyworld Space at AirShow Mastering was nominated for a 2016 NAMM TEC Award.

What attracts him to a project isn’t the size or budget, the 53-year-old innovator and entrepreneur notes. “What all of our projects have in common is that someone involved believes sound is a critical component,” he states. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a home studio or a multi-million dollar concert hall, the desire to get the best sound possible is exciting to me.”

Berkow isn’t willing to do anything by half measure. “In high school I wanted to be a musician. I liked playing guitar and bass in bands, but I felt I was never going to be good enough. I could hear the music in my head, but somehow it got lost between my head and my instrument,” he laughs.

So instead he took to mixing local bands, which continued while he attended Hobart and William Smith College (Geneva, NY) to study physics in the early 1980s. “I was driven. I didn’t want to do a job that I wasn’t going to be good at, so audio was a good fit for me, but back then it didn’t occur to me that doing sound could be a job.”

Making Connections
Born and raised in NYC and New Jersey, Berkow first became interested in music via his musician neighbors, who introduced him to the sounds of the Grateful Dead. “Which is funny,” he notes, “because later I was involved with Don Pearson (Ultrasound co-founder and system engineer for the Grateful Dead for 17 years), Derek Featherstone (the band’s front of house engineer), and the Dead for years.”

He took a few music lessons and learned from friends, but in what he describes as “one of those light bulb moments,” found his true calling and began to study acoustic measurement and acoustical design. “During the mid-80s, a friend was building a studio in his NYC apartment. It wasn’t going well, didn’t sound good, and he was convinced it was the equipment,” Berkow explains, adding that he thought otherwise. “I was lying on my back underneath the console with a voltage meter and realized that what was actually wrong was the room. So I went to the library to find books on acoustics.”

Berkow (left) in a construction coordination meeting with members of the Allyworld team.

At that time, resources were hard to come by, but through a friend of a friend he reached out to Artec, noted architectural acoustician Russell Johnson’s firm. “I said, ‘I’m interested in acoustics and want to learn,’ and they replied, ‘Stop by.’ At the end of the day they asked me why I was still there and I told them, ‘I want to stay. I’d like to get a job here.’ They informed me that I needed a graduate degree, so I literally applied to grad school the next day. Then I asked specifically what they needed and was told ‘someone who makes acoustic measurements,’ so that’s what I researched.”

After completing a Masters degree in Engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology (Hoboken, NJ), Berkow joined the team at Artec as an acoustical consultant. That job was “wildly important,” he continues. “You’ve never met people more dedicated to great sound. Russell Johnson was a visionary of concert hall design. He was inspiring, and I got to meet great musicians like Bob Marley, Simon Rattle, Nick Forster and Wynton Marsalis as well as so many great engineers/producers over the years.”

At the same time, what the Artec organization felt was important to measure couldn’t be handled by existing technology. “There was a disconnect between measurements directly related to architecture that provided an understanding of what to build in order to achieve total balance, reflection distribution, intelligibility and loudspeaker measurement,” he notes.

Eventually it led Berkow to create the Smaart (an acronym for Sound Measurement Acoustical Analysis Real Time tool) platform.

“In my mind, tools for system setup and acoustic measurement went hand in hand, and people were starting to become interested in working on measurements geared towards sound system equalization, gain structure, and delay timing,” he states.

Again he reached out to others, including Pearson, David Griesinger (lead engineer at Lexicon) and Alexander Yuill-Thornton (a.k.a., “Thorny,” system designer for Pavarotti and the Three Tenors), all of whom were more than willing to lend assistance.


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About Kevin

Kevin Young
Kevin Young

Freelance Music and Tech Writer, Professional Musician and Composer
Based in Toronto, Kevin Young is a freelance music and tech writer, professional musician and composer.

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