Study Hall

Poll Sound founder Harry Poll (at left) with an unidentified individual shown with the company’s mobile sound vehicle in providing reinforcement for the Utah Pioneer Centennial trek in 1947.

Constant Pursuit Of Excellence: Looking To The Future, Poll Sound Celebrates 100 Years Of Service

Founded in 1924 as Poll Audio Broadcasting when founder Harry Poll built his first commercial audio system, the Utah-based company continues to thrive and grow in new directions.

“When you can fix problems and become a trusted source for someone, you continue to grow and build your reputation up,” says Tyler Robinson, owner, CEO and senior system designer at Poll Sound, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

That’s what the company philosophy has been since its inception in 1924 as Poll Audio Broadcasting when founder Harry Poll built his first commercial audio system to amplify brodcasts of that year’s World Series games for crowds in downtown Salt Lake City.

“In the 1920s, Harry started as the arm of a radio station,” explains Deward Timothy, who took over the company in 1974 after his family purchased it. He now serves as a senior system designer and focuses on research and development.

Members of the Poll Sound team at the company’s Salt Lake City facility. Former owner Deward Timothy, who remains an active part of the team, is standing at far right, and owner/CEO Tyler Robinson is in the first row at left.

Poll Sound now offers various services, including installation of AV systems, design/builds, equipment service and repairs, rentals, and event production. “But our meat and potatoes is sound,” Robinson notes. “That’s what we’re known for and what the biggest chunk of our inventory is tied up in.”

Currently, they are 38 full-time staff as well as a part-time labor force of 20 to 50 depending on the time of year, and three offices – two in Salt Lake proper and one in St. George. “That’s where I am today,” Robinson adds. “Our St. George office focuses on installations in Nevada, Arizona, and Southern Utah. The corporate office in Salt Lake handles sales and installations. And on the west side of Salt Lake, there’s our rental warehouse, which handles all of our rental and event productions.”

Deeper Understanding

The core ethic Harry Poll applied to the business remains the same. “It was always about knowledge and the quality of the product,” Timothy says. “Harry used to tell me, ‘Do the best job, and you won’t have to worry about the business.’ He was absolutely right.

“It’s not like Harry didn’t have competition; there was quite a bit in town. People tried to emulate him, but he had a deeper understanding of what he was doing,” he continues, citing Harry’s ability to create the right systems for acoustically challenging rooms. “I apprenticed under him for eight years before we bought the company, and he drilled that into me. ‘Do the job correctly. Do what it takes for each job and you’ll be okay.’ It’s a simple philosophy, but it works.”

Founder Harry Poll back in the company’s early days.

Robinson seconds that: “Above all else, making sure the product we deliver is as close to perfect as it can be; taking the time to do the job right above worrying about money.”

Poll Sound’s event production and rental business is growing and thriving, regionally and nationally, partly because many Utah-based clients “are having conventions and concerts in other areas and take us with them,” Robinson notes. So, too, is their AV integration side, with projects throughout Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Arizona, and eastern Nevada. “Networking has been a boon for us, too,” he says. “Our systems at University of Utah are vast. Their Dante network is very complex to manage, but we’re experts in the networking field – our technicians are very experienced. We’re always looking to expand but in a way that we maintain our quality and values and our reputation.”

Early on, Harry Poll took a similar approach, building and installing his audio systems for various applications – constantly innovating and advertising relentlessly. “In the beginning, Harry fixed audio equipment, Geiger counters, and televisions. He never dropped sound, but at first, and during World War II, sound reinforcement needs were minimal. He had to do quite a bit of marketing to get people to understand they could have amplified speech for their events.”

The post-war years brought substantial growth, with Poll Sound providing a system for the Utah Pioneer Centennial trek in 1947, opening its first storefront, expanding its audio and installation offerings, branching out into sales/repair of hi-fi units and organs, and capitalizing on the 1950s rock ‘n’ roll scene by adding to their inventory and custom loudspeaker offerings. When Timothy took over in 1974, he continued in that vein. “That was Harry’s influence. That’s what I’d been taught. I got my job here when I was 18, so carrying that on was natural for me.”

As the label says, a Poll Sound hi-fi trade show display from 1964.

The proof of that as a viable approach is evident in Poll Sound’s 100 uninterrupted years in business, during which they’ve branched out substantially, reinvigorated by eagerly adopting new technologies, and relying heavily on the boundless passion that Harry, Timothy (who’s been with the company for over 57 years), and now Robinson (with nearly 16 years at Poll Sound) bring to the table.

“What’s allowed us to continue so long is that passion,” Robinson adds. “I never knew Harry, but I can see the influence of his passion for sound through Deward, and it’s infectious.”

Certain aspects of the business are more challenging now, he adds. “A lot of the knowledge Harry and Deward had is public. Back in the day, Harry and Deward’s trade secret was that they understood electro-acoustics more deeply before others did and leveraged that knowledge to gain a unique position in the market.”

Members of the Poll Sound team at the company’s St. George location. (Note that the company’s rental and event production staff isn’t pictured – they’re quite busy at the moment…)

“Chapter three of Poll Sound,” Robinson continues, involves accruing more knowledge by continuing to be early adopters of new technology and spreading that knowledge (and passion) to a new generation of audio professionals through the company’s educational/training efforts and community outreach.
In addition to company’s educational programs, Timothy mentions the certifications many of its technicians have achieved. “All our installers, except possibly our newest hires, are CTS certified. Many have also attained their CTS-I certifications, and a few have their CTS-D. Beyond the certifications, however, is the deeper in-house training to become absolute experts in their work.”

That speaks to core values, with Robinson saying, “Two of those core values sum up what makes Poll Sound unique. One is ‘Get Nerdy.’ If a manufacturer says a product does something, we want to know if it does that, how it does that, and why.” And they’re happy to pull equipment apart to do so, he notes.
“Secondly, there’s craftsmanship,” he adds. “And when you pair those it creates a culture of being passionate about doing the job right, being cutting-edge, understanding that there’s always a better way – we just haven’t discovered it. But we’ll apply every bit of knowledge we have now to doing it the best way we can in today’s environment.”

Ahead Of Its Time

Even a cursory glance at photos from Poll Sound’s history from 1924 to the turn of the century shows that those two elements were equally critical early on. Timothy explains: “Harry’s dad was an architect, very meticulous, and Harry was, too. If you did it sloppy, you did it over again. He used to say, for clients, ‘Eventually, you’ll get tired of trying one thing after another. Eventually, you’ll come to us.’ He was right.”
“I think where Harry was ahead of his time was that he understood line array theory early on,” Robinson notes, “Deward told me a story the other day about our Capitol Rotunda. It has a 6.2-second reverb time – all stone, a 200-foot dome – worst scenario for live sound reinforcement. Even back in the 40s, Harry could go in there and get speech to be intelligible.”

The company’s PSS-4 loudspeakers that were released in the early 80s.

Other jobs at the capitol stand out as well, Timothy says. “We’ve done six or eight systems there, he explains, and references their work in the legislative chambers specifically. “First, they’d set up one microphone in the aisle, then one on every other desk, then one on every desk (roughly 80 microphones total), but there weren’t mixers that could handle that, so all of that was custom built.”

On Timothy’s watch, the company expanded, streamlined its services, adopted the “Poll Sound” moniker, moved to a larger facility with an onsite wood shop, and in 1981 released the PSS-4 loudspeaker. “That speaker was quite spectacular for its time,” Timothy notes. “In the 70s/80s, you couldn’t really buy finished systems. In the ‘disco days,’ all the nightclub systems were hand built – the cabinets, everything. The drivers, woofers, and horns we bought, but the rest was all custom built.

“We kept building and upgrading them, just like Claire Brothers and Showco, but on a smaller scale. We didn’t buy our first system until the early 90s: an Electro-Voice X-Array system. We still build speakers if a customer has an architectural problem and needs a certain size or shape of speaker, and I still love building them.”

PSS-4 loudspeakers (behind the scrims) deployed in force for a large-scale outdoor concert.

Throughout the history of Poll Sound, creating and installing audio systems for high schools provided work and a chance to gain trust as well. “When I started, those were the biggest jobs,” Timothy says.

Often, Poll Sound was called in to clean up, fix, or redo systems installed by others. “When other people started doing sound reinforcement, they did it on the surface, and Harry was doing it real deep, and he taught me to do it real deep.

“Deward’s done an exceptional job fixing systems that were designed incorrectly, or integrated improperly, gaining the customer’s trust and then becoming their trusted consultant on future upgrades over and over because of his ability to gain their trust.” That, Robinson adds, encompasses stadiums, arenas and, increasingly, “a huge chunk of the performing arts complex market.”

The main loudspeaker set at a Poll Sound installation at the Jackson Center for the Arts in Jackson, WY.

Another milestone they point to was Harry landing Utah’s State Fair as a client in the 1920s – an event they still work on today. Granted, they lost the job for a brief period. “In 1955, they hired somebody else,” Timothy says, “and he lasted three whole days before they called Harry in to finish it out.”

In that capacity and others, Harry provided sound for legendary stars, including Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Charley Pride, among countless others. Being praised for the quality of his sound by the likes those artists was a point of pride, but Timothy says what drove Poll’s success wasn’t individual jobs, or big contracts, “It was just consistency and persistence.”

Inspiring The Passion

You can hear the passion as Timothy and Robinson describe their work, their pride in stewarding its growth each in their turn, and their mutual commitment to Poll Sound’s ongoing success.

“I wanted a job in electronics, not necessarily sound,” Timothy says. “My father knew Harry so he arranged an interview. When I started, I was fixing headphones, soldering on connectors, that sort of thing; from the time I learned what the company did, I was hooked. The passion took over – so it was all sound reinforcement from that point. Harry took me under his wing and said, ‘I’m going to show you how to do things.’

As part of the celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary, the company is restoring one of its original “Poll Sound Vans” from 1961 for Salt Lake City’s “Days of 47” parade, an annual event Poll Sound has served since the early 1940s.

“I had no aspirations of owning the company, but Harry requested it. I didn’t look forward to it,” he admits, adding that he didn’t think he was a good businessman. “But I just kept my nose to the grindstone and chugged away at doing good jobs, and they kept coming and coming and coming faster and faster, and so at some point here’s this company with thirty employees and I was like, ‘Whoa, where’d this come from?’ All I wanted to do was build sound systems.”

Conversely, Robinson always knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur. “Growing up, I went to work almost every day with my dad and grandpa on a ranch 30 miles outside of town on solar power. It was very remote and unique for learning about technology. I was fascinated by sound reinforcement but more by technology as a whole, so when I was about 10, I got some computers from the dump and fixed them up so my siblings and I could play StarCraft. I was the sound and lighting operator for my high school drama department.

“Anything that had wires going into it, I wanted to know how it worked – whether it was networking infrastructure, sound, or lighting equipment. I love technology and wanted to own a business, so this worked out great,” he laughs.

While taking computer science in college he began working for Timothy out of the St. George office doing installations and basic concert work. When a full-time position as a rental tech opened up, he left school and went to work full-time for Poll Sound. “The rest is history,” he says, attributing his success to Timothy’s mentorship. “And being a little pushy with him to teach me, allowing me to go to places like SynAudCon and to get industry certifications from manufacturers – L-Acoustics, Yamaha, SSL – so pushing Deward to train me and teach me his craft.”

Theories Into Action

Again, it’s about passion, something that drives everyone at Poll Sound. “Our craftsmen play a big part in this,” Timothy says. “We’re not a rapid turnover company. My brother worked with us for 50 years before he retired, and we have people who’ve been here 30 years or more. The company attracts people like that.”

The company’s last known photo of Harry Poll.

He explains that depth of talent is another core strength and always has been. “Engineering isn’t done from one mind,” he notes, citing Harry Poll’s research into early theories of sound reinforcement. “He put those theories into action, built on them, and always said ‘I can make that happen.’ I was the same way. That’s the advantage of owning your own company; you can do a lot of experimentation and try a lot of things.”

It’s fair to say that the agility they have owing to that ‘I can make that happen’ ethic was, is, and will be the watchword of the company, an assertion that’s led to a reputation for not only the early adoption of new technologies but an insatiable thirst for the knowledge to put them to work for their clients.

Timothy mentions the first console in the inventory, a six-channel Altec board, the early purchase of EV gear, and later, of substantial amounts of d&b audiotechnik, L-Acoustics, Yamaha, SSL, and other loudspeaker and console technologies. But he stresses that it’s not the gear, it’s the approach: “We just took on the newest thing and then the newest thing…”

That’s a constant – another element of the consistency Poll Sound is known for. It’s still all about “the right speaker for the right application but we’re never afraid to try something new,” Timothy says.
Robinson concurs, citing Timothy’s enthusiastic early adoption of digital audio technology and an emphasis on the value of 3D modeling in its infancy. “We jumped on that bandwagon well before anyone else in our market, and that got us many jobs before any other competitors caught onto the power that 3D modeling gives you to sell jobs and design better systems,” he says.

Going forward, bigger and better are important, but only if they stick to “doing it right,” Robinson sums up. “Undergoing strategic growth that maintains the core reputation we’ve had over the years. And making sure the jobs we bid for and take on are the right ones, not just taking on jobs to have jobs. Every job we do, we like to make sure it’s something we’re excited and passionate about, and we see the value of us being the integrator to put it in. To grow, we need to apply our timeless principles to the design. And we like customers that aren’t afraid to do something custom. We have a fabrication shop, so if they need something unique to get the job done and you can’t buy it from a manufacturer, we build it.”

As for what Harry Poll might think were he to be asked about the company’s achievements and reach, Timothy doesn’t miss a beat when he says, “He was a lot like me. Having a big business didn’t turn him on, but doing individual jobs right did. I think he’d be impressed with the scale (and quality) of work we do now, but I don’t think he’d be impressed for a moment by the size of the business alone.”

Study Hall Top Stories