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Bruce Jackson: A Life In Sound

He's mixed for Elvis, Streisand and The Boss (among many others), and has been at the forefront of audio technology development for more than three decades.

By PSW Staff February 2, 2011

Bruce Jackson

As one of the first digital musical instruments and the first ever sampler, the Fairlight gave me a first class introduction to the strengths and weaknesses of digital audio.

It used only 8- bit converters, which made me really conscious of dynamic range in digital systems. Each time you add a digital bit, you improve the dynamic range by about 6 dB. With 8 bits you are only playing with 48 dB dynamic range. I was weary of making excuses for the noise – “That sax sample has a nice breath sound to it!”

After my involvement in launching Fairlight, I decided to start my own digital audio company. Previously, while on tour in Japan, I was given one of the players for the brand new CD format, by Hibino Sound. You couldn’t get CD players in the U.S. at that time, and there was very little recorded material available, but I bought as many CDs as possible.

Mr. Jackson mixing Springsteen at Wembley Stadium on the “Born In The USA” tour, 1985, using two of the folding consoles designed 10 years earlier. (click to enlarge)

When I hooked the player up to a PA system for the first time, I was prepared for a revelation in sound, and it was a revelation all right, but not what I expected. Sound was harsh, edgy and disappointing. I thought my high-end cassette player sounded better. Thus began an obsession to find out why.

Living in Santa Monica at the time, history repeated itself as I founded a new company in the garage. An obsessed aviator, and living right next to Santa Monica airport, I elected to name the new company Apogee Electronics Corporation, after the highest point in an orbit. (The guys from Apogee Sound chose the same name a couple of months later, creating some confusion.)

Apogee Electronics was the beginning of a long series of discoveries of just what compromises the sound of digital audio. That’s another story, but I learned a lot, and it was great fun for a small company to be able to make big improvements in many different aspects of digital audio.

I sold out of Apogee as part of my divorce – yes, many lessons learned not just in live sound and digital audio, but also in life. It was time to put them all together in a new company. Kim Ryrie, the co-founder of Fairlight, had introduced me to David McGrath. David had co-founded a small company called Lake Technology in Sydney.

The early iO/Contour team (left to right): Bruce Jackson, David McGrath, Marcus Altman and Stewart Bartlett. (click to enlarge)

Before we move along to the overview of the Lake Contour in the following pages of Live Sound, I’d like to share a quick story.

Before I joined Dave and Lake Technology, Clair Bros had an idea to improve the sound for every member of an audience. They wanted to give a shirt-pocket radio receiver and headphones to every member of the audience. The radio would then enhance the audio coming from the PA system.

There were numerous problems in achieving a practical solution. The biggest: how do you make the sound from the radio, traveling instantaneously, arrive at the exact time as sound from the PA, which takes a millisecond for every foot traveled?

We made 20 prototypes for Clair Bros that achieved the goal, thanks to a very tricky algorithm by Dave that compares the two sound sources and looks for a match, thereby setting a digital delay for the radio. The effect of the high-quality sound arriving at your earphones at the same time as the PA has to be heard to be believed. Lake built the prototypes, but for one reason or another, the idea hasn’t been fully pursued.

A prototype radio receiver devised to enhance audio from the live PA. (click to enlarge)

It was then that I suggested to Roy and Troy Clair that we start a joint venture to develop new technology that became the Clair iO processor and now the Lake Contour. (I really wanted to design a digital mixing console for live sound. Roy and Troy thought that we should work our way up to the console and suggested there were a lot of shortcomings in digital processors. That sounded pretty interesting too.)

We based the company out of my garage here in Santa Monica; that’s right, the same garage where Apogee Electronics was founded. At this point all the lessons described above came together. The biggest lesson I had learned: just because it’s digital doesn’t mean it is necessarily going to sound better. I also knew that digital processing breaks you of the bounds of analog electronics. Some things can’t be achieved in the analog world – digital makes possible things that haven’t been done before.

By 2005, the Lake Contour was being used by top concert tours and in thousands of pro audio applications around the globe and is now available from the TC Group. Bruce moved back to Sydney in 2005 with his wife Terri and their children and was staying busy with numerous projects.

Also view related materials:
PSW Live Chat With Bruce Jackson
Inside The Design Of The Lake Contour Processor
Bruce Jackson Interview At Integrate 2010


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Peter Maurer says

I spent many hours in that Santa Monica garage with Bruce showing me all what he describes in the above story; and then so many more amazing projects he developed. Bruce, we will miss you and never forget you; R.I.P.

Anisa says

I love you uncle Bruce. I will miss you so much!!!! I still can’t believe I was just talking to you 2weeks ago. You always talked about how I’m growing up so fast and asked me about school.  You were the only man that I could call the wizard of electronics.It came as a total shock to me when I found out. I’ll be praying for you and of course my aunt and cousins. I feel so awful. Thanks for taking me ice skating for the first time you know how much I wanted to go. I appreciate everything you ever did for me. I can’t stop thinking about you and I love you. Sooooooo much <3 );
anisa/ aj

David Gibbons says

I had the pleasure of knowing Bruce for about the past 10 years. In my experience, he was everything people have said about him-warm, funny, egoless, brilliant, gentlemanly-and if you worked in pro audio, inspirational. I always felt privileged to know him, but he was so easy-going, you just felt glad to be with him. He and I talked about digital console design from time to time while I was working through the design cycle for the Digidesign VENUE consoles. He was working on the Lake Contour at the same time, and I could tell he was itching to do another mixing console design. It’s really too bad for the world of live mixing that he didn’t get a chance to do so. His legacy will guide us into the future; a better one for his having been here. Farewell Bruce.

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