May 14, 2011 Interviews
A top name for studio design in India, I caught up with Andrew (Andy) Munro at a Juhu hotel in Mumbai. Read it and learn more about the “guru” of acoustics as he is popularly known. Questions by Aditya Mehta [AM], and answers by the other AM [Andy Munro].
1. Please share some childhood experiences that drew you to the world of audio and acoustics.
I think the first realization I had about sound was during a Physics class at school. I have always been keen on great inventors and engineers so when I heard about experimenters like Rayleigh and Sabine I was hooked. I grew up with The Beatles and the Rolling Stones so sound and making recordings were a big part of my teenage years. I picked up a guitar when I was 15 and I’m still trying to get that Hendrix sound just right. I met Eddie Kramer in LA and we talked for two hours about those Hendrix sessions in London and then New York. I put All Along the Watch Tower as one of the best examples of recording brilliance of all time. It may have been that way-out spacey sound that made me realise that electro-acoustics is actually a very complex thing.
2. What college education did you pursue?
This was the most confusing part of my life. I was good at first; top 10% in an old fashioned, selective grammar school. Somehow I went from that to dropping out of university in London and going straight into the audio business. I think that I wanted to be a top recording engineer more than an academic or banker.
3. Did you immediately setup Munro Acoustics after your formal education? Or did you work somewhere to gain experience first.
I did a lot of things first but I ended up working for Shure (the microphone company) for five years. That enabled me to go back to college and fill in the gaps that I needed to work with audio technology. My advice to anyone is ‘finish what you start- it’s a lot easier first time round!’
At this point some luck kicked in and I had a great training with Shure. I spent time in the USA, working at the Country Music Awards in Nashville, Countdown recording in Chicago (jazz and blues) and back in the UK I got to know all the crews working with the Stones, Led Zeppelin and all the major recording studios. Everybody used an SM57 on snare or an SM58 on vocals and I remember going to the BBC one day and turning them onto the sound of a dynamic cardioid stuck up against a loudspeaker instead of a ‘broadcast’ condenser hanging from the ceiling. There were lots of experiments in sound during the 70’s when electronics suddenly became more affordable and controllable, using integrated circuits.
Shure introduced one of the first portable spectrum analysers to go with a whole range of mixers and equalizers. All of a sudden we had some really useful tools to balance and manipulate sound systems in some horrendous venues that were never designed for concerts.
4. In India, consent of parents for doing something on your own is a big thing. Did you get the support and encouragement from your parents when you chose to setup “Munro Acoustics”?
My parents have always supported my ambitions but when I started in sound engineering they had no reference point to compare. In the early days recording and broadcasting was a different world, engineers wore brown coats (I don’t know why!) and everyone talked like the Queen. I wanted to move to London and that was 200 miles from home and I had no choice but to grow up fast and become independent. What was happening at the time (1969) was a social revolution that in some ways is still going on. My generation changed the balance from the traditional, established way of doing things to a more individualistic, liberal way of thinking. This has had some negative effects on the stability of social structures but in general more people are better off and the opportunity to succeed is there for the taking if someone is prepared to make the effort.
All in all I think I was lucky that my parents went along with my plan rather than encouraged it.
5. You’ve been the brain behind brands like Dynaudio. How did it feel to give it away to another company.
Dynaudio is a very unusual company. They make all their own drivers and they have a reputation for innovation that was not of my making but born out of a Danish-German passion for quality. What I added was some knowledge of studio monitors and the way to build larger systems for recording studios. The brand name Dynaudioacoustics is still mine to use and we build all the larger, custom systems using Dynaudio drivers. The tie up with TC was logical and inevitable (they are in the same area of Denmark) and although TC now distribute the main products I don’t consider them as permanent owners of the brand!
6. How did your association with India begin?
It all started with Empire Studios in Mumbai and Joe Gonsalves at PACE. He is the Dynaudioacoustics distributor and there was a real need for acoustic design and monitoring expertise in India. Everything was very traditional at the time and most music recording was linked to film production. I found that our way of designing rooms tended to suit the instruments and voices of Indian music- lots of complex drum sounds and high frequency, very clear vocals. It is a shame in a way that digital synths and processing has taken away some of that subtlety so that the dynamics are just as compressed as ‘western’ music. I am a campaigner for natural audio with at least some acoustic instrumentation!
7. Which other countries do you operate in?
Basically we are a global consultancy working wherever there is a desire for that ‘Munro Sound’. We work for some of the largest companies (Disney, BBC, Pinewood etc.) but also the local studio with one engineer. My only criterion is sound quality and a realistic, achievable project. We hate bad sound and want it dead.
8. Here in India, there are many engineers who have turned into “acousticians” based on what they’ve seen and even experimented with confused clients. How does one ensure that the design / solution offered is the right one?
This is a tricky one. I know qualified acousticians who have no feel for sound and musicians who can tell me if I am 1dB too high on the right channel! If someone thinks they know everything about acoustics without the experience to back up their work then sooner or later they are going to screw up. It can cost a fortune to put right a badly designed studio so why take the risk of using someone unqualified and with a degree in bull shit. I stand by all of my people and if they make mistakes they are corrected and the client has the final word. If someone makes the same mistake twice they are relegated to testing air-con units on a windy rooftop in the middle of winter or, in Bombay, a wet July morning!
9. You have done hundreds of studios, auditoriums and offices across the world. How do you keep yourself motivated in every project?
Good question! I think it’s the desire to make each project better than the last and to hit that groove, when everything just comes together and that playback makes the spine tingle. I think it is the enthusiasm and energy of the client that feeds back into me. It’s also a question of professionalism; a doctor might have more responsibility with a life at stake but I might make or break someone’s business and future. I take that role very seriously and there is the simple satisfaction that you did the job well and even got paid at the end!
10. Any designs of yours in India which are close to your heart?
It is always hard to single out one project and in many ways it is unfair to draw comparisons. I think it is the people more than the places that make a great studio and the end product is what matters. I am the catalyst that gives someone the chance to make great music or a fantastic film mix. The best studios in the World have a history that gives them a status that cannot be bought. To use a crude analogy, that is why Manchester United will always be better than Manchester City, regardless of who wins this season. I fully expect India to become a producer of world class entertainment and not just A.R. Rahman, as good as he is.
11. Is a studio design created based with the starting point as the budget? If not, what inputs are critical to come up with the solution?
All projects have a budget, either expressed or relative to the circumstances. One of the skills of a designer is to find the best solution for the situation and to deliver the most appropriate product. I once saw a studio in a quiet country area sitting on steel springs and surrounded by massive concrete walls, all designed by a university professor of acoustics. I would consider that inappropriate because it wasted a fortune on unnecessary ‘sound-proofing’. Knowing the limits is part of the experience gained over many projects and being able to calculate exactly how much isolation is needed is a real skill that involves many aspects of structures, mechanics and materials science. To achieve NR10 for Foley (sound effects) recording is never easy!
12. Can standardized products or even designs work in sound proofing (a popular term in India). Or does every project have to be custom designed?
There is a place for standard products in acoustics as any given room will have common characteristics. However, the materials used to construct a room affect the absorption within it. For example, a wooden floor, on joists, or a simple plasterboard ceiling can absorb a lot of bass and radically affect the sound within. It is our intention to offer a design program that allows interested parties to input their room data and then select the most appropriate treatment from a dedicated range that will be both cost effective and fully certified. There will often be a need for professional advice but this is one way to find out if it is advisable or not.
Sound proofing is all about isolating structures and no amount of acoustic treatment will compensate for that. In any noise sensitive or multi room situation it is advisable to get professional advice.
13. High rental costs, space problems in cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai have musicians / studios using temporary solutions like heavy drapes (curtains), glass wool, etc which they get done by a local carpenter or an interior designer.
Is Munro Acoustics planning to enter the home segment with affordable products / solutions?
The most fundamental acoustic issue in any room is the bass reverberation time and no single material will give low frequency absorption unless it either very thick or (more appropriately) it is tuned to the room resonances themselves. This involves some expertise in combining the resonance of trapped air (sealed box) with the mass of a panel. If the panel can be curved or angled and layered with damping materials then you are almost there. This type of product is more expensive but will last a life time so it is worth getting it right. We intend to offer a range of products, linked to the aforementioned computer programme.
14. Any future projects / plans in the pipeline which you would like to share with us.
My main aim this year is to work on the acoustic products we have discussed. There are too many brands out there that are either misleading in their claims or at best over optimistic about what makes good sound, which is spectral diffusion and solid bass response, things not achieved with a few bits of foam on the wall. We also have a new idea called the Mediapod that is a complete studio that can be delivered to site and put up in one day. It is intended for any temporary recording or broadcasting location as well as permanent installations in project or home studios for an isolation booth. It only needs about 100 sq. ft. of space to build and it can even come with an inbuilt and calibrated 5.1 monitor system that is 100% Munro Acoustics.
Most of our larger projects are subject to client confidentially so I usually wait until they are open before making a big deal about any of them. It also removes any temptation for industrial espionage- you would be surprised how much of that goes on!
One last word and that is how much I appreciate the chance to work in India. It’s a great country and it has a future that some parts of the world will envy. Long may it continue, for all our sakes!