Most of you in the professional audio world have learned that Dave Hill, founder of Crane Song, died in February.
Dave and I were friends for over 30 years. In this episode I tell some stories about our interactions over the decades. Not only was Dave an amazing engineer and designer, but he was also a wonderful human being.
There is a terrific documentary about Dave, made by French filmmaker Alain Le Kim. It is now available on YouTube. Here is the link:
Your comments are always appreciated. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Episode 76 Dave Hill March 24, 2023
I’m Doug Fearn and this is My Take on Music Recording
I met Dave Hill in late 1993 when we were both participating in a mic preamp shootout in Boston. That was soon after I had started the D.W. Fearn manufacturing company and Dave had exited from Summit Audio to form Crane Song.
There were others at this event, including Eveanna Manley, Greg Gaultieri, and a few others that became friends.
The shootout was in a studio on downtown Boston, but none of the manufacturers were permitted to actual go inside the control room during the testing. In fact, we were all relegated to a stairway in the building that housed the studio. We were there for hours, and that gave everyone an opportunity to get to know one another.
It wasn’t long before Dave and I were in a deep conversation about audio circuit design. Most of the others stopped talking among themselves and focused on our discussion.
This was the beginning of a long friendship that was terminated a couple of weeks ago when Dave died of cancer. I was blindsided by his death, but it is not surprising that I did not know about his illness. Dave would never want his health to be a topic of discussion.
Fortunately, he had time to develop a succession plan, and I think that Crane Song will continue to prosper, selling the amazing products from the mind of Dave Hill.
Dave was unique. He could be the quintessential nerdy guy, but that was only part of his complex personality. He might privately complain about some of his knuckleheaded customers, but to the public, he was always personable, helpful, and cheerful. He enjoyed the interaction with people at the AES and NAMM shows.
In addition to his formidable technical chops, Dave also understood what made music sound good. He had an intuitive sense of when something did not sound right, and worked diligently to understand the problem and develop a solution.
He was always interested in the practical tasks of recording, and operated a separate studio, Inland Sea, where he could test his prototypes in actual music recording sessions.
He also knew that just because something measured good, didn’t mean that it sounded good. And something that sounded great might measure poorly. He would go with his ears. This is something he and I were both passionate about.
Dave was one of the smartest people I have ever known. Not just in electronics, but also in his emotional intelligence. He had great empathy for people, even those he did not know. He could talk to anyone and make them feel like he was an instant friend.
He was rarely without his camera. He not only was skilled at making technically excellent photos, sometimes using tedious techniques to achieve his vision, but he had an artistic eye for what made a good composition. He used his photographs in his product literature, exhibit booths, and on-line.
His subjects were typically people he knew, places he visited, and scenes from his hometown of Superior, Wisconsin. He spent most of his life in that town on the shores of Lake Superior. That area is subjected to some of most extreme weather you will find in the lower 48 states.
We both shared a love of the natural world, but it was largely unsaid in our friendship.
Dave loved to travel. He rarely missed an opportunity to exhibit his products at AES Shows around the world. He would build in some extra days before and after to explore. He sought out interesting and unusual concerts and experiences wherever he went.
He thought nothing of walking miles, whether he was at home or in any city in the world.
And he was comfortable wearing clothes that few of us could pull off, like brightly colored shirts, leather pants, and bare feet in sandals, anytime, anywhere. It was not an act. He felt totally comfortable in his chosen attire.
Dave could get more done in a day than anyone I have ever known. He always made me feel like a slacker. When he needed to make the metalwork for his products in-house, he bought the milling machines necessary, and then designed servo controls to automate the process, including writing the software to make it work.
For a few years in the 1990s, Dave made the front panels for the D.W. Fearn products in his factory. Eventually his production volume and mine made it necessary for me to find another option, but during the time that Crane Song fabricated our front panels, we had the most precise machining that we ever had.
Dave understood that when you design a superior piece of audio electronic equipment, you have to build it to last, use the best possible parts, and package it so that it was aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Like so many other things, Dave and I shared that vision for our products.
Dave was a born leader. In any situation, Dave was always the one to take charge, set a direction, and keep everyone on the same page. And he could do so with sensitivity and a pleasant nature.
For many years, he and I served as judges for the AES Student Design Competition. This was a program that encourage students at all levels to develop unique tools and approaches to solving a problem in audio, ranging from acoustic design, to audio analysis, to plug-ins, to guitar pedals.
Every year, the students would bring their projects or research to the AES Show and set up displays in a dedicated area. There were typically four or five judges who would first review the written presentations from the students, and then walk through the exhibits. The student would provide his verbal explanation, which would be followed by questions and comments from the judges.
Since the judges had well over 100 years of combined experience in audio, we could not only evaluate the work, but also ask deep questions. And, my favorite part, was we could offer suggestions for further area of investigation, or ideas for taking the project to the next level.
There was no one on the judging panel that was designated as leader, but Dave was always the one we all looked to, to fill that role.
After we had visited all the exhibits, we would gather around a table and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each of the student’s projects. The judging panel was made up of a couple of designers and manufacturers, like Dave and me, plus others with expertise in software or academia. Dave would organize our inputs, write them down, and provide a succinct summary that we would all agree upon. He was excellent at distilling our inputs into a concise sentence or two. I was always impressed by that.
We would award the top entries with prizes, donated by interested supporters in the pro audio manufacturing sector. An award ceremony would be held the next day.
Dave recognized that we had a responsibility to encourage the best of the students, even if their project was not a winner. He recognized their talent and hard work, even if they had proceeded under a faulty assumption. He and I would often go back to the student and explain why they did not win a prize, and to encourage them to learn more and try again.
In addition to the major shows, Dave and I would often attend other, smaller events around the country. Especially early in our manufacturing careers, it was necessary to help people learn about our products. This was in the days before the internet.
So our paths crossed often. We took those opportunities to get together for dinner so we could talk.
It surprises many people that two companies who often compete for the same customer would also be such good friends. What they didn’t understand was that what drove us was not a desire to sell as much gear as we could, but to advance the state of the art, to make music sound better. We had to make a living doing that, and support other people who worked for us. But our motivation was never money. We each could have made a lot more money doing something less arcane than high-end audio equipment for a tiny market.
I know, or have known, most of the major equipment designers in our small industry. Many are brilliant. Some are motivated by the art and not the money. Some of them take prior work and simply repackage it, which is valid and beneficial to the music recording world. Others are business people, intent on making the lowest-cost version of whatever they make.
Some are simply engineers, with no real appreciation of how their design is going to be used in the real world. They are motivated by technical measurements and not by how something sounds. Some never even listen to their creations before they are put into production.
And then there are those, like Dave and I, who spend a long time listening to how a circuit design sounds. After all, these devices are going to be used to create content that has to appeal to the emotions of the ultimate listener. We can’t just design something that measures well. It also has to sound great.
There have always been designers like that in our world, fortunately. That’s how the art gets advanced. I have had the honor of knowing most of those that have been alive during my career. I have had great conversations with these legends of our profession. And I have learned from them.
But none of them was of more value to me than Dave Hill. Not only did we speak the same language, we had personalities that were congruent in many ways.
We all need colleagues we can talk to about our work, at least if we are passionate about what we do. In the rarefied world of the pro audio equipment design and manufacturing, the pool of such people is small. There are probably fewer than a dozen people on Earth I can talk to about what I do, and vice-versa. And of those, there are those who do not talk about their work, for fear of their ideas being “stolen.” Or others who are not comfortable relating to other human beings. Or others who use arrogance to hide their insecurities.
That narrows the number down to a precious few. And for me, Dave Hill was the best possible person I could ever talk to about what we do.
The sad fact is that being in the position of Dave or I, there is essentially no one to talk to.
That made our friendship all the more precious.
In the late 1990s, there was a panel discussion in Nashville that included the top designers in our field. There were about a dozen of us, and anyone in our business would immediately recognize the names. Some were legends. Others were up-and-coming. It was a great group of people. No one on the outside could possibly have a clue about what we were talking about privately.
The panel discussion was video recorded, but never released.
On the evening before this panel discussion, a subset of the people involved met for dinner at a restaurant in Nashville. Dave and I found seats across from each other, and although we were engaged with the others and participated in their conversations, we mostly talked just to each other.
One by one, people headed back to their hotel while Dave and continued our conversation. We talked about the marketplace, the dealers, the customers, the challenges of finding good workers – and about projects we were working on. Dave never hesitated to tell me about the next product he was developing. And we both understood the need for confidentiality. That trust was simply presumed and never brought up.
On this evening, I started to tell Dave about an idea I had for an unusual approach to compression, using a pulse-width modulator as the control element. I explained how I had received notice of a new integrated circuit, a special type of high-speed switch, that I thought would be perfect for this application.
I had samples of this device on hand and had run some preliminary experiments to understand its characteristics. I was pretty enthusiastic about its potential.
I told Dave my next challenge was to develop the pulse-width modulator circuitry to make this into a viable product. I was not certain it would work, but I was optimistic and excited by the prospect.
Dave had that mid-Western politeness that I always find appealing. He would never interrupt my explanation by saying anything, until I was finished. But I could tell that this was exciting to him as well. He was fidgety and had a growing smile on his face. I wasn’t quite done, but I knew he was bursting to say something.
Here’s the amazing part: Dave was experimenting with exactly the same device, with the same goal in mind.
I don’t know how Dave accomplished as much as he did. He always had the enthusiasm and drive to learn new things. When he considered selling the rights to some of his products to a plug-in company, he concluded that the best approach was to learn how to write the algorithms and surrounding software himself. I would love to do that, but I cannot imagine having the time to learn how to do it. The idea of rapidly getting up to speed to write the software for the very challenging task of creating a plug-in that approaches the sound of the hardware was just too daunting for me. But not for Dave. He did it, and also found time to keep the plug-ins functional as the computer operating systems changed periodically. I could only dream of doing that myself.
So I was not surprised to learn that when it came to the PWM compressor concept, Dave was already a few steps ahead of where I was at that moment.
We talked about the requirements for the PWM, and the sidechain circuitry that would define its sound. My goal was a compressor that was as transparent as I could make it. I also wanted it to have the same basic sound as my other products, which had become a signature of all my designs.
Dave designed solid-state audio circuitry. I used vacuum tubes exclusively.
We were soon drawing schematics on napkins, sort of a cliché, but it really happened. The restaurant was empty and about to close when we finalized a plan: Dave would share his PWM design with me, and I would develop the rest of the circuitry for what would become the VT-7 Vacuum Tube Compressor. And Dave would continue developing his STC-8 Compressor, which was solid-state and very versatile.
It was only a week or two later that I received a prototype printed circuit board and full documentation for the PWM. Dave also sent a proposed sidechain circuit that looked like it would do what I wanted. When I described my vision of what I wanted my compressor to sound like, Dave had already interpreted that and had ideas for how to achieve it.
When you consider that the vocabulary for describing how something sounds does not really exist, it is astounding that Dave was able to understand what I was looking for with very few words being exchanged.
The compression circuitry in the VT-7 is almost exactly as Dave and I designed it that night. I modified some of the time constants and control ranges, but otherwise it has remained unchanged. The surrounding circuitry was based on my previous vacuum tube circuit designs.
All manufacturers deal with the constant changes in parts availability. Major component suppliers have to think in terms of millions of units sold, and the number of most of the parts used in pro audio equipment is simply a rounding error to these big companies. As an industry, we cannot have any influence on the continued availability of any specific part.
We have to be agile and find substitute parts. Such was the case with a critical IC used in the PWM circuit. In this case, the part was not discontinued. It was subtly changed without notice.
I discovered this when a batch of VT-7s suddenly had a problem with instability in the PWM. It took a while to discover the cause, and even longer to figure out how to get around it. But I did, with the help of one of my repair guys. We discovered that the data sheet for the part had been changed to indicate a need for a circuit modification from the original part in the original VT-7 design.
The modification worked, and the problem was solved. My next task was to call Dave and tell him what I had found. He immediately grasped the concept and made the changes to his design.
I think that was one of the few times when I could return Dave’s generosity with a solution that I had developed.
Another time, more recently, Dave was struggling to make a new converter he was working on achieve the performance he sought. The problem, he discovered, was phase noise in the oscillator that forms the converter clock. This was the last piece to his puzzle.
It was at an AES Show, before the doors opened to the public. This is a rare opportunity to talk with friends and colleagues in a relatively relaxed way, before showtime at 10AM. I listened to Dave’s explanation of the problem and what he had done so far. It was another of those examples when I instantly grasped what he was talking about. As we talked, I realized that this was almost identical to a problem that plagued Amateur Radio transmitters and receivers, once those designs adopted digital circuitry for frequency control.
Dave instantly saw the parallels. I told him I would send him some references that explained how Radio Amateurs had figured out how to minimize phase noise in their own equipment designs.
I never had the opportunity to ask Dave if those references were valuable to him, but I do know that he solved the problem and moved the state of the art that much further forward.
Those are some representative stories about the 30+ year friendship and collaboration I had with Dave Hill. I saw him as a trusted resource that I could always count on for insight into a design problem I encountered. As soon as I was sure of my questions, I could call Dave and he would take as long as needed for us to talk about the problem and possible solutions. Often, Dave did not have a specific answer. But he always gave me plenty to think about and to research, and that almost always led to a solution.
What a brilliant mind. And a wonderful human being. I can’t believe those conversations are now forever over.
There is an excellent documentary on Dave Hill, made by our mutual friend, French filmmaker Alain Le Kim. It is available of YouTube and well worth the 104 minutes it takes to watch. You will see how brilliant and sensitive Dave was. The link is in the description.
Thanks for listening, subscribing, and commenting. You can reach me at email@example.com
This is My Take on Music Recording. I’m Doug Fearn. See you next time.