Sound strategy [The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore. :: ]
(Register-Guard (Eugene, OR) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) April 13--Eugene-based Acoustic Sciences Corp. and its founder Arthur Noxon are still passionate about bringing studio-quality sound to the masses three decades after he invented the world's first portable bass trap.
Over the years, he has weathered near-bankruptcy, the digital revolution and the Great Recession. Even when business slowed, the local firm continued its fidelity to high fidelity, which has earned it the loyalty of some pretty well-known musicians.
The company makes high-end widgets so audiophiles worldwide can listen to, and recording engineers can make, music at its sonic best. It also designs and builds recording studios and listening rooms.
People won't find the equipment at the local Best Buy or Fred Meyer. The company's chief clientele have deep pockets and won't hesitate to drop tens of thousands of dollars on a sound system.
But it's a fair bet that Noxon's company had a hand in producing some of the music residents listen to at home, on the road or in the gym. Musicians including Sting and Pete Townshend, as well as the man behind the world's best-selling album, have all sung the praises of Noxon and his equipment.
"The company was created by my customers, not me," said Noxon at his company's 10,000-square-foot factory in west Eugene. "I did one thing."
What Noxon, 70, did was experiment with fiberglass insulation and wire mesh to create the TubeTrap, the world's first portable bass trap.
A bass trap acts like a sonic shock absorber to rid the room of the unwanted sound energy that people notice when it's shaking their walls at 2 a.m.
For audiophiles and recording engineers, it can create less obvious problems. The low-frequency waves aren't easily absorbed and will bounce around a listening room or recording studio, creating unintended sound and causing the bass to lose its clarity.
TubeTraps "alter the recording in a good way without adding any electronic distortion, and to me that's a huge thing," said Bruce Swedien, the Grammy-winning recording engineer who recorded and mixed Michael Jackson's "Thriller," the best-selling album of all time.
Swedien used Noxon's equipment to record and mix several of Jackson's later albums, starting with "Bad" in 1987.
Townshend, songwriter and guitarist for The Who, said he's used TubeTraps to improve the acoustics of his recording studio on his sailboat.
"It's a very strange-shaped room, and I stick a couple of Traps up here, there and everywhere and I can make almost any space sound like a studio," said Townshend on a YouTube video posted on the company's website.
The company built a custom array of TubeTraps that the band used onstage at the 12-12-12 Sandy Relief Concert.
Bass traps were not a new device at the time, but they were custom made and primarily the domain of recording studios.
Noxon, about three years after earning his master's degree in engineering from the University of Oregon, invented one that could be sold commercially.
"The timing certainly didn't hurt," said Tim Smigley, owner of Bradford's Home Entertainment, which sells high-end audio and video equipment and played a key role in bringing the TubeTrap to market.
The TubeTrap joined the compact disc and advancements in speakers to usher in an era of high-end audio.
"He's thought of among a group of the best in that field, nationally and internationally," Smigley said. "It's kind of neat that they're right here in Eugene."
Noxon, who was taking on acoustics projects after college to earn a living, had invented the TubeTrap while working on a project to improve the sound at a University of Oregon lecture hall.
Then Bradford's called, asking for help in improving the sound of new speakers that sounded off in its listening room.
Noxon cleared up the problem with his TubeTraps. A hi-fi salesman took note of them, and Noxon received a call from noted speaker designer John Dahlquist.
Dahlquist eventually invited Noxon to set up his demonstration room at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago for a new loudspeaker he was unveiling. Noxon created Acoustic Sciences Corp. to give his new invention a more professional image.
The demonstration went well. Within hours, Monster Inc. signed with Noxon to become the exclusive distributor of the TubeTrap. But the deal fizzled within a year.
Once again a free agent, Noxon took the TubeTrap on the road, traveling to recording studios around the Pacific Northwest. He would plead for a few minutes of potential customers' time and then wow them by holding a TubeTrap between the speakers above the window, a notorious sound trouble spot.
"Their jaws would drop every time," he said.
TubeTrap got a major boost when it received a glowing review in a respected audio newsletter. Noxon went from knocking on doors to being inundated with new customers.
Suddenly, two United Parcel Service trucks a day were pulling up to his space in the Whiteaker neighborhood and leaving with full loads of TubeTraps, he recalled. (The company moved to west Eugene in 1998.)
Recording engineers began experimenting with the TubeTraps, leading to the development of two of the company's core products in the late 1980s: the Attack Wall, which allows recording engineers to replicate world-class studio acoustics in any room, and the Quick Sound Field, which does the same for recording vocals.
Many of its other products developed over the years are in response to customer requests, Noxon said.
In 1990, Noxon faced a crisis after he discovered his bookkeeper was embezzling from the company, he said. He discovered the theft when he opened a letter to learn the Internal Revenue Service was preparing to foreclose on the company and sell it for overdue taxes. The bookkeeper left the company $100,000 in debt, he said.
Noxon laid off nearly all of his 20 employees as he fought to save the company. He hired a business consultant, adopted an emergency business plan, and knuckled down to pay bills and stay afloat.
Slowly, over a period of several years, Noxon was able to hire back the laid-off employees and return the company's revenues to prior levels of more than $1 million a year.
The company then faced an even bigger challenge as customers shifted their spending to home theater and computers, taking a bite out of the company's revenues.
"Everyone dropped hi-fi like a hot potato," he said.
Noxon acknowledges his company probably "missed the boat" with the move to home theater, but he said that was done as a matter of principle.
His company's equipment makes over rooms so one listener gets the best acoustics, the "sweet spot," as he calls it. He said it's been difficult to replicate that experience in home theater as more than one person is watching a movie.
Acoustic Sciences has attempted to solve this dilemma with last year's introduction of Sound-on-Screen to give movie-goers crystal-clear sound.
The company enjoyed another boom in the late 1990s, this time benefitting from changing technology and consumer preferences.
As computer technology allowed people to record music at home, Noxon's invention was sought out by owners of home studios, which were taking the place of the commercial recording studios that were dwindling in the face of weak demand.
Noxon laments the explosive growth of digitally compressed music but said it hasn't hurt the company's bottom line. He said listeners can lose the expansiveness of music when it's fit on an iPod or other digital device and played through earbuds.
The Great Recession hit the company hard -- its business depends on customers with extra money burning a hole in their pockets. Noxon had to slash his workforce from 20 to six. He's been able to hire a few people back on a part-time basis since then.
Finding another niche -- helping businesses improve their acoustics -- helped the company ride out the recession, he said. "It allows our skill sets in manufacturing but also engineering ... to expand," Noxon said. "I don't feel I've forsaken our roots."
Falling Sky Brewing, for example, hired the company to dampen the sound at its downtown brewpub.
Co-owner Rob Cohen said customers were complaining regularly about the noise level in the busy brewpub as sound reflected off its two glass walls and concrete floor.
Acoustic Sciences' work created a "very noticeable improvement," Cohen said, and customer complaints have dropped off.
"It's a good problem to have," he said. "At a certain point, you want it to be lively, but you don't want it be hard to hear the people across from you."
The company's annual sales are $500,000, less than half what they were before the recession, Noxon said.
But new and renewed interest in high-fidelity both in the United States and around the world may boost the company's bottom line as it enters its fourth decade, he said.
Noxon said he's begun thinking about succession planning for his company and envisions a future less focused on invention and more focused on finding new uses and markets for its existing products and knowledge.
"It's not finding another me," he said. "It's taking the dozen and two dozen things that are really cool and figuring out how to bring them to market."
ACOUSTIC SCIENCES CORP.
Location: 4275 W. 5th Ave., Eugene
Number of employees: 10
Annual gross revenues: Around $500,000
"The company was created by my customers, not me. I did one thing"
-- Arthur Noxon, Acoustic Sciences in Eugene, on the invention of the TubeTrap
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