Long Live the UPA—An Interview with the Engineers
Today, 31 years later, UPA systems sold in 1982 are still trusty workhorses for rental companies like DBS Audio in the US and Werner Audio in Germany. Systems braving the treacherous Hawaiian weather at the Waikiki Shell outdoor venue are in constant use after 20 years, and as recently as this year, the non-powered UPA-1C was still being specified by sound designer Jon Weston for How to Succeed in Business on Broadway. The self-powered edition, the UPA-1P, is still amongst the top 10 best selling products from Meyer Sound, with more than 30,000 cabinets shipped from our Berkeley factory. And John and Helen Meyer's company is still building loudspeakers one driver at a time, by hand.
The UPA success story starts with the engineers who have been working with the Meyers since the beginning. Jean Pierre Mamin, now senior manufacturing engineer, and Alexander (Thorny) Yuill-Thornton, director of digital development, are two such pioneers who have grown with the company and are still working to define Meyer Sound technology. Here, they remember the UPA story:
1. You played an integral role in the original UPA-1 product, which is now the self-powered UPA-1P. Some of the original systems are still in use in the field today. Was there ever a lifespan you were targeting when the UPA was being designed?
Thorny: The early engineers at Meyer Sound, including John Meyer, started in the audio business at a time when you set up a system for a show, you could pretty much expect some parts of it to fail in some way. Many people would carry spare parts around, and this was considered the norm. Our small team had a desire to build something better.
There was no target life expectancy when we built the UPA. Our goal was to create a robust system that would survive being dropped, picked up, trucked, and still sounded the way they should. This challenge was the thread that brought us together and continues to drive the company today.
2. Was there one incident that drove the team to build a more reliable system?
Thorny: Several engineers in our early small team at Meyer Sound, including John Meyer, came from McCune Sound, and our experience there shaped our understanding of audio tremendously.
McCune had a history of designing and building much of their equipment themselves, and I helped design some of their mixing consoles at McCune while John Meyer designed loudspeaker enclosures and the racks, including the JM3. John's concept of a loudspeaker design was a packaged system that only required power and a drive signal with the only user controls being a power switch and level control. And his design was more powerful than what was available in the market then—even though he would agree now his systems then wouldn't match up with today's technology, and because of the increased power in each box, we needed fewer speakers for a show. And this made it more crucial for our systems not to fail.
3. Now we know the UPA can last as long as two, even three decades. As an early company then, how did you convince people that the UPA was better constructed than others?
Thorny: We certainly showed people our attention to detail, and that we didn't skimp on materials. Some people at the early AES shows would knock on the side of a UPA cabinet and they would understand immediately that it was stiff and well damped. Meyer Sound was brand new in the early 80s and nobody knew us. It was a different set of challenges then.
4. Besides reliability, what were the engineering requirements in creating the UPA?
Jean Pierre: At the time, Meyer Sound had only one product: the UM monitor. It was welcome by customers, but it wasn't arrayable. John Meyer wanted to make a compact arrayable correct-sounding product that would have a wider dispersion and a more controlled horizontal coverage. And John Meyer and Thorny came up with the trapezoidal cabinet shape for the UPA and this design was patented in 1983. The rest is history.
5. The trapezoidal shape was brand new at that time.
Jean Pierre: The shape took people aback for sure, but it clearly made sense—it's arrayable, and facilitates rigging. I think at that time, more people were stunned by its power, sonic fidelity, and smoothness from left to right.