It’s been a tad bit of time since our two reviews (here and here) of the DPS Plug-In from Bongiovi Acoustics. Three things have happened since. First, we awarded them best Mac software in our 32Reviews32Days Awards. Second, they added the Shure SE530 into the stable of profiles they have. Third, we had a very very short interview with Joe Butera. The last part is sort of a lie.
All it took was one pass of Clarence Clemons’ sax through our Shure SE530s for us to tell you that you need the DPS Plug-In. Anytime you decide that you are going to somehow make the SE530s better, we are going to call you names and make fun of you, but if for some miraculous reason you do acheieve what you set out to do, all we can do is tip our hats and swallow awards. Case & point: the DPS Plug-In. And remember, if you don’t believe us, there’s a free trial.
What was your background before Bongiovi?
I’m a musician first and foremost. I started as a musician when I was thirteen and that was in 1967, so I’ve been in the music community for quite a long time. I started my recording studio here in Port St. Lucie in 1996 as a development studio and that’s how I met Tony (Bongiovi) and how this whole thing with Bongiovi Acoustics got started. I worked with a couple of national acts and that’s how we got together. Concurrent to that I also do systems development. I’ve always been in the technology field, doing consulting for that community and I always had an interest in digital recording and all things digital…so my background is multi-discipline in this regard and I’ve done audio engineering in my studio.
How did Bongiovi Acoustics get started?
When we first started this company, it originally was an entertainment company since everyone in our company has a music industry background as either a player or engineer. We started back in 1999, as an entertainment content company and as of course as we all know, the record industry is a mere shadow of what it used to be. In 2003, we revisited the analog circuit that eventually became the Digital Power Station plug-in, the originally analog box that Tony had built in 1982 when he had this concept. We pulled that box out of the closet and cranked it up and we found that it did amazing things to audio. At the time when Tony was originally developing it, the DSP technology was really in its infancy and it wasn’t until the late-1990s/early-2000s that the DSP technology really came to the fore with enough horsepower and built-in math functions to really make it an economically feasible platform to do the processing that we do. We embarked in that mission in 2003 and we started with automotive because we figured that was a good place to start because everyone complains about their car stereos and we branched out from there. As part of the development process for our various platform products, the plug-in was a natural byproduct because it gave us the ability to test these various profiles.
How did you guys decide to expand into the medium of computer audio (from car audio)?
It was by accident. The concept is relatively different in that we assume that the mechanical pieces (speakers, amplifiers, etc.) can do a function, regardless of what the function is. From zero to x, somewhere in there is the quality spectrum for a speaker/amplifier combination. As you know, most people agonize over the engineering of the components. Tony’s vision, when he engineered this, was the reverse of that: let’s take and adapt the content (the program material) to the environment, rather than the other way around. Most manufacturer’s view this as taboo because everybody assumes the thing that you hear on the disk is the artist’s vision. That’s true. However, we all know that they listen to them on expensive studio monitors in a pristine environment that few people can replicate that in their home – so there is always some form of alteration of what the artist heard in the studio to what gets played back in a typical home system, whether it’s the most expensive or the cheapest thing you can buy. So, given those assumptions, Tony was looking for a way to, in real-time, essentially to do what the mastering engineer does when he is fine-tuning and mastering the final product – to match the product to the medium. So that was the premise the product came from. Once we had the analog box with all discrete electronics, circuit boards and that kind of stuff – it was far too expensive to manufacturer. I think the component price was somewhere around $2500 if you had to buy all the pieces: the resistors, the capacitors and the ICs. It was just too expensive to commercially manufacturer for the average consumer to plug into their system.
We picked cars because, at the time, Tony was doing some consulting for 3M for marine acoustics products that he developed and was traveling quite a bit. He has a very unusual background, he is a recording engineer, an acoustic engineer and a record producer rolled up into one package and it’s a very unusual combination. It was by virtue of the acoustic engineering discipline that he was doing consulting and renting a lot of small cars to drive to the various consulting jobs. He was renting various small cars like a Dodge Neon or a Chevrolet Avero – and finding that the stereos were horrible. You probably have had rental cars or small cars and don’t pay any attention to the stereo system. So, he thought this would be a really great place for this technology because the only alternative is to go to Best Buy, Sound Advice or some high-end stereo place and spend $1500-$2000 to get a nice stereo system. So we picked cars, took the analog box, put converters in a rental car and had to deal with all kinds of noise issues – it was quite a challenge, but it worked. We got interest in Detroit and that was when we decided to make the jump to digital – we had interest from a market – it was cars. We designed a circuit board and at the time based it on a TI DSP, a mirror of what the analog box did and we contacted a digital programmer in Gainesville, Dr. Glenn Zelniker. He started in the whole digital realm when it was in its infancy. He was a professor at the University of Florida and he is also a mastering engineer in the musical field. A lot of digital software tended to be kind of harsh back then because it was still 16-bit it was more sort of stair steps then a curve when they were redoing the frequency regeneration. He was able to prototype for us on this piece of hardware. But we found it kind of cumbersome to work with. He said, how about if I give you a computer interface to tune and prototype with where you could just feed an audio stream either from the Mac hard disk or from CD or other sources; process it using the Intel processor in the Mac computers and then spit it back out in the speakers or the headphone jack. We said fantastic because it would give us a portable platform that gave us a consistent and repeatable interface from which to work. So it was kind of the precursor to what the plug-in became. As we began to branch off from cars into other fields, we would use this tuning program for pretty much everything. We’ve tuned everything from cars to transducers for overhead headliner systems; we’ve even tuned coffee cans with transducers because the technology has so much power. You have something like 60 dB in cut or gain in any one frequency and 16 bands of parametric EQ to play with and 120 different calibration points between dynamic sections and ways that we can manipulate the audio signal coming in – so we can have surgical precision in the tunings. So we have experimented with lots of things. One of our fun demos was we had a pair of speakers we bought from Radio Shack for $4 each, mounted them in cardboard boxes and put them on the table and use the tuning program to demonstrate how good we could make them sound. If you take your time and you tune your speakers, you can make them sound like several hundred dollar speakers. By subjectively listening and knowing what you are listening for, you can tune them quite well.
Anyway, the plug-in itself was sort of a byproduct of that tuning program because we kept using it everywhere and since it is patented, we wanted customers to be able to experience the difference with their own devices to better understand what our value proposition was with the product we built-into to their devices. We developed the plug-in as something that we could leave because it worked with pre-existing profiles that we did for that particular device, and it could be toggled it on or off anytime as desired. So we just kind of glossed it up a bit to make it more stylistic for a demo platform. We have a lot of young people in our office and studios who use Macs and they told us that this would be a great product for their computer as well. So we said, let’s go with it and see if we can commercialize it. We then added a nice wrapper and modified the interface to provide the user with a complement of tools to manage their plug-in. We also started looking into how we wanted to handle the multitude of different devices (speakers and heaphones.) We decided that we could develop a library of profiles over time depending on needs. If someone says, “hey, I got a pair of JVC VM361 headphones” and if there’s enough interest for that device – we’ll go buy a pair, we’ll tune them and now that’s part of our permanent database. There is a feature in the plug-in tool menu that allows the user to check our on-line database for new profiles. These custom profiles take best advantage of those headphones/speakers and then for those who aren’t as discriminating to what they are listening to, there is a series of universal ones.
Okay, time for a shorter question… What’s your favorite part of the DPS Plug-In?
It’s portability. It depends on how you are asking me. As a business person my answer is: it’s a great way I can show someone what my technology can do. My personal listening: it’s flexibility. Because I have a bunch of different devices (speakers/headphones) that I listen to here in my office. The fact that I change it on the fly and use the same interface and screen this and the fact that I can just chose what profile I want is magical. I love that. I can then make it be anything I want it to be.
How would you differentiate the DPS Plug-In from other iTunes plug-ins like SRS Labs’ iWow?
Before we decided to launch this as a commercial venture we looked at the competition out there and of course SRS was pretty much the one and only product except for the EQ you get in iTunes. We found that most these processors, once you’ve set it, is passive sort of one size fits all. There is a very different mixing paradigm when you mix a movie versus mixing a record. A record is mixed on my stereo, close proximity monitoring and all that. A movie is done in a large movie theater with a console to hit the sweetspot and you have a lot of room for air and sound to fill up and then you put it on a DVD and then you stream it, movies go to heck in a handbasket pretty quick because it’s not designed to be played back in a small space. So with iWow and others, it’s fairly passive – it doesn’t do a lot of adapting to content. You find something that works, like a Swiss Army knife. It works generally well and that’s about that. Since we are actually readapting the content to the listening environment we have a much broader base from which to work and the results can be more profound. We are not only providing perceived audio enhancement, but also are able to work with the leveling control. Since we are tuning it subjectively, our baseline are certain records that have digital maximum – we kind of set threshold where our loudest piece in a theoretical record. So we are doing a leveling as well as an EQ to adapt the content to what the speakers are capable of doing and at the same time also making sure that the speakers do not exceed their mechanical limits.
What is the future like for the DPS Plug-In?
We are working on an audio product that can work at the full system level. There is a lot of content out there in different places other than iTunes. So we have identified that in our roadmap and the next release will be a broad-based plug-in that runs on all audio on the Mac and also for Windows as well.
What was the product that you noticed had the biggest difference with the DPS Plug-In?
The 17″ is really profound compared to on and off. We are very fortunate, one of our engineers works in New York City. It has a relationship with a company that sells a lot of Apple computers. We were able to sit down with every notebook, Cinema Screen Display and the whole nine yards. That’s how we did all of our original tuning for Apple specific devices. It was neat to hear them all in the same day. They are all very different. The unibody machines sound very different then the Titanium ones like the MacBook Pro while on the 13″ MacBook the speakers are just so small. The difference is notable, but not as dramatic as the MacBook Pro. One of the things we have always had discussions on in-house was: What do people listen on more? The machine itself or external devices. So we’ve been experimenting with a bunch of external portable speakers. Personally, I bought the iHome IHM79 $49 capsule speakers. I found that for the price they are very effective portable speakers. If I were asked what would I want to have for a traveling companion for the field, it would be: a MacBook Pro (17) because it has three speakers – two speakers and something near the front you could call a speaker and then those iHome speakers for the price. It’s got really nice low-end and real nice characteristics and they are very portable because they are very small.
How do you use the DPS Plug-In on a daily basis?
When I have to do demos, I use a regular Samson headphone amp that you would use in a studio just to match the impedance because often times what happens when you do a closed turning system like we do on the Mac, the minute you move away from devices specifically designed to work off the headphone/speak port (such as conventional eight ohm speakers) weird things happen. You probably saw the same thing when you pulled the audio out and directed it to an external amp, you can get some variations due to the mismatch of impedance and such things. So, I use a headphone amp because I’ve used it in a studio and I’m comfortable with it. (Joe then tries to find it) It’s got two channels in, what you would use as a headphone mixer, I’d use it quite often when I’m profiling exotic materials. I’ve got automotive headliner material that I sticky tape transducers to and then play through iTunes and it sounds phenomenal for a piece of foam backed cardboard. The design of the foam that is attached to the cardboard part of the headliner is very constant in terms of structure so it resonates low-end very consistently across the surface. I typically use a pre-amp to get enough power these digital cardboard speakers.
I don’t know if you noticed or not in the iMac, there’s a limiter built into it. When you get to a certain point in volume, there’s a hard limiter in there that starts clamping down on the audio and makes tuning a real nightmare because as you are trying to apply gain in a controlled manner it’s pushing it down in an uncontrolled manner. So I found that the most consistent thing to do with the Apple products (since they do have some sort of protection built into the circuitry anyway) is to stay in their closed loop i.e. products designed as headphones/speakers for a computer, this way you get predictable results. If you go outside the closed loop, you can lose the predictability and you have to be more sophisticated in the sense that you need to tweak it to accommodate any differences you may run into.
How long does it take to make a profile?
The algorithm is the same regardless of what device you use. Typically there are two parts to the profile: controlling the gain structure, which is determined by the amplifier side of things and the sound sculpting. We have a dynamic section that we use to breakdown the material from audio to voltages and deal with the gain issues. Then we rebuild it and so that we can accommodate the playback device. When you are in a world like the Mac, the circuitry is fairly consistent in terms of the amplifier, however the number of speakers (and placement) vary. So once we have the device, (when we are doing something in the Apple family) usually we can tune the it within an hour or less because it’s pretty much fine tuning something that we are already familiar with and adjust from there. We also always A/B (process on, process off) as a reference. If we are doing a set of cup headphones for example, if you are just tuning them straight by themselves it’s hard to know what you are shooting for – you don’t have a goal. The rest of the process is a subjective thing. We tune to a broad section of music (usually to urban or dance because it’s the most bass intensive) and that’s usually the biggest challenge. With this type of music, you have a load of frequency response to deal with and care must be taken so that we can tweak the low-end to be solid, tight punchy and not compromise anything else (mids, highs etc). Focusing on the mids and the highs is the easy part, while the low frequency, particularly in a small device like an earbud, becomes more challenging because the speaker can’t move very far and is constrained by its container. Tuning external speakers is a little different, because with some of the wireless speakers the bandwidth of the transceiver becomes a limiting factor. Rarely do we agonize about something for more than an hour and a half. Usually it’s that last two percent that you are agonizing over. If it’s a very exotic piece like a DJ rig where you have a lot more volume then you might agonize a lot more as there is more to work with relative to the speaker’s ability to perform.
How can user’s get there device added to the list of profiles?
If there is device that a user would like us to profile, just ask. We will consider tuning just about anything within reason. We have a set of SE530s on order. I’m hoping to have them on tomorrow. (Charlie then brags about the SE530, talks about the SE535s, later in the week Bongiovi uploaded the profile. Joe does refer to them as the “holy grail”) We thought about going out and buying 50 or 60 pairs of headphones. But then we thought, we could spend money until we explode until we get everyone’s wishes done. So we did a series of ‘universal profiles’ as benchmarks and then said let’s see what kind of feedback we get from our users. That’s why we love the forum we can find out what people are actually using and we get a request that makes sense we’ll happily go out and buy them and put them up the next day. Hopefully by then, we’ll be able to fill all the holes of what people are using both high-end and low-end. Obviously, the low-end is a lot easier to get, high end ones become a bit more challenging because of availability. That’s how we wound up doing the Dre Beats and the Gagas because someone in France asked if we could do them. But if someone asks we’d be happy to do what we can.
The rest of the interview was a discussion of the recording industry, Charlie’s love of KRK studio monitors and a lot of other audio things that you may or may not be interested in.
We thank Bongiovi Acoustics, particularly Joe for all of his time. Most of the headphones that we review in the future should have profiles for the DPS Plug-In.