Memorial Stadium’s new epic sound

Shirin Ghaffary/Staff

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With a long white beard and casual plaid shirt, Berkeley resident John Meyer may not look like a renowned expert of sound technology.

Over the last 33 years, Meyer has been commissioned to build speakers for some of the biggest names in the Bay — from the band the Grateful Dead to the San Francisco Opera and most recently, for UC Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium.

The Berkeley-based company Meyer Sound was hand-picked by Cal Athletics to design and implement a state-of-the-art speaker system for the newly renovated stadium, which opened this fall with renovations costing a total of $321 million.

“When we started the company, it was literally John and one other person,” said co-founder Helen Meyer, who is married to John. The company — which currently has more than 300 employees — grew to become one of the biggest names in sound.

The Meyers officially founded the company in 1979 and quickly became favorites of high-profile experimental musicians such as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Starship because of their willingness to take risks. Meyer would test his latest inventions, such as a new audio measurement system, at the band’s concerts.

For most projects, Meyer invents a new concept and implements the audio systems from scratch. Meyer emphasizes the role of local innovation in the success of his company. “We like the idea that you want to build things here,” Meyer said. “Otherwise, people are going to go elsewhere.  You want to nurture that.”  Because the company hires its own team to conduct research, it can conduct long-term projects like the Column Array Loudspeaker, or CAL, speakers designed for Memorial Stadium.

“It’s always great to work in our backyard,” said Bob Milano Jr., assistant director of Cal Athletics.

For the new stadium renovations, Meyer’s team invented the CAL speakers in an attempt to minimize excess noise from spilling out of the stadium and onto the streets. Computers control the 40 speakers to aim in different directions to focus sound in specific areas during the game.

“There are probably about 25 billion calculations a minute that take place in order to achieve that,” Meyer said.

Despite the 360-degree installation of the speakers, Meyer said he was also careful when designing the speakers so they could not block the fans from viewing the game.  Because the architects of the stadium wanted to maintain the Roman- colosseum ambiance without any distracting sound beam poles within view, the CAL speakers are as narrow as possible and are placed behind the bleachers.

The new stadium is not the first time Meyer has collaborated with UC Berkeley. The school has worked with the company on the Haas Pavillion and Zellerbach Hall.

“Having the university so close by, we learned early on that we could access them for research,” said Helen Meyer. Helen herself came to UC Berkeley more than 46 years ago to attend college. A year later, she met John, her friendly next-door neighbor. “I was in a duplex, and he had the little sun porch studio behind the neighbors.”

The next year, the couple left Berkeley to travel across the world, including a trip to India and later a stint in Switzerland, but ultimately returned home to California.

Although Meyer is no sound rookie, the project is still an important hometown accomplishment for him. John is all Berkeley pride when he recounts his colleague’s recent trip to the Stanford Stadium.

“He says they’re gonna be really jealous,” he says with a smile.