Few people are more identified with audio processing than Bob Orban, along with the company that carries his name. In this first-person interview, Bob talks of how he began his engineering career helping radio and TV stations improve their audio signals and ended up creating an entire nich industry. He concludes this interview by offering his thoughts on what's next for the world of audio processing.
Bob Orban has, over the course of the last four decades or so, carved out a unique place for himself in the broadcast and recording industries.
After graduating from Princeton University in 1967 Orban headed out to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he took a Master’s Degree in electrical engineering from Stanford and became acquainted with the emerging counterculture, and the medium — FM radio — that delivered its clarion call.
A few years after arriving on the West Coast, Orban met three men — John Delantoni, Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause — with whom he would actively partner for a number of years. Delantoni became the general manager of Orban Associates, which Orban founded in 1970. Orban Associates contracted with Beaver and Krause’s Parasound to market studio electronics of Orban’s design. Electronic musicians when that discipline was still a relatively new art form, Beaver and Krause secured a recording contract with Warner Brothers. Orban, who had recorded musical groups while still an undergraduate at Princeton, mixed several records for the pair.
A lifetime, self-described “amateur” musician, Orban took three years of music courses at Princeton during the time when Milton Babbitt, a darling of the radical, serialist movement, was chairman of the department.
“I thoroughly enjoyed the first three years of music theory,” says Orban, “but was glad to opt out of the fourth year, when the syllabus concentrated on 12-tone techniques that I found dense in set theory but somewhat wanting in direct communication with an audience.”
The availability of frequencies on the FM band made that medium attractive to young musicians and their fans, but Orban was unimpressed with the sound they yielded. While Orban Associates was originally set up to manufacture studio equipment, the company released Optimod-FM 8000 in 1975.
“Optimod-FM 8000 allowed a cleaner, more natural sound than other products delivered,” says Orban. “It had a much more transparent signal path.
“We did some tricks with our compression sidechain to smooth out the signal and greatly decrease nonlinear distortion caused by the sidechain’s modulating the audio. The 8000 had no overshoot in its lowpass filters, which immediately permitted 3dB higher average modulation without violating FCC modulation rules.
"So, to achieve equivalent loudness, the 8000 required lower amount of clipping and compression relative to the other chains that were available at that time.”
While this product put Orban Associates on the broadcast map, its successor, the 8100, was even more successful. Approximately 10,000 were sold over the decade during which it remained in production.
Like many other engineers and music aficionados, Bob Orban has a problem with the loudness wars that have marked the airwaves recently. His attention to the details of this combat, however, can be traced to his early days in the business. An engineer himself from an early age, how good does he think he was at this craft?
“I’d say I was a pretty good mixer," Orban says. "My mixes from the early ‘70s sound, were modern even by today’s standards, particularly regarding spectral balance and style. A lot of mixes back then tended to push the lower midrange and lacked ‘air.' They wanted to be loud on AM radio and were highly compressed and overly reverberant.”
“In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, mixing engineers discovered that equalizing to bring out the presence and brilliance regions of the audio spectrum created exaggerated ‘esses’ in lead vocals, which sounded obtrusive and were often untrackable when cut to vinyl," Orban says. "While de-essers were commonly used in motion picture remixing, there were no commercial de-essers aimed at record production. We saw an opportunity there and created a line of de-essers that was quite successful for us.”
Orban Associates was eventually purchased by AKG Acoustics, which acquired the assets of dbx Professional shortly thereafter. As a brand, dbx was familiar to recording studio owners and those who worked in them, but the company had run into hard times and had essentially ceased operating, according to Orban, who began working on the dbx line.
“Using AKG’s resources, we started to develop a new line of products aimed at the home studio. I was heavily involved in the design of the dbx Project One line, which were priced in the $200-$300 range and marketed through music retailers like Guitar Center and Sam Ash. AKG realized that with the rise of the home ‘project studio’, this was the future of the business.
"The Project One 286 microphone processing strip became something of a classic. Although designed 20 years ago, you can buy close descendants of it today.”
He was there in a golden age of audio equipment development — a key member, in fact, of the crew that pushed the ball forward significantly — and is still a full time employee of Orban. In terms of audio quality, where does Bob Orban think things stand today?
“In terms of distribution media, I don’t think anything needs to get better; 96kHz/24 bit linear is way better than what’s truly necessary," Orban says. "Every double-blind test I know of has failed to show that people perceive a significant quality bump over the current 44.1/16 bit CD distribution standard. While 96/24 provides a lot of headroom for studio production, hardly anyone, when wearing a blindfold, can distinguish it from 44.1/16 when used for final distribution.
“But we have a ways to go in the area of spatialization. Dolby and DTS are currently working on a big, multi-speaker system designed for large installations, not the home. Surprisingly, very few 5.1 home theater systems are properly set up. And even worse is the tendency for people to listen to low bitrate MP3s, particularly when much better codecs exist.
"Fortunately, Apple Computer is aggressively trying to move that segment of the market in the direction of higher subjective quality.”
Orban has a few more tricks up his sleeve. He continues to actively develop DSP and audio processing algorithms, and his team just finished developing a new stereo to 5.1 upmixer that debuted at the recent NAB show. So, keep an eye on Bob.