Fifty Years and Forward: QSC sounds like the future

Features
Technology

1968 brought sounds of change. The Yardbirds, Cream, The Mamas & The Papas and Lovin’ Spoonful all disbanded. At the Grammys, the “Record of the Year”—Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson”—came from a movie soundtrack. The tribal love-rock musical Hair brought four-letter words to the theatre stage. Richard Harris’ “MacArthur Park”—at seven minutes and 20 seconds—broke the AM radio taboo against long singles.

And in a small industrial building in Costa Mesa, Calif., QSC—then called Quilter Sound Things—was born.

Fifty years later, Pat Quilter, founder and chairman of the board of QSC, is standing in front of his open garage, strumming a ukulele—and talking about the importance of minimalism, the elements of “tone” and his ability to build stuff that solved problems. “I was a geeky kid,” he knew, “one of those guys who had a personal soundtrack running in the back of my mind; there was always some sort of music going on. Music became the thing I wanted to build stuff for.”

Pat believed that “my high school physics course taught me everything I needed to know to get started in electronics” and so, over the summer of 1967, he built an amp that was “loud, powerful and reliable” for the bass player in his brother Matt’s garage band, The Blown Mind. The amp was crude “but finally played pretty well.” And then Pat heard a musician who, for him, changed everything.

“I saw this picture on an album cover, this guy looking at the camera with attitude,” Pat remembers, “and my brother said, ‘That’s Jimi Hendrix. Listen to him.’ He was cranking the amp up to 10; it was over-driving like crazy, but Hendrix was riding this wild horse—and that’s what really got me inspired to realize: This is a new wave of electric music and none of the amps out there are very good at handling that. And I thought: I could do something with this. It’s just an engineering problem; how hard can it be?”

Pat’s vision “was to take over the world for high-powered, giant guitar amps.” By the early 1970s, he had a partner in Barry Andrews, whose skill was building cabinets for Pat’s technology. A few years later, Barry’s younger brother John joined them, running the front office part-time while he was still in college at the University of Southern California. When John graduated and joined QSC full-time, their father was furious—at Barry. “We never thought you’d amount to much,” he yelled, “but we had expectations for John.”

Those first years didn’t meet anyone’s expectations. The three partners had made some progress in demonstrating the reliability of their solid-state electronics over still-popular tube amps, but competition was formidable—they were losing money, but not enthusiasm.

John Andrews, founder and board member, remembers failure as an asset.Not having early success,” he believes, “was one of the keys to our ultimate success, because we had to learn how to run the business. We realized we had to become excellent operationally, excellent in our product development, and in our sales and marketing efforts—and become excellent manufacturers. And this was at a time when we weren’t very good at any of those things.”

They decided to drop their dreams for guitar amplifiers and refocus their limited resources on power amplifiers. They renamed Quilter Sound Things as QSC Audio Products and began providing power amps for live performances and installations in permanent venues. Slowly, their fortunes began to change.

Barry Andrews, founder and board member, joins the conversation: “It’s never been a story of skyrocketing success,” he offers. “It’s consistently a story of determination over failure. Part of our hallmark is to have a vision and keep investing in the future.”

By 1978, they had their first patent; a year later, QSC sales exceeded $1 million.

Back in those days—the late ’70s and early ’80s—audio companies were largely specialists. Some made power amplifiers; others made loudspeakers; some made mixers; others made equalizers or other signal-processing components. QSC’s power amplifiers brought them to the attention of the cinema business about the time Dolby was marketing the early Dolby stereo processors. The success of Star Wars in Dolby stereo led George Lucas to form THX, a quality-control program that defined performance standards for loudspeakers and amplifiers and processors, cinema acoustics and the theatre’s sound configuration.

QSC helped provide the foundation for cinemas meeting those THX specifications. Its Series One amplifiers introduced in 1983 were the first amplifiers to make active bi-amp systems affordable and easy with QSC’s “octal” crossover accessories. They became the standard amplifier for cinemas; Dolby purchased them in quantity and QSC private-labeled them for Dolby sound racks.

Two years later, QSC put their own brand on cinema products. United Artists—then a major chain with a respected technical department—selected a QSC amplifier for all of their screens, and by the late 1980s QSC had become widely known as the amplifier-of-choice in the cinema business all over the world.

Still, with a very limited product line, cinema still wasn’t high on QSC’s radar. And then, in 1990, Barry Ferrell joined the company.

Ferrell brought a background in cinema and he believed that market could be more important to QSC’s business. “I knew the customers and we started addressing them,” he says, “and the first big contribution that QSC provided was the Digital Crossover Monitor. The DCM replaced a separate booth monitor and crossover with one self-contained unit that also brought the QSC DataPort wiring concept to the cinema. That concept allowed fast and easy rack wiring and has been so successful it’s now the standard of the industry.”

Today, Ferrell is senior VP and chief strategy officer at QSC, and with his widespread knowledge of the business, he’ll drive this story forward into QSC’s future.

“DCMs were the first time that anyone made DSP—digital signal processing—easy to implement in the cinema,” Ferrell remembers. “The combination of our DCM and DCA-series amplifiers—which we developed in the late ’90s and have been the industry standard ever since—gave us a really high-performing package. But at that point, that’s as far as we went.”

Meanwhile, the company continued to innovate with new product introductions for its other markets: 1992 saw the debut of QSControl, the company’s first software platform for network audio; two years later, the introduction of DataPort provided control and telemetry to QSC amplifiers; and in 1995, they brought the PowerLight series of lightweight amplifier technology to market.

Equally notably, the 1990s were also a time when the company turned its attention to dramatically increasing its capacity and capability for manufacturing—and for growth.

In 1993, QSC opened its new headquarters in Costa Mesa in a 55,000-square-foot building that now includes its corporate offices, engineering, sales, marketing, technical support and service. Five years later, on an adjacent strawberry field, QSC broke ground for an 81,000-square-foot manufacturing facility designed with build-to-order capability, giving the company ability to respond rapidly to customer needs while keeping both parts and finished goods inventory at efficient levels.

With its unique barcoding system—and when lines are running at capacity—this factory can produce a mix of products at over 500 units per eight-hour shift. Partners in Asia also handle some of the manufacturing. QSC has a sales, distribution and support network in over 100 countries and offices on three continents. They all work towards common goals.

“Our focus is on maintaining clarity of vision,” says Joe Pham, QSC president and CEO. “We work hard to ensure the future destination of the company with plans and efforts that are balanced and sensible, aspirational yet achievable, and supported by a consensus-based approach where leadership listens and invests for the long term.”

As QSC passed its 30th anniversary, the company decided to enter the market for loudspeakers—a product line that could have long-term application in all its markets.  “We struggled with that,” Barry Andrews admits, “until we developed the first K series and we went from nowhere to the number-one brand almost overnight.”

That took eight years. “There were numerous times we could have given up because of the daunting road ahead,” remembers his brother John. “But we never lost confidence in our ability to be successful. Our company has a long history of learning from failures and successes—and becoming stronger as a result.”

“Our powered K Family loudspeaker units just exceeded one million units shipped,” Ferrell says proudly in 2018. “Speakers were a natural progression,” he adds, “but it was really the advent of digital cinema that brought uncompressed digital audio to the theatre and brought it all together for us. It standardized the soundtrack for movies and enabled us to enter the market with our DCP series. We put the cinema processor, booth monitor and crossover all into one box—and added our DataPort wiring concept, so it would easily plug into the DCA amplifiers.”

The DCP, coupled with “our DCS Digital Cinema Speakers, enabled us to provide a complete solution for audio—from processor to loudspeaker,” Ferrell adds. “It gives QSC an unmatched ability to optimize the performance of the entire system by having the entire audio chain under a single brand. No solution of multiple brands can have this level of integration. No field-based measurement can match the accuracy of what we measure in our acoustics lab. So we turned our attention to making the system better than the sum of its parts.”

Some changes were small, but common-sense-based and extremely helpful. “In most theatres, the big subwoofer is put against the wall,” Ferrell notes. “Our competitors attach the wires at the back, where they’re tough to get to; we attach them on the side, where they’re accessible. On the surround speakers, we tape a little plastic bag on top with the mounting screws for the speakers. When the installers are up on the ladder, the mounting screws are already with them.”

Other changes were significant and far-reaching. “We felt we could do a better job on the three-way speakers,” Ferrell explains. “We wanted a mid-range that had a broader frequency than the conventional systems out there. And we did that. The next thing we looked at was high-frequency performance. We wanted a compression driver that would get through the screen better and reduce distortion and have a flatter frequency response all the way up. And we came up with a coax solution where one compression driver is really split into two transducers—one optimized for the very highest frequencies and the other optimized for the lower half of those frequencies.”

The result: QSC created a very high-performance four-way cinema screen-channel system that’s widely used for PLF—premium large format—cinema screens. “To be able to contribute to—and help advance—the immersive experience of cinema is extremely rewarding,” founder Barry Andrews says.

It’s always been innovation that makes sense to the customer. “Our dedication to reliability, to incremental product improvements that protect prior investments, and our ability to design advanced systems for a well-defined space make us appealing to cinema owners,” adds Quilter, the one who started it all.

But, Ferrell acknowledges, “the greatest product won’t sell if it is too expensive to buy, too difficult to install or too hard to use. We have manufacturing and service members on the same team with acoustics, hardware and software engineers—all working together to optimize the performance of the system in products that are buildable, installable and easily serviceable. Broad cross-functional effort results in better products.”

In today’s digital world, Ferrell describes cinema as the closest thing in professional audio to a standardized recording and playback system. When dubbing-stage standards are transferred into theatre acoustics and playback, “cinemas have the best opportunity of recreating the desired experience of those who create the movies. You can get a clear, bright, crisp picture at home; but you are going to be hard-pressed to duplicate the audio experience you can get in the cinema—without disturbing your neighbors,” he says with a smile.

And, in a time of increasing audio formats, “QSC is format-agnostic,” insists Mark Mayfield, director of global cinema marketing. “We’re trying to make it as cost-effective as possible for theatres to invest in immersive sound—and tomake every format sound great, be easy to use and affordable.”

At the same time, QSC is stepping out from behind the curtain, bringing its brand—and the importance of superior cinema sound—to the attention of moviegoers. “Audio formats get the publicity,” Ferrell adds, “but when it comes to the actual quantity of audio equipment in the theatre, there is a whole lot more QSC than anything else. It’s really our system that moviegoers are listening to.”

QSC has developed a teaser-trailer to make moviegoers aware of the QSC brand. They offer a certified cinema program to help their partners design, create and install better cinemas. They’ve listed certified cinemas on their website and they provide lobby posters and plaques to help theatres promote their efforts at delivering superior sound. “Many times,” Ferrell notes, “audiences don’t complain about bad sound; they just don’t come back.”

QSC’s goal is to encourage audiences to return to the cinema; it’s important to them to help their customers succeed.

“The cinema business is part of the heart of QSC,” Pham acknowledges. “The cinema experience is well aligned with our core competencies, capabilities and technology platforms. We listen to our customers, using what we learn to grow our portfolio and expand our business. Our relationships—combined with our relentless pursuit of quality—have resulted in QSC introducing groundbreaking products in our 50-year history.”

Q-SYS™ provides proof that legacy continues. Q-SYS is an integrated audio, video and control platform that runs on Intel processors; in the cinema, it interconnects all the devices over standard gigabit networks. Not only does Q-SYS transmit audio, it also controls and monitors the health of connected amplifiers and loudspeakers. Via iPhone, iPad or other iOS device on the cinema’s Wi-Fi network, theatre staff using Q-SYS have access to a full control panel for every auditorium in the complex.

As theatres experiment with new designs—including those minimizing or even eliminating projection booths—Q-SYS enables equipment to be spread out in multiple locations, rather than together in a sound rack. All that’s needed is a place to plug in the components—and a network jack. Massive bundles of speaker cables can be a thing of the past.

The Q-SYS Core processor is on its second generation—with twice as many network channels and greatly expanded DSP capability. “Cinemas will benefit from using Q-SYS to process, control and transport audio and picture content,” Ferrell points out. “2018 is just the start of us launching it into the mainstream cinema multiplex. Our new DCIO—digital cinema I/O—brings Q-SYS to the entire complex at an affordable price.”

Today, Q-SYS leads an extensive QSC cinema product line that includes digital cinema processors with monitors and crossovers; multi-channel power amplifiers; a full range of speakers; cinema media servers; and accessibility solutions—including closed-caption and assistive-listening products that bring the movies to an even wider audience.

QSC’s closed-captioning devices were developed by Ultra Stereo Laboratories, which QSC purchased last year. “USL is the first acquisition in our company’s history,” Pham says. “They’re a leader in cinema technologies; they support our business today as well as QSC’s vision for the future of cinema entertainment technology.”

“Our ability to provide innovative and reliable products backed by exceptional customer service are qualities valued by our cinema clients,” John Andrews explains. “We’ve invested in a team of cinema professionals who have come from the industry and are passionate about helping our clients succeed.”

Part of that passion is directed at supporting the industry—through involvement in ICTA technical seminars and leadership; through audio support for CinemaCon presentations; through a training program for theatre managers and a certified program for dealers; and through a variety of other causes and activities that are important to their customers.

“It’s about bringing something back to the industry,” Ferrell emphasizes. “It’s not just about the success we’ve had. We have a small but dedicated team; many of us started out as ushers, managers and projectionists in theatres. We love this business. We strive to meet customer needs and have a good time while doing it.”

“Word Hard/Have Fun” is one of the company values QSC posts on its website: “Joy and hard work go hand in hand,” the company writes. “Nothing of lasting merit can be achieved without hard work, but hard work cannot be sustained without enjoying the work. Our goals and standards make hard work essential. At the same time, make sure to have fun all along the way.” Their employees have consistently voted QSC a “Best Place to Work.”

“The culture at QSC is one of our most important assets and a key reason for the success of the company,” John Andrews believes. “It’s centered on respect for employees, customers and suppliers—as well as passion, personal responsibility and constant improvement.”

Today, the company has over 500 employees at QSC offices in several states in the U.S. and other sites around the globe. And what’s the key to managing a worldwide workforce? “Communication,” answers Ferrell. “You can’t have too much.”

“The essence of our company,” Pham agrees, “centers around collaboration and open communication. Everyone has a voice; we’ve always cultivated a highly collaborative, positive work environment where people genuinely care about each other and about the success of their team contributing to QSC’s success.”

Add to that a unique combination of honesty and humility, drive and determination, and a passionate focus on providing a superior experience to the customers in these times of change.

“Industry consolidation and technological changes have created both challenges and opportunities in our cinema business,” John Andrews acknowledges.

“You never know what technology is going to deliver, expect or make possible,” Ferrell admits. “At the same time, as cinema chains consolidate and outsource many of the people with the capabilities they used to provide, there could be a need for more services to be sold by QSC, maybe us getting more involved at the cinema design stage—or having more resources available for installation and integration and certification of sites.

They’d be serving customers they know, and who trust them. “As always,” Ferrell recognizes, “this is a business about relationships. We deal with people, with companies. QSC needs to stay in touch with all of our key partners and customers, to understand their needs, then meet and exceed them.”

“Change at QSC is a given,” John Andrews emphasizes, “and those who embrace it do best here.”

Whatever form change takes, Ferrell believes the cinema team at QSC is equipped to confront it. “We have a small team of dedicated cinema employees backed by a big team of experts in all aspect of technology and running a business,” he says. “Having only a cinema focus wouldn’t afford us the resources QSC can provide. Not having a dedicated cinema team would result in a big company that wouldn’t understand the market and the needs of the customers. We have the best of both worlds.”

Today, QSC’s worldwide business divides into three units, distinct in terms of customers, but overlapping in terms of resources and product applications.

The Systems Business Unit—which concentrates on permanent fixed installations—has the broadest number of applications. They range from corporate AV in boardrooms, lobbies and other locations—to business music in restaurants, shopping malls and other communal places with foreground or background sound. Large venues—such as stadiums, arenas and convention centers—are served by this unit. Q-SYS, for example, is in the vast majority of NFL football stadiums. And QSC’s products are widely used on cruise ships for entertainment and for the ship’s emergency and life-saving systems.

A second business unit is the Professional orLive Sound Division. It includes a variety of products ranging from powered speakers for musicians and DJs to the TouchMix™, QSC’s line of small-format digital mixers—all the way up to racks and line arrays used by tour sound companies to rig arenas and stadiums for major concert performances. This unit also sells products to rental companies for ballroom events. 

Cinemais the smallest business in terms of revenue, but “our market position is something we worked very hard to secure and it is a significant part of our overall business,” John Andrews emphasizes  “Things we’ve learned while working in the cinema space have helped us in our other business segments. The needs of the cinema market align very well with the strengths of our organization.”

The advantages go both ways; Cinema also is able to leverage resources from the other business units. “No company that was focused purely on cinema could afford to do the things we do,” Ferrell acknowledges. “The amount of technology in Q-SYS, for example, would never be affordable if the only application was in the cinema. We’re able to share technologies, share products, share resources, even share purchasing power. And our customers benefit.”

QSC is widely known and highly respected. “We do business with virtually every theatre circuit in the world,” Mayfield explains. “Most circuits buy some part of our product line. Up to 70 percent of the theatres in the world are already using our amplifiers; we think that 30 to 40 percent are using our loudspeakers. Now that we’ve acquired Ultra Stereo Labs, we’re probably the largest supplier of cinema processors as well.”

“When we look at the level of performance of the products we’re building today—and the quantities we’re shipping—this business is bigger today than we ever dreamed it would be ten years ago,” Ferrell admits. “If I look at the state of cinema sound in the ’80s versus today, great sound has never been so affordable and widely available. I’ve always had high expectations, but over the past years, especially, we’ve greatly exceeded those—and a lot of that really came about through international growth.”

Today, QSC’s cinema business split is about 60/40—international to domestic sales—which is the flip of the other divisions of the company. In the U.S. and worldwide, they sell direct to large circuits, but they also have a strong and loyal dealer base. For three years in a row, U.S. dealers have awarded QSC the ICTA’s “Manufacturer of the Year” Award—proof of the respect they have for the way QSC supports their efforts. It’s one more thing the company tries to do right.

After five decades, QSC has become a globally recognized and trusted leader in the design and manufacture of professional audio/video system solutions. With so many resources and capabilities under one brand, QSC continues to leverage its technologies to deliver products and systems that outperform the sum of their parts—and set the audio standards for customers worldwide. But they’re restless achievers.

“AV today has so much more potential to the end customer, to the consumer, to the audiences, and to the channel partners than what it’s actually delivering,” Pham asserts. “We are going to be a technology platform leader and we’re going to be a customer experience leader. It’s not about products anymore. It’s really about the technology system, the technology solution, the platform and the experience.”

What could that mean to customers of tomorrow? What would the founders and current management of QSC see if they could step another 50 years into the future and look back at what their company has yet to deliver—and is yet to become?

Pat Quilter: “Anything past 20 years from now is inherently hard to guess, but I would hope that we will look back on this current moment in our history—taking our first steps outside of ‘pro audio’ and mass entertainment into the world of fostering interpersonal multimedia communication and data transfer for professional purposes—as a turning point in redefining the level of service that QSC products can provide.”

Barry Andrews: “I would hope to find a company that still treats its people and customers with genuine care. I would hope to see a thriving business still pioneering useful technology that helps people connect emotionally, artistically and functionally through sound and sight. I would hope the company was still a breeding ground for passion and the pursuit of excellence. And then I’d hope I could check out and begin the big sleep.”

John Andrews: “If QSC is around in 100 years, it will be because we continued to embrace change and improvement and we continued to understand the importance of having very passionate and capable people driving the company forward. If that is the state of QSC in 100 years, it will make me very proud.”

Joe Pham: “The QSC founders built a very special company and culture. I would be most proud to see our unique QSC culture flourishing across a global team and company, where employees are growing and thriving, still delighting customers and partners by creating, delivering and supporting groundbreaking products and services that have continued to redefine product categories and markets—and have enabled the creation of superior entertainment and collaboration experiences for people around the world.”

As QSC enters its next half-century, Barry Ferrell concludes with the goal that has driven the company since that first guitar amp 50 years ago. “QSC has always believed in bringing out the magic in cinema sound,” he says. “We’ve built a reputation for unmatched quality, performance and reliability as the only major manufacturer of complete cinema solutions. Now is the time to prove it.”

 

In Praise of QSC

“Around 1984, I was seeking a source for power amplifiers, as Dolby Labs was introducing a line of complete sound systems. I scheduled visits with two manufacturers of power amplifiers. The first visit and meeting at a prominent firm was rather difficult. Unfortunately for them, my next visit was to QSC.

I was quite struck with QSC’s facility and location—basically a couple of Quonset huts on a busy street, close to the beach. The employees and the vibe of the place immediately impressed me. Industrious yet somehow laid-back.

QSC’s reputation for quality, reliability and friendly customer service was already established. Ultimately, I chose QSC. Others in the industry saw Dolby’s choice as a product endorsement and followed suit.

Congrats, QSC. You’re a class act and have earned your incredible success.”

—Sam Chavez, Bay Area Cinema Products

 

“Words cannot do justice to how I feel about the team at QSC. Back in 2010 when CinemaCon plans first started for converting The Colosseum in Caesars Palace into a state-of-the-art theatre, the task was daunting and overwhelming. I mean, I didn’t know a decibel from a cowbell. But thanks to the incredible support of Barry Ferrell, Danny Pickett and the incomparable Jon Graves, the mission was accomplished to perfection. When you have studio chiefs, talent, directors and producers walking out of The Colosseum with huge smiles on their faces talking about the great presentation, well, need I say more? Congratulations, QSC, on your 50th anniversary. You are part of the lifeblood and true success of CinemaCon.”

—Mitch Neuhauser, Managing Director, CinemaCon

 

“Over the past 50 years, QSC has cemented their place as leaders on the forefront of innovation. In the 20+ years we’ve been in business with QSC, we’ve seen them reshape the industry with their inventive solutions to problems, both through technological breakthroughs and novel product introductions. They have given us the tools we need to exceed customer expectations, elevating the cinema experience for audiences across the country. QSC isn’t just ‘on the cutting edge’—they are sharpening the edge. We look forward to continuing to work together to push industry standards to a higher level of excellence.”

—Patty Boucher, President/CEO, American Cinema Equipment

 

“QSC has always had the best amplifiers in the cinema market, I learned that by listening to the many field technicians that I’ve worked with in my career. After opening Integrity Entertainment Systems in 2003, I learned this firsthand, not only from my field team, but also with the support I receive directly from QSC, the reliability of their products, the feedback from my customers, all of which allows my team to focus on selling and not being bogged down with customer complaints and equipment returns. Over the last 15 years, I have watched QSC grow from an amplifier company to a complete audio source, introducing monitor and crossover equipment, audio processors, speaker, and digital signal processing equipment. I’m always amazed at how much effort they put into new product offerings, with a focus not only on customer demands but also the many people that have to install and service their equipment, something we have in common. I still go back to my field team to see how these new products have been received and the answer is always the same: ‘It saves us time, it doesn’t break down, it’s easier to service.’ I rely on QSC for their reliable products and their incredible support. It has truly been a pleasure working with them as they have grown over these past 50 years. Happy anniversary, QSC, well deserved!

—Gary Engvold, President,Integrity Entertainment Systems, LLC

 

“In the mid to late 1980s in our MTS days, our fairly longtime amp supplier decided to raise prices significantly. This set us on a mission to get sample amps from around 15 vendors, which we proceeded to test vigorously. Our testing led to the failure of all but the QSC Series One amps. That led us to a very long and satisfying relationship with the Andrews brothers and the great people that have worked and currently work for QSC. As Bright Star Systems, we’ve found more of the same. Hats off to the gang at QSC!”

—Mel Hopland, President, Bright Star Systems