Following pioneering stints with Midas, Meyer Sound and Martin Audio, and with a background in everything from 'vibration analysis', X-rays and audiology to designing Frank Zappa's mobile recording console, electro-acoustics guru Jim Cousins is now redefining the freelance consultancy role he's often filled before.
Under the auspices of a high-tech, one-man operation christened Sound Improvement Services and based in Oxfordshire, Cousins is once again covering all the angles as the commissions come in: studio and control room troubleshooting; tuition at Manchester's School of Sound Recording; product design; acoustic analysis of live venues; and whatever else the whacky world of waveforms sends lobing towards him.
(PSNE:) Why did you leave Martin Audio?
"Although I enjoyed my time with Martin Audio, I had always intended to return to freelance operations eventually so that I could get involved in a wider range of acoustical activities again. The departure of David Bissett-Powell and Rob Lingfield from full-time involvement marked the end of an era at Martin Audio, and I felt that it was time for me to make my move."
Why go solo?
"I've always preferred to work for independently owned and run companies, or as a freelancer, since joining the pro-audio business. Companies always seem to lose something when they become part of a bigger group - a bit like a band playing with an orchestra, they seem to lose their dynamism.
"Although I fully recognise the benefits of employing good financial expertise in order to keep a company profitable, I'm still a great believer in manufacturing companies being run by either product or marketing people - and with as few layers of management as possible. It's a lot more fun, it enables a company to develop a distinctive, welcoming atmosphere and it encourages a loyal and expanding following among clients who like to be impressed by the knowledge imparted by the company principals."
What's the basic brief you've given yourself?
"I set up Sound Improvement Services to provide sound system design - and that includes application- or installation-specific loudspeaker customisation and design - acoustical design, product consultancy services and training.
"I'm also involved in studio design again. Today that often includes a serious rehearsal space so that studios can offer a complete package of services to a new generation of songwriters and live bands."
What equipment is vibrating your atoms at the moment?
"It's good to see an upsurge of interest in measurement systems, not just for sound system measurement and verification but also for venue acoustics. Venues designed for traditional stage sources often exhibit problems when excited by flown sound sources - in other words, commonly used PA systems.
"Sadly, classical acousticians often have a blind spot when it comes to amplified sound. I'm often striving to bridge that gap when troubleshooting venue acoustics.
"I did work very closely with Meyer Sound's SIM packages, as an engineer and tutor, for many years but both EASE and SMAART are making great in-roads into the business of compensating for the realities that exist wherever people want to promote live music.
"In fact I'm now an approved independent SMAART instructor, working with Jamie and Karen Anderson and their outfit Rational Acoustics. It was owned by EAW from its inception, so I got to know it when Loud Technologies acquired Martin Audio. I bumped into Jamie after he'd set up Rational Acoustics and bought SMAART from Loud, and he said they were re-building it from the ground up.
"It now runs on both Mac and PC, it's genuinely multichannel, it's a lot more affordable for many more users and it's really making great strides in its applications. I was interested firstly because I really enjoy the tuition side of it, and secondly because, from a purely commercial point of view, doing these SIM schools or SMAART schools is a very good way of networking.
"By definition, you're meeting people who are approaching sound in a well-ordered, technically qualified way - and you tend to deal with young people who have new ideas. Measurement systems have been playing second fiddle to prediction software for the past five or six years, and it's good to promote proper diagnostics again."
"I have recently been involved in some interesting stage and auditorium acoustics work for the BBC Proms - advising on the acoustical characteristics of the BBC's proposed new up-stage video and projection screens in the Royal Albert Hall. I'll be using SMAART 7 to verify the acoustical characteristics of the stage. There's no PA involved; it's a purely acoustical analysis of the space in order to best preserve the kind of natural reverberant 'tail' that both the conductor and the orchestra are used to in that room."
What would you like to do with Sound Improvement Services?
"On the product consultancy side, I'm gagging to work with some of the few independent manufacturers that still exist now that I'm my own man again. I would even consider larger organisations if they promise not to drag me through multiple layers of management and endless 'blanding' meetings.
"I would encourage a different approach to high-quality sound projection - a departure from the current me-too line array approach. I'd also encourage a more ergonomic approach to console and user interface design in order to stop the decline in signal quality caused by lack of awareness about the signal path - especially about the effects of multiple plug-ins and the way they interact with a live room. We have the technology to give punters far better audio quality and impact than we're doing at the moment - but the whole approach needs a bit of a rethink."
I notice your ring tone is Smoke On The Water…
"I spent many happy summers at the Montreux Jazz Festival with Meyer Sound, especially when the main stage was moved from the Casino to the new Stravinski auditorium, so it seems appropriate.
"In the Stravinski hall we had to get the reverberation time down from six seconds to one second - without covering the architecture - as it had been designed for orchestral concerts. That's a very typical challenge.
"During the time when I was providing technical consultancy for Autograph Sales, I got heavily involved in the development of sound system packages for large-scale opera recitals with artists such as Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, José Carreras and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.
"There were also large, amplified touring productions of Carmen, Aida and Turandot, and the trick is always to strike exactly the right balance between wanted and unwanted energy: the system can excite the room too much; but the room has to excite the artists so that the artists can excite the audience.
"Also, Made In Japan is one of my favourite albums. It captures the energy of a live rock performance like nothing else. Then again, don't ask me. I used to quite like Uriah Heep…"