We Ask 10 Questions For High-End
During Enjoy the Music.com's very special 25th Anniversary we're asking various high-end audio manufacturers to answer the same ten questions. Their answers may surprise you! This month we're featuring Ethan Winer of RealTraps Acoustics. RealTraps was founded by Ethan Winer and Doug Ferrara, who have been friends for more than thirty years. Ethan is well known throughout the audio industry for his magazine articles in Electronic Musician, Mix, PC Magazine, EQ, Keyboard, Recording, Audio Media, Strings, The Strad, R-e/p, and others. Ethan has produced many classical music CDs for Music Minus One, including a recording of his own cello concerto. He has also written, produced, and recorded music for clients that include Blue Cross, Pitney-Bowes, Stanley Tools, Aetna Life and Casualty, and the Connecticut Lottery. Over the years, Ethan has arguably done more than anyone else to promote the importance of acoustic treatment. If you're reading this, chances are good you arrived here due to Ethan's hard work evangelizing about small-room acoustics.
Q. What is your first memory of falling in love with music?
A. I'm 71 years old and I've loved music my entire life! When I was a child my family had a decent record player, and my mom made sure we had plenty of classical music on hand. But she wasn't a "classical snob," so I had many other types of music to enjoy. My favorite records back then were violin concertos played by the greats of the time such as Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, and David Oistrakh. I had five years of violin lessons starting in the fourth grade, and I've played music on and off professionally on several instruments since then. In my 20s I fell in love with the Brahms Double Concerto featuring Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich, which years later led to my taking up the cello, and writing and performing my own cello concerto with a local orchestra.
Q. How did you first get introduced to high-fidelity audio gear?
A. I've always been interested in technology, and especially audio and recording. When I started playing pop music on the electric guitar in the 1960s, I realized some days I'd play better than others. So I bought a Sony open reel recorder to record myself on the better days to play for friends, rather than be put on the spot to play well live. A few years later I bought a second stereo recorder, plus a four-track record/play head, and combined the electronics from both machines to create a four-track recorder. That let me record multiple parts as overdubs to create an entire piece by myself. My interest in electronics grew, and by my late teens I was making fuzz-tones and other guitar effects for myself and friends.
Q. What is your favorite piece of vintage hi-fi, and why?
A. In all honesty, I'm not a big fan of vintage gear. The best equipment from years past is still decent by today's standards. But for sheer fidelity, modern designs are much better with lower distortion, less noise, and a flatter response. Especially with loudspeakers, driver technology has improved enormously over the past 10 to 20 years. But I do still have a few old pieces of gear. One is a parametric equalizer I designed and built in the early 1970s, and it still works perfectly! I also have a Fender Telecaster guitar and Precision Bass, both from that same era that I still play.
Q. When did you decide to start a high-end audio company?
A. I've owned several companies over the years, as well as being a one-man shop in various fields. My first "business" was making the fuzz-tones already mentioned, and installing them inside people's electric guitars. I also did minor guitar repairs and improvements, such as replacing worn pots and switches, and soaking pickups in melted wax to prevent acoustic feedback.
Q. What, and when, was your company's first product?
A. I didn't get into the audio business as a manufacturer until 2003, when my partner Doug Ferrara and I started RealTraps to manufacture high quality acoustic treatment. Before that I owned several recording studios, including the largest commercial studio in Connecticut. That's where I learned about acoustics, bass traps, and other treatment. Later I started a software company selling programming tools to other programmers. When I sold that business in 1992 I semi-retired and started playing the cello. At the same time I built a very nice recording studio in my home. I'm not much of a carpenter, so I had a friend build all the acoustic treatment under my direction. I took photos of the progress, and that turned into a feature article in a home recording type magazine showing how to make "real" bass traps that work much better than typical foam. This interest in acoustics eventually led to starting RealTraps in 2003.
Q. What challenges did you face during those early years?
A. The most difficult problem for an acoustic treatment company is getting people to understand that their room is by far the weakest link! Audiophiles obsesses over "gear" and loudspeakers, and many are never satisfied. So they're on a perpetual quest to upgrade their system with new preamps, speakers, DACs, and even new wires. But they never achieve the clarity and power they desire, missing that the real weak link in every hi-fi and home theater system is the room itself. Competent electronic devices are flat within a dB or so over the audible frequency range, with distortion and noise too soft to hear. The response of a decent loudspeaker usually varies more than that over its active range, but most fall within a 3 to 6 dB window. Compare that to any home-size room where the response varies by 20 to 30 dB or even more. This graph is a perfect example of the response at lower frequencies in a typical untreated living room:
But room acoustic problems go beyond just a skewed response that colors the sound by emphasizing or reducing frequencies. Another problem is extended decay times, and "early" reflections that together conspire to obscure clarity and detail. Just hanging a few bath towels at key locations on the side walls of a room will increase clarity and improve imaging. When the early reflections in your room are removed, they no longer mask the longer, larger sounding reverb and ambience already embedded in the recordings. So the path educated enthusiasts should pursue is acoustic treatment, rather than endless equipment upgrades.
Q. How have your products evolved over the years?
A. Unlike electronic devices which are constantly improving and shrinking in size, acoustics is a relatively stable field. So as RealTraps has grown we've added new products more than improving older products. This is not to say we haven't made improvements! Our first product in 2003 was the MiniTrap, a bass trap that includes a semi-reflective membrane behind the front fabric. This membrane increases absorption at low frequencies, while reducing absorption at mid and high frequencies. So you can put enough of them in the room to really solve the bass problems, but without making the room too dead sounding as happens with common absorbing materials such as rock wool and acoustic foam. The original MiniTrap used thick paper as a membrane, and we later improved its performance by replacing the paper with a pliable thin plastic.
Q. What is your company's most popular product(s)?
A. I haven't runs sales stats in quite a while, but the MiniTrap is probably still our most popular product because it provides the most bang for the buck. But we have other bass traps that are larger – some much larger - as well as a unique diffuser that diffuses mid and high frequencies while absorbing the bass range.
Q. What is your next planned product offering and its features?
A. At this point the RealTraps product line is stable, and we don't even advertise any more. All of our sales are through word of mouth from satisfied customers telling their friends (hi-fi) and professional associates (pro recording). Though I've been thinking about adding some enhancements to the ModeCalc software I wrote many years ago. This program is available for free download on the RealTraps web site and it helps people who are building new music rooms choose the ideal size and dimensions.
Q. What advancements do you speculate high-end audio will offer ten years from now?
A. The weakest link with audio reproduction, other than room acoustics, is still loudspeaker (and headphone) driver performance. The goal for loudspeaker driver designs is always to have less distortion and better off-axis response. The main problem is physics! So manufacturers constantly try new materials, and adjust cabinet and baffle designs to improve the response and radiation patterns.
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