Home Automation Podcast Episode #124: An Industry Q&A With Steve Haas
In this weeks home automation show of Automation Unplugged, Steve Haas shares the importance of having conversations around race and Steve’s plans to bring in more diversity into our industry as well as Steve’s approach to educating end-users and integrat
This week's home automation podcast features our host Ron Callis interviewing Steve Haas. Recorded live on Wednesday, June 10th at 12:30 p.m. EST.
About Steve Haas
With over 30 years of experience as an acoustic and audio designer, Steve discovered the field of acoustics while studying at Cornell University.
Steve has consulted on a variety of high-end projects ranging from concert halls to Broadway theaters and residential spaces throughout the New England area.
Over the last two decades, Steve has brought the quality audio experience into the high-end residential market where he works with homeowners, architects, interior designers, builders, and technology integrators to help keep sound quality and control top of mind.
- Steve’s origin story and his transition into the high-end residential space
- Steve’s approach to educating end-users and integrators about home audio
- Changes Steve and his team are making in light of COVID, such as offering webinars revolving residential acoustics
- The importance of having conversations around race and Steve’s plans to bring in more diversity into our industry
Ron: Today I have Steve Haas, CEO of SH Acoustics. We are going to talk about a nice diverse set of topics including, of course, the topic of race in our industry, we're going to talk about COVID, business, acoustics in the home, and all sorts of fun and serious topics for that matter. I'm excited to have Steve on the show for sure. Let's go ahead and bring in Steve. Let's see how he's doing and let's get this show started. Steve, how are you, sir?
Steve: Doing well, Ron.
Ron: Where are you coming to us from?
Ron: I see a piano. You would not be in your home studio, would you?
Steve: I just might be.
Ron: You just might be.
Steve: I figured since we're still quarantined, still working from home, I might as well do it in the place I feel most comfortable.
Ron: It is funny, I will often join my guest typically an hour before we go live just to get technology tamed and under control. I know that you had some things come up and I had some things that we started a little bit later actually closer to 12.
I was like, "I'm not worried about it. Steve's an audio guy. There's no way he's not going to jump into the feed and the audio isn't perfect." And we connected and instantly it sounded amazing. Then you went over there to that piano and started playing. I was like, "Wait a second, that also sounds perfect." How did you do that? How do you make that sound perfect?
Steve: I'm twisting my body on the bench.
Ron: Right. It's the twist. Are all the technology gizmos all tied into a mixer of some sort?
Steve: Yeah. It's all part of a studio setup going through a USB-pre right into your feed.
Ron: Got it. I love it. I think that's the best sounding audio we've had out of 120 shows. Then you were saying, "Ron, have you really done 124 shows?" Did you find that surprising?
Steve: No, I just had no idea.
Ron: Oh, there you go. We have got to do better marketing.
Steve: We cheat in some ways. You started with 100 so it wasn't like you were starting with number one but when you told me it was really 124. Who was number one, by the way?
Ron: Oh gosh, I should know this. All right. Someone at team One Firefly. Give that to me in the chat. Who is guest number one? It's on our web page. Go to onefirefly.com/au.
Steve: I don't want to be the guest that stumps the interviewer.
Ron: You are the guest that stumps the interviewer! That's five points for Steve. That's funny. Well, we're gonna find that out really quickly here, someone on my team is going to put that into the chat. I want to say maybe it was Paul Starkey. That is ringing a bell but someone is going to. Wes, I see you in the chat feed there, my friend.
Go to our website and tell me who guess number one was, that will save face for me right now. Steve, for those that do not know you or your business, I always like to start with the origin story. If you want to just let our audience know who you are and let's go back in time and talk about how you -- It was Paul Starkey, my team just confirmed. So all right. Phew! Paul, I love you. All right, Steve. Where do you come from, what's your origin story?
Steve: Well, I was born in Ohio. Cleveland area. I've always been a musician since an early age. As you can see or hear. When I went to school for engineering, college for engineering, I started off in aerospace and mechanical but I always was drawn to music. I became a Teaching Assistant doing electronic music for my school's music program and I got bored with thermodynamics and heat transfer.
Ron: I hated thermodynamics. It was my least favorite class. I did mechanical engineering as well. It was not fun.
Steve: I found a way to do independent study and I found the field of Acoustics by the fact that a legendary acquisition who has now passed on, named Chris Jaffe had designed some of the world's leading concert halls including the summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra. It is one of the best orchestras in the country called Blossom Music Center.
I had attended many concerts from classical to rock and roll all growing up there. I was fascinated by it and I found a way to stay at my university and study Acoustics for the last year and a half. My senior thesis was designing a recording studio for the music school. It almost got built.
Ron: Wow. Were you also playing at this time? You were a practicing musician while you were studying?
Steve: I was in bands and also doing sound engineering for some other bands while in college. I'll save the story about how I was in Air Force ROTC for the first year and a half trying to get a scholarship and being in a rock band at the same time. A little divergent imaging there. The bottom line is, long story short, I was able to actually get an entry-level position at Chris Jaffe's firm in Connecticut right out of college. It was just ideal. And that's where I cut my teeth.
I stayed there for 14 years working on fantastic projects from Carnegie Hall's new Zenko Hall to Jazz at Lincoln Center to museums, Holocaust Museum, and Smithsonian. And then I just decided I had already gotten into the high-end residential world because that firm did not do it. I was a budding entrepreneur at the time and somebody called that happen to be the A.V. integrator and this was in the mid-90s for a timeline.
An AV integrator called he was doing Barbara Walters producer's home in Westin, Connecticut where ironically I now live. It was this huge reconverted barn and they were trying to do a home theater in the very lower level with a lot of openness.
Ron: A lot of echo issues and reverberations.
Steve: I didn't even know what a home theater was. I knew what it was, but I had never been in one, never experienced it. That was the early days of SH Acoustics is I took that job as an independent on my own time and then that led to another one and led to another one. I went to my first CEDIA shortly thereafter.
Ron: What year was your first CEDIA? Do you remember?
Steve: It was '96.
Ron: Wow, that was early.
Ron: I think CEDIA was formed in '92 or '93 maybe something like that?
Steve: Yep. And then I met this guy named Theo.
Ron: Mr. Callamarakis.
Steve: Yes. Somehow we connected, very well personally and professionally connected. He's been very instrumental at helping me navigate. The key is, the biggest thing that I had to learn and then once I went full time with this in 2003 and really started building up a team to do this, I really by that time had to learn what was the difference between working on a commercial project -- no matter how high end it was or prestigious, versus a private residence? And along the way, we learned that. So many of my colleagues in the acoustic world, even today, they just say, "How the heck can you deal with those homeowners?" I love it. Anybody out there, I'm sure most of your listeners and viewers obviously are in the high-end world. Don't ever undervalue the fact that you can have a relationship with the end-user. The person who is going to sit there and enjoy your efforts, enjoy your work. When I was working at concert halls. OK, that sounds glamorous. It was cool.
Ron: It sounds pretty sexy, not going to lie.
Steve: The thing that always got me is, no matter how much effort we put into this and how proud we were, we never got to talk to the orchestras that use it very much. When we would first come together, I mean, they were different times. But when we would first come together as a new hall was opening, they would be scrambling, they are part of the gala opening so they're all trying to learn their pieces and run around trying to figure out what they're doing to adjust their sound to the new hall. We have a punch list 100 miles long that we're trying to scramble to get everybody to fix in the end.
We're all kind of passing each other but we're not really sitting down saying, "Hey, how are you guys going to enjoy this? Here's what we were able to do and we're so proud of this." We never had those discussions or rarely had. When when I got into the high-end, residential world, it was just wonderful to be able to talk with the homeowners. Husbands, wives, children, and families just to be able to let them know, 'Hey, here's what we're doing for you.
"When when I got into the high-end, residential world, it was just wonderful to be able to talk with the homeowners. Husbands, wives, children, and families just to be able to let them know, 'Hey, here's what we're doing for you. What we do is a bit intangible, you're not going to see it. We can't show a pretty picture of sound. We hope that when you're sitting there and you're experiencing it, that's when the magic is going to happen.'"
What we do is a bit intangible, you're not going to see it. We can't show a pretty picture of sound. We hope that when you're sitting there and you're experiencing it, that's when the magic is going to happen. We enjoyed having those conversations and I still do today. And that's one of the biggest differences beyond the actual nuances of construction and technical integration between commercial at the higher level and the high-end residential world. I just find it fascinating to be able to have that dialogue.
Ron: Are you finding SH Acoustics being brought in by the customer? Whether that's an institution or a high net worth individual or all the other flavors of customer types and people that you've served over the years. What percentage of that work are you actually brought in or accompanying an integrator and working on projects in a partnership? What is normal? I'm going to say pre-COVID normal. Who knows what normal is right now?
Steve: Pre-COVID, I'm not sure I can put a number to it right now. Let's just say it's a healthy blend of both direct with the end-user the clients.
Ron: I mean you are known throughout the world. Wim De Vos, in Spain, one of the big players in Europe, and he's like, "Oh, Steve is amazing." You're known around the world. I imagine that you have customers and people finding you and your company. But then you also are well-known within the CEDIA channel and you have integrators that you work closely with.
Steve: Correct, yeah. We're always expanding our awareness or people's awareness of us in various ways. I've been fortunate to have a lot of articles and events like we're doing now over the last few months, especially during COVID lockdown quarantine days. It's definitely a healthy blend of direct contact by end-users but also partners.
Certainly, integrators are a key part of that but architects, interior designers, builders, owners reps -- the list goes on of ways that we get in. What we do with sound quality and sound control touches so much of a home, in this case, if we're talking about residential homes. It's not just the theaters or media rooms, it's so many other spaces in the home.
A lot of the design partners have a vested interest in bringing us in. That's very fortunate because sometimes we get variations and fluctuations in one or more of those who refer us for whatever reason. Then we just really build on on the rest of them. It keeps us going keeps us really going and growing.
Ron: I have a whole list of things I want to talk to you about and I know my audience is going to want to hear from you on. You mentioned that you really appreciate that intimate interaction with the customer when you get to really engage in what their wants, needs, and desires are. I'm curious how do you talk about the benefit or the end product of acoustical engineering or being mindful of the acoustics in this space and designing solutions to make it better?
You said, you can't show a picture and say look at the before and after, because it's sound. You don't see sound waves. Well, maybe you do see sound waves. Maybe when you look around, that's what you see. How do you engage in that conversation and then think of it from an advice standpoint for those listening? How would they engage in that conversation about the value of improved acoustics?
Steve: Sure. Yeah. Now, it's very straightforward but it took me a long time to get to where we're able to talk about it in the same way that I would say a lot of the integrators talk. You don't necessarily always get into the weeds of each little piece of technology, you talk about it at an experiential level. What is it that this little device and this little device all put together working as a system that you don't have to care about, Mr. End User? What wire is connected to what and what device turns on or controls what? You just have to know that when you get there, it works and that's your experience.
Well, the same thing with what we do with acoustics. What I like to do is bring it back to real-world examples of what happens when acoustics don't work in your favor especially in the home. I can certainly talk for hours about home theater design and technical, enhanced space like that. I'm sure a lot of people have heard those types of discussions by my esteemed colleagues, too. Perhaps I'll just focus a little away from there for a second and just talk about the means to have a better sound quality and better sound privacy throughout the home.
I used to teach a lot of Lunch and Learns pre-COVID in-person to architects, interior design firms, and in some cases, integrators who really wanted to hear it. It was about how you manage sound throughout the home? How do you deal with the process of fitting in with the architectural team and the construction team to make sure that things are sounding better?
What does that mean to sound better? Well, a lot of people couldn't grasp that. They say, "Oh, I don't have any issues in my home. I'm fine." Well, guess what? The last three months have now put multiple wage earners on top of each other, trying to get their work done all day.
Ron: The rebirth of the home office.
Steve: Exactly and the home office next to the home office that has become a makeshift home office because the spouse has to get his or her work done while the other one is getting the work done.
Ron: And you have to sequence who's on the phone at which time so that you aren't talking over each other and then, of course, you have the kids. Now, summer just started. But just weeks ago, you then had the child not too far away doing their virtual learning with their classroom.
Steve: I like to use the perfect example that I'm a victim of my own understanding. Right when COVID lockdown quarantine started for us here in Connecticut, my wife and my five-year-old, we didn't have any communication about what was life going to be like now that Daddy's home all day and trying to get work done. Yes, I have a few little upgrades in my home office to keep sound out, so it's not as bad.
Yet, here I was on Zoom calls. All of a sudden, we're all doing Zoom calls and my wife was in the kitchen with her Amazon Alexa blasting Aerosmith while my son was in his playroom turned into a distance learning station, singing Happy Birthday to a member of their kindergarten class. And you could just hear all this going on and those who have been doing that.
Ron: Everyone listening and watching is going, "Yes, I feel you."
Steve: You're getting it. My home, my apartment, my condo, whatever you live in. We have conflicts with sound. It's not perfect. We're going to have issues where we need a little bit more buffering, a little bit more containment. Privacy is a good word to use when you want it.
If you need to hear your kids or need to feel physically connected, you open your door. But you want to be able to close that door in whatever form that is and be able to say, I can get my work done. I can get my studying done. I can jam on music and be able to close my door and all live together but separately when we want to. Then all come together collectively. Maybe it's down in the home theater or media room or wherever people hang out to entertain as a family.
That's what this is all about. This is all about the same way integrators will control just about everything they can think of. Which is fabulous. It's fantastic to have the ability to control security, HVAC, lighting, and so much more in the house. Why not think about how do we control sound from the very get-go? Whether it's building a new home or renovating and upgrading an existing home. Create what you want from privacy, from equality, so you're not in that huge great room and it sounds like a cave.
"Create what you want from privacy, from equality, so you're not in that huge great room and it sounds like a cave."
Ron: I don't know how many video conferences I've been in, in the last three months where the audio coming from the other party is like nails on a chalkboard to me because all I hear is the reverberations from the room that they're in. And it just sounds terrible.
Steve: You know who has the worst conference rooms and I think they kind of brought that to their home offices? Architects. It's ironic. In the pre-COVID days when everybody was in real conference rooms, it was just amazing. Of course, all the architects we work with, they say, "Hey, give me some free advice on how to fix our conference room here because that sounds awful." Yes, it does.
Ron: What are some techniques in a home office? What is some tactical free advice since you mentioned it, for anyone watching or listening that might want some tips and tricks for their home office? Things they could either do for themselves or recommend to their customers.
Steve: And again, for those of you who are familiar with techniques of upgrading containment and privacy in home theaters, this is not going to sound foreign. Obviously, one of your weak points for sound and noise infiltration is your door to a home office. If you have one of those lighter weight hollow doors and big gaps all around, no seals of any type, I mean heck even Home Depot weather stripping is better than nothing.
Ron: You just called me out, Steve. I put Home Depot weather stripping around the perimeter of my light hollow door and a vinyl strip across the bottom to now scrub the carpet. I killed all the air gaps right and it helped. Poor man's solution but better than nothing.
Steve: It does. It's better than nothing. By all means and you've made the effort. You can definitely take it to the next level. I did here. I didn't spend five thousand dollars on what we call an acoustic rated, STC rated door. But what I did do, is I replaced my door to this studio which was obviously a spare bedroom when we moved into this home and I bought a solid oak door. Simply because I wanted the mass, the weight. Could I have done two tandem doors?
Yes, I could have done that. Then I used what I would call professional-grade acoustical gaskets, zero international legacies. There's a whole number of different companies, some of them are much better quality than others and they're not expensive. I mean in the long run. OK, you could probably do an entirely new door and the gaskets for $300-$400 dollars.
That isn't a lot to spend when you're after privacy and when you're making sure that if you're working late or you're on a Zoom call, nobody's going to disturb you. And also you're not going to disturb them.
Ron: My wife tells me I can be pretty loud so I actually did it more for her than for me.
Steve: Exactly, and acoustics comes down to that too. Understanding what you're trying to serve to whom. Which direction are you actually trying to solve a problem with? Maybe it's both. Maybe it's one over the other. We do this thing called an acoustic assessment where we literally go in to look at an existing home or a home that's an early design.
With our acoustic eye, so to speak, we find all the issues. The potential issues, containment, privacy, quality. The Great Room certainly spaces for entertainment home theaters, jam rooms for live music, all those things. We find all the issues. We bring it up to them in questions. Are you concerned about sound from the kitchen getting up to bedroom number two for little Johnny? No, not a concern or provide a modest upgrade or yes do whatever it takes within reason to solve this problem.
This is our roadmap. This gives us the ability for those homeowners to understand what they are concerned about. And if we have 40 questions and they answer, "No, not a concern," to thirty-five of them -- OK fine. We focus on the five that are a concern and they love it.
Architects love it and this can even extend to integrators. Because the integrators who are now putting technology that does produce sound, whether it's a whole-house speaker audio systems or certainly the entertainment spaces and more and their equipment racks, they're understanding what is going to be an issue and what is gonna be a concern for the client. That's really the way we approach this. It is not all about us. It's about the end-user which is no different than integrators should be where they should be.
"That's really the way we approach this. It is not all about us. It's about the end-user which is no different than integrators should be where they should be."
Ron: You're giving me a good idea because my door to my home office and then I have a door over here which is to my closet. In that closet, I have an equipment rack and between my battery backup and other gear in there, it's buzzing.
I'm thinking that your recommendation of simply going to a heavy mass door with those acoustical gaskets which I'd love a reference on. Shoot me an email. And that probably would be again another nice step up in terms of making improvements.
Steve: One of the things that people don't realize because inherently we are thinking about the environment around us. With these Zoom calls, with these live interviews like you and I are doing now. It's so hard to imagine that a little noise that psychologically, psycho-acoustically we kind of get used to in our own space. You can't imagine sometimes how that noise will transmit through the microphone of a laptop or another type of input to the other side.
They're not using all your senses to understand that noise is just a little thing. All they're hearing is that noise every time you stop talking. Sometimes it can be very bothersome. I mean we talked about the echoey reverberate conference rooms. People in those conference rooms themselves, sometimes they just mentally tune that out. When you don't have the visual reference or maybe a beautifully looking plaster ceiling in a conference room, that's all you hear. All you hear is that reverberation, the echoes and it can drive you crazy on the other end.
Thinking about video conferencing as we all step up in the COVID days and understand that working from home certainly is one of many things that's going to last. It's going to probably for a lot of corporations, small and large. They are downsizing their in-office staff as we speak and saying more people are going to work from home. Why not make them the most efficient by giving them spaces that sound good, that work for them in every way?
There's a lot of things that this industry has given to them. Why not give them spaces that actually sound good that can actually be private? When you close that door, even the windows. How many times am I on a Zoom call and the lawn guy comes and starts mowing right outside my yard?
Ron: I did an interview, I think it was last week or the week before and my guest, Ariel Gutierrez with Polaris. He warned me. "Ron, the lawn people are here. They may get to this area of the home during our interview." Right in the meat of the interview. He's like, "Literally, I think there are three guys with leaf blowers outside my window having lunch with their leaf blowers." It was a terrible noise, it was perfectly bad.
Steve: Exactly. Delivery trucks now delivering excessive Amazon packages and backup beepers all this stuff. It's crazy sometimes, thinking about outside noise getting in is also an issue.
Ron: We are coming out of this COVID situation. Steve, COVID has changed all of our lives. I guess let's just start there and then I want to get into some of the more current events. But how are you guys doing? What's changed for you as a result of the change in life, March to the present?
Steve: It's definitely been a change for us. Fortunately, my team and I are used to working remotely in some respects. Whether it's me and others being all on the road to different projects or sometimes we have consultants who might meet team members who live two hours away from the office. They might come in twice a week and the rest of the time they're very efficient working at home.
We've already had that set up so it wasn't too much of a culture shift for us to be able to all go remote and then use Zoom, use Microsoft Teams, and other platforms to be able to communicate. Very fortunate that we've stayed very efficient with the work that we've had. It's no surprise that we had projects go on hold, construction projects, especially in New York City. We do a fair amount of work in New York City.
Ron: You weren't even allowed to visit a job site in New York City right? It was against the law.
Steve: Nor would we have wanted to. We're just starting to talk right now about how we're going to stay safe going into New York. Even our clients who lived in the apartments and townhouses, they've escaped and gone to the Hamptons or wherever to their second homes. It definitely has been affected but fortunately again being diverse in what we're doing and having a lot of projects in design right now.
Even projects that we've had to go and do acoustic testing for where it's an empty site and we might have only one person to let us in with masks and sanitizer and all that we've felt comfortable almost all the way through doing that in a very safe way. And now we're doing it regularly. I was just up in Massachusetts, the Greater Boston area, visited three sites yesterday with clients. But again one or two people at most along with me and all being very safe and secure.
One of the clients was a doctor so he made sure we were safe and everything seems like it's gradually coming back and actually surpassing ironically where we were back in February. More people for the reasons we've been talking about seem to be contacting us because they realize we're gonna be home for a while because we choose to be regardless of where our beliefs are with the pandemic. Whether we believe there's going to be a second wave or not. We're going to stay at home because we can.
We've learned that we can be efficient working from home for many reasons. Being in a good environment is just one of those. We're finding more people wanting to say what can we do to upgrade? What can we do to take this environment that we're going to be in more of our day and make it better? That's what we're seeing now as we're coming out of COVID, at least wave one.
Ron: What is your call for 2020? Let's say you had goals for your business. Knowing a lot of the people listening to this show are business owners or operators and you had a plan for your business going into 2020 and then March hit and everything changed.
How are you thinking about where you're going to try to finish this year or are you doing anything different to try to help you achieve those outcomes for 2020 that are closer to maybe previous plans?
Steve: Well, I think as far as what we're doing, it hasn't changed a whole lot and it won't be changing a whole lot because high-end residential is certainly one of the most important markets that we touch. Having the diversity of other industries to back us up it has not changed that greatly. What we've been doing, fortunately, is being able to reach more people with awareness, education through webinars.
We teach an AIA certified webinar on residential acoustics for designers and we've had a lot more than designers attend including some integrators who have given us some good marks on what we teach. The real-world approach of what we teach. That's been fortunate because people are quarantined or have been quarantined up until now.
They were more willing, as everybody knows, to attend these webinars and we can reach people that perhaps we couldn't easily by doing these in-person lunch and learns. We think we're gonna keep that up. Actually we know we're going to keep that up and allow designers and others around the country maybe around the world to attend these webinars that we will give on a regular basis. We're still toying with that right now on how frequently. It's really important that we continue to get the word out, the gospel of acoustics.
Ron: Gospel of acoustics.
Steve: That's where it all stems from. It all stems from understanding that we're not just blowing smoke here with what we do but this is real. This is real for the homeowners and it should be real for those who design these homes.
Unfortunately, it's still not. It's still few and far between to get residential architects and we're talking about some of the top architects and design 20-30 thousand square foot homes or larger, they don't even think about it. And the larger a home, I can guarantee. It's a fact that there are more acoustic issues.
Ron: I would just add, right behind me you see an acoustic panel. four-inch acoustic panel. And I just put a couple up right above me. I found that as I've been doing these shows and I'm on Zoom all day long. For the last three months, it seems like seven days a week morning till night.
Just the little bit of reverberation in this room, this room's maybe 10x12, I was just picking it up. I can hear it when listening to my playbacks. I went online, not going to lie, playing YouTube acoustic videos, like, "Alright, what can I do to my room to make it a little bit better?"
Steve: Come on Ron, you could have called me.
Ron: I know I should have called you. I was embarrassed to call you for such a silly question. I added these panels, they're two by four feet and they're eight square feet. I've got three of them in my room. You walk into this room it already sounds different. It's amazing.
Steve: And in fact, it's physics but it's also psychology too. It's understanding that we're not looking in to stuff a room. We don't want it to sound like an anechoic chamber. That's the worst thing you can possibly do. I say that about home theaters. Too many home theaters are designed way too dead.
"In fact, it's physics but it's also psychology too. It's understanding that we're not looking in to stuff a room. We don't want it to sound like an anechoic chamber."
Ron: They're scary. You walk into them and you feel eery, you want to leave the room. It's too dead. It's overdone.
Steve: Yeah, my mantra is: Yes, you want to have accurate reproduction and the acoustics go a long way to that but you also want to be able to hang out in a theater or a media room and talk, converse, whooping and hollering during sports events and not feel so oppressed that you're in this room that sucks out every syllable that you put out of your mouth.
That's the key to designing those types of spaces. But it's the same principle in a home office. You just want enough to balance the room, make it go away, make it neutral so you're not drawing your attention to the room. The room I'm in now, it's my studio. I do have some treatments that are gonna make it sound a bit lighter, I don't like a dead room when I play. I have my own personal taste to this room so it's a bit lighter than somebody might stuff their home studio with.
But that's again, personal taste. A home office especially, your voice should just sound natural. It should sound balanced. It shouldn't some boomy, trebly, in terms of higher frequencies emphasized. It should just sound very natural, comfortable. You don't want people on the other end to know about the fact that you've treated your room other than the fact that we're talking about acoustics here. It just wants to sound great and that should sound natural.
Not everybody has decent mic's like us that that we're using here. They are using their laptop mic, which picks up a fair amount of the room around you. Keep it real. Going to a certain degree like you have, to make that neutral sound and I've done that in my home office downstairs as well. But not going overboard is really important.
If you have wall to wall carpeting and then you put acoustical panels all over your ceiling and every available wall, I guarantee you your room is going to sound too dead. It's going to sound lifeless and you won't enjoy being in there for hours per day.
Ron: That's great advice. I want to get into another topic that's very timely. There's almost been an explosion or rebirth of the Civil Rights Movement in America. You could say that the match that lit the fire, at least this time around, is the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis. And it's really been an awakening around the country.
How are you receiving this? How are you feeling about what's being talked about publicly and privately? I know it's a touchy subject but my opinion is what better time than right now to raise this? Because I think as a country we have an issue.
That's a personal belief I have and I've taken this opportunity to discuss it personally with friends and family and through my social channels as well as One Firefly has taken a position publicly. This is a no-judgment zone but how are you thinking about it?
Steve: Yeah, very carefully but very actively thinking about it. These issues have always for a long time been part of my life. My twenty-four-year-old son is biracial Black and my current five-year-old with my current wife is bi-racial Mexican. I kind of have two cultures, two communities that I've been really involved in for quite some time now.
"I think the biggest important thing that has come from this is that we all need to start talking about it. Not everybody is going to like what others say but we need to have the conversations."
I think the biggest important thing that has come from this is that we all need to start talking about it. Not everybody is going to like what others say but we need to have the conversations. We need to try to understand and listen to other perspectives on the issues that are raised, certainly in the Black community, the Black Lives Matter movement, and all other associated movements.
Right now, the focus is certainly on the black community. I've been personally attending rallies on this and sometimes it's interesting because my town is 1.6% black and that's not a happy thing.
Ron: That's pretty non-Black. That sounds like a pretty white neighborhood.
Steve: Within 10-25 minutes there are communities in Fairfield County, Connecticut that are much more diverse than that. I went to the rally in the town and 400 people showed up for this rally in a 1.6% black town. Obviously, there was some diversity there but it really was heart filling that so many people, and frankly, white people, were really getting out there caring and not just caring but speaking.
Having students speak about what their beliefs are and certainly adults of all races and in this case, speaking up on what they see from a day-to-day basis. We don't necessarily take the time always. And I've been guilty of that as anybody has, of always understanding enough about what others go through when there are troubling situations and communities.
I think these latest ones, it shouldn't have taken this long but for whatever reason it did. And I'm glad that this seems to be sticking.
Ron: Does this feel different to you than other times? Racial injustices have been brought up, voices have been made loud.
Steve: Absolutely. I'm not an expert here on why --
Ron: Neither of us are. I have no degree or reason to speak about this other than I feel passionate about it and my team feels passionate about it.
Steve: Probably like you put it, the match that lit the powder keg is the eight-minute and forty-six-second video. Watching it, seeing this innate action against another human being. It's something that definitely, I think if you hear it in the news, "OK somebody was killed in this manner or abused or stopped in this manner." You tend to kind of think, "OK, yeah, we're sorry about it. That's horrible but we're going to just move on."
Ron: You don't know who to believe. But now with a supercomputer in everyone's pocket and a video camera in everyone's pocket. I think it was Will Smith or some famous figure who came out and said, "This has always been happening. It's just now getting filmed."
Steve: Absolutely. And I remember my older son and I, he was probably about 14. We loved roller coasters growing up so any amusement park we can get to, him growing up - me too. We took a driving tour for almost three weeks around the eastern half of the US just going from one amusement park to the other.
Ron: That sounds like an awesome road trip.
Steve: Yeah. All the way from New England down to the deep south, Atlanta, Georgia, and beyond. I guess not as deep as your south. It was really interesting, to say the least. To kind of watch reactions and stares. I don't think we got them as much as others would but you could tell the heat, you could tell the emotions. I'll never forget that trip. It was a wild lot of fun. Lots of great fun. Don't get me wrong.
It was really the first time that we had gone somewhere outside of New England in that way where it just felt like there were so many eyes on us as a father and son of different races. I'm not trying to say that it's not a problem all around, I'm just trying to say that we all have to understand how to recognize what others go through. Talk about it, do not be afraid to debate. That's the other thing too many people are afraid to have a little controversy in their conversations and whether that's with family or whatever.
As long as you don't get into screaming raging matches. Maybe sometimes that's appropriate. I try very hard not to. I try to understand, try to listen and this is certainly some of my Black friends as well, including one who I've been very close with who is in this acoustical industry on a product side. He and I have had more conversations about this, just real conversations than we've ever had. And that's a great thing. Sometimes you're not going to say the right thing, but you're going to have that conversation. It's part of bringing education and awareness to the table.
Ron: I'll speak to the automation, the custom electronics. I've been pretty embedded in the residential side of the customer electronics industry for 20 years. And it's not entirely the case but I can say broadly, it's a very white industry. It's a very white middle age and above industry. And I think there's a lot of room for improvement with the inclusion of women.
"I've been pretty embedded in the residential side of the customer electronics industry for 20 years. And it's not entirely the case but I can say broadly, it's a very white industry. I think there's a lot of room for improvement with the inclusion of women, different minority backgrounds, and certainly including African-Americans."
I think there's a lot of room for the inclusion of people of different minority backgrounds and certainly including African-Americans. Do you have any opinions or ideas on how this industry in fact could be more inclusive?
There are lots of industries and I know you, in particular, are in lots of different spaces. You're not just in the high-end residential custom electronics space, you have a lot of different right partner types.
Steve: And that's what actually makes me see exactly what you say even more. Simply because, one of my other industries that are very important to us, are the museums. And I've been fortunate enough to be part of some very significant.
Ron: You did all the acoustics for the New Museum. Where is the new museum?
Steve: You mean the Newseum? Which literally just closed.
Ron: Yes! It just closed I know it was heartbreaking. But I had gone in there and I had seen on it this is years ago and I'd seen on a social feed that you had done that work.
Steve: Thank you. We were involved in the Smithsonian's new African-American history and cultural museum, as well.
Ron: Wow, I did not know that. That's incredible.
Steve: We've had the opportunity to have a lot of interaction and a lot of interface with not just Black communities and culture but certainly all races and religions for that matter.
We've worked on museums for in Saudi Arabia for the King's University. Understanding the Arabic culture the Muslim culture in that way through our work on sound and acoustics and audio through there. It just was such a wonderful experience to be able to have. Then you bring it back to this other world where I would say, yes the diversity is lower than cultural and institutional types of work that we do by all means.
I keep pressing though to find a way to educate clients of all races and religions to the importance of what we do. I know that CEDIA has certainly made a lot of great advances over the last few years in doing that, to be more inclusive in many ways through their gender-inclusive and certainly race, religion.
Even though I've always kind of had this in my mind, for us personally, I'm gonna put it out there. We are a firm of eight people. We are all white. Not because that's what I've ever wanted, especially with my connections through my children. There is not enough opportunity and not enough ability for children of other races to study such a specialized field. And that's a problem. That's a reality.
"There is not enough opportunity and not enough ability for children of other races to study such a specialized field. And that's a problem. That's a reality."
Ron: It's a societal problem. I can give you a personal perspective there. For six years, I was a robotics coach to the FIRST organization and I chose a Title 1 school in South Florida. Title 1 means that it's either 80 or 90 percent of the school population is at the poverty level and thus in that school and where it was located. The majority of that school was minorities, various Hispanic backgrounds, and African-American backgrounds were the majority in the school.
On my robotics team, I got to know all of these kids quite well and it's got to be north of 80 or 90 percent of the kids that I would work with did not have a father at home. They were being raised in single-family households and they often were leaving school or leaving the robotics club to go work their night job so they were able to bring in enough income to support their brothers and sisters in the house.
If that is happening in this community, that was Hollywood, Florida and it's happening all across the country. The African-American kid, on average, is not getting the same chance as the Caucasian kid, just apples to apples. And you take that up from their youth where it's not the child's fault they were raised in that situation and you move that through society and then to upper-level colleges or programs.
What you're saying is that people that have the skillset that you need to hire to do professional acoustical work, there are probably I'm gonna speculate fewer people that are minorities and or females that are even in the population set for you to consider hiring. Is that accurate?
Steve: Absolutely and again, my friend, my colleague that I mentioned before in the product world, because he works with acoustic products and he's a Regional Sales Manager for this company, he actually calls upon every acoustic firm out there in pretty much the eastern half of the US. He told me something that surprised me but didn't surprise me. Out of all the acoustic firms that he's ever been to, one person was Black. He was more of a technical laboratory type researcher in that firm and older, I think probably in his 60s. What does that say?
Ron: It says we need to be better.
Steve: Absolutely. Without going into a lot of detail because it's something that we're trying to think about now, we're trying to use the familiarity of music and entertainment that what we do with acoustics relates to so much to be able to build awareness. Because guess what? No matter who you are, you can't ever study something or even raise your hand to say, "I want to study something, how can I do it?" If you don't know it exists.
I guarantee you if I didn't know the field of acoustics existed until somewhere in the middle of my college years, I can assure you that inner-city youth aren't thinking about acoustic engineering acoustic design as anything, as a real profession.
Ron: And many of them are thinking about surviving. They're thinking about whether or not they're going to have a full meal.
Steve: We're thinking about ways and there are some really great programs in cities like Bridgeport, Connecticut near me that we're gonna be tapping into that promote youth arts and entertainment, give opportunities, fund these programs, and we're also going to go in there and start talking about the worlds that were we're involved in.
Everything from the commercial Performing Arts and Museums to high-end residential. We will certainly blow some kid's minds with some of the stuff that happens in these projects. But not leave it there, because if you just go in and blow their mind and then they say, "Well, I can never be part of that." You don't want to lead that.
Ron: You've got to connect the dots.
Steve: You have to connect the dots, you have to give a path. You have to work with the right people to give a path to saying, "Here's somebody who just came away from that saying, 'Wow, how can I ever do that?' Well here's what we're thinking, here's how we can do that." We don't have that full plan in place but I guarantee you we will have that plan.
We'll be working with the right people to get that plan to improve and we're not going to limit it certainly to the Black population, certainly Hispanic, Asian, Indian. Whatever race or religion is underserved in our industry, we want to address it. We want to figure out what it will take to have a more diverse community certainly on our side. Gosh, I never imagined going this far. Thank you, Ron.
Ron: I just keep going back, if not right now to talk about it then when Steve? If we are in a position to affect change, it's our responsibility to do that. I told you off-camera and I think this person is watching this, I had a member of my staff. I lean on my leadership team at One Firefly. I lean on my team heavily to help me understand their perspective and their expectations of their leader.
That is me and the expectations of their company. A member of my team said I asked her something to the effect of how is One Firefly doing so far. And her answer was I'm watching, we're watching, and we'll see what side of history you come down on. I accept that and I'm going to come down on the right side of history because we have a position to effect change.
Ron: Steve, It has been a pleasure. I think we may have even gone over an hour. I don't know it's been fun it's been flying by.
Ron: I'd love to stay in touch with you as you reach out for the arts with the youth in your community. I'd love to see how that progresses.
Steve: We will certainly keep you updated.
Ron: We are trying to find our path at One Firefly and how we support the causes and we have some ideas that we're cooking up and I'd be happy to share those with you as well and I'm happy to see us as companies and leaders within our companies and our industry take this charge to affect change.
Ron: Awesome. Well, Steve, it was a pleasure to have you on show number #124 of Automation Unplugged. We'll have to have you back.
Steve: Thank you so much, Ron.
Ron Callis is the CEO of One Firefly, LLC, a digital marketing agency based out of South Florida and creator of Automation Unplugged. Founded in 2007, One Firefly has quickly became the leading marketing firm specializing within the integrated technology and security space. The One Firefly team work hard to create innovative solutions to help Integrators boost their online presence, such as the elite website solution, Mercury Pro.
Resources and links from the interview:
- FIRST organization involvement
- Newseum closure
- Smithsonian Museum of African American History & Culture
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