Jerry Harvey: Rocking & Rolling
Jerry Harvey is one of the modern day audio pioneers, turning the world of in-ear monitoring on its head not once, but twice, over the last 20 years. A lightbulb moment on a Van Halen tour bus in the mid-90s led to the creation of his first company, Ultimate Ears, which would lead the way in in-ear technology for some time. He upped the ante again 12 years later with Jerry Harvey Audio, the ultimate rock and roll firm, which has taken the in-ear game to a whole other level. The company’s ethos is admirable, and the products are as remarkable aesthetically as they are sonically. We visited the team’s HQ in Orlando to find out more about the man behind the music, and the meticulous operation that he spearheads.
As I open the front doors of what is reported to be one of Orlando’s oldest buildings, the first sensation is one of relief: 90-degree heat at 90% humidity is not normal for us Brits, so the first waft of A/C is nothing short of heavenly. After making the most of this for several minutes, I enter the elevator (which also seems to be air-conditioned) and head up to the third floor, home of JH Audio.
Jerry and his team moved into this uber-cool building in December 2015; it’s approximately three times the size of their last base, down the road in Apopka. This is to accommodate the remarkable exponential growth that the company has enjoyed over the last couple of years, more than tripling its workforce and doubling its revenue. Much of this has been down to the rapid rise in popularity of the firm’s ‘one size fits all’ product lines, known as ‘universals’, which boast the same technology and meticulous building and planning as the top-line custom products.
This place oozes rock and roll: fantastic glass walls, original wooden beams, shiny wooden floors, and a string of JH artists donning the walls. Even the desks are bespoke at JH!
“We’re at about 75 people now, which has been a massive increase in the past couple of years,” explains Jerry Harvey, as we take a seat. “The custom growth has been steady every year - you could almost track it to the percentage point - but when we started doing the universals and teamed up and partnered with Astell&Kern, who were making high resolution audio players, we saw a huge surge, doubling our revenue and output. But the growth almost killed us!”
“It took a year to ramp things up, much of which has happened since Andy Regan came in as President; he’s done a phenomenal job. The growth of the custom was kind of getting out of hand, too; I would release a new product, and all of a sudden, I would have hundreds of orders, and people would be upset that I couldn’t build them in two weeks. But now, we have a brand new Performance line coming out next year, which will target baby bands, spares, and churches.”
So the pressure won’t relent, then; and this will bring JH Audio into a different market place, also?
“Yeah, because the Performance line will be made out of acrylic instead of titanium, the cost is going to be lower,” Harvey explains. “But the other thing is, we’re going to do the JH13 universal, which pretty much kills anything in its category. I think that’s going to be a great Performance piece, as we have redesigned the shell to fit, and they’re the only universals that have adjustable bass response, and for a lot of people, that’s really important.”
Indeed it is. This leads our conversation down a more technical route, and I ask Harvey to explain the ins and outs of the quad drivers he uses in his earphones. I immediately realise this is an astronomical question, and brace myself for a big answer. He doesn’t disappoint:
“When I relaunched this company in 2009, I started working with dual high drivers; I’d used dual lows, and I wasn’t getting the top-end extension out of the earpieces, and the only way you can increase top-end extension in a balanced armature is by lowering the impedance in the higher frequencies; and the only way you can do that, is to double them up or to quad them up. You wire them in parallel, lower the impedance, high pass them, and take the low frequencies out, and the headphone amp starts to see a load.
“The thing about a balanced armature is that the impedance curve is like a hockey stick when you get to the high frequencies, so it’s nice and flat, maybe 4-ohms all the way to 1k; and when you start getting to 10k, it starts ramping up, and you know, probably by 10k it’s already at 50-ohms, and by 16k it’s at 100-ohms, so that’s why I doubled up the highs – for more top-end extension. The other reason is that every time you double the components, you get more headroom and dynamic range, so I wanted them to be able to have a wider dynamic range without any chance of distortion.”
As I attempt to take that information in, I ask Harvey to tell me more about the UE story.
“I founded Ultimate Ears in the back of a tour bus on Van Halen, and by 1998, it was a serious business, and we had cornered the pro market,” he recalls. “In-ears were in their infancy, and we were there first; it was an immature market, so an easy one to get into, especially as I was selling to my peers – sound engineers that trusted me. Then in 2003, the iPod came out, so I wanted to go into one size fits all, universal, which is where the growth of UE came.”
Harvey took on a VC guy, who he didn’t see eye to eye with, and at the time, was a 50/50 partner in UE with his
ex-wife. Although the pair worked well together, when the company grew, the VC wanted to sell, and Harvey was
“I had a five year non-compete, and came back into the market two years after, doing aviation,” Harvey says. “I love flying, but you can’t make any money in aviation with what I do. I was at an aviation trade show once, and an old guy said to me, ‘you know how to make a small fortune in aviation?’ I was like, ‘no, sir’, and he said, ‘start with a big one’. I wish I would have taken his advice, as I lost a million dollars in cash doing aviation.”
Harvey is a keen pilot, and owns two aircraft: a supercharged 182 Cessna, and a Van’s RV/8A two-seater. They reside at the local airport, and he uses them to commute to Key West and back. In fact, if he’s visiting someone within 500 miles, he’ll usually take the aircraft; anything further, he’ll jump on commercial.
evident at JH Audio, When chatting to Andy Regan, President, I got a great sense of unity about his ethos, his team’s ethos, and the fact that everyone seems to look out for everyone else. I ask Harvey how important that is, and how far it bleeds into the rest of his team.
“Oh, it starts at the top and rolls down,” he confirms. “We are a true rock and roll company; we hire top engineers when they want to come off the road. We just hired a girl in Nashville, Charity; she went through Full Sail, and is an honorary audio girl, but she has taken over the Nashville operation. So we try to team up with well respected people in the touring industry with anything that has to do with artist relations. We run this ship like a rock show: think The Rolling Stones 1975, something like that, black and white, grainy... A little bit ‘not quite right’, but really good..! [laughs]
“It’s kind of crazy, as my biggest insecurity when I first started was that I didn’t know if I was an in-ear guy at all, so I thought I would tell everybody I was, anyway! There was a lot riding on it. In a nutshell, there were a couple of
companies out there, and there was a big hole in the market for quality. Their earphones did a good job, but both had flaws, whether it was headroom, frequency response, or a mix of both.”
Harvey remembers putting Alex Van Halen on in-ears, and how he hated them; it was his first tour with Van Halen, and Alex said to Harvey, “go find us something better.”
“I said nothing better exists, so he said to me, ‘well maybe you should make it?’ I still wanted to mix the gig, so it was a huge learning curve in real-time, as we started with single armature ear pieces in the beginning. He would sweat them out, and I would be up there [on stage] giving him a new set of ears during the show, while he’s swatting at me with a drumstick,” Harvey laughs. “I finally figured out what to do with the filter placement, found the correct set of low drivers and high drivers, and I basically hot rodded hearing aid technology and started doing multi drivers. As soon as I did the first UE5 - the dual driver - Alex was happy. That was when we took the trajectory. I thought I could make a company out of this, so we were riding on a long overnighter in the back of the tour bus, and Rob Kern, Alex’s drum tech, said, ‘they’re ears, so it should be Ultimate Ears.’ I thought it was a horrible name, but by the end of the journey, that was going to be the name of the company, and it kind of went from there!”
Harvey then built six sets of ears for Van Halen’s opening act, Skid Row, and they became his first paying client.
“I walked into the production office, the tour manager handed me $3,000 in cash, and the lightbulb went on; but it was a rocky road from there,” he recalls. “It was a crazy ride with UE, which ended tragically, but I am happy it ended that way, as now I own 100% of myself, and I am in a much better position. We rebuilt it, and we rebuilt it better... and I owe a lot to Van Halen!”
Another admirable thing about JH Audio is the company’s decision to keep the high-end manufacturing completely in the USA.
“The business model is changing a little bit with high resolution players going into phones, but we are still making our flagship line here. I’ve been doing design work and licensing the patents and the brand, and letting [partner brand] Astell&Kern manufacture the product, so they can get the cost down, but we are integral in making sure it comes out right audio wise, and look wise,” Harvey reveals. “It’s a co-brand for universals: Astell&Kern (owned by South Korean consumer electronics brand, iriver), and JH Audio. They are launching the XB10 (a high quality Bluetooth device), so I designed a product that has killer audio right at the $500 price point to suit that; they’ll be builtin South Korea.”
Staying with smartphones, I ask Harvey what his take is on the omission of the headphone jack on the iPhone 7?
“Well, here’s the deal; as far as an engineer or an audiophile, I would rather have a guitar and mic plugged into a cable, because when you turn it into wireless, it sounds different. So personally, for pure audio, I would always prefer my stuff plugged into a cable. But, that being said, the technology is ramping up so quickly, the cellular pipeline is getting large enough to be able to stream high resolution, so you have these companies like Tidal who will probably start streaming at 96kHz, and you have cellphones like this LG B10 that I have, which has a high end audio file deck in it.
“I see the convergence of high resolution players in cellphones and wireless, so we’re lucky we’re teamed up with Astell&Kern, as they have already got this XB10 wireless unit which actually streams 96kHz; it’s the first time Bluetooth has done that, so being a partner with them has given us a lot of opportunity to move into the wireless world at the same time that Apple is losing the jack. So I understand, and the functionality of the new iPhone with the wireless is amazing.
“In five years, it’s probably all going to be wireless, but wireless is just now at a point where when technology changes, you have to roll with it. Our business is a bit like software in that we are the delivery system, so as long as the source is good, our earphones are going to be good. So basically, we just keep making the best delivery system, and whatever you put on the front side is all source related. The better the source, the better the sound.”
This year, JH Audio will shift around 25,000 units, which Harvey expects to double in 2017.
“Next year should be a very good year, but the growth gets scary sometimes,” Harvey admits, with a smile. “We were 2,500 sq. ft and now we’re 8,000 sq. ft, so we had to get everybody into a better environment. This place was ABC Fine Wine & Spirits’ distribution house, so it kind of fits right into our wheelhouse – a liquor distribution centre! [smiles]”
And all of this, kind of on a whim, right?
“Well, put it this way, if you’d have told me that this was going to happen in 1995, I would have asked you what kind of drugs you were on! I thought I was going to die an old salty audio engineer, because you don’t retire out of rock and roll, you die out of it.”
Harvey is addictive to talk to, and these growth stats leave me wondering whether the current JH Audio HQ is going to be able to cut it, size-wise, in say, two years time. Is it?
“I’m really not sure; it depends how things go,” Harvey reflects. “I think there’s going to be some changes in the industry, which will be all about controlling the products, so I see a big shift in not the earphone technology, but how we process the earphones in the next three to five years. I just want to stay ahead of the curve.”
And what would need to happen to make wireless a realistic option direct to the headphone? That’s a pretty big question, I’m guessing...
“It is. The problem right now is latency; the UHF belt-packs work great, but they’re very short, and every time you put something digital in, you increase the latency, from the time it happens at the source to the time it’s received to the artist,” Harvey states. “So a few things would have to happen: first of all, there has to be a wireless link with very small latency time, then you could put it in the ear and the drummer could actually play drums in time, which is crucial; right now, you’re talking 10-15ms delay in Bluetooth at least, and there’s no musician on the planet that could do that! Battery life is another issue, because they’re low impedance, and once you start putting them into live
performance, you start sucking the battery out. You might get a belt-pack with substantial battery pack that’s the size of a packet of cigarettes, but now we’re talking something the size of a quarter, in an earphone.
“Apple get about five hours battery life, which is amazing, but on the professional side, it’s going to take a while before we get fully wireless to the ear, because of the latency. On the consumer side, it’s already happening, but for me, I’m just going to wait a little bit longer, because Apple obviously showed us that you can have independent left and right ears with Bluetooth; and although we’ll be moving along with that, we’ll be putting much more sophisticated circuits behind the technology, and that’ll be geared towards audiophiles, because audiophiles don’t know there’s 15ms-20ms of delay, because there’s no reference; it comes in at the time it comes in.”
THAT GENE SIMMONS STORY
Finally, I ask Jerry to leave me with a rock and roll story... After some deliberation, he says:
“I worked for Kiss for three tours, and Gene [Simmons] and I had a very volatile relationship. Any number of monitor engineers would tell you Gene is very demanding, and the gear of the time couldn’t give him what he wanted. He would always come and direct his unhappiness to me in different forms [smiles].
“I was young, and I had quite a temper myself, so he would piss me off, too. So anyway, we were at this truck stop, and there was this cardboard cutout of Big Daddy Don Garlits - a drag racer - with an oil can in his hand. At side stage, I always had a black scrim in front of me with a light on so Gene could see my face, but he couldn’t really see me, he just knew there was an image. So every time he would come over and yell at me during a show, I would just look at my third man, Mike Leonetti, and I’d say, ‘hey Mike, put in Big Daddy’, so I had this cutout with a Kiss shirt and Kiss hat, and scuffed on his face with a Sharpie and I would put it up there, then walk off and not come back for five songs. He would yell at this cardboard cutout, and the rest of the band was dying, then I would take Big Daddy down, and get back to the console.”
And he wasn’t any wiser to it?
“Oh, now he knows the story,” Harvey laughs. “And two years ago, I was in LA with a good friend of mine, a movie producer called Gary Levinson, who knows Gene. So Gary asks me over a couple of glasses of wine, ‘did you ever work with Kiss?’ I said I did, then he says Gene told him the story about this guy who used to put a cardboard cutout up when he was doing his sound. I was like, yeah, that was me [smiles].
“But now we can do a good job for Gene; he is still on JH7s, in fact; as artists get comfortable, they don’t want to change. I tried to get Alex Van Halen to go from 11s to 16s, and it took him catching his earpiece with his drumstick and flinging it into the audience for him to do it! But now he loves them.
“Whether it’s strings, drumsticks, or earphones, it’s no different; there is a comfort thing, and any time you change it, the whole chemistry changes, and it becomes something else. So I am never upset if someone says, ‘nah I’ll still use the 7s.’ If something I built in 1998 is still doing a job, that’s a good product, right?”
It is indeed. Huge thanks to Jerry, Andy, and the whole JH Audio team for their fantastic Florida hospitality.