Sound Decisions, Oriole Park To The Opry

September 12, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

Few people have heard of Signal Perfection Ltd., but if you've ever been to an Orioles game at Camden Yards, a concert at the Meyerhoff or a dolphin show at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, you've probably heard their work.

The 2 1/2 -year-old, Columbia-based company is becoming a national leader in designing and installing high-technology sound systems in some of the most visible entertainment halls, stadiums and theme parks in the United States and abroad.

When Bostonians go to the new symphony hall at Tanglewood to listen to Beethoven, everything from allegro to adagio comes through a Signal Perfection Ltd. SPL system. When country music fans make their pilgrimage to the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, each twang comes to them courtesy of SPL.

And when the choir at Mountain Christian Church in Perry Hall raises a joyful noise, SPL makes sure Heaven isn't getting any feedback.

With only 22 full-time employees, the company is taking on projects as far afield as Japan, Thailand and Singapore. And just about anywhere a major sports facility is on the drawing board, from a new Atlanta baseball stadium to a basketball complex in Portland, Ore., SPL is one of a handful of qualified bidders.

SPL is the creation of William E. Parry, Chad Gillenwater and Frederick H. Curdts, three friends who came together at Maryland Sound Inc. in Baltimore and decided to strike out on their own in early 1992.

The three men had all played active roles in one of Maryland Sound's biggest projects, the audio system for Oriole Park at Camden Yards. It is perhaps a measure of their performance that when they left to set up their own shop, the Maryland Stadium Authority gave them the job of maintaining and adding to the complex system, which includes more than 1,300 speakers and 800,000 feet of audio cable.

PTC "They were the brain trust from the designing and the installation and it was a wise decision," said Eli Eisenberg, technical manager for the stadium.

SPL is a loose outfit in many ways, one where the chief executive officer greets a reporter in his stocking feet because he's just come back from a shower after a run and where rock music (great sound, incidentally) fills the back room.

But Mr. Gillenwater, the 44-year-old CEO, said the company they created is the product of intense planning, from basic corporate philosophy down to methods of filing paper work. He said the founders wanted a company that was not only technically accomplished but organized to meet the schedules and paperwork requirements of its clients.

So far, he said, the formula has been working. He said revenues will increase from $2 million in 1992 to an estimated $8 million this year, with earnings triple the founders' early projections.

More important for the long term is the reputation the company is building.

Robert Gleason, the facilities manager for the Boston Symphony Orchestra Inc., said selecting the right audio contractor was crucial when his musical company was planning to build the new Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood.

"If you're building a new concert hall, if it's not perfect the first time out of the barrel, you can't recover," Mr. Gleason said.

Mr. Gleason said the sound on opening night was "exactly on target."

"If they're not the leader in the industry, I don't know who is," he said. "They're just nice people, every one of them. If you've got a problem, they hit it right on the head -- no excuses."

While Mr. Gillenwater comes from a background in accounting, SPL is heavily dominated by electrical engineers who are simply obsessed with music. "Ninety percent of the people here played in a band at one time or another," he said.

SPL doesn't design or invent equipment itself but is a leader in testing manufacturers' latest products even before they are put on the market, said Mr. Parry, the company's president.

Keeping up with new technologies can be a dizzying challenge. In the shop behind the office, Mr. Curdts, 40, the senior vice president, showed a visitor a rack of amplifiers and processors the size of a large bookcase. SPL will be installing 10 of them for a current project, he said.

In the office, he had a personal computer with a digital processor unit a little larger than a videocassette recorder. On the monitor is a graphic representation of the controls and wiring of a sound engineer's record mixing console.

Mr. Curdts said it was an experimental copy of a software program that is designed to replace the set-up in the back room. "Each one of these blocks was previously a large piece of equipment," he said, pointing to the screen.

Mr. Parry said future advances in audio engineering will make it possible and affordable to reproduce the unique sound of the world's great concert halls in an ordinary room or an outside theater. "You could make Oregon Ridge sound like the Meyerhoff," Mr. Parry said.

Mr. Gillenwater said the company's culture and structure are deliberately designed to cope with a fast-changing industry. There are no middle managers between the three founders and line employees, and that's the way he hopes to keep it.

"We can make a bottom-line impact in the nature of this company in about 10 minutes," he said. "The decision-making process is geared for impact; it's not geared for creating a bureaucracy."

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