Mention the warmth of well-recorded sound, the development of technology that enhances the creative experience or the magic of vocal harmonies and Peter Chaikin’s eyes literally light up. They are ideas that have inspired him since he was a teenager.
In 2001, Peter joined HARMAN Professional Solutions to lead the marketing and development of loudspeakers for broadcast and recording. Since then, he has overseen the development of HARMAN’s flagship JBL M2 master reference monitors, JBL 3 Series studio monitors, JBL 7 Series reference monitors and others.
Before coming to HARMAN, Peter spent 15 years as a highly regarded music recording engineer, working with artists such as Quincy Jones, Patrice Rushen, George Duke, Michael Sembello and Harvey Mason. His recordings have received numerous RIAA Gold and Platinum Record Awards and he garnered a GRAMMY™ nomination for “Best Engineered Recording.”
When the emergence of home studios and the democratization of recording underscored a fundamental shift in the recording industry, Peter gradually transitioned from engineering to audio product development and served as a product manager at Yamaha and then Alesis on his way to HARMAN.
Peter’s lifelong love of music production began in high school, at the time of the British Invasion. He played rhythm guitar and sang harmony in a pop band in his hometown of Great Neck, Long Island. “My group had a recording session and with my first step into the studio, something happened. I flipped,” said Peter. “I knew right then that I had to be part of the record engineering side. It was the sound, the control room, the gear, everything.”
“Singing harmony and being part of a band was so gratifying. If things had gone a certain way, I could have come out of high school and kept playing. Instead, I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and landed a job running a studio in the radio, TV and film department,” he said. “There were some open reel machines and old RCA broadcast boards that sounded wonderful. There were Altec speakers, power amps and a bunch of old ribbon and early dynamic mics. I would use the gear for whatever came up and would be there all night recording, editing and doing sound for people in the film program.”
After graduation, Peter found a job in the Washington D.C. area recording sound on a film production and then landed a summer gig at ABC Network News in New York. “This was at the tail end of the Vietnam War. We were taking live calls from reporters in the field, making cassettes and running them into the control room. I spent half my time doing that and the other half running the board during on-air network news shows,” he said.
Wanting to refocus his career on music, Peter decided to travel across the country and look for work in a recording studio. He purchased Billboard Magazine’s directory of studios and began contacting engineers and studios. A cold call to iconic producer and engineer Phil Ramone was a pivotal moment for him. Ramone, who later became Peter’s client and mentor, introduced him to several prominent engineers and studio owners. One of them was Chris Stone who co-owned the legendary Record Plant in Los Angeles. In the 70s, the Record Plant emerged as one of the most popular independent studios in town. Until then, record companies like RCA, Columbia and Atlantic owned the studios that their artists recorded in.
“Phil told me that if I got to the Record Plant I should see the owners, Chris Stone and Gary Kellgren. He said, ‘Chris—he’s good people.’ It was the first time I heard industry talk,” said Peter. “They hired me as a carpenter’s assistant to help build a new studio they were working on. They knew that I had studio experience though and wasn’t there just to hammer nails and run for coffee.”
The first session Peter worked on was for the Eagles’ “On the Border” album. The Record Plant’s traffic manager took him off the construction crew after the assistant who was booked on those sessions moved up to become an engineer. “That’s how it worked in those days. I got pulled into the control room for two nights and it was an interesting scene, to say the least,” said Peter.
“It wasn’t long until I got plucked off the carpenter crew again by an engineer named Bob Margouleff who was recording with Stevie Wonder. Stevie’s previous album had won four GRAMMYS and Bob was working on ‘Fulfillingness’ First Finale’ that took five GRAMMYS that year,” said Peter. “I came on as an assistant engineer and replaced another guy who had become an engineer. It was a great experience and I began to form a lot of relationships.”
“Working in studios, I learned that it took more than knowing how to operate a board to be an engineer,” he said. “It was about relationships, politics and creativity—creativity first and foremost. I worked with so many different people—engineers, artists and producers and loved it. I was on a lot of dates with Quincy Jones. He later became my first client as a recording engineer and we’ve stayed in touch through the years.”
“Interestingly, the Record Plant had the first 24-track machines in town,” Peter continued. “3M, in their brilliant way, made it possible to overdub on existing 16-track tape recordings and create eight more tracks. But Chris Stone was cautious and only purchased a single 24-track head stack.”
“My job was to fly the heads from Los Angeles to Sausalito for evening sessions. Chris figured he should do this long enough to see if the 24-track was going to catch on. The point was everybody needed more tracks. It became huge,” said Peter. “Chris bought more 24-track heads and the 16-track clientele started moving up to 24-track recording. What happened though, was that everything ended up taking twice as long. People weren’t making decisions. They weren’t locking in on balances. They were leaving their decisions until the mix and there was no real automation then. It was great for the studios, but not necessarily great for music.”
Working at the Record Plant became tiresome and Peter had not reached his objective of being a full-time mixer. “If you were a go-to assistant like I was, they would put you on a session in the evening and then another one in the morning with a short turnaround. At some point, I knew it had to change,” he said.
Peter left the Record Plant to record sound for a film in Scotland. When he returned to Los Angeles he worked at Kendun Recorders for eight months. “A lot of excellent artists I worked with at Kendun became my clients and I went freelance,” he said. As a freelance engineer, Chaikin recorded and mixed a broad range of projects in a variety of genres. At the end of the 70s big changes were afoot. “Disco was king, budgets were fat and the industry became complacent. Several big budget albums were launched to a non-receptive market. Record companies lost a lot of money and recoiled, closing company owned studios and reducing budgets for new artists,” he said. “As a result, the 80s birthed a stream of low budget records while 24-track recording and later MIDI technology supported a change in the workflow. Layered performances became more common.”
“By the early 80s there were more changes happening in the recording industry. I loved the studio, but there were fewer and fewer dates where a band would come in and basically perform the record. Projects took a long time. Some didn’t get finished,” said Peter. “As an engineer, you didn’t necessarily do the whole project anymore. Prior to that time, there were a lot of great projects that I got to be part of. I missed that, but in my heart of hearts, I missed the creativity from my band days—writing, singing, and producing—and felt I could bring those sensibilities back and help artists. I started moving into audio product manufacturing, but also kept engineering and had some great experiences.”
Peter was working with pianist and vocalist, Patrice Rushen when he met a group of people from Yamaha Pro Audio at one of her sessions. During a break, they mentioned a rack-mountable processor they were working on that could create reverb, delays and effects. “Nothing like that existed at the time,” said Peter. “In those days, reverb was mechanical or acoustic and the idea sounded incredible. I became involved with the development of what was to become the SPX 90 and really enjoyed the process. Development fascinated me. Within a couple years, I started working with Yamaha on their first digital mixer.”
“Metaphorically, I discovered that I loved helping to design ‘the car for a race driver.’ I had driven cars around the track, but was being asked to contribute to the design. If we were going to build something that served peoples’ needs, what did it need to have? I was contributing my perspective as an engineer and a musician and discovered that I didn’t necessarily need to be a producer, engineer or artist to be part of music. My dad was in electronics so it all made a lot of sense to me,” he said.
Peter stayed at Yamaha for 10 years and after launching Yamaha’s early line of digital mixing consoles, left in 1998 and moved to Alesis Studio Electronics. “Alesis was a very innovative company known for democratizing the recording process with their affordable ADAT digital multitrack recording, their synthesizers, drum machines and sequencing devices,” he said. “While I was there, we launched a 24-channel hard disk version of the ADAT and Masterlink, a brilliant two-track hard disk recorder.”
“Eventually, Alesis went under and I was looking for a home to develop what I called a point-and-shoot recording appliance that would make recording considerably simpler for musicians,” said Peter. “At the time, Michael MacDonald was the president of JBL. He and I had been product managers together at Yamaha and he rose into management while I kept designing products. I ran into him at a tradeshow and he asked if I wanted to come to JBL to help drive speakers for recording. I told him about my recording appliance concept and he thought I might be able to develop it at HARMAN’s Salt Lake City campus. That was 15 years ago. I got to collaborate with Jim Pennock, John Hanson and a wonderful team in Salt Lake and some of the ideas for that recording appliance wound up in DigiTech products.”
At the heart of Peter’s work is identifying opportunities in the market and pairing them with technologies and resources. Years before he came to HARMAN, JBL had been very active in developing loudspeakers for large commercial studios. With the democratization of recording, and the home and personal studio movement, transportable near-field speakers—reference monitors—became the norm. Peter was intent on making JBL the leader in monitors for the new recording workflow.
“The market for near-field speakers was crowded and noisy and they were all self-powered,” said Peter. “I felt that we needed to deliver not just a speaker, but a solution that producers, engineers and musicians could rely on to really understand what they had on tape, on disk or in a file, in terms of its spectrum. It starts with speaker design, but goes beyond that to the way the speaker interfaces with the acoustic environment. You can’t go from room to room with the same speakers and expect to hear the same thing, particularly in the low-frequency range. With a well-designed speaker, you can trust the high frequency and midrange, but the low frequency varies according to placement, listening position, and the construction and volume of the room.”
“In 2005 we delivered the JBL LSR4300,” said Peter. “It was a line of studio speakers that measured the room using a mic that was included with it. It had an internal system that automatically calibrated the speakers and it made a big difference in what people were hearing. It was awarded a patent as the industry’s first self-calibrating loudspeaker system.”
“I’m really proud of what we did with the LSR4300. Aside from being a good speaker, you could switch between digital and analog inputs. You could network them and control them remotely. You could control an eight speaker system and solo any speaker. You could balance them and do it from a computer. We recognized that it was the absolute way to go,” he added. “That was 2005. Now we’ve got Intonato 24, a box with dozens of automated filters that can handle up to 24 speakers and tune them.”
After the completion of the LSR4300, Peter began noodling with the idea of a high-end 15-inch 2-way reference monitor, which ultimately became the JBL M2. Concurrently, JBL transducer engineer Alex Voishvillo designed a revolutionary new high frequency driver, the D2430K, dubbed the D2 Driver. “We did several A-B tests and concluded that the D2 was the right choice. Off in another corner of HARMAN’s Northridge campus, JBL Lifestyle engineer, Charles Sprinkle was developing the new Image Control Waveguide for HARMAN consumer goods. Integrating his waveguide into the M2 resulted in a radical shift and improvement in its sound.”
During the development phase of the M2, seven-time GRAMMY-winning music producer and engineer Frank Filipetti listened to material he had recorded on the M2 speakers. “Frank heard things in the recordings that he never had before. Initially, it was disconcerting because he wasn’t used to so much detail,” said Peter. “Frank was very emotional about it and became involved with the project. I remember him saying, ‘You don’t know what you have here.’”
The M2s were extremely well-received in the marketplace and Peter, Charles and the team set out to bring the cost of the technology down to a $300 for a pair of speakers. “That became the 3 Series and we are selling three to four times the volume of what we imagined. Even though they were designed for studios, people use them for all kinds of applications. They’ve been extraordinarily successful,” said Peter.
The success of the M2s created an opportunity to develop a high-performance studio monitor line. Based on the driver and acoustic formula of the M2, it would serve the needs of top recording, film and broadcast applications and engineers. “The result was the JBL 7 Series, which has captured the attention of the industry worldwide,” said Peter.
Asked what the most satisfying aspect of product development has been, he said, “The most enjoyable part is when it becomes exciting for other people who get involved and we realize we’re going to change the market. While JBL has a rich 70-year history, it’s really fun to work with new talent who bring a fresh perspective. Guys like our VP of Solutions, Karam Kaul and Recording Solutions Manager, Ted White, make showing up, personally rewarding. We’re making tools that people can use to create content. To me, it’s really still about the music.”
To that end, Peter is currently turning part of his home in the Hollywood Hills into a studio. “Playing music and singing is something that hasn’t left me. I still want to do it and still want to work with artists and bring them in to record. It’s completely selfish, of course,” he said. “I want to be part of their music.”
Many thanks to Peter for sharing his insights into his career and for his extraordinary contributions to HARMAN and the music industry.