For our next installment of the HARMAN Innovator Spotlight series, I’m pleased to introduce Jim Pennock, a master of digital signal processing (DSP), author of 13 patents and, of all things, a racecar driver. Jim works at HARMAN Professional Solutions’ Salt Lake City campus and spearheads an extraordinary range of technological innovations for several brands, including DOD, DigiTech, dbx, BSS and Lexicon.
DOD, a legendary guitar effects pedal company that later became part of HARMAN, hired Jim 30 years ago, just as he was graduating college. While studying electrical engineering at the University of Utah, Jim was also a guitarist, songwriter and fan of DOD products. Until hearing about a job opening for an engineer at DOD, he never considered combining his passion for music with his engineering career. “DOD was a very small company at the time, about 40–50 people, including a production line,” said Jim. “I was the fourth engineer they ever hired, and it was the perfect job.”
“There were a couple of us young engineers, fresh out of school, with all kinds of new digital ideas in an essentially analog world. We knew it was going to be fun! We worked crazy hours, quickly learned about DSP and dove deep into developing digital effects. DOD launched the DigiTech brand as a platform for all our new ideas. We started out with simple things, like choruses, delays and flangers, and moved on from there,” he said.
“If I were to pick a favorite effect unit from those early years, it would have to be the DigiTech DSP-128, my second product with the company,” said Jim. “It was originally going to be a reverb unit but, as I was developing it, I started playing with including other effects and was able to get multiple ones running at once. I showed it to the president of the company, telling him I could do a chorus effect at the same time as the reverb. His eyes lit up and he asked, ‘Can you do a delay too?’”
“Three at a time for $399” became the marketing mantra for the product, and the 19-inch, rack-mounted DSP-128 became the industry’s first multi-effect unit. Its sales doubled the size of the company and launched a new category of products in the music industry.
“Through the years, by building on our previous designs, we’ve had so many firsts. We added a feature we called Repeat Hold to our digital delays. A regular delay pedal sounds like a fading echo, but when you engage the Repeat Hold footswitch, it locks the sound into memory and plays it over and over like a tape loop. A guitarist can then layer more parts on top,” Jim said. “So, instead of just an effect, it became a practice tool. Someone could lay down a few bars of rhythm guitar, capture it, have it play over and over, and be able to solo over the top. More than an effect, it became an instrument to play along with. Now, there is an entire category of products called loopers, but it really grew from those early days of our messing around with new features for a digital delay.”
A few years later, Jim first experimented with putting compact flash memory cards into a guitar multi-effects processor for onboard recording. Video recorders were starting to record digitally, and he worked on a groundbreaking interface to record digital audio to and from compact flash cards, with full editing capabilities and multiple tracks. “We called it a Guitar Workstation,” he said. “It was like having a mini studio to use not only for live sound, but also to record entire songs with eight tracks of playback. You could change inputs to separately track guitar, bass and add vocals. We also built in a drum machine, so guitarists could record and play along to rhythm parts.”
Akin to Jim’s early realization that he could combine his electrical engineering degree with his love of music, he has recently been excited by working with technologies that bridge DSP and his other passion—cars.
“When Lexicon first became part of HARMAN, one of the things they were working on was active acoustics, a technology that allows you to take a specific space and, using DSP, microphones and speakers, make it sound like a different environment. It’s magic,” said Jim. “Using active acoustics, you can make a small office sound like a concert hall or opera house. The pioneering work of Lexicon’s founder, David Griesinger, really plowed these original roads. But, when Lexicon moved to Salt Lake City, we needed to move it forward. I dove into Griesinger’s research, and we created the next generation of Lexicon products.”
It soon occurred to Jim that while making one type of room sound like another was a revolutionary concept, the potential to transform the acoustic environment of a car could also have a tremendous impact. “When Fitz [John Fitzgerald, senior vice president and general manager, Lifestyle Audio for HARMAN] moved from the Pro Audio division over to Lifestyle, he remembered my ideas and gave me a call,” said Jim.
HARMAN’s automotive division announced Jim’s Virtual Venues active acoustic technology at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show and, at next year’s show, will demonstrate its integration into Summit, HARMAN’s new audio platform for high-end cars. “It means a lot to me to connect my audio work to my love of cars and to stretch across the boundaries of HARMAN’s various divisions. It’s a real honor to work with the engineers on the Lifestyle side of our business; what a great team!” he said.
Asking Jim about his attraction to cars, he said with a smile, “I’ve been a car guy forever. I think I came from the ‘Hot Wheels Generation.’ I started with little toy Hot Wheels cars when I was about six years old, then went on to build model cars and watch drag racing on TV. Once I got my drivers license, I started working on fixing up cars and building my own hot rod. When I got out of college and started working, I decided I wanted to race. I now have a 1968 Dodge Charger muscle car that I race. It’s a great hobby. Making a run, then hanging out and talking cars until the next run is a pure adrenaline rush!”
When not racing or inventing new sound technologies, Jim loves raising his family in the mountains of Northern Utah where he, his wife and four kids (two guitar players, a drummer and a keyboard player) take advantage of the Utah terrain—skiing, hiking and rock climbing!
HARMAN Professional Solutions is grateful to have Jim Pennock as a valued innovator! Many thanks to Jim for his extraordinary contributions to signal processing and the professional audio industry.
Do you have what it takes to become a HARMAN Innovator? Introduce yourself in the comments and visit https://jobs.harman.com/ to learn about our current opportunities.