There are a lot of incredibly smart, talented and accomplished individuals in the MI and pro-audio industries…people who will be remembered long after they’ve taken their final bow. Very few, though, merit the word “Guru.” One person who does is Mark Gander, Director of JBL Technology, who began his career with the company in 1976. In that time, he’s played an integral role in most, if not all, of JBL’s numerous technical and business accomplishments. And now, on JBL’s 70th birthday and Gander’s 40th anniversary with the company, he speaks exclusively to The Music & Sound Retailer to reflect on the past several decades.
The conversation not only includes Gander’s career trajectory within the organization, but also gives insight into what continues to inspire and motivate him today. And, we learn a bit about the “secret sauce” at JBL that’s made it a truly legendary name in the pro-audio industry. We close things out asking Gander how he’d like to be remembered by the industry to which he has given so much.
Enjoy this candid conversation.
The Music & Sound Retailer: Before we discuss JBL’s recently celebrated 70th birthday, tell me about how you got started in the MI and pro-audio industries. Did you set out on this path from childhood by learning an instrument or by playing in a band? What captured your interest and got you into music and audio?
Mark Gander: I grew up taking piano lessons, and then clarinet and saxophone in the grade school and high school bands. And, I taught myself to play electric bass guitar. In college, I took organ lessons and studied on the early Moog synthesizer, but, finally, I decided that I didn’t have sufficient musical talent to pursue that as a career. By working on the college radio station, in studio recording and doing sound reinforcement for the student concert board, I found that I could combine my love of music with my technical aptitude, creating a career path I could be passionate about. After graduating and working on the road for a year, I went back to graduate school to get a master of science in electrical engineering (MSEE) degree in acoustical engineering. I was hired by JBL in 1976. The company is 70 years old, and it’s my 40th anniversary with them.
The Retailer: You’re well positioned to discuss JBL’s history, heritage and development. Tell us about the company’s creation 70 years ago, as well as how it has evolved and grown since then.
Gander: The actual JBL, the company’s Founder, James B. Lansing, had been the go-to guy in Hollywood: first for radio speakers, then for the components of the first talking motion-picture speaker standard, and early sound-reinforcement and studio monitor speakers. After World War II, he started our company, and he continued his tradition of employing new materials and manufacturing techniques to push the envelope of what could be achieved in the electro-acoustical efficiency and fidelity of loudspeakers.
From our first products, like the D130 15-inch loudspeaker, JBL developed a reputation for creating and producing the finest sound reproducers. That continued after Lansing’s death, with his associates creating firsts like acoustic lenses and innovations in studio monitors and cinema systems, as embodied by products like the 4311 monitor. In the modern era, JBL leadership continued with JBL engineers winning technical Oscars for new cinema advances, as well as with JBL Professional being awarded more than a dozen TEC Awards and a Technical Grammy.
The Retailer: Recount your own career progression within JBL, starting from the early days when you first came onboard and guiding us to the present and your current role as Director of JBL Technology.
Gander: I started at JBL right out of graduate school as a Transducer Engineer, designing loudspeaker components and systems. I designed some hi-fi systems, including the L40, L50 and L220, and I was on the team that developed the technologies for converting the original alnico magnet structures to ferrite because of the cobalt shortage in the late 1970s. Because of my pro background, I also gravitated to some of the pro product requests that had not been addressed. I ended up designing and championing what became the Cabaret Series, one of the industry’s early product lines of packaged musician systems.
I wanted to be more engaged with customers, so I moved over to marketing as an Applications Engineer, and then as a Product Manager. The success of the pro business led the company to set up a separate division, JBL Professional, and I became Vice President of Marketing and Product Development. JBL Pro products achieved even greater success in a variety of vertical markets—cinema, recording and broadcast, installed sound, tour sound and MI—by focusing on serving the individual needs of the different customer types. Over the years, I also served as Vice President of Engineering and Vice President of Strategic Development, planning our expansion into new products and markets.
The Retailer: You’ve been affiliated with JBL in various capacities for decades now. What continues to keep you motivated, engaged and excited to come to work? What are the best and most stimulating parts of your job?
Gander: What motivates me are the challenges, finding new and innovative ways to address problems and find solutions, and the engagement with the products and the people—those within the company and our customers. I make an effort to reach out to customers and take their input as to what is needed. Almost more important, though, is to know the customer’s business and to observe them in action, using the products. That way, you’re able to provide solutions to their unstated needs. Knowing the technologies that are available or that might be able to be developed, and then seeing where they can be applied to create new product solutions, makes for a very satisfying result, particularly when the product is on the market, successful and delights the customer. With the worldwide platform of JBL that HARMAN provides, we can make a lot of happy people by providing better sound.
The Retailer: For a company to last 70 years is a testament not only to its product quality, but also to the organization more broadly. Is there a “secret sauce” at JBL that serves to distinguish the company from its direct competitors, as well as from most other companies in the MI and pro-audio industries?
Gander: JBL is one of the few companies that is integrated. First, from a speaker point of view, making our own transducer components and integrating them into loudspeaker systems. And, in the greater HARMAN Professional Solutions world, further integrating amplification, signal processing, and digital network control and transport. JBL transducer and loudspeaker system innovations, combined with Crown amplification, dbx, BSS and Lexicon signal processing, Soundcraft and Studer mixers, AKG microphones, and, now, AMX control systems and Martin lighting, can provide complete system solutions. We can outfit small clubs up to the largest arenas and stadiums, and small bars or restaurants up to large building complexes.
For JBL, as part of the greater HARMAN Professional organization, our key attributes continue to be sonic performance, technology and innovation, quality and reliability, and company stability and longevity.
The Retailer: JBL has a very strong presence on the fixed-install/commercial AV side, but it’s also a major player on the MI side. Relative to brick-and-mortar MI stores specifically, discuss JBL’s commitment to working with the dealer channel, as opposed to pursuing direct sales. To what extent are strong dealer partnerships central to JBL’s fundamental guiding philosophy?
Gander: JBL and the larger HARMAN Professional have always had very strong relationships with our dealer partners, developing programs and outreach that specifically address their needs. Solutions-based training, e-learning programs and on-site events at the dealer’s location can bring our expertise directly to the dealer and their customers.
We are currently fielding an experiential road show that features the new JBL EON ONE and other brand new HARMAN products. Our HARMAN truck has been outfitted as a mobile recording environment, with customers invited to enter a recording contest with immediate participation prizes, as well as a grand prize of a trip to Los Angeles CA to record their song at the legendary Village Studios.
The Retailer: At a time when a lot of brick-and-mortar MI stores are struggling to compete with Guitar Center and Amazon, do you have suggestions for your MI dealer partners…something that you think would help them to succeed? Do you think branching out into simple install services is a good idea?
Gander: It’s always all about value added, whether you are the manufacturer or the retailer. Know your customer and listen to them in order to satisfy their stated desires. But, in addition, watch them and understand what they are trying to do, so that unstated or misunderstood problems can be solved. Opportunities can be exploited to bring new technologies to bear to delight the customer. An astute dealer or salesman who is paying attention when talking to and observing a potential customer can always have an advantage over a Web site or long-distance communication in any other form. If you see a need and can serve it effectively, seize the opportunity to do so.
The Retailer: On the product and technology side, what trends and developments are most exciting to you right now? What, if anything, is “revolutionizing” pro audio today? What seeds are being planted now that might yield exciting things in three, five or 10 years?
Gander: As far as speaker acoustics, the line array revolution in major touring productions has led us to take our flagship VerTec and VTX line arrays and adapt that technology to the very successful VRX personal line array, CBT column line arrays for fixed installations and, now, the new EON ONE all-in-one linear array PA system.
The advent of digital, starting in the 1980s, has greatly expanded our capabilities and potential: from digital consoles, to DSP, to the complete digital signal path from input to loudspeaker. Wireless technology is expanding, allowing ease of connectivity for all system elements through Wi-Fi and Bluetooth apps. It’s now available in JBL EON and the new PRX800 powered speakers with wireless connectivity.
Network control and signal transport will be the glue that holds it all together, and we can anticipate a future with a powered speaker wirelessly controlled through a network connection for both signal and control from a touch-screen tablet GUI. That’s it! All the other elements of the system—mixer, effects processors, etc.—will be implemented in software and accessed on that screen. We can see it now in its early stages, and it is the future.
The Retailer: As company watchers continue to observe JBL, what can we expect from the organization over the next few years? Is this a time of rapid change, or more a time of gradual, steady evolution?
Gander: Our path and our goal is a complete systems approach to the integration of our products: providing turnkey customer solutions from HARMAN as a single supplier. We are moving forward with a structure that focuses on the entertainment market—retail MI, portable PA, tour sound and cinema—and the enterprise market, consisting of large venues, hotels and other hospitality, and corporate, education and government facilities. With all the HARMAN brand products able to provide complete solutions for each of those segments, we can present our system packages directly to each customer segment. Additional product categories will be added in the future.
The Retailer: Years from now, when people think about Mark Gander and his contributions to both JBL and the audio segment more broadly, what would you like your legacy to be?
Gander: Again, it’s always about people and products. I believe that I have always tried to lead by example, listening to customers’ stated and unstated needs and desires. And, I’ve tried to work with the JBL team to bring technologies and techniques to bear in order to create products with a lasting legacy. From the passive Cabaret Series to the powered EON, from 4311s to LSR studio monitors, from raw-frame speaker components to Concert Series to VerTec, VTX and VRX line arrays, significant product from JBL are either fondly remembered or they’ve stood the test of time and they’re still in use today. I hope my leadership and contributions in creating those will be remembered.