Sennheiser Consultant Spotlight: Steve Thorburn

Each month, Sennheiser will spotlight a consultant and ask them questions on their insights into the AV industry. This month’s spotlight is Steve Thorburn, Director of Engineering at Thorburn Associates, with offices in California, Florida, and North Carolina.

1. How did you decide to become an AV consultant?
I never decided to be an AV consultant; it just fell into my lap.  In the late 1970s, I began as a mobile DJ in upstate Michigan when I was still in high school. I did the AV cart thing in high school and college, became president of the film coop in college, and was a projectionist for the group for five years (yes, I think I can still tread a 16 mm projector in the dark). It was there I started in theatre arts and earned my dual degrees in theatre and electrical engineering with a focus on acoustics. So, looking back on my life, what else could I have done!

2. How has the AV industry changed in the past 5 years? What do you predict will happen in the next 5 to 10 years?
It has been dumbed down to anybody who thinks they can do it, tries it. Before you needed to know how to adjust and balance gear. Now it is plug and hope it plays. We are going to too many checkouts where the contractor does not even touch the DSP system. The racks are dirty. Focus is soft. 20 years ago, this would never be. During a recent check out, the tech said SMAART said it was OK, so that was how I set it; the echo caused by the delay setting from the side fill loudspeakers was awful. As far as the future, there will be NO AV industry. The V part will be rolled into IT, and the A will only be for large format audio systems​.

3. What are the most critical changes that we must make to face the future effectively?
If I am to be proven wrong in my last response, and I hope I am, our value add must be upped. If an owner can go out to Best Buy, B&H, and CDW to get what they think they need, we truly are done. We must find a way to make sure the systems we work on and design truly meet the user’s needs. As Fred Dixson used to say, “AV must be the ghost in the room.” As I like to say, Keep It Simple Stupid or Keep it Simple Steve.

4. What is the biggest challenge in the AV Industry at the moment?
DIY is the biggest challenge I see. Going back to my snark at Best Buy, etc., as I reread the responses I am writing, the common theme is lack of value adds. We, as system designers, need to focus on the end-user and not just slap a display up on the wall and put speakers beside it. What do they really need the room to do? When I began my career, there was truly multimedia; there was film, slides, overheads, TV on carts, that was it. PC projection via overheads had not been born yet, let alone computer interfaces. Does the huddle room just need a wireless input for the laptop that will be brought in? Can it be that simple, or do we need to add web cameras and a control system? We need to go back to human ergonomics basics, focusing on sight, hearing, and touch.​

5. What do manufacturers have to consider while designing new solutions?
Contractor training! As a designer, I do not need to know every hook and bell on a product. I need to know what it can do, not necessarily how it does it. What makes our industry look bad is when a system  does not do what it was intended to do because someone forgot to or did not even open the device’s configuration program. Yes, I have walked into new college classroom buildings where the same DSP routing was set up in the box, no eq adjustments, no mic gain adjustments, etc., and the same setting was copied and pasted into 20 plus rooms. I need to know that the folks that can buy the gear for the installation can support it, not just rack it up and connect it.

6. How do you adapt to a company’s culture when working on a project?
We try to visit the client’s site at different times and meet as many stakeholders as possible. A tour of their existing facilities helps a lot. Do we see ping pong tables, are their cubes personalized, do they have dogs in the office? Going back to one of my favorite childhood books, The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook, it stressed being observant was the key to being a good detective; it is also beneficial as a designer.

7. Should AV consultants have IT skills?
In my opinion, knowledge but not skills. Yes, everything is becoming network-centric, but as a consultant, I do not need to know how to set up a V-lan; I just know we need to ask for one. Maybe that is short-sighted, but I did not need solder and crimping skills 30 years ago; I needed to know how it was done and what to look for.

8. What has helped you get to where you are and what advice would you have for others who want to set off in a similar direction?
Be a sponge. Keep your eyes and ears open. Do not be afraid to ask why or how come. Learn the design and construction process, so you know where you fit into the project. I helped my Dad remodel and expanded three family homes by the time I went to college. I learned what end of the hammer to swing; I also learned how to draw; I learned to speak via debate. You will need both real-world and theory to be a good communicator and designer.

9. What was your most technically challenging project and why?
This is kind of like asking who your favorite child is. So, I would have to say the last one I saw, or in this case, worked on. Large audio systems and processing was challenging in the ’80s are simple now. Configuring VTC systems in the ’90s is simple now. I do not see the technology as challenging; it is ever-changing, it goes back to the end-users, the ergonomics going back to sight, hearing, and touch – they have not changed in my lifetime. Allowing the end-user to focus on these is the Challenge.

10. What is the most interesting trend for 2021?
Trying to get back to what we had known as normal, we were lucky enough to have a good backload of work to carry through the last 12 months. The start of 2021 has had a big tick up so getting rid of the mask is what I am looking forward to.

(Bonus question) What is the best sandwich in your city?
Hard choice between the Pastrami sandwich from the deli down the street to the pulled pork sandwich from the BBQ joint around the corner.

Interviewed by Steve Wingo, Technical Application Engineering Team at Sennheiser