AES Section Meeting Reports

Chicago - September 21, 2011

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On September 21, 2011, Ian Schneller took members and guests of the AES' Chicago Section on a fascinating journey into the world of a small businessman, a luthier, and a creative inventor. Those of course all being himself, Ian Schneller.

Ian's facility on the near west side of Chicago, known as the Chicago School of Guitar Making, is a discreetly located warehouse where he simultaneously does service work for touring musicians, builds custom instruments, and mentors interns in the custom building trade. That is, when he's not pursuing inventions of his own, such as his rock-solid "Octoblock" tube amplifiers and a line of unique multi-driver horn speaker systems with quite a visual flare to them.

During his talk, Ian shared his design aesthetic with the group, ie. the philosophies which guide his approach to his work (which is clearly his passion as well). His primary recurring theme was a desire to do things right. It was evident as he exposed the subtle ways in which big name guitar manufacturers can cut corners in their products (including inventing seemingly exotic new materials for marketing purposes). It was also evident as he talked about how his electronic products were made more durable; specifically in response to some of the things he has seen doing service work.

But a secondary theme was a desire to follow his own vision, even when it might seem unconventional, or unusual to others. A good example was his use of a clean, simple front-to-back input-to-output topology on his amplifiers, despite the fact that some consumers might inevitably ask why all the jacks are not in one spot! Another was his following his interest in octagonal profile horn speaker design and construction all the way to the creation of the "Sonic Arboretum", a novel experiment in multi-channel reproduction (a system simultaneously using dozens of horns) which he and internationally-known multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird collaborated on, ultimately displayed in the Guggenheim Museum in New York and soon will debut in Chicago's own MCA.

As the evening went on (and due to the fascinating array of topics it really did go for some time!), our group saw everything from custom-design guitar-making workbenches invented by Ian, to spinning horns, and a wild array of one-off instruments like one guitar with a half-guitar shape, several metal body designs, and several non-guitar instruments.

But what we really saw was a man who followed his creative instincts far more than most, without the many restrictions that are placed upon people in more structured, restrictive corporate environments. A man who may be a craftsman as much as an audio engineer, but who above all seemed to be happy with his work and the legacy he has created.

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