“Renaissance Man”: Damon Von Schweikert on Albert Von Schweikert

The phrase “renaissance man” carries gravitas. It’s probably overused. But Damon Von Schweikert believes the term genuinely befits his late father, speaker designer Albert Von Schweikert, who passed away on May 29, 2020, leaving behind myriad contributions to audio through his namesake companies.

Albert Von Schweikert was a musician from a young age, studying piano and violin at the Conservatory of the University of Heidelberg in Germany before switching to guitar. Eventually, he became a session musician and before age 20 landed a lead guitar gig, touring with Sonny and Cher and Neil Diamond. That would eventually lead him into loudspeaker design.

Von Schweikert enrolled at CalTech, where he studied under audio-industry giant Richard C. Heyser. During that time, he began developing his own innovations, such as his Acoustic Inverse Replication (AIR) theory, in which the speaker should act as a “microphone in reverse” to approximate more closely the radiation patterns picked up by omnidirectional mikes used in recordings. The results are intended to increase the perception of realism in a musical performance. He also worked at the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Von Schweikert later worked for Oskar Heil, known for inventing the ESS Air Motion Transformer. Then, prior to starting his own firm, Von Schweikert was employed by transducer manufacturer KSC Industries, where he designed transducers and crossover systems for audio companies including Klipsch, Polk, Infinity, Apogee, JBL, and many others.

“He’s generally known for his networks, but I think that’s only half the picture,” Damon Von Schweikert says. “He was always obsessed with drivers.” He also served as a consultant for companies such as Lucas Film THX, Walt Disney, Steinway, A&M Records, Sheffield Lab, Mobile Fidelity, and JVC.

Albert founded Von Schweikert Research, his company’s first iteration, in 1994. After relocating from Southern California to upstate New York, the younger Von Schweikert told Stereophile in a Skype call, disastrous post-snowstorm runoff and tricky local conditions forced the company to close, and VSR relaunched as Von Schweikert Audio in 2000 in San Diego. Leif Swanson joined Von Schweikert in 2008 and became the elder Von Schweikert’s design successor. In 2015, Damon took over as CEO (footnote 1).

Stereophile‘s Julie Mullins talked to Damon Von Schweikert about his memories of his father. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Julie Mullins: In addition to being an audio designer, your father was a musician. What are some of your earliest memories with your father involving audio and music?

Von Schweikert: Music has always been part of my life. We always had a stereo system. Years ago, my father worked in a stereo store, and he’d often give me castoff equipment. When I was six, the first thing I got was an eight-track player and an old Garrard turntable. What I remember most is building with him and then testing with him. I was a kid, but I wasn’t bored with his company. He made everything either a learning experience or just a fun time.

But during my teenage years, this kind of annoyed me: Beyond my regular yard and pool-cleaning chores, I’d spend at least one day a weekend, sometimes two, building speakers in the garage. I’d started building before that—unsupervised from age 12. But my dad would allow me to pick the music, because he knew he was infringing on my going out with my friends. I played the Sisters of Mercy for him—First and Last and Always—and he loved that album. After he retired, one time when he came here, we put the Sisters of Mercy on. Right up until the end, he would remind me of the days we spent at that time.

Mullins: How did his background as a musician lead to his designing loudspeakers?

Von Schweikert: My dad was one of the only rock guitarists in Florida at the time who was classically trained, so he could read music. He was hired to play lead guitar on tour with Sonny and Cher and Neil Diamond, and they were complaining about the house sounds and how the PA system stank, and my dad said, “I’ve got this hybrid thing I designed.” They loved his JBL-based custom speakers and used them exclusively throughout the tours. After the tour, Neil told my dad, “Look, Al, you’re a pretty good guitar player, but you’re a damned good speaker designer.” My dad took offense to that! He was like, “You know, I’m going to be big with the guitar.” He moved to California and struggled as a studio musician for a while before he finally took Neil Diamond’s advice. “Maybe Neil’s right. Maybe I’m more exceptional as a speaker designer than I am as a guitarist.”

Mullins: In what ways would you say you’re similar to or different from your father?

Von Schweikert: We had so much in common, but we also had our differences. My dad was absolutely the risk taker. He was more adventurous, and I was the more cautious type. I was more of the operations guy. To me, everything was orderly. Whether you’re building speakers or building a business, it’s a lot of the same mindset. You’ve got to put this first before you do that; you can’t build a house without a foundation. We did fight a lot—in frustration, never in anger. He was motivated by experimentation and loudspeaker design more than business management. And I had other interests. I would come and go from the business because there are challenges of working for your family, especially your father. Yet, he was a very patient, calm, caring guy. He liked to be the front man of the band, but he also wanted other people to shine.

Mullins: What was it like working for your father and his company earlier on, then later? How did your relationships in those roles evolve over time?

Von Schweikert: From the early days, what I remember most is building with him and then testing with him. But I wanted to be an English professor—at least that’s what I thought I wanted at the time. Then Dad said,

“I want you to be my production manager. It’s not just working in the garage but working at a factory.” So I got into it, and I developed my opinions of how the business should be run by watching the trials and tribulations my dad went through. There were times where I would leave the company. The good news is, I learned a lot while working in other businesses. And then, as I got older and started a family and had those expenses—children, home, car—I took a little more personally some of the choices he would make. He was always willing to work with people and always treated them with the utmost respect, so that’s to his credit. My dad believed that anyone could do any kind of thing. In a lot of ways, he was right. And I loved that about him, even if it did lead to troubles for the business over time. But, you know, at the end of the day, he was happy.

My dad and I would always argue about marketing. I would stymie him on a lot of his ideas, like he’d want to put a blog on the website. “Dad, blogs are great—if you update them every day, and I know you don’t have time for that. There could be six months of no posts, and people are going to be wondering if we’re still in business. So, no blogs for you!” He was never really about marketing. He didn’t like the building of dealer networks. He just wanted to build and design speakers.

Footnote 1: More details about Albert Von Schweikert’s life and work can be found here. Michael Fremer’s 2020 review of the Von Schweikert Ultra 55 can be found here and Robert Harley’s 1989 review of the Vortex Screen, which was an early Albert von Schweikert design, here.

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