Golden Ears

Pseudoscience or a side effect of focus and emotional experience?

During my time as Avid Technology’s most prolific third party developer, their engineering staff complimented me twice: “he says things to management we wish we could say” and “he has golden ears.” I took both as warning signs.

“Golden Ears” is jargon like “Midas Touch” or “Green Thumb.” All unreliable predictors of future success.

In audio, Golden Ears typically means someone is about to try to sell you a $13,416 power cable. In health care, it refers to those lucky to maintain decent hearing past middle age. In my case, it meant I was about to have a very difficult time closing a deal with a dysfunctional media company.

But first, the crow.

While waiting at a stop sign, my office manager and I watched a crow look both ways and cross the street, dragging a broken wing. This led to a heated discussion with the staff at the nearest animal hospital (euthanasia was the only service offered) after which a kind worker slipped us a note: “crow guy.”

We drove to the location and discovered a giant tortoise in the front yard, a massive fig tree full of crows, and two dusty but otherwise spotless cars beneath.

“This must be the place.”

We received rehabilitation instructions (“he’ll tell you when he’s ready to go”) and, gesturing at a tree full of hundreds of happy but noisy birds, crow guy encouraged us to release our crow many miles away.

Each morning the crow would greet us with a distinctive sound. Different sounds when he was hungry or thirsty. Over several weeks his posture gradually changed and indeed it was clear when he was ready to go. We released him 20 miles away and watched him fly off.

Traffic on the 101 sucked as usual and he beat us back to the office.

The daily experience of caregiving, the morning repetitions, and the growing realization that this crow was more soulful than many of the people at Avid Technology rewired my brain to identify him.

Each morning he continued to greet us from his perch above the parking lot. Even as that tree filled with dozens of additional crows, it was obvious which call came from him.

Simultaneously I was negotiating the sale of my company to Avid Technology. One of our specialties was a piece of equipment known as an audio compressor. I’d spent hundreds of hours learning how they work, and, while recording and repairing and coding and debugging them, how they failed. Years of intense, focused, emotional work.

Previously Avid threatened to clone our products if we refused to sell on their terms. A year later, they broke off negotiations ahead of a trade show saying there was something they were going to show me.

Audio trade shows are ridiculous. Hall monitors roam the aisles with sound meters begging people to turn things down. (Works about as well as you’d imagine.) After a show, audio forums fill up with people excited to type about the products they couldn’t hear, nervously withholding any actual opinion lest they embarrass themselves celebrating something that turns out to be junk.

It’s in that environment I find myself summoned. I’m led to a tiny demo station with cheap computer speakers – but it’s staged like an intervention. Every engineer I know at the company is there. Most refuse to look me in the eye. Marketing is there, smug-faced in wrinkled t-shirts. Avid’s CEO is there and my main competitor has been invited to observe the execution.

They hit the play button. “I can’t hear anything,” I say.

They offer me a pair of headphones and I say, “No, I can hear, but I can’t hear it doing anything. Can you put it on drums?”

Apparently I’m the first person to ask and, after some fumbling, they hit the play button again. They’re wiggling knobs and it’s still not doing anything. Ten seconds later I tell them to stop.

“From the knobs and labels I can tell the piece of gear you’re ripping off but that’s not at all what it sounds like.”

“It phase cancels, it’s a perfect replica” says the CTO.


He calls me an expletive and walks off.

They continue to demo this thing four times an hour on their main stage. After the show wraps, people typing in forums are very excited.

But there’s a sudden change in the dynamics of the negotiation.

Two weeks later my competitor is notified of the pending sale. He breaks into tears.

Months later they finally come clean with customers:

A bug was introduced very late in the development process, after our listening tests… it’s not possible to create many of the types of sounds you’d like to get from a good general purpose (or mix bus) compressor.

We recognize that this is a pretty major shortcoming, and we’d like to apologize wholeheartedly on behalf of Digidesign to anyone who tried Impact and found it fell short of their expectations.