Company founders Dave Shadoan and the late Ross Ritto
Parnelli Audio Innovator Award Honors Sound Image Co-Founders
By Kevin M. Mitchell, FOH Online – Oct. 2012
Sound Image has been at the forefront of the pro audio industry. The company holds 10 patents and has created or contributed to advances in console designs, the Phase-Loc System, L Track rigging, fiber optic amplifier networking systems and the use of composite carbon fiber in loudspeaker enclosures. For this and so much more, the Parnelli Board of Advisors is honoring the company’s founders Dave Shadoan and the late Ross Ritto with the 2012 Parnelli Audio Innovator Award.
Shadoan insisted that Ritto, who lost his battle with cancer on Dec. 23, 2009 at the age of 60, share the honor posthumously. “I can only accept this if it’s for Ross as well,” Shadoan says. “Without him, there would be no Sound Image, and who knows where I’d be. But I am deeply honored to receive this Parnelli on behalf of myself, his family, and all the good people at Sound Image.”
“Dave and Ross built one of the most admired companies in the business,” says Terry Lowe, Parnelli executive producer and FRONT of HOUSE publisher, calling Shadoan “a key player in moving pro audio forward. He inspires a loyalty in his top-tiered clients like Brooks & Dunn, Def Leppard and so many more. These men really contributed to the high standards of professional touring.”
“Dave has always been fair to deal with and is always pushing the state-of-the-art for his clients,” says A-1 Audio founder and Parnelli Innovator Honoree Al Siniscal. “Dave thinks of advancements for the client before the client even knows what they need! He works hard, and I’m glad to hear he’s receiving this honor.”
“I am really glad that Dave and Ross are getting recognized for their work in the sound reinforcement business now,” declares Michael MacDonald of ATK Audiotek. “Neither are guys who put much value on bringing attention to themselves. They quietly built a huge powerhouse PA rental company, and they invented the materials and equipment they could not find in the market along the way. They are both truly innovators in the best sense of the word, and their efforts advanced the quality of sound in the live production world. I am glad that I had a chance to know and work with Ross and I appreciate being friends with Dave.”
“It’s been our great pleasure and good fortune to have business and personal relationships with Sound Image going back decades now,” says Larry Italia, VP/GM of Yamaha Commercial Audio. “They were a key dealer for us from the beginning and have become more so as time has passed. They can do it all and do it the right way.”
Sound Image has become as a powerhouse audio company handling international tours and installations, and the company is still pioneering pro-audio advancements. The story of its rise is truly remarkable and, like Shadoan himself, a bit crazy.
Get Out of Town
Shadoan was born in 1955 and grew up in the small town of Sidney, OH. “I was an only child growing up in a place like Mayberry, living the life of Leave it to Beaver,” he laughs. A fourth grade standardized test revealed he had a musical aptitude, so in fifth grade he wandered into the school gym for school band and gravitated toward the saxophone. “I picked it because I thought it was the coolest-looking thing on the table.”
He was no mere band geek, however, and also excelled at track, football and basketball while playing sax in jazz band and orchestra. His perfect-pitch ear and ability to figure out musical problems quickly had him transposing and orchestrating pop tunes by the likes of The Beatles for the band by the time he was in eighth grade. In his mid teens, he learned to play guitar and taught himself a little keyboard, while, as he says “mastering neither!” He also admits to having a music geek mind for music trivia. “I was always that guy who read every word on an album cover,” he says. “I can recall songs — who wrote what, who produced, that sort of thing — much to the amusement of my coworkers and clients!”
Sidney, OH was a small hometown, but it’s not isolated. “I grew up just south of the Lyndhouse Park roadhouse, which I equate to the one in Porky’s!” he says. “Every Friday night the young crowd went to hear up-and-coming groups like the Amboy Dukes, Deep Purple and the Silver Bullet Band. Then, on Saturday night, my mom and stepdad would be there in their plaid shirts, because it was square dance night.” So on Saturdays, the kids would follow the band that played the roadhouse to a club called the O.P. (i.e., the “Other Place”) and play there.
Although he had a comfortable life and plenty of exposure to good music, Shadoan had no intention of staying in that small town. “My intention always was to get the f*** out of there,” he laughs. In high school, he and a couple buddies built a camper — a “little wooden house” on the back of a pickup truck, with the plan of taking it to the left coast when they graduated. “California looked pretty sexy back then.”
After high school, they did indeed hit the road, going to California via Florida (why not see the country?). Their vehicle had much in common with the Scooby Doo van (including apparently whatever Shaggy experiments with). It was a road trip filled with mishaps and adventure, including being robbed in Tucson. After a frantic collect call, parents wired the wayward kids $300 via Western Union. With that, Shadoan finally made it to Southern California.
“I never really got to play music, but getting out there wasn’t really about that,” he says. Shadoan dallied in all kinds of endeavors, from importing Persian rugs to dealing in gray market Mercedes, and was pretty successful at all of it.
Enter Ross Ritto
A buddy named Richard “Ricardo” Torpey co-owned a sound company called Silverfish and Shadoan invested money in the company for years before even meeting one of the other partners, Ross Ritto.
“The first time I met Ross, he was climbing through my kitchen window… he’s lucky I didn’t shoot him!” Shadoan laughs. The year was 1979, and Torpey and Ritto were supposed to hook up with Shadoan for a trip to Las Vegas. However, they were so late getting to his house that Shadoan had given up and went to bed. Despite that less-than-auspicious encounter, the two hit it off immediately.
Ritto was born in 1949 in Rochester, NY. The classically trained pianist was on the music scene in the late-1960s playing a monster B3 for the band Joshua opening for the big acts of the day. Ritto would work closely with Ashly Audio founders Bill Thompson and Dave Malloy, and in 1971 founded Silverfish Audio with Joel Silverman (now managing director at Millennia Media). One of Ritto’s early clients was Jimmy Buffet. “He and Jimmy became true friends, and when on tour as a monitor engineer sat in for a few concerts for a sick keyboardist,” Shadoan says, noting that Buffet is still a loyal client.
In the mid 1970s, Ritto and Silverman, working with Ashly’s Thompson and Malloy, collaborated on the design of their first pro mixing consoles. “They had onboard tunable parametric EQ and four-band tunable crossover, which no one had done before. They also built a 40-channel board, probably the first to do so.”
Starting in 1979, Shadoan became increasingly involved in Silverfish. “Ross taught me how to do audio, and I went for it because I understand what works and what doesn’t,” Shadoan explains. “I was intrigued what Ross what doing, and because of his mentoring I was learning and progressing” in the business.
ATK Audiotek’s MacDonald spent the 1970s providing sound systems for touring, broadcasting and installations. He first met Ritto in the late 1970s at the Open Air Amphitheater at San Diego State when someone told him about a company called Silverfish Audio. “Ross was a real character, in the truest sense of the word,” he says. “He had a big, bold personality and was ready to go to guns at the first drop of the hat. But I liked him and we got along when our paths crossed.”
Later, when he heard of the company’s new partner and name change, MacDonald says he was “curious about this new guy and the clever new positioning of the company. Then Ross introduced me to Dave and I started to realize that this was the beginning of a potent new team and a company that was going to make a big mark on the industry.”
A New Company
As the fledgling soundco evolved, partners were bought out and moved on. Ritto and Shadoan then found themselves with a 50-50 ownership, and the duo opted for a new name. “We created a new company on that day in 1982,” Shadoan says. Sound Image was born.
The two entrepreneurs complemented each other. Ritto was the organized one — “the kind of guy that would sit down with a spreadsheet, back in the day before we knew what it was called,” Shadoan says. “He drew boxes on a piece of paper to figure out labor costs — the hard stuff. Me? I’d have to go find the f***ing money!” he laughs.
Of course Shadoan did more than that. “I have a more gregarious personality, and he wasn’t the frontman type, so it was a good fit.” Both were good engineers already working for the likes of Jimmy Buffet. Soon they were doing Jackson Browne, Robert Cray and John Denver.
Shadoan has developed personal relationships with his clients over the years in addition to professional ones. “Boz Scaggs is like my brother,” he says. In the early days, Scaggs was going through monitor engineers when he called Sound Image and Shadoan picked up the gig.
Today, amazing products are on the shelf for any occasion, but back then, “we built everything,” Shadoan says. “And even if we bought a power amp, we hot rodded it.” This particular talent led to a long relationship with QSC. “We were the first touring company to take their products on the road,” Shadoan says. “They started making power amps and we switched our entire inventory over to QSC.”
Otherwise, “we even built our own mic cables. There wasn’t anything there that people were selling that we could use. I can remember me and [engineer] Mike [Adams] at five in the morning painting cabinets. And banks weren’t lending, so we needed cash for those 124 tweeters we needed right away to put into the speakers we were building.”
In the 1980s MacDonald, who was at Yamaha, looked to Shadoan and Ritto to provide product feedback on new gear. “In general, these sessions could be a bit tedious, but it was really a fun exercise when the Sound Image team showed up,” he recalls. “Dave could come up with a great product feature, crack a joke, and have everyone in the room totally stitched up, all at the same time. To this day, I still laugh out loud just thinking about Dave strolling into a corporate meeting wearing shorts, flip-flops and a Hawaiian print shirt. He is the original ‘Tommy Bahama’ in my book.”
Along with Ritto, Shadoan credits Mike Adams and his engineering skills as being a key part of the company’s success. “He was the first employee, and for his 35th anniversary, we gave him a Jaguar XK, because where would we be without him?”
Adams was instrumental, right from the beginning: In 1983, he worked on the development of Phase-Loc system, which employed mechanical time alignment, dual enclosure splayed baffles and a double-wide cabinet. “It was also the first use of L Track rigging, allowing the system to fly, and we sold our clients on the fact that, with this, we could put up the same amount of P.A. in half the time,” Shadoan says. “That’s when people started to take note of us.” Most of the major manufacturers all over the world are still using that system today.
Shadoan was always the one who hustled, though, in and out of the shop.
“Anyone who knows Dave Shadoan is aware of his love for high performance sound systems, high performance automobiles, and potential new touring accounts,” says David Scheirman, VP of tour sound at JBL Professional. Scheirman has long been part of the pro audio scene, and spent time out on the road with Ritto on Jimmy Buffett’s 1986 Floridays tour.
Scheirman recalls an incident from 1985 that illustrates all three of Shadoan’s loves: “At the time, my company, Concert Sound Consultants, was working with various concert artists, including The Robert Cray Band. Robert and his group were getting ready for their first big gig in southern California at the Universal Amphitheatre (now the Gibson Amphitheatre). As the band set up for that night’s concert, it was evident that a more qualified stage monitor mixer was needed for the show. Unable to reach anyone locally, on a long shot I called Dave, despite the fact his company was located in another city.” Without flinching, Shadoan said, “I’m on my way!” and Scheirman heard his office door slam on the way out before someone hung up the phone.
Shadoan had just taken possession of a brand new 1986 model Audi Treser, an all-wheel drive, high-horsepower, turbocharged speed demon that was being imported into the U.S. in limited numbers despite its decidedly non-ecological drive train. Dave hit the highway from San Diego’s North County and headed to the amphitheater.
“One impossible hour later, Dave pulled up to the backstage loading dock of the venue, which was over 100 miles from his office, and charged up the stairs. ‘You must be Dave Shadoan!’ said the band’s anxious road manager, who showed Dave to the monitor desk, got on the intercom headset, and called out, ‘dim house lights.’” Shadoan ended up touring the world with Cray and his band, “and, 26 years later, the group is still a Sound Image client, to this day. And I believe Dave still has that Audi….” (Shadoan does indeed — a self-proclaimed “car nut,” it’s one of about a dozen that he owns.)
Nashville and Beyond
In 1984, Sound Image built its first building, and the company was on its way — with one significant hitch. Their 20,000 square feet facility was not just a warehouse, it also housed a rehearsal studio and two video studios that were created from scratch. A great deal of financial resources was poured into what was probably the nicest state-of-the-art video studios south of Hollywood.
Their market research told them the average cost of shooting one was $200,000 to $300,000 each, they were going to be in the money. But alas, “south” of Hollywood was a little too south. Built in San Marcos, CA, near San Diego, artists in the LA area apparently felt it was too far to go for a video shoot.
Underused, the video studio became a financial albatross, and Shadoan and Ritto barely got out of it — they eventually turned the facility over the to the inventor of the pop-up sprinkler, who used it for infomercials and made a fortune.
“I think that today, we’d be the biggest sound company in the world if we hadn’t gone into that video studio,” he says. But he certainly gained from the MTV phenomena, picking up important clients.
In 1989, Sound Image had a breakthrough that led to launch of its Nashville operation. Shadoan was approached by Craig Brazier, Barbara Mandrell’s road manager, who had been looking for a new sound company to work with. Sound Image ended up supporting her on a tour that was as big and sophisticated as any arena tour of the day, including Genesis. Mandrell took a shine to Sound Image and, in 1991, she had an unusual request: that they open a Nashville office. While many would shirk at such a request, Shadoan found it “a no brainer. She’s a very smart business woman, and wanted the people she worked with close by,” he added.
With their entry into Nashville, a lot of the local sound companies thought Sound Image was there to take their share of market, but Shadoan made it clear that wasn’t his intent. “We’re not geared up to just throw gear in the truck — we’re touring.” The Nashville office is run by Everett Lybolt, who’s been running it since 1993. The location is a major part of Sound Image’s business, because “Country artists get it. They know it’s a job. People like [longtime clients] Toby Keith and Brad Paisley are great and know what it’s all about.”
More country artists followed Mandrell to Sound Image, too, including Clint Black in 1993. Then Sound Image landed Brooks & Dunn, who would explode on the scene the following year. “They put us where we are today,” Shadoan says. “Now we’re a household name. We’re doing about 30 country tours a year, and today that includes The Band Perry, Rascal Flatts, Taylor Swift, Brad Paisley and Toby Keith.”
Also in 1994, Sound Image became the first touring audio company to employ a complete fiber optic amplifier networking system. “We ran the entire system on fiber optics, and that technology eventually evolved into [QSC’s] QSControl, which is still being used today.”
Around this time, Sound Image pioneered graphite carbon fiber composite material for loudspeakers that featured a word they coined: “waveguide,” according to Shadoan. The speakers had low-distortion spherical horns and were first used on the Pink Floyd Division Bell tour.
“Ross was a boating fan, and even got to be friends with four-time America Cup winner Dennis Conner,” Shadoan explains. “They showed us carbon boats, and we couldn’t help notice that the hull of a ship was like a speaker box. The speaker became known as the G2, and Sound Image received seven patents related to it alone. “These two-way enclosures are still in use today among our many clients,” he says. The concept also evolved into the G5 system.
In 1994, Sound Image played a key role in a major restoration of the famed Hollywood Bowl. The multi-million dollar upgrade there took two years to complete, and ever since, the landmark venue has called Sound Image in for upgrades and changes.
“Not Done Yet”
Sound Image is always working with other leaders in the industry (engineer Mike Adams likes to say they are “the guinea pigs of the business”). In the 1990s, when MacDonald was at JBL, he again worked with Sound Image. “They bought a lot of product, but they also help companies make products better. They pioneered the art of making speaker cabinets from composite materials after Ross fell in love the materials he discovered from his sailing obsession. More than one major speaker manufacturer benefited from what they brought to the industry.”
Italia also started working with the pair in the 1990s. “I’ve known Dave for over 20 years, and we’ve had many interesting conversations over those years, particularly regarding digital consoles and what they should or shouldn’t be,” Italia says, and then adds, with a laugh: “In the beginning, I had to adjust a little bit to Dave’s demure personality and his natural reticence, but eventually I was able to get him to come out of his shell and tell me what he really thought.”
In 2000, Sound Image worked with the JBL team to develop composite enclosures creating one of the best-selling live speakers ever, the VerTec 4889. It debuted at the Democratic Convention that year, and thousands have sold since.
Sound Image was back working with QSC in 2002, creating the Wideline Line Array system featuring a three-point rigging design and a patented high frequency waveguide. In 2005, they deployed the first fully functional IT network/system architect system for professional tour use at the Gibson Amphitheatre. “All systems today are using this network technology.” A year later, they worked with Yamaha Commercial Audio on a complete line of contractor installation audio products.
Then, in 2009, Ross Ritto lost his battle with cancer. Ritto’s passing hit Shadoan and everyone else who knew him hard. While it’s been nearly three years since Ritto has passed, he’s still sorely missed.
“I’ve managed to get past him not being around on the business aspect of Sound Image, figured out how to work without him, but personally, I miss him every day,” Shadoan says. “He was a mentor, a business partner and a friend. There’s no way I can explain how I wouldn’t have gotten where I am today without him.”
Shadoan has unfortunately had additional experience losing someone close to him too soon. His first wife, Mary, passed away in 1997. Their son, Jason, has worked with Shadoan for more than 20 years and today is Sound Image’s top estimator. Shadoan and wife Linda have a daughter, Leilea, “who is 15 going on 36,” he laughs.
“I couldn’t have ever written this deal that has become my life” Shadoan says. “It’s exceeded expectations. I love everything I do. I could not imagine a better life than the one I was given. That’s why I’m grateful for everybody I’ve worked with, because nobody does this alone. I don’t care who they are or how much ego they have. It’s also about the people you surround yourself with, and I’m just the guy that tries to steer the boat. There are so many smart people around me it’s ridiculous. I can’t compete!”
Today, along with the artists mentioned above, Sound Image counts Melissa Etheridge, James Blunt, Gwen Stefani/No Doubt, Lenny Kravitz, Elvis Costello, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Kid Rock are among its many regular clients. Sound Image has also received multiple Parnelli awards over the years, among their many other honors.
“I commend the Parnelli Board of Advisors and voters for their very wise choice in selecting Dave and Ross for this award, they are deeply deserving and bring a unique prestige to this year’s Parnelli Awards,” Italia adds.
Yet Shadoan admits he’s a little uneasy with the “lifetime” implication of receiving the Parnelli Audio Innovator award. “Hang around, because we’re not done yet,” he smiles.