John Kenneth Hilliard

John Kenneth Hilliard

name = John Kenneth Hilliard
residence = Los Angeles, California; Anaheim, California
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caption =photo courtesy of Todd W. White
birth_date = October, 1901
birth_place = Wyndmere, North Dakota
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death_date = death date|1989|3|21
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occupation = Engineer, designer, researcher, consultant
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spouse = Jessamine Hilliard
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employer = United Artists, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Altec Lansing, LTV, J.K.Hilliard and Associates
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John Kenneth Hilliard (1901, Wyndmere, North Dakota-1989) was an American acoustical engineer who pioneered a number of important loudspeaker concepts and designs. He helped develop the practical use of recording sound for film, designed movie theater sound systems and he worked on radar as well as marine detection equipment during World War II. Hilliard collaborated with James B. Lansing in creating the renowned Altec Voice of the Theatre speaker system. Hilliard researched high-intensity acoustics, vibration, miniaturization and long-line communications for NASA and the Air Force.

Hilliard's wife Jessamine Hilliard was a published researcher in the fields of allergies, enzymes, hormones and radiology. [ [ Jessamine Hilliard, 1944. "Are You Allergic?"] ] In 1932, she introduced Hilliard to a young electrical engineer working at her laboratory, a doctoral graduate fresh out of Cal Tech: Dr. John "Blackie" Blackburn, a man Hilliard would continue to associate and collaborate with in many technical endeavors.


Born in 1901 in Wyndmere, North Dakota, Hilliard received his B.S. degree from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota at 24 years of age. He then obtained a B.S.E.E. at the University of Minnesota. He married and began working toward a Masters degree.

Movie sound

United Artists

After the release of The Jazz Singer, all the major film companies were racing to hire audio engineers so they could record and reproduce sound for film. Through common acquaintances at Electrical Research Products, Inc. (ERPI) within Western Electric, [ AES Journal, Vol. 37 No. 7/8 July/August (1989). "An Afternoon With: John K. Hilliard" (1981)] ] Hilliard was contacted and hired by United Artists Studios in Hollywood, California in 1928 because of his studies in physics, engineering and acoustics. Not yet 28 years old, Hilliard was asked to supervise all sound recording for "Coquette", UA's first talkie. Western Electric provided recording equipment but the specific techniques for achieving best sound on film had to be developed by hard work and imagination. Hilliard's ground-breaking methods later became industry standards.


In 1933, MGM hired Hilliard away from UA. His first assignment was to fix their problematic recording amplifiers whose overall phase shift measured out to a voice-distorting 1500 degrees. Hilliard's solution was to use higher linearity transformers obtained from Lansing Manufacturing Company; in this way, Hilliard met James B. "Jim" Lansing. In 1934, Hilliard helped his friend Dr. John F. Blackburn get a position as design engineer at Lansing. In 1935, Hilliard and his team at MGM solved the problem of recording Nelson Eddy's strong operatic tenor alongside Jeanette MacDonald's flat and weak soprano voice, picking up an Academy Award for Sound Recording on the duo's first film together: "Naughty Marietta".

As part of his work to reduce the weight of sound equipment at MGM, Hilliard approached James "Jim" Cannon of Cannon Electric in Los Angeles regarding the machining of a smaller, lighter version of Cannon's heavy-duty electrical connectors that Western Electric had been using for motors and microphones. The resulting lightweight 6-pin Cannon connector eventually evolved to become the industry standard 3-pin connector for microphones; the XLR connector. [ [ Jesse Klapholz. "The History and Development of Microphones" SOUND & COMMUNICATIONS magazine, September 1986] ] Though the Great Depression was underway, Cannon Electric was kept very busy producing the popular connectors for film studios.

While at MGM, Hilliard was asked by Gordon Mitchell to chair the Motion Picture Research Council's sound committee. Hilliard's first task was standardizing a uniform method of reproducing film sound in the theater. He began by standardizing recording techniques among eight major film studios. Later, with Harry Kimball, he helped develop the 1938 "Academy Curve", a standard filter that attenuated recorded noise above 8,000 Hz while retaining prominent voice reproduction characteristics. [ [ Encyclopedia Britannica "Academy Curve or Standard Electrical Characteristic of 1938"] ]

hearer Horn System

Hilliard's continued contact with Lansing and Blackburn led to a conversation about the poor state of loudspeakers in movie theaters. The three men shared ideas about how best to improve existing designs. Hilliard took his plans to MGM's head of sound, Douglas Shearer (brother of Norma Shearer), who decided to fund the effort. Hilliard was made responsible for the concept and design of the project. Lansing Manufacturing was tapped to develop the drive units while Hilliard worked to improve the electronic components. What came out of this collaboration was a well-received industry standard loudspeaker system, "The Shearer Horn System for Theatres" (1937) [ [ (1937 brochure image) "The Shearer Horn System for Theatres"] ] , that garnered a technical award "Oscar" for sound from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

World War II intervenes

John K. Hilliard left MGM in 1942 to join his friend Dr. John F. Blackburn who had begun research for Massachusetts Institute of Technology to work on radar development for U.S. military applications. His work at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts led in 1943 to an employment opportunity back in Los Angeles at Altec Lansing where he improved their Magnetic Anomaly Detector (also known as "Magnetic Airborne Detection" (MAD)) system for Anti-submarine warfare (ASW).

Voice of the Theatre

In 1944, Hilliard returned to entertainment acoustics with Altec Lansing. Improving on the Shearer Horn System, Hilliard worked with "Jim" Lansing and "Blackie" Blackburn to develop the most famous loudspeaker system of the 20th century: the Voice of the Theatre (VOTT). Arriving in the marketplace in 1945, it offered better coherence and clarity at high power levels. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences immediately began testing its sonic characteristics; they made it the film house industry standard in 1955. Production of the long-lived VOTT continued into the 1990s.


In 1946, Hilliard took over as Vice President of Engineering due to James B. Lansing's leaving Altec to start a new enterprise which would become JBL. Hilliard remained VP Engineering at Altec until 1960 during which time he supervised the development of sectoral horns, significant reductions in the size of the condenser microphone, many amplifier and crossover designs and a major reworking and improvement of the Altec 604, the well-known high-fidelity coaxial loudspeaker driver originally designed by George Carrington, Sr., who was President of Altec Lansing at the time [Personal letter from the late Alvis A. Ward, former President and Chairman of the Board, Altec Corporation, to Todd W. White, 1990.]

As Chief Engineer at Altec, Hilliard joined the Hollywood section of the Sapphire Group, a regular social gathering of sound recordists (and a precursor to the Audio Engineering Society.) In 1948, Hilliard was elected to chair the Sapphire Group Recording Standards Committee. He made certain, along with the Motion Picture Research Council, that proposed industry standards were forwarded to members of National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE), Acoustical Society of America (ASA) and Royal Musical Association (RMA). [ [ Robert J. Callen. "Hollywood Sapphire Group"] ] Hilliard helped form the Los Angeles section of the Audio Engineering Society in 1951.

Noise studies

In 1960, Hilliard became director of the Ling-Temco-Vought (LTV) Western Research Center where he widened his scope of research to include the study of sonic booms, missile launch noise, atmospheric noise refraction, highway noise mitigation, hearing conservation and gun silencing. He helped develop an air-driven noise generator that produced 10,000 acoustic watts and was driven by a 300 HP diesel engine. He helped NASA with voice communication equipment including long lines between Cape Canaveral and Houston as well as assisting the Air Force with their worldwide telephone system. He worked on military listening systems. In 1968, Hilliard retired from regular employment at LTV, continuing to work with LTV as a consultant but in the same manner as if he hadn't retired. In the early '70s, Hilliard directed the hearing conservation program at Bio-Medical Engineering Corporation. He founded J.K.Hilliard and Associates in the mid-1970s, performing architectural acoustic analysis and creating the standards for California's multi-family housing construction acoustic design policies, significantly influencing interior and exterior noise-control standards for homeowners across the United States. Hilliard ceased consulting in 1985 and died in 1989.

Published works

* (1938) "Motion Picture Sound Engineering". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles.
* (1957) [ Acoustic Society of America: "Generation of High-Intensity Sound Using Loudspeakers for Environmental Testing of Electronic Components"]
* (1965) AES Journal Article Database: "High-Power, Low-Frequency Loudspeakers"
* (1966) AES Journal Article Database: "Development of Horn-Type Moving Coil Driver Unit"
* (1969) Audio Engineering Society Electronic Library: "An Improved Theatre Type Loudspeaker System"
* (1970) AES Journal Article Database: "Unbaffled Loudspeaker Column Arrays"
* (1971) [ Audio Engineering Society Electronic Library: "Microphone Windscreens"]
* (1971) Audio Engineering Society Electronic Library: "Airport Noise Management"
* (1977) Audio Engineering Society Electronic Library: "A Review of Early Developments in Electroacoustics in the U.S.A."
* (1978) AES Journal Article Database: "Dividing Networks for Loud Speaker Systems"
* (1978) AES Journal Article Database: "The Function and Design of Horns for Loudspeakers"
* (1978) [ Audio Engineering Society Electronic Library: "A Study of Theatre Loud Speakers and the Resultant Development of the Shearer Two-Way Horn System"]
* (1980) AES Journal Article Database: "The Practical Application of Time-Delay Spectrometry in the Field"
* (1984) Audio Engineering Society Electronic Library: "A Brief History of Early Motion Picture Sound Recording and Reproducing Practices"


* (1935) Academy Award for best Sound Recording on the film "Naughty Marietta"
* (1937) Technical award from the Academy for the Shearer Horn.
* (1951) Honorary Doctorate from [ University of Hollywood] .
* (1961) John H. Potts Award (now the Gold Medal), the highest accolade from the Audio Engineering Society (AES).


ee also

*James Bullough Lansing

External links

* [ Audio Engineering Society: "In Memoriam. John K. Hilliard"]
* [ Audioheritage biography of John Hilliard]
* [ History Department of the University of San Diego: "Loudspeaker History"]
* [ "The Shearer Horn"]
* [ "The A2/A4 Voice of the Theatre"]
* [ "Duplex" (the 604 2-way high-fidelity coaxial loudspeaker driver)]

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