Keith Yates is passionate. Passionate about everything–live music, great recordings, cinema, his latest home theater design, his clients and colleagues, even what he’ll be doing 10 years from now. Yates has always been this way and apparently his passion is what has driven his legendary career as an audiophile, acoustician, high-end A/V guru, writer and, for years, one of the industry’s foremost designers of performance-based home theaters. In fact, he is regarded as a “designer to the designers,” as many top residential systems contractors enthusiastically enlist his services.
Yates has always had a love of music and was a budding high school audiophile in central California in the early 1970s. With confidence in his ear and a growing understanding of acoustics and the technical fundamentals, Yates strutted into Fresno’s high-end audio store and declared, “I belong here. You should hire me.” And they did.
He went on to write album reviews, as well as a hi-fi column, for his college newspaper, ultimately graduating from University of California, Berkeley. Yates thought he was destined for law school and on to make his fortune. His girlfriend Hanne, however, convinced him that his only motivation for the legal career was to make enough money to buy good hi-fi equipment, so he might as well make his fortune in hi-fi instead. A career was in the making and Yates, ever impressed with Hanne’s wisdom, married her.
In the late ’70s, his first stop along that career path was managing a small hi-fi shop in Carmel, California. Yates took a keen interest in room acoustics and began studying everything that he could get his hands on about sound and acoustic treatment technology. A few of his customers even hired him to design their room acoustics, which was quite unusual for the time. “The subject of acoustics and room design interested me as much as the audio gear, and of course now everyone realizes just how important it is”, Yates recalled.
In 1981, Yates set up his own tiny shop, called Keith Yates Audio, in Sacramento. His mission was to sell and install high-end audio products. Well before Custom Installation as we know it, Yates’ slogan was, “We don’t sell boxes, we sell results.” He began running ads in the back of Audio magazine offering free reprints of his articles on speakers, acoustics and room design. Within two years, Yates was already selling and installing elaborate high-end audio systems in homes along the west coast and throughout the rest of the country.
Referring to his early days as a custom installer, Yates recalled, “I screwed up a lot of clothing crawling through attics and under floors. There was little or no demand for custom installation at the time–I was really just forcibly turning retail customers into custom-installation clients–but there was never the slightest question in my mind that this was my path, and that an industry would someday form around the idea of custom installations of high-end A/V gear in custom-designed playback environments. The problem was that there wasn’t much gear that addressed the niche I was trying to create.”
Yates quickly outgrew his tiny Sacramento shop both in space and personnel needs so, in 1983, he moved into a 1,200-square-foot facility in an old nearby meat-packing plant. He hired his first employee, then convinced his wife Hanne to leave her job in the State Capitol and join the growing business. They built out the space and began cultivating a local clientele to go along with their national clients. Yates became intrigued with surround sound and began experimenting with surround-speaker layouts and room acoustics. By the time the first CEDIA EXPO kicked off in Florida in the late ’80s, he was looked upon as a “veteran” and probably the only retailer whose focus was the custom installation of high-end equipment. By that time, Keith Yates Audio’s space was getting cramped and the company badly needed some breathing room. The prospect of expanding into a new facility converged with a dream for Yates: to design half a dozen no-holds-barred private theaters a year for discerning clients around the world. He thought the best way to achieve that dream was to build a giant custom A/V store and staff it with the best systems designers, engineers, installers and project managers.
These people, along with the physical facility–the custom theaters and soundrooms, library, service center and the live concert hall in the middle of it all–would give him the infrastructure needed to do the half-dozen ultra projects a year. In the meantime, the growing core local business would pay the bills.
It was a business plan that looked perfect on paper but failed to take into account a financial backer that never came through, a recession and ultimately the Persian Gulf War. The store opened to rave reviews and was a model for other high-end A/V retailers around the country. Despite brisk sales that initially were ahead of forecast, the business did not have the capital to withstand the downturn. The store ultimately could not survive and closed in 1991. Yates looks back on this failed business venture as a valuable learning tool. “In retrospect, the experience was a gift,” he said. “I learned a lot of brand-new things, because I needed to learn them. One of them had to do with the nature and value of friendship. Another one was on the value of ‘deep listening.’ Here I was, a guy who’d been in the sound business for all those years, a guy who’d made his living with his ears, yet I’d had just as much trouble hearing that little voice deep inside as the plumber down the street who’s tone-deaf. That little voice had been trying to tell me that the staff and ‘infrastructure’ I was building weren’t going to ‘enable’ me to design a half-dozen ultra-venues a year, they were going to prevent it.”
After closing the retail operation, Yates began getting up earlier, reading books, learning new software and working harder. He started filling sketch pads with acoustical designs of private theaters and precision listening rooms. Yates was a man on a mission. “It was a scary, unsettling time, financially, but creatively it was flat-out exhilarating,” he said. During the ’90s, Yates established himself a designer with a design/installation practice. Though there was more money in selling equipment, designing was clearly his preference. Over time, he grew to the point where he could make a living by providing the design and letting someone else make the money on the equipment and installation. He supplemented his design business income by writing popular features on room acoustics for magazines such as Audio/Video Interiors, Stereophile, Custom Builder and Archi-Tech.
Over the years, Yates has developed a stellar following among his clients, many of whom are many of the top residential systems contractors in the business. Yates sells what he calls “performance-based room design”–pure design and engineering which he is quick to note is a highly specialized niche. “The only firms offering anything remotely like what we offer are a few recording studio designers. But there’s a difference between the aesthetics of the studio vs. in-home aural experience, and it’s increasingly clear that very few studio designers have the interest or the knowledge of psychoacoustics to address that difference in a meaningful way.” Yates says his mission is to “take home theater design beyond the ‘eye candy’ stage and into the next stage, where architectural expression arises from the room’s inner logic, that is, from performance-based engineering. After all, most people enjoy being in a movie theater… but they absolutely love being in the movie. It’s the complete sensory experience, the suspension of disbelief and immersion in a new, made-up world that keeps the homeowner coming back for more, long after the novelty of the velvet curtain and gold braid have worn off.”
Summing up what it’s all about, Yates asserts, “No matter what the boilerplate verbiage in your contract says, if the client is spending a couple hundred thousand dollars or more, he has entrusted you to turn this ethereal fantasy world we call ‘the movies’ into something his or her brain can temporarily accept as reality. You’re not going to get him there simply by selling him your biggest speakers and amplifiers and throwing a couple inches of fiberglass batting on the walls. So how do you know when you’re there? It’s when your client gets to the end of the movie and the lights come up and he wonders where the heck he is, and what his name is, and why you’re smiling a huge smile at him.”
Now that is passion.