The NRC connection

In 1980, at the age of 16, I bought my first stereo system, which was centered on a pair of PSB New Avanté loudspeakers. It was through PSB’s product information for those speakers that I first learned of Dr. Floyd Toole and his work at Canada’s National Research Council (NRC), in Ottawa. Dr. Toole, an electrical engineer and a renowned acoustician, conducted seminal research in acoustics and psychoacoustics at the NRC in the 1970s and has published extensively in the field. PSB’s founder and chief designer, Paul Barton, was introduced to Dr. Toole by Ian G. Masters, who was the editor of Audio Scene Canada magazine at the time, and who had published some of Dr. Toole’s writing. Barton began R&D work at the NRC under Dr. Toole’s mentorship in 1974, a relationship PSB was not shy about in their product information.

Dr. Floyd Toole in 1967Dr. Floyd Toole in the NRC anechoic chamber in 1967

Barton benefited greatly from having access to the NRC’s anechoic chamber and other facilities, and to Dr. Toole’s research findings, but he wasn’t the only one. By 1980, other Canadian designers joined the NRC to avail themselves of the institute’s facilities and expertise and to improve their speakers. A case in point is Ian Colquhoun, who founded Axiom Audio in 1980. Colquhoun recently told me that when he began designing speakers, it was mostly done by ear with little knowhow. But once he met Dr. Toole and learned his speaker measurement and evaluation methodologies, “it changed everything.” Ultimately, it helped his company, and many others, design superior speakers that could compete successfully against brands from around the world.

Dr. Toole left the NRC in 1991 when he was offered the position of vice president of acoustical engineering at Harman International and moved to California. (A year later, he also took the role of director of the corporate research group at Harman.) He retired in 2007 but stayed with Harman as a consultant until 2019, when he was 81. Dr. Toole’s pioneering work at the NRC was pivotal to the remarkable growth of the Canadian loudspeaker industry in the 1980s and has influenced speaker design the world over in the decades that followed.

SoundStage! and the NRC

The SoundStage! Network was born in 1995 in Ottawa, only minutes away from the NRC, but I had no idea then that the institute’s facilities could be made available to me to conduct loudspeaker measurements. That changed in 1999 when I met Paul Barton at the NRC for an interview. That interview stretched to three dense hours as he attempted to confer on me as much of his knowledge of speaker design as he could during our time together. At the end of our meeting, as I was about to leave, he casually said, “Why don’t you start measuring speakers here?” And with that, everything changed for me. “Let me introduce you to Rene St. Denis to set you up,” he proposed. St. Denis was the technician in charge of the NRC’s anechoic chamber, acoustics lab, and purpose-built listening room. Barton said this so matter-of-factly, it sounded like a done deal.

Paul Barton and Doug SchneiderPaul Barton and Doug Schneider at the NRC lab in 2015

Effectively, it was a done deal. The NRC had been renting its facilities routinely to speaker companies and various Canadian magazines for decades. With St. Denis’s help, within a couple of weeks, the necessary arrangements were made, and a contract was signed. We started measuring speakers at the NRC about a week later—and still do today. Paul Barton is still there too, and when I know he’s around, I’ll often pop by with some coffee to talk speakers. He can still teach me a thing or two.

Enter Joe Clark

If you’re not a Canadian over 50, you’re forgiven if you don’t know who Joe Clark is. Now 84 years old, Clark had a short stint as Canada’s 16th prime minister: from June 4, 1979, at 40 (the youngest Canadian prime minister to date), to March 3, 1980, when his government lost a no-confidence vote over its first budget.

Almost 12 years ago, my oldest son was at a summer camp at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa. On the final day, he got to fly in a small plane. My youngest son, Chris, was too young for the camp, so he couldn’t take part, but the two of us went to watch. As we were watching the kids taking flights, I saw Joe Clark, who was there with some young members of his own family. I approached him and introduced myself and asked if I could take a picture of him with Chris. He gladly obliged. We then started talking, and at some point in the conversation, I mentioned Floyd Toole and related that some of his important work at the NRC took place during Clark’s tenure as prime minister. Clark listened attentively, genuinely intrigued, and then said, “That’s a great Canadian story that needs to be told.” I could tell he meant it. I also knew he was right.

Joe Clark and ChrisFormer Canadian prime minister Joe Clark and Christopher Schneider-Barroeta in 2012

Clark’s words stuck with me, and over the years since, I have harbored a growing ambition to tell the story of the NRC’s contribution to the Canadian loudspeaker industry in a documentary film. Our chief videographer, Chris Chitaroni, has been all-in since I first spoke of it, but the idea never really took off. Then, one day in early 2023, while I was hanging out with Paul Barton at the NRC, he told me that reportedly Floyd Toole is moving back to Ottawa. Leaving a comfortable situation in warm, sunny Southern California for Ottawa at retirement seemed improbable, so I emailed Dr. Toole to ask if this was just a rumor. It wasn’t. I then called him to solicit his blessing for and participation in our documentary project. To my relief and delight, he assured me that once back in Canada, later that year, he’d be happy to take part.

Too-good-to-be-true stories

About 16 years ago, in a nearby arthouse cinema, I watched Mesrine, a two-part French film that told the true story of French gangster Jacques Mesrine and his crime rampage in France and Canada. Parts of the plot seemed so outlandish, I was sure artistic liberties were taken in adapting the story to the screen: when Mesrine escapes from prison, for instance, then comes back to fight the guards and get more prisoners out; or when he smuggles a gun into the courtroom and takes the judge hostage. When I got home and looked up Mesrine and his criminal exploits, I was astonished to learn that the events depicted in the film occurred precisely as shown. There was no need to embellish the story to make it more compelling!

From the moment the NRC documentary idea was conceived, it was obvious to me that Floyd Toole’s role in the film would be as crucial as it was in real life. The financial and logistic obstacles to his involvement in the project, however, have been difficult to surmount: to interview Dr. Toole on camera, we would have had to travel to California. This would not only have been costly, it would have also imposed strict time constraints on us. I also realized that the story would have to be presented almost entirely from a historical perspective—what happened up to the 1990s. It could still be a good story, I thought, but it would have been a challenge to make it a great story, let alone one that seems too good to be true.

With Dr. Toole’s return to Ottawa, those obstacles to his involvement in the project that have thwarted us all these years all but disappeared. More important, his return to the place where it all happened, to reunite with old colleagues and audio writers and speaker designers he helped, takes the story full circle to a satisfying ending that makes it all the more compelling. It’s an amazing story that has been handed to us. No need for embellishments.

The next steps

A couple of days before I wrote this article, I sat down with Dr. Toole for coffee to discuss our documentary project. During that meeting, I heard some details I didn’t know and learned of some people who were involved that I didn’t know—all important elements that need to be in our film. Chris and I are jazzed and ready to dig in. Our plan is to first interview Dr. Toole about his career—his work at the NRC in particular—and to then interview the many other people who were involved with the NRC, both in and outside Canada, as Dr. Toole’s work has reached far beyond Canada’s borders.

Floyd Toole and Doug SchneiderDr. Floyd Toole with Doug Schneider in 2024

As Joe Clark said, this is a story that needs to be told, and we plan to do it justice. A documentary project as involved as this, however, will take some time to complete—at least a year, possibly two. In the meantime, short excerpts will be available in a new series titled NRC Loudspeaker Stories we’re creating for our YouTube channel. These clips should give you a taste of what’s to come and some insights you won’t find anywhere else. It will begin later this month. Subscribe now so you don’t miss any part of this fascinating, important story.

. . . Doug Schneider