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Foti Lives for Audio to the Fullest Extent

A conversation with the Telos Alliance CEO, recipient of the NAB Engineering Achievement Award

Foti accepts the award at the 2013 NAB Show. He thanked several people including his father, his grandfather and his business partner, the late Steve Church.

credit: Photo by Jim Peck

CLEVELAND — It’s as if Frank Foti lives by one rule: Your ears shall experience audio to the fullest extent of the law of physics.

His ears and his knowledge of algorithms have served the founder of Omnia Audio well through a career highlighted by breakthroughs in audio processing.

NAB called Foti a “mostly self-taught” radio engineer. Foti’s technological highlights include being the first to apply look-ahead limiting in multiple bands to audio processing, integrating standard FM and HD Radio processing within a single processor and developing composite filtering, which made it possible to run FM subcarriers with aggressive composite audio processing, according to colleagues.

In addition, the prolific Foti almost singlehandedly has pushed the concept of FM stereo single sideband suppressed carrier, or SSBSC, into broadcasters’ consciences. Describing him, colleagues use words like driven, assertive, colorful and upbeat.

Foti, 57, was honored with the 2013 NAB Radio Engineering Achievement Award in Las Vegas. The award recognizes people who have made significant contributions to broadcast engineering. Jay Adrick of Harris was chosen for the TV Engineering Achievement Award.

Audio processing is what Foti has spent decades doing — the NAB mentioned his “tireless evangelism toward the general improvement of broadcast audio quality” — but his horizons are broader now. In early 2012, he assumed the reins as chief executive officer of parent company the Telos Alliance. Former CEO Steve Church was ailing at the time, and died about five months later.

Mobile connectivity

Foti has since immersed himself in the workings of the group’s five product divisions — Telos Systems, Axia Audio, Linear Acoustic and the recently acquired 25-Seven Systems, as well as Omnia — to position the company for what he calls the future of mobile connectivity.

“On a daily basis, we are looking at ways to get signal from this point to that point, which transmission systems need to be coordinated and what will the future of the vehicle be like when people listen to audio, TV or movies,” Foti said.

“There are so many innovative ways coming in which music and entertainment will be delivered in a mobile environment. That is the place we need to be, and audio processing figures prominently into all of that.”

Foti’s engineering career began at a small radio station in Willoughby, Ohio, in 1975. WELW(AM) served as the gateway to bigger opportunities in his hometown of Cleveland. Foti soon joined Malrite Communications’ WMMS(FM) and WHK(AM), and was mentored by Chief Engineer Jim Somich.

“He told me later that he didn’t hire me because of my experience, but my drive, energy and willingness to learn was off the charts,” Foti said.

Somich emphasized the on-air sound at the two stations, which were both top-rated in the city. “Jim wanted WMMS to stand out on the dial through something called audio processing. That hit home for me. Together, we studied it, researched it, modified it and tweaked it,” Foti said. “We home-brewed a lot of things. It was like going to engineering college with a major in audio processing. Plus, I learned electronics along the way.”

Foti then took his custom audio processing presets to KSAN(FM) and KNEW(AM) in San Francisco before heading to WHTZ(FM) in New York as chief engineer. He moved to WHTZ about two weeks prior to its famous format change in August of 1983. He and PD Scott Shannon were probably most responsible for its sound and personality, observers said.

‘Gonna kick ass’

“There was an energy level that I loved about the radio station life, especially at Z100. I knew that Z100 was gonna kick ass. The vibe was that of a winner. We went from worst to first in 74 days. It was a lot of fun,” Foti said.

His audio processing accomplishments at WHTZ from 1983 to 1987 led him to shift to full-time manufacturing with the founding of Cutting Edge Technologies in 1988. In an interview about 12 years later in Radio World, he said its first product was the Vigilante.

“The first piece I started modifying was the Aphex Model 700. I was building Vigilantes in my apartment, by myself. Drill pressing everything to re-do the front panels,” he said at the time.

The first commercial audio processor built from scratch at Cutting Edge was the analog Unity 2000.

Noting his application of look-ahead limiting in multiple bands, a company press release said Foti accomplished this in part by placing pre-emphasis after the limiters in his digital broadcast audio processor.

Foti, familiar to industry conference attendees for the numerous papers he has delivered, joined forces with Steve Church at Telos Systems in 1992 and became minority owner of the new entity. There he launched the, his first digital processor.

“I remember Steve [Church] and I listening to the first generation of DSP-based broadcast processors, and realizing we could make a difference. A big difference,” Foti said. “So I went into hibernation, and along with some ideas collaborated on with Steve, we created the first DSP-based hard-limiter [clipper] that didn’t alias.” Aliasing distortion is an additional distortion within a digital system, he said, that can occur when signal content exceeds the Nyquist frequency of the system and reflects itself back down into the useable passband or range of the system.

The audio processing wars that ensued, particularly between Foti and his direct competitor Orban, did a lot to drive innovation through the years.

“In any good competitive environment, both sides are pushing each other. Bob Orban might see it differently, but if not for, I’ll bet some of those new features that came out in later Optimods probably would not have happened,” he said. In fact, in receiving the NAB award Foti is following in the footsteps of Bob Orban, who was similarly honored in 1995.

The list of accomplishments for the Wickliffe, Ohio, High School graduate continued to grow. Foti is credited with inventing the non-aliasing DSP limiter and the low IMD limiter, and developing composite filtering, according to the Telos Alliance.

Still learning

Foti once wore his hair long and could have been mistaken for a roadie for The Who. If he is a bit more corporate now, he remains a flamboyant, outsized personality. Throughout, he has exhibited a highly competitive nature. Known for being hands-on when it came to installing Omnia processors at stations, he now tweaks and tunes the business structure at the Telos Alliance.

Honor Roll

Past winners of the NAB Engineering Achievement Award are listed. Beginning in 1991, radio and TV winners were named; radio winners are shown.

1959 John T. Wilner
1960 T.A.M. Craven
1961 Raymond F. Guy
1962 Ralph N. Harmon
1963 Dr. George R. Town
1964 John H. DeWitt Jr
1965 Edward W. Allen Jr.
1966 Carl J. Meyers
1967 Robert M. Morris
1968 Howard A. Chinn
1969 Jarrett L. Hathaway

1970 Philip Whitney
1971 Benjamin Wolfe
1972 John M. Sherman
1973 A. James Ebel.
1974 Joseph B. Epperson
1975 John D. Silva
1976 Dr. Frank G. Kear
1977 Daniel H. Smith
1978 John A. Moseley
1979 Robert W. Flanders

1980 James D. Parker
1981 Wallace E. Johnson
1982 Julius Barnathan
1983 Joseph Flaherty
1984 Otis S. Freeman
1985 Carl E. Smith
1986 Dr. George Brown
1987 Renville H. McMann
1988 Jules Cohen
1989 William Connolly

1990 Hilmer Swanson
1991 George Marti
1992 Edward Edison & Robert L. Hammett
1993 Robert M. Silliman
1994 Charles T. Morgan
1995 Robert Orban
1996 Ogden Prestholdt
1997 George Jacobs
1998 John Battison
1999 Geoffrey Mendenhall

2000 Michael Dorrough
2001 Arno Meyer
2002 Paul Schafer
2003 John W. Reiser
2004 E. Glynn Walden
2005 Milford Smith
2006 Benjamin Dawson & Ronald Rackley
2007 Louis A. King
2008 Thomas B. Silliman
2009 Jack Sellmeyer

2010 Steve Church
2011 L. Robert du Treil
2012 Paul Brenner

In that seat for just over a year, he hasn’t been surprised by much.

“Even though Steve was the CEO, we were always very in touch with each other in terms of running the business. Whether it was a tech advancement or expansion, he always called me and we did these thought exercises.”

What is most interesting for Foti is the level of dynamics that go on throughout the course of the daily life of the company.

All five divisions, he said, “have a life of their own, really. They each need nurturing and need care and love. Then it might need a kick in the pants, too. But the Alliance is bigger than any one person; it’s wasn’t about Steve then and it’s not about me now,” he said.

Foti enjoys interaction with people who have an eye to the future “on a broader scale,” even though he no longer spends all of his time locked to the engineering bench doing digital audio signal processing.

“I still have time to do some of that. Steve always said, ‘We should be paid for what we do best.’ But we have some very talented digital audio processing programmers to do that work now.”

In fact, the day-to-day business of Omnia, which makes processors for FM, AM, HD, Internet streaming and production, is led by Cornelius Gould, co-developer of the Omnia.11.

“I’m learning a lot since,” Foti continued. “I don’t necessarily come from a background steeped in business experience. I enjoy reading about Tom Edison and Walt Disney and learning how those guys pushed the bar. They saw a vision and went for it. We want to be that way, while remaining fiscally responsible, and more importantly taking care of the customer.”

Business for the Telos Alliance is good, Foti said, as the economy rebounds from the recession.

“We have been fortunate that the companies have recovered financially the past two years. We have exceeded sales projections and sales have been going up. I know that hasn’t been common for everyone.”

When the economy tightened, he said, the company controlled expenses but didn’t cut people. “We sort of went into hibernation, but we still developed new products across all of our brands. So when things improved we had product in the pipeline, and we were able to maintain sales of legacy items along the way.”

Foti points to international markets, including India, China, Australia, South America and parts of Europe, as being strong for the Telos Alliance.

Meanwhile, he has been in full assault mode in educating the broadcast industry on what he sees as the benefits of SSBSC transmission, an alternative to double sideband suppressed carrier systems.

SSBSC is modulation of the stereophonic subcarrier in the FM multiplex baseband signal that reduces multipath of the FM channel through a reduction in occupied bandwidth of the modulated carrier, according to the white paper authored by Foti.

“I certainly didn’t come up with the concept of single sideband for FM, but dug up some papers and did further research on implementing it. It’s compatible with existing FM receivers. [SSBSC] eliminates the multipath so HD Radios don’t have to go into blend as often because the radio senses less multipath,” he said.

Omnia implemented a SSBSC option for the stereo generator function employed in the Omnia.11 FM audio processor. Foti said a number of FM stations in the United States are using SSBSC technology with FCC experimental authorization.

Foti lives with his wife Anna Cortes and her 14-year-old daughter in Lakewood, Ohio. He is active in the Lakeshore Live Steamers, a group dedicated to small gauge steam engines and locomotives. You can find him April through November tooling around on his 750-pound steam engine on a track at a county park near Kirtland. Foti also owns a large HO scale model train collection.