John Melanson, senior technical researcher at Austin-based Cirrus Logic, has been passionate about tinkering and solving complex problems for as long as he can remember.
“I’ve always loved technology. I’ve always loved doing things,” he said. “When I was little, my dad was an engineering professor and my after-school babysitter would hang out with his graduate students and with his colleagues. So it was always around us and I was always trying to have cool roles, always trying to do something.”
Despite his passion for technology, Melanson was originally drawn to music, not engineering. But he soon realized by watching friends who were exceptional musicians that he couldn’t compete.
“I could be a hack musician. But I was a pretty decent technologist, and technology, music, and sound go together really well, so I started building synthesizers, recording gear, and sound systems. PA – anything to do with sound and audio.” said Melanson. “It was a way of playing my technical abilities with the fact that I really liked the sound and really liked using it.”
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After decades of invention, Melanson is what most would consider more than just “decent” when it comes to technology.
Last month, he filed his 500th patent with the US Patent Office, making him one of the most prolific inventors not just at Cirrus Logic, but worldwide. For comparison, Thomas Edison had about 1,000 patents during his lifetime, while Thomas Murray, inventor of power plants, had about 462, and Polaroid co-founder Edwin Land had about 535. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had more than 100.
“It’s hard to imagine how it turned out,” Melanson said of his tally. “I really only remember the first handful, and somewhere along the way it got out of hand. I never planned on getting a huge number or setting a goal to do this or anything. either. It just worked that way.”
Cirrus Logic, which has around 800 local employees, manufactures low-power voice and audio chips for smartphones, tablets and headphones. Its main sources of revenue are chips for audio and voice technology and signal processing applications used in smartphones and sound engineering equipment.
It acquired AudioLogic in 1999, an audio technology firm of which Melanson was a founding member.
The lifelong inventor received his first patent straight out of engineering school in 1974 – for devising a new way for keyboards to register notes correctly, which made modern electronic keyboards possible.
“It was a really big invention in terms of what it did. But it’s probably the worst patent I have” because the legal details are badly written, Melanson said. “A lot of things I invented were never patented because I was working with people who thought that was a bad way to protect them, especially in the late 70s.”
Melanson first moved to Austin after Audiologic was acquired by Cirrus Logic. At Cirrus, he was involved in a range of technological innovations, including advances in personal computing, semiconductors and networking equipment.
It has influenced a number of products that most people use frequently. For example, his work with light-emitting diodes helped make LEDs dimmable. He also pioneered the first use of low-power digital signal processors (DSPs) for hearing aids and helped create the first networked distributed audio system still used for audio wiring in theme parks, halls together and the US Senate.
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No matter what product or technology area they work on, Melanson follows a simple formula.
“Doing things is like being given a set of tools, a set of skills, and a problem and finding a way to put them together that solves the problem,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what it is. It doesn’t matter if it’s an audio amplifier or something a light bulb. It’s kind of the same thing and you learn the process of putting the parts together.
He considers himself a “dumb”, and he said most of his work can be attributed to “force of will” and a willingness to disregard the way things were done in the past.
“I’m really comfortable not seeing things or doing things the way they’re supposed to be done,” he said. “Inventing things requires, really by definition, just saying, ‘Wait, I’m going to throw out everything I need to do, and see if there’s another way to do it. It comes very naturally. It’s almost my rebellion. If something is done a certain way, that seems like reason enough not to do it.”
Melanson has received numerous awards, including a Science and Engineering Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his significant contributions to the evolution of digital audio editing for film post-production. He was also named Inventor of the Year by the Intellectual Property Section of the State Bar of Texas and received the Outstanding Inventor Award from the Austin Intellectual Property Law Association.
Yet he is quick to note that not all of his inventions were successful. Despite a career primarily in creating audio technology, he said he’s gone “almost (to) the other extreme” in his spare time. He is more likely to play a non-electric Steinway B grand piano and non-mechanical instruments, and uses only a small sound system hooked up to the TV.
“There are a lot of things that I should probably spend my life penance for,” he said, pointing to an early auto-tuning system and an early sampling synthesizer that people could use to edit, record and detail many tracks together. “Was the sample synthesizer a great boon to mankind or was it the complete death of a lot of music? That comes down to a matter of personal opinion.”
Some of the technologies that Melanson helped create decades ago have led to modern inventions that are used in new products. For example, cell phone amplifiers are the “great-grandchildren” of early hearing aid technology. But even with his older inventions, Melanson said he’s always looking for new ways to solve problems, especially as the world and technology change.
“I think about how many problems there are still to be solved. You can sit back and say, ‘I did this and this and that. It just stops you from doing the next thing,” Melanson said.
On a day-to-day basis, Melanson continues to “meddle” in technology while collaborating and mentoring young engineers and technologists.
“Definitely my favorite thing is sitting with some of the younger assistants. I really enjoy working with very smart, fresh out of school graduates who try to inspire them to do things in a different way or looking at things differently,” Melanson said. “I’m really involved in our patenting process and trying to steer people towards new ways of thinking about things, new ways of doing things. .”
After nearly 50 years, it hasn’t slowed down. Melanson currently has more than five dozen patents pending, not counting the three he’s been granted since he passed 500 in late June, and he has no retirement plans.
“Every day I work on something fun,” Melanson said. “It’s the best thing of all. Right now, I get up and say, ‘That’s interesting. I’ve been up all night thinking about this. I can’t get this out of my head. . And here’s how I’d like to do it.'”