Oswalds Mill Audio is an odd name for an audio company. Who is Oswald? What does a mill have to do with anything? Well, sometimes stories don’t go in straight lines. But there’s always a reason why things happen. For Jonathan Weiss, the founder of OMA, it all came together when he ventured into the woods in Pennsylvania.
A good place to start with the story is with the Mill itself. This blogpost might be about audio, but in this case the setting will prove to be key for the story of the sound. Jonathan wasn’t on the lookout for an extensive restoration project. He was in fact, living in a loft in Brooklyn where he had just finished editing his first feature film. He was out in Pennsylvania helping his sound engineer renovate an old farm, when a friend suggested they’d visit this old abandoned place. This turned out to be the mill. A solid stone and wood grinding mill that had once belonged to the Oswald family; who had built it as their home somewhere around the 1800’s, the construction was unique to its kind in the New World. Jonathan knew immediately that it was trouble. Instinctively, he knew he had to take on this project.
“I think I might be strange in that every major decision I have made in my life never felt like a decision at all. When people talk about decisions, I assume a process that involves careful consideration, weighing different factors and outcomes, and so forth. I’ve never done that. It always just seemed obvious what I should do. Sometimes the “decision” did not lead to the outcome I thought it would. But that never bothered me, because life is not composed of straight lines. When I found my loft in NYC, I knew it was the right place instantly, as I knew my wife was the right person to spend the rest of my life within the first 10 seconds of meeting her. I just knew those things in my bones.”
The mill itself had been sitting there for over 100 years. It had never been inhabited after the Oswalds left it and there were no signs of the 20th century ever taking place in it: no windows, no plumbing, no sceptic system, no electricity. But luckily also no plastic, no formica, no plywood, no polyester carpets, no linoleum- nothing that disturbed its original state. Jonathan knew the renovation would be of epic proportions but that didn’t hold him back from figuring out a way to buy it. After the first couple of years making it habitable, he realised he had almost a thousand square meters of space, walled in by a meter of solid rock. And no neighbours.
When in his teens, Jonathan used to work at a 1930’s Art Deco cinema in California. He remembered the projectionist would have the cinema’s horn speakers blasting soundtracks through the theater without any distortion or strain. That sound had captivated him ever since and together with a friend they tried to recreate it at the mill. They went through New York looking for old audio systems at cinemas that were being demolished or renovated, which left them with a whole lot of equipment that they didn’t quite understand. But there was a big DIY scene of audiophiles out there who did. And soon, the mill became the place for meeting and experimenting with sound and home made equipment. Jonathan started to learn about the workings of old RCA speaker systems from the 30’s and 50’s and why the sound projected so well through them. It made him realise there was something going to waste in modern audio systems that more and more frequently seemed to give less for more while the long-gone horn loaded speaker system had proven to deliver not just efficient but also beautiful sound.
When they first started producing their own audio systems, the surrounding woods provided all the materials they needed: wood, slate and steel. This allowed them to build amplifiers and horns based on the 1930’s and 1950’s audio systems they coveted so much. The mill provided the space that made it possible to build and play with apparatuses that big.
Today, the mill is still there and it’s where they design, manufacture and play with any new system they are developing. But back in Dumbo, Brooklyn, the Bridge loft is where you can treat your ears to a tour of their colossal soundscapes. What does one of their massive horn loaded speakers sound like? Our creative director, Kassandra Schreuder, recently took a trip to New York and met up with Jonathan at the Bridge Loft. The interior itself she described as amazing, but what captivated her completely was the music she was able to listen to. It was ” beyond realistic, almost as if the performance was staging before me. It wasn’t just music, it was like a hologram of sound”. It ended up being a five hour long visit where each sound system played a different record for Kassandra to experience anew. She left the Bridge Loft completely entranced by the experience.
Because even if you would be interested in their smallest speaker set, what Jonathan enjoys doing most is giving a taste of everything they build, in the spaces that have made it all possible: ” Wether it’s sound design or aesthetic design, to me it’s all the same thing. I want to make beautiful sound and I want the equipment to look beautiful and I want it to be in a beautiful space.”
To feast your eyes on their speaker sets check out their website.
Images: Cynthia van Elk.
Words by Sara Martín Mazorra