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End to End Excellence: The People Behind the Product

Date: 30th November 2018

Andy McHarg, dCS Technical Director

“My thinking time ranges from about forty nanoseconds to about three years”, says dCS Technical Director Andy McHarg. He’s referring to the sheer bandwidth of the projects he works on – on one hand he is custom coding the superfast microprocessors found in dCS DACs, and on the other he’s working years in advance looking at the company’s product development strategy. In other companies, people in his job would have less of a role in planning new products, but technology – and where it is going – is central to dCS, an indivisible part of what is done.

“I was actually born in Cambridge”, he explains. “I always wanted to be a footballer as a kid. I support Liverpool, I fell in love at an early age and now I’m stuck with them. I was a hard working kid at school – although by no means a model child. I did computing, maths, electronics and biology for my A Levels and then Applied Computing at the University of East Anglia, which is basically computing and electronics. It sort of set me up for my career here at dCS, lots of work with embedded microprocessors, and all that sort of stuff – although they were a lot slower back then. The first CPUs I started coding on were 8-bit Intel 8051s, those were the days! Considering the latest Vivaldi has three 32-bit CPUs with 64MB of RAM, we’ve come a long way…”

When Andy graduated, he had a very strong idea of his future career – whatever he would be, it would not be a software engineer, he says. “So I became a software engineer, oddly. The trouble with being a software engineer is that there are so many problems you have to fix to make everything work properly. For that reason I rather fancied being more of a hands-off analyst sort of person, but that didn’t happen! Instead, I came to dCS as my very first job from university – to help with some of the engineering capture tools. There were all these whacky tools that were put together in house to make different bits of software talk to other bits of software. Those were the days when we were still doing the Ministry of Defence contracts, and audio was very much a sideline.”

Andy remembers the founder of dCS, Mike Story. “He was quite scary, a really clever guy but seemed a bit intimidating to me at that age. He was, shall we say, very fast to work out when things weren’t entirely correct. He knew everyone’s job better than they did; anyone who has ever worked with Mike will tell you that he is one of the smartest guys you will ever meet. So I became a software guy, and when the audio team started on the first control board, I was drawn into that and never looked back!”

When asked if Andy thought this was more interesting than military radar work, his reply is an unequivocal, “God yeah!” When he joined dCS, the company was already making the 900 studio analogue-to-digital converter, and just about to make its first DAC. “Tony Doy headed the new audio division. He and Duncan MacLeod, Technical Director at the time, came up with the configurable processing board concept which had a microprocessor on it – basically a computer purposed for audio. We used FPGAs – Field Programmable Gate Arrays – which were pretty new at the time, new and exciting. It was a challenging project because the basic spec was to make the best DAC in the world. As with all these things, it took a bit longer than we expected – even with seven people working full time for around two years.”

Andy explains that, “everyone else in the industry was popping a Philips Bitstream DAC chip in a box with its matching digital filter chip, adding a few buttons and a controller chip and calling it a DAC. Ours was rather different to that. My friends in electronics thought it was a bit stupid – after all, what’s the point of doing all that work when you can buy a chip that does it all, basically? It was a struggle, but Mike used to walk around telling us to get on with it, and we did. He was an audiophile, and so was I. We were so happy with the result, and it won many awards – although he used to say that awards don’t pay the bills, whereas working products do!”

The resulting dCS950 DAC was rip-roaring success in the pro world. “But what happened then was something very fundamental to the history of the company”, adds Andy. “Our Japanese distributor started selling this stuff to Japanese audiophiles, who loved them. Yet we began to get complaints about how complicated they were, and how clunky. Basically they found it hard to live with pro gear, so we decided to do a more user-friendly version, and Elgar was the result. It was easier to use, better to look at and more housetrained, basically.”

As for his life at dCS, Andy explains that, “we had – and still have – a really tight-knit engineering team and we were – and are – always learning. This makes for an intellectually stimulating environment and made the job interesting for me then, and now. Even though we have our arguments, we’re all on the same page. Keeping up with developments in technology is always difficult but that’s why I like it. In other branches of electronics there’s often the attitude that audio is a solved problem, yet there is of course so much scope for improvement. What I like is that on a personal level, everybody here can point to something in a product that they have done – and it is them. It is nice, but it’s a double-edged sword because you’re responsible if it doesn’t work! You have to be big enough to stand up and say that was my fault. Some people can’t deal with that…”

Andy thinks that you have to be a certain type of personality to work at dCS. “We have the somewhat enviable position of being the best in the world, but that means you are there to be shot at and you really can’t let out a product that is not the best. When you start thinking about it like that, it becomes quite stressful. Being Technical Director since 2005, I would know!”