Wired for Sound

Dave Geer has carried his sound business far beyond concert setup

by Rosalyn Graham

Dave Geer, the president of Geer Sound & Communications in Milton, turned his interest in music and his aptitude for puttering with sound systems into a full-fledged, digital-age business.

Lots of children take piano lessons because their mothers insist. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of people have fond memories of playing in a band as a teenager. A few found that their curiosity and love of tinkering won them the title of "the guy who handled the sound" for the band.

Dave Geer is a keyboard-playing sound guy who parlayed his talents, experience and a generous helping of entrepreneurial daring into a multi-million dollar business.

Geer is the founder and one-fifth of the staff of Geer Sound & Communication, a business he began in 1992 in the guest bedroom of his home in Milton with a bankroll of $1,300 and a lot of experience with sound and sound systems.

During what he describes as "my gypsy period," when he was a young man with no attachments, Geer played with numerous bands in clubs throughout the Northeast. There were "lots of clubs and lots of bands," he says, and all those bands needed some kind of sound equipment and someone in the band to make it work.

Champlain College and Geer have collaborated on innovative installations in Champlain College's new S.D. Ireland Center for Global Business Technology. Salesman Arnie Ginsburg (left) and design engineer Steve Clark are pictured in the facility's Macintosh graphics lab.

It was the era when synthesizers and electronic keyboards were transforming music. "When they were coming out it was like candy to me," Geer says. "I even built one out of a kit, so I could make all those sounds.

Always technically curious, Geer enjoyed interfacing equipment, "putting things together and seeing how things worked and then tearing them apart and trying something different."

Geer's path from band sound guy to sound and presentation guru was not a straight line. Although he was born in Burlington, he has lived most of his life in the Champlain Islands where his father was a captain on the Lake Champlain Transportation ferries.

Geer's first employment, like so many "LCT brats" was as a dock boy and deck hand, and he operated the Ferry Essex for a season. "I had designs on being a captain," he says, but instead he joined the military, intending to be a pilot. "I air-sicked my way out of that," he adds with a laugh.

Until 1992, Geer worked at various jobs, including five or six years with another sound company in town, until he decided that he had another vision of how to manage a business and serve the customers. Soon he and his wife and their newborn daughter were sharing their house with the new company, a copy machine, a printer and a computer.

It was a time of great change in the sound business. In schools, which were and continue to be a key part of Geer's customer base, sound systems were restricted to intercoms and screechy public address systems. "We installed new intercoms, then they needed a system in the gym and the auditorium, too. There was a lot of innovation, and we put in equipment with higher fidelity, better quality. Then the music directors, band directors wanted to record their choruses."

Geer credits Jim Whitby, University of Vermont's media services director, with opening a new field of endeavor to him. Whitby was helpful in the early years of Geer's business. "Three or four years later he sat me down and said to me, 'You know we really need someone in this area who can do more than sound can do display and projection and integration and audio-visual.'"

Whitby explained that he was going to Albany and Boston for those services. "That was the kick in the pants we needed," Geer says. Geer's contract to provide and install the sound systems, multimedia presentation and video projection systems in the Lafayette Annex behind the Old Mill was a first for Geer Sound & Communication and the beginning of a new dimension for the business.

"Our company's strength lies in taking tools from lots of different companies, recognizing that every company has its strengths in terms of what it brings to the market," Geer says. "We select things we believe are cutting-edge, be it projector, amplifier or screen, and bring them together in a coherent system. Then we provide a control system that lays over the top of it, so you con't have to understand every button and switch on the system. All you have to do is pick up your touch panel or press a button."

Nowadays, Geer says, it's the accepted standard for professors to teach in classrooms where they can communicate with the students using a ceiling-mounted LCD projector, a smart-board screen on which the instructor can write and draw, and send the new information back to be stored on the computer's hard drive.

"Teachers can move away from the computer, right up to the board, point out things, and students can see without being huddled around the professor's laptop," Geer says. He estimates 140 to 150 classrooms at UVM are equipped this way.

At Champlain College, Paul Dusini, the director of information systems, is excited about the advances the college has made working with Geer, his salesman Arnie Ginsburg, and design engineer Steve Clark.

In addition to a goal of having every classroom a multimedia-smart classroom, Champlain College and Geer have collaborated on the innovative installations in the new Global Business Center. "We had a vision of what we wanted to do, and Geer was a design partner with us," Dusini says. "They would do research and even did pilot projects to see if that was the right equipment for us. They helped to make that vision a realty."

Geer Sound & Communications has installed sound systems for several of the region's larger operations, such as UVM, IDX, General Dynamics and St. Michael's College. David Henry, media salesman, and Lisa Reynolds, office manager, are pictured at the Ira Allen Chapel at UVM.

The company can do magic in the corporate boardroom also. Geer de-scribes the scene: "You walk in to do a presenta-tion, walk up to the touch panel, press it and it will come on. Simply press the computer button on the screen, the lights will dim, the screen will drop, the shades will come down and the LCD projector will come on and it will switch properly to the computer. With one keystroke."

Geer Sound & Communications has done many other large projects, including sound systems for the Ira Allen Chapel and Gutterson Fieldhouse, and installations at IDX, General Dynamics and St. Michael's College. Smaller projects bring a special satisfaction to the close group of employees who work for the company.

Salesman David Henry is proud of a new conference room at Casey Family Center in Winooski, where technology helps social workers find families for children who need to be adopted.

He tells of the thrill of replacing an old public address system in a church in Springfield and receiving a phone call reporting that it had helped the older members who are hard of hearing. "I never thought of that as part of what we do," says Geer, who admits, "Most people think we just set up for concerts. We're making people's lives better. It's not technology for technology's sake."

That was illustrated again last fall when Geer tackled a project that has pleased the faculty and students of Folsom School in South Hero and had a positive impact on residents.

Geer, his wife, Lisa, a paralegal with Primmer and Piper, and their children, 13-year-old Emily and 9-year-old Connor, live in South Hero. The children attend Folsom School, a kindergarten-grade eight school for 175 students.

During a visit to the school, Geer observed that the Community Library, which serves students during the day and the public in the evening and on weekends, needed help to make its hodgepodge of computers and other electronics useful. He began looking around in the electronics workshop at his Milton headquarters and found items that would make a system.

During the Thanksgiving long weekend, he installed a projector in the school's ceiling, a pull-down, 8-foot screen and a couple of speakers; put the DVD player and equipment into a floor rack; and set up a system to control everything through a push-button panel about as big as a paperback novel.

"Anyone can use it," Geer says. To ensure that is true, he spent time at the school pulling faculty into the newly equipped room and going through the operation of the system.

"You could see the lights come on," he says, "and what happened with the kids was even better. Now the kids could see the computer presentations from their instructors, see the Internet. The last time I was in the school, fourth-graders were doing PowerPoint presentations. We gave them the means and they are reaping the benefits."

The school and the entire town are benefiting, according to Sharon Hayes, the Folsom School library media specialist. First- and second-graders are working with MS Paint, as Hayes directs them using the teacher station. Third-graders are doing simple PowerPoint presentations. "Every time Dave walks into the building, I thank him," Hayes says. "He has made a big difference in the education of the children and the lives of community members."

Hayes and the students found a way to surprise their benefactor. Geer recalls his visit to the school a few days before Christmas. "The librarian said, 'We can't get the screen up, it's stuck,' so I walked over and rolled it up." The wall was decorated with a big Christmas tree and on the tree were dozens and dozens of Christmas balls made of colored paper, each one with a hand-written thank-you message from one of the students."

Originally published in July 2005 Business People-Vermont