Remembering Henry Jacobs, The 'Goof-Off' Who Pioneered Surround Sound Jacobs' achievements are almost too diverse to list: a humorist, record producer, sound designer and radio host, he achieved little fame but was a catalyst for giant steps in the worlds he touched.

Remembering Henry Jacobs, The 'Goof-Off' Who Pioneered Surround Sound

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: In the late 1960s, Henry Jacobs worked on an animated TV series called, "The Fine Art Of Goofing Off," which he described as "Sesame Street" for grown-ups.


HENRY JACOBS: You still have a lot in you, a lot of the real drive and grit that makes America what it is. Don't waste it on idle pastimes. Put in some overtime. Log a few golden extra hours at the late old grindstone. Remember, there's no time like overtime.

ROSE: Jacobs elevated goofing off into an art and a career of sorts. In the 1950s, he had a world music show on public radio station KPFA in Berkeley. And he produced several LPs of audio collage and comedy skits. Jacobs told me in 2005 that he had offers to move into standup comedy, but he wasn't interested.


JACOBS: Much more fun to just do it in my little laboratory on tape and edit it forever and start studying the micro-temporal considerations of how long a pause should be before you went on talking.

ROSE: Many of his comedy skits involved characters from the counterculture colliding with the straight world, like jazz musician Shorty Petterstein.


JACOBS: (As Shorty Petterstein) I blow French horn, man.

WOODROW LEAFER: (As Interviewer) Could you get a little closer to the microphone? A little closer, Oz.

JACOBS: (As Shorty Petterstein) French horn, man.

LEAFER: (As Interviewer) French horn?

JACOBS: (As Shorty Petterstein) Yeah.

LEAFER: (As Interviewer) And what do they call you a French hornist?

JACOBS: (As Shorty Petterstein) Well, you know, like I blow horn, man.

LEAFER: (As Interviewer) Would you speak up a little bit, Oz?

JACOBS: (As Shorty Petterstein) I blow horn, man.

LEAFER: (As Interviewer) Yeah.

JACOBS: (As Shorty Petterstein) Yeah.

LEAFER: (As Interviewer) Fine.

ROSE: Henry Jacobs also produced radio shows and records for the philosopher Alan Watts, who was his friend and neighbor in Northern California. And Jacobs manipulated his own tape recordings to create music.


ROSE: Jacobs's work with audiotape culminated in the "Vortex Experiments," a series of live events at a planetarium in San Francisco in the late '50s. Jacobs placed loudspeakers on the walls surrounding the audience on all sides. That made a big impression on Walter Murch, the Academy Award-winning sound designer of "Apocalypse Now," as Murch told me in 2005.


WALTER MURCH: He invented this idea of surround-sound. Sound that moves all the way around in the theaters directly linked to the kind of experiments that Henry was doing at the Morrison Planetarium. It's now the standard format for film sound.

ROSE: If Jacobs never got a lot of credit for his accomplishments, it didn't seem to bother him very much, says John Bryant. He runs the label Important Records which re-issued some of Jacobs's work on CD.

JOHN BRYANT: Maybe if he was more caught up in his own ego, then he would've pursued recognition and maybe worked on one thing for a bit longer instead of being the catalyst for many different things.

ROSE: In his later years, Jacobs lived on the side of a mountain high above the Pacific Ocean. He graciously entertained a steady stream of friends and admirers. One frequent visitor was Mark Watts, Alan Watts's son who is also the sound designer's son-in-law.

ALAN WATTS: Despite all the amazing things he did in his life, when you spoke with him, it was never about that. It was about the latest thing that he was completely jazzed about doing.

ROSE: Watts says Henry Jacobs's latest obsession was an Alaskan camper van that he was meticulously restoring until day before he died, a few weeks shy of his 91st birthday. Joel Rose, NPR News.



That was a remembrance for Henry Jacobs, humorist, record producer, sound designer and much more.


Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.