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Sound Devices Co-Founder Returns to Northwestern for Convocation Speech

On August 23, Jon Tatooles returned to his alma mater to deliver the convocation address to the first graduating master’s students of Northwestern’s Sound Arts and Industries program.

Tatooles graduated from Northwestern’s School of Communication, then called the School of Speech, in 1989 and majored in Radio/Television/Film. He’s been back to the school several times since then and even lived in Evanston from 1998 to 2005, but this was his first speaking engagement.

“I was presented with the opportunity to speak and it was quite an honor,” Tatooles says.

Now the co-founder and managing director of Sound Devices, LLC, Tatooles says his Northwestern communication education has certainly served him well, though he does admit he’s disappointed the Master of Arts in Sound Arts and Industries didn’t exist when he was a student.

“[The program] is something that speaks directly to me,” Tatooles says. “[Northwestern] recognizes that a great curriculum can allow someone to go in so many different directions.”

Though the Sound Arts and industries program wasn’t around when Tatooles was a college student, he says the structure and design of a Northwestern education gave him the flexibility to explore his career path.

“The [Radio/TV/Film] major required language and science courses,” Tatooles remembers. “What that meant is while you were studying the technology of communication, you were leaving the school with a liberal arts education, and I think that was really fundamental.”

Like so many college students, Tatooles didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do when he went to school. The Radio/TV/Film major allowed him to explore his options and keep an open mind.

“Friends of mine went to other schools and some of them had a tech focus,” Tatooles says. “I think those things are great if you know exactly what you want to do. But if you were like me and you were a little unsure about what your career path was going to be, this background was great.”

Tatooles is a self-described gearhead, tracing his fascination with gadgets back to a fourth-grade field trip to the Schwinn Bicycle factory.

“They were making stuff right in front of you,” he says. “Something in me clicked, and it was really exciting.”

Tatooles got that same feeling years later when he walked into Shure – located in Evanston at the time – to pick up microphone shock mounts. He landed a job with the company answering Shure’s 800 number.

“As a young 22-year-old, this was fascinating because I was talking to people who were like-minded,” Tatooles says. “I was interested in getting information on those products, and it became this form of exploration because every question I didn’t know the answer to I had to learn.”

Tatooles worked his way up at Shure – first to a sales support role and then a product manager before ending his career there managing product business. He credits his last position, managing a “mini business within the greater context of the bigger company,” for preparing him to leave Shure and start Sound Devices.

Tatooles, at the time 30 and recently married, says getting Sound Devices off the ground was challenging.

“The first five years of Sound Devices was truly like pounding our heads against the wall,” he says. “If we had known how many challenges there were ahead of time, I don’t know that we would have tried it.”

Tatooles passed along some of those early lessons to students at Wednesday’s ceremony.

“We can fail once and that’ll be a good lesson, but let’s not fail with the same thing over and over again,” he says.

In addition to business advice, Tatooles also has guidance for students in the sound field.

“Technology-based products come and go,” he says. “What you use today to record and store sound will be different tomorrow. And what is that going to look like? That’s a great question.”

While the industry might evolve, Tatooles is confident about one thing: a Northwestern education helped lay the foundation for his career, and it can do the same for incoming students.

“Understanding the foundations, the elements of sound, the impact – those transcend tech,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what happens. That’s still going to be the foundation that everything is built on.”