When The Beatles played their last concert, at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in 1966, the equipment list for the show could have been written on the back of an envelope. The mics were Shure SM56s, the speakers were modified Altec A-7s powered by Altec 1569 80-watt tube amplifiers, and McCune Sound’s Mort Feld mixed the show on one or two Altec 1567 five-input rotary pot tube mixers. By modern standards, the sound system was a bare-bones setup-no monitors, no graphic EQs, no delay lines, no dynamics processors and no effects. More noteworthy, from a modern perspective, is the fact that the sound system did not include any equipment made by a UK-based manufacturer, unless you count the Vox guitar amps onstage.
Today, British-made audio gear is ubiquitous, and there are few, if any, concert sound systems that do not include components from the UK. The inventories of most U.S. rental companies contain signal processors from British-based companies such as BSS, Drawmer, Klark Teknik and XTA. Dozens of top live sound engineers regularly specify Amek, Midas or Soundcraft consoles. And Martin Audio and Turbosound are names that feature in any serious discussion of the relative merits of loudspeaker systems.
The list goes on. Cadac mixers have been a fixture on Broadway since they were first specified by Starlight Express sound designer Martin Levan in the early ’80s, and a Cadac M-Type monitor console is currently touring the world with the Rolling Stones. Allen & Heath mixers and Tannoy loudspeakers commonly appear in contractors’ bids throughout the wide-ranging fixed installation market. And new British companies spring up each year, eager to win a slice of the largest and most competitive live sound market in the world. This article will attempt to trace some of the events and personalities that changed the status of British pro audio manufacturers in the U.S. live sound market-from no-shows to serious contenders.
WHO CAME FIRST?It is now rather difficult to define which British audio manufacturer first became successful in the U.S., but Soundcraft could well be the leading candidate. Founded in 1973 by Graham Blyth and Phil Dudderidge (an ex-public school boy who had earned his touring stripes with Led Zeppelin), the company’s first product was a 16×2 mixer built into its own flightcase, the Series I. For reasons now lost in the mists of time, Soundcraft opened its first U.S. office in Kalamazoo, Mich., but soon moved to Torrance, Calif., where Southern California sales rep Wayne Freeman was joined by Betty Bennett (now the owner of Apogee) and Shane Morris (who went on to design the Paragon monitor console for ATI).
“The Soundcraft Series IS [successor to the Series I] became the meat and potatoes of the smaller club and rental systems,” recalls Freeman, who attributes some of the success of the British-made mixing consoles in the U.S. market to the lack of viable domestic products. “Most of the mixers then in use by U.S. rental companies were either relatively unsophisticated broadcast mixers or had been made by the companies themselves.”
Soundcraft’s next product, the Series II, became popular both as a live sound desk and as a multitrack recording board. “The personal, or project studio market was booming, and by the early ’80s the 800B had become a staple of the touring scene,” says Freeman, highlighting Soundcraft’s habit of marketing its 8- and 16-bus consoles as suitable for both recording and live applications. This product strategy had a weakness, however-the resulting designs were very heavy. “I remember dragging a Soundcraft Series 3 into the balcony of the New York Palladium,” recalls Don Pearson of UltraSound, who was then touring with Hot Tuna. “The thing was about the size of an ATI Paragon. It was a struggle.”
Despite their weight, Soundcraft consoles were popular, especially among the engineers working with the endless parade of British bands that toured the U.S. as the live sound business entered its first major boom period. British-based sound rental company Electrosound went so far as to commission six custom Soundcraft boards designed to its own specifications. Delivered in Electrosound’s distinctive blue livery, the Lab Q consoles are generally remembered as the “Santana” boards and are easily recognized by their fluted chrome end pieces, which would now be characterized as retro. Much of the Lab Q design was revisited in the subsequent Soundcraft Series 4 console.
If Soundcraft was the first UK company to cross the Atlantic, then Klark Teknik was not far behind. Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, the Germanic-sounding company was actually founded by Phil Clarke, an Englishman who emigrated to Australia as a young man and, after returning to Britain, set up a manufacturing business. The company started out making portable car wash equipment but soon branched into audio. In fact, the company’s first professional audio product, the Leevers/Rich 2-track tape recorder, is commemorated in the company’s logo as a stylized tape reel. Phil Clarke’s younger brother was a musician and had spent some time in London’s Decca Duplication Services; it was Terry Clarke (now a principal in the British amplifier company MC[superscript]2) who came up with the design for a graphic equalizer, which was first shown in the U.S. at the 1976 Billboard Disco show. Also attending the show was a young and ambitious sales rep named Jack Kelly, and within a few years Kelly had developed an enviable and apparently insatiable market for K-T’s graphic EQs.
Recalling those days, Kelly, now the owner of pro audio distributor Group One and a principal of XTA, attributes the success of the K-T brand to the product’s aesthetic appeal and roadability. “It certainly wasn’t the price,” he laughs, noting that competitive products from U.S. manufacturers tended to be designed for the decidedly staid broadcast market. One company that was not deterred by the British product’s price tag was Electrosound, which ordered 150 K-T graphic EQs in the familiar light blue, with “Electrosound” engraved on the front panels.
THE EUSTON CONNECTIONThough most pro audio companies have made custom products at some point, few can claim to have been as flexible in that area as console manufacturer Midas. Started in the early ’70s by Jeff Byers, Midas originally made transistorized guitar amps and cabinets before moving on to designing and manufacturing complete sound systems, including speakers, amps and mixers. But Midas got out of the amplifier business after developing a 4-channel, 1,000-watt amp called “the Brick,” named for its considerable weight and unlovely appearance, and instead concentrated on developing high-end custom boards for both live and recording applications.
By the mid-’70s Midas was firmly established, with an enviable list of demanding and discerning clients, including Pink Floyd and Supertramp. Midas boards were also being specified by live theater sound designer Abe Jacob for such successful and influential productions as Cats and Evita. But Midas was very much a “cottage industry,” and when David Solari (now president of amplifier manufacturer Cyberlogic) joined the company, his main task was to bring some order and rationalization to the company’s product line, which tended to branch off in new directions whenever a client ordered a custom input module or console design. It was some years before Midas could even approach the production levels of Soundcraft; by that time Wayne Freeman was selling as many as ten consoles a month in the U.S.
One early feature of Midas’ consoles was a built-in crossover, then a fairly mysterious device. As active crossovers became necessary for the new three-, four- and five-way active sound systems gaining popularity in the UK, Midas designer and partner Chas Brooke started making the MCS100, a stand-alone crossover that found a ready market. A new company, Brooke Siren Systems (BSS), was founded in 1979 by Brooke and Stan Gould, and its first product was the MCS200 modular crossover system. BSS was soon represented in the U.S. by Jack Kelly, who faced some initial resistance from sound system rental companies. After all, Kelly not only had to deal with the “not invented here” syndrome, but he also had to promote new audio products imported from a country not known for its high-technology manufacturing skills (a perception that Phil Clarke had implicitly acknowledged by choosing a company name that implied a German engineering heritage-Klark Teknik).
Wayne Freeman, who spent some of his early days at amplifier manufacturer BGW, is unflinching in his assessment. “The British products sounded fabulous, but the power supply designs were a weakness,” he says. Though unreliable power supplies were certainly a nuisance for owners of some British consoles, the design flaw was absolutely fatal in an amplifier, and no British amplifier manufacturer has yet made much of an impression in the domestic live sound market, let alone in the U.S.
BINS AND SHAVERSBritish speaker companies, on the other hand, have been among the most successful in the world, and at least two-Martin Audio and Turbosound-owe a large part of their international following to their early success in the U.S. Formed in 1971 by Australian David Martin, Martin Audio initially manufactured just one product: the compact folded bass horn known worldwide as “the Martin bin.” Sold exclusively through the London-based sound system design company Kelsey Morris, the Martin bin became the foundation of most British P.A. systems of the time, including the much-admired Pink Floyd system, which was large enough to be rented out for festivals when the band was not using it. (For several years Roger Waters’ onstage bass rig consisted of Martin bins and JBL radial horns.)
Because Midas shared space with Martin Audio in a mews near Euston Station in London, the two companies were often associated in the minds of customers; many live sound engineers still swear by the “Midas-Martin” systems that resulted. Supertramp’s sound rental company, Delicate Productions, was one of several U.S. companies that committed to the Midas/Martin setup, and Martin’s midrange horn, dubbed the “Philishave” because of its resemblance to an electric razor, became a familiar sight at concerts in the late ’70s. Other famous Martin products included the LE400 monitor, which was introduced in 1972 and eventually sold around 10,000 units worldwide, and the modular F2 System introduced in 1988. More recently, Martin has introduced the W8CM and W8CT high output concert systems, and the company has also developed a range of products for the installation and cinema markets.
Another British speaker company that has parlayed its success in the U.S. to a healthy presence around the world, especially in Asia, is Turbosound. “If we’d just stayed in Europe, it would have been much harder to make the international sales breakthrough,” says Turbosound founder Alan Wick. Already established in the UK live sound business as a sound mixer and rental company owner, Wick first came across the Turbosound name in 1979. Impressed by the sound of the innovative system, Wick sold his own P.A. system to his major client, The Jam, and joined up with Turbosound designers Tim Isaac, Tony Andrews and John Newsham, who were then working out of an Army hut near Dorking, Surrey.
Realizing early on that the U.S. market was essential to long-term success, Wick opened a sales office in New York and began promoting the company’s newest product, the TMS-3, which was first widely heard in the U.S. on a Styx tour. In 1983, Wick hired a recent college graduate named Daniel Abelson to handle U.S. marketing, and by the mid-’80s Turbosound was firmly established. The TMS-3 went on to sell 4,000 units worldwide and was soon followed by the even more successful TMS-4 (6,000 units sold worldwide). Turbosound also introduced the world’s first 24-inch subwoofer cabinet (the TSW-124) and continued to upgrade the product line with the Flashlight system, which arrived in 1991, followed by the Floodlight and Highlight ranges.
Jack Kelly remembers the period fondly. “In those days, you could run into everyone in the business at the Los Angeles Hilton bar during the AES convention,” he recalls. “If someone was putting together a system, I’d tell him to go to Wayne Freeman for a board-it happened to be a Soundcraft, but you were primarily buying a board from Wayne-and to call Danny Abelson at Turbosound before buying a P.A. We must have sold dozens of systems made up of the same basic components-a Soundcraft board, Turbosound P.A., BSS and K-T processing, and QSC amps.” But, as Kelly notes, the growth of the live sound market spelled the end of the freewheeling business climate. “The business changed in the ’80s as tour accountants took over,” says Kelly. “They fixed a ceiling on the P.A. rental rates, which haven’t really gone up in the last 15 years, and started emphasizing economy over quality.”
MEET THE SUITSA more formal business climate also brought about other changes. By the mid-’80s the live sound market had become large enough to attract the serious interest of Japanese manufacturers. In a pre-emptive defensive move, BSS marketing director Nigel Olliff suggested to Turbosound’s Wick that the two companies would be better positioned as a partnership. BSS and Turbosound duly merged in 1986 under the umbrella of a company called Edge Technology Group Ltd. A year later, EdgeTech founded Precision Devices Ltd., a loudspeaker company, and in 1989 EdgeTech was sold to AKG, which was then bought by Harman International in 1994. Harman, originally a consumer hi-fi and car audio company, already owned JBL when it purchased Soundcraft in the early ’80s and, having acquired AKG (along with BSS, Turbosound and Precision Devices), Amek and Studer, is now the largest pro audio company in the world.
Because the Harman portfolio already included JBL, Turbosound found itself in competition with its corporate sibling, and for some years the latter’s product development was aimed away from concert sound and toward the club and installation markets. In 1998, after spending several years in the hospitality industry, Alan Wick led a successful management buyout of Turbosound. Back in the saddle as managing director of the company he had started, and backed by European venture capitalists Investors in Industry (3i), Wick is planning a slew of new product introductions and fully intends to recapture his company’s former position as a market leader in concert sound. It is the kind of challenge he has faced before. “In the early days of Turbosound, Electrosound took out a license on the technology and had a set of festival systems made up in enormous flightcases,” recalls Wick. “They were called Turbo boxes and they sounded awful, so when we opened up as Turbosound in the U.S., we had a serious image problem to overcome.”
Harman was not the only company that went shopping for UK-based pro audio manufacturers. In 1990 the Mark IV holding company, which already owned Electro-Voice and Altec, bought Klark Teknik. By this time, K-T, which had gone public in 1984, had also bought Midas and DDA, so Mark IV got all three companies at one swoop. In 1996 Mark IV was bought out by Greenwich Street Partners and has now been merged with Telex to become Telex/EVI (it may have been during this transition that K-T’s hyphen was finally laid to rest-the hyphen had been appearing and disappearing in company sales materials for years). However, the British partners were not entirely happy in Buchanan, Mich., and, though very much part of the Telex/EVI organization, the Klark Teknik Group is now headquartered back in Britain.
Similarly, Martin Audio was acquired in 1990 by TGI, a holding company that also owns the Tannoy and Goodman loudspeaker companies. However, though David Martin stayed on under the new management, he went missing in late 1992 after a confrontation with his partner in a non-audio business venture. Martin’s body was never found, but his former partner was arrested and convicted for his murder.
MORE TEA, VICAR?This brief history of British-based manufacturers in the U.S. live sound market is necessarily selective and even simplistic. The influence of the British sound system rental companies that operated in the U.S. in the ’70s-TASCO, TFA/Electrosound and Malcolm Hill, for example-should not be underestimated, nor should the influence of such successful and equipment-intensive live acts as Supertramp and Pink Floyd be ignored. These organizations, and others like them, brought dozens, if not hundreds of British sound engineers to the U.S., resulting in a cross-pollination of ideas and techniques that has enriched the professional and technical vocabulary of both communities. The British may not be able to teach the Americans how to make tea properly, but the “Teabags” have at least shown that they can design and manufacture quality audio gear for live sound.
Most would agree that the U.S. live sound business will never be quite as exciting, freewheeling and potentially profitable as it was during the first two decades after The Beatles stopped touring. But there will always be room for new products that offer otherwise unavailable functionality, are sonically superior, or are just more fun to use. And success in the U.S. market is a fair indication of a product’s viability worldwide. As Turbosound’s Alan Wick stated in a recent telephone call from England, “The U.S. is the most competitive market in the world, so if you get it right over there you can flourish anywhere.”