Category Archives for "MI/Audio Business"

February 9, 2017

Astorg Buys Allen & Heath, Calrec, DiGiCo And Digigrid

DiGiCo consolesEuropean private equity group Astorg announced the purchase of Audiotonix, the parent company of Allen & Heath, Calrec, Digico and Digigrid, from investor group Epris. The purchase price was reportedly $254 million. Epris (formerly known as Electra Partners) acquired Allen & Heath in 2013, then acquired Calrec in 2014 and merged the companies with DiGiCo to create Audiotonix.

What’s interesting here is that it shows how vibrant the live sound portion of the business still is, especially on the high end. Of course, Audiotonix has the entire breadth of the market covered, with Allen & Heath on the low to mid market, and DiGiCo on the high end. Calrec specializes in broadcast consoles.

Although it’s great for the shareholders of Epris and Audiotonix, it’s not necessarily a good thing for the companies involved or the industry. The music business is small compared to other sectors, and private equity investors are generally looking at a way to make some quick money (as Epris just did). If the live concert business takes a downturn, these companies stand to suffer when the investor looks to stop the bleeding. Money is the king, not the products, brands, and especially not the customers.

Astorg does seem somewhat different though. It has invested in 20 companies dating back to 1999, and stayed with them through the economic downturn of 2008, which is a good sign that it’s in it for the long haul instead of to turn a quick buck. It’s currently on a spending spree as it has acquired interests in 4 companies in 2016 alone. Almost all of Astrog’s investments are outside the entertainment business, ranging from a chain of pet shops, to medical diagnosis equipment, to precious metals. It should be interesting to see how they deal with the makers of some expensive hardware in an audio business that is buying less and less of it.

January 19, 2017

The Old Gibson Factory Gets Some New Life

Heritage GuitarsFor 82 years Gibson made guitars a mandolins at the factory on 225 Parson’s Street in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In 1984 the company moved all of its manufacturing to Nashville, but the skilled workers there still continued to make guitars just as they always had, only now under the name Heritage Guitars.

Now the old factory is getting a total makeover. One of the big reasons is that manufacturing was on 3 floors of the building, and the company wanted it all on the same floor to increase the efficiency. Another reason is the old building really needed a facelift. You can check out what they’re doing in the video below, but also follow the link to a full story on the history of the building and the company, as well as some great pictures.

Off to NAMM. Full overview next week!

December 28, 2016

2016 Music Tech Report Card

Music Tech Report CardTechnology moves ahead, sometimes quickly and sometimes more slowly than we would like. That said, we’re all beholden to it more than ever, and that trend shows no letting up. Because tech is such a big part of our lives, here’s a report card on some of the tech products, companies and issues from 2016.

Apple

Another year has gone by and our favorite company has again failed to deliver on a new Mac Pro. The company seems to be fixated on iPhones these days, which brings in way more revenue, but Apple’s resurgence was on the backs of the creatives, and it would be a shame if we were ultimately abandoned. That said, there’s a lot of DAWs out there still running on iMacs and older towers, so that says a lot about Apple’s product lifespan.

GRADE: D+

 

Avid

Depending upon which end of the market you’re in, Avid is either the devil or the savior. If you’re in post-production, the new hardware and Pro Tools features are just what you need. If you’re in music, you’re probably hating the yearly subscription that you have to pay just for the privilege of using your DAW. And then there’s the company, which seems to be more aware of its stockholders than customers, but at least the new hardware products are pretty slick.

GRADE: C-

 

DAWs

Digital Audio Workstations are getting more and more sophisticated, and the differences between them are beginning to blur. That said, most concentrate on music creation, and few look at postproduction, which means that Pro Tools is still king of the hill in that realm. I can’t help but feel that PT’s lead is tenuous though, and its users would jump to another DAW in a flash if and when a suitable alternative finally appears. This might have graded higher on this report card if the next great DAW was clearly on the horizon

GRADE: B

 

Plugins

The next generation of plugins are upon us, and this time a lot of the thinking is being done for us with automatic adjustments. Plugs like iZotope Neutron and Soundways Reveal and Low Leveler are a big step in the right direction when put in capable hands (and that’s the caveat).

GRADE: A

 

Microphone Modelers

Once looked upon as a marketing gimmick, mic modelers like the Slate VMS and Townsend Labs Sphere are proving that they’re a real alternative to the classic mics that most of us can’t afford. These are real tools, not toys.

GRADE: A

 

Amp Emulators

The guitar amp’s days are numbered as amplifier emulators are now so good that even seasoned pros with huge amp collections use them instead of the real thing. And with in-ear monitors so prevalent on stage, there’s no need to move air any more. A decade from now, a generation of guitar players and engineers may not like the sounds they hear coming from a real amplifier compared to a hardware or software emulator. Line 6 Matrix and BluGuitar Amp 1 may be the final pieces to this major transition.

Grade: A

 

Tablets

There was a lot of high hopes for the tablet to replace the laptop, but in most cases, it’s just not possible. The iPad especially is a great output device, but not so great for input. Microsoft’s Surface fares a little better, but the possibilities originally envisioned just haven’t materialized. That said, Avid’s Dock does a good job making it do what it does best.

GRADE: C

 

Smart Phones

While a good portion of the world relies on their smart phone for much more than communication, it still remains a flawed device. It’s a lot slower than a laptop (drives me crazy), and like the tablet, it’s a much better output device than input. While there are a few pro applications where it shines (tuner, bpm calculations, remote control of cue mix), it still hasn’t lived up to its potential in the professional realm.

GRADE: B

 

Virtual Reality

Everyone thought that this would be the year, and especially the Holiday, where VR took off. Too bad that’s not been the case. VR has a lot of potential, and from an audio standpoint, there are a lot of great tools being developed, so there’s hope. My feeling is that Augmented Reality (AR) will end up being the killer app though. The good news is that there should be a lot more interesting work for audio professionals based around this technology.

GRADE: B

Undoubtedly there are some things I missed in this year’s report card, and remember that the grades are strictly how I see it, but I come away generally optimistic on the direction that music tech is going. I’d say the future is bright indeed for tech in 2017.

Any additions?

Samsung Acquisition of Harman Not A Done Deal Yet

Harmon logoIt looks like that the deal for Samsung to buy Harman International may not happen as quickly and easily as everyone thought. Alexander Roepers, a large Harman shareh​older owning around 2.3% of the shares, has decided to vote against the deal, stating that the $8 billion price just isn’t high enough.

This is a great illustration of one of the pitfalls of a public company being in a small niche like the audio industry. Almost everything about this deal revolves around “shareholder value” on Harman’s part. Harman’s board wants its stock to rise (which it did when the deal was announced) and Roepers wants to make more money from his stock. Samsung wants to get into the car business, where Harman is a leader.

The problem is that nowhere do you hear the phrase, “This is going to be better for our products and customers,” because the fact of the matter is that neither is considered much. See the disconnect?

Harman owns a who’s who of premier audio companies, including Crown, AKG, dbx, Lexicon, AKG, Digitech, BSS, JBL Professional, Soundcraft, Studer and Martin Audio, not to mention hi-fi companies like B&W, Harman Kardon, Mark Levinson, and Infinity. While that stable of audio companies might combine into a powerhouse, the fact of the matter is that this segment pales when compared to its Connect Car and Lifestyle Audio segments. Harman already supplies the audio systems for some of the top auto manufacturers, including Audi, Bentley, Mercedes, BMW, Chrysler, Fiat, Jaguar, Jeep, Toyota and Volkswagen, among others. That’s what Samsung is interested in, not the audio professional side of things, a fact that might eventually signal the demise of those companies.

The fact of the matter is that Samsung needs this deal more than Harman, so expect it to happen after the price is raised. Keep your fingers crossed that the great audio companies involved eventually don’t disappear.

What Will Happen To JBL Now That Samsung Is Buying Harmon?

Harmon logoIf you’ve not heard, Samsung is buying Harmon International for around $8 billion, which should send shivers down the spines of JBL Pro users. The South Korean giant reportedly sees Harmon as a bridge to the connected car business and isn’t all that interested in the audio side of the business, although its saying all the right things about returning those operations to their previous strength. What’s worse is that most Harmon employees discovered the news through social media rather than communication with the company, which isn’t exactly a great way to make a first impression.

The silver lining here is that Samsung may determine that the Harmon Pro companies (which include Crown, dbx, Lexicon, AKG, Digitech, AMX, BSS, JBL Professional, Soundcraft, Studer and Martin Audio, not to mention hi-fi companies like B&W, Harmon Kardon, Mark Levinson, and Infinity) are in a small enough niche revenue-wise that it’s not interested, and spin either the entire division off, or the separate companies. On the other hand, it’s also possible that all will be folded into Samsung and these wonderful brands and products will cease to exist after a while.

Although we live in a corporate world where growth is mantra that all execs live by, the Samsung/Harmon deal doesn’t seem to be about that. Samsung has been reeling from a series of disasters product-wise that were attributed to corporate culture. Apparently in the case of both the Galaxy 7 and their washing machine, both fixes were rushed out the door rather than a thorough investigation to the cause of the problems. This acquisition puts a positive spin on the company when it so sorely needs it, but it also looks to the future as the car gets more and more sophisticated. Harmon makes most of its money from its OEM auto audio systems and has been heavily moving the connected car direction.

JBL Pro has already been fairly corporate for some time, but having new Asian overlords is another level of bureaucracy entirely. Next year’s AES should be very interesting to see if there are any changes by then.

An Acoustic And Computer Giant Passes

Dr. Leo BeranekOne of the world’s foremost acoustic geniuses has passed. Dr. Leo Beranek and his company Bold, Beranek and Newman (BBN) have been been the leader in acoustic design for decades, designing the acoustics of the United Nations General Assembly Hall in New York, and concert halls at Lincoln Center and Tanglewood, among many others.

Dr. Beranek taught acoustic engineering at Harvard and M.I.T. for more than three decades, and did quite a lot of groundbreaking research, including determining the noise standards for public buildings and airports that are still in use today. His biggest selling book, Acoustics, was originally published in 1954 (it was updated in 1986 and 2012) and still remains a textbook for acoustic engineering students around the world. His 1962 book, Music, Acoustics, and Architecture, which examined the acoustics of 100 concert halls around the world, is also considered a classic.

During World War II, as the director of Harvard’s Electroacoustic Lab, Dr. Beranek worked to improve voice communication between airplanes and the ground, which to that point was impossible. After the war, he was responsible for designing and building the first anechoic chamber, a critical tool in acoustic measurement today.

While his acoustic achievements were widely known and have impacted not only music listeners but society in general, his contribution to the world of computing may have a more lasting effect.

BBN was responsible for the precursor of the Internet as the company transitioned to fields other than acoustics, which Beranek felt was limiting. The company built the Arpanet for the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as a way for government agencies and universities to more easily share information. It was the first computer-based network in the world, and it went into operation in 1970. In 1972, BBN was the first to send an email message that used the symbol “@,” a process that we take for granted today.

Dr. Baranek led a good long life as he passed at 102 years old, but he’s one of the few people who’s work has had an unseen affect on all of our lives every single day. We’re going to miss him.

September 13, 2016

Fairlight Acquired By Blackmagic Design

fairlight-acquiredFor those of you who lamented the fact that the esteemed digital workstation company Fairlight was giving up the ghost, you can take heart in the fact that the company has been acquired by video gear manufacturer Blackmagic Design. Blackmagic has a wide range of high and low-end video products, but really has no audio products so this fills an empty spot within its existing product line.

There was a time when Fairlight provided some powerhouse music creation tools, but the company has been concentrating on the broadcast part of the audio business for a number of years now, manufacturing integrated audio control surfaces and software that are renowned for their speed, flexibility and sonic quality. The products are mostly used for live broadcast event production, film and television post production, and immersive 3D audio mixing and finishing. The company creates everything from compact desktop audio post systems to large format mixing consoles with dedicated controls. Fairlight audio engines can deliver up to 1000 tracks which lets customers create complex productions without premixing, along with a massive 64 channels of monitoring.

Blackmagic Design began as a small company making mostly video interface boxes and adapters, but now provides high quality video editing products, digital film cameras, color correctors, video converters, video monitoring, routers, live production switchers, disk recorders, waveform monitors and real time film scanners for the feature film, post production and television broadcast industries. It’s DeckLink capture cards launched a revolution in quality and affordability in post production, while the company’s Emmy™ award winning DaVinci color correction products have dominated the television and film industry since 1984.

It’s good to see Fairlight get a second life and Blackmagic seems like a great home for it.

The iPhone Headphone Jack Sails Into The Sunset, And We Should All Be Happy

headphone jack plugAs usual, rumors abound about Apple’s upcoming iPhone 7 release, but what seems to be getting the most attention is a piece of ancient tech history that the company appears to be leaving behind – the standard 3.5 millimeter headphone jack. While there’s a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth in the media over this issue, I say, good riddance to this vile piece of primitive technology, and thank you Apple, for being rid of it.

Apple, of course, has a history for leaving pieces of tech behind before the competition, and we’re all better because of it. Remember the Sony floppy disc? How about the CD/DVD drive? How about VGA ports (among many other communication ports that no longer appear on Apple gear)? Everyone complained about these being left off the then latest unit, only to forget they even existed about a half-second after they got used to whatever new alternative was introduced. So it will be with headphone jack on the iPhone as well.

Yet I can hear your screams already. “What will I do with my expensive headphones/earbuds that have the standard connector?” Just like in all connector transitions before, there will be 3.5mm to Lightning port adapters that will nicely take care of that. You think Apple didn’t consider this, especially when it owns a headphone company?

The truth of the matter is that the headphone jack has long been the weak link of the chain in what was otherwise a beautifully designed piece of technology. It doesn’t take much to break it, and even if it’s not broken, a little dirt can make it unusable as well. It’s a wonder such a fragile piece of mechanics works as well as it does in the first place anyway. Time for something new.

There’s actually a lot to like about Apple’s headphone transition to the digital Lightning connector. First is the fact that it promises to be more robust since there are fewer moving mechanical parts involved. Second is that it will now allow an almost end to end digital signal to be available, moving the digital to analog convertor into the headphones, which has the benefits of a potentially better convertor, and eliminating any cable loss or interference in the analog domain. Seems like a win to me.

Sure, this means that soon we’ll be buying new headphones with either Bluetooth or built-in digital to analog convertors to accommodate our new phones, but is that such a bad thing if the quality is better? Basic headphone design hasn’t changed all that much over the years (although that’s changing), and this might give it the kick in the pants to do so in a bigger way. [Read more on Forbes]

How The Fuzz Tone Was Born

Maestro Fuzz ToneIf you’re a guitar player, chances are you’re in love with the distorted sound that’s so easy to create these days, thanks to a variety of amps, pedals and plugins. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a time when guitar distortion didn’t exist, but believe it, there was a time when there was no such thing. In fact, the story about how the original “fuzz tone” was born takes a number of unusual twists that are pretty amazing for such a ubiquitous sound.

While the music world freely accepts that the first distorted guitar on record was the 1951 Jackie Brenston/Ike Turner hit “Rocket 88” where guitarist Willie Kizart reportedly poked a hole in his amp’s speaker to make it fuzz out, (later emulated by Link Wray on “Rumble” and Dave Davies of The Kinks on “You Really Got Me”), making that sound reliably repeatable came about as an accident in the summer of 1960 in Nashville.

Country star Marty Robbins was in Bradley Film & Recording Studios, in Nashville (the famous Quonset Hut) recording a ballad for Decca called “Don’t Worry.” Backing him was the A-Team, Nashville’s best session players, which included guitar player Grady Martin.

The Quonset Hut had just received a new custom-built console with Langevin 116 tube amplifiers, but unbeknownst to everyone involved, it contained 35 output transformers wound by another manufacturer while Langevin moved to the West Coast. The problem was that these transformers weren’t up to spec, and during the session one of them failed on Grady Martin’s six string bass channel, causing it to distort, but in a musical way that everyone on the session loved.

Word spread around Nashville about this interesting new sound, and people began to specifically ask for it, so Glenn Snoddy, the engineer on the session, built a box that emulated the sound of the console distortion – the first stompbox!

The big difference was that the Langevin module was tube-based, while Snoddy’s box was all transistor. It didn’t matter though, because studio guitarists loved it.

In 1962 Snoddy sold the manufacturing rights to Gibson, who then released the “Fuzz Tone” under its Maestro label. Dealers snapped up all 5,000 units produced in 1962, which was great for the company. The only problem was that guitar players refused to buy them. Reportedly, Gibson shipped only three Fuzz-Tones in ’63 and none in ’64.

So what changed their minds? In 1965 Rolling Stone Keith Richards used a Fuzz Tone (the model FZ-1) on “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and the rest is history. From that point on, guitarists couldn’t get enough of the sound, which has evolved over time. While we each have our idea of a good and bad distortion, if you life is connected to the guitar, you can’t live without it.

Get the story directly from Glenn Snoddy on this video.

Fairlight Leaving The Audio Business

Fairlight CMIIt looks like Fairlight will be leaving the audio business soon as it recently put those assets up for sale. The Australian company has been a pioneer in digital audio in both music and more recently postproduction and has always made very robust hardware and software, but in a market that’s increasingly going downmarket in terms of price, just about all companies making hardware are having a rough go these days.

Fairlight was one of the companies responsible for changing the sound of music in the 1980s with the introduction of its CMI (Computer Music Instrument), a digital sampler (and the first with an attached computer monitor, which was very novel at the time) used by Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Trevor Horn, Hans Zimmer, Thomas Dolby, and a host of other English music stars. The CMI cost between $25k and $30k, and the company eventually ran into trouble finding buyers for its expensive hardware, and left the business.

Fairlight later reappeared as Fairlight ESP (Electric Sound and Picture) this time concentrating on a series of integrated audio workstations complete with a high quality control surface and a custom DAW designed specifically for postproduction.

In August 2009, co-founder Peter Vogel produced a limited run of 100 up-to-date CMI’s, the in 2011 released a Peter Vogel CMI app for the iPad and iPhone. The app includes the complete CMI sound library and an accurate translation of the CMI’s renowned Page R sequencer, so at least the beauty of the instrument isn’t lost forever.

Now the company has decided to exit the audio business entirely to instead concentrate on its patented picture key work surface technology which it licenses to manufacturers of highly user interactive tactile equipment.

Fairlight was always a quality company with quality products, but being based in Australia probably made them more expensive than the market could bear.