"OUTSIDE THE BOX" - PRO AUDIO ASIA
Sound reinforcement system manufacturer Martin Audio has survived a more eventful history than most – even by audio industry standards – to become a world leader
Before the electrified concerts of the late 1960s, in which acts such as the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and the Who significantly raised the decibel count, audiences were more familiar with the crude horn systems and small line arrays (columns) with limited operating levels and frequency responses. Modular PA design was in its early stages and desperately needed rethinking according to the needs of the developing sound engineers of the day. Australian Dave Martin was a young engineer at this time, and wanted to build a superior audio system. His enthusiasm and drive in trying to produce the ultimate PA for concert goers never waned, and in achieving his goal, he helped to establish Martin Audio as the premium brand recognised globally today.
The company's roots can be traced to 1971, originally in London's Covent Garden and then to a small Stanhope Street workshop next door to Midas consoles and MCI behind the Capital Radio station. The Midas/Martin Audio combination soon established itself as the standard console and PA package for the serious rental companies of the 1970s, thanks to the innovations of Jeff Byers and Dave Martin respectively. Current MD David Bissett-Powell was the sales manager for JBL at Harman UK at the time, but remembers how Dave Martin stretched the boundaries of electro-acoustic research in those formative years: 'The industry was even more closely knit then than it is now,' he says. 'Dave would be continuously working, experimenting and trying out new ideas. He was particularly drawn towards solving the major problem of achieving bottom end in the early 1970s. However, he'd experimented with cinema horns in Australia and produced cabinets with some modified horns, which worked a treat at the time. The name bass bin actually came from the wheelie bin, as they resembled mobile dustbins with the wheels. The 'Martin bin' was revolutionary at the time, and bands of the day could produce the bottom end they had always craved on stage – they made a huge impact on live performances. Once Dave had overcome this, he concentrated more on the higher frequencies.'
Major acts of the day - such as Pink Floyd, Emerson Lake & Palmer and Supertramp - became regular users of Martin Audio concert systems and stage monitors. The legendary 'Philishave' - nicknamed for its resemblance to an electric shaver - was the first ever dedicated midrange horn, and became an industry standard. Like Midas, Martin Audio had created a brand of loudspeaker that had become synonymous with touring companies, continually specified by the riders. However, just as its neighbour Midas consoles had been acquired by the Klark Teknik Group, Dave Martin had failed to grow the business in the manner his designs should have allowed. Martin Audio helped to balance the books by relocating to High Wycombe in 1987, as the huge costs and shipping problems associated with a central London address ad proved too great a burden.
As the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, Bissett-Powell was again thrown closer to Martin Audio, as he was now a director of Tannoy/TGI which shared the same industrial estate. 'At the time, TGI was looking to acquire a loudspeaker brand for the professional touring market,' recalls Bissett-Powell. 'Martin Audio wasn't a company we had originally looked at. However, when I met up with Dave - in 1990 I believe - he realised that his business needed assistance. He'd received some financial advice and knew that someone else had to take over as MD to allow him to concentrate on loudspeaker design and development.'
That person was Bissett- Powell, as TGI acquired Martin Audio in 1991. 'Dave was wonderful about the whole transition. I relinquished my duties at Tannoy and Dave moved sideways to the role of engineering director after a year, which was a backward step, but he knew that he didn't enjoy being the paymaster. He wanted to invent the wheel every week and had great sparks of genius, but you couldn't do that if you are in charge of a company. I had known Dave for 20 years when I joined, and realised that he had to concentrate on engineering. We only had 13 full-time employees and the finances weren't great. I felt as though I was the chef in this role, and need to blend people's skills like different ingredients in order to cook the best dish. This left the engineers to concentrate on executing ideas.'
The 28 December 1992 was a day that shook the pro audio community, as it seemed that Dave Martin had been murdered. 'He disappeared, so we simply thought that he would return,' says Bissett-Powell. A body was never found, and like countless others at the time, Bissett-Powell was required to sacrifice a lot of time helping the police with their enquiries. 'As the evidence mounted, we realised that Dave wasn't coming back. Luckily, Bill Webb had been working as a consultant with us on the development of the EM series and decided to come on board full-time. Martin Kelly joined me from Tannoy as sales and marketing manager and, during that time, Martin was an absolute rock who held everything together. Dave Martin was a legend and many people expected the company to simply fold. However, we went from strength to strength because we have a wonderful team of people here. Our philosophy is simple – make a profit and have fun.'
The launch of the Wavefront series was a tremendous success and was taken further with the development of the Wavefront 8 and 8C touring systems in the mid 1990s. These helped to take the company from its Lincoln Road factory to the larger and plusher Halifax Road facility nearby in 1997.
The new Millennium saw Martin Audio enter the line array market relatively quickly with the W8L, W8LC and W8LM models to critical and financial acclaim. As a result, Martin Audio's sales have grown nearly tenfold in just over 10 years since Dave Martin disappeared from the company he helped to forge. Bissett-Powell is keen to pay homage to both Martin and the workforce: 'We've a real team here and everyone feels part of the unit. In the 14 years that I have been here, only two people from the old company had to leave as it wasn't working out and we still remained friends. When someone joins here, we want it to be for life. I inherited a strong team from Dave and everyone contributes something. I wouldn't swap our engineering team for anything.'
Great products, a strong team and an enviable logo representing pedigree have made a winning formula. 'Dave's legacy was the 'M' logo – rental companies know that they can abuse our enclosures and obtain the results they need,' Bissett-Powell continues. 'We performed a demonstration of our W8Ls to a number of our distributors, at an old air force base with the cabinets dangling from a crane. Some of our distributors thought the horizontal dispersion was as much as 125-degrees, when it was only 90-degrees. However, they were basing their specifications on other systems, which were probably closer to 70-degrees. You have to work hard to convince people that you are telling the truth and most people know that our loudspeakers 'do what they say on the tin''
Bissett-Powell feels that the company has evolved from Martin's legacy but its philosophy remains the same: 'When Dave was designing cabinets he wouldn't skimp on anything. The F-2 acoustics and the Modular system were ahead of their time, as he had some pretty amazing ideas. If I could fault him, it was that he wouldn't omit things that you didn't need, which led to greater costs. He wasn't a businessman and his time and resources were extremely limited as he didn't have the luxuries that we have today.' But Bissett-Powell doesn't like to skimp on health and safety aspects. 'If we analysed the amount of spending that goes on here for the lack of a defined product, you'd make a cut-back. For example, fly-ware is terribly expensive. Yet all our metalwork meets all the required standards and more. It's all a huge expense until a system fails. The Germans have a tough safety factor ratio of 7:1. In the States, this is 5:1. A rigging truss collapsed in the States a year or so, ago as the rig was continually loaded up with more and more lights and PA until there was too much stress. Our software will shut down any system that goes below a 5:1 ratio. I want to sleep at night and if something goes wrong, I know that I'm off to prison and the company name is mud, so you have got to prevent that from happening. All manufacturers have a duty to oblige to health and safety, but not everyone thinks like that.
Martin Audio may be renowned for its touring and cinema systems, but it also has a huge presence in the fixed installation and contractor markets across the world, such as Calvin Klein, Armani and DKNY fashion stores, Hard Rock Hotels and prestige nightclubs such as the Ministry of Sound and Fabric in London. 'I'd estimate that 90 per cent of all the equipment manufactured by Martin Audio since 1971 is still in use today,' he boasts. 'Ruggedness, great sonic quality, roadworthiness – the M logo sells because it's reliable and will stand the test of time. The cinema market has been great for Martin Audio and we have thousands of products out there, but I don't know if we have ever had to send a spare part out to any of them.'
Globally, America is the main market for the company, but success in the States didn't come overnight. 'You cannot force your way into America. Blanket marketing won't help you unless you can sustain it and few can. It's like marketing a steak on its sizzle and when the sizzle has gone, you're forgotten as that was your USP [unique selling point]. We have built up a very loyal following and a great reputation and that's the one thing that we can control. I don't, however, want to see the brand in the States as one of these niche products.'
Distribution of the brand is extremely solid and changes are few and far between. 'We load the gun for our distributors and they go and fire it in the right direction,' says Bissett-Powell. 'Again, it's all about making profit and having fun. If it ceases to be fun working with a distributor, we need to change as quickly as possible.'
In terms of sales territories, Bissett-Powell has ceded most of his former turf to Rob Lingfield (sales and marketing director), Martin Kelly and Peter Owen, but he refuses to let China go, where Martin Audio has blossomed under the stewardship of Dah Chong Hong and Patrick Lau. 'I've been travelling to China for some 25 years and have witnessed tremendous change,' he says. 'The people are so resilient, honourable and generous, and they have such a fantastic work ethic that you cannot help but admire it. We do a lot of business in China, but we could be doing a lot more as it will be the world's biggest economy.'
Bissett-Powell stresses that Chinese companies are not interested in a quick sale, preferring to enter into long-term partnerships as exemplified with his distributor while at Tannoy: 'I had a container full of hi-fi speakers that we couldn't even give away, so I asked my Chinese distributor if he could sell it. He asked me for the bottom line price and made a few calls and came back an hour later to buy it. Naturally, everyone at Tannoy was thrilled with me. I later discovered that he'd packaged it up with Teac and other hi-fi separates to major retailers, which was an incredibly astute move on his part. The payback came about 18 months later when he wanted to purchase a similar deal from another manufacturer who was in a similar predicament. Needless to say my colleagues at Tannoy weren't too happy and didn't want to do a low margin deal, but we it was necessary as the alternative would have meant losing face and you cannot do that. If need be I would have had to pay for the stock out of my own money.'
Fun, success, loyal customers, a reputation and brand that is second to none – what more could a PA manufacturer ask for? One thing for sure - Bissett-Powell and the design team are keeping their aces up their sleeve for the time being: 'We're working on a concept that has already been three years in the making, but we believe that it will be the Holy Grail for the large scale live installation market in another three years time. The idea of having software linked with electro-acoustics in the 1960s was unfathomable then. Today, it is inextricably linked. The specification of two speakers for instance may be the same, but they sound totally different, so it's not about the speaker – it's about what you are trying to develop in the first place.'