JULY 2003

I make no apologies for returning to Turnkey in this series of Family Trees on the development of home recording in the UK - albeit for the final time. The company set the standard in so many ways, not least because it played a key role in shaping the actual design of hardware, both with its origins in Allen & Heath and, later, with products like Accessit, The Great British Spring, some early Tascam concepts like the original Portastudio and, later, with significant input into products from Fostex like its superb little X-15. I may be sticking my neck out, but I would suggest Turnkey was the single most important company in the industry at that time. So, if this month I've allotted a little less space to Andrew Stirling than I did to his former partners, Andy Bereza and Ivor Taylor, it is no sign that I consider him of any less significance - on the contrary, given his continued deep involvement with Pro Audio - it's simply because much of the nuts and bolts of the Turnkey story has been told before. There is, however, still a great deal to be said about the growth of Stirling Audio and, later, Stirling Syco. In the meandering path, we briefly take in the Radio Luxembourg studio in London, an embarrassing moment with Hank Marvin, Japanese industrial espionage, how Turnkey had a momentary sideline selling ladies dresses... and lots more.

And, then there is Turnkey as it is today - one of the most respected retailers in the business (no less than Greg Mackie has said it is the best shop he has ever seen) and headed by yet another definite character, Johnny Arbiter. What is it about this brand name that it seems to have attracted some of the industry's most colourful and creative people?


The third head of the Turnkey triumvirate, Andrew Stirling has already been credited, both by Andy Bereza and Ivor Taylor, as being a tremendously gifted salesman. Not only did he prove it by driving Turnkey's retail sales division to greater heights than could have been predicted beforehand, but when he parted company with Messrs Bereza and Taylor, he went on to do it all over again, first with Stirling Audio and then when he bought Syco Systems and created Stirling Syco.

But, of course, what we really want to know is, was Andy Bereza telling the truth when he said Andrew Stirling appeared at Allen & Heath's door for a job interview, wearing a white suit and purple shoes? He laughs - 'Yes, it's true - very Sixties!' Prior to joining A&H, he had, he recalls, worked as a recording engineer - a pretty useful background, you'd have thought.

'I worked at a studio called Radio Luxembourg and recorded many interesting people while I was there, including David Bowie. After that, I went to work for CBS Studios when they opened in Whitfield Street. A lot of the artists in those days were beginning to ask questions like "Can I have a Revox for home, and a microphone?" and being an engineer in the studio, I was asked to go and sort it out for them. That was the beginning really and then... well, I think the expression is "I went freelance", for a while. I suppose I was a bit too argumentative and bit too non-musical to be a really good engineer/producer, because I always used to say how I wanted things to be and if the producer didn't like it there was an inevitable upset. And so going into the hardware side for me made complete sense, not least because the only reason I went into being an engineer in the first place was to play with the gear - music was just a vehicle for me to twiddle knobs.'

Particularly at the time, 'recording engineer' was second only to 'lead guitarist;' on most schoolboy's wants list from the Careers Master - and getting into the business was (and probably still is) only slightly less difficult than becoming a professional footballer, so how had he managed it?

'I started with a small studio at home and had built bits and pieces out of plans from Wireless World - God I'm going back a long way. And I was also a radio ham as well. I said to my careers advisor at school that I wanted to make records, so he got me an interview at EMI in Hayes, the pressing plant! I had to point out that that wasn't quite what I'd had in mind. So I ended up becoming a runner for record companies, going to every recording studio and in my spare time sitting in on sessions. Richard Millard, who at the time ran Radio Luxembourg and was a very well know, fantastic man, let me sit in on sessions with him and one day he said he had a job going and asked if I wanted to come and join them? And that was the beginning. I loved it.'

The story of how Andrew Stirling successfully grew Turnkey's retail side has been told before - but one area in which he really excelled was winning business from the professional players who were then (as Ivor Taylor explained) at last starting to get fair returns for their work and were building home studios with the proceeds. Hank Marvin was one of the first 'big name' artists to go to Turnkey for a complete studio of his own.

'Oh, I remember building Hank's studio - the first one was up in his loft. I remember we had all the gear set-up and there was this red Fender sitting there beckoning to be picked up. We had this very good wiring guy in those days, Paul, and he wanted to test all the channels. So I picked up this Fender and began to play a very, very bad version of Apache... then I suddenly became aware that Hank had walked into the room. I was putting the guitar down, very apologetically, but he picked up an acoustic saying "No, go on, go on" and I tried desperately to keep up - I'd only every played on my own, in the bedroom. Anyway, I'd forgotten that all this was going to 24 track. We eventually became very good friends and about 15 years ago, at a dinner party, with Hank and Brian Bennet and a lot of other people, we were all swapping guitar tracks playing "Can you guess who's playing this?". Then Hank said "Oh, I've got a tape... can you guess who this is?" and he'd put it on a cassette - it was awful and he'd damn well kept it!"'

For gear-spotters, that first studio included an MCI 24 track machine. Turnkey was, indeed, already selling serious kit.

'At that time, as Ivor said, musicians were starting to earn proper money and there was a growing understanding of equipment - it was no longer a white coat business, which it really had been before. Even when I started in studios, I wore a white coat. Then, when the Punk thing came, much later, that was really the revolution in the industry that broke the big cartel run by half a dozen people. That was the real boom time for the home recording business, because we suddenly had all these small record companies wanting their own recording facilities. In terms of equipment, it was the original Teac reel-reel four track that turned the whole industry on its head, along with the Allen & Heath and Soundcraft mixers, it was a fantastic period - a very energetic and exciting time.

'Otari was an interesting company to have been involved with so early on. When we took over Brenell Engineering, we went to the APRS show with our first eight track, which was a bit of a hotch-potch because we'd used mono amplifiers (which was all they made) and we had eight of them stacked on top of each other. I remember there was this contingent of little Japanese guys wandering round the show coming over to see our booth, asking why we were making multitrack tape machines with microphone inputs. "Well, that's what musicians want, so they can plug directly into the tape machine," I told them. So, when the first Otari machine came out not long after, it had mic inputs on it - and the only reason we'd had mic inputs was because we'd used mono amps from the mono machine - we couldn't wait to have a custom built one with no mic inputs! I told that story to the President of Otari, who I know very well nowadays, and he nearly killed himself laughing.'

Mr. Stirling says that when the three partners got together, post-A&H, to launch Turnkey, the intention had been to build low-cost outboard gear of the Accessit variety, while he concentrated on the retail side of the business. 'The plan was that I would sell other people's equipment to pay my wages until we had the Accessit boxes and so on ready. I really ran Turnkey on my own, with my wife helping me. Pretty quickly it really started generating cash to fund the manufacturing business, but more than that, it really took over and gained a life of its own. The Accessit thing, the Seck Mixer, The Great British Spring all came up under Turnkey retail and it did take nearly two years to get those products to market - and it was Turnkey that was paying our wages at the time.'

Indeed, Turnkey retail's growth was so rapid that the company soon found itself in need of more space.

'When we started in Barnet, we had just the one shop and we badly needed to expand. One day I happened to ask the young lady next door, who was running a dress shop, how business was and she said it was pretty rotten. 'So I asked her, if I bought every dress in the place, would she go and let me have the shop? And that's exactly what we did. I bought every dress, and we ended-up trying to sell them to get some of our money back - it was a nightmare! As for what we were meant to be selling, it was really the Teac 3340 that started us off - started the whole industry off, really. You could get a very pro sound out of one of those, particularly using DBX, which was very popular at the time.

'After we'd taken over a third shop, we next moved to Hendon, but by then we were selling more to professional buyers. But I felt we were losing the semi-pro market, which was why I said we needed a shop again, so we opened in Percy Street, just off Tottenham Court Rd. Looking back, I have to say it was quite a unique selling environment. We used video as a selling tool, and we had little training booths with Portastudios in then. I used to work in there on Saturday mornings, either to make coffee or to act as a marriage guidance counsellor for these guys who'd come in with their wives, saying: "This is what I want to buy" while she's saying "But what about that new washing machine I want?". It was a fantastic shop. We even had an interactive window display where people could touch the glass and get different things coming up on a TV monitor.'

One fine selling point I personally recall from Percy St was that they had bought from Abbey Rd the actual Studer four track on which the Beatles had recorded Sgt Pepper. 'Oh yes, in fact we even had a four track Beatles tape on there - it was just to show guys when they came in that if Sgt Pepper could be recorded on a four track, could they imagine what they could do on a Portastudio? As we used to say at the time, it's not the amount of tracks, it's the amount of talent that counts.'

The personal and financial problems of what was, by then, a considerable company (including manufacturing in its own right, it was also the Fostex distributor) have been covered in our previous two issues, but Andrew Stirling reveals that the continued existence of the shop today, is really down to Harman. 'Yes, we sold the business to Harman and they decided they didn't want to be in retail, so it was they who sold it to Johnny Arbiter - and every time I see him today he looks at me and says "I'm looking after your shop, Andrew." He's done fantastically, too.'

With Turnkey behind him, the next move was, in 1986, to start Stirling Audio, a conscious move to cater for the professional market. 'We were doing Otari MTR-90s, big Soundcraft consoles, Timeline synchronisers, Lexicon products - all top-end equipment and we've maintained that position, really. People like Turnkey and Digital Village do a fantastic job at the more consumer level but we were looking after the more Pro Audio side.'

And Syco? 'Well, Peter Gabriel had started Syco, with his cousin Stephen Paine running it, and they had started to get into financial trouble. We were doing very well with traditional Pro Audio products, reel-reel tape machines and so on, but we weren't in the computer business and I felt really lacking in that area. But Peter's company had that expertise so I offered to buy it. But before that I'd bought ITA (Industrial Tape Applications), which was the first company I bought. They were also a distributor for Otari - there were two of us in the market which made no sense, so I made the guys an offer, thus becoming exclusive with Otari.

'Peter's company, Syco, meanwhile, had ridden a crest for a while, doing Fairlight, Linn drum machines and the beginnings of Emu, but as that technology was becoming more accessible, their very high-profile way of doing things wasn't working so well, so I bought the company, we ran it separately for a while and as the technologies merged - they're really all the same now - I put the two together about seven or eight years ago, calling it Stirling Syco.'

Does the company still specialise in the top-end of the market? 'Well, yes, but you have to be careful what you mean by the top end of the market nowadays, because it's not what it was 15 years ago. The top end of the market today is the top end of the home studio, or post-production or film. I don't think of it as top-end or bottom-end as such, because the technology that's employed is the same. Whether you're a home studio or Abbey Rd you're still using a Mac with some cards in it, so it's really about how you apply that technology. From our point of view, we'll deal with anybody who wants to get into the bigger hard disc systems - we don't sell the very small systems, because the shops do a fantastic job of that. We're what I call an added-value systems house really.'

Stirling Syco remains at the top of the heap, particularly busy in the film and post-production markets, selling a range of products including Pro Tools, Audit, Lexicon, Otari, Sunken, Radar, Ambient, Apex and more. Andrew Stirling, like his former partners, Messrs Bereza and Taylor remains an easygoing and approachable man with a fund of good stories.

JOHNNY ARBITER (died 2003)

Living in the shadow of a famous father is one of life's great clichés - which doesn't mean it isn't a real phenomenon. Whether it drives people to great things is probably best left to psychologists to bicker over, but the fact remains that Johnny Arbiter, son of the legendary Ivor, has achieved tremendous success in his own right with his incarnation of Turnkey - now widely regarded as one of the country's best retailers and, incidentally, much admired by the business's previous owners, which probably says more than anyone else could about his success.

Previously doyen of the Soho Sound House, I asked Johnny Arbiter what he thought had led to the point where Turnkey became available for him to buy - which he did, from Harman, in 1990.

'I think, looking back, that what happened was that they found that retail's a difficult thing to do without hands-on owner management and it wasn't making money.' So what had made him think he could turn it round? He responds with a completely deadpan 'Lunacy. I bought it just before the market really died at the beginning of the 90s and for three or four years I absolutely cursed it - it was like a millstone - but we hung on in there and if you wait long enough, these things sometimes become very worthwhile.

'What convinced me to get involved was that the business I was already running was very MIDI and synthesiser-based and Turnkey had the recording side to complement that. There were one or two agencies we still didn't have and were finding it hard to get - Soundcraft was one, which obviously came with it. Drawmer, we couldn't get, so we got that as well, and then it was also a very famous old site - it was the Selmer shop.'

That reverence for the music business's history is something both Arbiters seem to feel very deeply and it can't have been a small factor in Johnny Arbiter's decision to jump in at the deep end. 'It had once had the Fender agency, it was a prime position, as it still is, it was a golden opportunity - but I think my rent increased by ten times when I moved from Soho Square, which we did in, I think, February 1990. But it was what I needed to do to get into the recording market properly. We were doing very well in it, but more with Portastudios, before Turnkey.

'Since then it's become everything that Andy Bereza talked about when you interviewed him - except that the medium's changed. Interestingly, we've spent the past four or five years developing Carillon, which is now the world's best-selling audio-dedicated computer, we sell it in six countries and it's essentially very much a Turnkey product. What we've done is integrate software with the interface and written one manual to cover both products. We have our own product support so that when you 'phone in with a problem we don't say, "No, that's not us, that's the sound card", we just support the whole thing. If you root around on the web you'll see that Carillon has a brilliant reputation for support and the whole thing, essentially, is Bereza's original Turnkey idea. So we feel that, with that product, we're sort of perpetuating the line. We've got marvellous endorses, Charlie Steinberg uses one, Mark Knopfler's last album, 'Rag Pickers Dream' on one, Mike Hedges uses one and they've got one at Air. But the bulk of sales is to the project studio market, which is what Turnkey handles. The top end, the post production and very high end, is done by Media Tools, which is a separate division, specialising in high-end Digidesign Mac packages and Carillon systems. In fact Digidesign have just approved our Carillon AC1/HD, which is the first Turnkey Windows XP-based ProTools HD solution and which is the first they've formally approved.'

Mr. Arbiter is quick to praise Turnkey's originators. ' We patch all our consoles, effects, amps and monitors through the world's biggest switching system for direct AB comparison and to instantly configure the studio of your choice. Predictably, Andy Bereza had a smaller forerunner controlled by a BBC computer at Percy St! Speaking of those guys, Ivor (Taylor) uses our Carillon machines.'

And the progress continues. 'Condenser mics are set up in a sound booth and record to 8 track digital, so you can sing once and listen back to how the AKG, Neumann, Rode etc compare. Multirackers, keyboards, modules are permanently powered and patched for instant demo. It's all driven by a mission to provide an unprecedented level of choice, auditioning and A/B comparison pre-sale.

'A prime example of this is the Loopstation Sample CD Jukebox project, which we invested five man years in and which has a full-time member of staff processing data on new titles.

'The Loopstation is a unique digital archive/jukebox with every available Sample CD catalogued by sound type. Touch screen boxes in a specially designated area of the store let you search down to sample level with track notes instantly available. If you want to hear Bob Clearmountain's Black Beauty with an Ambassador head you can find it and listen to it before you buy his CD.'

There's a strong sense from Mr. Arbiter that he is carrying a torch with this business. Would he agree? 'Well, I would never be so bold as to say I was as bright as Andy Bereza - he really is an amazing guy. You come away from a conversation with him enthused and raring to go, with your head spinning with about eight million different ideas.' And that, dear reader, is not much of an exaggeration.

For all that he might modestly downplay his personal creativity, Johnny Arbiter is successfully piloting a business which many others would have bought and crashed. Turnkey lives on. And how.

Previously unpublished postscript:

Johnny Arbiter's tragically premature death, less than a year after this interview took place, shocked everyone who had known him - and many who had not. Shortly before he died, he had been working on tracking down the history of his father, Ivor Arbiter's, various retail businesses to help in a series I was working on about the history of musical instrument retailing in London's West End. He was unfailingly helpful and enthusiastic and is much missed. In March 2005, it was announced that his shop, Turnkey, had been purchased by the fast-growing Sound Control empire.

© 2005 Gary Cooper