Leaving aside the funny anecdotes and the 'so that's what became of him!' revelations, one of Family Trees' other qualities is the way it reveals the warp and weft of a relatively small industry, such as Pro Audio. This is particularly true in the way it shows how people move from company to company, ebbing and flowing with the industry and the products it favours. This month's subjects, for example, Bob Thomas and Tony Gravel, though very firmly identified with Tascam (just as well, given that they are Managing Director of TEAC UK and Divisional Manager for Tascam, respectively) have been in the home recording business virtually since it began and once were just as well known with its main rival, Fostex. In between were spells with Atlantex/Bandive, Harman UK and others, before settling into their present roles .Their experience covers everything from the sharp end - using the equipment as musicians and engineers - to selling products ranging from the original Portastudios to the latest software-driven recording systems. Two of the industry's most popular characters, if these two don't know the story of the home/project studio business, who does? Gear lovers will find some real hardcore here, too, as we delve deep into the arcana of rival noise reduction systems, how many angels can dance on an eighth of an inch of tape and some of the great 'might have beens' of recording equipment history. Anoraks? Us?
I'm sure Tony Gravel won't mind my accusing him of being one of the most organised people I have ever interviewed. No doubt it must have been a great help when he started in this industry, as a warehouseman for AKG, and I've no doubt it's a tremendous benefit for Tascam UK, but whatever it brings to his professional work, it makes him invaluable as a source for Family Trees. No one I have ever interviewed has done more preparatory work on dates, prices, facts, figures and certainly no one else has supplied contact telephone numbers for even the most obscure people mentioned - indeed, without Mr, Gravel's help, this whole series would have been a great deal harder.
How he wound-up with AKG is a familiar story for many musicians who came to London in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, hoping to make it big. 'I'd been playing guitar in bands throughout the 1970s in Yorkshire - nothing special - and held down jobs doing everything from welding, working at the Scunthorpe steel works, pipe fitting, farm jobs - I'd turn my hand to anything to make ends meet and keep playing in a band. In 1979 a friend of mine got a job at AKG Acoustics, having just bought himself out of the Army, and suggested we put something together down in London. I moved down and started working at AKG, which I did for a couple of years - just doing general despatch, van driving, deliveries and then I took over the warehouse. But because of my interests in all things audio, I also found myself starting to get involved in sales and helping out at exhibitions and so on.
'After leaving AKG Acoustics in 1985, I joined Bandive at their Hendon premises, eventually managing the warehouse, working alongside Chris Collings, who was handling Fostex sales and overseeing distribution. Chris left in 1986 then spent many years at Raper & Wayman as sales manager before forming Aspen Media, which he still runs today.'
One of the useful bonuses from doing so much despatch work for AKG was that when Mr. Gravel made the move to sales for Bandive, he already knew most of the UK's audio suppliers, so the learning curve must have been comparatively smooth. 'In '86 I got the opportunity to get into sales through of a conversation with John Carpanini, who was the sales manager for Bob Wilson's Atlantex, which had joined the Bandive group a year earlier. This division oversaw Fostex distribution and John was looking to change the telesales operation. I'd known him for about five years from his visits to AKG Acoustics to buy mics for Atlantex, so John knew of my interest in all things musical and audio and I duly moved into the sales office. I took over telesales and support working with Hillary Mendel who really deserves a mention, as she later went on to work with the Fostex UK operation in Southall, along with Ivor Taylor.' (see Audio Pro FT May 2003)
The Bandive team at that point had some of the industry's more notable characters, many of whom have remained in the industry, he recalls.
'At that time we had Martin Daley on the road in the South and he later went on to manage the Turnkey Shop in Charing Cross Road, before joining TEAC UK as TASCAM Professional sales. Martin later left to join Allen & Heath after a time spent in Ireland writing and recording his own music. Martin's still with Allen & Heath today, in fact. We also had Phil Beaumont repping the North - Phil's another real character, known by most in the industry. It was when Phil left in late 1986 to join Alan Cheetham of Audio Service fame, that Bob Thomas joined us as Northern Rep and that was the first time Bob and I worked together.
'I'd been getting a couple of days a week out on the road getting my repping chops together when we learnt Harman was about to buy-out the Bandive operation. That happened in 1987 and I ended up moving to Harman UK in Slough. where after a couple of months on telesales support I went out on the road full time as the Southern Area Fostex rep.
'Bob Goleniowski was the manager at the time and Tony Besgrove and Tim Frost (see Audio Pro FT August/September 2003) were getting to grips with the switch from selling TASCAM products to suddenly selling the opposition, something Tony Besgrove elaborated on in last month's article. The Fostex Professional Division at that time, included Richard Wear who went onto join Fostex UK a couple of years down the line and who now manages the UK Inter Facio Recruitment operation.'
Bob Thomas's tenure at Harman wasn't to last long (see below), as he was soon recruited to set up TASCAM for TEAC and some six months later, Mr. Gravel later received a call, inviting him to move over to TASCAM to take on the Southern area rep's job. 'Tony Besgrove took over Southern area Fostex sales and the two Tony's and two Bob's changed horses in about an eight month period. It was just as well we'd abided by the golden rule of repping and not slagged off the opposition (well not too much anyway)!
'Some of my fondest memories of those early days were the banter we had over track count and crosstalk etc. We'd just launched the 238 - the eight track cassette, another milestone in recording history. It was the first successful eight track cassette recorder to hit the market.
TOA had shown an eight track cassette based recorder earlier that year, but it didn't have the legs to make it commercially successful. The 238 was obviously in competition with the Fostex M-80 and I was getting all the same objections and criticisms from the field that I'd had when trying to sell the quarter inch Fostex eight track a couple of years earlier.
'The Fostex had crammed eight tracks on quarter inch tape when the accepted width was the TASCAM half inch 38, so here we were again going down to eight on an eighth on cassette, against a now accepted quarter inch. So crosstalk and signal to noise ratios - things not often discussed these days - were very prominent issues back then!
. 'TASCAM had developed two staggered four track heads, eliminating much of the technical limitations and with Dolby S, the 238 was a frighteningly good piece of equipment that sold tremendously well for us. At this time Dolby S was having a real impact on the market and we eventually added it to the 238 after the first DBX versions. Both Fostex and TASCAM used Dolby S extensively on the 16 & 24 tracks after that to great effect and that really blurred the boundaries between pro and semi-pro users.'
The end of the eighties was a golden era for Tascam. At the closing British Music Fair of the decade, the company released a host of new products - probably the greatest number it ever launched at one go. It was running rampant - as was the entire home/project studio business.
Having earlier mentioned Alan Cheetham's (then hugely successful) Audio Services, it is impossible not to also mention the other great mover and shaker on the retail side - Dave Simpson's Hertfordshire-based Thatched Cottage Audio. Between them (and not forgetting Don Larkin), they formed a small nucleus of UK retailers who were blurring the distinctions between MI and Pro Audio - selling increasingly powerful packages of recording equipment to musicians - and it was this that eventually forced so many of the major UK professional multitrack studios out of business. But back to Thatched Cottage.
'I remember Dave Simpson saying around this time that he'd sold in the region of 650 eight and 16 track systems in a 12 month period - a figure I could quite easily believe knowing what the likes of Turnkey, Music Village, Carlsbro, Sound Control and the others were selling.
'Dave really turned the industry upside down with his operation and I hazard a guess at this early nineties period as being the most buoyant for Home Studio and semi-pro sales for most dealers. It may be true the computer has opened up home recording further in the last few years, but the revenue derived from sales will be hard to match the heady days back then.
'Actually, Dave could have been a real thorn in the sides of both TASCAM and Fostex had his venture in to 16 track half inch recorders come off. Some of your readers might recall the ACES company from Shrewsbury, who had a couple of machines in production - a 16 track two inch and a 24 track two inch. They'd previewed a 16 track half inch machine, a fairly substantial affair, at the APRS around that time and Dave had got the idea that he could distribute and compete with TASCAM & Fostex, but for whatever reasons the venture never became reality and ACES disappeared.
'One thing I do remember about ACES though is that, while at Bandive, the Turnkey sales team traded in a 24 track two inch and desk from Paul Hardcastle on which he'd written Nineteen. It was replaced by a Synclavier system and DDA desk that I remember us having to hire a crane, remove windows and rebuild a bathroom to house the drives at Paul's house!'
But open reel was destined to go the way of the dodo and Compact Cassette was only ever going to be useful for notebook purposes or bedroom recording. Not so, DTRS.
' I guess the next major change in the market after one inch 24 tracks came with the ADAT,' Mr Gravel says. 'Alesis had got the jump on us with the VHS eight track and almost over night created a switch to digital. We were quick to respond, though, with our own eight track format (DTRS - Digital Tape Recording System) based around the Hi 8 Video media. The design derived from a flight recorder that TEAC's aviation division had built for the space shuttle, so reliability wasn't an issue!'
The TASCAM eight track wasn't just successful - it stood the test of time and is still to be found in thousands of recording and audio post facilities around the world.
'John Wood Sound in Manchester was one of the first to be impressed by its potential and equipped his studios. Then Granada TV, who John did a lot of work for, decided to invest in machines to replace analogue multitracks, as did the BBC. Ian Jones also saw the potential early on and HHB was instrumental in establishing this format in the UK as it fitted into their portfolio perfectly both, from a sales and more importantly service side of things.'
Today, TASCAM is heavily into the hard disc-based recording which dominates the industry, but before leaving its history it is worth recalling that the company didn't go without competition - as the accompanying box shows - there were more comings and goings in the recording equipment market than many remember.
Tony Gravel has witnessed a revolution in the recording business - a revolution in no small part brought about by the company for which he works. As he says: 'When the DTRS machines, and even when the 24 one inch machines were around, we were getting calls from record companies. Everything had started to change. Back when I was in a band trying to get a deal, among the guys I shared a flat with when I moved to London, for example (which, as an aside, included Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden), one of them had just got an advance from EMI for £250,000 - this was in 1981 - for three albums. But eight or nine years later that sort of thing was no longer happening. The record companies were more prepared to buy the equipment, instead of paying for the artist to spend days or weeks down at The Sol or Ridge Farm. It was inevitable that the major studios were going to suffer. For mixdown, no problem - everybody still wanted a major studio for that, but for recording, everything had changed.'
There can't be many MDs of leading audio companies who are still receiving royalties from their days playing in bands and, though he laughs and dismisses the receipts as 'pennies', it must be a source of some pride that Bob Thomas's band, Scottish Folk/Rock outfit Silly Wizard, still has all its albums in print. But, successful as the band had been, his days on the road were numbered. 'I'd got married, had a kid, got home for six nights over a four month period and realised I wasn't seeing my son grow up, so I left the band and went to work for a music shop called Shady Grove, in Runcorn. At the end of 1980 I then went to work for Chase Musicians in Manchester with Amrik Singh Luther. I went there as a guitarist, my keyboard skills are... negative... and I went there as manager of the keyboard department!'
'I ended-up managing the Birmingham and Manchester stores and I went from there to Atlantex with Bob Wilson in 1982.' Fellow Scott, Bob Wilson, was at that time doing tremendous business with MXR and was also sub-distributing AKG microphones. 'In 1984, I left Bob and went to Studiomaster, doing the UK and Germany and then in mid '85 I went to Hayden Labs, doing Sennheiser, Denon and, my favourite, Nagra.
'I was very happy at Hayden but in the March of '86 I got hit up the back on the motorway, by a car doing considerably more speed than I was. I was stopped and he didn't. That coincided with my father having started an acute psychiatric clinic in Eastbourne. That had been very successful and he wanted an administrator. I didn't need his professional services, but I did need to get off the road,' he laughs. A year or so running the clinic was punctuated by some freelance work, helping old friend from folk club days, Ken Giles, establish Drawmer Distribution. 'By then the Bob Wilson Atlantex and Bandive merger had gone through and it was now the very end of 1986, when Harman had decided to buy Bandive. Phil Beaumont, who was the Northern rep at the time, had left and they needed a stop-gap replacement while the Harman deal went through. John Carpanini, another old friend - we'd been at Atlantex together - asked me to come back as a temporary rep and I joined them in January 1987.'
John Carpanini, for readers who remember him from Harman, Bandive or Sound Technology days, is now pursuing a very successful career with Harman, in the USA.
'So I joined Bandive to sell Fostex and became part of that period where one Bob and Tony sold Fostex, while another Bob and Tony sold Tascam. Then Teac decided to take over their own distribution and Bob Goleniowski and Tony Besgrove (see Audio Pro FT August/September 2003) decided to stay with Harman. Well, the word "opportunity" lit up in my eyes. They were within six weeks of going live, it was the BMF and they had no sales staff, bar this tall, crazy Scotsman who was being interviewed for a rep's job. I had an interview at the BMF and just sat there saying "yes" a lot.'
But (another scoop for Family Trees) Mr. Thomas reveals that he had a card up his sleeve - at the same time he was being interviewed for a job with SSL. With a career going back to days working on Studers and Neves in Edinburgh, having played professionally for seven years, recorded a handful of albums, worked with products like Nagra and Sennheiser and having done just about every backstage job from live sound engineering to handling follow spots for Billy Joel (!) he was well qualified for the job. 'I've always gigged - since I was 14,' he confesses. 'And I've never stopped. I'm still playing - guitar, mandolin, banjo - no gig too small! Anyway, I was halfway through the interview process with SSL, when I was offered the Tascam job. So there I was, it was the beginning of August, we were supposed to start operations on the 7th September, so I hired Mike Condon, who had been at Harman with Robin Doughty (who, by the way, ended-up running a pub) and also with HH. Mike was the only guy I knew who'd sold Tascam and whom I knew I could get on with. He turned up for his interview at Scratchwood Services on a Harley - so he got the job immediately!'
'Later, Mike decided he wanted to return to the USA, which was when Tony (Gravel) joined us and at the same time, while I was living in Runcorn, I went into Dougie's Music one day and was standing in the shop telling him I'd just got this gig with Tascam and was looking for a salesman, when this whirlwind hit me in the back and demanded a job - Keith Stephenson - who after a very successful spell at Sound Technology, is now at Synergy.'
One theme that has repeated over and over again in this series is the almost geological transformation that has taken place in the way music is recorded since the advent of the home/project studio sector, back in the 1970s. It is, quite literally, true that prior to '70s the recording process itself was regarded as something quite beyond the average musician's ability to grasp. 'Engineers' literally wore white coats and blinked in astonishment if a mere guitarist had the temerity to ask how something worked or "what that green button does". It was the advent of the late 1960s musical and recording freedom that led musicians to start to wonder about how much control they could actually have over the way their music was recorded, coupled with the new willingness of record companies to allow artists longer studio time, that began the process. But it was the rapid evolution of affordable multitrack equipment, that suddenly put the recording power of an Olympic, Air or Abbey Road in any bedroom whose owner cared to spend a few thousand pounds. Accurately, Bob Thomas describes this as a process of 'democratisation'.
'The march of technology, which took us from the first 3340 affordable four track recorders, has been a wonderful thing. We did the demos for our first album at Radio Edinburgh that had just got a 3340S and an Allen & Heath 12/4 mixer with spin echo. Then there was the Portastudio, which really democratised recording. Even more so has been the effect of the computer. That's now democratised music to the point where a £9.99 programme and a cheap microphone with a decent soundcard works really well. It's not a full-blown E-Magic, Pro Logic, DigiDesign doobyflip, but it lets you record. I use Acid software all the time - it's great! I can make it sit up and beg and I'm a folkie! I'm still passionate about recording and making music. I still gig, I still go to gigs and this is great.
'The democratisation has gone beyond the music making itself, too. In the past, if you were making a recording product you had to be able to build a tape transport - and there were only half a dozen companies that could do it. But today, a kid in a garage can have a great idea, write a programme and take over the world, which is how Steinberg and E-Magic started. The competition has changed, the market has changed and expanded enormously. The whole model of the recording industry has changed to match it, too. In my young day, you gigged solidly till you thought you'd got a decent following, then you spent a lot of gig money doing a demo, then you went down to London and spent a week going round the A&R departments and that was the only way to do it. Now that has gone. Artists can make their own CDs and sell them at gigs, they can put their music on the 'net and it's wonderful.
'What's gone wrong on the meantime, though, is that everyone is using exactly the same sample libraries, loops and software. Put five boy bands back to back and listen for the difference. But if you played Yes against Led Zeppelin, you'd know the difference from the first guitar note. Bands that come through that different - Coldplay, David Gray or REM for example, are like beacons.
'The downside is that if you watch MTV it's a stream of almost identical things making almost identical noises and it just depends how short the dress is and what the dance routine's like. From my point of view that's a downside, but from the point of view of getting music out there to a generation that are consumers of music on a big scale, then there's nothing wrong with it. It's just that the music market and the recording markets have changed. You have to move on.'
In March 2005, Bob Thomas left Tascam UK.