Finally, we reach the end this Family Tree on the UK's home recording business (and we'll keep on saying it) one of the most dynamic influences in the music business in the past thirty years. We close with two people who, in their different ways, played significant parts in the development of the market over quite considerable periods of time: Sound Technology's Nigel Miller, who spent many years with Teac-Tascam and Chris Collings, boss of Aspen Media, formerly with both Turnkey/Bandive and Raper and Wayman. This may be the point at which some readers think 'Hey! But what about old...?' and, no doubt there are others whose inclusion in this series would have been appropriate - perhaps even crucially so. Some we were unable to track down, others we missed through (as Dr. Johnson admitted) 'Ignorance, sheer ignorance' but mostly because of the constraints of space and the need to move on. But if you think that, the situation is by no means irredeemable. Family Trees, by its very nature, is always a work in progress. If Audio Pro readers think there are notable contributors we have excluded (particularly if they can put us in touch with them!) future additions are very possible. Please write and tell us. Meanwhile, settle down for a final slice of life at the sharp end of the home recording boom.
Today an area sales manager for the Midlands and the North with Sound Technology, Nigel Miller has a long background in the music industry and perfectly illustrates the cross-fertilisation that took place between pro audio and MI, as the home recording boom got under way in the 1980s. He began in MI retail, with Andertons of Guildford, in 1974. 'After Andertons, I did a couple of jobs outside the industry and then turned pro (he plays guitar, bass, keyboards and sings) 'in 1977. I did that for about 15 years and played just about everywhere in the world - from Dubai to Finland. I came back, worked in music retail again for a while and then got a job with John Hornby Skewes, in 1988. They'd taken on Dod and Digitech and employed me as national technical manager to try and promote the brand throughout the UK, so that was my first real step into the distribution side. I worked for them for about eight months and then bumped into Teac's Tony Gravel at a show in Bristol in 1989. Tony offered me a job at Teac which, initially, was on the Hi-Fi side, but within a few months I started to delve into some of the Tascam accounts.
Things were going incredibly well for them at the time. There were the TSR8, MSR16, the MSR24 reel to reel machines and around that same time the M3500 Tascam desk came out, which was really the first analoguey-digital desk - with various digital controllers on it. That then turned into the 3700 and it, with the MSR24, became a very popular package and we sold tons of those, through big retailers like Academy of Sound, Musical Exchanges, KGM and Sound Control. What was driving the market were the record companies, which were getting fed-up with giving large advances to bands. An MSR24, a 3700 and a DA30 DAT machine was a much more attractive proposition for them. I remember Marillion, for example, buying a lot of Tascam stuff in that period - they were pretty typical customers.'
Which, inevitably, marked the beginning of the end for what had been a massive recording studio market. 'Inevitably it had an effect,' says Mr. Miller, 'But it was digital that really did the damage. In a short space of time the entire market changed radically, At one point, the only way you could record digitally was by buying a Sony DASH machine, which cost around £185,000. Tascam then brought out a digital machine, which cost about £85 grand, but that didn't really take off and then, all of a sudden, for £20 grand you could get a digital studio - and that difference was Alesis ADAT or a DA88 system. Suddenly, you could do what you had earlier been able to do with an MSR24 and a 3700, except you could now do it digitally - and that really pulled a lot of business away from studios. A record company could give an advance to an artist of about £30,000 and he was fully set-up with equipment that could be sold later if he wasn't successful.' The market mushroomed accordingly. 'You had people like Bob Turner Pro Audio in Chester - Bob came more or less out of nowhere and was ordering five, six or seven packages a week from me. It was astonishing. After Bob's business went bust, Phil Beaumont took over that mantle (see FT January) and he was selling packages to everybody - very aggressive advertising, very aggressive pricing and he knew everybody in the industry, so did extremely well. He could get to artists that most of the others couldn't, because he was so well connected.'
Competition was fierce between the big two, Fostex and Tascam, but it was US newcomer, Alesis, that really shook the tree. 'When Alesis came out with their system, it was about £1,000 cheaper than Tascam's DA88 at a retail level. They'd got their machine out before ours and they got into a lot of home studios as a result. But Tascam were clever - they put in a unit called the SY88, which was a SMPTE timecode reader/writer and also had the ability to connect straight to video, so it meant with a single unit you could lock-up to Sony Betacams and could timecode things. The BBC, Granada, all the TV companies went for that, rather than the ADAT alternative, which was complicated to do that sort of work with. That pushed a lot of desk manufacturers into putting TDIF on the back of their desks. I remember getting a call from AMS Neve and I went up there with a DA88 and 99 and they developed a MADI interface to work with them for their desks that were going to studios like Disney in the States.'
Was that a sign that Tascam had decided to leave the consumer market to Alesis? 'It had to. The Alesis thing was massive and it was cheaper - people go for the soft option and it was fine for that home market.' The next industry revolution was the move to hard drive recording - but that, says Nigel Miller, wasn't an overnight phenomenon. 'It's taken a long, long while for it to happen - and I'm someone who earns a living selling E-Magic. Computers are big, but not as big as you might think. You get a lot of older studio owners who like a solid piece of kit - they still like hardware - and you've still got a lot of musicians who like other formats. Noel Gallagher, for example, prefers to work on a 2in tape machine. A lot of the guitar guys think that guitar onto tape is still the way to go and maybe put vocals and everything else on computer, then lock the whole thing up.'
For three years while at Tascam, Nigel Miller had what must have been one of the hairier jobs in Pro Audio - handling Tascam sales for the Middle East. 'I was selling to places like Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait and Dubai. That was an interesting time, not least because when I went out there, all the machines were old Otaris and I did an incredible deal with Syrian radio and TV supplying £100,000's worth of Tascam products - completely refitting their systems. Some of the stuff it was replacing hadn't been updated since the early days of tape - they had Siemens mixing desks, Siemens speakers and things you'd never seen before in you're life - standing like rows of cookers - amazing stuff.'
Nigel Miller left Teac in 2001 to go back into retail for a short period, later worked with Phil Beaumont, then joined Arbiter to sell JBL and Digitech and finally joined Sound Technology, last May.
Another veteran of the home recording business, Chris Collings has a history stretching back to Allen and Heath days (see the first three FT's in this series) followed by a long career at Bandive/Turnkey, then with Pro Audio retailer Raper and Wayman, before starting his own Pro Audio business, Aspen Media. 'How I came to work for Allen and Heath was because I went to school with a guy called Martin Appleby, who I knew worked for them. I met him at a party and in a very drunken state asked him whether there were any jobs going. He said I needed to talk to a guy called Ivor Taylor. So I 'phoned Ivor and got an appointment (I was young - still doing my A levels at the time). I turned up to the interview in my best suit and tie, sat and filled-in the application form and then this guy walked in wearing jeans with more holes than a string vest and a very tatty T-shirt. I though "I could handle working here...".'
Getting the job, he began by building printed circuit boards for the Pop Mixer, a modular, single PCB job. 'Andy Bereza' had just left at that point, so it was Ivor and maybe ten others working out of Hornsey High St. I was there for about a year and did all manner of things from building PCBs to assembling mixers, building mixer chassis, stock control - it was a great grounding, but I left at the end of that year and went to university.' University wasn't quite what he had hoped for so, before long, Mr, Collings was back with Allen and Heath, sub-contract assembling. When the Bereza, Stirling and Taylor team started Turnkey in New Barnet, he became the company's second employee. 'It was back to the same routine, building stuff, buying, and then we got sub-contractors to build the Accessit range and the original Seck mixers - the £100 six-into-two, a Bereza special. I was there in total for getting on for eight years and in that time it grew to a staff of thirty plus and I found myself doing a bit of everything: production, sales, export sales. And then we got Fostex through Andy's connections and I was the original sales manager for Fostex, setting up the dealer base.'
Had he found the market receptive to the upstart Fostex brand? 'From the dealers' point of view it was heaven-sent. It gave them the opportunity to move into a very lucrative market and we were able to operate a very strict dealer policy. I spent most of my time saying "No, you can't have this product", so the dealers were able to maintain their margins and provide the support that, as a new brand, it needed. I think this was one of the key factors in its success. The pros would look at it and say "eight tracks on quarter inch? You must be joking!" but we put in place a lot of very strict quality control procedures, with a guy called Graham Bryant, who now works for me at Aspen Media. He had carte blanche to make sure that nothing went out of the door unless it worked. As a consequence, our failure rates were astonishingly low and people started to trust the product.
I guess around that time, we moved to West Hendon and the company then grew fairly rapidly. The Turnkey side had taken on products like Synclavier, they had taken on Otari and were selling the first "producer packages" with a multitrack tape machine, moderate-sized console, signal processing and everything. It was a growing market at that point. When the B16 came out, with 16 tracks on half inch tape, there were probably half a dozen key suppliers and provided you didn't drop the ball too often it was a very profitable and successful market.
Turnkey then bought Atlantex and Bob Wilson came on board,' recalls Mr. Collings. 'John Carpanini took over the sales side and did enormously well and I went back to the manufacturing Seck mixers. Those 18-18-2s and 12-9-2s really did write the book in terms of what came later with products like Soundcraft Spirit Folios. They didn't go as far as the "just in time" manufacturing that Soundcraft did, but they certainly forged the concept of how you could make those sorts of products in volume.'
For all its success, as we have seen in earlier episodes, all was not well at the top of Turnkey. Atlantex had been a harder pill to swallow that Messrs Bereza, Stirling and Taylor had reckoned with and cracks in their relationships began to develop into wider fissures.
'It was at about that point, in 1985, that I got married and at that time all of a sudden there were confidential and private meetings going on all over the place. It was obvious that something was about to happen and I was offered a job at Raper and Wayman, and decided it was time to leave.' Raper and Wayman had started life in the early 1980s, developing on the relationship forged by Rodney Wayman and John Raper, when they were at Studio Equipment Services. When that business folded, they started on their own, in Islington. 'We were in Danbury St, down an alley way, with an anonymous front door, down a passageway and into a network of small offices and workshops. We were there for three years after I joined and, again, it was a combination that offered strong service and quality technical sales - not such a huge presence in the studios, it was more in industrial and commercial audio that they excelled. It grew rapidly and steadily, always under control and with a team that was good to work with.
Then, in 1989, the company moved to Haringey and what really triggered my move to start Aspen media was the threat of them digging-up Henley's Corner on the North Circular. Living out of town, my journey to Haringey went up to sometimes two hours, which is too much of your life to spend trapped in a car. I decided it was now or never, and set up Aspen Media in 1985. We're a Pro Audio dealer and service centre. The service centre specialises in tape-based digital 8-tracks. Graham Bryant had been brought in by Sound Technology to resolve Q/A issues with the early batches of Alesis and had got the failure rate down to less than one per cent.
When I set up, I suggested in passing that he might want to do the same thing with me in Hemel Hempstead and he jumped at the chance. It's a service that we honestly expected to die fairly rapidly. Once people had gone on to working with hard disc we really expected that people would stop requiring service. But because of their mechanical nature they do require maintenance and people are still using them. Certainly, the film and TV industry still uses the Tascam machines as their default media and there are a lot of people with home studios still using ADAT in all its guises - and Graham knows it better than anyone else.'
On the sales side, the company has carved out some useful niches for itself, cleverly avoiding having to compete with the mass market audio retailers with cut-throat margins. 'We've replaced a lot of that business by selling products like Stagetec digital consoles and routers,' he says. 'So we're right at the top end with products costing 2,3 or £400,000 a go.' The net is cast wide, too - part of the Stagetec group, Delec, makes comms system and Aspen Media has just won the contract for supplying the system which will be used as part of the refurbishment of Broadcasting House for the BBC.
Of the impact of the home recording business in the UK, Chris Collings has a mixed view. 'It certainly made the technology less of a mystery and more accessible to people than anyone would have dreamed possible. I think there have been huge benefits but also some downsides to it. Obviously, it has enabled a lot of people to write and record music that they would never have been able to previously, and that's got to have been a benefit. But I think what it's also done - and this is also relevant to samplers, synthesisers and those sorts of things - is that we have lost a lot of the interaction of creating music. It has been more about individuals sitting at home, rather than a group of people working together, taking material on the road, where it's allowed to develop. I think that hasn't been as much of a benefit. On the other hand, I think the material is moving away from that introspective phase now, to a more open and creative process.'