A (very) edited version of this interview appeared in the October 2003 issue of the British Pro Audio magazine, Audio Pro.
 

INTERVIEW: BOB DOYLE, DAVE WEBSTER & JAMES GORDON OF GROUND-BREAKING UK DIGITAL CONSOLE MANUFACTURER DIGICO

As spectator sports go, watching the ups and downs of companies in Pro Audio is a pretty good one. There's none of that standing round on draughty terraces in the rain, paying Sky-high prices to watch players whose names you can't even pronounce and mercifully few chances of going home in the proverbial ambulance. And, just like football, Pro Audio has its stars whose personal reputations proceed them and whose transfers from team to team occasionally excite much column inchage in the press and heated speculation in after-show bars. And then there is the gossip...

Few can have been as gossiped about, or been the subject of such speculation, as the Bob Doyle and Dave Webster, previous star players at Midas who, sixteen months ago, decamped to the newly-bought-out Soundtracs to launch DiGiCo into the nascent world of live sound digital mixers. Would the product work? Could Soundtracs be turned from a force in the post production world to a force in live sound? Would the dynamic duo be able to hold the company together as it clawed its way into a market some disputed even existed?

We can answer the last question without even needing to trouble Messrs Doyle and Webster because, just over a year later, DiGiCo hasn't so much arrived as got its feet under the industry's table, has its shoes kicked off and is settling down to the second course. The D5 is selling as fast as the company can make them and has won awards around the world.

Talking around the industry you get the impression that almost everyone was willing Webster and Doyle the sort of success they appear to be achieving. But exactly how did this all happen? After a long day at the recent PLASA show, I cornered Bob Doyle, DiGiCo's MD, Dave Webster, Marketing Director and the third arm of the triumvirate, James Gordon, Director of Sales, to ask the questions. Starting with the rumours - in particular about the company's origins. I began by asking Bob Doyle to explain the process whereby the new company came into being. His answer was carefully precise.

'DiGiCo UK is the legal entity which bought the IP and assets of Soundtracs, back in May of last year - before we came on board. It was effected by a consortium of moneyed people, headed by two Americans who put the deal together in the early part of 2002. They closed the deal and bought the IP and assets, formed DiGiCo and then offered Dave Webster and myself a deal we couldn't refuse.'

Pressed a bit harder, he says. 'It's reasonably well documented that there were a couple of guys by the name of David Keener and Eric Wade who are in the business of identifying companies with potential and acting on that - and that's exactly what they did. They identified that Soundtracs was just that kind of company. It was no secret that Todd Wells had had it on the market for quite a while, so the industry per se knew it was available, and these guys saw that, noted the potential of the platform and went ahead to acquire the company.'

It's hard not to sense some unease when the origins of the company are being discussed and hard not to understand why. The industry rumour mill had been grinding fast and hard concerning Doyle and Webster's departure from Midas, but the two are adamant that the rumour mongers are wrong - it was not premeditated.

So what of the suggestion that Bob Doyle had accidentally on purpose cut Dave Webster loose beforehand, so that he could go and start-up DiGiCo?

'Let's put it this way - we like to give that spin on it,' says Dave Webster. 'We're seen as mavericks in the industry so it's a great spin and people like to believe it - but it's not actually the case. The reality is a true life story: that I got made redundant and, more by luck than judgement because I was known within the industry for marketing very top-end mixing consoles, I was approached. We've never admitted this until now, but it really didn't happen the way people think. In fact the interesting thing is that I don't think they knew I'd been made redundant when they approached me.'

So what about the happy coincidence that Bob Doyle soon followed? Dave Webster laughs, 'It was just like Klark-Technik. I thought I was doing really well there and he came in above me - and then he did the same bloody thing at DiGiCo - it was a bit of deja vu, actually.'

Another potential point of confusion is with IAG (the Taiwanese company that owns Wharfedale, Quad and others) which bought some of the former Soundtracs brands. Who actually owns what?

'Todd Wells had decided he really wanted to leave the industry and it was no secret that Soundtracs was up for sale,' says James Gordon. 'First Spendor was sold and then IAG bought the Topaz name - which is actually a very popular brand in China. We always used to sell a large amount of the Soundtracs Topaz consoles in the Chinese market and they were our distributor out there. What they did was buy the small analogue console brand, when we went fully digital, back 1998, which is when the analogue stuff stopped and we went heavily into digital.'

Perhaps the key element the American scouts saw was not so much that Soundtracs' boss had decided he had had enough, but how much of the work on the D5 had already been done - a point which Dave Webster willingly concedes. 'Yes, around 80 per cent of what the D5 does was already there in the Soundtracs console.'

James Gordon, who was part of the Soundtracs team, expands on that. 'We'd already sold some desks into the live market and it was always something that we'd looked at doing in the longer term, but it's a very different market to what we were used to - which was primarily post-production and broadcast. But we did have some companies, Despatch in France and Delta in Belgium, who'd bought them for touring and they kind of forced us to look harder at it. So we had done some of the design work - but these two (he stares fixedly at Doyle and Webster - then laughs) are very strong characters and that made a huge difference in the live market...' He tails off as a Rock and Roll conversation about post-show smelly-feet syndrome begins to emerge from the rival camp in the far corner of the room. Bob Doyle insists this goes on the record and I'm happy to oblige. It's that sort of interview - but you'd worked that out already, hadn't you?

Struggling to regain his composure, Mr. Gordon continues: ' Soundtracs didn't really have much of a reputation in the live business and if you want to sell live consoles, there are only two characters you'd want to have on board.'

'It all came together really quickly,' adds Dave Webster. 'When you look at it, Soundtracs had already got over 400 digital consoles out into the post-production and broadcast sectors, all sitting there robust and stable. When you actually looked at the intuitive platform, it was tailor-made for live - it's the fact that from a spookily recognisable aspect, it's very much like an analogue console - you look at it and think "I can get my head round that."'

James Gordon doesn't entirely agree. 'I think that when you first look at it, it looks radically different from an analogue desk, but then when you look at it a little bit closer, the screens look like channel strips so it's soon very familiar to anyone whose ever used an analogue desk before.'

This cuts to the very heart of the task ahead of not just DiGiCo but any other console maker who tries to persuade the live sound side of the audio industry to forego analogue. In the face of all the obvious advantages, what is it that holds people back?

'There are some interesting psychological layers here, 'says Bob Doyle. 'Any engineer that's out there in live sound is fully aware of what's going on. Lodged in the back of his head somewhere is the realisation that if he doesn't get his head round this digital thing, there's a good chance he's going to get left behind. So they know they've got to start addressing this and trying to get their arms round the concept. We always said that there was a paradigm that was going to get shifted here and once that process has begun, there was going to be a domino effect right throughout the industry.'

James Gordon adds. 'If you look at other markets it's the same - it just happened faster. Post-production, eight years ago, was entirely analogue but now you wouldn't get a post studio buying an analogue desk. It's a very fast change round and, in fact, that's the most scary thing for us - the speed with which it is starting to be accepted.'

Bob Doyle agrees about the point at which the digital market will achieve critical mass, but perceives a significant difference in the live market, on which the D5's success depends. 'If you look at post-production and broadcast, they're not actually that concerned with the basic sonic performance, the dynamic range or the musicality - they're more interested in the facilities from a manipulation point of view and that's not the case with live sound. For live sound engineers, the manipulatory facilities are attractive but, at the end of the day, if the console sounds like shite, then nobody is going to go anywhere near it. One of the redeeming aspects of this platform is that it sounds very, very much like an analogue console. It has the same kind of dynamic range and in fact it supersedes an analogue console because it's on a fibre system, which doesn't lend itself to all the electronic problems that we've had with back EMF that was the problem with copper for all these years, just reflecting back and screwing-up whatever you're driving. So therefore there's more separation. In pure practical terms it's easier to place a reverb on an instrument and have it sit there within the mix and not get modulated by all the other shit that's going on. So the sonic performance and dynamic range is as good as an analogue console, but it's got that transparency brought about by the data stream communication.'

All of which, while undeniably true, doesn't mean that there isn't a core of grizzled live sound engineers out there who are still very far from convinced that they actually need a digital console. How does DiGiCo persuade these people otherwise?

Dave Webster says: 'If you look at a lot of digital products out there - whether they're consoles, signal processors or whatever, they're bits that make up a piece. But what people purchase from us is a package. They have their stage box, they have their multicore and the only difference is that it's digital. They plug in their stage box to the mixing console - and that makes it much easier to understand. Another aspect is the lack of connections. It gets rid of a lot of problems. Whether you've got an analogue product or a digital product, a lot of it is down to the copper cable and the interfaceability between one piece of equipment and another, whether it's on the same phase or not, the millions of connections - we've got rid of all of those problems.

As Britannia Row's Bryan Grant recently said in these pages, a particular advantage offered by digital desks is the cost factor. Providing the manufacturer has his effects voiced correctly and functioning well, the desk will carry the burden of a gig without the need for legions of outboard gear. It might even mean being able to use just a single console where a pair, or even a trio, of analogue equivalents would have been called for. Naturally, Dave Webster agrees.

'It's a cheap option, yes. If you actually added up buying your line system, your stage box, mixing console and outboard gear it makes a great deal of sense to buy a digital console. Most of the people who've purchased the D5 have purchased it because they are getting the rest of the system with it to go out on a tour and it's been a very cost-effective solution for them.'

'From an operational point of view, we had D5s on the V2003 festivals,' adds Bob Doyle. 'A lot of the crew operating those systems were very analogue people and when you look around and see the D5 sitting there in all its compact glory, replacing probably three prominent analogue consoles, in terms of its size - and bear in mind you don't need any outboard, no compressors and gates and so on - it makes obvious sense. I asked one of the (very analogue) guys mixing at one of these gigs what he thought of the sonic performance and he said "It's as good as any analogue console I've heard" and I think, to me, that says it all. You've got to look at the dynamic range, the sonic performance, the basic musicality of the console first. The digital manipulation comes later - because if it sounds bad, it sounds bad and all the bells and whistles in the world won't make it sound good. It has to sound right, first.'

But sound engineers are notorious for their likes and dislikes. They want the reverb they choose and the compressor they specify - not, necessarily the one bundled in a new-fangled digital console. So how does DiGiCo handle that?

James Gordon says, in effect, they just let the D5 do it for them. 'It's interesting. When people first use the desk, you go and see the rehearsals and they have all the rack set up and working and then you go back and see them two months later - 90 per cent of the rack's switched off and maybe they've kept one compressor, which is the one they use on the lead, one high quality reverb and the rest is switched off. It's like when you first enter the curve you limit the risk, so you have everything you're used to and the desk changes. Two nights into the tour and you use an internal reverb - that's one off and so it goes on. At V2003, of the main guys who had been out on tour with it, one had no outboard gear at all, one had two units and one had three - so you had someone who was able to turn up with a carry case of outboard gear, as opposed to an entire rack of it, which is what he would have to have done a year ago.'

So how is the proselytising going? It's hard not to sense that the live sound market might be the last to crack, given the preponderance of engineers who cut their teeth on 'that Black Sabbath tour' and have no desire at all to learn new tricks. 'It's not one area that's bad,' says James Gordon, 'It's just down to individuals.'

'We come across it all the time,' says Dave Webster. 'That's why we're doing festivals. For example at Glastonbury it was specced for only one band, while at V2003, it was specced for three - but while it was there people saw it, they had a look, we were there and people's confidence starts to grow.'

The careful placement of D5s at festivals this past summer has already borne fruit, with engineers who saw the system being put through its paces now warming to the idea of taking it out on the road for their Autumn gigs. It just proves that bare specifications on paper do not sell mixers. Dave Webster agrees. 'This is where we're very lucky, because we have reputations. People in this industry expect the product to work anyway and it's the people who are around that product that make the difference. People will give us a chance and the product is very good.'

That the two headed monster Doyler and Webby 'have reputations' is axiomatic, but throughout the interview - and particularly once the tape is switched off - there's a willingness to admit that Bob Doyle and Dave Webster are acutely aware how important those reputations are and there's even just a hint that they might be keen to keep the road warrior image alive while, at the same time, working their backsides off in a very professional way to get the new company established. It's a hard act to pull-off. On the one hand, they need to be seen as the good old hell-raisers of the past. On the other they need to be seen as sober, respectable businessmen.

In the spirit of that, I ask if they can put figures on how well it has been going for the new outfit. Bob Doyle says: 'We started to ship the console at the end of October 2002, so this is our first full year. We've pushed the envelope with regards to forcing the growth of the company, with regards to how many consoles we've put into production and all the associated costs - at the six month point by June 30th we were 86.1% ahead of projections, so that shows how we've done.'

Can they put numbers of desks on that? 'About 73,' confirms Dave Webster.

So who are DiGiCo's competitors? The analogue console makers?

'No,' he continues. 'To be honest, speaking as a marketing guy, I don't know that we even have competitors. Theoretically we do, in InnovaSon and Yamaha, but what we're doing is getting converts. People who decide to go digital will give one of us a go and yes, possibly, that's being taken from the analogue market, but the major analogue makers that I'm in touch with are still doing very well - so this is a new market, or an expanding market. People aren't selling-off analogue consoles. We're still a very small percentage of the total market.'

To grow that market, one way is to increase the number of manufacturers actively promoting it. Is that something DiGiCo would welcome?

'Bob has said this many times - a couple more manufacturers in this market would be so much better for us, because it convinces people that this is the way to go.'

'It will happen. It's begun,' says Bob Doyle. 'The paradigm shift is there. Everybody knows it's the future. Yes there's resistance and it's more in live sound than anywhere else, because of the "I don't like it because I've never tried it" factor. But it can only go one way. Look at it from a statistical point of viw. Right now we have 3 per cent of the analogue console market and just think of what that means in terms of potential. We can't keep up with the demand right now. If we had 15-20 per cent of the market, we'd all be dead! Very rich, but very dead.

'Two or three more serious players in the digital live sound market would really increase the business. Midas could come out with a digital console, CADAC could come out with a digital console, Soundcraft, too - bring it on! It could only grow the total market.'

Digital consoles have arrived at an interesting time in live sound - by accident, just starting to gain prominence as line arrays take over the speaker market. Is there a connection? Dave Webster thinks it is, if nothing else, a serendipity.

'I think it has been fortuitous, yes. The engineer is now concentrating on his core job again, which is mixing the band, so he stays by his console. He's less bothered about considerations like worrying about the third box down on the right hand side- which is what people were doing - worrying about being on the radio to the system tech to see whether the sound was hitting wherever, rather than worrying about whether the snare drum was sounding right. Because of line array systems, engineers now have more time to worry about doing their art - which is mixing the band, which is what we do.'

Playing Devil's Advocate I suggest that, for all the messianic zeal of these people trying to sell us on line arrays and digital consoles, there are some out there who still prefer analogue desks and lots of big boxes. What is Bob Doyle's feeling about that?

'For years and years when the venue was bigger, we brought more boxes in and we stacked them more horizontally and at the end of the day, physics says that the more you stack horizontally, the more it collapses the horizontal dispersion and increases the vertical dispersion - so if you've got some bloke who's filming the show in a helicopter, he's getting a great bass sound...

'And because of the lack of phase correlation between putting more boxes up, we got to the point where we were bringing in another three trucks of boxes, which made it only 3dB louder and even less coherent. What line arrays have done is reverse that, so now we have a line array which follows the laws of physics, where we collapse the vertical dispersion and increase the horizontal dispersion - which is exactly what we want - and by the way, we're down to one truck - Hallelujah!'

'And the DiGiCo line array comes out next year,' cracks Dave Webster...

'What I don't understand about this is that the sort of people who tell you that line array is crap are the same people who'll tell you that they'll never use a digital console,' Bob Doyle adds, shaking his head.

With over 70 consoles already sold this year, and the company's production facilities working flat-out, how does DiGiCo plan to cope with what looks likely to become an even more rapidly growing demand, once the aforementioned critical mass is reached?

'We're already poised to move to bigger premises in the Epsom area,' says Bob Doyle. 'And we already have three or four people earmarked to join us.'

'To expand production isn't the problem,' adds James Gordon. 'We used to do 70 consoles a week in the Soundtracs heyday.'

Which is, as such things go, impressive. But if DiGiCo really hits the high road, the demand could be more than can be coped with in even a new UK facility and the company's existing overflow facility in Scotland. Might such an expansion of trade be a cue to move production to China? And will that mark the point at which China shifts from MI production to serious Pro Audio gear?

'I think it' s accepted that the Chinese can produce a quality mass market product more consistently than we can,' says Bob Doyle. 'If you look at the myriad of Japanese and Chinese manufacturers, the product's out of the box, it works and it works forever. However, we're at the position where the manufacturing cost of our products is coming down week by week. When it levels out and China becomes an option, I will look at it - it's as simple as that.'

That said, to really get the benefits of massive production facilities, you need sufficient (and more or less insatiable) demand. Dave Webster isn't sure it is there. 'People misinterpret the size of this industry. It is big on a global scale but if you're going to manufacture in China, you have to have enormous volumes to support that. People do tend to miss this. You also have to bear in mind that we're at the high end - at that position in the market, we can afford to support people and we will do it. If we started to move towards volume, though, we couldn't offer the intense level of support that we do - and that isn't the way we want to do business.'

So where does DiGiCo go from here? Is it too early to be talking about the next product?

'We have some major technological steps already earmarked and laid down that will last us at least five years and should keep us ahead of any competition that may come along,' says Bob Doyle.'

How about a studio console? 'Actually, we did look at that,' Bob Doyle confirms. 'But the recording market from a large format point of view is dead - killed by Mackie and Yamaha and so on. Why bother? You can actually produce a fantastic two track master in your back room with all the effects in the world, so the recording market, we feel, just isn't there. The 1,000 a day, lockout studio is a dinosaur.'

The same is not true of the post production and broadcast markets, however, where Soundtracs is still both active and successful.

Perhaps less well known than the D5 itself, but a growing part of the console's success apparently, is the Digitracs recording option. On the face of it a fairly obvious device for archive recording, it has hidden benefits which the DiGiCo team admits it has watched customers developing all the time, as Bob Doyle explained.

'From a live point of view, you can introduce more reference points to ensure live consistency than you could ever do before. For example, you can record 20 minutes of a soundcheck and send the band back to the dressing room, which is where they want to be anyway, because they want to wash their hair. Then you can set the room, set the system up using playback and if you've archived the night before, you can cross-refer the multitrack to today's, so it's introducing reference points that we've never had before. You've got 56 tracks of live hard disc recording at studio quality. It's an ideal system - you can use it to improve the consistency of your engineering at a live show, or archive the shows for a live album for when the band comes off the road .'

In the end, though, however good any product in the Pro Audio business may be, much of its success will be down to the individuals involved in selling it and standing by it. In this respect, DiGiCo has enormous assets in, as James Gordon has said, Messrs Doyle and Webster whose reputations are unmatched in the industry. Do they still get out there and send time on the road? Is that possible, while they are trying to build the business?

'Absolutely!' insists Bob Doyle. 'You just have to get out there and do it - all the time. I've jut got back from Italy, where I was with a company that has just bought three FMX systems, before that I was in Sweden - you should see James's diary - he's all over Europe.' At which point, James Gordon produces his pocket organiser to prove how little of the next 12 months he will be spending in England. It's a rough life, but somebody has to do it.

Handling the USA on the same hands-on basis would, of course, be too much even for three such hardened road hogs, so the decision was taken early on for DiGiCo to control its own destiny in the world's largest market, by establishing its own distribution set up in North America. The US operation is headed by Eric Wade and Rod Stewart tour tech veteran, Taidus Vallindi. Another recent recruit is Shane Morris, formerly with ATI Paragon. 'America is just exploding for us at the moment,' says Bob Doyle. 'We'll be taking on more people over there very soon, but the guys we have now are fantastic - I don't think there's anyone who knows more about the console than Taidus.'

So have Doyler and Webby finally gone corporate? Off tape, Dave Webster tells me that the two of them have family homes far enough away from the factory for them to have to share a company flat during the week. Cue immediate scenes of Rock and Roll debauchery. Only, he admits with a rueful smile, these days they are too knackered when they finally leave Soundtracs, to do much more than grab a curry and carry on talking about the business.

And yet... At PLASA Dave Webster took to speeding along the aisles on a motorised scooter, which at the end of the day he hurled out into the traffic around Earls Court, shouting 'So long, suckers!' as Bob Doyle, James Gordon and I made the long trek to the company's rented apartment for this interview. Somebody had to make sure the vodka was properly iced, after all. The light still burns. Maybe a little less frantically, but this is still very much Rock and Roll country. Though, I can confirm: no virgins were sacrificed in the manufacture of this interview. Not this time.

Ends.

2005 Gary Cooper