In addition to their tendency to resemble the colour of John Major's Spitting Image puppet, one of the other less complimentary things said about accountants is that they tend to run uninspiring companies, making uninspiring products. It's not hard to look around the audio industry (or any industry, come to that) and decide which businesses are product-led and which are run by the grey hand of profit and loss alone.
And even within the more interesting brigade there are two distinct types of business. One (and easily the greater number) is run by marketing and sales people. It responds to markets, picks up trends and, if successful, does it so well that if you screwed your eyes really tight, you might manage to convince yourself that it was truly innovative, rather than merely quickly reactive. But it's the genuinely product-led company that's the most fun. This is the kind that is run by a man who still gets a kick out of products. Often, he's the person who actually started the business, but not inevitably. Sometimes, it's true, this type of company has a choppy ride - and more than a few sink (usually for want of the aforementioned accountants, it must be admitted), but those that do stay afloat are the companies that tend to produce the really innovative products. Allen & Heath, I'd like to suggest, is exactly that kind of company.
Which, given its pedigree, is hardly surprising. Readers who have been with us since the off may recall our Family Trees series on the history of home recording in the UK and, if so, will know that an article on Allen & Heath can be guaranteed not to carry an interview with either Mr Allen or Mr Heath, because the company, as the Audio industry knows it, was an off the shelf, defunct engineering trading name, handed over by Joseph Batiste to get the young Andy Bereza up and running with a new audio mixer business, in the shortest possible time, in 1970.
These were golden days in the UK and A&H flourished, quickly plugging into the burgeoning PA market as the number of bands demanding more than a couple of Marshall columns and a mixer amp, grew exponentially. With Ivor Taylor and Andrew Stirling soon joining the ever-creative Mr Bereza, the products flowed, including legends like the Mini Mixer and the MOD1, as used by Pink Floyd in 1973 on the revolutionary Dark Side of the Moon tour. True, the company failed to make money, but the list of A&H endorsees was a gazetteer of '70s British Rock, including, among dozens of others, The Who, King Crimson and Genesis.
Frustrated by A&H's inability to grow, Andy Bereza later left to join Tascam (where he is credited with having more or less invented the Portastudio) leaving behind Ivor Taylor and Andrew Stirling. Though A&H reached for the big time in 1976 by buying the idiosyncratic British tape machine manufacturer Brenell, this was not a resounding success and it wasn't long before Messrs Taylor and Stirling decided to rejoin Mr Bereza, to found Turnkey.
Despite the loss of three figures whose influence in Britain's audio industry during the 1970s and '80s would be hard to over-estimate, Allen & Heath survived. In fact, it not only survived, it continued to innovate. Many of the A&H mixers produced in the 1970s are still around (much loved in the USA for their 'British sound') and the 1980s got off to a great start with the System 8 mixer, which succeeded in both live and studio markets.
In 1984, A&H launched its CMC, said to be the first compact console to use microprocessor technology (you could even drive one from a Commodore 64). A year later came the popular SR and SRM live consoles, followed by the Keymix system and 1986's in-line Sigma - innovative product after innovative product.
In 1991, A&H was acquired by Harman and even if that seemed like an odd match, it certainly didn't stop the ideas flowing. Indeed, the following decade was a boom period, with turnover increasing tenfold leading, in 2001, to a management buyout, backed by 3i and the Bank of Scotland. A&H was back on its own - but still very much under the leadership of the team that had driven that success, headed (unusually) by someone with a resolutely technical background, managing director Glenn Rogers, who, along with Bob Goleniowski, David Jones and Tony Williams, now control the company.
In the finest A&H tradition, Glenn Rogers traces his interest in electronics to a childhood fascination. 'From a very early age I was a dabbler in electronics - taking apart the home Hi-Fi system (we've all done it!), stringing bulbs off the end of valve amplifiers to make nice little sound-to-light units - which they do until the valve blows up because it's not designed for that! That sort of thing sparked my interest and from there I got into running a mobile DJ operation that I built all the kit for and I also was lucky in enough in the 1970s to be involved with some people at school in the music department who were into electronic music. This was just as computer music was starting and I was particularly fortunate in that my music teacher was Mike Beecher' (founder of Electronics and Music Maker and one of the seminal figures in UK electronic music in the 1970s). 'In the early days of Electronics and Music Maker my name used to appear quite frequently as I used to work with him and do a lot of the projects, technical editing and so on.
'I knew I wanted to work in electronics, so after my GCSEs I went off and did an apprenticeship with Marconi for four years and then I went and did my degree, all the time working with Mike and even with Maplin for a bit. After that, I was looking round for a job and wound-up on the South Coast, working for a chart recorder company. Then Mike, who had just written an article on Allen & Heath, phoned me up one day in 1983, telling me that the company had moved to Brighton, near where I was, and that they were expanding. I went along, made myself known and they offered me a job.
'At the time Allen & Heath was being run by a chap called Neil Hauser. I'm not sure how he came to be at the helm, but he had been part of the Batiste group. They'd just moved the manufacturing to Cornwall, with sales and R&D in Brighton.'
A young engineer straight out of university is bound to have a head full of ideas, so it's no wonder that Glenn Rogers was put straight to work - the first result being the aforementioned CMC . ' That was basically bringing the computing and processing technology that I'd been dabbling, with along with Mike, into the world of the studio, by making the microprocessor controlled routing and muting system, which then spawned MIDI control, making it the first of the MIDI mixing interfaces for a small studio. It was great fun well received, became a bit of a cult product in California and some other places and it was the perfect partner for the B16, which was also taking off at the time.'
Mr Rogers made pretty rapid progress within the company and by the time of the 1991 Harman takeover was already A&H's managing director. How had the takeover felt from the inside?
'Well, it had been a bit of a bumpy road beforehand and Batiste were trying to off-load us. It was recession time we were hurting. A lot of the broadcast stuff we had being doing through MBI had dried-up and we were trying to support this big organisation that really hadn't had a lot of investment. For example, we were still hand-building boards with every component inserted and soldered by hand.
'That last couple of years, 1989-91 had been pretty tough. At the time I think my official title was deputy MD, but I was effectively running things and that's the sharpest way to learn how to run a business. I was trying to avoid insolvency and yet retain some enthusiasm in the company - for example, we built a recording studio in the factory as a way of showing people what we were doing, using up some inventory and keeping up morale as best we could.'
Looked at from the outside, Harman's decision to buy A&H seemed a curious one. Not more than a couple of years previously it had bought Soundcraft, so why does he think Harman reckoned it needed yet another UK console maker?
'They were shopping for MBI, because they wanted to do broadcast. They didn't really want Allen & Heath, but negotiations were along the lines of: "well, if you take MBI, we'll give you Allen & Heath", and that's how we ended-up a part of Harman. I think they thought it was too much grief to untangle it, so they decided to take the lot and see what to do with it afterwards.'
Harman's first moves included shutting down US production of A&H, generally trimming and pruning then issuing the challenge to show the new parent what its adopted child could do.
'It was just the challenge I wanted. I knew what I wanted to do, I knew where we wanted to go and if Harman, who had the money to do it, were willing to support us, I knew we could prove ourselves - and we did. In effect, we said goodbye to recording, because we didn't think that was an area we could survive in. Digital software-based home recording stuff didn't look like a value-add process for us, as we didn't have the software at the time, so we started backing the live sound horse, which was reasonably successful for us. Within a couple of years, we'd paid back all the debts and were a cash contributor to Harman. Which, I think, rather scuppered their plans for us.'
Had there been times when A&H had felt it was laying second fiddle to Soundcraft? Had, for example, they ever been told to keep off a project because it was earmarked as Soundcraft territory?
'Not in a blatant way... It was fine at first and it only got a little more awkward toward the end of our stay in Harman, when we were outperforming some of the others that were perceived as the "better brands" and we were perceived as muddying the waters. We'd wanted to do the ML series for a long time and that was being held back because it was too close to Soundcraft, but it was unblocked after a time. Also, for part of that period, I was actually running R&D at Soundcraft as well, which as an immensely challenging period - three days a week at Soundcraft, two days a week down here, in Cornwall. So I was actually working with Amek, Soundcraft and Allen & Heath. It was a little awkward at times.
'In the end it became apparent that having two competing mixer companies within Harman just didn't make sense and the options was really just sell it, close it, or merge it. It seemed a real shame to me to close it, so we discussed it and decided to let the management team take it forward, which was done with Harman's blessing. There was nothing hostile there. We could see value on this business and my representations to them, which meant merging it or closing it, were not going to capitalise on the value, which the management buyout achieved.
'They were ten great years with Harman, though. The position of surviving against insolvency- having a passion that you couldn't fulfill, because it as always hand to mouth - and then having ten years in which you could develop with the backing of Harman, was great for the company and its employees.'
Leaving business aside for a moment, it's quickly apparent that Glenn Rogers is very much at home talking about the company's products and in complete technical depth. Would he agree that this can be a rarity among audio industry MDs?
'Yes, it's true, MDs tend to come from Sales and Finance and I definitely think this makes us different. I think it's important that you assess the real issues of passion and application, rather than just counting the beans or the boxes and my approach is always to ask one question: how are we making life better for the user and for the audience? Are we adding any real value? And if we can say "yes" to that, then were on the right track and if we aren't, then we have to question why we're doing it.'
Does he agree that makes the company more product than market-led? 'I think that's definitely the case and it's one of the things I get criticised for. And sometimes I have to stand back and admit they might be right. It's sometimes said that we're a "best kept secret" or that we grew in stealth, and sometimes people will say things like, "we thought you were a little company. We had no idea you are so big. How comes we don't know much about you?". There's quite a bit of that, but against it, the people who do find out about us, tend to stay and believe in what we are trying to do. I don't know if it's a failing on my part or the company's that we haven't done a Mackie, or whether it's good because it means we've retained the focus on the application and the benefit to the user and the audience.
'But if you look at the track record and pedigree, I think you can see that philosophy a work. The dual function console that is now a standard, for example. That was us - born out of talking to the rental companies and looking at where the money was in the 1980s, when business and money were really tight. They were saying to us: "why do I have to buy these monitor desks, which rarely go out - can't we do it in one package?". That set us thinking and the GL3 was the first incarnation of that. One mixer for two purposes which you could put in your hire stock and never see gathering dust. It's now a standard feature on pretty much every live sound desk, but it was entirely new at the time.'
To maintain that level of innovation means not just listening to what people ask you for, but having an active working knowledge of the equipment and how it is actually used in the field. Does A&H still have that sort of personal involvement that, one suspects, was common in the past?
'Me personally, not so much these days, although I do occasionally dabble. I do a bit of recording at home, but I just don't have the time. But in the DJ department, for example, we have people constantly coming up with loan requests, because they want to do a gig or try something out in a new nightclub and we actively encourage that. We work with all the local art centres, theatres - wherever we can get to talk to people - that's what it's about.'
Picking up on a point he made earlier, just how big is Allen & Heath today? 'We have a turnover of about £15 million and we employ 264 at the moment - pretty much all in Cornwall, where we are now one of the biggest employers.'
And how about that location? Being a five hour drive from London and a good deal longer to, say, Manchester, is what was once a good move for financial reasons, now working against the company?
'Not really. If you consider that 85 per cent of our stuff is exported, the difference between here and a port and here and Sydney is irrelevant. Communication wise, it's a slight hassle for travelling to trade shows, and it's true that we can't easily poach staff from someone else round the corner, but that has its beneficial side, because it means once we've got someone trained up and working well, they tend to stay for a while. So I don't really see and negative elements.'
What are his feelings about A&H's place in the long-awaited, much-heralded, digital revolution?
'This was something that began taking shape under the Harman reign. By 1995, it became fairly obvious that digital was the future, but the uncertainty was "when". I can remember sitting in many meetings at Harman where people were saying: "in five years time we're going to have to be out of analogue because it's all going to be digital. Those meetings started in '93 and here we are in 2005, with the biggest sales still in analogue. It will come in the end and it's swinging that way, but it's still being held back. At the top end it's more accepted but there remain issues of comfort with the features and of reliability, but it's not been a lightbulb switchover. I think if you could give a guarantee of reliability, then most people would change - although you do still have the same throwback issues that you have in recording, with people still preferring the sound of a valve mixer, or analogue tape, in some cases.
'And then, if the truth was really known, in the world of audience-filled venues, such as Wembley, how much of the contribution to sound quality is made by the console itself? I have my doubts. But for the big boys, the main issue is reliability. Whatever they commit to has to be rock-solid. There are some other benefits, like repeatable shows, recalls and so on and those benefits are being taken up now. Reliability is getting better and when it's 100 per cent I think all those big shows are going to be digital. But at the other extreme, the small rental companies, are working on a fixed budget - not least for training. And, of course, there's price - finding the right recipe to win at the moment is quite a challenge.'
Is a lack of people capable of doing the amount of heavy-duty coding required to produce a new generation of easy to use, reliable digital mixers holding back the UK industry, does he feel?
'Not really. The skills exist here and it's an interesting area. Where this country is best, I would suggest, is in algorithm development - making the thing sound right - playing with getting the right things out of the DSP. Where we're less good at the moment is in the graphic user interface representation.'
But surely we're the country that leads with computer games? Shouldn't that be easy?
'Exactly - and I think that's partly because we've yet to amalgamate the two industries so they pull together. What we need to do is recruit some of those games guys, but we've not yet made that mental leap, because we still treat them as analogue boxes for processing high quality audio. And you're right to raise this as this is the most fascinating thing that I think we are going to see over the next four or five years: audio quality versus control.
'MP3, WMA, compression - what is the big driver? The control? The sound quality, the system package? You're already seeing in the world of DJ that we're involved in with the Xone range, that people are quite willing to take on MP3. We all cringe, as purists, but for the audience we're providing the equipment for - do they care?
'This is exactly what happened to Hi-Fi. What happened to the shops that do the Hi-Fi purist golden ear support? Is that the growth industry, or is it the MP3 Walkman that is the growth area? The masses got it exactly right, just like they chose VHS over Betamax or VH2000. It was convenient and it was good enough.
'This is what we are looking at. Who are the next generation of sound mixers and engineers? And I think the clue to that is Digidesign's live desk with its plug-in capability, because people want to take their studio plugins and stick them in their live desk to recreate their studio on the road. We should all take note and not say "Oh, they don't know what they're doing - this is live sound". We could all be wrong.'
It was looking at the market from this sort of angle that led A&H into the DJ field, an area it has triumphed in with the pro-level Xone range. It was a doubly fortunate move, because being at the top end has insulated them from the collapse of the bedroom DJ fad of two years ago. Indeed, Glenn Rogers says sales of Xone are actually continuing to increase.
Manufacturing, at least for now, largely remains in the UK, though some more mass market products are being made in the Far East. Mr Rogers says that the company learned at the hardest possible school just prior to the Harman takeover how to pare costs down to the bone, so he runs about as tight a ship as you can run. But is he tempted to leverage the Allen & Heath name and do a Behringer on products bought-in from China?
'That comes back to what I said earlier about adding value. Those guys do a pretty good job and what value can I add? Do I believe they are doing it wrong? Can I make it better for the customer? I'm not sure that I can. They do it so well and just because it said Allen & Heath on it, would that add any value for the customer? And it would defocus me from where I can add value, which would be the next step up? If I was a numbers man or a sales man, I might take a different view - but is it what we do? I like to build products that last. I like a customer to be able to say: "I bought that ten years ago and I'm only changing it because I need to do bigger or different things and I'd like another Allen & Heath because it was great for me".'
With three distinct product areas (small mixers, digital mixers and DJ), where does A&H go from here?
'I'm sure it will be no surprise to anybody if I were to say that we're looking at digital live sound consoles. We need to make sure that we are monitoring the reliability issues - and it'll be ready when it's ready!'
We discuss possible words one might use to describe Allen & Heath. I suggest "quirky" and ask if he would object. He laughs and says, 'Probably!', adding, 'But it may be true - though I'd prefer "adventurous". We're not afraid to give it a try. We may not go as far as we once did in carrying then through, but that's not to say that the same wacky ideas don't get passed across my desk (I'm till technical director).' And are any of those crazy ideas his? ' Oh, yes! I still have a sketchbook full of crazy ideas. It's still about looking at what's going on around us, talking with people at shows. I got interested because of the technology and it's still the technology that interests me.'