They say death and taxes are the only two certainties in this life, but ‘change’ could probably demand a seat at the table, too - particularly today, as music retailers know only too well. But the forces bearing down on retailers apply equally to manufacturers - as does the advice from business gurus when asked how best to handle it: keep flexible, specialise, find a niche and add extra value. And some manufacturers, just like some dealers, when they have followed that advice, have got it absolutely right. Take veteran British mixer manufacturer Allen & Heath, which, instead of diving headlong downmarket when the DJ boom swept through the industry a decade ago, decided instead to stick by its reputation for offering quality products and headed resolutely upmarket, launching its internationally best-selling Xone range of pro DJ mixers.
It was smart thinking by Glenn Rogers, Allen & Heath’s MD, who gave the company’s R&D engineer (and weekend DJ) Andy Rigby-Jones, the opportunity to design a top quality mixer specifically for DJs. The result has become the industry standard in clubs around the world, with Xone series products being used by many leading DJs including Richie Hawtin, John Digweed, and Paul van Dyk.
While others have since paid the price for basing their success on the lower and mid-market, which has been more or less swept away by changing musical fashion, A&H went from strength to strength by catering for the, still expanding, professional sector.
This was smart specialisation, but what about the company’s original stamping ground - the live sound mixers with which it made its name? Here, A&H have had competition, both from the likes of former sister outfit Soundcraft (both companies were owned by Harman, until A&H underwent a management buyout) but also from a string of imported products, first Mackie and, later, a growing number of Far Eastern brands.
An obvious response from A&H would have been to repeat the Xone formula - ignore the fickle mass market, and concentrate on the Pro Audio side - but that wasn’t quite so easy with mixers. It already has a strong presence at the top of the market with products like its innovative iLive desk, but there is plenty of competition in that market sector too. So what it has decided to do is the reason for this interview with Glenn Rogers: the company is coming right back into the MI heartland and taking on its entry-level competitors on their own ground.
The product range is called ZED - a brand new series of analogue mixers being unveiled at this year's PLASA show in London and aimed precisely at the small band, solo artist, pub PA market. This is a bold move and it raises intriguing questions, like, why not digital? And how can a maker like A&H take on the bargain basement boys?
‘We’ve been looking closely at what the market dynamic is at the moment,’ Glenn Rogers says. ‘In the Pro Audio sector, the market is being driven from the top down, as it is in most technology sectors, and digital products are causing major changes at the top end.
‘By and large, most big PA companies and big shows are now digital - not exclusively, but a lot of that sort of work now demands digital and there’s a good range of fairly stable offerings. But in the MI market, the question we had to ask was, is the price of digital going to suit the typical customer? And the view we’ve taken, having been there once before, ten years ago with the ICON, was that we struggled to do it then and that to do it now, but with the motorised faders that people now expect, means you’d be talking over £1,000 - and the average MI market customer looking for an eight channel mixer simply hasn’t got that sort of money to spend.
‘Having said that, we knew we couldn’t ignore customers who wanted good quality audio products, and if we couldn’t better the ICON at the right price points, what did we have to offer that market? And the answer was that we have all this expertise building analogue, we’ve years of experience building quality products that sound better than products built by somebody who doesn’t really understand much beyond putting a load of components in a box and we decided that we shouldn’t just give up on it.
‘The result is ZED: a completely new lower-cost range. What we’re trying to do with ZED is take the ethos of other products that we’ve been successful with, like the GL 2400 and the Wizard in terms of construction. We’re going, not for the flat board style which seems to be rife in the lower priced market, but with the traditional, value-engineered mixer approach, with individual circuit boards with nuts on that hold pots to the front panel - that sort of proper manufacturing.. To make that work for the market we’re targeting, we’ve optimised all the skills we have in production technology and processes, so as to drive the cost down to a significantly lower price than we have ever been at before.’
‘We’re starting with a 2-buss range, which will be the first we model launch, a 14 into 2, but in true Allen and Heath style, it’s not going to be just a standard little mixer - it’s got a lot of extras including, importantly, a USB port, which opens up some quite interesting capabilities.'
And it is these capabilities that could turn out to be an A&H masterstroke. What the company has done is team-up with Cakewalk, so that it will be bundling Sonar 6 with every ZED sold. All at once, the customer is getting something very much more than a basic live mixer - he is getting an extraordinarily versatile mixer that he can use in all sorts of situations, and with the reassurance of having bought a product from a trusted maker.
‘It means that with a ZED range you can record live onto your laptop, then you can go back home and use it as a studio set-up.. You can record off an aux send and play back live down a channel, or monitor off the headphones, but you can also use it off an aux buss to create an effects loop, and as Sonar comes with a very nice effects processor, by doing a simple send/return loop, you can take your laptop live and get access to all the effects you could ever want.
‘What this means is that in the box you effectively get a 14 channel mixer with full multitrack recording capabilities and FX processing, which you can use for home studio, live or anything in between.'
So far so good. But what is the price?
‘The starting price for the Zed range - that’s the two buss ZED-14, including Cakewalk software - is £351.’
And yes, at that price the ZED series will be made in China, but Rogers is careful to point out how thoroughly A&H controls the process - even down to a concern for the welfare of the people who make the products. He won’t use sweatshop operations and insists on quality control down to the level of individual components, he says.
‘We know we could go to a million places and make it for significantly less, but the risks to the brand are just not what we are trying to do. And you know that when the price is that low that corners are being cut with health and safety. We’ve been enticed to go to India, but when you go there and they are walking around with no shoes on you think, “Do we really want to be associated with this?” There are standards that should be established and if you cut them out you are pandering to a world where value is minimal.’
None the less, the company has managed to hit a price which brings A&H - a brand associated with professional products and with a heritage stretching back to the days when it made Pink Floyd’s legendary quad mixer - right into a hot sector of the MI/ band PA market.
It won’t, however, stop there. Off the record, Rogers reveals a string of ideas A&H is currently working on which will eventually appear in the ZED range. This, clearly, is the result of some serious market analysis from the company, which , it transpires, has sought advice from some interesting partners along the way - including Guitar Center in the US and Sound Control, in the UK.
‘ZED is really the result of having taken a step back and having had a fresh look at the MI market. We've done the middle market very well, but we had dropped back in the MI market, where we used to be very successful. What we were never going to do was compromise on quality, though - we were never going to take a Wizard and make it cheap, for example. The Wizard is a Pro piece that happened to be at the top of MI - and it’s still the most popular product out there, but we felt there was the opportunity to do something a bit lower down but with the same pedigree - something that’s solid, reliable and we re-engineered and it will last, not pack-up after a few months use.’
This point raises questions which have been increasing in the MI sector in recent months - the allegedly high failure rates of some of the cheaper products on the market. Rogers says he has heard the same complaints that have been filtering back to MTN - comments from retailers starting to wonder whether the low prices of some Chinese-produced gear are worth the aggravation and upset caused to valued customers if products go wrong after a few months use. This is particularly an issue in band PA, of course, where equipment has to endure quite arduous conditions.
A&H’s strategy for rolling out the ZED range to retailers is interesting. Rogers admits that his plan is to work with the big retailers first, but insists that smaller retailers will actually benefit from this approach.
‘For individual retailers, the key is creating a market that they can fulfil.. You’ve got to get that critical mass. If we can create a bit of a buzz, customers will start asking for the product and that’s the best time for smaller retailers to get involved. They don’t want to be sitting on stock, wondering why they’ve spent the money and no one’s asking for it. The bigger boys are prepared to stock and do the shouting.”
But doesn’t that put the smaller retailer at a huge disadvantage if the product is immediately in stock at larger retailers with all their price advantages?
‘Not necessarily. Price is always an issue, but the big boys don’t always provide the best service, and when you’ve got something like this, which comes with Cakewalk, the value that can be added by the small retailer can be quite significant - showing users how to get the best out of it, as opposed to pointing to a box on a shelf. I think the package gives smaller retailers a great opportunity to add value.’
Interestingly, Rogers reveals that his UK sales team happens to be in a good position to help retailers get the most out of the system, as they are all active home recording users, themselves. This, as was the case with the Xone DJ products, is an important element in the A&H approach - the people who work for the company are all enthusiasts, who tend not to clock-off at 5pm to go home to watch football.. Instead, they tend to go home to their studios or out on gigs.
‘The first step for us now is reviews and what we’re working on with pre-production models is getting them out to the States to get reviews over there in time for stocks to be ready in Guitar Center. You have to get our timing right, because if a review comes out saying that something’s very good, you want it in the store the next day, when the guy who has just read it walks in. We’re trying to do the same in the UK, too, co-ordinating reviews in the UK press with the launch at PLASA, in September.
‘We did the same sort of standing back with Xone that we did with ZED. How it came about was that we kept getting told by people that there was an opportunity for us to do things with installations - that’s where the feedback as coming from, people telling us that they were having to supply cheap, wall-wart supplied little mixers that pulled down the quality of sound. We had a DJ working for us, we told him what we’d heard and when we took the prototype to Frankfurt, we got a tremendous response. Eventually, the Xone62 was born and that is still our best-selling product today. It came about just from listening to what people said they wanted.’
In terms of the DJ market - and in the light of A&H’s decision not to go digital with the ZED series - what is the company’s view of digital for DJs? Does he see the market going entirely in that direction?
‘It’s definitely going digital in terms of installations and I think that will continue but what you’ve got to remember is that it’s a performance - it’s a live performance and people want an instant response. It’s no good having a sluggish system. You can't have a Windows-based system where you hit a key and wait two seconds for something to happen. In that sense it’s similar to the way live sound has gone, Ten years ago you could have made a live sound digital mixer if you’d been happy with the latency and slowness of the response and that’s why it took so much longer for live sound to go digital, than recorded sound, where you have time at your disposal. The performance pressure was what dictated it and the same is now happening in DJ. They key is whether you can drive the costs down to make the equivalent digital mixers affordable.’
On a strategic level, how does a British-based manufacturer cope with the increasing sophistication of Chinese products? During the course of the interview, several well known brands of Chinese-sourced mass market audio gear are mentioned - couldn’t any one of them suddenly unleash a digital mixer that could spell real trouble for British or US makers?
‘They’re not yet as advanced in digital system engineering as the rest of the world - but they’re not far behind now, it has to be said and it also has to be said that we educate a lot of their engineers in Europe and America, so the differentiators are closing faster and faster. But it’s not something you can copy easily. With analogue, you look at a circuit and it isn’t hard to work it out, but with a DSP chip, you look at it, copy it and then wonder what it’s supposed to do. Also, people are being as careful as they can be with their intellectual property today and they are trying to make it as hard as possible to reverse-engineer their products.
‘Having said that, the engineering skills in Chinese factories are improving all the time and they are employing quite a few Americans and Europeans, who are involved in the design. But the key to doing digital - the building blocks - are different. If you look at an analogue channel strip that costs, say, £4, well to do that in digital, where you’ve got the A/D converters and controls that are LED or motorised, then it is just not going to be the same price. Until there is some sort of breakthrough in OLED technology, there is no cheap alternative to a motorised fader. These are still very early days in the world of live digital products and at the moment the limits on what you can drive the cost of motorised faders down to have been reached.’
As A&H’s relationship with Guitar Center demonstrates, the company is one of those exceedingly rare commodities in the British music industry - a major manufacturer on an international scale (apparently it has produced in excess of 160,000 mixers during the past 35 years!). Which places Glenn Rogers in a particularly useful position to comment on how he sees the state of the market.
‘I think if you’re really prepared to invest in listening to and looking after the customer, there’s always opportunity. If you somehow lose touch with that, though, and get frustrated, it’s very easy to fall into trouble, because you start losing belief and then you don't have the resources to do what you need to do and then you panic - and then you’re in trouble. And you can’t be lemmings and just follow somebody else who’s doing ok, because there’s no guarantee you’ll do ok too. You have to think independently and if you get that right then you can be successful.
‘The difficulty in the music industry is that there is a limit to how creative you can be. If you’re making trumpets and the Chinese start making trumpets, then what can you do - make a four valve trumpet? For instrument makers it was a much tougher battle against the manufacturing cost issue, so I have a degree of sympathy and relief that we aren’t in the same sector - though one could argue that analogue mixers are a bit the same. Still, they are still based on technology and so there are things we can do - like adding the USB interface to the ZED. As long as the Western world keeps that creative instinct, then I think we’ve got a chance.
‘The whole point of our industry is about communicating in one form or another. If we all understand that, then by stepping back and realising that we need to talk to people, listen to people, train people and understand people’s requirements, then I think the industry has huge amounts of opportunity to be very innovative and very successful. It’s when people stop listening, from the player, to the manufacturer, to the distributor, to the magazine - if you don't give people what they want to play music with, then they’ll go. We’ve got two ears and one mouth - so we should listen more than we speak. The people who just stand and shout about something don't always win.’
If A&H is correct in its analysis, it will be some while yet before gigging musicians and small hire companies can afford digital live mixers. In the meantime, its solution - to greatly expand the versatility of affordable analogue desks - looks like a smart move. Time and the market, will tell whether one of the UK’s most innovative manufacturers has got it right again.