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Memories of unreliable 1970s PAs during his time as a live sound engineer helped to inspire Simon Johnston in the early stages of his career on the product side of the industry. But as David Davies discovers, this determination to achieve sound evolution is still burning bright a quarter of a century later

What was your starting point for working in the audio industry? My career began working in theatre before switching to sound engineering, which I did for about 12 years. These days, not many people seem to remember a lot of the bands I worked for, but some of the more high-profile examples would include the Runaways, Blondie, Ultravox, Graham Parker, and the Tourists, which was Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox’s pre-Eurythmics band. I also had a long association with Mike Oldfield from the 1970s to 1982. Touring was really a lot of fun for quite a while, but it started to lose its allure when I broke my own rule: never do more than one tour with any one act. About 1983 I began to look around for something else with the idea that learning to present ideas better might actually help secure more interesting situations. Eventually, that brought to me to Autograph Sales, where I was heavily involved with the Meyer Sound brand.

Would it be fair to say that Autograph helped to engender the systems approach to PA at that time? Yes, it’s something we kind of championed. We created and sold amplifier racks for Meyer’s loudspeakers and made it so that you could use different amplifiers, but the system performance would be the same – particularly polarity and gain. It’s an approach that really helped to address some of the problems I had encountered on the road, where systems [from one brand] might look the same, but would not perform identically. It made cross-rental between companies extremely difficult and quite frankly drove me nuts for years! So yes, I think we played a major role in addressing that problem, at least in the UK.

16 May 2014

What brought you to d&b audiotechnik in 1989? Two words: Bob Kelly. Bob has helped to market many leading brands, including Martin Audio and L-Acoustics, and in 1989 he was working for EAW. Many of us first encountered d&b at AES in London in 1986, but it was Bob who really introduced me properly to the company’s products. I ended up going to the HQ in Korb, near Stuttgart, and was immediately impressed by their approach. I also really liked the people, which counts for a lot!

In the ’90s, d&b was already established in Germany, the UK and parts of Europe, but how did you go about achieving growth elsewhere? During the ’90s Peter Tongue, who had spent many years at Klark Teknik, came to work for us, which was a vital element. He brought an extensive knowledge of markets, particularly Asia. The general approach was to achieve gradual growth, but a crucial element was taking control of distribution where possible. Today d&b owns the distribution in the UK, US, France, Italy, Spain, Japan and obviously Germany. All of these countries are in the top 10 in terms of global potential. The d&b distribution has now grown to 45 members comprising these daughter companies and independent distributors, some of which, like China, are branded. The proper answer to your question about how the growth was achieved over the years is a lot of hard work by many people, throughout d&b and the distribution – way too many to name here! Honestly, there is no panacea, except perhaps having a shared belief in what is possible.

From a base in live sound, how did d&b gain greater traction in fixed install? Some of us would argue that it began with one seminal

product back in the late 1980s, the F1220, which many people would still tell you is probably the best-ever sounding 12in/2in speaker. The system became very popular in German theatres and concert halls, and that was really the starting point for a broader push into install. The F1220 was also part of a more general emphasis on voice – that’s driven lots of applications for d&b; that and the desire to provide systems that can satisfy the demands and riders of lots of different artists, performers and presenters. Suffice to say, this approach has now resulted in a considerable

d&b presence in installations for a variety of venue types around the world.

d&b has retained a very R&D-centred ethos. What would you say has been its most significant development in this area over the last few years? It’s always a rather interesting question: whether d&b is market- or technology-driven? It is really a bit of both, identifying problems and then presenting solutions – though rarely the obvious one. I might get hassle from some of my colleagues for saying this, but I’d argue that

perhaps the most significant thing d&b has done in recent years is the work on cardioid directivity patterns in low frequencies, cardioid subs in particular. Research starting from simply building arrays of cabinets with rear-facing elements has fed into several major products, not least the J-Series active subwoofers. From there we’ve progressed into a number of cardioid subs within the d&b range, which are simply driven with one amplifier channel. Over the last 20 years, d&b has put a remarkable amount of energy and effort into directivity control and its accuracy; the predictability

‘‘Is d&b is market- or technology- driven? It is

really a bit of both’’

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