by Frank Wells
Oxford, UK (September 28, 2007)--Now two years under new ownership and management, Solid State Logic is a revitalized company, with a range of product offerings that both extend, and extend from, its heritage as a premier manufacturer of large studio consoles. In charge is managing director Antony David, who had stepped down from SSL's top sales position and left the company in 1994. Pro Sound News talked with David, and with SSL sales veteran and now president of the U.S. subsidiary, Phil Wagner, about the state of the industry and the new SSL.
The marketplace that SSL contends in today is markedly different from that of the booming '80s, and David says that the direction mapped for the company's rejuvenation was largely evident from the numbers. "It was clear when we were preparing to take over the company two years ago," he explains, "that the great commercial recording studio industry of the '80s and '90s had shrunk dramatically...workstation technology had enabled more people to make relatively sophisticated recordings for a much smaller capital outlay. And at the same time, although record company A&R budgets and artist rosters were being slashed, the artists themselves and the producers and the songwriters were creating their own recording facilities so that they could record on more sensible budgets. Our strategy was based around those sorts of market realities."
For the music creation market that strategy was realized in two very distinct product categories, the first a variation on SSL's perennial strength. Analog console technology was still very much in demand, but engineers' needs had changed. SSL is "very much a market-driven company," says Wagner." When you look at the introduction of the AWS 900," he says, "people for years had been saying, 'Just give me a small console, workstation control, that I could have affordably,' and we produced that. Then they said, 'Well, I want Total Recall. OK, we provided Total Recall. 'I want automation.' We provided automation. 'I need dynamics.' So we created a dynamics rack for the AWS 900. And then they said, 'I want it larger,' so we came out with Duality."
David says that the new concepts for SSL's analog consoles have been proven by their success. "What our clients really wanted was tightly integrated workstation control and a simpler signal flow in the channel strip," he says. "That's what the AWS 900 provides, and then Duality took the concept a step forward--they really have been the perfect solutions, and both of those products are doing incredibly well." Putting numbers to that success, Wagner says that SSL sells more than 100 analog consoles a year. "We've sold 60 percent more Dualitys in the first year," he explains, "than we did 9000 consoles, 12 years ago, when we sold 25 9000Js. So there's a huge desire for analog consoles; analog consoles are our bread and butter."
SSL announced that the large-format SSL SuperAnalogue 9000K console was being discontinued at this time last year. With the 9000s design, its manufacturing process rooted in the last century, the effects of restrictive environmental legislation on parts availability paired with market realities to demand the change. "The problem is that as the volumes go down," explains David, "manufacturing costs will go up as you lose the economies of scale. The real killer, and I'm sure other people have faced exactly the same thing, is that many of the component suppliers use the opportunity of the RoHS legislation to obsolete components without creating direct replacements." SSL introduced Duality for clients wanting a fuller featured channel strip and large channel counts, while retaining the integrated DAW control of the AWS 900.
What David calls "the second strand" of SSL's strategy in music production products "was to develop a range of products, which internally we call WPPs, which stands for Workstation Partner Products. This range of products--an extension of where we started with the [rack mount] X Logic products--give a much bigger group of people access to elements of SSL technology." WPP products include EQs, dynamics processors and mic pres derived from SSL's SuperAnalogue circuitry. SSL acquired technology and a Belgian-based engineering team with the purchase of the Soundscape DAW developer, Sydec, last year. Their efforts are evident in Alpha Link ADDA and Delta Link digital interfaces, and in other products supporting workstation users.
The AWS 900 and products in SSL's WPP category necessitated a change in its direct sales-only model. "The AWS 900 we've been selling to dealers for three years now," says Wagner, "and the new workstation partner products are exclusively sold through dealers." New personnel like Fadi Hayek, national sales manager for workstation partner products, handle the retail channel products, letting SSL's direct sales force retain their focus on traditional business. Dealer sales in the Americas now account for some 25 percent of the U.S. division's sales, and it's a "growing percentage of our business," says Wagner.
Besides music production, David says, "The third part of the strategy, which we signaled, actually, at AES two years ago when we introduced the SSL Sound and Vision Logo, was our decision to be fully involved with digital video as well as with audio. This is obviously a longer-term strategy, but it's pinned on our conviction here that digital media creation will increasingly involve working with both audio and video together, and that we want to be at the forefront of that. It's actually incredible how few companies in the industry do both video and audio; you can name them on the fingers of one hand." The first products announced in that direction, since the merging of the operations of SSL principal Dave Engelke's Broadcast Devices (BDL) with those of SSL, were the various elements of the BDL-developed MediaWAN format-agnostic broadcast production system. NNS (Network News Service, a joint venture of ABC, CBS and FOX, is about to take possession of the first MediaWAN system sold.
The bulk of SSL's American business is still comprised of direct sales products--the Duality analog console, new products in new categories like MediaWAN, and the C series digital consoles for the broadcast and post markets. David says the digital console market has also changed: "Certainly, compared to when I was here several years ago, the bang for buck has changed dramatically, and consoles that would have probably cost half-a-million bucks 15 years ago now cost a half of that and often have between double and quadruple the number of channels in them...SSL continues to have a significant market share at the higher end of that market." David also cites a major innovation in the "introduction of a resource-sharing engine called MORSE, which is a very powerful and flexible routing matrix and I/O infrastructure that enables the C100 to share resources among different studios and do a number of other things that broadcasters are asking for these days." C Series technology joins SSL's WPP lineup in the form of Duende, a DSP engine with ported SSL digital channel strip and bus-compressor technology for workstation users.
With active involvement from their private ownership (the principal partners are artist and technologist, Peter Gabriel, and the aforementioned Dave Engelke) SSL has plotted a new course that the market can see evidenced by an ever broadened range of products for the workstation user, the AWS 900 and Duality analog consoles (which David says he's "amazed that nobody's emulating"), the MediaWAN line for video pros, and the C Series digital desks. "We've grown this business already by about 50 percent over two years, says David, "and we expect to see that rate of growth continue in 2008.
"SSL has changed forever already," David concludes. "We're into a whole new era, which I think we are adapting ourselves to quite well."
Solid State Logic