The Machida factory facility, in part, manufactures condenser microphone diaphragm
assemblies for the 40 series of microphones.Under the banner, “50 Years of Passionate Listening,” Audio- Technica is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2012, a success story that has seen the company grow from modest beginnings to a worldwide presence in the specialized transducer marketplace, including phonograph cartridges, headphones and microphones.
Company president Kazuo Matsushita relates the company’s creation by his father, Hideo Matsushita: “My father loved classical music since he was born. He first listened to music with a gramophone. After World War II, he started to work with Bridgestone. However, as he wanted to work in a music-related business, he resigned Bridgestone in 1962 when he was 42.”
Hideo Mastushita founded Audio- Technica in a one-story workshop in central Tokyo, handcrafting phonograph cartridges. His son relates, “It was a time when records were shifting from mono to stereo. There weren’t many good pickups, and a lot of imported pickups were being sold at a high price. Japanese salaries were quite low at the time. And one dollar was 360 yen as opposed to 85 [today]. Therefore, the price of these imported pickups was so high that people could not afford to buy them. From this aspect, it was the right time to start Audio-Technica. Furthermore, Shure and ELAC [Germany], had patent [protection], and Japanese pickups could not be imported to Western countries.”
That changed when Audio-Technica developed a worldwide patentable phono cartridge technology that utilized the innovation of dual magnets, introduced in 1967. In 1971, JVC launched the first quad disk format. Audio-Technica’s dual-magnet design (VM-type) accommodated quad playback. “At that time,” says Kazuo Matsushita, “there was no cartridge to play 4-channel records in Western countries, and therefore our pickups became very popular very quickly.” Including OEM cartridges for a wide variety of brands, such as Pioneer, Kenwood and Dual, Matsushita says that Audio-Technica had a 60-70 percent global market share.
A complete timeline of Audio- Technica’s innovations and extensions into new markets runs numerous pages in simple outline form. Following the first product (the AT- 1 phono cartridge) with additional pickup, styli and tone arm development, Audio-Technica underwent rapid growth driven by quality at competitive pricing. The AT-3 cartridge, for example, sold for $60 compared to $500 for a popular European model.
In 1965, the company moved to larger premises in Machida, Tokyo, where its headquarters and one of seven factories are currently located. That first factory, built in 1967, began to employ mass-production techniques to accommodate the boom in A-T’s business and major worldwide distribution in 1969. A-T’s phono cartridge business “peaked at 1 million cartridges a month,” explains Matsushita, “which could not be made by hand.”
Audio-Technica has been based at the same
Machida, Tokyo location since 1965.In 1972, Audio-Technica made its first major foray outside of Japan, establishing a U.S. sales office under the leadership of John Kelly— the presence in the area of energetic and passionate early partners, and a central location, led them to Akron, Ohio. The Audio-Technica U.S. operation is now based in Stow, Ohio, with marketing, sales and distribution staff as well as R&D and quality-control personnel that complement A-T’s Japanese research and development scientists. The influence of the U.S. operation on the company’s direction began almost immediately upon its creation. The first ATUS president, Kelly, suggested that Audio-Technica investigate developing headphones— an extension of its transducer prowess of which fruits could flow in the same sales and distribution channels. The AT-700 series of headphones was launched in 1974.
Continuing to diversify its transducer offerings, A-T began building microphones in 1978, the same year it created a U.K.-based branch of the company. With the advent of the CD in 1982, A-T realized that with 70 percent of its business being phono cartridges, the company needed to diversify. A-T had branched out previously, building vibration-testing equipment and microcassette recorders (both logical extensions of its expertise). Under the TechniClean brand, phonograph record cleaning technology was adapted to cleaning circuit boards, plastic sheets and other manufacturing materials sensitive to dust and static electricity.
The mass manufacturing and production automation that Audio- Technica had developed was even applied to the creation of automated sushi machines (forming rice balls, not cleaning fish). Paralleling its expertise in phono pickups, A-T began investigating and manufacturing optical pickups for CD players, followed by optical pickups for DVD and now Blu-ray players. The company’s experience with laser technology is also applied to laser levels for the construction industry and to laser systems used in astronomy. AT’s materials research has led to the development of a proprietary copper purification process.
Audio-Technica’s presence in professional audio is focused on its microphone business, with the Uni- Point series of installation microphones first garnering significant attention and market share, beginning in 1985. “We believe UniPoint was the first miniature microphone with high performance, high quality,” proclaims Matsushita. A-Ts first entry into the wireless microphone marketplace was introduced in 1986 for industrial applications (“Although it was quite expensive, it was well received in terms of sound quality and performance,” says Matsushita), with wireless systems for professional audio use following in the ’90s with ongoing refinement.
With an upscale Tokyo location, A-T’s Technica House facility, opened in 2002, houses offices,
meeting spaces and AstroStudio. Toshihiro Machiyama, manager, is seated at the Amek Media
51 console anchoring the Dolby-compatible 5.1 control room, featuring monitors by Genelec,
Avid’s Pro Tools and ample outboard equipment. AstroStudio is used for guest artists, and to
provide a real-world environment for microphone and headphone test and evaluation.
In 1991, A-T introduced its first microphone for the studio market, the AT4033, breaking the $1,000 price barrier for a side-address, large-diaphragm condenser microphone. The AT4033 achieved early critical acclaim and set the stage for Audio-Technica to become a serious player in the studio microphone business. While A-T was continuing to develop its line of studio, broadcast and live performance microphones with the 40 then 30 and 20 series, it was one of the leaders in what became a true revolution in the microphone market which was burgeoning with brands competing at ever lower price points. Matsushita offers the AT4033 and UniPoint series of examples of how A-T has continued its success in a crowded marketplace. “We are trying to stay one step ahead, always. We just have to keep doing that to be competitive.”
Kazuo Matsushita succeeded his father, becoming president of Audio- Technica in 1993. Hideo Matsushita initially remained involved as chairman of the board. Kazuo Matsushita says that internal R&D and customer input have been essential in moving the company forward. “‘Always listening’ is our slogan. We have to listen to the customer, the end-user market and provide [this input] to R&D.” Where its “smart engineers” can propose products to the marketplace, the customers help define direction for R&D and applications. For example, says Matsushita, the AT4033 “was primarily targeted for studio vocal use.” A-T did not expect the AT4033 to be used for such applications as kick-drum miking. “We sold 10 times more than we originally expected because there were more applications than we thought. Maybe they knew more than we did.”
A-T founder Hideo Matsushita’s love of early phonograph equipment is demonstrated by the impressive display of cylinder and gramophone equipment at the company headquarters. This extensive collection includes some unusual models, such as a model with drone strings over the speaker port (above) and another (top right) with a tone arm-mounted metal
After an introduction to the IOC by Panasonic, Audio-Technica became highly involved with supporting the Olympic games, beginning in Atlanta in 1996. The IOC asked Audio-Technica to return at each subsequent Olympics, with thousands of A-T microphones used in all facets of the broadcasts, including hundreds of some individual models. For example, 50 channels of A-T wireless were used simultaneously for sound capture during the curling competitions in the Torino winter games. Applications have been as exotic as miking a buoy at the turn in sailing competitions. Audio- Technica has similar involvement in such high-profile events as the Grammy and CMA award broadcasts and Japan’s Summer Sonic concert series. Matsushita says that once offered to “Please use our mics,” the customers keep coming back. “Now they want us to be involved.”
Innovation continues at Audio- Technica, including building on its SpectraPulse “Ultra Wideband” wireless technologies, while continuing to adapt to a changing market in conventional wireless, exemplified by the flagship Artist Elite 5000 series of wireless products. A-T holds some 141 patents, 18 of which (some pending) apply to its ribbon microphone series, introduced in 2009. A new research and design and development building was opened in 2010 in the Technica Fukui manufacturing complex (in use for over 40 years). Factories now include the original Machida facility and Fukui for core component manufacturing (for instance, the Machida facility makes the 40 series microphone capsules), a Taiwan plant making mid-low line wired and wireless mics and headphones, and four factories in China, one devoted only to optical pickups.
Consumer products are a significant part of Audio- Technica’s business, from phono cartridges to headphones— from infrared headphones to earbuds to the W series of headphones. The latter, launched in 1996, is at the high end of the consumer headphone market and each year’s limited edition models, capped in exotic woods with a variety of finishes, have become collector’s items.
As for the next 50 years, Matsushita says that as he’s “not a science fiction writer,” he won’t make predictions, but that Audio-Technica will continue to cultivate technology and strive for excellence, providing products that serve both advanced and under-developed markets. “If we launch the right product, it will open the market itself.” A-T, he says, will continue to focus on its three core segments: wireless and wired microphones and headphones—“new, innovative studio microphones, reliable and easy-touse wireless systems, and advanced headphone magnets.” One area of development he says to watch is in the application of infrared technologies to secure wireless conference systems, such as those used in corporate boardrooms or by government, explaining, “since it is infrared, it is highly secure.”
Matsushita places a strong emphasis on supporting and encouraging the staff of Audio-Technica. “People are everything,” he says, elaborating that technology is discovered and developed by people. “Marketing, sales, ideas come from people. People are the most important facet of the company.” That philosophy has served Audio-Technica well for its first 50 years, and if Matsushita cannot predict the technology of the next 50 years of Audio-Technica history, he exudes confidence in the future based upon the personnel that provided the foundation for Audio-Technica’s first 50 years of success.
Ryuji Haraguchi, Audio-Technica international department director, served as interpreter for Pro Sound News editor Frank Wells’ interview with Kazuo Matsushita.