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Pro Audio Manufacturers Ready for the Rebound

More than 30 pro-audio manufacturers share insights into how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting their businesses and what comes next.

With the coronavirus pandemic far from over, the pro audio industry is feeling the pain. Many studios and venues of all kinds remain shuttered across the country, causing a ripple effect that has hit employees, customers and others, reaching all the way to the manufacturers whose products they use daily. Some pro audio manufacturers are scraping by during the pandemic, while others are doing surprisingly well, but one thing all the companies we’ve spoken to have in common is that while they are clear-eyed about the situation today, they are also strikingly optimistic about tomorrow.

Joe Stopka, vice president of sales and business development at TASCAM, acknowledged, “Brick and mortar got hit hard, while organized online resellers are doing quite well. Our products are perfect for at-home music and media creators, so sales have been steady. In fact, I wish we had more inventory on a variety of SKUs.” Looking ahead, he reports the company has new products in the pipeline for project and personal studios, as well as audio supporting video, and sees those areas as ripe for further development by the industry, noting, “We have to continue to innovate in the personal production technology market segment.”

With many live sound pros sidelined for the moment, a number of manufacturers have turned to providing instruction to help end users improve their knowledge and skills while they wait things out. “We’ve spent a lot of energy on education with our online webinar and training sessions, on research and development, and working with our global partners to see how we can help them keep their business moving,” said Marc Bertrand, CEO of Adamson Systems Engineering. “I think this has been a reminder to all of us about how interconnected this industry is. Across the pro audio spectrum, we’ve seen everyone from manufacturers to veteran front of house engineers step up to support each other—sharing knowledge, making resources available, and doing what we can to sustain the industry. There’s not an end date on a calendar somewhere for this situation, so we’re going to have to rely on our ingenuity and creativity to adapt.”

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With no end in sight, there’s likewise no end to worst-case scenarios, but even best-case ones can be sobering. Looking ahead, Greg Beebe, director of professional audio, Sennheiser, surmised, “The pro audio industry will be suppressed. Consolidation is inevitable and will lead to fewer manufacturers, suppliers and vendors. Discretionary spending will go down, as will weighted averages to lower price. The looming recession will take a steep toll on this industry, as it will on many others.” Like many manufacturers, Sennheiser has turned to online education with its #dontstoptheeducation initiative, covering everything from podcasting to HOW sound. Beebe noted, “These webinars are meant to support the pro audio community with resources to prepare for the future.”

One nimble company preparing for an unexpected future is Gig Gear, which, as the name suggests, makes products for live production professionals—pros that founder/president Daniel Shatzkes readily says “like and use our products when they need them, but right now, they just don’t need them.” Undaunted, the company has pivoted to serving those working from home with Cam-A-Lot, a collapsible background screen for video conferencing, and in the meantime, Shatzkes sees live sound coming back with a vengeance. “I honestly don’t know if a year will be enough time for the industry to come back to where it was before this all began, but I do think that the current renaissance in ‘virtual’ music-making and performance is going to eventually lead to an even more prolific concert, touring and live music industry.”

View from the Top: Jack Kelly, Group One Ltd., by Clive Young, March 29, 2018

Jack Kelly, CEO of Group One Ltd., which distributes Solid State Logic, DiGiCo, Calrec, XTA and others, remarked, “In a year, we will be on the road back, and that will give our industry a needed boost of confidence. We will survive this as an industry, and the companies that are planning on that survival will thrive.” While it’s not an easy time, he feels that “we all need to think of how we use our skills and assets today. I’ve seen some really good examples of companies pivoting to new areas of activity, who are working with us to better understand all the different products and skills that we have as a group. We want people to reach out to us and talk to us, because we are in this together.”

He’s not alone in wanting to hear from clients. Will Eggleston, marketing director at Genelec in the United States, noted, “Customer experiences lead to new gear, so tell us what you need. We are all ears.” The ears of Genelec users have been busy during the pandemic, as many audio post and recording pros are suddenly in new workplaces: “Content creators at home are utilizing our calibration tools so their monitoring environment is the best it can be given their new work environment. Some customers are even sending us their calibration files for our input. We’re here to help.”

Loudspeaker manufacturers may be producing fewer boxes at the moment, but that doesn’t mean they’re idle. Jeff Cowling, vice president of sales and marketing at Yorkville Sound, shared that the company has pivoted to fighting the pandemic, noting, “Our production facility is almost entirely shut down, but we have key engineers and factory staff here to coordinate our efforts in the ventilator project.” Yes, they’re building ventilators, and in the meantime, the company is seeing “positive sales results” with recording gear, as well as brands it produces or distributes, such as Aston Microphones, Hughes & Kettner guitar amps, Traynor amps and more.

Yorkville Sound Pivots to Produce Ventilators, May 6, 2020

Everyone’s wondering what the pro audio industry will look like a year from now, and Larry Italia, president and CEO of d&b audiotechnik, is no different: “Literally, that’s the multimillion- dollar question. Of course, no one knows with certainty, but what we have seen is that the installation market has been more resilient than the mobile side for the obvious reasons. I don’t expect to see much change in how installation projects are completed, and the market’s relative strength will depend on depth and length of the depression and government response to it. Mobile will be the wild card, and I hear everything from ‘It will come roaring back bigger and better than ever’ to ‘It will be forever changed.’ Ask me again a year from now.”

With Lectrosonics focused on wireless mic systems and audio processing products for film, TV and live event production, its president, Gordon Moore, CTS, foresees a future focused on safety precautions: “Microphones, especially body-worn lavaliers and handhelds, will require new protocols for cleaning between use. Will windscreens become expendables now or will acceptable cleaning and sanitizing methods become field-effective? Time will need to be allocated for sound operators to clean, sanitize and set up.” Making those changes and making others aware of them will provide a serious business statement, he feels, noting, “By planning carefully, openly communicating future needs and showing your talent and clients a serious, documented, engagement in their safety, we can easily overcome the new bumps in the road.”

Audio-Technica has been busy during the pandemic. “Because we manufacture communications equipment, we are considered an essential business in our U.S. headquarters’ state of Ohio,” said marketing director Gary Boss. “From a business side, we have seen our home office solutions, music and content creation and audio listening categories skyrocket. Our installed sound and tour sound product have slowed down, which has also been felt by much of the industry…. We are doing well and just trying to reprioritize and focus on activities that will assist our end users and dealers as best we can. Customers have been very understanding regarding things like shipping and customer support, which may take a bit longer during the pandemic.”

Companies to Watch in 2020, Part One, by Clive Young, Jan. 29, 2020
Companies to Watch in 2020, Part Two, by Clive Young, Feb. 26, 2020

Interaction with customers, from support to training, has been a key focus for many pro audio manufacturers during the pandemic. “Maintaining customer contact is essential, and the video component of those contacts is not only important, it has become an essential way for us to continue to do business,” said Gary Rosen, vice president of global sales at Pliant Technologies. While no one can be sure what the future holds, he feels it’s crucial to develop a strategy for moving forward: “Plan ahead—there will be a time when this pandemic fades away, [so] focus on helping people make the comeback easier. For the ‘new normal,’ the solutions will change, but there will be solutions that fit the new normal.”

Whatever that may be, Renkus-Heinz president Matt Czyzewski expects his company to be ready, predicting the installation marketplace will have largely recovered. “What we hear from our customers is that they’re ready to get back to work—and to find ways to safely perform work while restrictions remain in place,” he said. “As far as the work being done, Renkus-Heinz has remained committed to completing the projects that were always on our roadmap. Has it slowed down a bit? Sure, but there is still new hardware and software coming out. We’ve also found a way to still ship product in accordance with the California guidelines. Business continues, just in a different format at times.”

That it’s an unprecedented time is not lost on any pro audio manufacturer, particularly one that’s been around for most of the field’s existence. “The industry has always adapted to change, and we’ll have to adapt again,” said Jim Schanz, vice president of global sales at Shure. “We just celebrated our 95th anniversary, so this company has been through a lot of challenging times over the years…. We have donated to Direct Relief, an organization working with authorities to provide personal protective equipment to healthcare workers in affected regions of the world. We’ve also been able to supply needed equipment directly to organizations such as hospitals and schools. In the backyard of its headquarters, Shure is supporting Chicago Independent Venue League. In addition to a monetary donation, Shure has recruited some partners in the industry to encourage others to support local live performance venues in the Chicago area and around the world. We also just made a significant donation to MusiCares, which recently had to shut down its assistance program due to a lack of funding to meet the demand.”

Another pro audio manufacturer that has seen a few things is UK loudspeaker manufacturer Celestion. The nearly 100-year-old company has long had a diverse range of products, whether SR and MI offerings under its own name, OEM loudspeakers for other manufacturers, or its own digital products, all meant for different applications. Ralph Nichols, vice president, business development, North America, has found the company is as responsive to customers as ever despite the pandemic, noting, “We have a variety of trade channels to support our customers, and when our customers have challenges, we make a strong effort to reach out to them and support their businesses. The biggest thing we are hearing from our customers worldwide right now is the need to immediately produce their orders and ship products to them quickly, as every sale now means so much to their business.”

Focusrite Novation is focused on right-now—and the future. Citing examples in podcasting, content creating, audio recording, virtual conferencing, home schooling and even TV music competitions, Hannah Bliss, director of marketing, conceded that demand “has hit like a wave, and it has been incredible to have products like Focusrite Scarlett interfaces and Novation Launchkey MIDI controllers at the center of that.” The company has a broad view of the industry as it also owns brands like Focusrite Pro and Martin Audio; informed by that vantage point, she noted, “New processes, new technologies will grow from this, and the pro audio industry will come out stronger because, despite certain areas of the industry seeing a decline, the desire to create, be heard and express oneself has never been stronger.”

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Adam Sheppard, national sales manager for another Focusrite Novation brand, ADAM Audio USA, concurred, noting, “It is amazing that the initial reaction to being socially distanced for many of our customers is the desire to make music. Even though we are doing business remotely with each other, it is interesting how much more personal doing business has actually become. It is more intimate because of the crisis; people are stopping and getting to know each other more than before. These days, the connection is so very important.”

The team at DAS Audio of America in Miami has been reaching out to customers and using the time for some corporate self-improvement that doesn’t involve cutting ties with distributors, employees or dealers. Carlos A. Henao, national sales manager, production and touring, noted, “While this is definitely a challenging time that no one could have ever imagined, at DAS Audio, we truly believe that we will come out of this crisis ‘leaner, meaner and stronger’ than ever. Frankly, this is not new to us. DAS Audio is based in Valencia, Spain, a country that has gone through a very long financial crisis in recent years. Our ownership has been very smart about our financial commitments, allowing the company to grow even in the face of trying times. If we can do it, certainly our industry can—but we all have to be willing to work smarter and harder than ever before.”

In Finland, Amphion has continued to produce its range of speakers and monitors, reported Anssi Hyvonen, founder and CEO: “We at Amphion have been fortunate that everybody has remained healthy and our factory has continued to operate as normally as it can during these times…. It has been business as usual to a humbling degree. Since we have always been very conservative regarding our parts inventory, delays in supply chain have not affected us. Our orders have been surprisingly steady and we have gotten them out to our customers in a timely fashion.”

Elsewhere in Northern Europe, Danish mic company DPA Microphones has been able to keep its production facility in Denmark open and running smoothly. At its U.S. arm, Chris Spahr, vice president of sales and marketing, USA, reported, “We’ve also been able to implement new procedures that have allowed us to keep our U.S. offices open and fulfill the needs of our dealers and customers regarding product availability.”

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Supporting customers is a key focus across all facets of the industry now, particularly on the live sound side, as T.J. Smith, president of EAW, pointed out: “This has been devastating to our event-based customers, but it has given us an opportunity to demonstrate our partnership. We’re working with everyone to get them through this time; we’re in it for the long haul. I think pro audio will recover slowly. Events will come back and likely experience a high demand during the next concert season, but I think event companies will be looking to maximize the return from their existing assets. As a result, it will be important for us to be available to respond quickly to service and training needs.”

While live sound will be coming back, Noel Larson, vice president of marketing and business development at Ashly Audio, said, “Install will bounce back faster than live, especially if the government drives infrastructure reform…. I believe, like in 2008, we will be stronger and more malleable post-crisis, which is good for everybody in the long term.” With that assessment of installation’s impending return, Larson pointed out, “We spent more than a year introducing new solutions to market—and right now, we still have the capability to ship that product. We can help you continue to be competitive in the installation market right now.”

While working at home is a big part of everyone’s lives for the moment, there are still some things that have to be done in person. Trevor Fedele, director of sales at MXL Microphones, noted, “Tasks such as prototyping now involve coordinating meet-ups at the office and lots of disinfectant. I now get back to my home office and say, ‘Sorry I missed your call, I had to run to the office to pick something up,’ which is quite ironic.” Of course, widespread working at home is part of what’s led to the current run on mics and interfaces, leading some online retailers to have empty shelves. Fedele has a suggestion for those facing that issue: “Shop local. Your music store may be closed, but give them a call. Maybe they’re doing curbside pickup. It may not seem like a lot, but just a couple of sales a week could be the difference between a salesperson staying on the clock or being let go. I would say this should apply to the whole world right now.”

Danley Sound Labs manufactures its products in the United States, so when shelter-in-place orders came down in North Carolina, its factory operated with a skeletal crew for eight weeks, but now is back to full capacity. Mike Hedden, chief steward in charge, feels that not relying on overseas manufacturing will give the company an edge going forward: “The fact we have always been a ‘made in the USA’ company allows us to proudly and quickly deliver orders. Many of our customers are seeing postponed projects coming forward, and we’ve seen a steady demand for design assistance on new projects. We also are seeing new business from contractors typically using offshore manufacturers that now have even longer lead times…. I believe products being made in the USA will also become highly visible and sought after. This crisis has exposed some of the fatal flaws of globalism, and for the long term, that is a great thing.”

Software companies don’t face quite the same issues, since their products are acquired via download these days, but a pandemic brings up new wrinkles for them nonetheless. Paul Tapper, CEO of Nugen Audio, pointed out that many of the company’s customers “rely on our audio postproduction and music production audio plug-ins to be able to do their jobs. Many of them are having to work from home and might not have access to their licenses, so we have created additional temporary emergency licenses for all owners that they can use from wherever they’re currently based.”

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Martins Popelis, co-founder, vice president, products, for another software-oriented company, Sonarworks, pointed out that the current wave of pros moving to home recording is a continuation of an ongoing trend: “Quite a lot of pro audio was happening online and long-distance already before the crisis. I don’t expect a radical change, but the pro audio world will get even smaller and more connected. Even more work will be done remotely and the trend of long-distance collaboration will accelerate as more people will be forced to try it and get used to it.”

No matter what one’s role in pro audio is in the future, change will be involved. The unknown always causes concern, but once something new becomes ‘known,’ then there’s the next hurdle: fixing the parts that don’t work right. As Stephen Brownsill, audio products manager at broadcast audio monitoring specialists TSL Products, pointed out, “As a manufacturer, our job is to bring products and solutions to market that address customers’ requirements, improve their workflows and address whatever ‘pain points’ they are currently experiencing. If those pain points are set to change as a result of new challenges being brought about by COVID-19, then let’s talk.”

Boutique manufacturers aren’t immune from present-day turmoil. Dusty Wakeman, president of Mojave Audio, noted his days are “longer and more intense than before the pandemic. Due to the explosion in artists recording at home, the demand for Mojave microphones has gone through the roof. My staff has been on furlough, so I’ve been doing everything—packaging, shipping and receiving as well as my normal administrative duties—all while trying to keep in touch with our customers through email and social media.”

Synthax distributes a variety of pro audio products, including high-end audio streaming solutions as well as home recording products and headphone amps, so the company has seen the same working/recording-from-home upsurge. “These products are in higher demand than ever before for obvious reasons,” said managing director Mathias von Heydekampf. “Of course, we lost out in many other market segments big time, but overall, things are okay. We actually have just hired two people and are looking at bringing in another position. That is the weird thing right now—no one could have predicted who would be in a free fall and who would hit a home run; many of our customers are experiencing the same thing…. I’m not sure that we’ll ever go back to ‘normal.’ The live sector will have an especially more difficult recovery, but people are creative and always come up with cool solutions, so I’m not overly pessimistic. It’s amazing how people adapt. I think things will change, but not necessarily for the worse.”

That upbeat view is shared by John Jennings, vice president of Royer Labs, who summed it all up by stating, “Optimism is a choice. Dark times require us to see light, and be light, whenever we can. It’s good for us and everyone around us. We will make it through this and appreciate our time together more than ever when we’re able to see each other in person again.”