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Strategic Position: Calrec

Now part of the Audiotonix group, broadcast console specialist Calrec seems emboldened by a new factory extension and an even newer managing director.

Just as the River Calder has carved out the landscape in the hills of West Yorkshire, so the former Calder Recordings Ltd company has carved a niche in the world of broadcast console manufacture.

Selling to media giants in the likes of the USA, Japan and Russia, as well as maintaining a healthy UK market, Calrec has stayed ahead of the curve, integrating pioneering digital and FPGA-based technologies into its large format, world-class mixer designs. And all from a former textile mill in the little town of Hebden Bridge, tucked away in a steep-sided river valley.

Now change has come to the Nutclough Mill HQ. (And no, we’re not referring to sheep-rustling, murder and kidnapping, as depicted in ongoing BBC drama Happy Valley, also set in Hebden.)

Two years ago, Calrec, alongside sister company Allen & Heath, was introduced to new sibling DiGiCo, under the Electra Partners umbrella. While former Calrec boss Roger Henderson went on to take a leading role with TSL Systems, the way was clear for a new perspective and a fresh outlook.

And so, welcome Nigel Beaumont (pictured), general manager at DiGiCo, who took his position in the Calder Valley officially following IBC 2015, unofficially just after that June 2014 merger (readers may recall, the Audiotonix mantle was not confirmed until April of 2015).

“I love the DiGiCo environment,” he says, “its fun and they are fun people, but no one realises how hard they work internally – they love what they do. Most people at DiGiCo come and stay and I can understand why, because they feel ‘part of the gang’.”

His arrival in Hebden has ushered in a new way of working.

“We’ve opened it up,” he affirms, “by giving people more freedom to realise their ideas, and by supporting them more directly.

“Our driving focus is still to design and produce the best engineered product in the world for our customers. We’ve added to that by strengthening our sales, marketing and product management teams, giving them a less controlled environment to work in. The result is that we are getting those ‘creative juices’ flowing into some very exciting ideas.”

Beaumont has over 16 years’ experience working in and around big brands and big projects. Starting out with BSS Audio in 1999, he was soon working with Soundcraft as Harman began a period of reorganisation, firstly by absorbing the Amek console brand, then cosying up to Switzerland’s Studer. Beaumont left Harman in 2011 to join Uli Behringer’s Music Group, leaving there “of my own accord” around 18 months later, and joining DiGiCo.

While with Harman, Beaumont oversaw the transition of manufacturing of the Spirit by Soundcraft brand from the UK to China, managed the transfer of the building of Studer consoles from Zurich to Potter’s Bar, and spent two years in Vienna as AKG was integrated into what became the Mixing, Microphones & Headphones business unit.

In his role as global operations director with Music Group, he spent 16 months at the massive Behringer City factory in China, later spending time in the UK to head up the company’s pro-audio division.

To say this 54-year-old Yorkshireman knows his mixers, his manufacturing and his methodologies would be something of an understatement, therefore.

“I quite like the directness I learned at Harman, from conversations with Blake (Augsburger, head of pro audio) and Dinesh (Patel, CEO); I use that at Calrec. I don’t like faffing about!

”Harman gave me a lot of multi-cultural experience, with the USA, Studer in Switzerland, AKG in Vienna; and with the (off-shoring), about working with Chinese sub-contractors.”

Music Group, conversely, gave him his first opportunity to “try to run a division and create a strategic plan. Also working on a far bigger scale of manufacturing than at Harman, and how to manage a wider, vertically integrated business which Harman didn’t have at the time.”

That’s a lifetime of experience in just 16 years, and a wealth of skills to bring to the Audiotonix/Calrec table. But, one particular question jumps out from that CV: after being so very pro-Chinese manufacturing in the past, how does that manifest itself at the 140-strong Calrec plant, where everything is UK-made?

“It’s horses for courses,” he says. In Hebden, orders are more “lumpy”, he says: “A very high mix, lower volume sales profile of a highly engineered, high value product range. That does not lend itself to a China model. We have people with a wide span of skills, who can move to different roles in the factory to satisfy the business demands. Again, that’s not how it works in China.

“One thing Dave Carr, our head of operations, does is constantly look at how to develop his staff, to satisfy their interests and our needs.”

Bringing the trio of mixer-makers together was a “very cute” move, says Beaumont.

“The three brands stand alone – but you have this greater experience,” he says. “So, if I have a problem with something, or Patrick [Warrington] our technical director has a problem, he can pick up the phone and talk to DiGiCo or Allen & Heath about it – and vice versa.”

All customer facing functions – sales, marketing and support – are brand specific, he reports. No-one is treading on anyone else’s toes within the Audiotonix group because there is very little overlap between the product ranges. “But in the back office, we help each other. You think it might have been hard to get this big group of people to work together, but it’s been like finding your long lost twin. No one’s fallen out with each other, we’re all still here and we’re still learning from what we’re all individually best at – which tells you a lot.”

A pause. Then, emphatically: “The biggest opportunity we have in terms of synergies in the group is in R&D, because we all have bright people. Put them together and it’s just phenomenal! It’s definitely a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.”

How much does the ‘money’ – Electra Partners – get involved with the brands?

“I think the Electra guys have struck the right balance of involvement,” he considers. “As long as we deliver, we’re left to get on with it. They want the growth, but they are very interested in products and markets andd where we’re going next.”

While the knowledge of, say, DiGiCo’s James Gordon or John Stadius supports the Audiotonix group from within, the Electra executives have investments in a range of businesses outside of pro-audio, and often bring insight from those disciplines to monthly board meetings. To this observer, it seems a far cry from the days when D&M Holdings owned Calrec and Allen & Heath, yet seemed to do little to leverage the brands, or encourage them to collaborate.

“Yes it’s a very different culture now”, reflects Beaumont.

Let’s review for a moment. Calrec manufacturers large format broadcast consoles in its new expanded factory. The company works with some of the world’s biggest broadcasters such as Sky, the BBC, NBC, NTV Plus, CBS and NHK, and has a significant presence in outside broadcast trucks. With the Apollo, Artemis and Summa consoles, it has all your big desk needs covered, thank you very much. Hydra2 fulfills digital networking and matrixing needs. The core technology, Calrec’s pioneering FPGA-based Bluefin2, is firmly established too.

So, an obvious market to aim at is compact consoles – just as A&H and DiGiCo have done – right?

When pressed on your correspondent’s speculation, Beaumont thinks for a moment, then says, “I’m not sure I can answer that question directly. So let me answer it like this.:

“If you look back at recent trade shows in Calrec’s history – the two before the merger – we launched the Summa 180 and the Summa 128. But that’s all it launched.

“Since the merger, at NAB 2015 we launched new software, faster processors, the Fieldbox, the H2Hub, and the Hydra2 daughter card for connecting to DiGiCo desks. That’s a lot.

“Then at IBC, there were more launches. There’s no doubt that our pace of product portfolio expansion has increased since the merger. That’s Calrec having more ideas, being more dynamic, making decisions quicker. So if you extrapolate back from what we’ve done… we might have something interesting at NAB 2016.”