The phoenix is a rare bird, but has been spotted latterly over Europe. A nesting pair has settled in the Vienna suburb of Liesing, and there is a rumour that some eggs have been found in Regensdorf, Switzerland, possibly abandoned by the parents. Meanwhile, just north of London, a small flock has gathered and the conditions for healthy young are promising. The ashes that formed them have blown elsewhere.
And with that metaphor out of the way, let’s meet Cranborne Audio: a manufacturing start-up made up of five like-minded audio professionals who were all colleagues – it just so happens – at Soundcraft. There’s more than a slight giveaway in the name: if the address Cranborne House, Cranborne Road rings a bell – part of Cranborne Industrial Estate – that’s because this is the Potters Bar site in Hertfordshire, UK that was the Soundcraft headquarters for almost 30 years.
Just as several former employees of AKG have formed Austrian Audio in Vienna – that’s right, bird-spotters, in the suburb of Liesing – this group has seized upon the opportunities presented by Harman’s sweeping alterations to its global manufacturing and support footprint to set out on their own. Apart from the mundane motive of continued employment, in both cases there is the other more worthy goal of making some attempt to preserve the legacy and skills combined within their group mentality. It’s a kind of brand equity, rather like the formation of a new band following the break-up of the original, albeit with the rules of engagement re-written from the ground up.
“There was a great team spirit and we worked with a lot of great people who really knew their stuff,” explains Cranborne Audio MD Sean Karpowicz, who has founded the company with director of engineering Edward Holmes after spending several years at Potters Bar working on the Signature Series, among several other mixer concepts. The succession is pointed, and founded on a certain amount of defiance. “Brands are the people, the expertise,” Karpowicz says. “They can’t be found anywhere, just lying around, and I’m happy that we now have some of those people and some of that expertise.”
Holmes was formerly project team leader for Soundcraft’s Si Impact and a true protégé of Graham Blyth. “Graham took a very young Ed under his wing – Ed is still only 29 – and really felt he had a natural successor who combined his own passions for circuitry, industrial design and music,” continues Karpowicz. “Ed worked with both the digital and analogue teams in Potters Bar and Regensdorf and also worked on the Signature Series, which was very close to my heart. For me, the legacy of Soundcraft analogue consoles is very special, and the Signature Series put a lot of time and effort into specifying the best of that legacy for the modern age. Ed can get so much performance out of his components because he goes to that extra level of tuning and attention to detail every time.”
Joining the team are creative director Andy Pat, mechanical engineer George Clark and product manager Elliott Thomas, who between them bring years of Soundcraft-honed expertise and experience in industrial design, mechanical engineering and product management. “George and Ed were always the last to leave the building,” recalls Karpowicz, “such was their dedication. And when I joined Soundcraft Elliott was a totally under-utilised 19-year old – I don’t think they realised what a talent they had on their hands. He does recording, live sound, plays guitar… knows his stuff inside out.”
Both Karpowicz and Holmes avoided redundancy by leaving Soundcraft as soon as the future of Potters Bar was cast into doubt, but before establishing Cranborne Audio, Karpowicz spent time at James Young’s Aston Microphones. And one of the things that struck Karpowicz most forcibly at Aston was the principle of domestic build.
“Unfortunately I don’t think remote manufacturing processes always enable you to deliver on your promises, at least not without considerable delays, which is one of the reasons why manufacturing in the UK is such a priority for Cranborne Audio,” he states. “Because we’re building to such exacting standards we really need to have control, to have tight reigns over production tests and quality control.
“At Potters Bar we could go downstairs and inspect the SMT lines, the soldering joints, everything… problems could be ironed out right then and there. We want to have that kind of really close connection to our products. You can try with a distant supplier, but there is always a waiting time, some difficulty in giving instructions and other logistical compromises. It’s paramount that we avoid those setbacks.”
The products will be contract-built near London – under the same roof as MunroSonic monitors and Aston Microphones – and the inaugural offer announces Cranborne Audio like a statement of intent: placing a signature signal path at the beginning of what is hoped will be a train of valuable goods. Three 500 series modules have just been launched at NAMM, right along the lines of API’s original system for mounting compact modules into a tabletop or rackmount chassis.
These are: the Camden 500 mic-pre, a transformer-less option with bonuses; the 500 R8 interface; and the 500 ADAT interface.
“We’re starting with recording products because that’s all about precision and perfection,” explains Karpowicz, “and the 500 series is almost like the hot-rod automobile culture in the US, where you take the coolest, most powerful elements and then build your own solution.”
Indeed, the Cranborne Audio mission statement is “a modern approach to vintage sound”, and the sense of achieving the best of both worlds is palpable in the design philosophy.
Karpowicz continues: “You can have ultra-clean mic-pres with amazing clarity, low noise floor, phase coherence… but no vibe; or a monster with loads of character that is what it is – with a great big piece of iron, loads of artefacts and distortion that may or may not be to your taste. We measured a wide range of models and the phase linearity on most transformer-based mic-pres is shocking – 90° out of phase at 50Hz and 12K! It makes a huge difference.
“So we’re offering a choice. The Camden is ultra-clean, but we’ve added what we call the Mojo Circuit: a variable analogue saturation, designed by Ed, that puts back in some of that transformer behaviour. We wanted to understand those ‘happy accidents’ and make them part of a discrete circuit over which the user has complete control. It’s tuneable, it’s expressive… and it’s a way of letting you ‘feel’ the sound, rather than relying on a GUI. You have to use your ears.”
Eventually, Cranborne Audio may well address the in-the-moment, hands-on challenges of mixers for live sound, just as its instigators were put on this Earth to do. And, what’s more, don’t you dare suggest to Sean Karpowicz that the recording console doesn’t exist any more. “I’m not sure about that at all,” he quickly replies. “I just think that no one has done it correctly yet…”
Soundcraft’s Cranborne House used to be signposted internally with affectionate Beatles references, such as corridors called ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Abbey Road’.
Whether or not the phoenix of Cranborne Audio can rise to similar heights remains to be seen. But it’s certainly got wings.