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Furman at 40: They’ve got the power!

It’s been a long, strange trip since founder Jim Furman decided to turn his ad hoc design work for bands like the Grateful Dead into a fully fledged business...

“We are a funny little animal,” laughs latterday director of power and accessories, John Benz, when reflecting upon Furman’s complex manufacturing history. Diverse it might be, but in its gradual zeroing-in on one fundamental building block – power and the improvement in quality thereof – the company has skilfully ensured its continued prosperity in a sector that is hardly lacking in burn-outs or might-have-beens.

Seven years after its acquisition by Panamax and subsequent integration into Core Brands, Furman maintains a busy product release schedule that, in 2014, has so far included the M-8S and PS-8R E III Power Conditioner and Sequencer models, and the F 1500-UPS E Uninterruptible Power Supply, Battery Backup and Power Conditioner for 230V regions. Celebratory events at specific trade shows such as ISE and InfoComm aside, the anniversary year has prompted “a certain amount of internal reflection about how we got to this point – our roots, our current products and profile – and, of course, about where we might be going in the future.”

More of which anon, but first let’s set a course for San Francisco in the early 1970s and the earliest stirrings of a manufacturing enterprise that – in keeping with so much of pro audio – had the humblest of origins.

San Francisco Bay Blues
As the cradle of creation for bands including Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother and the Holding Company – the last-named group the first to give full flight to a promising young singer named Janis Joplin – San Francisco’s rock credentials were already well-established by the early 1970s. But for many locally, and certainly those on a global level, the scene was identified with one band above all others: the Grateful Dead.

Media coverage of the Dead has tended to fixate on their penchant for chemical experimentation, but they were every bit as enthusiastic about pushing the sonic envelope. Their so-called Wall of Sound PA – created chiefly by audio engineer Owsley ‘Bear’ Stanley – was genuinely groundbreaking in its day, whilst another member of their sound team was frequently inspired to knock together his own bespoke outboard gear.

“Jim Furman was a gearhead to the nth degree, and if he couldn’t find a reverb or signal processor to do the job he would build it himself, bring it to the band, and they would add it to their racks,” says Benz (pictured right). “And that is literally how Furman started: as Furman Sound Service, a garage enterprise providing repairs, modifications and bits of equipment for Bay Area bands that gradually became a proper manufacturing operation.”

In reality, the business remained fairly small-scale right up until 1983 when Furman crystallised the concept of a simple rack-mountable surge protector in the form of the original PL-8. Notes Benz: “That was really the product that kickstarted the development of Furman, taking us more and more into the power conditioning category as well as allowing the further development of our signal processing interests.”

Concluded tomorrow.