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Lectrosonics sets its sights on Europe

Lectrosonics’ Karl Winkler reveals the manufacturer's plan to infiltrate Europe with its new wireless products, while providing an insightful lesson into the art of potato cannon warfare.

Karl Winkler (pictured) is director of business development at wireless microphone and audio processing specialist Lectrosonics, based in New Mexico in the US. Although best known for its presence in TV and film production – Les Miserables is the latest blockbuster that deployed the company’s kit – the wireless products are now also commonly found in theatre installations. There was talk of Lectrosonics tapping into the European market some time ago, but substantial penetration over here has only really started in recent months What kept you? Basically, we had to comply with the RoHS (Reduction of Hazardous Substances) rules, so had to discontinue selling products into the EU for a few years. We’re well and truly past that hump now, and actually Europe is where we are seeing most of our growth. We’ve also brought in Jim Bakker [as EMEA sales], who was previously at AKG, and he’s turned some things around in the past 18 months. Everything’s European compliant now, then? Well, it’s been a case of focusing on one product at a time, really. Most of our products are, though we made sure we looked at our newest products first, such as the SM Series transmitters and SR Series dual-channel receivers, then we’ve been working backwards on our older products that are still viable, like the UCR411A receiver. We are a small company and some of our more popular products in the US such as the Aspen DSP processors were only recently added to the European line, so that’s been a challenge. Tell me about your proprietary Digital Hybrid Wireless technology… We developed it in the early 2000s. It’s digital audio processing, but the radio transmission is analogue FM. We are the only manufacturer doing it this way, and it has a number of advantages over other solutions: we can pack the channels tightly together, but there are no companding artefacts so you don’t get the analogue distortion. All of our current wireless microphone products use this technology. So it’s the best of both worlds, then? Exactly. One of our engineers stumbled across something that he thought might work, got the authorisation to develop it, borrowed bits and pieces from other people, then developed his own algorithms. This was 2002, and we got it patented in 2009. It took a while! Which of your products are currently the most popular in Europe? Certainly our dual-channel SR digital hybrid platform. It’s a compact, slot-mount receiver system that took off very strongly in the US and is moving into Europe strongly also. In addition, we have single-channel systems which are used for videography and news gathering, and for large-scale, our Venue rackmount receiver multi-channel can host up to six channels in a single rack space. You can daisy-chain Venue up to four times, which means 24 channels on a single pair of antennas. It’s popular for tours, theatre productions, installations – you name it. How are you handling distribution in the UK? We sell directly to dealers with no independent reps or larger distribution avenues – just the same as we do in the US. The factory sells to the dealers who then sell to the end users; it’s a fewer number of steps, which keeps things nice and simple. It wouldn’t work if we had, say, 250 products ranging from $100 to $10,000, but because we cater for the professional user only, we have a fairly narrow range of pricing, so it works well for us. Tell me about ‘Block 606’… Well, with the digital switchover in mind, we took some frequency bands that we were using in the US and slightly modified them to closely match the specific requirements for the UK. The result, our ‘Block 606’ (606-631.5MHz band), has now been in heavy use in there, in particular during the Olympics and the Royal Wedding. The first products in this new ‘Block’ are the SR Series receivers and the transmitters that went with it, particularly the SM Series. What was Lectrosonics’ involvement in the Les Miserables movie? We caught wind of this towards the end of the project through Simon Hayes, who won an Oscar for sound mixing. An accompanist was playing the songs through the performers’ hidden earpieces, so they could hear and sing along live on the set.
The production used 26 channels of wireless mics with our SMV transmitters and Venue receivers, and as there were no limiters on set, every vocal was captured in full dynamic range, without any EQ. The noise was apparently low enough to get all the vocal detail in there, and Simon insists he couldn’t have done it without using our equipment. You’re no stranger to a mixing desk yourself, of course… I was in the US Air Force during the 1990s and mixed FOH for a fantastic jazz band, finishing on tour with the recreated Glen Miller Army Air Corps Orchestra, a 44-piece band with five vocalists. What I learned doing live sound on tours has been irreplaceable in my career since. As irreplaceable as your famous potato cannons…? [Laughs] Some years ago I got the bug to try building one of these things. They’re made from off-the-shelf PVC pipes and a few assorted bits such as a BBQ igniter. Since getting into it, I have created one with a two-inch bore and a combustion chamber which makes a powerful ‘bang’ and sends a large potato out of visual range when fired. And you use these for testing products? Yes… I found that our SMV transmitter was small enough to fit into the cannon, so we hatched a plan to videotape the testing in this manner. Of course for something like this, one does not ask for permission, but instead readies oneself to apologise later…
The SMV survived two shots out of the cannon into a stout cardboard box filled with packing material; it completely penetrated the box both times, but the receiver never lost the signal and indeed captured the audio from the transmitter both times, even while in flight (watch it on YouTube). And now your giant cannon is pointing at Europe then, as it were? Well, we’re not quite ready for a subsidiary in Europe yet, but looking at our growth figures and the positive responses to the products, we’ve certainly got you in our sights…

Story: Paul Watson