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‘It’s mutually beneficial’: Sound Network’s Ralph Dunlop on the company’s acquisition by DPA

As the next generation at UK distributor Sound Network enters a new relationship with key supplier and now owner DPA Microphones, retiring Sound Network co-founder Ralph Dunlop shares his personal reflections with Phil Ward…

How did full acquisition by DPA come about?

It was a two-sided question that brought about the idea. Around two years ago Pete [Wandless, co-founder] and I were asking the question about the future of DPA with regard to it being acquired by an investment company, and whether Sound Network would be part of any future plans if the company was sold on again – as is the norm in these situations. DPA countered with the question of what our plans were for the future of Sound Network now we were getting older. Our first answer was to carry on regardless and keep building on what we’d already achieved. Because we’ve worked so closely with DPA, both companies knew each other inside out and had very similar visions of the future. When Kalle Hvidt Nielsen came on board as CEO he seemed to have very clear plans for how he wanted DPA to proceed. He liked the way we worked, the team he had, and respected the distribution model and philosophy. One thing led to another and we sat down to explore how the two companies could fit together. DPA made us an offer beyond any expectations we had, and it seemed like a good idea, especially, for the longevity of Sound Network.

What does it mean for Sound Network beyond ‘business as usual’?

It’s really a matter of combining the variety of distribution skills Sound Network has acquired after 23 years in business with the bigger picture that DPA has of its future. Having been on the front line for so long, and having a wealth of industrial expertise to tap into via our client base, DPA can forge much closer links with the market, rather than retaining the arm’s length approach of the traditional distribution model. From the outside it will look much the same – most of the changes will evolve internally.

Who’s going to be in charge?

For some time now, Adam Pierce and Mat Wandless have essentially been responsible for the day-to-day running of Sound Network: Adam for sales and marketing; Mat for operations and purchasing; and together for general management. Behind them is a fantastic team supporting their guidance and enthusiasm. All are very skilled and ambitious. Of course, DPA will keep a close eye in the shape of Nikolaj Forsberg, the newly appointed EVP of sales in Denmark.

What does it mean for the other (non-DPA) brands at Sound Network?

We have been in contact with all our other suppliers and no one has raised any objections or concerns over the change of ownership. I think everyone sees it as mutually beneficial both in the UK and perhaps further afield in the future.

Why did you and Pete start the company?

I had recently left Garwood, the company responsible for bringing in-ear monitoring to the world, and Pete had recently left Fairlight where he’d been sales manager. We were basically at a loose end and met up for a coffee in a café in Crouch End. This really was the first Sound Network office. We’d known each other through the industry for a few years, with the dubious bond of having worked at companies that both had corporate aircraft – me at Bruel & Kjaer and Pete at SSL. This put us in an elite group! Also, we lived around the corner from each other at the time, and we had similar backgrounds in the industry. Everyone who I didn’t know, Pete did – and vice versa.

What have been the most enjoyable moments with Sound Network?

There are too many to mention. Me sitting in Wembley Arena watching Stevie Wonder rehearsing with his backing singers – I was the only one there. Hanging out with Andy Fairweather Low having a chat, while Ry Cooder was doing a sound check. Meeting George Martin, a few times. He knew the Beatles, you know! Having breakfast with David Byrne. Meeting Christopher Lee and George Cole, among many others, when Pete and I had a couple of audio studios in Great Titchfield Street. Pete engineered Keith Moon’s final recordings, and stood on the pit wall at Silverstone taking measurements for a new mic during the British Grand Prix. The memories go on and on; I have been a very lucky man.

Pick two or three major turning points when you glimpsed the future…

Early on, we saw the AMS digital reverb and delay. If you went for the ‘full monty’ you could get 64 seconds of memory – for only £4,000. Bargain! Then, Sony bringing out the PCM recorder – digital technology in its infancy. Pete and I imported a DAW called DSP from Australia in the early ‘90s, fully automated, integrated and with non-linear video. It was so ahead of its time. Unfortunately the market didn’t agree with us at first, but we were proven right a few years later. We had two demo units and built two audio studios around them, so they paid for themselves and a bit more.

How has the theatre business improved for sound operators over the years?

In terms of improvements, it really started when the theatre market could afford to buy automated mixing consoles. It always appeared strange to me that when the SSL arrived only recording studios bought them. The need was less acute than in theatre and live markets where you had so many time constraints. But, of course, they were so expensive. Pete should know: he was SSL’s sales manager.

Another area that gets forgotten is the major progress in speaker design that has taken place over the past 20 years or more. The technological advance in terms of materials and electronics has been stunning. Those who use their ears know all about it, but to most people it’s still just a black box. Last, but definitely not least, is the microphone and one microphone in particular: the DPA 4060 miniature. Because of its extraordinary performance this microphone changed everyone’s concept of what a miniature microphone can and should be.

Noise floor was lower, SPL handling was higher and the detail was stunning. It became the professional standard for both voice and instruments. Film recordists could hide it in costumes or plain sight to capture usable sync sound. It changed the world of sound effects: it could go inside a pumpkin before you hit it with a hammer; right up against the manifold of a Formula One racing car; stuck in your ears for perfect binaural recording – the list of innovative sound design applications this microphone inspired is staggering.

Is there anything that can’t be mic’d up?

Yes, outer space! However, that hasn’t stopped anyone trying. Bruel & Kjaer supplied microphones to NASA to take to the moon. As far as I know they’re still there – hard to tell if they are still working or not. Oh, and one other thing – a crop circle! Way back, the BBC bought a pair of DPA 4007 omni microphones because of their flat response up to 40kHz. They were for recording crop circles in Wiltshire and engineers – seriously – thought there might be super-sonic sounds emanating from them. Apart from that, no. You just have to know what you’re doing.

Are you now going to finish that difficult third album?

Give me a chance! I haven’t finished the first one yet. Some strange, weird experience in the music industry occurred and I had to put everything on hold. I am going back to where I started, though – which is a good place