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Sync or swim: PSNEurope meets music technology guru Martin Warr

Phil Ward converses with Warr on his diverse background and how he got to where he is today

Owned by Martin Warr since 2007, Synthax Audio (UK) is currently enjoying the most successful period in its 15-year history, having posted record sales, record profit and record growth over the last 12 months. It stems from a carefully selected grouping of 10 complementary brands, which sell into music production, live sound, broadcast and scientific audio – the largest of which are Calrec Brio, Ferrofish and RME, with most recent growth powered by the broadcast market.

But never mind that. As a pupil at a school in Croydon well known for its music curriculum, Warr was selected to sing in the boy treble chorus of Every Sperm Is Sacred for Monty Python’s 1983 movie The Meaning Of Life. It certainly seemed to sow a seed: Python’s audio mentor André Jacquemin later became a loyal client and was a valued customer for the Mackie Digital 8-Bus supplied when Warr was at Key Audio and instrumental in establishing the Mackie brand in the UK.

The brands may shift, but the expertise grows ever more fertile…

You were associated with Fairlight for a while; has anything replaced it? Yes – the Calrec Brio. That’s our broadcast console.

A change of gear from post to live-to-air?

It’s a different area of the market, but the same customers crop up – Sky, the BBC, people who are high up in sound at those institutions. I have a studio production background, but the synergies with live-to-air are many.

What was that background?

Classical music, at first: recording CDs; editing in Sonic Solutions, that kind of thing. I did learn to cut tape on the Music Technology Masters degree at York, and we did analogue Ambisonics… a lot of musique concréte as I recall. The computers were all Ataris, but it was digital audio more or less from the start. After college, through singing in York Minster, I met a classical record producer called John West who had a state-of-the-art digital system: a Mac; a DAT machine that fed into it; Sonic Solutions; and a working relationship with Mike Hatch and Steve Long who’d recently started Floating Earth. I assisted John with master assembly editing.

Ah, yes… singing

I went to a really cool school in Croydon called The Trinity School of John Whitgift, very active musically. The teacher was well connected and provided boy trebles for lots of musical projects – TV ads, theatre, even Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s The Little Drummer Boy. I wasn’t on that, but I was a ‘gigging treble’ for three or four years, including the Python recordings. Myself and seven others went to the Pythons’ studio in Neal’s Yard, met Eric Idle and Terry Jones and had a ball. We weren’t told the lyrics in advance, being 10 and 11…

Back when Soho meant something…

Even 10 years ago I could go there and see Turnkey, Rose Morris, Cliff Cooper’s shops, Westend Production… all gone now except for a couple of guitar shops. Even André has moved. He’s still a customer: he used RME on the reunion shows at the O2 a couple of years ago, and he showed me round backstage – one of the original ‘sperm’ boys!

And after all that education?

Persistence got me into Soundcraft, after cramming about post-production. But my first degree in Geography involved a lot of digital mapping, and the parallels between evolving paper cartography and analogue audio to computers were many and useful. I became product manager for the Ghost console, something I’m very proud of. Then it was straight into Mackie-world. Despite redundancy at Soundcraft, within a few days I’d been introduced to Tony Williams at Key Audio who, at the interview, said: ‘when can you start? Right, we’ll get you a new car because we don’t want that old thing of yours on the forecourt…’ One of my favourite little details of that period is that, at Real World, Peter Gabriel only had three console brands: Sony Oxford; SSL; and Mackie.

Did you leave when Greg Mackie sold up?

I continued working with Mackie for four years after the sale to Sun Capital Partners – a baptism of fire that propelled me from digital-technical sales bloke to head of the UK, overnight. But that’s where I learned to run a company, and it set me up for opening The Audio Professionals in 2006. What are your secrets of survival? Perseverance and fun. And being decent to people. It’s been sink or swim, sometimes… but I wouldn’t change anything.