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‘All successes are partnerships’: theatre sound veteran Sam Wise talks career highlights

Phil Ward meets US-born theatre audio veteran and ‘Trump predictor’, Sam Wise

With parents in the military and an inquisitive nature evident from the age of six, Sam Wise was never going to stick around in one place. Except he has made the UK his home for 45 years, marrying an English girl and falling in love with Europe’s many and varied cultures. As a musician, he was also drawn to the audio industry – so it was London’s early ‘70s theatre and recording milieu that kept him (a) employed and (b) well away from the Nixon administration. Eight Presidents and a glittering career later, he’d like to keep it that way…

What did you realise at six years old?

If something was broken, my parents were no longer afraid to let me take it apart and try to fix it. It would usually work again afterwards! That’s how I learned to investigate, and how to reverse-engineer. Also, if they parked me next to a musical instrument – especially one that was different to the last one they parked me next to – they wouldn’t have to worry about me all day. So there was a budding combination of music and engineering right from the start.

There was always music: part-singing in Primary School and four-part hymnals in church; tuba at Junior High; double bass at High School; flute and saxophones at University… soul, jazz and classical. But despite this my Degree was in Electronics & Electrical Engineering, at the University of Maryland, which I don’t regret for one minute. I was both practical and academic and I found it hugely rewarding to be both an engineer and a muso!

So you didn’t drop out with Timothy Leary…

Not with Timothy Leary – but I did kind of drop out. After my studies I came to Europe for six weeks. And I’m still here. I did want to be a recording engineer, and London had over 100 professional studios in 1971… but aside from that I could see Trump coming, although in exactly which guise you couldn’t tell then. We’d had flower power and the Vietnam War, and I felt American society was really damaged. If I had been drafted, I would have joined a military band or the Red Cross so I wouldn’t have had to kill people. I would have risked my life to entertain troops or rescue and treat them, but ultimately people are more important than guns. And I sensed that here in London and the UK generally people simply cared more about each other, so I stayed. It was – and is – much more integrated.

You’re making me cry. Can we talk about recording technology?

Of course, except I struggled to get into the studios because I was over-qualified: they wanted tea boys, not electronics majors. Plus the electronics companies wanted a stayer, not a travelling American. My first job was in a Dixon’s ‘Prinzsound Hi-Fi’ camera workshop…

Ah. OK, so how did you break into this industry?

At Dixon’s I was fixing things again, but it gave me grounding in real-world technical retail, team development, commercial politics and all of that. After a brief spell at Sony UK I found the dream job at Theatre Projects in Covent Garden. TP Services included recording studios; lighting and sound, meaning big rental companies; manufacturing of architectural lighting; distribution; and a shop; Meanwhile Theatre Projects Consultants was designing the National Theatre. I became the maintenance guy for virtually the whole of the West End theatre community, which taught me all about product reliability, theatre operations and large systems, as well as helping to build a new recording studio in Neal’s Yard – where I got into acoustics, sound insulation and system design.

The manufacturing took off for a while: we made a successful automated film console for Pinewood in 1981 – probably the first in the UK – and developed the TecPro theatre comms range. For a while, too, our test equipment rivalled Audio Precision. But in the end, given that I’m more of a socialist than a capitalist, I lacked the ruthless business streak when it was needed. When we moved to the Isle of Wight as a separate enterprise, everything was ready but, when I told the investors I was at least as interested in the welfare of the company staff as its profits, they got nervous and we ran out of money. I was naïve, I suppose. Canford Audio picked up TecPro, and Neutrik got the test equipment. The good news is that Neutrik still employs 140 people there!

What happened?

Fortunately Theatre Projects got in touch and sent me to Singapore to troubleshoot a sound system, and while there I bumped into ex-TPC MD Richard Brett in a restaurant. He had started his own consultancy called Techplan – later to become Theatreplan – and soon after we got home I began consulting for him. In fact, he taught me everything I know about being a consultant. We got a lot of music venue work, which was perfect for me being a muso.

Why did you then apply for a position at Arup Acoustics?

I wanted to expand beyond comms and AV into acoustics, and Rob Harris wanted to start Arup’s new theatre consultancy practice. It was a good fit: I’d studied acoustics and had already worked with Arup guys on projects like Birmingham Symphony Hall and Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. It broadened my scope just as I’d hoped, and later on as well as team management I had responsibility for seeking out and securing work for us. By a natural process, that got me more involved in the early concept and design process, working with every discipline and picking up a much wider range of skills.

Seventeen years well spent, if you ask me. But you weren’t ready to hang up your Filofax just yet?

With ‘retirement’ age approaching, I negotiated to continue managing an Arup project in Portugal in a more independent capacity that kick-started my own business, Venue Strategies – plus an ex-colleague from Arup called Neill Woodger lived very close to me and we got talking. I didn’t want to retire completely, but I didn’t want to travel as much, so we linked up. He’s about 20 years younger than me! More ‘strategic’ work is very attractive: I love to help create innovative, practical, beautiful and cost-effective solutions and advising clients on the things that make venues work: original auditorium design, building planning, stage machinery, production lighting, sound, comms and AV, as well as implementing that advice.

That’s how I wanted to complete the tail end of my career, and it’s perfect because Neill takes on all the political and administrative meetings! I’m sitting here now with AutoCAD open on my computer – and Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring playing the in background, because that’s my next concert as a musician. So now I travel less, and spend my time focusing on figuring out how everything fits together and – crucially – making much more music!

In your Ten Commandments, what does the one about running a business say?

People deserve reward for their hard work or their investment, or both, but unbridled capitalism fails to deliver it fairly. All successes are partnerships to some degree, even if you don’t know exactly why, and we depend upon each other much more than you’d think from the way business is organised. But there you go; life is full of unpredictable human beings. Look who’s in charge now…