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Veni, vidi, vici: PSNEurope visits Vicoustic

Responsible for the first 3-in-1 acoustic panel, standalone bass-trap and portable modular wall, Portugal's Vicoustic is a research-driven global success story. Here's the first part...

“We are a research company,” says Vicoustic CEO César Carapinha, “and because we want to make money, we have to sell the products that come from this research.”

A self-confessed music technology nerd and an unlikely businessman, Carapinha has a refreshing attitude towards turnover and profit margins: namely, that they enable the R&D side of the company – the aspect Carapinha and his team of enthusiastic young acousticians are clearly most passionate about – to continue to innovate, and not vice versa. And the Lisbon native is on a mission to get people talking about room treatments, bass-traps, diffusers and all the devices essential for optimising the sound of a studio.

“It’s a question of education,” he explains. “The most important factor for hearing good music is the place where you put your gear. The speakers are important, but most of the sound you hear is not direct sound, it’s influenced by the reflections, the materials and the geometry of the room.”

“It’s even worse now,” he continues, “because what’s happened with contemporary architecture is that rooms are bigger and have very hard surfaces, lots of windows and glass and parallel walls.

“Contemporary architecture is beautiful in a picture. But if you try to speak inside it, it’s awful!”

Vicoustic’s flagship product is Wavewood, a revolutionary panel which acts as both an absorber and a diffuser. “It’s a really nice product because it’s everything in one,” Carapinha (pictured, right, demonstrating the Vari Bass basstrap) comments. “And it’s just a piece of art – we have customers who just put three or four in the wall, just for aesthetics… they don’t use it for acoustics!”

Other Vicoustic solutions for studio settings include the Flexi Screen Ultra, a portable solution for recording vocals in an untreated room; Super Bass Extreme, which, true to its name, provides low-frequency absorption between 60–125Hz; and the spiky Multifuser DC2, a diffusion panel which looks rather a lot like a giant, 3D QR code.

Carapinha cofounded Vicoustic with Jorge Castro in 2007, and has since seen huge expansion and growth. The company now has 16 employees, four warehouses – the fourth was opened by Portuguese prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho in 2012 – and subsidiaries in the US, Middle East and Malaysia, and recently signed a UK distribution deal with Audio-Technica. “I think it’s an obvious choice,” he says of the Audio-Technica tie-up, which was finalised in April. “The British market [is] one of the most important for acoustics, one of the most respected, so we needed to partner with someone we could trust. Audio-Technica is, I think, the best option we had.”

Vicoustic is headquartered in Carvalhosa, Paços de Ferreira, an area of northern Portugal often referred to locally as Capital do Móvel – the Furniture Capital – owing to its heavy industrialisation and abundance of furniture-makers.

Although Vicoustic has a (very impressive) research lab in-house – a sophisticated system of hydraulics alters the room size to the nearest millimetre, and it doubles as both a reverberation and anechoic chamber (pictured above) – the company subcontracts all its manufacturing operations to local businesses.

Has Carapinha ever been tempted to move Vicoustic’s production to places where the cost of labour is cheaper, like China or the Far East? “Well ¬– it’s very hard to control quality,” he says. “[Here in Portugal], if something happens to a product, someone gets in the car and 30 minutes they are later are at the factory plant, getting to know what happened and fixing things. And this is worth a lot of money.”

He adds: “[Subcontracting] is better than having your own machines, because, in a matter of months, your machine already doesn’t do what you need and you need to buy a new product. [If you have your own machines], you don’t have the ability to change.”

But the lab, presumably, was a necessary expense? “It was. That’s the only way to be on top – to have your own research centre. If you look at all the big companies in the world, they are all very focussed on research.”

Continue reading in part two!