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What does the future hold after Blackmagic acquired Fairlight?

Buying Fairlight means BMD does not have to start from scratch with costly R&D in the audio field

IBC 2016 was more about the business side than products, with a number of high-profile acquisitions. Key among these was Blackmagic Design buying Fairlight. Kevin Hilton looks at the backgrounds of both companies and looks at the reasons behind the deal and what it might bring in the future

When the announcement that Fairlight was putting its audio business up for sale came through at the beginning of August there was an understandably surprised reaction among the pro-audio press and the industry at large. There was a fair amount of surprise again at the start of IBC when Blackmagic Design (BMD) announced it had bought the name, product line and intellectual property of the audio manufacturer.

While the first reaction was completely reasonable, the acquisition does make sense when BMD’s corporate history, development and track record of adding brands to its portfolio are considered. Founded in Melbourne in 1984, the company made its name with a range of high definition video cards and interface units. It came to the fore in the late 1990s/early 2000s with products such as the DeckLink capture card, a reasonably priced device for working in 10-bit uncompressed video on Macintosh OS X.

During the 2000s BMD developed a range of digital cameras and further expanded its product lines through acquisition. The first big name bought was DaVinci, the colour correction specialist, in 2009. At the time these products were hardware-based and expensive. BMD reworked the range, making it more software oriented and cheaper, with regular downloadable upgrades. Since then BMD has acquired Teranex (video processors), Cintel (telecine and film scanners) and eyeon Software (image compositing).

Fairlight’s roots go back to Sydney in 1975, when Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie began developing microprocessor-based music systems and samplers. This led to the CMI (computer musical instrument) synthesiser, which became a key part of the electronic music boom of the 1980s. In the 1990s, as Fairlight ESP (Electric Sound and Picture), the company moved more into broadcasting an post-production with a series of combined DAWs and mixing controllers/consoles.

During the 2000s Fairlight produced digital on-air broadcast desks and worked with Japanese broadcaster NHK on the development of the 22.2 immersive audio system.

Fairlight recently announced a range of AES67 audio distribution units and had moved into video with a patented picture key work system. In the statement announcing the divestment of its audio products, the company said it would now concentrate on the latter technology, which it licenses to “manufacturers of highly user interactive tactile equipment”.

Explaining the decision to move away from sound, chief executive Philip Belcher noted: “It has been decided that the potential for Fairlight’s professional audio technologies is much larger than can be achieved under the current ownership.”

This need to give Fairlight’s audio business more commercial support and room for expansion ties in with BMD’s strategy of offering a full range of broadcast and post-production equipment. It announced at the same time that it had bought Ultimatte, which produces green/blue screen compositing systems, but, as BMD spokesman Patrick Hussey explained during IBC, the Fairlight acquisition adds a new dimension.

“The opportunity with Ultimatte came about over a number of years but Fairlight was slightly different,” he says. “We were looking to expand into professional audio and this business opportunity arose. It’s a great time to round out our portfolio, allowing us to encompass the different aspects of production and post from acquisition to delivery.”

Hussey acknowledges that BMD has “never really done audio”. Buying Fairlight means BMD does not have to start from scratch with costly R&D into a field it previously had little experience of. It also gives the company a new offering for post-production customers, with the potential to fit alongside the DaVinci Resolve online editing and colour grading system.

Although Fairlight is established in the broadcast and post markets, it has not been able to break the grip of competitors such as Avid and Apple. “The challenge for Fairlight has been the manufacturing and distribution,” Hussey comments. “This means they have lacked the ability to take ideas forwards. We can bring the manufacturing and industrial design aspects, along with economies of scale, to make products on a larger basis.”

As part of the deal BMD has bought Fairlight’s intellectual property and will retain the name and staff, including chief technology officer Tino Fibaek. “Tino has 20 years of knowledge and experience,” Hussey says. “Things like that are the reason why we take the people and intellectual property. We tend to retain the heritage of companies we buy ­– it would be foolhardy to do away with the names, for example.”

At IBC “the ink was still wet” on the deals to buy both Fairlight and Ultimatte. “We’ve still to iron out what will happen or where we will focus,” Hussey says. “There are opportunities to integrate across the lines but we don’t know yet.”

There could be some clues in now BMD has developed the DaVinci Resolve range, which now incorporates video editing and compositing features as well as the core colour correction capability. It also offers 16-channels of audio and while Hussey acknowledged that Fairlight technology could be integrated into Resolve he said it was still too early to make firm statements about the future.

Pictures: Top: Philip Belcher of Fairlight. Last: Fairlight production console.