Audio-Technica: History of Live Sound
During the ’70s, the role of the musician in American culture had been elevated by the rapid growth in record sales, the increase in the concert business and the dramatic surge of album-oriented-rock (AOR) radio stations. All were buttressed by the increasingly popular music and fan magazines such as Rolling Stone and the growing number of underground, or alternative weekly newspapers that sprang up around the country. In short, musicianswere the new gods. But they were nothing without their human-engineered microphones to amplify their music, lyrics, antics, attitudes and instruments.
The Live Sound market looked like an ideal place for Audio-Technica to be. However, competitors already in the Live Sound space dominated the action. A-T took its first assured steps in 1978 to find its audience with the 800 Series mic line, a mixture of dynamic and condenser stand mics, with both omnidirectional and cardioid pickup patterns, plus two lavalier (clip-on) mics.
The 800 Series initially was offered to Audio-Technica’s original customer base, consumer electronics (hi-fi ) dealers. The 1/4-inch phone plugs on the cables were intended for use with tape recorders and other equipment. However, selected products in the original 800 Series line were soon reconfi gured as the Artist Series (ATM) and re-launched in 1979. Just as signifi cant as the Artist Series introduction was the development of a dedicated sales and marketing group aimed at professional mic distribution.
As the line rolled out, the Audio-Technica corporate headquarters in Japan could not have predicted the illustrious fate of the company’s entire mic division. After all, it was an ocean removed from the music industry boom, the Woodstocks of America and the subsequent new wave club scenes that changed rock music in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Enter “Uncle Charlie,” who would soon perform a sales miracle at a national trade show.
“We could see the music industry growing, and we saw a place where we could produce a quality mic for a better price with better margin opportunities,” remembers Bob Herrold, former Audio-Technica U.S. Product Manager for Microphones from the outset of the line launch. “Guys like Charlie Winkler – a.k.a. ‘Uncle Charlie’, the Marketing Manager for Music Products who, in 1978, joined to head up the new sales and marketing group – knew there was huge potential and went out and proved it.”
Winkler seized one of the company’s more capricious packaging moments when it issued basically the same ATM microphones but dressed them up in seven different colors with a durable aluminum carrying case and called it “The Microphone Wardrobe” (aka the MW-7). The Wardrobe got people’s attention. Uncle Charlie took it to the NAMM show in 1981 and impressed everybody in the company, both sides of the Pacific, by selling $140,000 worth of Wardrobe mics.
The following year, the PRO Series of mics hit the market, aimed again at aspiring musicians. The most famous in that line, said Ken Reichel, was the PRO 4L. “It sold thousands and thousands of mics and would show up in surveys as one of the most popular mics in music stores.” Offering users handheld and instrument mics, thePRO Series also found good penetration in the contracting market for several installed sound applications. Updated through the years, the series continues to perform well for working musicians who want a quality-sounding mic without the big cash outlay. But as the ’80s dawned, there was still no marquee Live Sound product.
ALWAYS LISTENING – FROM STUDIO TO STAGE AND BEYOND
In 1979-80, Audio-Technica’s current American headquarters were being built in Stow, Ohio. That finally rought most of the company’s divisions together under one roof, including engineering, some manufacturing, sales and marketing. “It was a much more relaxed and effi cient atmosphere to do business in,” Herrold said. “Our mic line started to pick up traction not long after that.”
The company continued to sell successfully its headphones and stereo cartridges while trying to crack the Live Sound space. To do so, it relied again on its established m.o. of always listening to the marketplace, trying to determine what musicians, in this case, wanted in a live microphone line. Reichel simply called it “keeping ourears unplugged.”
A significant marketing breakthrough came in 1983 for the Artist Series – along with a merchandising coup in the industry. The ATM63 became a favorite of the rock band Journey. The group loved it enough to do a product poster endorsement for dealers. These types of promotions, Reichel recalled, created loyalty among rock bands and dealers – “especially among the dealers, who thought it was a fresh and innovative marketing idea. They were very enthusiastic!”
According to Reichel, the ’80s began “a whole series of new product introductions and innovations that lasted through the ’90s.” The next measurable benchmark came in 1988, with the ATM73, a headworn microphone that was ideal for drummers, keyboard players or anyone requiring hands-free operation. It was followed by the 1000 Series a year later, the first Audio-Technica wireless system.
That same year, the company launched its first kick-drum mic, the ATM25, which became a favorite of rocker John Robinson who appeared in the “Power Tool” Audio-Technica ad for the unit. The 1000 Series wireless system hit at a propitious moment – during America’s aerobics and fitness craze. This system, along with the new PRO 8 dynamic headworn mic in 1991, became as big with aerobic instructors as spandex!
By 1990, Gloria Estefan had used and liked the ATW-1032 wireless mic so much she agreed to do an ad for it. Then she took a rack of ten 1000 Series wireless with her to tour Japan in ’91. The next year, Estefan wowed the crowd during the lively half-time show of the 1992 Super Bowl, singing into an ATM63. It was the same microphone that Harry Connick Jr. had used to sing the pre-game National Anthem. Now the company’s fortunes in Live Sound were rising, buoyed by more signifi cant endorsements from major recording artists – and the hiring of Joel Singer as the company’s Live Sound liaison in 1996 to pound the pavement and press the fl esh.
When Singer started, then Audio-Technica U.S. VP of Sales Buzz Goodwin took him aside and gave him the talk about the company’s personalized customer service direction that heavily defi ned Audio-Technica’s value proposition. Joel, who turned out to be one of the bona fide change agents for the Live Sound division in his five-plus years with the company, was all over it.
“Buzz was one of the key guys who taught me that our business was as much about the interpersonal relationships and taking care of people as it was about the equipment,” Singer fondly recalled. “The equipment was great because having gear that worked and that sounded good and so forth was important. But just as important was going out and treating these people the right way.” Of course, the company’s consistent evolution with its microphone technology helped.
The 1200 Series wireless system (debuting in 1993) quickly earned a rep for its outstanding audio quality and reliable True Diversity performance. Musicians and engineers alike noted that it consistently provided better sound quality and reduced the possibility of interference and dropouts. Jazz guitarist Jeff Golub touted the merits ofthe ATW-1235 in a guitar ad the same year as wireless systems became increasingly popular and more sophisticated.
In Nashville, Randy Travis liked the ATW-1237 handheld condenser enough to appear in a 1997 ad. Country and gospel superstar Amy Grant packed 80 Audio-Technica mics for her ’97 Christmas tour and delivered a pageantry of sound that made her seasonal concerts an even greater experience for fans. All this support from various corners of the industry was great, but something was still missing.
The Live Sound category didn’t really fully blossom until the innovations in wired and wireless that began in ’98 with the frequency-agile 7000 Series wireless system, a 100-channel UHF wireless product. Retired Senior VP Fred Nichols explained: “Until then, even though we were making inroads with our Live Sound product, we were ultimately held back in the Live Sound market by the lack of a leading wireless vocal mic at the end of the ’90s.”
By 2000, things had changed remarkably. The ATW-7373 wireless was introduced and included a handheld microphone/transmitter that featured the same condenser microphone element as the legendary AT4033. The product was an immediate success, combining excellent, flexible, reliable RF performance with top-shelf audio quality. Among other applications, it was used on major tours (Backstreet Boys), in international events (2000’s “Pavarotti and Friends”) and in important musical presentations (2001’s My Favorite Broadway: The Love Songs,a live-to-tape PBS “Great Performances” production with an all-star cast).
“It is essential to recognize how important the ATW-7373 was to wireless handheld performance standards at the time it was tested and introduced,” Reichel points out. “Other manufacturers had condenser heads on their wireless. But no one had a world-class element (like the AT4033) installed on their wireless. It truly was a grand performer!” It was also the seed for the aptly named and groundbreaking Artist Elite Series that would appear later in 2002.
Using the same studio-quality AT4033 and AT4050 elements, a simultaneous evolution in Audio-Technica’s wired mic line was happening around the same time as the ascent of its wireless line. And it grew largely out of the experience of working rock musicians in close alliance with A-T pros like Singer and others. Sometime in 1998, Brad Madix, sound engineer for Queensrÿche and others, tried the AT4050 live on the band’s guitar cabinets and was gobsmacked with the sound, quality and value. It wasn’t long before other engineers followed suit.
Metallica’s legendary FOH engineer Big Mick Hughes mounted 4050s in front of his band’s guitar cabs; the same move was made by Laurie Quigley for Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry’s sound. This unprecedented use for a studio mic prompted R&D to adapt the 4050 element to a handheld form factor, resulting in the delivery of the AT4054 and AT4055 vocal mics that readily served the needs of arena rockers and their peers in other genres looking for exquisite studio-quality sound for their live performances.
“These advances in Live Sound built on what we learned and produced for the Studio category,” Jackie Green noted. “It was Audio-Technica’s engineering philosophy: Build on what you know and adapt, using technology to solve problems our customers experience by giving them solutions that raise the bar in the industry. If we could make these new products even more affordable, all the better.”
This “studio-to-stage” evolution, powered by the company’s engineering prowess, culminated with the introduction of the Artist Elite line in 2002. The flagship AE5400 shared the same 4050 element as its worthy predecessors, the AT4054 and AT4055. A sibling handheld condenser, the AE3300, which utilized the element from the studio stalwart AT4033, was better suited for smaller venues. The same pattern followed in instrument mics such as the AE3000, a low-profi le side-address, large diaphragm condenser, and the large diaphragm end-fire AE5100. Because of their unique housing design, neither took up much valued space onstage, making them amusician’s best friend in a live setting. All the mics provided pristine studio quality sound for kick-out-the-jams live sound.
Later, after Singer recognized the need for a better kick-drum microphone, A-T engineering responded with an industry first: the dual-element AE2500. It was basically two mics housed in one casing unit that provided perfect phase alignment, with the dynamic element holding the aggressive attack of the beater while the condenser element captured the sound of the shell. It wasn’t long before glowing testimonials poured in.
“The AE2500 is one of the best mics that has ever come into this business,” noted Paul Owen, Metallica Monitor Engineer. “Considering so many people put condensers and dynamics together in a kick drum and never get it right, that is just an amazing bit of engineering. It’s just a perfect application for what we use it for… go straight in the middle, you never go out of phase, you never have a problem.”
“The AE2500 is possibly the best mic ever made,” exclaimed Front-of-House Engineer Laurie Quigley (Aerosmith, Mötley Crüe, Van Halen, Saliva and others). “It’s an incredible kick-drum mic! But I also usethem on guitar cabinets. The first time I used the AE2500, I shoved it in front of a guitar cabinet just to see what it would do, and I was frightened by the sound – it was that good.”
It was hard to know which was more exciting to see unfold – Audio-Technica’s wired evolution, or its wireless revolution. The latter was spectacular for its innovation and implementation. And it set a new industry standard for wireless live sound, based mostly on the Artist Elite 5000 Series that boasted dual-compander circuitry that processes high and low frequencies separately for unmatched audio quality, a trusted characteristic of the growing global brand. It also utilized the company’s proprietary built-in IntelliScan™ capability that automatically determined and set the best available frequencies on all linked receivers. Also equipped with Ethernet ports, the 5000 Series receiver allowed computer management and control (software included) literally from anywhere, from a front-of the-house rack in the same room, or clear across the country, making it truly a 21st century product.
In many ways such marked advances throughout the fi rst 30 years of the line served to cross-pollinate mic usages in multiple markets, which was not lost on past or current shakers and movers at Audio-Technica. They recognized that the ATW-7373 was, in retrospect, a precursor of the Artist Elite wireless line, just as the AT4054/4055 (1998) evolved from the AT4050 and presaged the Artist Elite wired line. Artist Elite was aimed at the highest-level professional applications. It represented a convergence between studio and live sound and an integration of wired and wireless product performance. This harmonious sound and market convergence grew largely from the company’s uncanny ability to consistently listen to end users’ needs and to deliver a customer experience that exceeded expectations.
Looking back, acts as colossal as the Rolling Stones have toured the world (1998 “Bridges to Babylon” tour), flush with Audio-Technica mics, as well as multitudes of up-and-comers whose names hardly anyone knew at the time. Today, the Audio-Technica appeal has snowballed through the minds and ears of music makers everywhere. From country giants like Kenny Chesney to gospel rockers Point of Grace and head bangers such as Metallica and Linkin Park, from seductively smooth crooners like Jon Secada to jazz guitarists like Larry Carlton, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you play: Audio-Technica mics are reliable, high-quality and a great value.
On many levels, the kind of rave reviews for the AE2500 from Quigley, Owen and many others represent the heartfelt reactions to the Audio-Technica mic experience in general. The company’s years of hard work and struggle ultimately resulted in ongoing victories and, in the end, triumph. “You’ve come to the forefront,” Owen noted recently. “People are copying what you do. You’ve become leaders.”