From humble beginnings in the 1960s, Clair Brothers has grown into a giant of the pro audio industry, all thanks to family values.
When the biggest and best artists on the planet take their musical performances to the world, their first port of call is more often than not a small town approximately 60 miles outside of Philadelphia in the USA. Lititz, PA is a small town surrounded by fields, farms and grain silos where the biggest hindrance facing anyone getting from A to B seems to be the tractors and horse drawn vehicles driven by farmers and the local Amish community respectively. It’s hardly Madison Square Garden or Wembley Stadium and not the sort of destination you’d associate with big-name artists. Yet it is here that Clair Brothers set up its internationally renowned concert sound business in the 1960s.
Founders Roy and Gene Clair could hardly have envisaged the success that they would merit over the course of the following decades, but then again their rising stature has hardly been a fluke. The only drawback to this slick operation was what to do with the retiring roadies and crew members returning to Lititz to start families following years of living on the road sleeping on tour buses. The decision to remove casters and dollies from the rolling cabinets provides a clue.
Roy and Gene Clair began serving the audio touring industry in 1966 when they supplied a Bogen MX-60, with a few Shure microphones and two column speakers to the F&M College in Lancaster PA for a concert performance by Dionne Warwick. Two years on, Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons were so impressed with the A7 system that they were supplied with at the same venue that they asked the Clairs to accompany them on the road, which the brothers did for a fee of just $100 per concert including all expenses. The Brothers Clair hit the road and as the wheels rolled they accrued a lot of knowledge along the way. This led to them being asked to supply their equipment and expertise to Elvis Presley, Queen, Elton John, Peter Frampton and U2 in addition to some of the largest festivals in the world such as Live Aid, Live 8 and Rock & Rio. From very modest beginnings, Clair Brothers grew into a machine built to service the industry anywhere in the world offering products, design and installation of audio, video and lighting systems.
Being surrounded by the best in the industry and the challenges that these productions brought ensured that Clair Brothers had to adopt a pioneering attitude from the very beginning, refusing to accept second best. Clair’s employees have always been athletic and well educated in order to handle the marathons they undertake putting on a show night after night for many months. The demands on touring personnel are high with little sleep and a lot of physical exertion.
‘The show must go on’ may be an old adage, but for the touring technicians that accompanied Clair Brothers, the words resonated as equipment – unlike personnel – broke down and had to be fixed on the spot. As a result, the touring crews had no other option than to patch up and fix amplifiers, mics, consoles and loudspeakers whilst in transit. In doing so, they quickly discovered the design flaws of the equipment that was ultimately being tested to the rigours of the road and returned to Lititz armed with enhanced ideas for designing PA systems.
As the demands of the entertainers, their management and the production crews grew so did the systems that Clair Brothers offered. Roy Clair witnessed new system designs arising from the desire to put on better shows for the growing audiences. Today, systems consist of hundreds of speakers enclosed in purpose built boxes that are designed to be packed efficiently onto trucks taking up minimal space, whilst providing easy load-ins and load-outs and weighing a minimal amount. At the same time, every seat in a stadium demands great sound. Roy Clair’s philosophy to ‘get in, get it up and get out’ has never waned – but this is never achieved by comprising the quality of the audio. Get to the venue on time and get the system on the floor, then fly the system in time for sound check, before getting it loaded out and on the road for the next gig. Simple and short and to the point, but to actually get it all completed and executed takes expertise and military planning. This is where Clair Brothers has excelled for years.
Clair Brothers milestones along the way include the use of two-way loudspeakers in 1968 for a Cream concert at the Philadelphia Spectrum. Used with the new Crown DC300, a new standard had been set, although Roy and Gene preferred to go back to the drawing board and design further products that were to become firsts in the industry. A slanted speaker was designed specifically for Blood, Sweat & Tears, sitting in front of the artists to provide them with a monitor of what was being amplified for the audience. Sharing a low profile and high output, the stage monitor was born and would go on to become a staple of the touring circuits.
With growing audience numbers, the same artist was also the recipient of the newly designed four-way system to provide higher output. Incorporating two 18-inch low frequency drivers, four 10-inch mid frequency drivers, two 2-inch high frequency drivers and two ring radiators in addition to electronic crossovers, the S4 allowed Clair’s engineers to aim the higher output across a much larger area. Enclosed in one cabinet, the drivers were aligned thus allowing coupling between them making them a hit with artists such as Rod Stewart and Peter Frampton. The ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ tour used S4s and it was a continual tour which to date hadn't been done with such a large amount of PA and staging. The Clair Brothers S4 system provided coverage and output to fill stadiums all around the world and that tour is said by many to have been the beginning of the large rock tours that would follow. This system was eight S4s high by six wide on each side of the stage for a total of 960 drivers in 96 boxes.
Advancements followed including systems being flown instead of stacked which gave the designers more flexibility with staging and set pieces. Elvis Presley was one of the firsts to have a flown system and although it was nothing like the line arrays of today it was unique and it served a major purpose. The stage was for Elvis, not the PA, and it opened up the entire stage for his use. Unlike today where line arrays are flown one under another, Elvis’s original ‘in the round’ three-way system consisted of platforms with multiple boxes sitting on top of them, strapped down. DSP revolutionised system design and operation by drastically reducing the amount of hardware needed to meet the same demands and increasing flexibility at the same time. Clair Brothers was instrumental in the development of DSP, launching Lake Contour systems (now owned by Dolby) with the assistance of then touring sound engineer Bruce Jackson. With the assistance of Mr Jackson, Clair also devised another first in the shape of the world’s first console with three-band parametric EQ, which also had the ability to fold in two for easier storage and transportation.
During all of the touring activities it became apparent that there was a big need to develop a company that could cater to the installation market and in 1989 the Clair Brothers systems integration division was introduced. Roy’s son Barry is now the president of Clair Brothers having spent the majority of the 1980s on the road with Clair, particularly in Latin America. Road-weary by the end of that decade, Mr Clair was ready to settle down and start a family.
‘There were a few of us in the late 1980s who had spent a lot of time living on tour buses, but we were ready to settle down with our families and see our kids grow up,’ he recalls. Working closely with co-founder Gene Pelland, Barry Clair has developed a business that no longer stands in the shadows of the famous touring operation. ‘In the first couple of years, there were some theatre projects and a few home installs, but really we were open to working with anyone who was interested in an installed sound system,’ he confesses. ‘This gave us a chance to take things slowly, try a lot of different things and evaluate other aspects of the systems integration business.’
One of the most unique features that the company brings to any project is the ability to offer complete in-house design and manufacturing of customised products. This allows them to meet any project requirements with an optimally engineered solution whilst maintaining quality control and attention to detail. Its immediate access to the touring divisions’ products and technologies has also been an added bonus. Joined by systems designer Jim Devenney, the team opened a lot of doors such as live TV studios initially when it designed the 12AM stage monitor. ‘The 12AM opened a lot of doors for us in the early days,’ continues Barry Clair. ‘The TV studios loved them because they were small and fast to set up and the performers loved them for their sonic characteristics. I remember going to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and seeing about 40 12AMs being used in various places, having been there for several years already. All of them were working great, despite the fact that they’d been there for years.’
Clair Brothers evolved into a comprehensive design and installation company with expertise in the fields of audio, acoustics, video, lighting, system control, staging and rigging. In the US, it originally found a market via consultants who were familiar with the quality of the Clair brand servicing institutions, churches, theatres, and entertainment complexes. A typical turn-key installation follows a specific schedule, with the company appointing a dedicated team to assist and implement a project from concept to commissioning. ‘We’re an installation company with deep roots from a production-based company,’ explains VP of business development Fabien Bareille. ‘If there is an A/V and theatrical lighting company in the US that focuses on production based systems, we’re that company.’ From concept to final commissioning, the project teams determine the best elements for specific installations, followed by general specifications, budgeting, an accurate schedule, technical documentation in addition to testing and measurement.
In the 20 years that followed the company inception, Clair Brothers evolved as a separate business within the Lititz headquarters of the touring operation Clair Global, before establishing itself as a separate business unit in a purpose built 5,000 sq-m factory in nearby Manheim. Whilst Clair Global manufactures its own bespoke PA systems such as the i-5 line array specifically for its own touring needs, Clair Brothers produces PA systems for the fixed installation market in addition to certain touring sectors, which won’t compete with its sister company. ‘We cannot sell to anyone and need to maintain the integrity of the system,’ Barry Clair explains.
The company’s success in providing custom built systems led to it expanding beyond US shores. The company’s unique ‘design – build’ approach initially proved a big success in the cruise ships market in addition to some of the major US casinos and theme parks. ‘I worked with some of the people here on the road in the 1980s,’ Barry Clair states, pointing at one of his friends working on the Manheim production line. ‘When they wanted to settle down, we had the option of either giving them jobs or letting him take years of touring engineering experience away elsewhere. We didn’t want to lose that level of experience and regard everyone here as part of the family. If anyone knows how a speaker should sound and how it should be built, these are the men.’
The factory comes with its own CNC wood cutting machine, paint shop and a large assembly area, which is managed by Barry’s brother Wes. Extensive testing of incoming components is followed up with continual checks during manufacturing using Klippel measurement equipment. It’s very high quality, but nothing seems unique or out of the ordinary about the production facilities on the shop floor, unless you examine the products close up. Many are prototypes bound for destinations requiring one-off speaker solutions, such as the 15CX-C with its 36-inch horn and maple cone. ‘Between the client coming to us with a problem at a training facility in Wisconsin and delivery, this speaker took us 12 months,’ explains Mr Bareille. ‘It was built for a one-off application. However, once you can design a product such as the 15CX-C then you know there are other applications around the world that require such a system and you can reproduce the product as you have the expertise and the tooling. We are ultimately tested in the harshest environments, such as on cruise ships at sea where salt, weather extremes and humidity wreck cabinets.’
A team of five headed by Josh Sadd work full time in research and development and it is this thorough understanding of client needs that has led to the development of speaker systems such as the i208, FF2R, CAT-114, iS118 and IRIS-II. ‘Whilst working on the Velvet Revolver tour in 2007 I had to work with different PA systems each night,’ enlightens Mr Sadd. ‘It was a real education for me. Although all of these speakers had good attributes, none of them felt as comfortable or reliable as a Clair system. There was a level of unreliability using other systems that I didn’t feel comfortable with usually as they were over engineered and over designed. Coming to Clair Brothers as a musician when I was younger always gave me a thrill as it is like a custom electronics shop and it led to me wanting to learn more, which I did by taking on an electronics degree. Now I’m privileged to work alongside Roy, where we literally push each other to the limits in order to come up with the best possible solution. We always start building a speaker with a full musical spectrum in mind and reproduce according to that, before sourcing the best possible components and building without compromise. You don’t want to buy a Ferrari and find a Ford engine inside.’
Adorned by theatrical trussing lighting structures outside the building, Clair’s $4.9 million facility is a local symbol that showcases its skills. Yet only three years after opening its doors, it is now being doubled in size. ‘With the economic downturn, we decided to adopt caution initially, but we’ve simply outgrown the space and need a bigger demo area to showcase our products and a bigger production area to manufacture stock for our distributors,’ explains Barry Clair. ‘One of our goals with this building was to create a customer-friendly facility. As we went through the design process, we tried to keep in mind: “How would this look to a customer?”. We wanted to have something where we can show the customer this is how we do it.’
Arriving customers entering the front door into the lobby are greeted by stage curtains, stage lighting and speakers, creating a theatrical impression from the outset. Immediately down the hall, two large windows provide a peek into the communications room, containing racks of computer servers, networking equipment, audio technology and more, highlighting Clair Brothers’ rack-building capabilities and precise, neat cabling. The path down the hall is illuminated by various stage lights, whilst a conference room incorporating audio, video and lighting systems is controlled from an adjoining control room, which can be seen through two more windows. The largest demonstration area fills a corner of the building’s warehouse, shipping and receiving section, where line-array speakers are suspended from trusses, along with lighting and video equipment. ‘A customer can sit back and listen to what we’re proposing for their particular installation,’ furthers Mr Bareille.
Barry Clair is as passionate about the business today as he was when he was loading and unloading trucks in Sao Paolo. ‘My father Roy didn’t want this to be a me too company,’ he asserts. ‘He never wanted to get into this business to be the biggest. He always wanted to be the best. To achieve that you have to read more, do more and listen more. Designing a speaker cabinet for a price is very difficult and that is what all the other manufacturers have to achieve. You can shoot for a price point, but it’s not everything. We’d rather not sell to the masses and in doing so keep our few customers happy.’
Attracting talent to the cornfields of Pennsylvania is not a problem either. ‘I receive about four or five applications from Berklee students and such like each day – they’ve all heard of Clair.’ But for now, as a privately owned company, there is no need to expand beyond any realistic goals. ‘The world of contracting is very different from the road. Jim Devenney excelled in the end, but he’ll be the first to admit that it took him 20 years.’
With a third generation of Clairs on the verge of being indoctrinated into the family business, the history and legacy of this huge custom workshop in rural America is still in its infancy.