Allen amp Heath
British mixer manufacturer Allen & Heath is celebrating its 40th birthday, having carved out a long tradition of innovation that still continues today
Among the highlights of this year’s Plasa exhibition in London was a party held by Allen & Heath at one of London’s most exclusive venues – a building affectionately known as the Gherkin. A mighty glass tower, the building has become a landmark in the British capital, but few of the commuters and tourists who admire it from across the city have the opportunity to venture inside. For those lucky few, however, a remarkable discovery awaits at the pinnacle. While most of the Gherkin is taken up with plush offices, its two top floors are occupied by a restaurant, surrounded by glass, offering panoramic views undreamt of when many of the buildings below were constructed.
For Allen & Heath to have chosen such a location to host its after-show party is itself a declaration of how far the audio industry has come since it first came into being in the mid-20th century. But even by today’s high standards, the choice was impressive, and deliberately so – the industry’s night in the Gherkin was intended as a celebration of the mixer manufacturer’s 40th birthday, and it wanted to throw a party in style.
If the intention was to dazzle the assembled audio press with the remarkable views on offer, however, then Allen & Heath found the limelight instead filled by an unlikely candidate. For as speeches marking the anniversary were made, a very special visitor was handed the microphone, and wasted no time in stealing the show. The culprit in question was Neil Hauser, Allen & Heath’s first managing director, and the memories he shared of the past 40 years in audio made everyone in attendance forget about London completely, and instead listen in a hush as the story unfolded.
The history of Allen & Heath is, after all, the history of professional audio – a story replete with passionate, gifted young men who saw an opportunity to indulge their great love of sound and turn it into an industry. Because of this, the company has been at the forefront of professional mixer development from its creation in 1969, springing forth from the most unlikely of sources – a publishing company. Along the way it has claimed landmarks that have shaped contemporary technology.
Moreover, the same creative philosophy that sparked the emergence of Allen & Heath as an early audio pioneer still exists within the company today. It is arguably most obvious in the contagious enthusiasm of Glenn Rogers, the one-time Allen & Heath junior engineer who rose through the company’s ranks in just seven years to become its current managing director in 1990. Even sat in the middle of the Plasa exhibition, the morning after the party at the Gherkin, he is still visibly filled with excitement by the opportunity to explore the history of the company that he has helmed now for as long as Mr Hauser himself.
‘The original team was Andy Bereza and Steve Batiste, who was the son of the founder of Bastiste Publications,’ he explains. ‘That was how Neil Hauser got involved – they liked to dabble in mixers, so Neil was asked to look at the business and was basically given a room in North London. Then they started work on their first mixer, the MiniMixer. In its first incarnation – it went through a few versions before 1973 when it really took off – it was a little six-channel mixer for just under £100, which was a lot of money in those days. But
there was nothing else like it and it meant that everyone could aspire to have a mixer. They made it available as a kit as well; it appeared in magazines so you could build it yourself. When Neil realised that there was money to be made, they started to give it serious consideration.’
That meant a move to a more serious facility and the recruitment of a team that has come to be synonymous with the history of the brand, as Mr Rogers continues: ‘They took on more staff and eventually moved into Liverpool Road, which was the old Brunel factory. As the company moved through that phase it acquired some key industry people like Andrew Stirling and Ivor Taylor – a core of people who are still well respected in the audio industry today.’
In the years that followed the young brand found itself in steep competition with the early pioneers of audio, producing ideas and innovations at a staggering rate as the possibilities of the technology widened. ‘By then we’d done the MiniMixer and the MiniMixer MkII, which was an expandable system with features like the aux box and the monitor box,’ recalls the MD. ‘If you wanted more auxiliaries you could put on the aux box and so on. It was fantastically popular and it put us on the radar.’
Arguably the most famous Allen & Heath development of the time was the Mod1 quadraphonic mixer, a product that will forever be known for its association with one of the most influential rock bands of the era. As live psychedelic rock reached its zenith, the Mod1 was as intimately tied to the infamous live concerts of the Pink Floyd, as the electric guitar was to Jimi Hendrix.
Less well known is the technological jump that the manufacturer achieved immediately following the success of its most famed product to date. Whereas the original Mod1 was largely a hand-built, hand-wired product, the MkII version was, says Mr Rogers: ‘a real breakthrough, where the company invented the concept of putting the components such as parts and switches onto a PCB that hid behind a panel. So Allen & Heath became the first commercial-volume manufacturer of mixer modules.’
From that one simple yet industry-changing concept came another, equally groundbreaking idea: home recording. ‘Using PCBs enabled us to rework the Mod2 mixer, which we packaged with the Mini 8 and sold as the first project studio package – a 1-inch eight-track home studio recording system. We sold a lot of those. We’ve got a picture of Phil Collins with his, and there’s a sales sheet with all of the members of Genesis, each with their Mod3 and Mini 8. All of the key people who were influential in music at the time were mixing and recording on Allen & Heath. In those early days we were getting customers like Pink Floyd, The Who and others. It was, as it is now, a competitive industry. But back then it was even more creative because they were doing things for the very first time. Everything was from the ground up.’
Forming the modern Allen & Heath’s closest link to its foundations is design specification manager Carey Davies, a well-known figure within the audio industry in his own right, and the longest serving active member of A&H staff. The managing director points to Mr Davies as an example of how the company of today is informed and inspired by the pioneers of the past: ‘Carey Davies joined the company in 1978, and he is actually the only person left with us who worked in the old Brunel factory, working on Mod2 mixers,’ smiles Mr Rogers. ‘He’s our closest link to those days, and how we go back 31 years with the same style. That’s part of the ethos of the company – trying to build and develop from those days.’
Just as the early years of Allen & Heath closely mirrored what was taking place throughout the wider emerging audio industry, so the past two decades of change in the market have been reflected in the company’s development. An early indication of the evolution that was to come arrived at the tail-end of what many in the audio business consider the ‘golden age’ of product development, when the company’s existing facilities were deemed too limiting, and expansion was duly prepared for.
‘By the time we got to the early 1980s, we’d outgrown the facilities in London,’ explains Mr Rogers. ‘The company was looking to continue its growth and so it gambled on sending the manufacturing facilities all the way down to Cornwall, in Penryn. At the same time we established an office in Brighton, taking over a company called MBI, who were very big in the early 1980s in local radio, independent radio and international radio station construction. We used to design and build the radio desks that went into all of those studios under the MBI name. So R&D and sales plus the MBI turnkey operation was done from Brighton, while manufacturing was in Penryn. That time saw the success of the System 8, which was the next follow on from the Mod3 Mini 8 – we did the System 8 to tie up with the first eight-track quarter-inch.’
But if the achievements of the Allen & Heath R&D department had characterised the company’s story thus far, the years following this expansion were just as notable for the activity taking place in the boardroom. Eventually the entire operation shifted to Penryn, amid multiple shifts in ownership including a period as a Harman brand, management buyouts, and more recently a position within the D&M Holdings Group. Yet regardless of all of this, the focus on R&D never waned. Indeed, it intensified, moving swiftly to maintain the company’s position within a fast-maturing market.
‘As we got the end of the 1980s, the recording business was starting to be dominated by hard-disk recording. It was early days, but we could say that through the 1990s we were either going to have to be a software company or think of something else,’ explains the managing director. ‘So by the time we got into the early 1990s we’d switched over to live sound with the birth of the GL series.
‘That was again borne out of listening to what people were trying to do. The live sound touring market was beginning to evolve. You’d always had the top guys who were doing the big bands, but there was a growing middle-market that was surviving on second-hand kit or home-built speakers. That market was starting to get more business because entertainment was spreading. Talking to those guys, they couldn’t afford to buy a monitor desk and a FOH desk and have all the kit, but they wanted to serve the musicians as best they could.
‘We thought we could do something, but they were also telling us that they had a limited budget, so we came up with the front of house – monitor flip in a single mixer, with expandable modules. You could buy a 16-channel GL3, use it as either monitors or front of house, and then buy an eight-channel expander and add it on. As your business grew you could invest and keep the same thing going. That really changed our fortunes through the 1990s and helped us move from being perceived as a recording business to live sound. It kicked us off into the second phase.’
Later still, the company again demonstrated an admirable knack for identifying emerging markets when it reached out to the DJ community. ‘The same is true of the club line, Xone, which is on its 10th anniversary this year, along with our 40th. The same thing happened – our staff would go out to clubs and ask why it always sounded so awful. But when you looked at the equipment, there were no balanced XLR outputs, the power supplies weren’t pro audio...’
Nevertheless, the MD adds, an opportunity was there to be grasped. ‘Nightclubs were starting to spend lots of money on amps and speakers but then put this cheap little mixer in there that just didn’t do justice to the system. We thought we could do something, and came up with ClubWiz – we took a Wizard and put a little DJ stereo section in. It went on show at Frankfurt as a concept and a load of German DJs kept coming up and making suggestions for how to improve it. We came back at Plasa six months later to launch the Xone series.’
Mr Rogers describes this process as harking back to the company’s earliest traditions: ‘It’s the same philosophy – listening to what’s going on and trying to match that to a product and a technology.’ However, much of the strength of the A&H brand over the years can be attributed to the dedication with which its technical staff address those issues. Being able to spot a problem is no benefit unless you posses the expertise to work out how to solve it. According to Mr Rogers, that early enthusiasm for audio that saw the young manufacturer reach so many milestones so quickly remains absolutely intact in the company as it stands in 2009.
‘From those early days the business was heavily influenced by the engineers, with the skills to embody what a user was trying to do and then put it into something that could be commercially sold. That is still a key philosophy that we have today. If you at our Plasa stand today, most of the staff demonstrating the products are from R&D or from the technical side of the company. We don’t have a team of suited sales people trying to tell you that you must have this and here’s the price, we’re trying to talk about needs of the user and what the technology can do for them.’
Providing perhaps the ultimate proof of this ideology is the presence of Mr Rogers himself. Throughout the takeovers and buyouts, the managing director has proved himself to be a gifted businessman, but that doesn’t detract from his primary passion for engineering and audio technology. Standing at the steering wheel of Allen & Heath is a man just as capable of wiring a console as managing a balance sheet.
‘That’s why I believe that this is the right way,’ he enthuses. ‘That link to what someone is trying to do is the best thing that we can have as feedback to formulate where we’re going to go. That runs through the business. It’s why we’ve been able to adapt.’
Nor has the evolution of Allen & Heath finished yet. In recent years the brand has erupted into digital mixing with the iLive series of consoles, while it has returned to familiar territory in the shape of the Zed Series recording consoles. Even the broadcast sector is back in the company’s sights with the XB-14 small-format console.
‘For us the focus in the medium-term is still digital, and by spreading into broadcast we’re dipping our toes into a market that I think we’ve been in every decade with a product, but never seen as core business,’ says the MD. ‘By connecting with those people again with the XB-14 we’re building up that contact base to do market research. We saw the opportunity in the longer-term for digital because things are combining, but if you don’t know what the needs are then you can’t deliver on them. But it doesn’t mean that it’s the end of analogue from our perspective. We see analogue still continuing for quite a while. It will become more of a niche product, but there will always be opportunities. There’s a place in this industry for everything, and that’s why it’s so much fun.’
Fun and also sometimes inspiring, much like looking out over London from the top of the Gherkin, as the party around you serves as a reminder of how much Allen & Heath’s world has changed, and the ways in which it still remains the same.