Company profile: Martin Audio
Company profile: Martin Audio
Caroline Moss looks back over the 50 years since Martin Audio’s visionary founder brought the brand into existence, ushering in half a century of talent and dedication
Several notable British brands have shaped the international touring scene by the sheer passion and drive of their founders, but Martin Audio surely leads the way. The company’s history spans the early days of touring as it pioneered groundbreaking developments in entertainment and installation technology by way of rock & roll greatness, innovative product design, tragedy, endurance and reinvention. The latest chapter in Martin Audio’s history opened in 2019 with its acquisition by the Focusrite Group, joining stablemates Focusrite, Focusrite Pro, Novation, Ampify, ADAM Audio, new baby sibling, Optimal Audio and legendary synth brand, Sequential.
To understand what has made Martin Audio such a revered and enduring brand, you must go back to its debut in 1971 and the seemingly simple aim of Australian sound engineer Dave Martin: to enable bands to play to larger audiences and be properly heard. But back then, that wasn’t so easy to fulfil. Just six years earlier, in 1965, the Beatles had largely stopped playing live due to poor sound quality and inability for the music to be heard over the crowd noise. Horn-loaded two-way systems were beginning to make an appearance though, and American bands were touring with systems based around RCA Shearer horns and Altec Lansing components. Due to the prohibitive cost of shipping these back to the US, bands would often sell them off to UK rental companies. Enter Martin, who was working at one such company, IES. But the boxes were heavy, and he started work on something a little more transportable, coming up with the 215 bass horn prototype which was used with Vitavox horn flares and JBL 2482 compression drivers for the midrange and high frequencies.
In 1973 Pink Floyd used a large version of this system for an Earls Court concert, comprising ground-stacked speakers on the stage and four flown stacks to project to the back. This was one of the first major instances of what became the Martin Audio ethos: to get the best-quality sound to as much of the audience as possible. But the 215 was cumbersome and heavy, so the ever-enterprising Martin sawed it in half to develop the 115. Following a shootout at the Roundhouse in Camden, North London, systems based on the 115 bass horn were installed in all the Rank nightclub chain’s major venues around London and at the Roundhouse itself. Meanwhile, an early stage monitor consisting of the 15-inch JBL E140/JBL 2301 pepper pot or potato masher acoustic lens with JBL 2420 compression driver embodied Martin’s compact, high-power approach.
By 1975, Martin Audio had moved from its original premises in central London’s Covent Garden to Euston’s Stanhope Street, next door to fellow touring pioneer, mixing console manufacturer Midas. This association supplied many British tours throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s as together, the companies developed the Martin/ Midas dedicated system, comprising a four-way Martin Audio speaker system, Midas console with system crossovers and Midas power amp, flightcased and ready to go.
Next came a key product in the company’s history: the legendary “Philishave” MH212 midrange horn. Dave Martin had discovered that two-inch compression drivers couldn’t provide sufficient power, warmth and impact through the critical lower midrange region, and designed this dual 12-inch horn-loaded cabinet to solve the problem. This came to define the brand’s sound, running from 250Hz to 1.5kHz, with an HF2M high-frequency horn added for 1.5kHz upwards.
“It was the compression, the force and the impact of the sound, not just the loudness,” remembers Cooper Cannady of North Carolina’s RMB audio production house, a longterm Martin Audio client. “I’ve never heard vocals, a guitar or drums sound like that. At 150 feet you could feel the snare drum slap you in the face and feel it on your skin.”
The MH212’s first major tour was Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, deploying what went on to be a popular combination in the US: 48 dual 15-inch bass bins, 36 Philishaves and 48 Emilar horns and drivers. The system, together with Midas amps, BSS MCS200 crossovers, Klark Teknik DN27 graphic EQs and custom Midas consoles, was purchased by the band for the tour and subsequently bought by a conglomerate of technicians and roadies who formed Delicate Productions, a long-term associate of Martin Audio. And Dave Martin himself was presented with a gold disc for his services to the Supertramp tour.
Back in the UK, Keith Davis bought his first Martin Audio system for PASE hire in Yorkshire in 1979 before setting up Capital Entertainment which went on to become leading UK rental company, Capital Sound. By now, the brand was finding its way onto the riders of leading tours, and bass boxes including the B215 and the S Bin were also added to the lineup.
Notable clients and tours throughout the 1980s included French rental company Regiscene, the 1984 Glastonbury festival, The Who’s ML Executive rental company and Concert Sound, founded by Tim Boyle following the acquisition of an MkI modular system by Welsh band Man, which went on tour with Dire Straits in 1985. By now, most major tours, with acts from Abba to Yes, were using Martin systems. Custom work during this period also included drum fills for ELP’s Carl Palmer and The Who’s Keith Moon.
As systems started to be flown, Martin Audio trialled its F1 system, quickly superseded by the F2 which combined a one-box system with the modular approach of the array. The first major tour for F2 was with Capital Sound for Sade’s 1988 Stronger Than Pride tour with Roger Lindsay at FOH. Ironically, Lindsay hadn’t been a fan of Martin Audio until this point. “We went to a Sade rehearsal at Brixton Academy and Dave Martin was there with the F2 prototypes,” he recalls. “I remember joking at the time that Dave couldn’t have built it, because it sounded too good!” Good enough for Martin to be presented with another gold disc.
The fledgling Capital Sound also invested in a big F2 system for a Simple Minds tour, while, in 1994, EML Productions used an F2 rig at the Torhout-Werchter festival in Belgium: one of the biggest and loudest systems ever assembled on the planet. The following year, the F2 went on tour with Capital Sound for Take That.
By now, Martin Audio had moved its factory and offices out of London to High Wycombe. In 1990, Dave Martin sold the business to TGI (Tannoy Goodman Industries), with David Bissett-Powell as the new managing director and Martin himself remaining as engineering director in a part-time role, until his tragic and unsolved disappearance in 1992.
Bill Webb, whose first stint at Martin Audio had produced the smaller, portable CX system in the 1980s, rejoined the company as director of engineering, coming up with the successor to F2, the Wavefront series. He also ushered the company into the installation market – a core sector for the company ever since – with the EM series.
By 1996, Webb had come up with a complete touring system with rigging hardware, racks and DSP – the W8 series, featuring the popular W8C compact cabinet with accompanying W8CS subwoofer. This was followed by the Wavefront Theatre series and a three-way cinema system. In the same year, Martin Audio moved to much bigger premises at its current address in Halifax Road, High Wycombe.
The late 1990s saw Martin launch its Blackline series of multipurpose loudspeakers for mobile and installation applications. With some original models still going strong today, the series is now in its third iteration, and led to the AQ installation speakers which drew on the same technology.
By the end of the last millennium, Martin Audio had also begun to build a strong presence in APAC. This was largely down to MD David Bissett-Powell’s enthusiasm for China, and his foresight that the fledgling entertainment and nightlife market was poised for strong growth. The brand has enjoyed continuing success with long-term Chinese distributor, Sino Huifeng Audio Group, which has recently been joined by Guangzhou Guidance AV Technology to open up new vertical markets, largely at the initiative of pro audio veteran Dave McKinney and his Singapore-based Generation AV.
Back to the turn of the new millennium, and a seismic move was afoot as line array technology swept the industry. Martin Audio released its first system – the W8L – in 2002, with the system evolving into the W8 Longbow. Capital and RG Jones were two early UK adopters, the former taking the system out on tours with Kylie Minogue and Take That, and the latter using it at the Glastonbury festival for the first time in 2008, where it continued on the main Pyramid Stage until 2014 when it was replaced with MLA. Longbow went on to spawn other products such as the W8LC compact and W8LM mini.
Another milestone for Martin Audio was its association with London’s Ministry of Sound superclub, beginning in 2005 with the installation in two rooms of Blackline+ and W8 Longbow systems. Five years later The Box, a custom-designed, six-stack system, was installed at Ministry, and in 2016 CDD speakers were added as part of this room’s upgrade to a Dolby Atmos system.
In 2003, David Bissett-Powell staged a management buyout from the TC Group, which had inherited the business with its previous acquisition of the TGI Group. Then, in 2007, the company was sold to Loud Technologies, ushering in key staff changes as sales director Rob Lingfield left the company and was replaced by Simon Bull, while Bissett-Powell also left, and Anthony Taylor – who had been joint MD – took over the role.
Martin Audio celebrated four decades in business in 2011 with the launch of MLA, its three-way, all horn-loaded design, continuing and reinforcing Dave Martin’s ethos of delivering the best possible sonic experience to everyone in the audience. Designed by director of R&D Jason Baird and acoustic engineer Ambrose Thompson, this turned the usual design concept around, so the performers’ engineers could now define the audience coverage and make the system behave in the appropriate fashion rather than the other way around. This was accomplished by its three-way horn-loaded design, as well as the Display 2.3 goal-based software which is behind all of Martin Audio’s optimised systems, including the Hard Avoid feature to direct sound away from where it’s not required. A year later, MLA Compact was introduced, a smaller system used in its own right for medium-to-large venues, as well as being an augmentation for bigger systems and also suitable for install. The MLA Mini two-way box joined the lineup in 2014.
MLA contributed to grow in APAC territories, notably Japan, where a new regional hub was established in 2013 with Yusuke Karato, director of Martin Audio distributors Audiobrains, fronting the operation. Under the new structure, Martin Audio Japan would act as main distributor and Audiobrains would take on a dealership role. Almost immediately, one of the country’s leading PA companies, MSI Japan, purchased a large number of MLA systems for its inventory, an investment that paid off when the system was adopted for the Rock in Japan Festival. By the end of 2013, MSI was providing MLA systems for more than five Japanese tours at the same time. Meanwhile, in Oceania, Martin Audio’s long-serving partner Technical Audio Group (TAG) oversaw the first permanent installation of MLA at the Marquee nightclub in Sydney.
The CDD install range was introduced in 2015, becoming the most successful and flexible installation range for the brand to date, offering boxes from a 5-inch through to a 15-inch version, all using the same coaxial differential dispersion technology. Weatherised and marine versions have followed, as has the CDD Live, which integrates the drive unit in a tour-grade enclosure complete with electronics and Dante networking.
Another management buyout in 2018 led by MD Dom Harter and supported by private equity resulted in new investment, resulting in a spate of product releases. First up was BlacklineX, a total redesign and reengineering of Blackline, making it more affordable and accessible.
Then, just over a year later in December 2019, it was announced that Martin Audio had been acquired by Focusrite, with Dom Harter continuing as MD. “The acquisition of Martin Audio was a strong demonstration of our strategic aim to expand into new markets,” explains Focusrite Group CEO, Tim Carroll. “Martin Audio is also an established brand that instantly added value. More importantly though, they are culturally aligned and have a clear part to play in our unfolding narrative. The Martin Audio family shares our hunger to innovate and our passion as music and sound enthusiasts. That we’re just a stone’s throw away from them, physically, will only further help unite us in achieving our common goal.”
That common goal has been somewhat thwarted by the events that unfolded just a few months after the acquisition, certainly as far as live entertainment is concerned. Martin Audio is at the forefront of the #WeMakeEvents initiative aimed at highlighting the plight of the pandemic-ravaged live industry. At the same time, the company is well-placed to focus on other areas of sound reinforcement. “Martin Audio is absolutely committed to the live sound sector; it is our heritage,” says marketing director, James King. “Obviously, that part of the industry has been devastated during the pandemic and we have focused sales in the interim period on installation. Meanwhile, we’ve maintained close relationships with all of our rental partners, offering advice and support throughout the pandemic. We can’t wait for the return of live events and our roadmap of future product is already taking that into account. We have a positive outlook on the future given the world is slowly returning to some sort of normality.”
If Dave Martin could see the company he started half a century ago, and his passion and drive being shared by a team of talented, loyal staff, he’d consider that his initial, simple aim – to enable bands to play to larger audiences and be properly heard – well and truly accomplished. Summing up, Dom Harter says: “Martin Audio is a truly special company comprising energetic and passionate staff, innovative product and a wonderful customer base. I’m sure Dave would feel very proud and it’s a complete honour to continue his legacy.”