Excepting the Rolling Stones and, Lord preserve us, Ted Nugent, it’s hard to imagine that anything in rock and roll has lasted thirty five years. Yet here we are in Nashville rocking up outside the doors of Spectrum Sound and yup, they just turned thirty five years of age. Barely middle-aged by most other measures, Spectrum is in the world of Pro Audio, a grand old man. Company founder Ken Porter is the kind of guy you can imagine becoming President of the student body at high school; he is also a consummate salesman. In that sense he is not typical of the characters who have grown the audio industry in the US. Yes, he has established a reputation for Spectrum built on delivery of high quality audio, but when it comes to business there is nothing typical about Porter, or his company.
“I grew up in a musical family, my Mom was a church organist. She was back in church playing a week after I was born; she’s still playing today and she’s 84. At high school I did drama and worked on school productions, and some musicals. I became a music history major but soon became interested in recording; recitals, that sort of thing. I was advised to go the Belmont where the college specialized in the more technical side of music: the fact was I hated music history and to be honest there didn’t seem to be much future in it, whereas there was a career path in recording.”
He took the advice and has no regrets, “I’d just turned 24 when I left college. I’d begun studying for a Music degree, I thought I wanted to do recording work, but ended up studying Music Business. That meant along with learning all about stuff like copyright law, I did business finance; sales; and marketing.” Ask him today on the differences between Hedge Fund Managers, Venture Capitalist and Private Equity Investors and he will succinctly dissect the subtle differences.
“I didn’t know how I’d use the knowledge at the time, but I knew that it could be useful in the future. When I started at Belmont University I was already doing studio stuff and somehow that led to me being asked to do live sound on a little tour for some band or other. In fact, naming no names, the audio provider had already made such a mess of it that they lost the tour.” Readers will soon see that Porter has no truck with bad mouthing other operators, “better to keep your eyes on your own business than beef about other peoples,” he said. “But what I realized was how awful the equipment was on the rental side. By the time I married in ’78 I’d scraped together $2,400 and bought my first PA equipment. I got hold of some used Sun two by 15” bins, some SFW Horns, and QSE1400 amps. I designed and built my own 15” horn and monitor cabinet, and compared to what was around locally it did the job.”
Porter’s insight into live sound mixing at that time is instructive. “I played timpani in the high school orchestra, and timps tuned my ear. I have special sensitivity in those raspy high end frequencies, the sort of area where the machinery of the drum can rattle the intonation of the instrument. That has proved a useful asset in my career in sound reinforcement. It also taught me about the amount of application you have to invest to get a good sound, tuning those big drums makes you aware of how many variables are involved in the process of achieving good sound.”
So Spectrum started life in that buccaneering era, most of the nascent PA rental companies that grew up in the seventies were started by live sound believers like Porter; enthusiasts who thought they knew everything about sound and didn’t much care about the business side. Porter by contrast, was that rarest of commodities, a live sound aficionado, yet with a mind already educated for business.
“We all went through that ‘build your own system’ thing, but I had seen the changes coming and by 1982 I’d purchased my first independently manufactured system, the Turbosound TMS3.” While many a sound guy sacrificed a proper career for the seductive call of the road, Porter already has his eye on the bottom line. “You have to watch what is going to happen, not what is happening now. Those TMS3s led the way for the era we’re now in, where established manufacturers develop entirely marketable products. The other issue I soon recognized, was intelligibility. In the 80’s lots of people figured out how to make a show loud, but not many knew how to make it so you could discern all the instruments and hear the voices. That’s what led me to the Turbosound. Back in ’82 a lot of my competitors were still designing their own systems.”
“When that system became old I was already thinking about multi-zone arrays, we were doing huge stadium systems for The Promise Keepers and intelligibility throughout the stadium was essential to those events. To me that meant distributed systems was the way to go. So I looked to what EAW were doing with the 850 series. In particular they added the 853, a box with medium Q, and the 852, they made a lot of sense in assembling that zoned system approach. They also had a distinct sound which seemed to suit a lot of bands in that era. Later as we got to the nineties I switched to the KF860 virtual line array system and also started to invest in an L-Acoustics system.”
It was during Spectrum’s EAW era around 1997 that the company first came into contact with Eric Clapton and formed some trans-Atlantic relationships. Tim Boyle, now of Clair Global (UK) but at the time head of Concert Sound in the UK has fond memories. “I remember Ken was a lot of fun and we had some good times together. Of course that was so long ago now I can barely remember why we worked together. Yes it was for some Clapton shows, but whether it was EAW 850, or the 900 series I can’t recall. He supported us with equipment, I don’t think there were enough 900’s in the UK at the time. He came down to the Albert Hall with us a couple of times. I remember we went out to dinner with Pablo (Paul Boothroyd, McCartney’s FoH) and Robert (Collins. Clapton’s FoH).”
Porter too, is a little cloudy about that encounter, “Concert Sound had some deal with EAW at the time and when Clapton did a big UK tour in 2001 we shipped over some of our boxes to support them. Then when Clapton came to the US we provided all the racks and stacks. Robert Collins brought over the desks. They also brought over Adrian their system tech’ who had a tea fetish. I will never forget him, ‘use water that has been boiling violently for 2mins 35 secs. Tea must be golden, not dirty brown.’ And he was dead right. Put those guys together with Pablo and you’ve got an evening of amazing entertainment, one hell of a dynamic.” Thereafter Clair Brothers bought Concert Sound so the relationship came to a natural end.
Was it worth sending gear across the pond? “We do a surprising amount of support across the Atlantic, so yes. But situations change and you’d better respond appropriately. The Promise Keepers rather fell apart in ‘98. I had to retrench, focusing on small Christian acts that were starting to make their presence felt. It was then that Colin Beveridge who had sold me some Turbosound Subs maybe ten years earlier when Audio Analysts was part of the Turbosound network. He called me and said, “hey I’m representing d&b audiotechnik now, come and try these C4 systems on one of your one truck tours”. The voicing of the d&b system was a big improvement on anything I’d had previously. The system was also small and relatively light; it meant I could do a Christian tour and have all the PA on the dancefloor; that also saved on gas and trucking expenses. For bigger shows I was also using V-dosc by that time; so I leased out all my old EAW gear and as things evolved I invested in the d&b Q-Series as well.
That led me back across the Atlantic. We worked with Dick Hayes at Entec on those Teenage Cancer Trust shows that Roger Daltry of The Who put together.” While Porter remembers those shows fondly, Hayes it must be said has slightly mixed emotions. “Over the years I’ve met Ken many times,” Hayes began, “mostly at d&b audiotechnik in Germany during International Partners meetings at their HQ in Backnang. Our first meeting was a calamity, I was in hospital at the time, but we don’t need to dwell on that. More to the point, I always found Ken a very amiable chap, very knowledgeable, and great fun to be with. Like so many people I’ve met through being a d&b adherent, the relationships you make through common purpose are forged strong and lasting.”
These two examples indicate just how Porter formed deep bonds with people in the business, but he sees them through the lens of business practice. “You see those people who jump from company to company, but your trust in them holds good if they’d earned it. Now I’m at an age where I can look back and comment about things that were significant then. One thing is certainly true, over time you see a lot of road people begin to settle down and maybe start a family. With that comes the need for a steadier job than being on the road and they begin looking towards manufacturers. Yet many of them just can’t make the jump from touring to business, or many that do just end up running the shop. Colin Beveridge made the jump very successfully, moving from Audio Analysts from where he’d sold me my first TMS3s, to heading up the d&b US Office. Now years later we seem to have an inventory of most everything d&b makes.”
So why do so many ‘just end up running the shop’? “Something I learned in college is that with start-up businesses, if the originating entrepreneur is under 25 years of age when they start, they have a 90% higher chance than those over that age of lasting more than ten years. That’s why most tour guys can’t make the change. The defining difference when you’re young is that you will put in the hours to get the job done, and still find time to do the payroll and be able to step back and ask yourself on every pitch – what’s my margin here? Road guys might have been self-employed, but in reality most had become accustomed to getting that regular pay check from tour to tour; not a lot of business learning going on there.”
But those were the seductive days of yore, now the pioneering era is over Porter has quite different dilemmas to address. “Kids today often don’t want to do it. They say to me things like, ‘I want to mix the band but I don’t want to drive the truck.’ They don’t realize what a great job this is, but if you want it you’ve got to be willing to do it all.”
That’s a familiar refrain from many in the business; how does that perception inform Porter’s business model looking to the future? “There’s a funny thing happening in the US right now; all these new young engineers want to try analog consoles. That’s fine in its way, but they’ve grown up with digital desks. None of them has stayed up all night working on a grounding issue with an analog desk. They don’t know what a buzz is, or how to deal with it. But what’s important about that desire for analog is that we’re at a transition mode on consoles right now. Those guys are hungry for something new and digital has kind of plateaued. Back in the 90’s primarily we had PM4000, PM3500, Heritage 3000, and XL4. Waiting impatiently for digital to come we started with the DM2000's on small tours and when the PM1D arrived we jumped into the digital world followed by the 5D, M7, and the Profiles. In 2008 to the present we added Midas and Digico. We are a service business and there is an absolute preference on engineer mixing systems.
Porter’s former employee Rusty King, now Production and Facilities manager at Porter’s old College, Belmont, experienced that switch to digital in rather more robust terms. “Ken has always been like that, he’s a front runner. But some of the things he did over the years I didn’t agree with, like when he told me he was getting rid of all our analog consoles and replacing them with digital. ‘This is gonna suck’, I said as we prepared for our first festival. ‘All these guys are going to walk out front and say, Hey what’s this, where’s all the controls?’ We had to hand-hold many of them. But you know what; Ken was right. Because he’d taken the time to have us properly trained, when those guys walked out front we knew just how to make them feel confident and in control of their brave new digital world. Doing so meant we took many engineers across that line from A to D and they still love Spectrum for it.”
So with the quest for an affordable ‘do anything’ digital desk on the horizon, would Porter care to make any other predictions? “Business wise I look for people who are needing development, or have a problem of some sort. Then I can approach them and say ‘here’s what Spectrum can do for you.’ Jason Aldean is one of those acts that has grown from the bus and trailer touring level to the stadium/arena act he is today, and we’ve been with him since the beginning. I think our first show was after he’d made a name for himself in South Georgia where he’s from. He came here and we supplied some monitors for a local gig. Soon we were out with a bobtail and a little Q-Series system, and now here we are in stadiums. For me it’s still fun. The best thing is I don’t work as many hours as I used to. When I began I started work 09:30 till six or seven in the evening with maybe a nap in the afternoon. Then we’d go and do a gig in some little club that night. It’d be three in the morning by the time the gear was all back on the bob-tail, and I’d still be back in the shop for 09:30a.m. I don’t do that anymore.”
That said Porter is no shirker, anticipating yet another new wave in the marketplace for pro audio he is investing heavily in his company, not least a new purpose designed building and a significant amount of new equipment. “I’m looking at least five years ahead and see already that super-efficient management of your inventory will be one of the keys to success. I’m not saying what else I see coming, but anyone is welcome to come and see us in five years’ time.”