European Audio Console Suppliers Make Headway in U.S.

Updated version of an article published February 24, 2011

The console technology in U.S. remote-broadcast trucks supporting the sports-broadcast industry has been relatively static for much of the past decade, with Calrec dominating a market sector that relies heavily on freelance engineers whose network employers prefer that they have a familiar work surface waiting for them no matter where the show is. But, thanks to some fundamental attributes of digital consoles and the increasing migration towards networked audio systems, other manufacturers are targeting that lucrative and growing market.

UK-based console manufacturer DiGiCo is rumored to have a new console to introduce at NAB and to have demoed it for key network mixers. The strategy, according to Chris Fichera, VP of audio for Group One, DiGiCo’s U.S. distributor, is to enter the market via the huge number of existing SD trucks scheduled to undergo upgrades to HD video, offering a console in the under-$100,000 range that he says is scaled to the cost of HD video upgrades to SD trucks.

“There’s a huge market out there for regional sports that the networks want to do in 5.1 surround,” he points out, “so they need a console that can do that reliably and affordably.”

Fichera adds that there is also a substantial market for 5.1-capable vehicles for submix applications. That’s how ESPN used DiGiCo’s SD8 console on the snowmobile ramps at the Winter X Games in January, the first time ESPN used the console and part of a familiarization strategy to get the desks and the brand in front of sports mixers and networks.

European Broadcast Culture
Germany’s Lawo has a significant footprint in the European broadcast market. VP of Sales and Marketing Michael Mueller says the culture of broadcast there, much of it state owned, tends to use employees rather than freelancers, tends to keep them associated with certain trucks, and has a corporate cultural bias in that multinational region against letting any one manufacturer become too dominant in a particular market sector.

But the U.S. broadcast sports market remains a tough nut to crack. Mueller cites increased entertainment-truck sales — it recently installed a console on an MTV remote mix truck — and more overseas encounters with U.S. sports networks, such as ESPN’s deploying its MC56 desks at the World Cup and MC66 console for submixes at Summer X Games, as their primary strategy.

“It’s all about setting up relationships,” he says, “and that takes time.”

Submixing Applications
Stagetec, another German firm, had a console on the CP Communications audio trailer for submixing duties at the NBA All-Star Game this year (a Crescendo) and last (an Aurus). Stagetec USA President Russell Waite says such entry points and trying to familiarize influential A1s on an individual basis are the tactics his company is using to snare a part of the main remote-mixer market here. Another is to get its routers on more remote vehicles as a way to extend the brand into the truck.

“Getting into this market in the U.S. has been a challenge,” Waite says. “We understand the need for freelancers to be familiar with every piece of equipment they work with.”

However, he also senses an opportunity with the arrival of Calrec’s new Apollo console, which he suggests might be significantly different enough from the previous generation of Calrec decks, like the Alpha, to present the industry with essentially a new console. “And if they’ll look at one new console,” he says, “I think they’ll be willing to look at others.”

Calrec Counterstrategy
Meanwhile, Calrec is not unaware that its market hegemony is under attack.

“We’re aware that everyone wants a bit of our business,” says Regional Director of Sales Dave Letson. He asserts that Calrec’s dominance as a console brand in sports trucks is due to its roadworthiness and design elements, such as the use of smaller faders to offer mixers more actual (as opposed to virtual, layered) faders and channels. The company has also just started implementing dual-fader channel strips — the first was on an Apollo console aboard a Lyon Video truck — that effectively doubles the number of faders in the same space.

Many mixers are wary of the layered-work-surface approach, which many digital-console manufacturers, including Calrec, take to one extent or another because they’re more confident using a hardware-based approach. Thus, getting as many hardware faders into as small a footprint as possible remains a key design strategy.

But Letson acknowledges that heavy reliance on freelance A1s in the U.S. is a major reason Calrec has dominated for so long. “Though we’d rather think that it’s a signal of our success rather than the reason for it,” he says.

Phil Adler, who mixes for CBS Sports, says it’ll be a challenge for competitors to unseat Calrec.

“As recently as five years ago, there were several digital desks installed in a variety of trucks. As an operator, you might see a Yamaha one day, a Calrec another day, then a Euphonix or an SSL you hadn’t seen in 18 months,” he points out. “That was very stressful, and, sometimes, the truck vendors had to keep an engineer on hand just to help the mixer. I, for one, don’t want to go through that again.”

That said, Adler notes that there are opportunities for new desks to enter the market as submix consoles and other applications and possibly even as primary mixers in the future, as long as they conform to this market’s particular needs.

“To be successful, new companies need to understand the live-remote market in the U.S. We do things differently here,” he says. “They need to listen to us and design products the way we work. They’d need to make an effort to train the freelance user base, too, and that’s almost as hard as selling the product. Maybe harder, since we’re so spread out. And situations are different in studios and with facilities that use a staff or a small user base. They can be trained on whatever platform the engineering department deems suitable.”

Calrec’s unique market position in the U.S. sports-remote market stems from a combination of market-oriented design and serendipity. Others are hoping that their own technical prowess and favorable circumstances, such as the expansion of the larger broadcast-sports market to academic and other levels, plus the disruption that comes with the conversion to digital, can make that market a more diverse one in the future.