As Europe’s biggest and most highly developed manufacturer and exporter of professional audio products, Germany has witnessed a significant and very noticeable change in technology over the last five to ten years. A number of company representatives spoke to Colby Ramsey about these developments and the potential problems they pose.
The digital transition - driven by law in Germany - has brought with it both a number of challenges and benefits in the way of investment opportunities, while target groups for audio products continue to change and grow larger - almost anyone now can be a DJ, videographer, home producer or blogger, who may use microphones for reviews and podcasts for example.
The German market is now facing a situation where, “networks, digital protocols and communication tools such as Dante, CobraNet, and MediaMatrix to name a few, are becoming essential for any hardware and software environment to provide sound, video or IT signals,” as Bodo Falkenried, head of global business development at Adam Hall Group, explains.
It is apparent that this situation is a direct consequence of the merge of various pro technologies into the Pro Audio Visual Multimedia Markets (ProAVM), meaning that as a result, all kinds of participants in the market from installers and system integrators to broadcasters and retailers will be looking to upgrade their knowledge, skills and supplies in order to meet demand. The needs of all players in this fast-evolving market seem to be witnessing something of a seismic shift.
Wolfgang Guse, Sennheiser’s manager sales pro for the AV market, notes that – much like smartphones – the design and functionality of audio products has become an additional sales argument, whereas in the past everything was simply regarded and assumed as a working tool. He says, “They want to have a product, which is of course reliable, but they don’t spend too much time with the technology itself, so the product has to work as plug-and-play.”
When capturing performances for live recording, DIY recording – where almost anyone can record a live performance onto a laptop with only a MADI or network feed – is becoming more prevalent. Peter Brandt, whose company Peter Brandt Remote Recording makes up part of The Remote Recording Network, a global audio and video location recording service, explains: “The technology needed for a standard 48/96k live recording has been reduced to a minimum; this makes big recording trucks obsolete for that application.
“Despite that, our larger Remote Recording Network mobiles are still an important part of our live transmission business where instant mixes and perfect live sound are required for high-end output. We still handle live recordings, and mix and master tracks, but generally using analogue and digital equipment that is 96k and higher.”
According to specialist cable and connector technology manufacturer, Sommer Cable, A/D conversion has meant that cabling and connection management has changed significantly, causing digital recording and mixing consoles to become more and more affordable, while Guse notes that when we take a closer look at the digital dividend, there have been a lot of challenges associated with this changeover. As in many other European countries, old microphone frequencies are now used for LTE and mobile phones as a result.
“We had to help a lot of customers (B2B and B2C) find the best solution for them. The market was doubtful, but we invested a lot in sales, service and marketing-activities to reassure them and it worked very well,” comments Guse.
As part of the European Commission, the ProAVM business in Germany also continues to face ongoing competition from member countries, as European regulations and bureaucracy from Brussels thwart profit and growth margins, according to some. Falkenried says that since Germany is renowned for its export strength, manufacturers like the Adam Hall Group need to follow the special requirements in foreign markets, “whether they are showing technical and licensing aspects or customs and logistic handling.”
Despite the need to follow special European regulations, Guse maintains that whether it’s a product for a stage or an installation, German customers have their needs when it comes to technology, “so it’s important to have stress-free products, easy-to-use and redundant technology.”
Brandt describes this as a “global development”; smart controls grow increasingly important in processing and development while audio transfer over Dante, Ravenna and other networks gain more popularity.
Falkenried adds that the musical instrument retail business is also undergoing significant changes as online shops and platform trading affect the intelligibility and capability of supply chains: “Many dealers are suffering from competition and not everybody is able to provide efficiency as the markets requires,” he says.
“The ProAVM business is dependent on industrial and consumer behaviour, which includes the fields of leisure, events and entertainment technologies, as well as general construction (building technology). This is all based on investments and public budgets so if the economical situation is stable and promising like currently, one can assume ‘healthy conditions’, at least for a bit of time. We need to watch this ‘health’ closely, always being prepared to reassess our strategies and conducts.”
When it comes to consumer behaviour, Sennheiser is currently seeing a lot of customers asking about digital wireless and wired microphones, as well as digital solutions for installations. Guse believes that while digital is vital for the industry, analogue technology is still working very well and it is important to decide in each case what the best solution is for the customer. “From a design perspective, it is more and more important to develop a product in a very ‘smart’ way, especially for meeting solutions but also for stage and other applications,” he argues.
“The product has to fit into the environment and we invest in a lot of engineering to provide digital products, especially our Digital 9000 for Broadcast, D1 for musicians and Speechline Digital Wireless for speech and presentations.”
In the recording industry, demands continue to ebb and flow. Companies are looking at – on one hand – “budget productions with no focus on sonic quality, while on the other there are high-end recordings at 96k and upwards using valuable analogue front-end gear with a maximum focus on audio quality,” according to Brandt. “Fortunately there are still a lot of artists who know what they want and will get fair rates that keep us alive and let us reinvest in our high-end gear,” he says.
Rolling with the punches
Despite Germany’s key role and experience in the global markets, its long awaited return to the top of the global tech leader pile still seems just out of reach. All sectors appear dedicated to getting closer to this perpetual aim, and are looking towards staying resilient to international competition from the APAC area and the US. It is also worth noting that some believe Germany has been heavily hit by the challenging refugee crises in Europe and rapidly developing demands in the Middle-East, as Fakenried explains: “For a domestic and globally active group it is a real challenge to keep and improve our direct relationship to the clientele. This strategy is part of our ‘DNA’ apart from all R&D, product management and sales operation.”
He adds that Big Data will change the entire economy and the corporate structures in Germany and will not leave the ProAVM industry and retail business unconsidered.
“Most of all we have to make up for lost time to be competitive with the “Big Data” rulers of the world, while Germany still is bound in some kind of ‘old economy, old industry’, in which hardware and physical marketplaces seem to be more important than digital soft skills,” he says. “This digital provocation has already knocked on our doors and is one of the big challenges we are facing from now on, unfortunately unseen by many.”
On the rather more tangible live recording side, Brandt believes that the era of big audio trucks will eventually come to an end, and actually took the first step towards this five years ago by installing high-end recording equipment into a black London cab – a ‘RemoteTaxi’ – which has an impressive green factor and is said to be more cost-effective while maintaining a very high sonic quality.
“The next step will be genuine remote recording using RemoteTaxi or our RemoteTaxi flightpack on location whilst being remote-controlled from our studios at home,” he comments. “This will produce even better sonic quality, will be greener and cost-effective for the client.
“We will hit the road with this in summer 2016. We’re very aware that you have to regularly reinvent yourself, but the developments and improvements in the communications industry are definitely in our favour.”
With regards to the future of the industry, German market leaders will be looking to get fast, get digital, and build strong customer relationships, or risk losing their place in the market.
Guse notes that due to the constantly evolving nature of the professional audio industry, it is difficult to predict exactly where the market is heading: “The prosumer range will certainly grow and audio products will still have to be of a high quality and easy to use,” he says. “We will certainly have a lot to do with changes in the digital dividend in future.”
Sommer Cable insists that while the last few years have been successful for Germany, it is important to maintain good overseas relationships and comfortable levels of consumer confidence.
On the whole, the German pro-audio market looks bolstered and ready to deal with the impending challenges. Companies across all sectors of the industry will surely be keeping a close eye on demand in order to tailor the efficiency of their offering to meet the technological needs of international customers.
Brandt concludes that while all big players in the market will continue to feel these repercussions, the future will be bright – and so as long as they stay one step ahead of the curve, Germany’s return to the top as global technology leader may not be such a distant reality after all.