Software is the key in pro audio for d&b audiotechnik
Loudspeakers cannot exist in a bubble, and software will be the key says Frank Bothe. Paul Milligan speaks to the head of R&D at d&b audiotechnik to see what lies ahead for the German pro-audio manufacturer.
Little did Frank Bothe know a chance remark from a fellow physics student at college that a local audio company was hiring would lead to 25-year career at one company.
Now the head of R&D at d&b audiotechnik, Bothe has seen the company, located in Backnang, north of Stuttgart, grow from 20 employees in 1990 to nearly 300 people (with a further 70 based in ofﬁces around the world).
Bothe was hired in October 1990 when the two founders (Jurgen Daubert and Rolf Belz) were ﬁnding themselves increasingly tied up with production to maintain R&D.
Initially drawn to the company as he had a love of building his own loudspeakers, how does he maintain the same enthusiasm 25 years on? “With audio products its easy, because we all like music,” he answers. Key to keeping that passion throughout the business is to hire a mix of well trained engineers, software programmers and enough people who have had experience of sound ‘on the road’ who know how things work in practice adds Bothe.
Bothe started as a loudspeaker developer and took control of the R&D department in 1999, which at the time concentrated on loudspeakers and electronics. Now the R&D department, consisting of 37 full-time staff (including 15 software engineers), is split into four teams; electronics, acoustics, mechanics and software.
“The audio product is becoming more and more of an IT product, this is what we have to face. An audio product now has to interface with the whole facility infrastructure today, its not an isolated thing anymore, you have to connect to media controls, voice alarm systems etc. Internally our ampliﬁers have a huge bulk of software inside, it’s now a computer with a very high powered soundcard! I’m exaggerating but software makes a difference in the product.”
What inﬂuences technical developments at d&b? “It’s the market,” offers Bothe. To help keep an eye on the market d&b has segmented the applications it needs to research into groups (large scale touring, smaller rental systems, corporate rental, theatres and houses of worship), so they have a clear idea of what is required. It also has several long-term clients who invite d&b along to their internal tech conferences, it also discusses future product ideas with clients who come in for product training.
If you are expecting a product from d&b to come out of the blue, it’s likely you’ll be disappointed says Bothe. “We aren’t building ﬂat panel speakers or parabolic antenna speakers or whatever, we have built our products using established technology. I’d say our systems were pretty conventional, but we always made them functional and we add the detail to it that customers don’t expect i.e. a cardioid subwoofer driven by a single ampliﬁer channel. No one asked for that, but it has been a big help out there.”
Given Bothe’s insistence on the importance of software, its no surprise to ﬁnd out that is where the bulk of the R&D budget is being spent at d&b. “We are investing in a lot of software – array processing for example.
From a revenue perspective it’s funny because we are selling loudspeakers and electronics, but the biggest investment goes into software, which is free. But it’s the software that makes the systems valuable and makes the difference.”
Is d&b focusing on a particular technology or market right now? “We have grown in the last 10 years in the rental market. At the same time we need to build more dedicated products for installation applications. Years ago we used to have an installation version of a mobile product. This works in many applications where the acoustic design is the deciding factor, like a live music club, because the sound engineers know it from touring.
"But when you go into a conference centre it’s a completely different situation. No one cares about your brand or whether you are successful in live entertainment. They want certain features i.e. they don’t want to see handles and it has to make the architect happy. These are deciding factors, so you need different products.
To that end 2015 saw d&b launch its ﬁrst dedicated installation ampliﬁers (10D and 30D models).
Just why is the installation market so attractive to d&b? Diversiﬁcation says Bothe. “If you are diversiﬁed in more segments you are less affected by changes in the market. We have reached quite a signiﬁcant market share in mobile markets, so the growth potential is far larger in these markets. Many years ago (in ﬁxed install) all you needed to provide was speech intelligibility. Nowadays those customers want a high performance system with low end. This is when we get interested.”
What does Bothe think is the biggest challenge facing integrators right now? “The biggest change is that audio is no longer isolated, it is part of the infrastructure of the building and needs to use the audio and video backbone. And it needs to connect to other systems in the building and this is a chance for integrators to be good at that. Our task is to provide the interfaces for that.”