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.”

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