Manufacturers serve a craft industry

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that all products are either software running on commodity platforms or hardware made in China. In recent visits, I was reminded that there is still a vibrant broadcast manufacturing sector.

Two companies I visited, Calrec and Genelec, are good examples of how you cannot do everything with a software application on a PC. To mix audio, you need a control surface, not a mouse. Even touchscreens do not provide the answer. The tactile feel of a button or fader delivers a precision not currently possible with the rather imprecise operation of touchscreens. And to monitor the mix, you need a high-quality loudspeaker.

Over the years, I have worked for a number of manufacturers in this sector, but the production techniques have changed very much with the introduction of factory automation, which saves labor costs and produces a more predictable product quality. It has been interesting for me to see how equipment is manufactured today, and very different it is from only a decade ago. For manufacturers, there are two ways to keep up. One is to invest in factory automation. The other is to subcontract. Both companies I visited have invested in their own production lines and through this route keep a tight rein on product quality.

The two companies are both in somewhat out of the way locations. Calrec sits in an upland region of the UK, nestling in a steep-sided valley reached by narrow winding roads from the main highway. In contrast, Genelec lies in a flat landscape, amongst the lakes and woods of central Finland. Both are major employers in their respective locales.

Calrec operates from an old cotton mill that dates back to 1797. Over the years, it has been expanded in size to the large building of today. The mill is a demonstration of the history of the industrial revolution. It was originally powered by a water mill, later converting to steam to power the rope- and belt-driven machines. The final stage of evolution was the conversion to electric power. This was first generated in the mill, and then later drawn from the electricity grid. After a period of lying derelict, Calrec moved into the refurbished mill to manufacture electronic goods, and has delivered the old mill very much into the 21st century.

That is not to say either product line excludes PCs. Sound desks need computers to manage control memories, and loudspeakers use computers for response alignment to match the listening room. But for audio processing, the DSP and FPGA reign supreme rather than the CPU and GPU of commodity platforms.

Television production is a craft industry where art meets engineering. The crafts may be marshaled in a content factory, but the cameramen, sound recordists, editors, sound mixers and technical directors all need specialist tools that global conglomerates just cannot supply. It is the niche manufacturers in the broadcast sector that meet the needs of the rapid-turnaround workflows the industry demands. If you compare professional tools with the mass-market products for the enthusiastic amateur, much of the difference lies in performance — raw processing power — and usability. You can save money with the amateur products, but the task will inevitably take longer.

For these reasons, I welcome the manufacturing sector that serves the broadcast market — the hundreds of companies that lay out their wares at NAB every year. Without them, the creative side of the business would inevitably suffer from reduced productivity.

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