Audio Incorporated: Incorporating Audio in Many Mysterious Ways

July 1, 2011

 

Michael Sinclair and Stephen Tolve sit at a table surrounded by the trappings of their business. There’s a poster from the Singapore Opera, a massive performance, according to Tolve. There are a variety of theatrical posters from high school shows dating back a bit less than two decades. There are guitars, colorfully hanging off hooks. Then there are amplifiers, computers (a couple with huge monitors), and dozens, perhaps hundreds of books of blueprints. Someone blindfolded and set down in this room without context might wonder exactly what goes on here. And, in a way, that’s the point.

 

“We do a lot of different things here,” Sinclair says in a South London accent sanded fine by a few decades in the US. “We advertise ourselves as a sound system design, installation and rental company. On the design side, we get involved with the design consultants to specify the DSP components and some of the more complex audio parts of system designs for board rooms, conference rooms, that kind of stuff.” That part of the job explains the blueprints. Such audio considerations often come well after a company has used their space for a while. “We just did a law firm,” Sinclair says. “That was interesting. There’s three floors. The control room went into the first floor. The next floor had four rooms that went into a divide-and-combine kind of scenario. The next floor had three rooms in a divide-and-combine scenario. All in all, the thing came in at 200 microphone inputs, plus line level inputs out to 75 destinations. That’s one of our standard conference room scenarios. That’s the third one this year, and we have another two, this year, of that same size. “

 

The principals of Audio Incorporated pride themselves on doing jobs subcontracted from other, larger companies, often referred to by Tolve and Sinclair as “the big boys.” In many of the “big boys” budgets, Audio Incorporated is a line item. “On the install side, we take the sweepings off the table of the major installers,” Sinclair explains. “We do churches, some schools, some local theaters. That kind of stuff, the kind of thing the big boys don’t really want to get involved with. On the DSP side, and on the design side, we’re programming and commissioning systems that are being installed by all the biggest integrators in our neighborhood. So, every one of the big boys is a client of ours. The last thing in the world we want to do is bid against them on jobs where they’re going to use us anyway. It’s an interesting kind of niche that we’ve developed here. “ On the face of it, Tolve and Sinclair are an odd couple. Sinclair combines a great deal of charm with a roguish air, the guy you’d want to drink with at the pub, but would be advised not to wager when he asks you to play darts. Tolve comes across as someone who came up on the streets of Brooklyn, and it’s still thick in his voice. However, like married people and pets, these two business partners have come to resemble each other – both are heavy-set, grey or greying, with beefy, short sleeved arms that testify to a lifetime spent lifting heavy things. While these days that’s generally left to their younger employees, you can tell that they’ll pitch in to get the job done. “I worked with somebody that Mike did some freelance work with at the time,” Tolve explains. “I was looking to move on, because he was cycling down. He wasn’t understanding the business anymore and I thought, if I’m here ten years from now, what am I going to be doing?’” “So one night we had a few too many beers,” Sinclair continues. “I said, ‘Why do we have to work for people? We’re always getting disappointed doing this. Somebody else is making all the money. I have an opportunity for us to get started. Should we try?’” “We surprised everybody when we announced we were going to be business partners,” Tolve laughs. “They’re like, ‘What?! What!? Are you sure, Stephen?’ And I said, ‘No, but we’ll go for it.’ We beat the odds.” Having roots in the rental business, they knew how the cycle ran. One thing they didn’t want to do was face the down cycle during the winter months. “I said to him, ‘There’s no sense in us looking at each other over the winter months and wondering what we’re going to do to pay the rent. Why don’t you get on with the rental side, and I’ll see if I can build on the install side.’” Sinclair recalls. “We were the AV supplier for the local General Motors plant in Linden. The first two years, they were 75 per cent of our business.” The GM plant closed down, but Audio Incorporated remains. As we speak, Tolve and Sinclair’s employees are loading up a truck with audio equipment, the company’s original, and bread and butter gig. Last weekend the whole team was up in Saratoga, New York doing audio for the annual jazz festival. This weekend, they’re working yet another musical side of the street. “Tomorrow we’re going to have people from the New Jersey Opera singing on the beach in Point Pleasant,” says Tolve. “That’s a job we’ve done for many years. That’s going to be fun. You put a 30 piece or 40 piece symphony orchestra on a beach and then you’ve got to make it sound like something.

 

“The audience has a degree of sophistication,” he adds. “They recognize a good mix. Up in Saratoga, I’m on the small stage with a very small digital console, and I get people coming up to me all the time saying, ‘That sounds fantastic. I just heard that band opening down there, and now they’re closing up here. They sounded great down there, they sound great up here. Michael’s operating a quarter of a million dollars worth of audio equipment at the large stage. I’m operating $50,000 worth of audio equipment. The audience just walked away with a great experience from both of them.” “We specialize in festivals,” Sinclair interjects. “We’re very good at festivals. Not only do we enjoy doing it, but we’re good at getting acts on and off stage on time.” “Our on-time rate at festivals is about 96 percent,” Tolve agrees. “We know what has to be done to make it happen. So, we’ve been very accurate, very well prepped and ready to do with what we do.” Audio Incorporated also continues with its original business - rentals. While their Central New Jersey warehouse is relatively small, it’s full of the cream of audio gear for whatever level of audio is required. “We have a large Vertec rig,” Sinclair enumerates. “We have some DMV, AudioTechnics products as well as Digital consoles, DigiDesign, Avid, and Yamaha equipment. Of course we’re dealers for most of it. We buy it for installations, as well. We have a lot of stuff that people like.” Beyond that, Sinclair and Tolve know their equipment inside out. Part of this has to do with yet another facet of the business. Audio Incorporated has developed quite a reputation as trouble shooters of sound. They demonstrated this at the US Open. “The problem is, if you point the sound system at the audience, you’re blowing away the person in the front row, and the person in the back row can’t hear you,” as Sinclair describes the acoustic dilemma at Arthur Ashe Stadium, home to the Open. “There wasn’t enough distance between the sound system and the first row of people. I spent a few days over there doing some testing and measurements, and came up with this wacky idea. I turned the speaker around and placed it the other way, so all four speakers faced themselves and the audience is behind them, so you have four speakers taking care of a 90 degree quadrant.“ “We went to the manufacturers and we said, ‘We’re thinking about doing this,’” Tolve picks up the tale. “’Would you do us a favor and plot it for us? See what your high priced computers say.’ They said, ‘Oh, we’ll do it, but that’s crazy.’ Five days later, we get a phone call, ‘You know something? It doesn’t look bad on the computer at all!’” “It worked out very well, eliminated all the reflections in the building,” Sinclair adds. “And you don’t have the one guy in the back saying, ‘Can’t hear it!’ while the guy who spent a fortune on his ticket is lying in the front row with his ears bleeding,” Tolve concludes. This out-of-the box, contrarian thinking goes beyond just acoustical concerns. One of Audio Incorporated’s latest ventures goes against any kind of current conventional wisdom. As some of the best known recording studios, from Phil Ramone’s Hit Factory to Muscle Shoals Studios, they shut their doors for lack of business, Tolve and Sinclair decided to open one. “You have no idea how many calls we get on a regular basis, about rehearsing and recording here,” Sinclair says. “The idea is to make this a comfortable place where you can come in and mix and get something accurate. A large enough control room where we can get some bigger monitors in there.” As in the office, the vestibule on the way into their space is lined with framed posters from a wide variety of high school musicals. This well might be Audio Incorporated’s secret weapon.

 

“We do a lot of school plays, and there are a couple of reasons for that,” Sinclair says. “The major one is that my daughter and Stephen’s son have been into musical theater from a very early age. They’re both phenomenal at what they do. We rent out our studios here three nights a week for a theater group to do lessons. You can come here for dance, musical theater, voice, and acting lessons. It keeps people flowing through here, and it keeps us nearer to the kids who might be future clients. “Beyond that,” he adds, “technology in this business is changing so fast. Every single year we’re looking at the new digital technology. Our guys’ heads are spinning! ‘Which console am I using today? Do I have to have a computer control? How do I do this?’ The very last place you want to put one of your engineers is out in the house at Lincoln Center on a show night learning how to use a digital console. You can stand in the shop as long as you like with a console, you’re still not going to learn how to use it. Never! If you spend a week in a high school mixing a school play, even though it might not be lucrative financially, my engineer has learned that console upside down and inside out.” “We hired a guy who mixed at BB Kings in Manhattan,” Tolve chortles. “I put him out on a school play and his head was spinning. ‘That was the hardest thing I ever had to do!’ I said, ‘Yeah, it’s not just the band, is it? It’s the orchestra pit, it’s the 16 to 24 microphones, it’s hitting the cues…’” “My guys are fast, my guys are knowledgeable, and whenever they need to do a brush up, they go, “That school I did last year? Can I go there this year with this console, because I need to brush up on it.’ They pick the schools and the consoles they want to work on. And it works. “ With all this going on, there’s rarely a dull moment. In what Sinclair describes as “a strange time in the business,” at Audio Incorporated, business and life are good. “The business is 16 years old,” says Tolve, “and we’re still having fun at it.” 

Sourced from original publication in Mobile Production Monthly volume 4, issue 7 2011 here:

http://mobileproductionpro.com/publications/mpm_issues/mobile_production_monthly_v4_i7.pdf

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