Student becomes master: Mark Loughman reflects on 15 years at BAE Audio22 June 2015
It’s not an uncommon scenario: student gets internship, finds he’s learning more on-the-job than in school, makes himself valuable enough to be hired full-time and he never looks back. It’s significantly less common for the student to end up owning the company.
Two months into his tenure as an audio student at the Los Angeles Recording Workshop, Mark Loughman – originally from Manchester, UK – followed a message board lead to an internship at Brent Averill Enterprises, a company which once repackaged vintage Neve console modules into rack-ready units before becoming the first operation to replicate the venerated Neve 1073 preamp/EQ. Realising the learning opportunity he’d discovered, he left the school. “I started on minimum wage and worked 40 hours a week,” Loughman recalls. “I was basically learning how to be a tech under the guidance of [design engineer] Avedis Kifedjian [now of Avedis Audio]. I did that for about seven or eight years.” From his perspective as a life-long guitarist, Loughman says he developed an interest in what went on inside the gear. “I learned all about signal flow, and the basic building blocks of analogue technology.”
While opining that “you never finished learning”, Loughman says he got to the point where he’d learned “the capabilities of what we were building, and realised that there was a lot more that we could be doing with certain circuits.” As Loughman prepared to start his own company in 2009, to be dubbed UK Sound, Brent Averill decided to retire and Loughman bought him out. The name BAE Audio is a nod to Brent Averill Enterprises and British Audio Engineering.
“At BAE Audio, we had a fantastic sounding preamplifier that was designed years ago and because it became abandoned technology, we were legally able to recreate the design and get creative in enhancing the circuit for today’s applications,” Loughman recalls. “For example, nobody was putting 20 and 24kHz on a product because they thought people couldn’t hear these frequencies. Of course, we can’t hear 24kHz, but we can hear the curve leading up to it. The first unit I did with Avedis was called the 1023 and was essentially a deluxe 1073 with extended frequencies.”
BAE is committed to building products to the highest possible standard, says Loughman, both in terms of parts and labour. “As a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s – the gear that was built back then is still around today and will be around long after we’ve gone – I wanted to adopt that philosophy as well.”
BAE is based in North Hollywood, California, with two assembly houses nearby. “We do all the construction and manufacturing at our assembly locations,” says Loughman, “and then we do the final testing in our location in North Hollywood.”
Tech support and customer service are taken very seriously. “We realise that if a piece of equipment ever goes down, we need to be available to address this appropriately,” Loughman elaborates. “Because our equipment is modular and not on a single circuit board, we can troubleshoot any issues quite easily.” Support is available to walk customers through diagnostics for owner servicing, for local onsite repair for nearby customers, or through fast turnaround of gear returned to the factory. “I am on the test bench and I am answering email,” says Loughman. “If someone wants to speak to me on the phone, I will make myself available.”
“We want to build gear that we would use in the studio ourselves,” says Loughman, when asked to further elaborate on BAE’s corporate philosophy. “When we design something, we don’t do it from a cost standpoint.” Loughman says that the best techniques are the vintage techniques: “We adhere to philosophies of old: hand-wiring and using all discrete components. We don’t cut corners here and always build things the best way they can be built. People can’t expect anything more than that.”
BAE has enjoyed an “organic and steady growth,” according to Loughman. “We’ve never spiked in any given year or had a severe trough – it’s always been constant. I believe this is how a business should be run. You want to grow it steadily so things like QC do not suffer and you maintain a good direction.” The company has a number of distributors in Europe, notably Funky Junk in the UK, Sonus for Croatia and its neighbouring provinces,Reflexion Arts in Spain and MS-MAX in Russia.
Only a modest number of new products have been introduced over the years of BAE’s existence. “We don’t want to diversify our product line too much,” explains Loughman. “Rather, we want to complement our existing product line. We are a small firm, and our resources limited to a degree, so we have to be pragmatic in our product planning and projections.” That said, within a few weeks, a 500 series 1073-type mic-pre is on the cards. “We have other things in the pipeline,” Loughman cautiously reveals, “but conception to the finished article can be a long and arduous journey.” At least three new products are expected to be ready by the October Audio Engineering Society Convention in New York.
Though the microphone preamp market is crowded, Loughman welcomes competition. “Any company worth its salt welcomes competition,” he opines. “If it’s a product that people want, they will choose the company that builds the best version. BAE Audio stands alone because we don’t compromise. There are many ways of building this circuit, and other companies trying to do similar things. But we are very transparent about how we do it through online videos and such, and I will put our gear up against anything.”
BAE welcomes, even encourages, user comparisons of vintage 1073s to BAE’s circuits. One major aspect of BAE’s fidelity to the original design is the transformers used. “There are a few companies that build a 1073,” Loughman elaborates, “but if you build it without Carnhill/St Ives transformers, it’s like building a luxury car and putting a lawnmower engine in it. In fact if you are looking to buy a 1073 from us, or anyone, you should enquire as to whether or not it has Carnhill/St Ives transformers. If it doesn’t, you should ask ‘why not?’”
“We are not salesmen here,” he adds. “If a customer is asking about something we don’t make, or a particular flavour, we refer them to another company who make such preamps.”
In conclusion, Loughman notes a milestone in BAE’s history: “Because this year is our 15-year anniversary of building the 1073, which is consecutively longer than any other company in history, we are looking at what else we can produce with this circuit. Watch this space!”