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Quantum leaps: Fairlight goes live

Phil Ward analyses the new regime at Fairlight as the company targets live events

Fairlight is one of those names that strike a chord. Several chords, actually, as 1980s pop testifies. But once the orchestral stabs of the groundbreaking CMI sampling keyboard (pictured) had tailed away, a new age demanded a new business and Fairlight’s digital audio roots germinated a fresh start in broadcast and post-production. In fact, the company has become somewhat a specialist in fresh starts, with successive generations of management navigating the brand from harbour to harbour through some choppy, and, dare we say it, of SHARC-infested waters.

The habit of renaissance persists. Last May, Fairlight consolidated a move into the live arena with the announcement that experienced ICT executive Philip Belcher had been appointed as CEO, following what was described as a “12-month recapitalisation, restructure and product development period”. According to Belcher, this has been a process that, once again, redefines Fairlight as a highly innovative pro-audio business.

“The recapitalisation period commenced with Fairlight becoming wholly owned by KFT Investments,” he says, “a private investment company which has enabled substantially greater focus for the business. Various initiatives were introduced including an organisation restructure, the appointment of a new CEO and the resultant adoption of a renewed strategy that has strong emphasis on quality of both products and customer focused processes.

“In the past 12 months we’ve launched a raft of new products including new live consoles in EVO.Live and QUANTUM.Live, a new version of our operating software and CC-2 – a brand new, second-generation audio engine that incorporates 1,000 playback channels, 100-plus output busses and 100 live inputs – and our 3D Audio Workspace platform.

The company is also about to expand its customer support offerings. These will enhance the provision of products that form part of the critical infrastructure for customers, many of whom are global industry organisations. In addition, we’re winning major industry awards, expanding our presence in new territories – in particular Asia and India – and we’re getting fantastic feedback from the market. Fairlight is definitely back to full strength and well positioned for a period of significant growth.”

As Belcher also points out, KFT Investments is a privately held company that does not divulge specific details about its business or the companies that it holds. It was founded by George Kepper, who had previously founded and built Datacraft, a highly successful Asia Pacific-wide data communications manufacturer and integrator which was listed on the Australian and Singapore Stock Exchanges. KFT has a broad range of investments with emphasis on companies that develop and market cutting-edge technologies to their respective industries: as well as pro audio, they include biotech, aviation, agriculture, hospitality, aged care, property development and venture capital.

At Fairlight, talk now is of the “next significant growth phase” although, Belcher (pictured right) insists, this is not necessarily cornered on the live sector. “While live audio and installation is definitely a key part of our strategy, we also see significant growth opportunities in the post arena,” he continues, “driven to some extent by initiatives for cloud-based collaboration platforms from Adobe, Quantel and Avid. Other significant post-related growth opportunities for Fairlight include the rapid increase in demand for channel and buss capacities, as well as the emerging 3D and object-orientated audio formats.

The live sound market, Belcher adds, is a significant opportunity because its technical requirements are at a level that cannot be fulfilled using a basic, off-the-shelf PC. “Live sound demands systems that are highly dependable, always available, and that have a very fast response,” he says. “We’re coming in to this arena with a very different attitude and a different background to a lot of the other companies in this field. Fairlight is entering the live market with a demonstrated background of success in audio production. Our approach is to provide more than a live desk: the offering is a dual-function console where you do your live production, record it and then afterwards do your post-production, all on the one machine.”

Tino Fibaek is Fairlight’s Danish-born chief technical officer, who acknowledges that the new generation of consoles is determinedly lateral while avoiding, at this stage, hard core touring.

“We are specifically targeting TV production, OB trucks, houses of worship and similar applications,” he says. “The range starts with the QUANTUM.Live with 12 faders – which is very compact and at a very affordable price point – and then moves through various other configurations to the largest EVO.Live console, with 60 faders [36-fader model pictured below]. It’s a wide range, but it’s all based on productions that are semi-stationary installations.

“We’re going for economies of scale because we’re leveraging technology that we have already developed and are selling into the post-production market. When we originally designed the system, our long-term vision was to move into the live production market as well. We get economies of scale by taking one development and ‘productizing’ it into two markets.”

Other bits of lateral thinking are beginning to emerge. OEM, control surface and licensing revenues are now being generated in an imaginative diversification quite new to pro audio. “Fairlight has developed a lot of IP over the years, IP that we’re productizing, manufacturing and marketing into the audio post and live audio markets as our primary business,” confirms Belcher. “A lot of the technologies we’ve developed are applicable to other industries that require fast, accurate control over a process or an event. Given that we’re a specialist provider to the audio production market, we do not have experience in these other markets so we partner with other manufacturers that license and leverage our technology. An example of this is an Australian gaming machine manufacturer that deploys our Picture Key technology into the gaming market. A large proportion of their product range is based heavily on this technology, and it has a positive impact on their revenues. Licensing our inventions to such companies provides additional profits that support our R&D – which, in turn, enables us to more effectively compete in the global audio production markets.”

Fairlight is ticking another modern business box, too: the placing of a strong business ‘CEO’-type figurehead at the helm as opposed to an inventor, engineer or someone similarly steeped in R&D. “As markets mature and the companies that are involved in them develop, the need for experienced management capability is essential,” says Belcher. “The professional audio industry is an example of an industry that was pioneered by inventors who were often engineers with a heavy emphasis on research and development. The complexity of the technologies required now to be competitive in this industry means that, more than ever, the highly skilled engineers must focus on inventing, innovating and developing technologies that are integrated into products to meet the ever evolving needs of the end customers.

“The experts must be freed from the burden of other essential business functions such as sales, marketing, customer support, finance, operations and human resource management at a corporate level. It’s this need to focus that leads to the need for not only a strong, business-orientated CEO, but also for other professional managers within the business to enable the experts to focus and create. As with all industries, it’s necessary for the CEO to have a background and demonstrated successful track record of leadership in a high technology field, preferably aligned with the business they are leading, to enable them to understand the customers and the market. That way they can steer the business to success in a highly competitive environment.”