The big question that all people running small businesses have to ask themselves at some point is, “what is my exit strategy?” There is the realisation that they cannot go on running a company indefinitely as they get older and a decision has to be made regarding its future. Some are in the fortunate position of having children who are willing to take over; others do not have this option and so either have to sell the venture or shut it down.
The founders of interface, digital audio workstation (DAW) and tests and measurement (T&M) developer Prism Sound are now at the point where they have been considering this issue, one that was complicated by having several sides to the business, not all of which potential buyers might want to take on as a single entity. Which is why it was decided to split the operation in two, hiving off the music and post-production products to another company and maintaining the T&M side while at the same time pondering what to do when the time to retire finally came.
Under the new arrangement announced in May, Prism Sound’s T&M division has been relaunched and renamed as Spectral Measurement. Prism’s music and post-production operation, which includes the SADiE DAW and full selection of interfacing and conversion products, has been bought by US company Tracktion Software Corporation. This range is now marketed under the umbrella name of Audio Squadron, although the Prism brands will still be used as part of this new grouping.
Prism Sound and SADiE products are seen as complementing Tracktion’s hardware and virtual synthesisers, DAW app and A-D/D-A units and the product development experience of 2JW Design, all of which makes up Audio Squadron. James Woodburn, co-founder and chief executive of Tracktion, commented at the time of the deal that it gave “the best of both worlds for Tracktion, 2JW Design, Prism Sound and SADiE. Whilst we remain independent we can more easily work together to bring renewed focus to the delivery of the highest quality audio products.”
The co-founders of Prism Sound, managing director Graham Boswell and technical director Ian Dennis, retain a financial interest in Prism/SADiE, with Dennis also continuing to be involved in some product development. Boswell and Dennis first worked together at one of the most historically important names in British mixing consoles and processing units, Neve Electronics.
When the pair met in 1981, Rupert Neve, founder of the company, was looking increasingly at digital signal processing (DSP), which was still in its early days. Boswell and Dennis worked on digital audio technology and product development, although they were not involved in the project that ultimately produced the first digital recording and mastering console on the market, the Neve DSP.
“One of the first things I realised when I started working in this field was that all the converters and DSPs were rubbish,” comments Boswell. “But Ian and I could see DSP improving rapidly, with more RAM making them faster and the converter more intractable.”
In those pioneering days at Neve, Boswell and Dennis, along with their colleagues also involved in DSP development, had to build processors from the basic elements available in the computer industry because convenient, off-the-shelf chips did not exist.
After this grounding, Boswell and Dennis decided to go out on their own as digital audio consultants. In 1987 they set up Prism Sound to provide research and development support for not just the audio market but other sectors as well, including marine radar. Sound work included early hard disk recorders, digital loudspeaker controllers for PA systems and the DEQ2400 automated four-band parametric digital EQ, used as an outboard unit for the Neve DTC-1 digital transfer desk.
Prism moved into producing its own products in 1993. This was on the back of an FFT analyser with DSP capability that Ian Dennis originally designed for the BBC. Other early items included an AES interface card and a range of A-D and D-A converters that found favour in recording and re-mastering music for compact disc.
As product development and manufacture became the core of Prism Sound’s business, Boswell and Dennis realised they needed equipment that would ensure the components they were using and the devices they produced were performing to specification.
“So that’s how we started out with two sides to the company,” Boswell explains. “One led to the other because we saw it was necessary to have something to measure with.” A particular driver in this area was the emergence of the AES/EBU digital audio interface, which made it necessary to test the digital bearer signal to check that transmission quality was acceptable. To perform this task Prism Sound produced the DAW-1 AES/EBU interface analyser; another significant T&M launch was the dScope Series III audio analyser, which appeared in 2002.
Prism Sound made its first acquisition in 2008 when it bought the British DAW manufacturer SADiE. This brand started out in the early 1990s and established itself in radio production work, although it is also used for music recording. In addition to taking over the company, Prism Sound also relocated into SADiE’s building in Stretham, Cambridgeshire.
The close relationship – and interdependence – between the music, post production, converter and interface manufacturing side and the T&M side of Prism Sound always posed a problem for its owners when they pondered the idea of selling the company at some point. “We started to think about how many more years we would be doing this,” comments Boswell. “I’m going to be 62 this year and Ian and I have been thinking about retirement. But we saw that passing on a business with two disparate elements might be difficult because in the past people have been interested in either one or the other but not both.”
Boswell continues that because the two divisions “grew out of the same embryo”, it seemed a difficult proposition to separate them. “We’re attached to both but we knew we had to find a way ahead beyond our own retirement,” he says. “The two had to be separated to hand on the two parts of the business because it makes no sense for them to continue to be joined at the hip.”
The solution to this tricky problem came when Boswell and Dennis started talking to the team that now oversees Audio Squadron. “We found them an interesting bunch of people,” Boswell says. “Julian Storer [who developed the original Tracktion workstation] and the others are kindred spirits in a sense. Ian and I also have a vested interest in them being successful because we have financial interests in Audio Squadron and Ian is consulting to them as well as Spectral Measurement.”
Boswell views today as “still an exciting time” for the audio and music products market. “It’s a period of great change for the whole industry,” he says. “More people are making music and there are more devices to reproduce it on. There have also been a lot of changes in the software business, with piracy on the one hand and on the other the whole market getting used to the subscription model of using programmes instead of paying a flat fee for each release. But the type of products Prism Sound is producing are now being appreciated by a wider audience. My daughter is an actress and uses the Lyra USB audio interface as part of a set up to record voice pieces. The people she sends the results to comment on how well done they are, which shows they care about quality.”
As for T&M, Boswell says this sometimes overlooked but vital part of the audio chain follows the changes in the rest of the media product business. “We’re seeing a huge explosion in the number of devices that play music or sound,” he comments. “There are great challenges in the way things in the pro audio space are dealt with. It’s not about connecting boxes together as much as it used to be, although a lot of people are still using vintage equipment. But there are a lot of utility products around, such as Bluetooth loudspeakers and we are experiencing the rise of artificial intelligence and voice recognition. So there is a need to test the synthesis algorithms being used to capture voice accurately.”
The recently launched Spectral Measurement has introduced a new range of PC-based measurement systems, the dScopeM1 range. The company is also representing Hill Acoustics’ line of loudspeaker test enclosures, which have been designed to obviate the need for big, expensive anechoic chambers.
Boswell’s specialism will continue to be T&M, which he still finds a compelling area: “Testing can be quite a technically challenging business to be in. But we’ve got the expertise to take it forward
and it’s important for me to focus on that. Ultimately we want to see both sides [Spectral Measurement and Audio Squadron] develop their own specialist expertise in the market and the disciplines
themselves so they become independent of us.”