There must be something in the air. Interest in ‘vintage’ equipment shows no signs of waning, while even vinyl is making a spirited comeback across the thin ice of record sales. Yes, the baby boomers are still going strong, constantly reinventing their back pages as the technology dictates, but the groundswell of knowledge of old stuff among sub-30 guns for hire is frequently astonishing. The mics, processors and speakers that made the rock and roll catalogue are as revered as the music itself by people who are young enough to know better.
This is an important part – but only a part – of the audience that two-year-old start-up Formidable Audio is hoping to attract with its unique offering. Founders Brandon Knights and James Barden once had a mobile disco, and so enamoured were they with Turbosound’s rock-solid output that they invested early in the Partridge Green pantheon. Knights went on to become a respected FOH guy for several acts, and the inclusion in that list of Soul II Soul, The Gladiators and Lee Scratch Perry is significant. Here’s a man who commits to the division of frequencies with a passion called dub.
Barden became successful in the IT business, but never lost the faith. In fact, he’s now putting his money where the mouth of a Turbosound horn is. He and Knights (pictured with a wall of Turbo) have procured a very large inventory of Flashlight enclosures, collected from around the world, and have almost completed a wholesale modernisation of the entire collection: refurbishment, yes, but also an upgrading to match 21st-century standards.
The business plan is to make them available for hire, for real, for profit. It’s no museum, no novelty gimmick, no Flashlight in the pan. Having operated, and having subsequently sold, an inventory of TMS-2s, TMS-3s and Floodlights, Barden’s epiphany came not that long ago at a gig. He saw a favourite band again and, this time, they weren’t using a Turbosound rig. “I thought, 'Oh dear, it’s just not the same,'” he recounts. “If this is progress, who wants it? At that point I realised there was a genuine business proposition to amass enough Flashlight stock to do an arena and see if anyone would want to hire it. That’s where this journey started.”
What sets this enterprise apart from the self-fulfilling world of the collector is the pair’s accurate and visionary enrolment of what they call the ‘heritage team’: a group of Turbosound and Britannia Row alumni who were only too pleased to reprise their involvement with these boxes. Brit Row legend and founder of Crystal Pro Audio Pete Brotzman was first among these equals, says Barden. “He sourced 12 Flashlight tops and 12 bottoms, and helped us to track down much more stock from a company called Oceania in New Zealand. Talking to people who used to use Flashlight, I think we now have enough to do most of Wembley Arena or the O2 – although you’d need a few in-fills.”
Other Flashlight expertise has been provided by Danny Cooklin, a design engineer at Turbosound for 17 years; David Cole, also at Turbosound in the 1990s; and George McKechnie, a BSS Audio engineer behind the crossover and amplification designs created for Flashlight under the pioneering umbrella of Edge Technologies.
Another person who took the call from Barden and Knights has been just as positive. “Tony Andrews has helped enormously,” reveals Knights, “especially in the refurbishment of the 6.5" mid-range driver that, under his guidance, has been upgraded by Precision Devices. All the drivers went down to the Funktion One for his assessment.
“When we sanded the boxes down, we found the old Brit Row logo on many of them,” Knights adds. “It was the same with the BSS amp racks, all from the same era. The last two years has seen intense refurbishment: every nut and bolt has been painstakingly replaced with stainless steel, for example.”
The work has had to prepare the system to compete in today’s market, without sacrificing the essence of the sound quality. “Clearly technology has moved on,” continues Barden, “but mainly to become more convenient. It hasn’t necessarily improved sonically. We couldn’t offer something that was unreconstructed from 20 years ago, so our renovation goes all way through from the cosmetics to the drivers. However, it’s still the same acoustic construction of the cabinets and the same waveguides, so the sound is quite recognisable. It has that unique musical quality that’s missing in so many later systems.”
And they don’t even mind if you wheel out a digital console in front of it… “We have a great Midas Heritage 3000, and a Venice,” says Knights, “but, sure, if you use a digital desk you’ll hear that wonderful, open, clean and detailed sound of the Flashlight just as well. In fact, it’ll make the desk sound better…”