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Apex predator: Apex Acoustics at 30

Scotland’s premiere Meyer Sound and DiGiCo dealer enters its third decade of trading this year. Does life begin at 30 for Apex Acoustics? Jon Chapple asks long-serving MD Paul Smith

From its humble beginnings in Dundee’s am dram scene to becoming exclusive DiGiCo and Meyer Sound dealer for Scotland, a lot has changed at hire/sales company Apex Acoustics Sound Services in the last 30 years… and owner and managing director Paul Smith has been there (nearly) every step of the way.

“Our background was, and largely still is, theatre,” explains Smith (pictured, right, with pro-YouTuber Jon Cozart), who bought the business from its founder, then-local radio presenter Graeme Adamson, in 1994. According to Smith, Meyer Sound’s speakers first appeared on his radar following the UPA-1’s success in London’s West End (most famously with Andrew Bruce’s sound design for Cats): “We always paid attention to sound design in the West End and on Broadway, so in 1989 we purchased our first pair of Meyer Sound UPA-1Cs and never really looked back. Our UPA-1Ps are still our most popular box out there.

“We became the sole Scottish dealer for Meyer in 2004 and have supplied systems to Perth Concert Hall, Carnegie Hall in Dunfermline, Strathpeffer Pavilion and Strathallan School, to name but a few…” (Pictured below is one of Apex’s DiGiCo desks at King’s Theatre, Edinburgh.)

Apex’s relationship with DiGiCo is more recent: Smith was introduced to the console brand through Autograph Sales at a demo day in London late 2005. “I met Tim Shaxson from DiGiCo,” he recalls, “and was really taken by the D1 Live console. I asked to be shown around the factory, which is located in Glenrothes in Scotland, a short 25-minute drive from our base in Dundee. I then met [DiGiCo managing director] James Gordon, and there was no way I could get out of that lunch without buying a console – he’s very good!”

“Since becoming a dealer I have sold consoles to many venues and rental companies throughout Scotland,” he continues. “The SD range of consoles are fantastic and very intuitive, and engineers like them. We currently have the SD7, SD8, SD9, SD10 and SD11 in hire stock and they are always out working. Exciting times are ahead as we await the arrival of DiGiCo’s latest console, the S21, which is a real game-changer of a console and already has generated a lot of interest.”

When PSNEurope spoke to Smith in August he was also preparing to invest in Meyer Sound’s new LEOPARD linear sound-reinforcement system – launched, like the S21, to great acclaim at Prolight + Sound 2015 – bringing Apex’s stock of both manufacturers’ equipment bang up to date. (It is also a dealer for Sennheiser and Shure, “and can get access to most pro-audio products”.)

Apex Acoustics was, as Smith says, born on the stage, but recent years have seen it expand its reach into festival sound (Southern Fried Festival, BBC Scotland’s Scottish Proms [pictured below]) and sporting events (Commonwealth Games, European Games – more on the latter later). Training, too: Apex’s longstanding partnership with Meyer Sound means it has welcomed seasoned American FOH engineer Buford Jones (Pink Floyd, George Harrison, The Kinks, James Taylor) – Meyer’s tour liaison manager – to Dundee for mixing workshops, and Smith and his team regularly host kit-focussed training days with Meyer Sound and DiGiCo.

However, while he recognises the importance of those training days, Smith believes that “nothing beats getting out and working on a job. A local college teaches engineers to set up a system – but gives them a whole day to get it ready for a gig. In the real world it’s much quicker. I spend half my time getting engineers up to a speed where they work efficiently and safely but can get systems set up quickly.”

Sluggish students aside, his main worry as a business owner – one that will be familiar to audio company chiefs and middle-class housewives everywhere – is the need to keep up the Joneses when it comes to hire and sales stock. “As a relatively small company, our biggest concern is the amount of audio equipment introduced into the market each year,” Smith explains. “Productions always want the latest shiny kit and therefore rental companies need to keep buying it to win contracts. You always feel like when one finance deal ends another one starts.”

Still, if anyone can weather contemporary pro audio’s addiction to conspicuous consumption, it’s Smith – as Apex Acoustics celebrates 30 years in business, its owner is also marking his own anniversary: 2015 is his 25th year at the company (and 21st in charge). What’s kept him in one place for a quarter of a century? “As kid, I used to be on stage,” he explains. “I was never very comfortable with it, but it seemed like a laugh at the time. I noticed the guy mixing sound at the back of the theatre and I thought, ‘That looks more fun!’ So from the age of 13 I was mixing amateur theatre shows – albeit with only four radio mics, as that was a lot in those days…

“I continued to work at the weekend and in the evenings throughout school, and then after my sixth year [of school] in 1990 I left to join Apex Acoustics full time.

“In 1994 the owner, Graeme Adamson, said he wanted to go back to university to study to become a doctor and I was left in a predicament: lose my job or buy the company. It was a lot of money – especially for a 21-year-old – but I went ahead, and paid off the loan in five years…

“I suppose it’s my genuine interest in the industry [that means I’ve stayed at Apex] – and obviously being a gear freak makes it easier. I love the people and I’m never happier when I’m behind a mixing desk. Unfortunately it’s more meetings these days, but I do still have a lot of hands-on work.”

Smith – clearly a man who enjoys equally the dizzying highs and crashing lows of the life of a theatre sound engineer – identifies mixing a large orchestra at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh for a recent show with veteran West End singer Kerry Ellis (My Fair Lady, We Will Rock You, Les Misérables) as a personal favourite gig. “The orchestra and that venue made the night really enjoyable – until I lost my van keys at the end of the night,” he recalls. “I spent most of the de-rig looking for keys and planning how I was going to get the gear home at two in the morning – I’m sure my crew thought I was avoiding lifting anything – but thankfully I found them!”

He also recently succeeded where The Guardian failed in gaining entry into Azerbaijan for the recent inaugural European Games in Baku. (The British newspaper, along with a number of other media outlets and NGOs, was barred from entering the human rights-agnostic Caucasian republic ahead of the sporting event in June.) “I got asked to operate the sound at the boxing through a company called Great Big Events,” explains Smith, “as I had worked with them during the Commonwealth Games. I thought, ‘Summer in Scotland or two weeks in the sunshine?’ I opted for the latter!”

When he’s not shirking his de-rigging responsibilities/watching men punch each other for sport, Smith also dabbles in live comedy, and recently produced professional YouTuber Jon Cozart’s show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August. Cozart’s performance “went down a storm”, says Smith, who invited the 23-year-old Arkansan – who has over 2.9 million subscribers to his ‘Paint’ YouTube channel – to the festival after watching his viral video Harry Potter in 99 Seconds.

So, after over two decades at Apex Acoustics, what does the future have in store for its intrepid leader? More hobnobbing with young vloggers? The next European Games (no doubt in somewhere even more not-in-Europe than Azerbaijan)? Being responsible for another engineer giving up all this pro-audio nonsense and going back to medical school?

“I might pour myself a cup of tea… and then retirement, then death, are on the cards.”

Oh. Well, it’s good to keep your feet on the ground, we suppose.