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Q&A: Thomas Schäfer, Neumann&Müller

Jon Chapple talks speccing and skydiving with N&M's resident Hamburger

As Niederlassungsleitung – that’s branch manager for us non-germanophones – of German event company Neumann&Müller’s Hamburg office, Thomas Schäfer is a jack of all trades – and master of all of them.

Born in 1978 to a telecoms technician father, Schäfer started his career in live events as a teenager, founding an audio rental business in his parents’ cellar. He has since worked as an electronics technician for power systems and a freelance live sound engineer, on musical productions and for industrial conglomerates, and in his spare time kicks back with such leisurely pursuits as motorcycling, snowboarding and skydiving.

As manager of all aspects of technical production at N&M Hamburg, including audio, rigging, video and lighting, we thought we’d ask him to tell us more about a German success story which has 18 branches, 450 employees and over 1,600 freelance specialists worldwide.

Neumann&Müller is a hire company, sales company, used-gear dealer, consultancy firm, developer of conferencing solutions… have we missed anything?
Neumann&Müller began modestly in 1981 when two sound and video engineering students, Jürgen Neumann and Eberhard Müller, founded the company in a 40sqm office and storeroom in Düsseldorf. They started out providing PA systems for outdoor radio productions.

Over the years, N&M has established itself as an expert in planning, conception and execution, providing these services for events of all kinds and sizes. We have experts in audio, lighting, video/AV, conferencing, media production, event IT, rigging and stage construction.

You have had a long relationship with d&b…
We have collaborated with a number of different manufacturers for many years and developed some innovative solutions together – for example, with Kling & Freitag and, as you say, d&b audiotechnik.
d&b is one of our company’s oldest system suppliers anywhere in the world and does indeed still supply our main audio kit. We mainly use Yamaha digital desks – we’ve been doing so ever since the early years of their development – and Shure wireless technology, which in the last three years has also increasingly been digital.

What’s the secret to great live sound?
Exact knowledge of the location is extremely important: It provides the basis for our detailed planning, which is supported by planning software such as EASE or [d &b’s] ArrayCalc. The attainable degree of sound localisation, perfect speech intelligibility from all seats in the audience and exact knowledge of the signal sources are all included in our planning.

When we last time we spoke to sound companies in Germany this time last year, the response was almost universally positive. Is business still good for you?
Yes, we can only echo that sentiment: looking back, 2015 was exceedingly successful. That goes for all areas of N&M, as well as for all of our company’s branch offices [throughout Germany, and in eastern Europe, Brussels, Dubai and Nottingham, UK]. We are very satisfied!

What are the biggest markets for N&M at the moment, and where are you targeting for future growth?
We have always been strong in Germany – it will certainly remain the focal point for our orders, and we don’t believe that the [German] market’s potential has yet been fully exploited.

One thing that has changed, due to growing internationalisation, is that many of our clients are starting international projects from Germany and we then work together with them to realise the technical aspects. That brings us orders in eastern European countries, and luckily we have a specialist in the team with excellent knowledge of the region. Despite all the political upheaval, we are confident that the area still holds potential.

Our branch office in Dubai is a key element in our international strategy. This is another region where we see a good deal of potential, as it is becoming ever more attractive as an event location – for example, as a result of the Expo 2020 [world ’s fair].

Talk us through some of your recent event highlights…
There is a whole string of highlights – and a lot of long-standing collaboration with clients.

We lent our audio expertise to Klassik am Odeonsplatz in Munich and the Schlossfestspiele Schwerin in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, two renowned open-air festivals for lovers of classical music. We created the multimedia shows for the 20th and 25th anniversaries of German reunification, commissioned by our parliament [the Bundestag] – where we acted as general contractor for all technical disciplines [see the cover story for more].

Outside of Germany, we realised the technical systems for the ‘Living Medals Table’ at the Volkswagen pavilion at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and we have our own branch office in Dubai, which works for both corporations and government institutions and which has been involved in events like the New Year’s Eve show at the Burj Khalifa [skyscraper].

Anything exciting coming up in the near future?
Lots, especially in the world of sport: The Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and the Euro 2016 football tournament in France, to name just a few.

Finally: Müller or Mueller? Which is it?
Well, our international market presence is as Neumann&Müller Veranstaltungstechnik [roughly ‘Event Technology’]… just like in Germany!