"Genius, industry icon, outspoken outsider: Funktion-One founder Tony Andrews has spent the best part of the past five decades evangelising about the transcendental power of sound and making it his personal mission to open the minds of those yet to fully experience its transformative effects. Following the announcement that he was to receive the coveted Lifetime Achievement honour at the 2017 Pro Sound Awards, Daniel Gumble sat down with him to discuss his audio legacy, the state of today’s market and what the future holds for Funktion-One...
“I see the world as one big science lab, and it’s an opportunity to experiment.” Simply put, there is no one else in this industry of ours who could express such grandiose sentiments on the subject of audio than this year’s Pro Sound Awards Lifetime Achievement winner, Funktion-One founder, Tony Andrews.
Of course, anyone who has ever come into contact with Andrews will be instantly familiar with this unique, kaleidoscopic approach to sound. Where others in the audio world seek earnestly to consistently improve their products and keep their businesses on a growth trajectory – both perfectly noble ambitions – Andrews’ intentions take on additional, loftier dimensions. Not content with producing some of the finest, most iconic loudspeaker products on the market – not to mention the purest bass one is ever likely to hear – he has made it his lifelong mission not only to offer music fans a superior audio experience, but also to expand their consciousness and create shared spiritual experiences. For Andrews, audio is an art form. And if the aim of any artist is to elevate their art form and shatter the boundaries of possibility, then Andrews has done more than his fair share for the cause.
Underpinning his fierce creativity and audio artistry is an even more ferocious work ethic, which has been equally crucial to Andrews’ and Funktion-One’s success over the past four decades. To this day, wherever his products are in use across the globe, be it festivals, nightclubs or concerts, you’ll be sure to find him out in the field, checking that everything is in keeping with his exacting standards. Indeed, when PSNEurope arrives at Funktion-One’s Surrey HQ for our conversation with Andrews, we find him hard at work in the warehouse, keen to demonstrate the power of a vast bass enclosure sat in the centre of the workshop – an enclosure we can testify delivers a sound powerful enough to rattle every bone, tooth and vital organ in the human body without losing an ounce of sonic purity.
It is this undimmed passion for audio that has driven Funktion-One to consistently raise the bar, with the company still creating products capable of blazing a trail through the market. The Vero loudspeaker system is a prime example, having graced major live tours and festival stages the world over since launching last year, drawing rave reviews aplenty along the way.
"This is audio, not architecture, you’ve got to stop thinking like that. Audio doesn’t follow those rules, and it shouldn’t do.”
Furthermore, at this year’s Glastonbury Festival, rental firm Sound-Services partnered with Funktion-One to bring its ‘Experimental Ambisonic Soundfield’ to Worthy Farm’s Glade Stage via its Evo range, providing Andrews with what he describes as one of the most powerful audio experiences of his life – more of which later.
And while there are still new experiences to be had and greater heights to scale, it’s unlikely you’ll find Andrews putting his feet up and reflecting on former glories any time soon, as he quickly points out when we settle in for a cup of strong tea in the living quarters located just a few yards away from the company’s Surrey manufacturing facility.
“We’ve been following Vero around wherever it goes, because, the way things are, Vero cannot do a bad gig, and we’ve been at pains to be there and train everybody up,” Andrews explains. “You need the real experience. And you need to be where the crowd is to hear what they are hearing, that’s something that really gets me. The only people around the artists that actually get out and experience the show the same way the crowd do is the sound engineer, but typically they are in a special place, and if it’s outside at a festival in England they are inside a plastic tube, which is not representative of what it’s like in the crowd. And I like big audio, so it’s no hardship.
“I’m enjoying it but also I’m learning,” he continues. “In some regards I’m a production manager’s worst nightmare, because to them nothing matters much as long as the show runs like clockwork! And that is their job. But we started doing this split bass thing, and the number of people that got upset because it isn’t symmetrical...it’s like, Hang on a minute, this is audio, not architecture, you’ve got to stop thinking like that. Audio doesn’t follow those rules, and it shouldn’t do.”
‘Audio ecstasy’ and false perceptions
Such attentiveness to what the crowd is experiencing has paid dividends, both in a business and spiritual sense. On the business front, products like Vero continue to impress and find new customers, while Andrews claims he is edging ever closer to the sonic perfection he has sought throughout his working life.
“I’ve got this vision of what audio ought to be like, and for the first time, this year the experiences I’m having are beginning to fit the vision that’s been with me for about 48 years,” he says. “It’s so consciousness expanding. I’ve had four or five moments where it was just sublime. You could call it audio ecstasy; it was clean and the signal was able to express it.”
For all the acclaim and high regard in which Funktion-One has been held for much of its lifespan, the brand has been dogged throughout the years by suggestions that its products are best suited to the world of DJs and electronica. Needless to say, such suggestions have been aggressively rebutted by Andrews, who believes there are some within the market who have a hard time living with those willing to think outside the box. That said, the company is still present on the live front, although perhaps not quite as present as Andrew would like.
“People like to pretend there’s a difference between audio for DJs and audio for live, and there isn’t, of course. It’s anti-marketing and myths have a way of gathering momentum..."
“We are doing a certain amount of live, but because of politics and our success in the dance world, that’s being used against us,” he laments. “People like to pretend there’s a difference between audio for DJs and audio for live, and there isn’t, of course. It’s anti-marketing and myths have a way of gathering momentum. I don’t know why people want to say things are that different, because it’s still the same frequencies. Typically, electronica is harder because there is a shedload more bass and it can typically be on for 10-12 hours non-stop, and because people compress things so much there’s not much breathing room, so things have to be more reliable.”
For proof of Funktion-One’s prowess in the live sector, Andrews harks back to a time when the brand dominated the market. And he also highlights what he considers to be the moment when perceptions of the brand became falsely skewed.
“In the ‘80s we were pretty much the No.1 live system in the world – we conquered America,” he asserts. “When we first went out there there was nothing else like it. We did Pink Floyd’s global tour, and people have told me that is still the best sound they’ve ever heard.
“Do people think we could’ve been that good then and suddenly have our batteries pulled out? Glastonbury back in 2007 was the nail in the coffin...”
Andrews’ history with Glastonbury is a long and complex one, which can be traced all the way back to the early 1970s. Having been an integral member of the sound crew at Glastonbury Fayre in 1971, Andrews tells PSNEurope that it was he who convinced festival founder Michael Eavis to bring back the festival in 1979 and make it an annual event. He was also a prominent member of a seven-man-team that built the permanent Pyramid Stage two years later in 1981.
The sound reinforcement designed by Andrews and his team served the Pyramid Stage for several years, with the renowned Flashlight system making its debut on the iconic stage before being put to use on Roger Waters’ legendary Wall Concert in Berlin 1990.
However, after becoming disillusioned with the direction of the festival, Andrews and Funktion-One parted ways with the Pyramid Stage in 1991, opting to bring its Experimental Soundfield to the festival: “[The festival] began to get successful and, rather than having bands on that might have been meaningful, Eavis started to go for bigger bands,” claims Andrews. “There was no spiritual value in it whatsoever, so we did the Experimental Soundfield.”
Several years later in 2007, however, Andrews made a return to the Pyramid Stage, on what transpired to be an ill-fated outing for all concerned, but particularly for Funktion-One, which bore the brunt of what quickly proved to be entirely unjustified and ungrounded criticism.
The treacherous weather conditions that blighted the festival that year came to an unprecedented head during The Killers’ slot, producing all manner of audio anomalies and causing offsite volume levels from the festival to soar. To combat the offsite issues, the Pyramid Stage was incorrectly forced to reduce its volume levels, prompting fans to complain about the lack of sound or simply vacate the stage. The situation was exacerbated the very next day when Eavis, confronted by the media, wrongly claimed that the low volume levels for The Killers was due to the sound system not being powerful enough. Within hours he retracted his comments, but by then, the damage was done. Andrews picks up the story.
“It was some of the worst weather we’d ever had there,” he comments. “We knew something was up when we were told the noise police were coming to turn us down because the offsite noise levels were so bad. So we turned it down 3dB, at which point you could hear people talking in the crowd. This still wasn’t reducing the offsite levels because it was the noise of the whole site, but they were focused on the Pyramid. I don’t know why – it stinks, to be honest... Anyway, nothing changed, so they said turn it down another 3dB. Well, if you turn it down 3dB and nothing changes, why would another 3dB make any difference. It was obviously not the Pyramid Stage.
“When I heard Eavis’ statement I actually cried because I knew what was going to come. Even though Eavis retracted it, the media was still talking about it three days later. We got hate mail for fucking up Glastonbury! It’s been shitting on us ever since.”
Despite being completely absolved of any blame in the 2007 debacle, the fallout delivered an unequivocal blow to the brand’s reputation outside of the clubbing and DJ market - for a company made of lesser stock it may well have proved fatal. And it is testament to Andrews and all at Funktion-One that it has not only weathered that storm, but come back to bolster its status as one of the most revered audio brands on the planet. It also made a triumphant return to Glastonbury last year with its Experimental Soundfield, which this year, says Andrews, drew universal acclaim from all who visited the festival’s Glade Stage.
“We were being told all weekend it was the best sound onsite,” he enthuses. “Granted it was smaller, but we weren’t even using the big stuff. If we were offered the Pyramid again we would do it. Carl Cox said to us this year, I’m not doing this 10,000-person venue unless it’s Funktion-One and Tony Andrews engineers it. That’s the first time we’ve ever had that from an artist.”
A consciousness machine
Throughout his career, Andrews has never been shy in criticising the state of the sound reinforcement sector, describing a perceived lack of innovation in the industry as “like rigermortis setting in”. Noting the introduction of the first ever line array as a major technological breakthrough, it is his view that the rest of the biz’s continued efforts to emulate the WEM 4 x 2 has lead to stagnation, as opposed to advancement. “There’s a cycle to human affairs,” he says. “The lesson from history is that we do not learn anything from it. The WEM column – the 4x12 – was a dramatic advancement in technology, and it worked quite well because everything was naturally time aligned and all the sound came out of one speaker. I remember going to the Bath & West Showground and seeing Dr John and the Night Tripper, Jefferson Airplane, Frank Zappa, all on the same bill, out of this giant Charlie Watkins PA. We could hear the music, we’re all tripping together, and someone turned to me while Zappa was playing this amazing solo and said, Is he God? Audio expanded my mind so much and has got me into all sorts of crap!
“I’ve always been obsessed with audio and I want to share it with people. When it gets to a level of purity and beauty it is a consciousness machine. This year I’ve actually experienced that. I’ve seen a crowd all on their phones jabbering away during the warm up DJ - the sounds ain’t great - and then someone with good audio comes on a couple of hours later and everyone is transfixed. The phones are gone. The jabbering stops. We’re all focused on the same thing with the better part of our minds. Shit starts to happen when people do that – that’s the whole point of a church or a religious gathering, to get everyone’s mind focused on a spot, because that’s where the power is. People have the power if they just let go and get zen together.
“I’ve always been obsessed with audio and I want to share it with people. When it gets to a level of purity and beauty it is a consciousness machine."
“When there are no sounds your mind and hearing just keep on stretching out until it they find something. It expands your mind. When you’re really listening, which is different from hearing, you’re going out there until you find something. It’s 360-degrees, it’s not a narrow tunnel.”
So why aren’t there more big audio players approaching sound with the same expansive outlook?
“Why would the big names change anything when they are selling so much?” he asks. “They’ve all become businesses. I remember some of the founders and they were enthusiasts, but they aren’t there anymore. We’re dealing with human nature most of the time and it’s very fickle and hopeless in a lot of ways. But there are great untapped areas of the mind that aren’t accounted for. In the beginning it’s all enthusiasts and pioneers, and people are really passionate. Now, everybody’s doing the same thing and 99% of it is all emulations of that original idea.
“Line arrays are very convenient, but it’s self-evident that audio has taken a backseat to the visuals, because the audio is not turning anybody on.”
In spite of Andrews’ evident fondness for analogue technology, he does believe that digital solutions are beginning to show signs of improvement – significantly in the case of Dante.
“I think we’re turning a corner,” he offers. “We’ve had Dante arrive, which is as good as anything I’ve ever heard. Certainly we’ve got a digital protocol we can hang our hats on. And the fact we’ve got a digital desk that is good – the Cadac CDC seven high end sounds sweet, and that’s a description that has never applied to anything digital.”
He is still, however, keen to point out that analogue still has a place at the cutting edge of audio.
He continues: “In the DJ world there has been two purely analogue mixers come out from Formula Sound and Model 1. So suddenly in the DJ world there are two analogue mixers that sound absolutely great and they are selling, because people are liking it. There are enough people that, when good sound is put in front of them, get it. And when good things come out enough people notice it. People are not giving up on analogue until digital pulls it’s socks up and gets sorted out properly.”
As for Funktion-One, the future is looking especially bright. With Vero garnering glowing reviews across the board and the potential for more additions to the line in the not too distant future, Andrews is far from ready to take a step back from the business at this stage in his career.
"To really understand the power of audio you’ve got to be able to shut your eyes, push everything out of your brain, and just fucking listen.”
“We’re open to working with more mass market players,” he says. “There are a couple of things in that area that might come off. Vero has been so successful that we’re working on a smaller one. If there were more things going on in live we’d probably make a 15” monitor. We made an 18” one, which bass players and drummers really love. And we’ve got a 12” that sells steadily, but we’re not really in that world.”
With our time almost up, conversation turns to Andrews’ audio legacy and what he considers to be his biggest achievement to date.
And while there is plenty to choose from, be it a long list of high end products from the past four decades, attaining figurehead status as an industry pioneer, or simply providing an outspoken, alternative voice in a closely knit industry, it’s hardly surprising that he veers towards the bigger picture when looking back at his myriad career highlights.
“It’s definitely been a lesson in human nature and it’s definitely been an endurance test,” he reflects. “Shit doesn’t come easy. I feel good because we have got through to enough people to be a valid part of the story, and there are people all over the place who are copying us and being inspired by us. What I don’t feel great about is the Machiavellian behaviour that has been rife through the business.
“I have begun to realise that when you really get audio you get spaced out, and when you get spaced out you start to realise other things about yourself and the universe and the bigger spiritual picture. I say to students, One day you will come across something that’s really weird that you don’t understand; the textbooks will say one thing should happen but something else happens instead. Don’t just go, Oh well, next. Try to understand it - you might just discover something.
“Really good shit happens to all of us all the time, it’s just about whether we know it or not. I really like talking to younger people because, when people are getting what I’m saying, it really pulls out more. If I could get as much of this stuff as possible handed over to others then I would love to. To pass on good knowledge is a very gratifying thing.”
He concludes: “I could be a much richer man than I am, but I’ve got my soul and my integrity, and I know what it’s like to fight a good fight. To really understand the power of audio you’ve got to be able to shut your eyes, push everything out of your brain, and just fucking listen.”