BR audio electronics company rides the wave it helped create
PreSonus Audio Electronics Inc., the Baton Rouge-based company that helped fuel the rise of the home studio during the past decade, finds the ideas for its products in a number of places.
From the first automated mixer that founder Jim Odom and Brian Smith produced in Odom’s garage in 1994 through the waves of products it developed since, PreSonus is driven by technological advancements, customer feedback and the constant quest to solve problems in home studio and live recording. But one place the company doesn’t look for ideas is among the offerings of its competitors.
“We don’t really watch competition,” Odom explained recently from PreSonus’ office on Florida Boulevard. “We pay close attention to our customers. We pay attention to our customers’ needs and try to solve their problems elegantly.
“But we are researchers and scientists, too, so we pay attention to new technologies,” he continued, noting PreSonus was the first with a full control system for digital audio mixing on the iPhone and iPad. “We lead our industry in some areas and always have. I think we’ve been first-to-market many times in the last 10 years with these kinds of products.”
That formula has helped the company grow from eight employees in 1996 to 130 worldwide today, with a new $8 million headquarters under construction on Highland Road north of Interstate 10.
Chief Executive Officer Jim Mack predicts that within four years after PreSonus moves in next fall, the company could double in size.
“We expect it to grow pretty quickly once we get in there,” he said.
Today, however, the company’s 80 Baton Rouge engineers, technicians and administrative workers are packed into two office slots at Bon Carré, the Florida Boulevard mall-turned-technology park. Its spaces are long and narrow, with load-bearing walls unable to allow for doorways to connect the company’s administrative side and its research and development side. The company has three manufacturing facilities in China.
“We’re bursting at the seams,” Mack said, noting there isn’t even a quiet room to test speakers or recording equipment.
The new facility, with the aid of the state’s tax credit program for digital media, will have ample room for research and development, marketing and technical support staff, as well as full video and audio suites and a studio and control room to test products and equipment.
“All of the development side (of the business) has access to those credits,” Mack said. “The credits that (Louisiana Economic Development) has put together has really helped us expand that side of the business.”
PreSonus could not release current revenue figures, but it has distributors in 100 countries and a little more than a third of its sales are overseas, said Ron Koliha, vice president of marketing.
PreSonus moved into Bon Carré just over 12 years ago, its growth fueled by the popularity of the automated mixer it first shipped in 1996 and a second one it produced based on customer feedback on the first. In the early part of the next decade, new firewire technology led to PreSonus’ first interface product, which had inputs for guitars and microphones that streamed the music as a digitized signal into a computer.
At the time, Mack said, a sea change was getting under way where the dominance of major studios — an expensive option often out of reach for all but the more established musicians — began to give way to home recording studios made possible by new technology.
“Once the barrier of the quality of the product came down, the kinds of products that PreSonus made really helped democratize that part of the business,” Mack said. “And not just casual musicians, but professional musicians wanted that same control and creative freedom to do all the different parts of it.”
By the mid 2000s, business was booming, and the company grew from $8 million in revenue in 2005 to $12 million in 2006 to $18 million in 2007.
“That fueled our growth,” Odom said. “We rode that wave and that pushed us toward thinking of other ways to expand into recording.”
One of those avenues was the 2006 creation of a subsidiary in Hamburg, Germany, to create editing and media creation software. It was, again, a move to overcome consumers’ frustration and solve the problems that arose when they used one company’s hardware with another company’s software.
When you buy a product, Mack said, “what you really want to do is make a record, not configure a computer. And by getting the hardware and software together, we can now control the way those things talk to each other.”
Odom and Mack said that all along a key focus for the company is making sure its products are easy to use. One example is avoiding the common tendency of digital mixers burying controls within layers of pull-down menus.
In 2007, the company created the Audio Box. At $150, Mack said, “it’s one of the best-selling products in the business.”
“You can do, on that one product, a full record that 20 years ago you would have needed $20,000 worth of hardware,” he said.
StudioLive, PreSonus’ mixer line it started in 2009, was aimed straight at users of older analog equipment that had gotten to the end of its life. The company felt that amateur sound technicians working at churches, music festivals and school performances wanted to make the move to digital, but couldn’t make the $6,000 jump in price. But for only a couple thousand? That was a different story.
“We knew what we needed and we knew how to make that product,” Odom said.
Earlier this year, PreSonus acquired Nimbit, a Boston-based dot-com that provides an online direct-to-fan platform. Once a band or musician creates a recording, they can upload it to Nimbit, sell it, promote it and communicate with their fans.
Mack recalled a familiar situation common in his days as a young musician decades ago. Even with a demo, a band had to find a studio, book the space, pay for it, get someone to mix and master the recording and put it on a record, which would then need to be distributed.
“What’s happening now is that whole process has become more accessible to the musician but at the same time, the distribution methods have changed from the traditional keeper of the gate with the record companies to where even people like Bonnie Raitt are selling records through their own system. Even she’s at a point where she’s saying, ‘The record company is just in the way between me and my customer.’”
Odom said he has seen PreSonus products in use at the Super Bowl, and Mack said Michael Jackson’s longtime producer Teddy Riley used one for a couple of cuts he produced for a posthumous album for the pop star.
But even if pros use the company’s products, PreSonus’ focus is on finding ways to solve problems for the little guy. Schools and churches can record performances and services and sell them to students, parents and parishioners on a disc or over the Internet to raise funds.
The company’s success, he said, “is not so much that the technology or the boxes became cooler. It’s that they solved problems that the musicians had.”
PreSonus has more than 2,000 instructional videos on YouTube, but its annual PreSonuSphere users’ conference, held last month at the Shaw Center for the Arts downtown, is where the company is increasingly engaging its customers and potential customers.
PreSonuSphere offers workshops and seminars not only on how to use certain products, but also step-by-step demonstrations on various stages of live and studio recording, from soundchecks and mic’ing instruments to mastering a recording, even distribution and sales. The band Papa Grows Funk was on hand to participate in the proceedings.
Warren Hood came down with his four-person sound team from 10th Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., where they mix and record performances of the church’s full gospel choir. They record the performances to a disc and want to begin streaming the performances.
Hood, who bought the StudioLive 24 mixer and came to learn more about how to get the best sound possible from the 18-channel mixer, said it has expanded what he can do compared to his older analog mixer.
“There are just so many different capabilities that we didn’t have with the old equipment,” he said.
Phil Tillman, of McComb, Miss., who performs with his band Driven and owns a sound production company for music festivals, came to Baton Rouge prepared to buy a StudioLive 24 mixer after some hands-on time at PreSonuSphere.
“Everything I’ve heard about it has been good,” he said.
Tillman said he’d never have been able to afford the capabilities available on digital mixers years ago. PreSonus, he said, “brings digital mixers to where the average guy can afford it.”
Mack and Odom said that it’s not just direct communication with customers that keeps the company focused, but the fact that they all speak the same language.
“We’re all musicians and that’s a key part of it,” Mack said. “We use the products. We’re passionate about it. It is our hobby …”
“… and our profession,” Odom added. “A lot of guys here (in the office), that’s their living at night and on the weekends.”
PreSonus estimates about 400 attended PreSonuSphere in its second year, and “I think we see that getting two or three times bigger” Odom said.
Mack is a relative newcomer to PreSonus, having joined the company in 2008. The company had to hunker down when the financial crisis hit, and 2009 saw revenue flatten.
In 2010, PreSonus began building its current management team, bringing in 18 people from places like Singapore, California and New Jersey.
“These are high-level people from the industry that have moved their families down here to be a part of this,” Mack said, though Odom added the company’s original management team stayed intact, losing only one original member.
Odom said PreSonus will launch two or three new product lines next year within the existing ecosystem of its live and studio products, all ways to satisfy customers’ steady wish list of capabilities.
Would the company ever do a studio monitor or live speakers? Sure. Break into broadcast or the film business? It’s possible. Odom said PreSonus is doing research on acoustics and even more intelligent software to help people write music.
Odom, who is also on the advisory council for LSU’s school of computer and electrical engineering, said PreSonus will focus not just on new products, but new markets for existing ones, like education.
“There are a lot of places where we already make the products, we already own the software, so with a few tweaks we can become application-specific with our products. And that’s the natural way a product line should grow.”