Phil Brammer converses with one of the most controversial music dealers in the country - Dave Simpson of TCA
Phil Brammer takes a look around a little thatched cottage near Royston
I had made a few tentative enquiries about courses in audio recording, and was delighted to receive the first of Thatched Cottage Audio's quarterly magazine Foldback (Spring issue) in response, free of charge.
Apart from thinly veiled plugs for their own products and services, TCA's in-house rag offered useful advice for those of us concerned with setting up home studios including a portastudio run-down and the first of a series of articles by boss-man Dave Simpson on starting a mobile studio. The letters page read like Viz, and the "Tricks of the trade" section included such fine tips as: "IF YOU have a hum or buzz on the monitors, try not smoking during the recording sessions. After a few weeks you will have saved enough money to buy a mains filter."(!) Tucked away in that first issue was also a photocopied list of secondhand and ex-demo deals which convinced Pups and myself that we should pay them a visit at our earliest convenience.
Thatched Cottage Audio is a half hour's drive north from London, located on the A14, just south of the Wendy turnoff, near Royston, in the Hertfordshire countryside. We drove past it three or four times as we were both on the lookout for a thatched cottage and nobody had mentioned that we should rather have been looking for a cluster of farm buildings. Luckily Pups noticed the small "Nomad" sign (representing a TCA offshoot which manufactures guitar processors) outside the North Road Farm, and so we arrived less than an hour late for our appointment.
We were met by Dave Arnold, (head of TCA's production company) who gave us a guided tour of the complex, including the 16-Track studio, which is used mainly for demo'ing gear for potential buyers and (in conjunction with the 24-Track) for teaching purposes. As the Minstrel Court 24-track suite was in use, Dave took time to fill us in on some background information whilst we waited to meet The Boss.
Within the space of four years Thatched Cottage Audio has grown from an 8-Track basement studio in Thurleigh, near Bedford, where Dave Simpson started to deal in Fostex B-16's as a sideline, to an organisation of 23 staff with a turnover of around £4.5 million per year. This amounts to anything up to £20,000 per day in takings, and so far this year they are well ahead of their financial targets.
This has a lot to do with the fact that they will only deal in equipment which they have already tried and tested, and which they take considerable time to demonstrate to an endless stream of visitors. They offer a money back guarantee, and will replace any new equipment proving to be faulty within the first two months of purchase, rather than offering to fix it or send it back to the manufacturer - which is usually the case and can take months. But there's more, kids!
Should you be about to invest in a studio package, phone TCA and tell them your basic requirements (Portastudio, 8-Track or whatever) and they'll send you their relevant "fax-pack", which briefly reviews your options and will hopefully suggest a set-up to suit your pocket, eg BASIC PACKAGE (portastudio): Yamaha R-100, microphone plus headphones - £375 + VAT. Buy the package from TCA and they'll throw in a one day course to teach you how to use it!
Their full-blown week long (residential) course would normally set you back £200 + VAT, but again this is free should you buy one of their 8-Track packages. As the course fee is refundable upon buying the gear at a later date, this may be the better option as the course itself should clue you up as to what your 8 or 16-Track requirements really are.
John Harris, contributor to Home and Studio Recording magazine, is the main tutor on these courses, and his editor Paul White is guest speaker - the latter currently helping TCA to put together a MIDI "faxpack".
Dave Simpson has a firm handshake. Luckily I recorded our conversation and didn't need to make many notes. Although other audio retailers may tell you otherwise he is a groovy fellow and isn't inclined to bullshit. On MIDI, for example, he will explain that when it comes to the technical stuff he has three MIDI specialists on board, and you don't keep a dog and bark yourself. What follows, then, are Dave's feelings about TCA and which we think say much about the state of the industry at this juncture..
Dave began our interview with an explanation of this statement. 'It was easy for this place to become very big league, very quickly, because I'm competing against shops that DO pretend to know everything and there's no competition. No one person can know everything. I have three MIDI specialists on-board and they're not afraid to say 'I don't know' when faced with a question they can't answer. It's a huge topic. MIDI has come within the bounds of what I sell, but I don't like doing it because I don't like selling something that I don't know anything about. To some extent with analog tape recording you can know most of what's going on because it's been going on for a long time. It's acquired knowledge. But a new MIDI patch-bay comes in and it can have very little to do with the previous generation of MIDI gear - it's like computers, isn't it?"
Pups and I are smiling already. So long as we nod and say "Yeah" once in a while we know we're onto an easy interview. And MILLIONAIRE Dave Simpson has much to confess.
"OK you do MIDI, and then you start doing MIDI as far as recording goes. Then someone says 'Well can I run my recorder with it?' So you say 'Yeah! This is a MIDI to tape sync thing' and then they say 'Oh! What sort of tape recorder do you think...' - you see where the whole thing leads..."
Earlier Dave Arnold had told me a little about the recommendation of packages, an idea I found very interesting. Dave Simpson expanded on this. "You've got to do three things. You've got to do the thinking for them, but it's got to be thinking not based upon what is cheap, or what there are deals on, but what is actually pretty good for whatever price. Then you've got to offer to take it all back if they're not happy with it, and you've got to educate them in what to do. Now if you can do those three things you can't lose, really, because if they're not happy they'll bring it back and as there are no hard feelings they'll shop with you again. If they are happy they learn how to work it and you don't get stupid questions over the phone - Fostex brought out a 4050 which was a remote controller-synchronizing unit and auto-locate to go with the E-16 to connect to computers. Great! So far so good - did an awful lot. But a dreadful manual... absolute crud!"
We were all laughing. As all of us have a mutual dread of such manuals... Dave went on to say that TCA had to rewrite four pages of that manual after about nine hundred people phoned up to complain "what is immediately blindingly obvious to us isn't necessarily obvious to other people," Dave continued "So we rewrote the manual - and didn't have a single call after that - made it crystal clear. Now it isn't me being altruistic, it's just straight PR."
Such honesty! Dave went on to tell us that his problem with MIDI is that it's linked to computers and that they are rather unreliable. This is putting it mildly. In fact his personal opinion is that Atari's method of quality control is called the End User.
"I can't believe that anyone tests an Atari." He states simply and Pups chips in that he thinks Sinclair were guilty of the same thing, but now it's Evenlode's turn. There's no stopping the Boss. At any rate and for various reasons best known to Dave, he doesn't deal with Evenlode (Steinberg's UK contributor) any more.
I tentatively asked if he was still taking on Cubase, "Oh yeah!" came the reply, "I've imported it. I deal with dealers all over Europe. In this country Cubase, I think, trades at £275. Well I can buy it in at something approaching £100 less than that. And there's nothing they can do to me."
At this point we had the first of a series of interruptions afforded by someone querying the price of something or other which Mr Simpson quoted (and was able to do every time) off the top of his head. He admitted that he knew the prices of everything, but that if someone asked him about Steinberg Pro-24, for example, he could only manage the most answered answers to the most asked questions but would not pretend to know "what goes on."
"WE'RE PROBABLY NOT THAT INTERESTING... IT'S NOT MY SUCCESS STORY BUT IT'S THE ABSOLUTE FAILURE OF THE MUSIC INDUSTRY TO RESPOND ON ANY SORT OF LEVEL..."
Then, unphased, he was back onto Cubase... and suffice it to say that when TCA's first batch of ads for a cheaper than thou package hits the mags we'll be seeing tidal waves rather than ripples through the industry.
Dave was by no means finished and ploughed on. "I think the margins made on software are absolutely abominable... and since 1992 is coming up with a vengeance... if I don't see eye to eye with a company in this country - and I see eye to eye with most of them - then I'll just import it. There's absolutely bugger all they can do. They asked me to speak at the Music Retailers Association..." Here I interrupted the man, in order to plug my Sony into the mains, as I knew it hadn't been charging up for long and no way did I want to miss any of this!. Dave gave us his impression of a trimphone whilst I checked the levels, and we were off again.
"I was asked to speak to all the shops, and I'm not a member of the MRA. There was a panel of four people initially... four retailers , including me, up there and we had to speak on what makes a successful retailer. I was up there because no-one could understand how I could not be in the MRA and still make any money."
It seems that maybe Dave was put up there to be shot down as a "big discounter," when discounting in this business is generally frowned upon. Anyway the story goes that the first three guys explained why they were successful - you know the stuff - looking at the Market, good PR, cornering the Market with a particular product... and then Dave Simpson gets up and says, "I'm successful because you lot are no good." He knows a thing or two about winning friends and influencing people. When asked to elaborate he apparently did so but I think you already have the gist.
Not so long ago when people first started to use the term "home recording", a few pro audio dealers sprang up but for various reasons didn't make it. As most HiFi shops had trouble enough selling a tape recorder for £100, let alone £1000, selling pro recording equipment became the domain of the Music shops - almost by default. Now try getting a price on something over £1000 on the phone from shops in London these days and you'll probably have to give them a credit card number before you'll get the quote. Try it for yourself. Then phone TCA.
Customer Service in the USA and Canada is rather a different beast to what we are used to here. Dave Simpson, it transpires, is Canadian. And he is successful simply because he does things most music shops don't appear to do in Britain. TCA is open seven days a week throughout the year including evenings, they will take time to demonstrate equipment and are eminently capable of so doing, and if they quote you a cheap price they won't resent backing it up.
"The industry keeps telling me it's fairly depressed," Dave said "When I brought out that mag, one of my competitors said: 'Well it's very nice but what's the point?' And that just about sums it up. As long as they keep thinking like that..." "...you're laughing!" Pups finished the sentence for him.
"I haven't done anything special at all. I'm no... I was going to say Richard Branson but he hasn't done anything either. I read his biography. Did you know..." but we are digressing here...
Certain previously powerful music shop chains between them now couldn't match TCA's turnover, and I suggest that Dave Simpson is well loved by such industry moguls. He just smiles and says: "They hate my guts. They absolutely loathe the ground I step on!"
At trade shows he blows them kisses. You've got to laugh. And we did.
I asked Dave if he had any advice for people with small bedroom studios who might be hoping to make a living out of them.
"Have you read the article on how I started?" Dave asked (I had. See the Summer '89 issue of "Foldback" for his "Planning permission for your studio" article, among others.)" The secret of the whole thing is putting a Graphic (Equaliser) over your monitoring system, adjusting the Graphic and all you have to do is to make it sound the same inside your bedroom as it does outside, because that's where ninety-nine per cent of the studios fall down.
We've all been into studios and while you're in there it sounds great and you take it outside and it sounds crap! It's nothing to do with your HiFi, it's to do with the room not being analysed. Just put a Graphic over your monitors, play a CD and make it sound great. You fine tune it a bit, so whatever it sounds like over your monitors - you can guarantee it sounds like over someone else's monitors - and you'll win! The article's got all the details in..."
You can get your own copies by writing to TCA at the address at the end of this article.
On the Tuesday before the interview took place DS was up until 4.30 am waiting for a guy to arrive from Wales with a sick E-16 - he needed it for a session the next day. Although the machine seemed to check out OK it was replaced anyway, and this little anecdote goes a long way in explaining why by last year TCA had grabbed over 80% of the UK market-share in 8 and 16-Track recorders. Time for a well earned gloat from Dave,"We're the biggest dealer for Yamaha, Tascam, Fostex, Allen and Heath, Studiomaster - all of them. It's not by a factor - I mean Studiomaster, for instance, I buy as much as the next eight dealers put together. It's the largest world dealer for Allen and Heath. It's massive - absolutely stupid, massive quantities.
I try to find angles on products as well. E-16's we mod 'em for 30ips (a Fostex approved modification). We make rack ears, make cheap angle racks, make patch bays... You can't sit back and let things happen."
"The Shops In London Have Become The Black Backcloth Against Which The Provincial Stars Can Shine"
"They say it's hard to start up a recording studio because there are so many people already doing it, so how come you're selling so much?" Pups wanted to know.
"I think it depends on two things," Dave answered "one, premises, and two: the person - and that's it. Most people who start up recording studios have got rooms... premises... something available. If you haven't got premises and don't want to start up a mobile - which is a good alternative, then it's not for you."
TCA's current premises are about to be re-vamped. Plans include an indoor swimming pool and a new location for the Pool room and Reception. Since buying the farm DS has seen its value rocket from about £175,000 to a cool million. Again Daves formula is simple.
"Find out where the railways are going to be electrified and within a 4.6 mile radius of the station I think is what commuters are happy to go. So I bought this place 4.6 miles from Royston station and it went up. We did the same in Bedford."
Conversation now sank to the level of industry gossip - why a certain well known music shop is closing - distributors with cash-flow problems - the sex-life of an ex-"Blue Peter" presenter and it's time to turn off the Sony. My lips are sealed. Time then, to have a few words with Dig - one of TCA's MIDI specialists. But Dig is busy with a customer for the moment. Time, then, for a swift one down the road.
My first question had to be why Dig? A long story, I was informed. When he started working here he bore some similarity to a 'Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' character called Dig. The Boss gave him the nickname and it stuck."
In keeping with the warped balance of this article, Dig uses an Atari. This despite the number of Ataris the Boss was telling us didn't work out of the box. Well I use one myself, and they're fine when they work. But why always C-Lab software?
"Always C-Lab because it's the fastest to use and some would say the easiest. You find that people who started with (Steinberg) Pro-24 - and that was the first big one to come out - stick to that and will defend that to the hilt... In my personal opinion C-Lab's the best for the Atari. I haven't used the new Cubase a lot - from what I can make out it is powerful but - it's the same thing - I was used to the C-Lab and it's become my third hand. As far as Notator goes it's got to be the best notation-edit you can buy. It's accurate and it's intelligent, and it won't link together four crotchets instead of a semibreve - it will actually put the semibreves down, and for any key signature you put in it will go through the whole system and change relative flats or sharps. I hate tape-recorders... and I use them every day of me life."
He is referring to the holy Pro-Walkman, Fact Fans, and no wonder he's feeling a bit nervous being locked in a room with two freaks for an unknown time. I know a lot of people who just clam up when it starts running... (and once I forgot to turn on the mike.) But Dig soon unwinds:
"As far as setting up a MIDI studio goes a sequencer is essential, obviously. A lot of people go out and buy a keyboard which sounds nice - but that's not as important as getting a keyboard that can do lots of things. Something like the Roland modules - D-110, U-110 or an MT-32 which is the cheaper version - they'll give you 32 notes of polyphony. Now the Yamaha range and Kawai range and a lot of others will give you eight - possibly 16 on the outside. But when it comes to polyphony it's the amount of sounds that you can build up and put together to produce a bigger sound. Roland stuff - most of it - allows you to use eight instruments at once... and the Yamaha 81Z will do that but if you use eight instruments you've only got one-note polyphony for each one so it sounds a bit thin.
"The Roland stuff - D-110 and MT-32 has also got reverb - which gives it a more professional sound. To set up a studio the MT-32 is probably the best bet. It's cheap, it's got loads of drum sounds, and it is editable over a computer - 'though it's not really designed for that... it's designed as a writing tool. With that you'll have to buy a MIDI keyboard."
I asked what he would recommend us to by on a small budget. His reply? "If you're just about to start now then Roland have just issued a D-5 which is in effect an MT-32 in a keyboard format. It's nice gear. It's got a nice feel to it. It's got pitch bend and modulation, enough keys to work with, velocity but not aftertouch."
It sounds like a good start. If you already own a mother keyboard (and even those Yamaha portable jobbies have MIDI on them) then you can go straight into a second-hand MT-32, if you can find one. Anyway you'll also need a sequencer of some kind, and Dig favours the Alesis MMT-8 studio, as you can work in either pattern mode or song mode on eight tracks (which can always be bounced down without loss of quality - thanks to MIDI Magic) at around £230.
In Digs words, "It's quick, and you don't have to quantize. Some of the other sequencers and some cheaper sequencers - because of the quality and the speed at which internal processing works it has to work to some kind of quantization - which gives it a mechanical feel. With an MMT-8 you don't have to quantize. The QX5FD gives you most of those facilities with a disk-drive on board so you can save all that information to disk."
Then Pups made the mistake of asking about the QX-21, an earlier model, and they went on for quite a long time. I suggest you don't waste your time with it. Pups also discovered that Dig was eighteen and had worked for TCA for 16 months. His enthusiasm for MIDI had been started at school, where he had used sequencers and keyboards.
Well they can only get bigger as far as I am concerned, until this slothful music industry wakes up to the real life and starts delivering the goods. I only hope that as they get bigger and better they can hang onto some of that Rock 'n' Roll spirit which is now evident at TCA. History suggests that if they are not themselves absorbed by the Industrial Beast then they will probably themselves absorb the Beast and have to live with it's crippling sickness. This has been a poke in the eye of public taste by a gourmand of the groove. I leave you with a final quote from "Foldback":
"Dear Foldback, Last week I went into a well-known London music shop and asked the price of an eight track system. They wouldn't quote me a price though, but asked me how much I had already been quoted. Taking the useful advice offered in your advertisement, I replied: "Why, are you too thick to think of a price for yourself?" I had obviously impressed them as a potential big spender because the manager called two of his assistants and said I was to get the full "treatment". I would like to thank the two nurses who helped me write this letter. Steve Payne"
Thatched Cottage (Contact Details)
Feature by Phil Brammer
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