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Viva la Revolution!

Viva la Revolution!
M-Audio celebrates 20 years of empowering independent musicians

Thanks largely to the computer, today’s musicians take it for granted that entire records can be made at home on a shoestring budget. But set the way-back machine 20 years and you have a very different picture. Most serious recordings were still done in expensive facilities, and personal studios centered on eight-track reel-to-reel tape recorders. Even just a decade ago, while PCs and Macs were starting to be more accepted for MIDI sequencing, few people could afford Pro Tools to take their audio recording into the professional digital domain.

What we’ve seen in the past two decades has been much more than technical progress—digital technology has fueled a complete cultural revolution. A revolution where emerging artists can fund their own recordings and create music virtually anywhere, anytime. A revolution replete with thriving new distribution models such as indie labels, online sharing and direct selling. A revolution where musicians are finally in control of their music and their careers.

As M-Audio celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, one look at the company’s timeline and that of the music industry reveals many parallels—and that’s more than a coincidence. M-Audio products have done nothing short of fuel this musical and cultural revolution.

Launching the Revolution. In 1988, CalTech graduate Tim Ryan started the company (originally known as Midiman) in a garage with two key visions: 1) the computer as the center of the studio and 2) empowering the “everyman” musician with the ability to create, record and perform music. It’s easy to forget that the concept of a complete, affordable personal studio—let alone with the computer as its hub—was a huge leap in 1988. Yet from a humble garage, Ryan launched the company that would tremendously influence how musicians make both their music and their livelihoods.

Ryan’s approach flew in the face of the industry establishment as well as conventional wisdom. Pro audio manufacturers purveyed expensive technology to an exclusive flock of recording engineers and studios—who in turn used that halo effect to attract business from musicians and record companies. (Surely an audio product couldn’t be worthy if anybody could afford it?)

In truth, advancements in most forms of technology and manufacturing processes—across all industries—translate to much greater power at lower prices over time. Witness computers, digital cameras and cell phones. Music-making technology is no different.

To Ryan, the choice was clear: While many manufacturers focused on making exclusive gear for the elite, his company would champion the independent musician. This latter-day Robin Hood approach wasn’t about price alone. It was about blurring and eventually eradicating the line between pro and non-pro musicians at the level of the gear itself. In order to accomplish this, the company had to find a way to engineer products that would embody professional standards without costing an arm and a leg. Today that quality speaks for itself, as M-Audio products are found in many top recording studios around the world—almost despite the fact that there is one less zero on the price tag.

Quality and price get you a long way, but the third ingredient to M-Audio’s success is perhaps the most rare—inspiration. Ryan assembled and grew a team of individuals with both talent and passion. Comprised mostly of musicians, the group developed products they themselves wanted to use—and dreamed of furthering the indie music revolution. The extraordinary combination of skill and vision ignited a fire that endures today.

Redefining the Studio. From these humble beginnings, M-Audio grew to become the world’s best-selling manufacturer of audio interfaces and keyboard controllers, and was named one of top two fastest growing companies in the industry four years in a row. In addition to numerous product awards, M-Audio is also responsible for a number of industry firsts—including the integration of seemingly disparate technologies into incredibly useful products like MIDI keyboard controllers with onboard audio interfaces. Through it all, M-Audio aggressively developed bulletproof drivers and plug-and-play technology to simplify and further computer-centric music.

Mobility has been one of the most significant innovations underlying this incredible journey. Combined with the proliferation of increasingly affordable laptop computers, products like the Oxygen8 and the USB audio interface line created a new level of freedom regarding when and where music is made. Suddenly the studio was no longer a place, but a state of mind. Everyone from aspiring teens to touring pros could fit their studios into a backpack, capture inspiration and collaborate on the fly. The same independence that we now take for granted with mobile phones extends to mobile music production as well.

As part of this transformation, the lines blurred between the studio and stage—and between creation and production. Song ideas, scratch tracks and improvs became part of final tracks. Musicians could take the tracks they created at home in the afternoon to the club that night. Conversely, they could easily bring multitrack recordings of the gig home for further production. The elimination of traditional spatial boundaries allowed creativity to flourish in new ways.

Avid Interest. By 2004, M-Audio had grown into a $60 million company, at which point it made sense to go public. In that process, Avid—owner of Digidesign and other best-in-class manufacturers of media production technology —began to discuss acquiring the company instead. For Avid, M-Audio’s well-established brand and successful track record was highly compelling. M-Audio knew Avid as the company that had recognized the potential of Digidesign and Pro Tools long before they became ubiquitous in pro studios. As the icing on the cake, the arrangement would give M-Audio the opportunity to tap the legacy of Pro Tools. The deal was inked in the summer of 2004.

True to form, M-Audio soon brought Pro Tools to the masses in the form of Pro Tools M-Powered. Suddenly musicians could use a variety of M-Audio interfaces to access many of the same features that made Pro Tools the industry-standard recording software. This gave musicians the ability to record basic tracks at home for embellishment in a friend’s project studio or even a high-end studio—and producers, engineers and sound effects editors could continue working on their studio tracks anywhere using a laptop. The total transparency between personal, project and pro studios was cemented.

No End in Sight. In recent years, the company further expanded its product line to offer world-class microphones, studio monitors, earphones, headphones, mobile recorders, digital pianos and other essentials. In addition, it seemed natural to build upon the success the company achieved with revolutionary laptop performance products like the Oxygen8 and Trigger Finger drum control surface. So in 2006, the company made a dramatic entry into the DJ arena by launching Torq software and related hardware. Far beyond simple vinyl emulation, Torq delivered a unique toolset that opened up a new world of creative possibilities and dynamic synergies.

M-Audio’s mantra of democratizing the creative process is sure to expand to every product class to which the company can bring expertise and new ideas. This also includes bringing the joy of music creation to more and more people through entry-level products available at consumer electronics retailers like Best Buy, Target, CompUSA, Apple and Amazon.

The Next 20 Years: The Road Ahead. So what do you do for an encore after that kind of ride? The next 20 years will see M-Audio continue expanding its product lines in a never-ending effort to offer the most complete, seamless and creative music-making environments to anyone with the desire to create.

Many of the team members behind M-Audio’s early successes will continue working to fulfill these future goals—while staying true to the core values that have gotten the company where it is today. After accomplishing so much together, M-Audio is a tight-knit family that lives to define the future and empower independent musicians over the next 20 years. Viva la revolution!

Jeff Burger

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Jeff Burger is a founding editor of EQ, former contributing editor to Electronic Music and New Media and author of The Desktop Multimedia Bible. He has consulted to M-Audio since 2001.