Hometown Heroes 2009

in Regional Slants
The votes were tallied, and some were close, some not so much … but the readers of FOH have chosen the best regional pro audio companies in North America. There are new faces and repeat “offenders.” One has been at it a little more then three years, another is celebrating a 30th anniversary. All have a passion for audio, an inimitable story, and a dedication to their clients so powerful that their peers — including competitors — were compelled to take time to nominate them and vote for them as best in their region.

Only one soundco, however, will leave the stage on Nov. 20 with the annual Parnelli Hometown Hero award. The full Parnelli awards ballot is now being prepared and will be online at www.parnelliawards.com soon. Here are the winners of the six regional Hometown Hero titles for 2009.

 

Southwest Region

Onstage Systems

Dallas, Texas

 

Onstage Systems is in its second generation, with brother-and-sister-partners Hyacinth and Chris Belcher literally growing up backstage as their parents, Charles and Vicki Belcher ran sound for area acts. “They founded the company in 1978, and they were very much ‘the show must go on’ people, so from age five, we grew up with that mentality,” Hyacinth explains. “If we were sick, then we were sick backstage. The event came first.”

    Hyacinth studied lighting in college, and Chris got additional experience in the staging department of their high school. In 2006, they took over the family business, with Hyacinth as president and Chris as vice president. The full service technical productions company provides systems and equipment for audio, lighting, backline, video and staging. But it’s their work in audio that puts them in the spotlight.

    Hyacinth admits that while the company was established and doing well, it took about a year for everyone to adjust to new leadership. Helping smooth the transition was the team that was already in place. “Most managers have been here over 10 years. We have a good group of people who are really passionate about what we do here.”

    While she witnessed how hard her parents worked, she gained new appreciation for all that is involved in running a company like Onstage. “As we have taken over, we have so much more respect for them. There are daily struggles, but I’ve grown to love the business even more. We jumped in full force, and we live, eat and breathe the business.”

    The year 1982 was the beginning of many good things for the company: That’s the year they got a George Strait tour and signed up the Dallas Symphony Orchestra — two clients that are still with them today. For years, they’ve been doing the Dallas Cowboy Thanksgiving show in addition to other events at that stadium. Other events of note include the Oklahoma University Graduation Ceremony and the Texas State Fair Laser Light Show. Last year they did Ozzfest. “That was a lot of planning, a lot of fun and a lot of speakers.” Rounding out their project list are corporate events as far away as Seattle.

    Today they have 24 full-time employees, plus freelancers and do around 300 shows a year. “Diversification equals success, and having a crew that can do rock ‘n’ roll, corporate, churches and the symphony projects works for us. It also keeps us on our toes!”

    When it’s noted there are few women in this business, she laughs. “My parents used to tell me that there’s no way a woman could a run a company like this in such a male-dominated industry, but that just made me want to do it more — I mean, I grew up playing in drum corps!”

    Belcher cites two reasons for the company’s success: The first is customer service. “We’re surrounded by people who care. Each person at the company puts their own name on a project in addition to the company’s name, and that’s how we keep clients long-term.” Secondly, and of equal importance, is their equipment, including gear from Clair Bros., Yamaha, Digidesign and more. “We always want the best, the highest end. We literally work on it on a daily business. This has been a good business model for us.”

    As to the honor of being named best in the Southwest region: “I think it’s a pretty cool thing! It’s good to see hard work pays off … though it makes me want to work harder.”

 

Northwest Region

Morgan Sound

Lynnwood, Wash.

 

Steve Boyce is proud to tell you he’s a “Seattle guy, fifth generation,” and that fact has helped him survive and thrive in the finicky Northwest. He has once again been voted by his peers as the Northwest Hometown Hero winner and regional finalized for the Parnelli Hometown Hero award. But his path getting there has certainly had some curves.

    He was a musician, starting on accordion, and then switching to guitar before moving to bass. Naturally, a love of audio developed. By age 12, he was building speaker cabinets in his dad’s shop. That was the year he formed his first band,  and whenever he played with other groups, their superior system was used. Boyce would then work the board.

    When he was older, he realized that he “needed to earn real money,” and he started working with friend and fellow band mate Charlie Morgan, who had founded Morgan Sound in the 1973. Boyce did that for a while, went off and founded his own sound company and kept busy. Then here’s the twist: Microsoft called. They were putting sound to their first CD ROM (a dictionary) and called Boyce in for the project. At first he worked as a vendor, then as an employee, and his stint there lasted seven years.

    In 2001, he ran into Morgan Sound partners Charlie and Susan Morgan at a NAMM show. The Morgans had grown their company successfully, though their attention was focused on the sales and installation part of the business. Conversation ensued, and Boyce rejoined the company. He was to handle the live sound division as their sound reinforcement director.

    “We do quite a mix in live sound,” he says. “We do a fair amount of corporate work, which I’ve really grown to love a lot — it’s straight ahead, clean, and everybody knows what to expect. And it pays more!” Recent corporate highlights include a Costco sponsored fundraiser where Jay Leno was headlining. They’ve also just finished tweaking knobs for 3 Doors Down. “I’m glad to get every gig we get. I also like that we’ve built a group of people who feel likewise. The crew takes great pride in what they do, and aren’t just on the clock.”

    He credits the Morgans for building a solid base. “In the early days, Morgan sound was it. They did all the major concerts.” As time went by, competition came, and to put it delicately, some clients slipped away. “But today we have a lot of new clients. Some we’ve lost we’ve not yet won back, but the business is growing overall.”

    Today Boyce oversees about 16 full time employees with a stable of eight freelancers.

    “My attitude is, I’m always on the right track,” he says, smiling. “I don’t mean that to sound arrogant, I just have a positive outlook. And what I have learned from Charlie in the 1970s is that if you go out and do a great job every time, not only will you get that gig again, but [the client] will tell others about you and you’ll get more phone calls.

    “We go out and do a great job every time because that’s what we do.”

    Boyce says they are “absolutely thrilled” about this honor. “We’ve been readers of FOH since the beginning and had the honor of being named best regional sound company in 2004, and then we took home the Parnelli that year. We were nominated last year, too, and that was a great honor. It’s great to just have people go, ‘hey, you guys are worthy.’”



Canada

Tour Tech East

Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

 

Tour Tech joins the regional circle for a second year in a row, having taken home the Parnelli for Best Sound Company in 2008. And owner Peter Hendrickson feels pretty good about that.

    Tour Tech was founded in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia in 1984 by Hendrickson. Prior to that, he had been a freelance lighting designer since 1975. At first, the company only offered lighting services, but over the years, Tour Tech East has added sound, staging, power distribution and trucking to its base of business. While the company has been adding services, Hendrickson has always kept an eye on his inventory, something he attributes to the organization’s success. “In the early days, I used to buy what I really liked and what I thought was great,” he told FOH last year. “Unfortunately, what I think is great doesn’t always translate to cash, and I can’t grow the business if I only buy what I like. I am in business to stay in business and I can be either right or I can be dead right. I have given up on the dead right.”

    Hendrickson has said that they could have stayed local, but they wanted to grow the business. He does cite the period in the 1990s as a highlight, as that’s when many big tours stopped carrying production and started using local support for their tours. Seeing the opportunity, Tour Tech bulked up in terms of equipment and personnel. Rod Stewart, Def Leppard, Iron Maiden all came knocking. “That’s when we went from being a bar-type supplier to a regional supplier,” he says.

    It was a touchy situation that required a delicate balancing act. “You don’t want to go into situations appearing that you’re busting at the seams,” he says. “You want to go in with the customer feeling like they are looked after well. That’s been one of the challenges today for us — just making sure that all the clients are satisfied and that they feel comfortable with what we are doing for them.”

    Their list of clients is impressive: Eagles, Avril Lavigne, The Rolling Stones, Toby Keith. More recently this year, they’ve handed Bon Jovi and hip hop artist Akon.

    Today they are one of the largest live event companies in Canada with 50 full time employees and a inventory that  boasts an enviable warehouse of equipment including gear from L-Acoustics, Meyer Sound, Electro-Voice, DiGiCo, Yamaha, Digidesign and Midas. “That has helped our profile over the years.” Tour Tech is also spreading their talents south, having opened an office in Bangor, Maine in 2001.

    Last year he also told FOH: “At the end of the day, as long as you provide good service to a customer who has faith in you, they will remain a good customer,” he says. “If they buy on price alone, they aren’t really your customer. They are just someone you are servicing along the way. Price is a factor, because we all have to answer to the money god, but if they are a real customer then they will believe in what you are doing.”

    Not surprising, he’s pleased about getting the Hometown Hero regional nod again after winning the Parnelli Hometown Hero award last year: “Going for platinum this year!” he smiles, adding: “It’s fantastic. I appreciate the support out that that has put us in this position twice. We’re looking forward to coming to Florida.”
 

Northeast
Concert Quality Sound
Egg Harbor City N.J.

Concert Quality Sound was started by owner John Heinz in 1991 after years of doing sound as a hobby for local bands and functions. “As a teenager we had technicians from the local casinos that would come in and volunteer time to help the students with different events. It had not occurred to me that you could make a career out of doing this type of work. I thought what a great job.”

Unfortunately getting a job in Atlantic City was much harder than he thought. “I started the company more as a need to satisfy my own curiosity and desire to learn about the business. I also had a thriving electronics repair business that I operated during the weekdays, so I had weekends to do sound.”

In the late 1990s he got “an offer I could not refuse”  (hey, it’s Jersey…). One of the casinos needed a lead tech with a strong background in repair and service for a showroom gig.  “It was a great job and I loved the people around me, but I missed the challenges of doing fieldwork.” He made the decision to leave the casino and go full time with the sound business.

“I think a lot of people confuse competitive with cheap. It’s too easy to make a sale by being the lowest price, but ultimately some part of the deal is going to suffer. My competitors know they will not lose a job because we undercut them; we get jobs based on the confidence of our client base and our ability to deliver. I would be remising not to mention the great staff I have, there is no doubt without them, and I would not be in business, period.”

 

Southeast Region

Allstar Audio Systems, Inc.

Nashville, Tenn.

 

“After 25 years and sill banging away at it, I still get goose bumps when I listen to my sound systems,” says Mike Borne, founder of Nashville-based All Star Audio, a first-time Hometown Hero regional winner.

    Borne has worked in pro audio since 1981, founding All Star Audio in 1984. Today they are a full service shop offering sound, lighting, video and staging design. He grew up in the Northern Kentucky in the 1960s, and like so many others, was dazzled by the Beatles. “I had to get a band to replicate what was on the radio,” he says. He played music during his high school years, while also studying electronics at a vocational school. Upon graduating, he was asked to run sound for a three month tour and he’s been at it every since.

    But by 1984 he was ready for a change. Seeing a need for a quality production company in Nashville, he founded Allstar Audio. In the beginning, there were the expected struggles. The company was focused on smaller festivals, fairs, small tours, etc. “We did some less than glamorous gigs.”

    With every gig, however, money went back into more, and better, gear. He tells that about 20 years ago EAW released their KF-850, and he spent many sleepless nights over deciding on jumping into a new cabinet, as he had just made a substantial investment in another model. But jump he did, and was one of the first companies to take on the soon-to-be popular speaker. This accelerated Allstar into the mainstream.

    Borne not-so-jokes that the best part of the 1990s was surviving it. “Having a family including a beautiful wife and children, along with patience and dedication to our business” got him through. “Nothing happens overnight, unless it’s something bad,” he adds. “We worked on growing in the directions that our customers’ needs were and expanded accordingly.” They gained the confidence of such acts as Lee Greenwood, Ronnie Milsap, Restless Heart and Diamond Rio and kept busy.

    “In the mid 1990s some of the larger national size sound companies discovered what I had already known: That country artists tour year round and offered a slightly less, but more consistent, income. As soon as they started after the country bands, then smaller companies like Allstar had difficulty in doing the down and dirty bidding that seems to take place.

    “I always had the feeling that I wanted to work with clients who appreciated the hard work, dedication, and professionalism that Allstar brings, and not as much on just getting the cheapest bid.”

    In the midst of this, he also discovered that the big rock ‘n’ roll companies didn’t always play well with the corporate types and expanded into that area. “They like clean cut techs, minus the long hair, and without the cussing and smelling like they just got off the tour bus. But most of all besides the best maintained gear and guys, we have the right attitude.”

    Today Allstar is “small but mighty” with seven full time staffers and another 20 professionals they call on during the busy seasons. Most recently they’ve kept busy with Memphis in May Festival, Hannity Freedom Tour, Charlie Daniels Band, Michael W. Smith, Intel Corporation, FUSE TV Networks and “some I can’t mention because I would have to kill you afterward.”

    Borne says a lot of pro audio companies come and go, but they’ve always had the right can-do attitude.

    “I am honored to be there with the other [regional sound] nominees. I guess it looks like we have more friends that voted, doesn’t it?”


Midwest Region

Signature Audio

Wixom, Mich.

 

Sam Walton, senior manager, has the distinction of being the youngest company leaders to be recognized with a regional Hometown Hero title — he’s a mere 28 years old. But this born-and-raised Detroit boy has already been at the business of live sound for a full decade. A love of sound and an interest in electronics put him behind the board of local acts. In 2003, he was fresh out of college, but decided against getting one of those “pesky real job” things you read about in the paper. Instead. he founded Signature Audio, and hasn’t looked back.

    Today Signature offers installations, custom designs and build services, room acoustics analysis, live sound reinforcement and consulting and education.  “In 2007 we did our largest installation to date,” he says. Muncie, Ind.-based Ball State University called on the young company to do a million dollar sound install featuring all top end gear in their Emens Auditorium. “That was a big breakthrough. That put us on the map.”

    Signature also handles many of the largest municipal shows in Detroit-area towns like Plymouth and Northville, which continue to expand their concert series schedules with Signature growing right along side them. Signature also handles the biggest local bands and regional touring acts. For Walton, the emphasis is local. “We enjoy working with our community and being part of it, as opposed to a faceless sound company just turning mics on and off.”

    Recently Signature has been doing more large-scale installations and has handled work from the area’s big private schools. The summer concert venues have turned repeatedly to Signature. “We get involved with programming and don’t just handle sound, but really operate as turnkey producers. We help manage artists needs, procure staging and lighting, and that all keeps us pretty busy, especially in the summer.”

    Today the company works with four full-time professionals and then picks up another six or eight freelancers when the work rains in. Signature Audio uses only Harman Pro Group products, which Walton calls “a testament to the fact that aural perfection is the primary goal. Simply, Signature Audio’ designs, installations and live systems sound better.”

    Walton seems to have figured out the key to the business already.

    “Number one, I have the greatest staff, and we’re all absolutely passionate — diehard passionate — about what we do. We’re hard workers, and we do the job right. We’re very detailed oriented and a lot of our success is attributed to that.” 

    He’s pretty pleased to get this Hometown Hero nod as well: “I’m absolutely honored to be recognized by my pears. I’m lucky to have some great guys in the industry that would normally look at me as competition, but they are more than that. They are great friends, and it’s great to be recognized for all the hard work we’ve done to build this company.”