June 2012 Issue 154
In an unsuspecting scandinavian location, a 33 year journey has led to one of the most accomplished and innovative amplification and processing companies known to the pro audio world today. From humble beginnings to stage domination, Lab.gruppen’s HQ talks reliability, power and staying green. TPi’s Kelly Murray went to sweden for a history lesson that’s still driving the way forward.
Kungsbacka, Sweden, is an idyllic Scandinavian vision. Picturesque wooden houses and miles of forests border the crisp sea air. It may not be the obvious place for the birth of world-class amplification, but it can lay claim to that notion all the same. Historically, Lab.gruppen has continuously improved its technologies and products from the very start. It’s been improving efficiency, manufacturing and delivering the best products to the pro audio industry that the available technology will allow. At the same time, there is a rich notion of sustainability inherent in all of Lab.gruppen’s product lines and its products have consistently evolved and pioneered possibilities of energy saving technology.
Young Swedes Kenneth Andersson and Dan Bavholm met on a Morse code course in 1970, and quickly discovered their shared love of all things electronic. They started Lab.gruppen [literally Laboratory Group in Swedish] in 1979, when this joint interest in electronics soon developed into a pro audio ambition. The pair’s first marketed product was the AXE-AMP, a tiny 150W guitar amplifier. One of these models curently rests in the company’s HQ, and we’re told still works to this day. An appropriate beginning for a company built out of a curiosity for technical challenges within live sound; the company’s biggest selling point today is its engineering reliability.
When TPi arrives at the Kungsbacka HQ, the atmosphere is relaxed, yet focused and professional. The staff, be it those preparing for a day on the factory floor, or the MD himself, are eating breakfast together in the upstairs kitchen. It was a part of the working day implemented by Kenneth Andersson, that a traditional breakfast would start the day and the employees would settle into the day comfortably. Today, the routine has paid off, as the staff appear to be as enthusiastic and friendly as you could hope for.
A NEW START
Jon Alkhagen is the new Managing Director of Lab.gruppen, having joined the company in September 2011. He’s brought with him a vast amount of experience in high-end manufacturing from a varied career in the telecommunications industry. He’s immediately warm and inviting, full of knowledge about the company he now leads. He’s a great fit for the company, as in just nine months in his current role, Alkhagen has already cut production times quite significantly by implementing subtle and welcome changes into the factory routines.
Yet what stands out as being the most important part of the Lab.gruppen brand, is the determination to deliver the best to its customers in a specific market place, and that means exacting design standards that sets it apart from competitors.
Alkhagan explained: “We like being on top of what the customer wants and needs by creating a new standard on a repetitive basis. If you look at our legacy, we have done that on a number of occasions. By that stance, our design philosophy is to out-perform the needs and requests of the customer. And by constantly setting a new standard, we provide them with further options and capabilities. It’s a good and bad thing being first with products sometimes, but it shows that we’re a strong brand.
“We changed the mission statement for Lake and Lab.gruppen recently, to be better than the customer wants us to be. It’s a fine line between success and failure like that. Sometimes you have to take qualified risks. If you look at the PLM Series, you could have argued that it was too digital for the market when we released it, but look at the awards we’ve just won [the TEC Award for PLM 20000Q at NAMM], it shows that we’re at the forefront of both the market technology and what the customer wants, sometimes before the market even realises this is what they need.”
And what the customer wants in 2012, when many end users are facing a double recession, is for an environmentally friendly and thus cost effective way to tour without compromising on equipment. It’s in the company’s culture to surprise clients with more than they were expecting. And that goes back to when the founders were marketing products as engineers, because they didn’t yet have a marketing department. From the outset, Kenneth Andersson and Dan Bavholm wanted to deliver the best technical specification possible and that notion has stayed with the Lab.gruppen and Lake employees today, on a very practical level.
Alkhagen continued: “Lowering the weight of the product and improving the power consumption and efficiency of the product makes it beneficial to us because it’s a greener solution, and from a business-orientated perspective, we’re able to maintain competitive prices of the products whist at the same time, lowering the cost for the user. We have reduced our carbon footprint over the years, but the driving force is to give the customer what he wants and improve his situation.” In fact, Lab.gruppen can officially say it has been green since 1989 when environmental factors became a conscious part of R&D.
Joining the MD in his office is Martin Andersson, who has just taken up his position as Product Manager for Touring. Andersson will be working across the touring portfolio and the new appointment will see him driving forward the developments in leading product lines such as the PLM Series from Lab.gruppen and LM Series from Lake. Andersson’s father is Kenneth Andersson, the company’s co-founder.
Andersson stated: “I had a great childhood playing in bands... but it was because I had the best amps, not because I was any good at playing rock music! For a small company in a small town in a relatively small country, to be one of the world’s leading manufacturers of amplifiers and processing is a great feeling. Many steps have been taken to get there of course, the class TD is still a very valid design and the PLM 20000Q is the biggest achievement in Lab.gruppen’s history.”
THE WORLD’S MOST POWERFUL AMPLIFIER
The PLM 20000Q is, it’s factual to say, the world’s most powerful amplifier today, and at Lab.gruppen’s highly efficient quality testing room [which generates so much heat from the stress it places on the products, that it in turn warms the factory] the PLMs are paid special attention.
Alkhagen explained: “To some extent, all products deployed are to a specific customer. You can say it’s the craftsmanship that really tunes and configures the product to its direct needs. But then we have products that have that wide spectrum of usability. And we can’t have a part of that product that doesn’t meet their individual standards. The entire product, the entire usage needs to be of the same quality level. We need to be in control of the quality assessment.
“A way we do that is through the final configuration and assembly. If you look at the E Series [the latest energy-efficient product development], it’s a less complicated product, a plug in and play if you like, so we can outsource the final configuration. But with the PLM 20000Q, I wouldn’t risk that in case it didn’t meet our exacting standards. We need to do that in-house to maintain the product quality, lessen the risk levels and also satisfy the customer. You constantly need to be in the mode of improvement.”
Håkan Gustafsson, Product Engineering Manager – Touring, stated: “20,000W is a lot of power and traditionally the amplifier industry has been about getting about as much power as possible out of, say a 19 inch box, whereas Lab.gruppen has a tradition of always doubling its wattage, so maybe we can’t go that much further right now because we’re limited by what you can get out of a wall plug! But the challenge for the PLMs will be to continue to keep its reliability and be a product that is stable, that we can add features to, add more processing and widen the product range to get more usage out there.”
Gustafsson, [who was Product Manager for Lake & hardware and software touring products for Lab.gruppen’s FP and PLM series and Lake’s LM 26 and 44 prior to his new role] continued: “The energy efficient capabilities occur because the power supply is under software control. We decide how much power we take out of the service and when, instead of the other way around - that the music signal dictates what’s being pulled - and that’s the major shift around that we did; that something can be this powerful but remain environmentally friendly.”
Up until recently, the amplifier was an analogue invention, but with so much software integrated into the products now, they have a lot more potential for developing over time. And these new avenues are key to Lab.gruppen’s continued success.
WINNING A TEC AWARD
Arguably pro audio’s biggest accolade, The TEC Awards, held at the annual NAMM Show in California, this year saw the PLM 20000Q win the outstanding technical achievement recognition for Amplification Hardware / Studio & Sound Reinforcement. Alkhagen is proud of the company’s endeavours, yet has an admirable drive to succeed further.
He said: “Everybody has problems, in daily life, you’ll face problems, but you can’t get caught up in them. Receiving the TEC Award from NAMM and hearing that when the Wembley Stadium sound system wasn’t good enough, they brought in Lab.gruppen, well that does make you stand taller as a company. It gives you confidence. We are, and have been, on the right track to succeed... so now we need to improve even more!
“Winning was a big moral boost for the factory, primarily for operations because they work with the products on a daily basis. They put a lot of time, knowledge and energy into building the best product, so for that to be recognised was great.”
Gustafsson added: “Getting that award has been a dream for the Lab.gruppen R&D department ever since I started here. It was one of the first challenges I got - make a product that gets The TEC Award! - and it’s always been a bit of a challenge for us because the categories have changed and moved around, but we were definitely very pleased when we got it!”
Fredrik Kihlberg work’s in Lab.gruppen’s installation R&D department. Within his department, it’s been widely noted that the PLMs are also gaining a lot of momentum with installation decision makers. Like many of the company’s employees, working at Lab.gruppen is their ideal job, and it’s the ever changing possibilities and client interaction which make it interesting.
Kihlberg stated: “I’ve been with the company since 1993 but I’ve been playing music since I was five years old. I love music and electronics so to be able to combine that for a living makes this the job for me. It’s challenging, we’re a small company but we get to go and meet clients and suppliers, and that’s interesting to me.”
The transition of the PLMs into his own install remit may have been a surprise to some end users, but not to Kihlberg: “Power per volume and weight, efficiency, reducing the requirements of the mains distribution, sound quality and reliability actually makes the PLMs ideal for install too. And the E Series is very popular, it’s low on standby an idle consumption, it has a lot of power crammed into a small space.”
The PLMs were built with arena tours in mind, to make a network for that size venue, yet it fits for installations because there is less need for copper cables in the walls and the sound can be distributed digitally with Dante. The requirements for the high end touring world and the high end install markets are actually very similar according to such examples as BC Place Stadium in Vancouver, Canada. Both in terms of features and the power factors, the idea should be to save space and wattage, and for installations, the environmental aspect is just as important. Hence the PLMs are making a smooth transition into the install sector.
MD Alkhagen elaborated: “If we look at it from a group perspective, how to enter the market from touring and install view, we see requirements for install that are traditionally a touring type of requirement. The products that we’ve had for a couple of years are now creating their own new market. Look at BC Place in Canada; it’s like a U2 show, but on a permanent installation!” Indeed, U2’s 360 Degrees tour took a staggering 178 PLMs out on the road, whilst BC Place boasts an impressive 156 of the products installed at the venue, which represents the largest single fixed installation of PLM power in the world to date.
The PLM Series was launched with integrated Lake Processing in 2007, with Lake then owned by Dolby Laboratories. This integration meant the amplifiers quickly found favour with industry leaders in the touring market.
However, when Dolby announced that they were discontinuing the development of Lake, Lab.gruppen stepped up and purchased the rights and algorithms that made this industry leading technology tick. In 2009, under the stewardship of Lab.gruppen, Lake launched the LM 26 Digital Audio Loudspeaker Processor, which quickly became an integral part of many touring companies’ inventory. But of course, just like the ethos of Lab.gruppen, forward development never stands still, and Lake followed up that product with the brand new device, the LM 44, in September 2011.
With any new product for the live sound industry, extensive testing must be done before the product can be released to market, and the UK festival circuit in 2011 undertook the challenge for the LM 44. Reading and Leeds, Download and V Festival to name but a few provided Lake with the perfect opportunity to get the LM 44 into the hands of end users, and the consequent feedback the company received gave valuable insight for further development of the LM 44.
The LM 44 is a powerful, full-featured digital audio processor based on the highly acclaimed Lake Processing technology, which builds on the run-away success of the LM 26, and marking another major step for the Lake brand.
Identical in many respects to the LM 26, the LM 44 is distinguished primarily by a different input / output configuration. The LM 44 provides four analog input and four analog outputs, in contrast to the LM 26’s 2-in / 6-out. In addition, the LM 44 accommodates 8-in / 8-out AES3 and 4-in / 8-out Dante digital audio transport. The LM 44 benefits from the latest implementation of Lake’s iconic ‘Mesa EQ’ configuration, utilising four Mesa modules, each with an independent input mixer and output signal processing chain.
The LM 44 integrates fully into all existing Lake system inventories, including PLM Series and the LM 26, as well as with Dolby Lake Processors and all other legacy Lake devices – controlled together via Lake Controller software.
Gustafsson stated: “We have a very good penetration in all rental markets. If you look at the history of the rental companies, the UK has always been a trendsetter. In the ‘50s and ‘60s when these shows in Europe and around the world started taking place, the British firms were there, so there’s always been an influence from the UK.
“The LM 44 is a product that’s been required in the market for some time and when we first took over the Lake brand in 2009, there was a high demand to replace the Dolby Processor. First we made the crossover product, the LM 26, which covered a lot of applications, but as all touring systems are different, there soon became the demand for a matrix system that can rake in from a console or other sources and feed all those signals, processed throughout the system. That’s why we made the LM 44. “We launched it at PLASA 2011, and as there was already such a high requirement for the product, we captured a lot of business directly, especially on the UK territory. We had a lot of coverage with UK rental companies because what they can do now with this product is make a fully digital distribution system, such as SSE did at Download in 2011, with the entire sound run on a Dante network. ”
Emil Tirén is the Program Manager for Live Touring, has been with the company for some years and worked as a full time employee for eight. He works closely alongside Gustafsson and noted, “The acquisition of Lake was a big challenge; we had about six months of settling into that. With the LM system, you can build your system in different steps, and scale it. Lake technology has been around for 15 years and it was a challenge to redefine it. It’s quite expensive and it takes a lot of time, but if you’re serious about having a reliable system, it’s something that you have to do.
In order to push the available technology to its limits, the development team at Lake have recently launched V6 of the Lake Controller software, which marks the first time that the latest version will not be supported on legacy hardware such as the Dolby DLPs. “We’ve done a big job with Dolby integration and it’s about expanding the product family now,”
Tirén continued.” We’re still maintaining the old branch and Version 5 software will still work. In respect to the Lake community, we’ve actually put in a lot of work and made compromises in development so that we could still support the legacy products, which aren’t actually ours; they’re not Lake products. We have come to a point where we feel that we’ve done enough to support that, and in order to push forward the possibilities of what Lake Processing can do, we need to concentrate on the replacements. The old Dolbys will still work, but to get the best of out of the processor, we’re choosing to take the hardware to different places.”
Martin Andersson agreed: “Our products may initially cost a little more, but the key is that the total cost of driving the amplifiers is much less over time due to our reliability and efficiency, so the total cost of ownership is more affordable. Not many people realise how much work we had to put into the current Lake processors. The Dolby is a great product and a really great legacy but it was designed to have about 10 inputs in a network, now with what we’re designing the PLMs with, we can have 200 inputs, which leads to huge improvements in efficiency. The future lies in the newer platforms; people will get more out of their Lake processors by upgrading.”
The core thing with processing for Gustafsson is the way that you can scale a large touring system by tuning and EQing in a very fast and intuitive way. “That’s the way that the Lake Controller platform is built up - the way you can sort your different processing blocks and group them all together – it’s a quick and easy way to do it. It’s unique. You can take your Lake controller on a wireless tablet, walk around and do your tuning just as you would in an analogue situation,” he said.
“Lake has always been an innovative brand and that evolution is continuing, we’re adding processing blocks, and featured upgrades to the Lake Controller,” continued Gustafsson. “We’ve built in Dante to our products, so it’s definitely a technical evolution, but brand loyalty is important. A Lake system is the industry standard for tuning a PA, and that’s what a lot of engineers see when they rent off the major players.
“The Lake controller software is the user interface for the Lake technology and that’s what the user sees every day. We have a lot of commitments towards this software and high visions of where we could take it in the future. It started at the beginning as a Clair project, with Bruce Jackson [the late, great audio visionary]. I think we’re taking on that legacy and adding how things have changed since then. I guess the end vision is that the Lake controller is the interface that controls an entire conscious festival or venue system.”
EDUCATION AND TRAINING
Lab.gruppen and Lake recently launched a new training and certification in conjunction with Liverpool’s Adlib Solutions - with plans to expand the reach to other Lab.gruppen and Lake Centres of Excellence around the world - the programme is designed to introduce key aspects of Lab.gruppen and Lake Technologies and develop user familiarity with the companies’ industry-leading tour sound hardware and software platforms.
The modular course is aimed at Freelance Engineers, Tour / Install System Designers, Theatre Sound Designers and Tour System Engineers. Successful completion of the course will leave delegates fully certified to program and implement Lake Processing in mid and large-scale live sound systems.
Andersson said: “Education and training is an important part of our future development. It’s about far more than just shifting product, but about how you can educate that customer in the possibilities of the technology, and in the end, allow them to do a better job in his or her chosen field.”
HAPPY WORKERS, EXCITING FUTURE
It’s an amazing journey that Lab.gruppen has created so far. With the acquisition of the Lake brand three years ago, Lab.gruppen is driving live audio technology forward, yet the company remains incredibly personable with both in-house staff and ‘partners’.
Alkhagen explained: “I’m very positive and optimistic about this year. It’s down to teamwork. And looking at the interface with our partners, Clair being one of our biggest customers. Is it a customer - supply situation? Well, no. The way I look at it is that they’re our partner, quality is a partnership. We work together to create a situation that’s optimum for both them and us. It’s a two-way relationship, a dialogue from the development stage, and we learn from each other.”
For the engineers too, it seems as though Lab.gruppen has struck an enviable balance within its working environment. Gustafsson elaborated: “This is a very fun company to work for. Personally, when I started school I thought ‘If I can’t be the artist on stage, I want to make the best possible products for the stage’. And I succeeded in that, so I can say that I’m living my boyhood dream by working for this company every day. It’s a very challenging environment to work for in many ways, but the people working here are really fun.”
Tirén concluded: “It’s a combination of what industry we’re in, what products we make and also the size of the company that Lab.gruppen is. We have everything a large company needs but in a much more tangible scale, so we have great communication if we need to make a quick decision or move in a different direction. We’re in the top three in the world at what we do.... and we get a good breakfast!”
Photography: Zoe Mutter
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