Interview in Production Partner Magazin with Michael von Keitz and Markus Schmittinger by Detlef Hoepfner
From its headquarters in Solingen, Michael von Keitz runs a group of companies dedicated to the development, production and distribution of professional audio technology. Under this roof, among others, one can find SE Audiotechnik, VUE and the hi-fi brand mivoc. One strength is the now returning business in China – what can we learn from abroad for our German market?
Need some motivation?
Then call or visit Michael von Keitz. Upon arrival, an employee will cheerfully check your face mask as the use of masks is standard everywhere inside the company – and for everyone regardless of whether they are a developer or the boss. The fact that these masks also found their way into the company’s own online store is indicative of 2020. On this pandemic autumn day of our company visit, the sky over Solingen in Germany was as grey as everything around us. SE too is feeling the crisis and had to cushion the impact of the economic down- turn with successes from previous years. However, this is not stopping the team from looking ahead optimistically and continuing to work hard on its future. The fact that the company had not been able to “get rid” of some traditional market segments completely has turned out to be a blessing in disguise: SE Audiotechnik is based on the company mivoc, which actually comes from the hi-fi scene. Even today, real sales hits can be found on online portals under the long-established name mivoc. Al- though this may not be able to save a company in distress, it does generate helpful, economic background noise. An- other, almost forgotten pillar is car hi-fi: in 2020, many car fans rediscovered their love for the rave on four wheels and started tinkering again. This also helped SE Audiotechnik get over the crisis.
Development as equals
However, this esteem is not always the case on the other side too, as – according to some people outside the company – Chinese engineering is not highly regarding in this country. Michael von Keitz considers this attitude to be inappropriate to arrogant. Although the management and large parts of the development are located in Germany, the transfer has long since ceased to follow the simple pattern of “engineered in the West, produced cheaply in the East”. A good example is SE Audiotechnik’s current M-Line, su- per-compact, slim line array elements with integrated amp- ing and processing. The acoustic idea behind the series comes from the compact line array speakers that the team already brought to market in huge quantities, even as OEMs. The M-Line takes this principle one step further – and also designed its high frequency range using hornless dome tweeters arranged closely in one line. “This product, with which we are so strong in the market today, was developed more or less acoustically. This was followed by questions such as: how shall we design the fly hardware? As a classic four-point? The project then came to a standstill and stood and stood … and somehow nothing really progressed. Our Chinese colleagues then took it into their hands – and developed this wonderful three-point solution. We had reservations at first, but the Chinese colleagues prevailed. We put it on the market, had it tested, and lo and behold: it works and it’s reliable. The connector panel is slightly inclined, so that the rain doesn’t run into it; we initially turned up our nose over the plastic bottle placed above it. It may not look incredibly professional – but who cares? If it had only been up to us in Germany, it would not have come on the market. But it works wonderfully. The pragmatism that exists in China is simply great fun.”
Meanwhile, the product is in its second generation and is getting better and better. The most important feedback during this phase on the way to the M-F3A Pro was market feedback received from sales in China, where sales numbers are huge for this system: five to six thousand units are sold alone in China every year. Further Asian representatives (and thus sales) exist in Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Vietnam and Korea. “now it’s time for Europe, and the next step will be the United States.” Markus Schmittinger, Managing Director in Solingen: “We now want to bring the enormous success in China to the West as well; it will only bring benefits to all sides. Here, in our home country, we can make excellent use of our experience to bring new impulses to this rather deadlocked market.”
New technology for future formats
There is positive feedback from the audio market in the Far East: it already seems to be back to full power, SE is working at full capacity and is already experiencing demand-related supply bottlenecks for the end of 2020. regarding the European ramp-up of business after the crisis, Markus Schmittinger already sees good prospects: “When we think of the time after Covid-19, the M-F3A Pro comes to my mind: this device weighs only eight kilograms when fully active, meaning that, in the future, rental companies will be able to do jobs with less equipment and personnel. This will be one of the demands when Covid-19 is over. This is our chance to help at this point with equipment that can be set up and taken down with much less personnel. Apart from storage and transport space, I can load a system that can easily pro- vide sound reinforcement for 1,500 people in my SUV or a larger station wagon. It’s an enormous saving of costs. To- day, everyone has a large line array with a rig, and you’ll use it everywhere simply because it’s there. However, if you have to rethink in the future and you might have to go to events alone and avoid a rig, a solution such as this one comes in- to play.”
German-Chinese development: Well over 30,000 M-F3A Pro units can be found on the market in 2020.
Show formats in China
Chinese productions have realized shows “that we thought were absolutely impossible”, says Markus Schmittinger. “There are historical stage spectacles such as Back to Tang Dynasty with a huge, 40 meter wide stage set, where no speakers were allowed to be seen at all. But at the same time, an immersive sound experience was called for – meaning a far greater effort than, for example, at the Bregenz Festival in Austria. It was really amazing, their solution was brilliant, and you just don’t see a single speaker – nothing! Everything is integrated into the stage set, and that’s the great thing about this system: you can hide it perfectly and still have the power and sound that opens up.” Michael von Keitz: “Because it weighs nothing, you’ll never have problems with the suspension. If I fly six elements, they will weigh just short of 50 kg – that’s nothing. I can work with every ceiling, every truss, it always works. And our Chinese counterparts are doing even crazier things still: a year ago, they announced a stadium event with 10,000 visitors using M-F3A Pros, and we just asked: what? They then showed us how to do it and flew 18 elements in a line for the music, another 18 for the vocals, and then a proper battery of subwoofers underneath. not only was this possible, the result was fabulous. Most recently, we used the system for a month-long EDM festival in Shanghai: 50 shows with 5,000 visitors each – and all of that during the rainy season. In this case, the system also consisted of subwoofer lines flown on the left and right side of the stage as well as sub- woofers on the ground. This shows the flexibility of a sys- tem like this. Apart from their joy of experimenting, they have of course also started to ‘run up’. One can now find about 30,000 to 40,000 speakers of this system on the mar- ket as well as some very large and experienced users.”
Less rigs in the future? Markus Schmittinger and Michael von Keitz see logistical advantages in the M-F3A Pro’s format.
Dare to change
Market acceptance, however, does not only depend on acoustic performance. Out of caution or a need for security, there is a great deal of reluctance to make too many changes on the part of decision-makers or project managers. “A rental company’s largest fear is having the wrong equipment,” says Markus Schmittinger, and adds: “Its second largest fear is not being perceived as ‘professional’ because the quality is not right. This is all understandable, but it’s a mental thing. If someone says about small systems: ‘I can’t land them here’, then this person is afraid that customers will think: ‘Oh, this can’t be serious. Did he fob me off with something cheap?’ It’s the granny factor: a grandmother comes to the wedding, sees the big speaker and gets a fright: ‘Oh my, this is going to be so incredibly loud!’ This also exists vice versa: ‘Such a small speaker, it can’t be professional. You must be joking’.”
Offer an enhanced listening experience
In closing, Markus Schmittinger mentions the enormously changed listening habits: “If some people would go into a concert hall today to hear music coming purely out of an instrument, without amplification, the signal will somehow seem too small to them. We have become accustomed to listening through loudspeakers, like hearing through magnifying glasses and receiving an impression that is ‘larger than life’.
Jose Miguel Cadavid is a member of SE Audiotechnik’s young, international audio engineering team.