In an audio production market dominated by corporations and conglomerates, it’s rare to find a family business thriving like Soundkit. With the company celebrating its 20th anniversary, its founder and director Martyn Richards considers what makes Soundkit so valued by its customers – and talks about possible opportunities for sound professionals interested in joining a company that’s proving smaller is often better…
It’s 20 years since Martyn Richards set up Soundkit, selling audio equipment to the production industry, and the anniversary is a rare opportunity for him to reflect on what makes his company successful. “We’re still a small family-run business going strong, able to supply everything the industry needs quickly and efficiently but with a much more personal service,” he says from his Cardiff office. “There isn’t a telephone queuing system – when you ring us, you’ll speak to me, and I’ll remember you if we’ve worked together before.”
Martyn works with his daughters, Caitlin and Hannah, to provide sound professionals with everything from mixers and microphones to cables, bags and batteries. “We’re shipping products across the UK and beyond every day, but of course one of the big changes in the past 20 years has been the amount of television and films produced in Cardiff, so we get the sound people working on big productions like His Dark Materials, Doctor Who and Casualty popping in for things when they need them,” he explains. “They know they can rely on us.”
In premises stocked with an impressive range of the latest audio technology, a small corner shelf stands out. “That’s my little museum,” Martyn smiles, showing off some four-channel mixers from the eighties and nineties. “I made these. Before I started Soundkit, I was manufacturing these mixers by hand from the front room of our house!”
“I’d been in the television sound business since I was about 24, so over 40 years now,” he recalls. “I started at a company doing PA systems for BBC outside broadcasts using lots of old fashioned column speakers and Quad 50 Watt amplifiers. To give an idea of the kind of work I was involved in, there was one day when we did a job at Port Talbot Leisure Centre at the height of the darts craze on TV – so I was setting up and running a PA system at this huge barn of a place full of hundreds of people drinking all day watching this massive darts competition. And immediately from there, I drove to a Buddhist temple near Carmarthen, where we were recording their monks chanting the 107 names of God in a ceremony which went on all night! There was even an elephant there!”
A tragic event, though, led to a change in Martyn’s career, he recalls: “The company had a manufacturing business going on in the background, and eventually that became the main part of the business. My business partner sadly passed away very suddenly, and I was left on my own to carry it on. I had a young family, a large overdraft and just me to work out how to keep it going, so I started manufacturing these portable audio mixers myself.”
The best of these little mixers was the Filmtech LSP4, less sleek than today’s digitised models but surprisingly compact. “The LSP4 circuit boards used tiny surface mount components and I made the first batch myself using tweezers in the front room of my family’s house,” Martyn recalls. His daughter Caitlin vividly remembers those days: “One of my biggest childhood memories was being in the bedroom next door to where Dad was building them and hearing the clipping of wire and smelling the solder. To this day, if I hear wire being cut it takes me back to then!”
Martyn remembers the challenges of working alone: “I was behind schedule with the very first batch but I was booked to go to the NAB Show in Las Vegas, so I took with me all the circuit boards and components, tweezers and soldering iron in my suitcase, and worked on them at night after the show!”
Promising early sales allowed Martyn to produce the LSP4 on a bigger scale. “It enabled me to pay for Christmas for the family, at least!” he says modestly. The mixer would go on to sell successfully worldwide for over a decade. “In fact, someone got in touch recently who was still using one of our LSP4s for professional productions!”
Another visit to the NAB Show at the turn of the millennium, however, forced Martyn to change his approach and eventually led to the creation of Soundkit: “I went to a stand where a new little company called Sound Devices was showing, and they had a four-channel mixer called the 442 selling for much less than the LSP4. Overnight our American sales disappeared, so I had to rapidly rethink what I was going to do. Previously, I’d been building the mixers, but people often asked for other bits and pieces like a bag to carry it in, and cables and batteries. I worked out I could carry on selling all this other stuff that I didn’t have to make.”
In 2002, Martyn formed Soundkit, selling a range of sound equipment and accessories. Ironically, although it was the rise of Sound Devices as a leader in audio production equipment that led to the end of Martyn’s manufacturing business, it was when he became one of Sound Devices’ UK dealers that his new company took off. “Once I was selling Sound Devices and Sennheiser’s stuff, and all the main lines, then everything fell into place for Soundkit.” 20 years on, and Soundkit still sells equipment from all the major manufacturers.
What does the future hold for the company? “Well, I’m 66 now,” says Martyn, “and while I’m not intending to retire just yet, I want to think about bringing in someone with a real passion for sound technology to work alongside us here. Caitlin and Hannah run the office and the website and the day-to-day running of things, but it would be great to have someone who wants to develop their own knowledge and skills in a smaller, friendly environment.”
Soundkit can look ahead to the next two decades with optimism, remaining a company that proves smaller can often be better, offering everything a sound technician needs but with the personal touch one would expect from a family business with 20 years’ experience.
By Nicholas Davies.