With a range of reasonably-priced microphones that many audio experts hold on par with the biggest brands in German manufacturing, British company Sontronics is fast making a name for itself among the industry. Sound & Stage spoke to the company's founder and designer, Trevor Coley, to discover more...
S&S: Tell us more about the origins of Sontronics – when and why did you set up the company, was there a gap in the market that you were aiming towards?
I created the Sontronics brand name and our first few mic designs in mid-2004 and we launched at the NAMM Show in January 2005. Around that time there was an influx of re-badged OEM microphones coming in from Asia, which were all very cheap but lacked any kind of refinement whatsoever — they were generally very sibilant and ‘thin-sounding’ and often fell to pieces after a few uses. I saw a gap in the market for a range of well-engineered microphones, designed for the digital recording era, which were affordably priced. That’s what I set out to achieve.
S&S: What about your background before Sontronics, how did this lead you to set up the company?
From the age of six I played with my parents’ Ferrograph quarter-inch tape recorder and Bakelite microphone, so I was exposed to sound recording from an early age, plus my dad is an engineer so I was used to helping him make things, take things apart and re-build them. When I was 12 I taught myself to play the electric guitar and started a band soon after. Whenever we recorded ourselves it became clear how important the microphone, and its placement, was. My first experience of a condenser mic was a real epiphany! In the 12 years prior to starting Sontronics I had various roles in the audio industry — in studios, managing retail stores and as an international sales manager for a major distributor — so I had a broad experience. I also saw that many of the world’s leading brands (not just in music) were setting standards in manufacture in the Far East, and realised that with the right management and quality control systems in place, getting products made in China could not only save on cost and time, but could also set standards in quality. I knew a good microphone is fundamental in achieving an accurate sound reproduction, and I saw how passionate people could be about their microphones, whether classics or modern, so this was enough for me to start my own brand.
S&S: Since the company was launched back in 2005, how has it evolved? What have you learnt or adapted to along the way that has shaped the Sontronics brand into what it is today?
Our evolution has come from observing how our microphones are being used and listening to our customers’ needs and requests. For instance, our HALO microphone came out of the fact that people were using and loving our handheld STC-80 mic on guitar amps but, being a guitarist myself, I understood that you might want something more exciting looking than a black vocal mic in front of your cabinet! I took the STC-80 capsule, designed a vintage-inspired body — and then had to completely re-engineer the capsule mount and the electronics as the new body affected the sound — but a new guitarist-favourite was born! Compared to the mid-90s, the music industry is very different today. Back then, producers were mainly professionals who’d spent years learning their trade. However, today so many people are making music in home surroundings or even portable set-ups and they may not have spent years in a studio or studying, plus the pace of life is so much faster, people don’t have time to necessarily ‘learn’ what they’re doing, they just need the right results, fast. This led us to focus on developing microphones that deliver mix-ready results, for studio or on-stage, without the need for time-consuming post-processing or EQ. It also influenced us in creating application-specific mics — for example our DM-series condenser mics for drums or our Delta ribbon mic for guitar amps and brass — and I believe this is what gives Sontronics microphones an edge over our competitors.
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S&S: What would you say has been/is your stand-out product or product line? Why do you think it has been a hit?
This is a tough question to answer, mainly because every mic has been created with care and attention and has achieved success in its own right. However, perhaps the biggest revelation of all has been our ARIA valve microphone. Although many of our mics give stunning results on vocals, we didn’t have a specific vocal mic, so in 2011 I set out to create a microphone dedicated to vocals that would capture all the specific frequencies and characteristics of the human voice. I designed the ARIA using even higher-specification components than we had ever used before; I really wanted this to be a special microphone. From the first paper sketches to the working prototype microphone (which was beta-tested with producer Paul Epworth, artist PJ Harvey, and the engineers at Abbey Road Studios), the development process took almost three years to complete. At one point I almost gave up because I was concerned the finished product would be too expensive, but a very close friend told me that this was one of the best mics he’d ever heard and that I must continue. “People will fall in love with this mic,” he told me, and he was right. Our customers truly love the silky-smooth character of the ARIA for their vocal recordings and many have also found it to be the very best microphone for cello, violin, acoustic guitar and percussion.
S&S: What is your main customer base – particularly over here in the Middle Eastern region?
Our aim has always been to develop professional, high-quality microphones which are very affordable, so our customers include everyone from students and home musicians right up to world-renowned producers, engineers, top studios, live-sound touring companies and film-score composers. I suppose our focus has been more toward the studio-based user, but there is no doubt that Sontronics is starting to make an impact on the live-sound market. I think it’s because our microphones deliver such an accurate reproduction, they are finding their way out of the studio and onto tours. I think our partners at Desert Beat in Dubai (who handle our sales and distribution in the Middle East) would say that they sell a large quantity of our high-end Aria, as it’s become so desirable and has developed a reputation of its own, but also our home studio packages. Our STC-20 Pack and STC-2X Pack are the perfect solution for anyone making music on a computer; all you need is a soundcard or interface and mic stand, and you’re ready to record.
S&S: Briefly talk us through the overall process of creating a new Sontronics mic, from design to shelf.
Firstly, we identify that there is justification for our new idea to exist. If we agree that our idea is viable, I then begin to make the initial drawings. I try to evoke a vintage character in each design but, thanks to the laws of physics, we won’t fully know how the microphone will respond until a working prototype is made. Once it’s been tested and fine-tuned in-house, we then ask various professionals to make real-world tests of the prototype microphone. We’re very fortunate to have many wonderful producers, engineers, artists and studios who are willing to give their time and share their valuable opinions with us. World-class names such as Abbey Road Studios, Flood, Paul Epworth, PJ Harvey and Paul Weller have all been instrumental in our microphone development. Their feedback helps us to decide if any further modifications are needed. Only after that do we feel confident to put the microphone into production and on to the market.
S&S: What’s coming up over the next year for Sontronics – any new launches, growth or expansion that you can tell us about right now?
Our next new product, which we’ve already previewed at recent music exhibitions, is Mercury, a variable-pattern valve microphone. It is in the final stages of beta-testing now and is wowing everyone. The Mercury will be fully assembled in the UK and we’re building the PCBs at a factory local to us that makes products for the aerospace and F1 racing car industries. We’re using next-level components and the quality is incredible, but the results are absolutely stunning too. Other than that, we also have several other projects on the test-bench and in prototype stage, but you’ll hear about them in due course! In terms of growth and expansion, we never stop looking for new opportunities to spread the word of Sontronics. We always welcome any enquiries from anyone interested in distributing our products and always on the lookout for artists or producers to join our ever-growing family of famous users. We’re currently in the middle of a large project to open up business in the Latin American markets, so I expect that will keep us busy for some time to come.