Death & 10 Other Life Lessons From An Exporter
IN THE MID-1990s, during 10 days of intense chemotherapy, Wes Dooley asked friends and family the question that death presents every one of us: “I asked everybody who knew me, ‘Who am I?” Dooley recalls. “And the answer came back, ‘You’re the ribbon-microphone guy.”
To understand what that answer meant—and why Wes Dooley’s Audio Engineering Associates is now world famous for an American-made microphone that you’ve probably heard but have never heard about—takes some time. Let’s start at the beginning.
ALUMINUM HAD ALREADY been in use in a primitive form for most of recorded history—for medicines and dyes, mostly—but only in the late nineteenth century, following a kind of pre-industrial space race among European scientists, did humans figure out how to isolate it into something like the stuff we use widely today. In the early 1920s, two Germans working in a Siemens lab produced a new microphone, the key component in which was pure aluminum beaten to ribbon-like suppleness—at 1.8 microns, “wafer” doesn’t begin to explain how thin this stuff is; a human hair is about 1,000 microns thick. When suspended between two magnets, this aluminum ribbon translated sound waves into electrical signals that could be amplified. Later that same decade, Harry F. Olson, an Iowa farm kid with a doctorate in physics, built upon the Siemens ribbon technology, creating for RCA—formerly the Radio Corporation of America—the 44 ribbon microphone. That RCA 44 microphone—“mic,” for short—was to sound engineering what the personal computer is to almost everything. It radicalized the possibilities of human communication. And it would give Wes Dooley existential meaning.
ADVANCES IN ACOUSTIC TECHNOLOGY have produced different, maybe even better microphones (Dooley calls them “hyper-articulate”), “but many people simply prefer the ear feel, the tonal quality of the ribbon mics.” He recalls that rock guitarist Eddie Van Halen, already the proud owner of one of Dooley’s 44s, came back for a second “because it sounded through a speaker like what his ears hear in the room.” Listen to that and consider: in a century when technology raced to produce “better” microphones that roared and whistled beyond human capacity, the boxy, art-deco 44 became the favorite of audiophiles, sound engineers, radio talent, filmmakers, orchestras, geeks, rockers and others because it produces a sound that resonates with our species. You know Nipper—that dog listening to His Master’s Voice through the trumpet of an early Victrola? We’re like Nipper. Dooley heard the 44 as a young man, and like Nipper knew it was something like his master’s voice.
IF YOU’VE RAISED A CHILD, you know that part of your job is to find the path of least resistance, to identify the thing for which your kid seems to have been born and to create the space for that thing to go Big Bang, exploding into its own remarkable fractal of the cosmos. Who knows where Dooley’s affection for microphones really comes from?
We can identify some possible causal relationships. Dooley is a descendant of the do-it-yourself hotrod culture of Southern California in the 1950s, except that his mad affection morphed from cars to electronics. He is an artisan and a brilliant tinkerer, and was so apparently even in youth. While a kid, he tore apart electronics to see what made them work. He talked a TV repairman out of a tube he could run off batteries. In high school, he and friends built radios from box kits and parts they bought at Pappy Dow’s. In mid-century America, when schools routinely offered shop, Dooley enrolled.
Beyond electronics and mechanical devices, there was something of music and radio in the Dooley DNA, too. He heard stories of an uncle who worked sports for WEEI Boston. When another uncle gave young Dooley a radio, the kid became infatuated with a steel-guitar country station in nearby Long Beach, where the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet sat at anchor and the nation’s burgeoning aerospace industry brought Southerners—men and women who came for work, stayed for the weather, but insisted on their own music. Dooley’s mom was a pianist and dancer—“I grew up on Gilbert & Sullivan,” he says. A friend who worked sound for the Los Angeles Philharmonic introduced him to classical music and opera. There he discovered “it was really fun to set up mics for really good players.” He took an electronics course at Pasadena City College, hosted a local radio show, and engineered sound for acts at the high-profile Troubadour club in Los Angeles. In the 1960s, he and friends began tearing apart professional mics and putting them together again; they favor the RCA 44. In the years since, Dooley has worked as a forensics expert in criminal cases, has been a visiting lecturer and has taught courses all over the world. He earned a BA—in human development. He is, he says, an engineer not because he ever got a degree but because of the generosity, the openness of “real engineers—and 50 years of work.”
IN THE 1950s, while Dooley was just discovering his passion for something at the intersection of music and electronics, German sound engineers struck again, this time with condenser mics that “were much better [than ribbon mics] for tape recording, which was very big now.” RCA continued producing ribbon mics, but they became a marginal business for the electronics giant. The microphone that had been the disruptive technology from its introduction until mid-century was suddenly largely supplanted. In 1976, RCA abruptly quit manufacturing professional microphones. That’s how Wes Dooley found his bliss. Dooley’s chief engineer suggested they put their skills to work repairing the RCA mics. That colleague “introduced me to his friend Jon Sank, the RCA microphone production guy. Jon welcomed me into the basement of his home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.” There, Sank gave them the equipment they’d need to repair RCA’s ribbon microphones, “and we started the business.” Eight years later, they began importing and selling BBC-designed ribbon mics, too. “They are lovely microphones,” Dooley says, and thus begins his hymn of praise to the thinness of the aluminum ribbon (“instead of 1.8 micron aluminum beaten leaf, they were 0.6 microns!”), the elegance of the BBC design.
EMERGING FROM HIS MID-90s cancer death-match with a new sense of mission, Dooley recalls, he ran into reality—his wife, Sara. “She asked, ‘So, do you want to do this as a hobby?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘Yeah, I’ve looked at the numbers, and we’re spending three times what we bring in.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘you mean do I want to lose money at this hobby?’”
“I realized we had a market position,” he says. “We’d been importing and selling and servicing microphones. I knew there was something to this.” By the end of 1998, the Audio Engineering Associates began manufacturing RCA-style ribbon mics, and exporting them all over the world.
THE PASADENA, CALIFORNIA, FACTORY where Audio Engineering Associates (AEA) handcrafts ribbon mics is a modest place. “I wouldn’t really call it a factory,” says Sara. “It’s more like an assembly room.” Ten employees crouched over workbenches—we imagine their early-modern European clockmaking counterparts in similar postures, except for the fact that these guys are listening to audio books and lectures. They favor suspense thrillers, but on the day I’m talking with the Dooleys, the craftsmen are listening to Bill Nye the Science Guy. While Nye talks about varieties of human sexuality, the workers slice razor-thin aluminum into ribbons and pop wire grills over chrome-plated brass frames. The transformers are U.S.- and German-made. The industrial-cool carrying cases are made in Indiana. But everything else is sourced locally. When hand assembled, they are among the very best microphones in the world, shipped to clients around the world in ones and twos via UPS, FedEx, DHL and the U.S. Postal Service with a price tag of up to $5,000 per copy.
The Who’s Pete Townshend has called the AEA ribbon mic his favorite. Willie Nelson’s harp player carries one of AEA’s pre-amps on the road. Audio publications cheer. “A quality ribbon like the [the AEA R84] can take a production to the next level, injecting some butter into a margarine world,” enthused Mix. Said another: “The coolest thing about the R84 is that it sounds like a vintage ribbon with the advantage of lighter weight and smaller size . . . On brass and strings, it sounds divine, lending a ‘Hollywood film score’ vibe.” Other critics celebrated the AEA microphones’ “versatility,” “excellent wind-blast protection, the reduced proximity bass boost, the clean, even frequency response, great high end,” its “quiet gain.” Said another, “You truly have to hear it to believe it.” And, what can only be explained as true geek love, another reviewer concluded the AEA ribbon mic “rounds off transients in true ribbon fashion, adding a naturally compressed sound that flatters even the most strident source.” You don’t have to understand the recondite language of electronics to understand they’re all applauding.
Despite all the applause, the Dooleys were—and remain—determined to stay small, like monks producing beer. “At some point we decided we really were a mom-and-pop shop,” says Dooley. And they liked it that way. “We were never going to be a billion-dollar company.”
Dooley has boiled down the lessons he’s learned to these:
1 MARRY WELL
Wes Dooley needed a sense of mission to guide him compass-like through cancer. And he needed a business partner when he emerged. And that partner was Sara.
The daughter of a biblical archeologist, she spent part of her youth in the Mideast while her father taught at the Beirut College for Women, now the Lebanese American University. That’s where she picked up her love of the French she later taught in middle school. Her family lived in Europe “and all over Asia.” They lived everywhere, she says, but in sub-Saharan Africa. She aims to travel there—after she and Wes return from an upcoming trip to China to meet with an existing dealer in Shanghai and other places farther afield.
2 AND WHEN SEEKING ADVICE . . .
Remember scale. A friend of Wes Dooley’s was a financial VP for a $250 million company. Ask him questions about exporting and importing “and he will give you wildly different answers. It’s all about scale.”
3 TRAVEL (PART 1)
The pair travel rigorously—like legendary touring artists Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. Dooley says there’s no journey he enjoys so much as the three-block walk between home and office. But he kids: He travels around the globe to speak at audio conferences and to meet men and women like himself. “Anybody who loves audio is a friend of mine,” he says. “It’s the first area where I felt normal. I make friends.” Friends and business contacts: In their business partnership, it’s Sara who functions as the foreign diplomat. She loves language and mapping the cultural terrain—down to the personal likes and dislikes of potential AEA dealers. “My wife will try to figure out how to say something in Danish or Flemish in her notes to them,” Dooley says with admiration. “There’s nothing like reaching out that way.”
“Everybody has preconceived notions of what a place will be like,” says Sara. “But there’s always some shift that occurs when you spend time with people in that place. You’ll have no sense of the customer until you have been physically in that location. You can look at every picture, every [computer] app, and you’ll have no clue till you’re there. You can’t seriously understand a person’s business until you’ve been with that person, in that place. You don’t have to be there long, but you have to be there. When you spend time with them personally, you appreciate their lives. It’s always interesting to be with people to see how they handle business situations, because those are very cultural—and then there’s the personal on top of that. The more you learn, the better the relationship.”
Dooley says their favorite (but not exclusive airline) is American. If he had to pick a hotel, he’d stay with Hilton Express: “It’s predictably comfortable, and not so upscale that we look like rich Americans,” he explains. It’s affordable, too, he says—and that helps the Dooleys spend cash on something much harder to find at home than a comfortable bed: amazing food. His favorite international food memory: Buenos Aires. “Not many people realize that half of Italian emigrants from 1860 to 1960 ended up in Argentina.” They produce “absolutely amazing, unique Italian food.” He put on five pounds during his most recent visit.
4 TRAVEL (PART 2)
“We assume everyone is like us. For example, in the U.S., most bands that tour rent sound systems or use the venue’s.” But in Mexico, “the bands all have their own sound systems and have their own sound crew.” That means his strategy for selling in the U.S.—sell to the major sound studios and tour companies—won’t work in Mexico. “You have a lot of people in Mexico making the buying decisions rather than a market like the U.S. where a small group of users makes the buying decision. It’s a different market. It changes the whole dynamic.”
5 TALK TO PEOPLE YOU KNOW
“I’m astonished how helpful most people are, if you just ask them,” says Dooley. Of course, Dooley gets as good—to turn the old saying on its head—as he gives. He’s an active member in alphabet-soup audio engineering societies. He travels the world to meet men and women who, like Dooley, love the science of sound. He joins trade groups. Unlike those of us who run the gauntlet of tradeshow booths at conferences—picking up ridiculously large rubber gag pencils and branded thumb drives—Dooley actually talks to the exhibitors. And nearly everybody he meets becomes his friend. And those friends become his teachers—“as long as they’re not direct competitors.” He recalls “a guy who ran an outfit called Summit Audio. That owner, when I’d see him in like Copenhagen or Amsterdam at conferences, he and I would talk.” It was that guy who gave Dooley the solution to a international payments problem he couldn’t seem to resolve. “That guy was the one who told me to try credit cards before it became so easy to move small amounts of money around. In the early 1990s, that was real useful information: You give me money, it gets in my bank, I send you stuff.” He’s since adopted more thoroughly modern methods—credit card fraud became its own unique problem—but the point remains true: People are generally good, and they can become your global-trade teachers.
“It’s like the blind guys and the elephant,” he says of international networking. “You talk to as many people as you can. They tell you stories. You weave those stories together. And then you have something like reality.”
6 MAKE IT PERSONAL
A few years ago, Wes and Sara met with a potential dealer in Hamburg, Germany. “We just went out for coffee,” Sara recalls. “We were at café shooting the breeze, talking about politics, and he said, suddenly, ‘The hotels in town are too expensive. Now that I know what kind of people you are, you need to spend time with me, on my farm.’” And they did, shifting their venue from a downtown hotel to a home in the country. That man is now among their best dealers, and to this day Sara writes to him—in German—and “I always ask about his tomatoes and his children, and I remind him of the enjoyable night we spent drinking wine on his farm. That’s doing business on . . . well, I’m not sure what that business model is, except that it’s exceedingly personal.”
7 CASH AND CARRY
In 2010, AEA’s “excellent, pioneering dealer” in Adelaide decided on a career change—more studio sound engineering work, less selling of Dooley’s microphones. Their dealer recommended “a guy in Melbourne,” Dooley recalls. In December 2012, the new dealer offered several explanations for his slow payment for a shipment of microphones, but emailed his bank’s documentation of a wire transfer. Dooley shipped the equipment and waited for the check. It never came. “The .pdf they’d sent us was photoshopped from an earlier wire transfer,” Dooley says. AEA lost big on the deception, and soon the relationship was over— “a disaster in an important market.” But Dooley still had connections through workshops in which he’d generously given away his expertise in audio engineering—an entirely separate, but equally important lesson that might be subsumed under the heading “Pay it Forward.” “It helped hugely that I’d been on the ground there,” Dooley says. Within a month, they were back in business Down Under, with a bonus: the company now had more and better Austrialian dealers and picked up one in New Zealand. Within a few months of that, business was back up to pre-fiasco levels.
8 JUST DO SOMETHING
In the early 1980s, Dooley designed, manufactured and sold an M/S stereo box—“m” for mid-channel and “s” for side-channel, a kind of coding that can be expressed in what is, for most of us, an incomprehensible algebraic-looking formula that’s well beyond the scope of the subject at hand, but which really, clearly intrigues Wes Dooley and other audio geeks, among them the sound and recording professionals in the movie and TV business who bought the things. “We thought it was cool, but really didn’t have any idea of the size of the market,” Dooley recalls. “We built only a few hundred,” including five for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It was “a dangerous success,” something that was expensive to make and had no real market—“good enough to keep you going, but it never makes you a lot of money.” It was also, he can see in retrospect, a global loss leader, “a handy mousetrap,” a few of which “made it overseas” and into the hands of music geeks. It was like a high-tech calling card. His willingness to produce a high-end quality product on the thinnest of margins, and his readiness to sell that overseas, gave him name-recognition, the sort of global brand-awareness you can’t really buy any other way. “Fifteen years later,” he says, M/S stereo-box “dealers in places like London and Amsterdam” became dealers of Dooley’s more profitable ribbon mics—and gave him, he says, a foothold in Europe. “The M/S box got us London, and London got us Paris.”
9 CHINA? MAYBE NOT
Dooley considered manufacturing in China very briefly. But then he talked to friends. “I had a friend who went to work with people manufacturing electronics in China some years ago. This was in the 1990s, when labor there was still cheap. He said, Here’s how it goes: If I—or one of the other guys—is in China once a month, we get pretty good stuff. If we’re not there once a month, we don’t—the stuff we get starts veering off track.” And at Chinese New Year, between late January and mid-February—Chinese workers in industrial cities head home. Dooley picks up his friend’s tale: “Some of the crew doesn’t come back to work after New Year. So you absolutely have to be there then to make sure the people who do show up to work know what they’re doing.” So while he could have saved money by manufacturing in China, Dooley says, “if you factor in the lead-time, miscommunication, the amount of travel and such, maybe you saved about 15 percent. And this, remember, is at a time when labor there was astonishingly cheap.”
Then there’s the problem of piracy. Another business friend produced very high-end speakers. People told him, as they were telling Dooley, “to go to China. And he did. And that was the end for him. All over world, suddenly, his speakers—with a different label, at half the cost—started showing up. Once they have the factory and they have your procedures down, they’ll produce your product on their own and ship ’em anywhere.” He points to the case of Sennheiser microphones, a story that’s infamous in the audio world. “They produced in China, and 18 months later an engineer at Sennheiser is talking to someone who shows him Sennheiser-labeled mics that aren’t Sennheiser: You pull the little three-pin connecter, and it has different colored wires. That’s the Chinese copy.”
Sennheiser did not respond to a request for comment. But its website hosts a list of more than 500 “non-authorized dealers,” and the Internet is almost overpopulated with consumer advice on spotting the knockoffs. All of that is evidence enough for Dooley: “Whatever you’re making in China, unless you’re being supervised closely the way Apple, for instance, supervises, everything you’re making is suddenly available to anybody in the world.”
10 BE PREPARED TO SELL
In August 2011, the Dooleys traveled south to Montevideo, Uruguay, for the Audio Engineering Society’s Latin American conference. Following Wes’ presentations, the Dooleys made the short boat ride up the Rio de la Plata to Buenos Aires. “We knew [Buenos Aires] was the largest market at the southern end of the continent. And we knew some people we should talk to. Most were too busy to meet, but there was one dealer who made time for us. I carry demonstration mics with me all the time.” Inside the Buenos Aires studio, Wes set up his ribbon mics for a guitarist already strumming his magnificent 12-string. Wes recalls the studio had set up “normal Neumann mic—pretty much top of the line—and I just put up a couple of our mics where I thought they might sound good.” Sara joined the studio owner in the control room, and she recalls that when he switched the sound between the Neumann mics and the American-made pair from AEA, the studio owner “audibly gasped.” It turns out that good ribbon mics had not gotten down to Argentina yet; “they’d heard nothing like that before. The studio owner turned to us and said in Spanish, ‘I’ll take everything you’ve got.’ He met us at the hotel and gave us cash.”
Wes sums up the experience this way: “We were fortunate. Nobody had tried to do anything with the new generation of ribbon mics in Argentina. I was prepared, and, of course, my wife speaks Spanish.”
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