Focusrite CEO: Market trends, studio boom & acquisition plans

It’s been an eventful time for many pro audio companies of late, but Focusrite has arguably been busier than most. With feet in both the studio/home recording market and the world of live sound, the UK firm has felt the immense challenges inflicted upon the touring industry by the pandemic, while also experiencing the boom in studio product sales as a result of lockdown. Here, CEO Tim Carroll offers Headliner some unique insights into how the business has fared during this most turbulent of times, as well as his plans for more acquisitions and further expansion…

Two years ago, Focusrite was on the brink of making two of its most intriguing acquisitions to date. The first arrived in the form of loudspeaker manufacturer ADAM Audio. The second, and perhaps most eye-catching, came in the form of live sound icon Martin Audio. It was a move that seriously captured the international touring market’s attention and singled Focusrite out as a company looking to break into new markets to become something of a 360 pro music and pro audio solutions provider.

However, the Covid outbreak that would stop the world in its tracks just a couple of months after the agreement was announced put paid to any plans for this eagerly anticipated partnership was able to begin in earnest. At least on the touring front. Rather than standing still and waiting for the chaos to blow over, Martin Audio set about expanding its already growing integrated systems offering, releasing a number of brand new lines for the installation market.

Focusrite, too, has released a volley of new products over the course of the pandemic, adding a raft of interfaces and studio products to its already hugely successful catalogue.

Meanwhile, the firm’s appetite for a shrewd acquisition has shown little sign of abating, having recently bought synth manufacturer Sequential.

To find out more, we caught up with Carroll to find out where the recorded music and live sound industries are headed and what the future holds for the business...

How has Focusrite’s business been impacted by the pandemic? What kind of trends have you been seeing?

The Focusrite Group has seen a mixed set of results during this time. At the beginning of the pandemic and lockdowns, demand for our products associated with the creation and streaming of audio (audio interfaces, reference monitors, keyboard and pad controllers, groove boxes and synths) all saw large increases in demand. Primary use case was still music creation but all use cases, including podcasting, streaming for meetings, social media live events, and gaming increased as well. On balance, demand for live/tour sound solutions came to a grinding halt and timelines for installed installations paused. As we all know, it is very early days for live shows returning, but we have seen a strong return on installed sound solutions, including our new commercial audio brand offerings under Optimal Audio.

What impact has lockdown had on the home recording market?

From our viewpoint, pre-pandemic, we were already seeing more people get into home recording than normal trending. I attribute this to a number of artists that had recently hit the chart, with the majority, if not entirety, of their albums done in their home. This was not really anything new, but the stories and quality really seemed to inspire people. Coupled with newer and growing content forms, such as podcasting, live social feeds, and streaming workflows, all home recording categories for us were doing extremely well. The pandemic and lockdowns just accelerated this and from our view, has materially expanded the base… more new folks jumped onto the technology, had a great experience and shared that experience with friends.

Have you seen any specific product ranges performing particularly well during this time?

Anything to do with capturing and editing of audio: interfaces, reference monitors, keyboard and pad controllers, groove boxes, music creation software and synths are the big ones for us.

Has the rise in home recording led you to ramp up R&D in this area?

Our group has traditionally had a large investment in R&D as a percentage of revenue, so I wouldn’t say we ramped up, but we did re-prioritise some of the roadmap to accelerate the launch of some products. If I looked across all the departments, I would say the one area we really ramped up on was customer support and the onboarding journey that Focusrite/Novation customers experience when they install one of our products. With such a large rise in customers, we needed to ensure our service and onboarding journey continued to be world class and several notches above the competition.

With live events returning do you anticipate people spending less on home studio products?

I think there will be a natural re-balancing for those who had been playing live gigs and doing home recording, but my view is that the experience many had in utilising tools such as live social media feeds, blogs, etc. to share with and cultivate new listeners is going to stick. I've talked to a number of artists who are already thinking about how they will balance their time between live events and home based recording/broadcasting.

We have lots of organic expansion planned, as well as potential acquisitions. Tim Carroll, CEO, Focusrite

What can you tell us about the new Clarett+ interfaces that have just been released? What was the thinking behind this range?

The Clarett range of interfaces have been a go-to solution for many audio professionals and facilities for years. As with all of our products, they have a natural product life cycle - typically four or five years in this space. That is usually the amount of time for us to incorporate new innovative features and tech, including customer feedback and factor in real world reqs such as new I/O protocols,etc. The Clarett+ were originally scheduled to come out a bit later, but as with many, they were a victim of the AKM fire in Japan. Knowing how important these are to many of our professional customers, we had our R&D re-prioritise the roadmap so that there would not be a huge gap in availability . The team really outdid themselves on this: not only hitting a crazy timeline, but also ensuring that these new versions up the ante on what was already a very high bar: feedback from customers and the press so far has been incredibly positive.

The company recently acquired synth manufacturer Sequential. What can you tell us about your plans for the brand and how it will operate within the Focusrite family?

Synthesizers have been in our portfolio for a long time, with a great legacy of Novation products like the UltraNova, Bass Station, and more recently Peak and Summit. When we heard that Dave Smith was looking for a long-term home for the Sequential brand, it felt like an opportunity to really bolster what we already have with what is arguably one of the most iconic brands in the world of synths. As with ADAM and Martin, Sequential will continue to run independently.

Dave desired to step back from the day to day operation of the business and focus entirely on creating new synths. We have brought in a great guy, David Gibbons, as CEO. Dave, David and the Sequential R&D team are hard at work on some killer new products, one just released a few weeks ago, the Take 5. Over time and when travel is really a viable thing again, there is a desire to have the Novation and Sequential R&D teams meet and talk about the art of possibilities. There is so much great DNA in both these groups that one could imagine some really interesting outcomes.

It’s also been almost two years since the acquisition of Martin Audio. How frustrating was it to have made that move into the live sound and installation market just before the pandemic struck?

Well, it was certainly a shock when the pandemic really hit just a few months after we acquired Martin. However, Dom Harter and his leadership team have done a fantastic job in managing through these times. Additionally, one of the big draws for us to Martin was how much focus and investment they were putting on the installed sound side of the business. As you are probably aware, we also launched Optimal Audio earlier this year, a new brand dedicated to the installed sound market. This part of Martin’s business has fared well through the pandemic and along with tight control the management team put on expenses, resulted in a positive finish for the year. Now with live events starting to come back, we expect Martin’s live sound business to jump right back and be stronger than ever.

What are your plans for Martin Audio over the coming months?

A number of plans - debuting more new products, including development in some new areas of the market, ramping up production for the very strong reaction to the Optimal Audio offerings, and working very closely with all the live events companies to ensure a smooth return to normality over the course of this year.

What are the biggest opportunities for Focusrite at present?

Our core markets continue to grow. More and more content is being created and people everywhere are utilising our products for their creative endeavours; at the hobbyist level through the mode demanding professionals. We see ample opportunity to continue playing a big part in these workflows and expanding our footprint as well. We have lots of organic expansion planned, as well as our eyes on a number of potential acquisitions that could complement our current brands.

And the biggest challenges?

Staying focused and putting our energies to the things that really matter. The world is full of distractions and hurdles right now - pandemic, lockdowns/extended work at home scenarios, component shortages, freight/logistics nightmares. We have weathered all of these really well, mostly due to having such a fantastic group of passionate people who are absolute professionals at their jobs. Our goal is to continue to navigate through these challenges and never lose sight of what our core mission is: removing barriers to creativity and bringing best in class tools to anyone who wants outstanding audio.