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‘This will change the world’: Holoplot CEO Roman Sick on transforming audio as we know it

Roman Sick, CEO of German pro audio specialist Holoplot, has spoken to Headliner about his plans to reinvent the world of pro AV, challenging the established order of the industry, and how the brand’s technology is going to change the world…

Before Headliner even lands in Berlin for our rendezvous with Holoplot CEO Roman Sick, it is evident that our meeting isn’t going to be quite the standard business interview fare. When invited to sit down for an extended in-person chat, the venue of choice is typically a meeting room at the company in question’s HQ. If not, it’ll be a nearby café of some description. In this case, we are told to head to MaHalla – a building located in one of east Berlin’s thriving creative quarters…

When we pull up outside, we are met by a sprawling industrial building that looks something akin to a power station. Vast chimneys protrude at various points, looming heavily over the street outside, while rows of glass windows beam in shafts of bright sunlight.

Upon entering the imposing and impressive structure, all long-since-used cast iron machinery and steely surfaces, one can’t help but feel transported to a remnant of a bygone era, harking back to the city’s heritage as an industrial powerhouse. Skylights funnel even more natural light inside, making for a warmer welcome than its interior invites one to expect.

Before long we are greeted by members of the Holoplot team, equipped with sandwiches, hot drinks and cakes, who explain that MaHalla is today utilised as a community focused creative hub, renting out its various rooms as studios for virtually all conceivable art forms, while the large space in which we are about to conduct our interview is routinely used for exhibitions, parties and all manner of events and gatherings.

Just before Sick’s arrival, we are shown to our interview spot. A cosy 1950s style living room setup has been assembled in the centre of the venue’s biggest open space, complete with small coffee table, lamp, TV, sofa and armchair. As we said, it’s far from standard fare…

Unsurprisingly, Sick is not your typical pro audio/pro AV CEO, and not just because his backstory is stark in its contrast to most of his contemporaries. Donning a red beanie hat, neatly trimmed beard and dressed in a dark blue blazer over a pink jumper, his look doesn’t fit the profile of a suited and booted corporate executive.

If the aim here was to make a statement, then Holoplot has certainly succeeded. Indeed, the company has been making some big noises since Sick took over the reins in 2016. Despite his warm, affable demeanour, he has been quick to opine on the state of the pro audio industry, highlighting not only on what he considers a dearth of innovation, but also his company’s unique ability to drive some much-needed evolution.

With a background in economics, audio admittedly wasn’t a vocation. Unlike the founders of so many of the industry’s biggest players, he wasn’t a sound engineer, inventor or audiophile. Instead, his interest in the market and subsequent passion for it was piqued over time.

People in this industry don't want to be told anything. Roman Sick, CEO, Holoplot

“I met the original Holoplot team in 2013 by coincidence when there were just four people in a garage in Potsdam, and it was like lab work that was being done at that point,” he says, explaining his introduction to the business. “But the bits and pieces I could experience were very impressive. Even though I wasn’t from the AV industry I knew this was radically different. That excited me. I didn’t plan to engage with them, I was doing other things, but then the company got into difficulties and the original founder left the company. The tech team was still there, and the question was, ‘does the business continue or not?’ I looked into it to see if there was something that could be built from an entrepreneurial perspective. I was extremely intrigued, so I decided to give it a shot.”

It didn’t take long for Sick to begin implementing his vision for Holoplot. He quickly identified that the technology the company had been developing prior to his arrival had the potential to bring something new to the pro AV market. As he tells us, the technology really needs to be experienced to be fully appreciated, but essentially, its USP is an ability to control sound similar to light. A Holoplot system is designed to deliver precision audio with consistent quality and level over large distances, nullifying the most challenging acoustics of a space. It can also be deployed to produce full, 360-degree spatial audio experiences. Audio objects can be brought to life inside an audience area and there’s no longer a need to surround a space with speakers. Using reflections to create virtual audio sources, sound can be located in places where there’s no room for a loudspeaker.

“The beauty and the beast of our technology is that it sounds too good on paper to be true,” he says. “This is a next generation, software-driven audio technology that allows you to use sound with an extremely high degree of flexibility and fidelity. In general, we provide a completely new level of control over sound propagation by creating custom soundwaves, which are perfectly tailored via software to target the desired audience area only and hardly lose energy over distance. On the functional side, we thereby enable people to achieve significantly better results wherever they want to use sound, because all the negative effects of sound bouncing off objects, travelling in all directions and level attenuation are removed. On the more creative side, we offer sound designers, show producers and mixing engineers another layer of access to their creative content and experience creation. It’s not just sound reproduction anymore, it’s a new toolbox that allows you to paint creatively with sound output as opposed to just sound input. That completely enables a new level of creativity that simply wasn’t there before."

The beauty and the beast of our tech is that on paper it sounds too good to be true. Roman Sick, CEO, Holoplot

Perhaps inevitably, coming into the industry as a self-described outsider has afforded Sick a different perspective to those for whom their pro audio career was a lifelong calling. And he’s not shy about sharing his observations.

“I have a lot of respect for people who have built businesses in any sector, particularly this industry, but entering this world was an interesting experience,” he smiles. “It’s a very special industry, but it hasn’t been shaken up a lot. Talking to a lot of audio people, there is sometimes bitterness that audio doesn’t take priority in projects over other things. I hear the complaint that we have to make compromises over where the system goes because of where the visuals go… and I’m like, ‘well, yeah!’ The visuals have stepped up! They took big risks and investments on certain innovations, and they just kept advancing and impressing. Audio played it very safe in my opinion and therefore didn’t have much to offer to keep up.

“And people in this industry don’t want to be told anything,” he continues. “They don’t want to be convinced. They want to convince themselves. And I appreciate that. So, we are trying to present them with facts. Our products and technology are very, very strong, and superior to conventional technologies in many regards, I would say. We are trying to present that and let them validate it for themselves. That has worked quite well. And if you can’t convince them you need to hire them [he laughs]! We’ve been lucky to have some industry figureheads join the company, and that gives us credibility - that we’re not just a bunch of crazy people from Berlin but actually know what we’re doing!”

The subject of recruitment is a pertinent one, not just in terms of sheer numbers, but also in the calibre of personnel joining the ranks. The company has added senior staff from market leading brands of late, which goes a long way not only in bolstering its position as a significant industry disruptor, but one possessed of a high working knowledge of the market.

“We have been growing fairly rapidly in the last few years,” he says. “When I took over we were four people, now we are just above 130. In the past three years we have been scaling up significantly. We are predominantly located in Berlin, but we have a team in the US. We will continue to grow, and it has been quite an experience, as we started from virtually nothing, and in a small period of time we had to make very big leaps, with little margin for error because we had to deliver on some large key projects in short periods of time. It’s been very exciting so far and is going to be very exciting in the coming years.”

If you're a newcomer and want to play top of the league, you are going to be viewed by different measures. Roman Sick, CEO, Holoplot

As Sick puts it, there really is very little margin for error as a newcomer, especially one facing substantial scrutiny on account of its bold claims. Does the weight of the pressure sit heavy on his shoulders?

“There is pressure,” he says casually. “If you are a newcomer and you want to play top of the league you are going to be viewed by different measures. You need to do things significantly better because everyone is going to be watching you. You need that hunger to excel, but you have to be focused at the same time and choose your battles. Frankly, we have been under a lot of scrutiny for the last few years, as we are doing the Sphere in Vegas, which is one of the biggest projects in the world. And coming from where we were, as a small company without a marketable product at that point in time, to do this project, you need to pass a lot of gates to prove that you are ready for it.

“The only reason we got there is because we have a phenomenal team. There were so many moments in the history of Holoplot where we were like, that’s it, there is no way we are going to get through this! But somehow, we did, and we moved on. It happened so many times, and that has, I believe, changed the way the brain works and how the team looks at new challenges. It gives you that confidence that you can overcome almost anything, and I can see that in the drive that everyone in the team has. That’s what I truly love the most about the whole journey with Holoplot. To see this spirit develop and unleash. I’m really proud of the team we have been able to assemble and the culture that developed around it.”

For those who may be unaware, the Madison Square Garden Sphere project in Las Vegas represents not only a major milestone for Holoplot, but for the pro AV sector as a whole. Set to open in the last quarter of 2023, Sphere is a spherical shaped venue lined completely, inside and out, with LED screens, meaning any image can be mapped onto it. Designed as a fully immersive space, a comprehensive spatial audio solution was required. Had the contract gone to one of the industry’s established giants, it would have been a project of major significance. For Holoplot, it is a company defining one. And while its magnitude isn’t lost on Sick, he’s typically unphased by it.

“It’s going to change the world,” he asserts, “in terms of how we experience entertainment and what the next generation of that looks like. It follows a fantastic vision and we’ve been working on it closely with MSG for a number of years now. It’s going to be something the world has never seen before in terms of scale and capabilities. For us as a company, it has been a great opportunity to develop. It has challenged us enormously; I think every major manufacturer would have been challenged by the scale and complexity of the project, so we had to grow up very quickly.

“But we maybe had an advantage over others because as we were growing, we were able to put the bricks in just the way they needed to be in order to make something like this happen. We could still decide on how we were doing things to be optimal for projects of that scale, whereas others may not have that flexibility anymore because they already have established infrastructures. It was great to overcome those challenges, and it’s a real validation of our technology. We have been working with some of the best people in the industry, and they took a very close look at us – ‘who is that little company from Berlin that is trying to make the audio experience happen here’? And we were able to prove multiple times what we can do and that we’re ready for it."

Sphere will be something the world has never seen before. Roman Sick, CEO, Holoplot

While Sphere is unquestionably a project that will showcase the very extremities of Holoplot’s capabilities, Sick is also quick to highlight that there is a vast spectrum of applications in which they can be applied. Again, he speaks of a creative and a functional side to the technology.

“I struggled to understand what people meant by the term ‘immersive audio’ when I joined the industry, and had the impression everyone means something different,” he laughs. “So, I always have to find out what we’re actually talking about, because it’s not super well defined. When I think immersive, I try to think about what an end-user experience needs to look like and there are a couple of things that would be important to me as a listener. First of all, the sound needs to come from everywhere, which means you need to be able to position sound somewhere where there isn’t a speaker, and that is already quite a challenge. Also, for audio to really feel immersive it has to work with proximity, it needs to go far away and most importantly be able to come close to you. 

"You need to be able to have an intimate and a dynamic experience. I need to be able to explore and move around - If I walk over there, I want to have a different experience to over here. If these things are happening, then I’m pretty immersed. If I’m fixed on a seat with speakers all around and then hear a sound from behind me, I don’t feel very immersed, I feel artificially positioned. We are able to create experiences that are more natural and more independent of speaker locations – we don’t have to position them all around as we can use targeted reflections to create a sound emitting from an object even though there is no speaker.

“On the functional side, anywhere that you want to project sound in a more challenging environment, or anything where you just care about a great acoustic result, is where we are exceptionally strong. We recently installed an X1 system in one of the largest mosques in Africa. We’re talking about a 10,000sqm marble room able to hold 12,000 worshipers so the scale is enormous and the acoustic environment extremely challenging. In the end, in comparison to the best design with conventional technology they had, we reduced the number of speaker positions and surface of acoustic absorption by 50-80%, while increasing speech intelligibility to levels others couldn’t even reach. We also did the Beacon Theatre in New York, a beautifully ornate theatre turned live music venue with plenty of hard to reach audience areas and reflective surfaces. We deployed a classic LCR system with a HOLOPLOT twist and our unique sound control abilities ensure everyone has the same and best experience. That is predominantly where I see us in the future, because these are the majority of the projects out there – you either solve a problem or do something significantly better.”

And that, it seems, is a mantra that can be applied to all things Holoplot. So far, Sick’s highly ambitious stance has put the firm in good stead, and having secured one of the most sought after contracts in the world with Sphere, all eyes and ears will be on the company come opening night. And the man at the top wouldn’t have it any other way.