The past, present and future of Merging Technologies with CEO Claude Cellier

In a rare and exclusive interview, Claude Cellier, founder and CEO of revered pro audio manufacturer Merging Technologies, sits down with Headliner for a look back at his incredible career to date, the events and experiences that have shaped the company into one of the most innovative and lauded names in the business, and what the future holds for the brand…

The name Merging Technologies has become something of a byword for quality in pro audio circles. The brand’s expertise in digital recording and processing technology has manifested itself in the form of some of the most innovative and best loved studio products of the past three decades. From the Pyramix Virtual Studio – one of the world’s first DSD recording systems – to its Horus, Hapi and Anubis interfaces, Merging units are a staple amongst many of the finest facilities, producers and artists on the planet.

Its success can be attributed in no small part to its founder, Claude Cellier. Having established the business in Switzerland in 1990, his pioneering spirit has underpinned much of Merging’s business. Unafraid to take risks, especially during some of the market’s most tumultuous times, he and his team have not just prospered, but helped to revolutionise the landscape of music creation.

However, with a lifelong love of music, complemented by an education in electrical engineering and a 10-year stint with Swiss analogue recording systems manufacturer (as it was at the time) Nagra Kudelski, his technical experience and expertise has always informed his buccaneering, entrepreneurial approach. From the digital revolution of the late ‘90s to the move to Audio over IP, Merging has consistently demonstrated a determination to not only embrace new processes and standards but play a central part in their wider adoption.

And the company’s evolution continues to gather pace. Earlier this year, it was announced that Merging would be joining forces with Neumann, in a move that will see them working alongside one another under the Sennheiser Group umbrella.

To find out more about where the company is headed next, and indeed, where it came from, Headliner joined Cellier over Zoom from his office in Switzerland for an in-depth and insightful chat…

Tell us about your origins in audio. When did you first discover your love of sound?

My passion and my love of audio started because of music. My father played and recorded music and he discovered many of the great talents of Eastern European music, particularly folk music, long before it was known in Western countries. Amongst other things, he played on and recorded many records with the pan flute player Gheorghe Zamfir, as well as the ensemble The Mystery Of Bulgarian Voice, for which he became the second Swiss citizen to win a Grammy at that time. Very early on in my infancy he was working on many of these concerts and radio broadcasts to share his passion for this music. I would often listen to these voices that were just fantastic. But I didn’t get the best chromosomes from my father – they probably went to my brother Alexander, who is an expert musician. I loved music but I didn’t have that talent, so I resorted to manufacturing and designing devices and equipment. I feel proud of the quality of the products that have allowed so many of our customers to record magnificent works.

I learned the most important aspects of running a business the hard way. Claude Cellier, CEO, Merging Technologies

Before you launched Merging you spent 10 years with Nagra Kudelski. The brand was well known for producing high-end analogue tape recorders at that time. How was that spell for you, and how did it inform your decision to launch Merging aftewards?

Stefan Kudelski, who founded Nagra, has been absolutely instrumental in my understanding of audio. When I joined the company, I was just out of the Institute of Technology in Lausanne where I studied electrical engineering. It seemed like a marvellous opportunity for me, and Stefan Kudelski was kind enough to take me onboard. I actually did the opposite of what most people do in their careers, which was starting in sales and then moving into engineering. It’s usually the other way around [he laughs].

I managed to take care of the audio business while most of the company was already heavily focused on video, being the mid- ‘80s. I was more interested in audio, so I took charge of the first Nagra IV-S timecode and the T-Audio timecode, which was really the swansong of analogue tape recording technology. My last two years there were spent on the development of what was to become the first digital recorder, the Nagra-D, which went on the market after I left the company. When I left Nagra I thought I would be able to start my own company because I learned all the mistakes one can make in running a company… that was of course totally wrong! I made my own mistakes after that!

I should also pay tribute to Henri Kudelski, the second son of Stefan, as he was the co-founder of Merging Technologies with me. When I say Merging started as a one-and-a-half-person team, he was that other half. He was still a student at the time, and he was a genius, a brilliant mind, and unfortunately, he tragically died nine years ago.

What was the plan when you decided to launch Merging? What were your short and long-term goals?

I have to be very honest; I had no idea! I had no business plan; I didn’t even know what a business plan was. I was totally unrealistic. The first product I developed was a graphics card for Amiga Commodore computers, and I had no idea if it would be a success or not. I thought if we sold 50 that would be a success, which shows you how lacking we were in a plan or vision! We ended up selling more than 1,000 over two years before Commodore went bankrupt. But I had no clear vision of what was going to happen.

I knew I wanted to do something different, and I saw the opportunities in digital technologies in general. We just wanted to explore the technology at the time. But normally, if you are a serious company, you should have a good business plan in place, so I learned the hard way that this was an important aspect of running a business.

Why do you think your products resonate so deeply with your customers? And are there any products that you are particularly proud of?

It’s amazing to get the feedback we receive from our customers, and it’s great having that knowledge that our products are able to help facilitate extraordinary recordings with brilliant artists in brilliant facilities.

I don’t have a particular favourite product, but I have lots of good memories. Pyramix, for example, is now the longest running product in our history. We started working on that almost 30 years ago. A moment I remember well is when we were recording the 60th birthday party of Chick Corea in the Blue Note in New York. I was jumping in a cab out of the AES convention and running to the Blue Note, where the team was waiting for me. I was bringing the first Pyramix Workstation, which was the first digital DSD 16-track recording product in the world. Wild! During that same morning I had made the last firmware update, because up until then we only had 15 channels working, and back then the internet wasn’t that speedy. So, it took half a day to update the software. I arrived at the Blue Note, we start all the connections, the mics, the mixing desk, which was a beautiful API analogue desk – we were using the front-end to do the digital recording. We turn the desk on and a huge cloud of smoke came out and filled the small backstage room we were in to the point we couldn’t see each other. And the first concert was starting the next morning. It was a week-long party to be recorded for Philips and Sony for the first SACD release.

The next morning, we turn it on again, and more smoke. I said’ “nobody will ever believe that this content has not been recorded because of an analogue console! They will say it’s a disguise for our product not having worked properly”! In the end, to make it work, the team just tilted the console upwards and downwards, shook it a bit, and that seemed to fix the problem [he laughs]! Whatever it was had gone. I was so relieved! And I still have the SACD on my desk somewhere.

One of the most important things for us - and one of the things I’m most proud of - is that we make sure our customers enjoy our products for many, many years, without having to reinvest in new technologies just a couple of years after we release a product. Horus is now 12 years on the market; Hapi is seven years. OK, we just released Hapi Mk II with a little update, but that shows that our products don’t go out of date quickly.

We can bring our small team agility to a larger entity. Claude Cellier, CEO, Merging Technologies

What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced over the past 32 years, and how have you overcome them?

Merging has always been an early adopter of standards. We believe in standards and are happy to support existing standards. The most recent and important for us is AES67, which is here to stay for many, many years, and we were supporting that even before it was signed off seven years ago. It’s something that is fundamental to our DNA – we love standards and we want to abide by them.

Also, over the course of time, I personally have been extremely grateful to live, participate and to a certain degree be highly involved in two major revolutions. Rather than having to resist those, we have led them. Those were the transition from analogue to digital, which was a generation ago now; and more recently another major revolution, which is going from point-to-point to network. I have had the extreme luck to be living through these two revolutions and have enjoyed going along with them.

Of course, going through such revolutions can be challenging, because you never know if you are going to be successful. Yes, with hindsight you can see that something was a smart decision to take, but it could be a wrong avenue or the wrong application of our talents. You want to make sure the talent in your company is being put to use in the right way, and that has been the case for us so far.

Tell us about the new partnership with Neumann. What opportunities does that open up for Merging?

It’s quite early in the process to talk about where it will lead us, but I would like to say how proud and privileged I feel to be associating the name of Merging with Neumann. My father was recording all his life with two Neumann microphones, two KM 84s. He was listening on Sennheiser HD 414s. It’s like a story that closes itself after many years. I'm sure he would have been extremely happy about the decision we took to align and join forces with Neumann this year.

We decided to make a product together maybe one-and-a-half years ago, and that takes time to develop. And it takes more time when you have to learn the way another company does things. We have learned a lot already in recent months about what it takes to bring a product to market when you are not a 20-person company but 2,000-person company. There are more challenges and more paperwork! It’s just a new learning curve for us. We believe we can bring our agility of being a small team to this larger entity, while we will learn a lot from the process of their manufacturing approach.

We will soon be bringing our first common product to market, which is an evolution of our existing family of small, compact Anubis network audio interfaces. Not only that, but we will also keep on developing our products like Pyramix, the drivers for the AES67 community, and the Ravenna community. We will keep developing all of those in parallel. And hopefully we can speak again in six months for another update!