Carlsbro Retail's installation arm, CTS, has recently set up a brand‑new sales facility near Nottingham. Paul White takes a look around.
Founded by Stuart and Sheila Mercer, Carlsbro started out as a small company building amplifiers and speakers for gigging musicians, but before long it was evident that some form of commercial outlet was needed for their products, so Carlsbro Retail was set up under the guidance of then drummer Keith Woodcock — who quickly realised that the shops needed to sell not only Carlsbro gear, but also the other equipment and instruments needed by gigging musicians. Carlsbro Retail eventually grew into a chain of some 12 music shops, and, around 15 years ago, CTS was set up to handle the growing installation side of the business. Over the years the name has changed several times but the initials CTS have remained: the current title is Creative Technical Services.
CTS was created to cover the growing installation side of the Carlsbro Retail group of musical instrument stores, and began life putting PA systems into music venues throughout the UK. Today the company is very well respected within the industry, is British Standard approved, and can fully design, install and service sophisticated computer‑controlled lighting rigs, high‑power Tarm laser systems and leading‑edge video suites, a large number of which are bought by large leisure operators so that they can produce their own exclusive in‑house video material.
Though installing sound systems may not sound too technical, the number of safety features and architectural considerations that have to be taken into account is daunting, and some nightclub systems are incredibly complex. Managing Director Ivor Green tells me that the CTS public liability insurance bill alone is frightening!
Now CTS and sister company Carlsbro Retail/Academy of Sound, guided for nearly 30 years by industry stalwart Keith Woodcock, who's now Chief Executive, are in the business of re‑inventing themselves. Although Carlsbro have traditionally been regarded as specialists in traditional 'guitar, bass and drums' rock 'n' roll gear, Academy of Sound have a pool of experience in the hi‑tech world and, along with CTS, can effectively service customers requiring a digital studio, an audio/visual edit suite or even a private video production company.
The outcome is that the Carlsbro Retail outlets are evolving into the newly refurbished Academy of Sound stores, each one having designated specialist areas within the store for key products. Specific hi‑tech staff members are being trained by CTS to provide the level of customer support required to operate modern computer‑based systems and digital hardware, the aim being to have a technically qualified member of staff on hand at all times to help resolve (or avoid) problems.
CTS Pro Sales
I was shown around the brand new CTS Pro Sales facility by MD Ivor Green, who has been with the company for more years than he cares to remember.
"While Keith promoted the stores, I developed the installation business; our expertise at CTS is in high‑power sound, lighting and lasers. We bought the installation business out of the Carlsbro group in about 1990, and that followed through with the evolution of the retail business. That left two businesses with two separate administrations, so it made sense to put the two together so we could face the future with a single administration. We developed the marketing strategy to include 'Play it Again Sam', a store dedicated to selling secondhand gear, much of it taken in part exchange in the course of our installation work.
"CTS has always had to spend a lot of money on R&D — we are a turnkey operation so we have to incorporate sound, light, laser and video systems. We'd already got our own TV edit suite and our own lighting computer, and we'd obviously done the development for our own installed loudspeaker products, currently gracing venues of the likes of Camden Palace, so it was a logical development for CTS to handle the top‑end products in the audio and visual markets.
"Our aim was to develop the professional market, but many professionals are actually home‑based businesses, with maybe £60‑80,000‑worth of equipment, doing sound for picture work, soundtracks for computer games and so on. To that end, we needed a facility where clients could try out systems in a suitable environment with qualified technical support staff."
It was a logical development for CTS to handle the top‑end products in the audio and visual markets.
CTS Professional Sales opened just three months ago on an industrial estate in Mansfield, but although the outside of the building has the anonymous look of industrial units everywhere, the CTS demonstration room has to be seen to be believed. Dominating the room is a state‑of‑the‑art high‑intensity projection TV system (I'm told that a lot of this kind of product goes into exclusive nightclubs so that they can run their in‑house‑generated video material, and apparently some club owners are planning to video‑link different clubs in the same way as bingo hall operators sometimes do at present). When not being used for demonstration, this screen can be linked to the computers or video systems in the demonstration area to give everyone a clear view of the screen during training or product evaluation sessions. The company also have video graphics design capabilities, and programs such as Lightwave 5 and 3D Studio Max are on demonstration.
The room is divided into separate workstations; CTS build their own range of studio furniture and this is used as the basis of the individual work areas. There's a complete audio workstation based around Yamaha's 02R, a couple of Tascam DA88s, pro‑audio sound modules, a comprehensive outboard, and Dynaudio monitors of all sizes. For computer‑based audio, there's a Digidesign TDM Pro Tools system with all the trimmings, a Soundscape system, and numerous other familiar packages. On top of that, there are displays of seriously desirable microphones, and an impressive amount of broadcast‑standard video equipment. Ivor feels very strongly that video is an integral part of the company's future.
"A few years from now, there's going to be virtually no audio‑only product, so anyone who doesn't learn to integrate with video is going to find themselves out of a job. Digital Video Disk is just around the corner — it can hold 4.7Gb of data with 6‑channel surround and multi‑language dialogue, and digital TV is imminent, with over a hundred new channels opening up. This will provide opportunities for independent programme‑makers."
One of my concerns is the increasing popularity of the PC platform as the basis for audio workstations, not because it can't do the job but because there are so many pitfalls in putting a system together. I communicated my concerns to Ivor, who already appreciated the magnitude of the problem and is in the process of developing strategies to cope with it. I related the the subject of a recent phone call from an SOS reader who had bought Logic Audio plus a Digidesign Audiomedia III card and couldn't get them to talk to each other. Both companies did all they could, and verified that the respective products weren't faulty, but still the reader was left with a non‑functioning system. I didn't know the answer either, because I have exactly those components running fine on my Pentium 90, but a couple of the CTS tech support guys chipped in and informed me that a lot of it is to do with the type of motherboard used in the PC, and the chip set it uses. Apparently chip sets are often optimised for video performance at the expense of audio performance, and some are completely incompatible with the audio components mentioned.
Anyone who doesn't learn to integrate with video is going to find themselves out of a job.
"The problem is that customers go to a computer discount warehouse, buy a Pentium PC of such‑and‑such a speed (either ready‑built or as a set of parts), and expect it to work. Because PC components are made by so many different companies, different models behave differently. Just because the system you want runs on your friend's Pentium 166 or whatever doesn't mean it'll run on any Pentium 166! Furthermore, there are lots of software settings that need to be set up in order to optimise a machine for audio."
This is not great news for those who want the computer as a tool rather than as a constant source of mental stimulation! However, CTS Pro Sales have a solution. They provide and configure their own PC computers, the add‑on cards and the necessary audio or video software as a system, and they guarantee that that system will work. What's more, the computer comes with a built‑in modem, so a certain amount of diagnostic work can be carried out remotely: you simply hook the computer up to a phone and call CTS technical support. Additionally, if the customer is prepared to pay a further £100 for a copy of PC Anywhere, the CTS engineers can take over control of the PC via their own computers, optimise software settings, check functionality, and even diagnose hardware problems. When you come to upgrade, CTS will rebuild the PC for you to guarantee continuing compatibility.
While buying a PC this way may be slightly more expensive than going to a computer discount store, the price differential isn't as great as you might expect, and I, for one, think the peace of mind is well worth it.
So what else can we expect from CTS? According to Ivor, their policy is to provide the clients with all the information and hands‑on testing they need to make sure that they're buying the right system for their needs; and, as the AOS stores do, they guarantee that if a customer discovers that they've made an inappropriate choice, they can exchange it within the first 14 days. There's also going to be a sizeable PA and lighting test area, though this was still at the planning stage when I visited. Here, clients will be able to drive PA systems at realistic levels, compare systems, and audition lighting equipment. It sounds as though Ivor and his staff have their work cut out for the foreseeable future, but I've a feeling that they're enjoying every minute of it!