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Episode 89: Rob Roy Campbell – I like the sound of that

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All Xero Gravity episodes

Hosted by Elizabeth Ü

When it comes to audio technology, which do you prefer: old-school analog, or modern digital? Rob Roy Campbell is proving that it pays to deliver the best of both worlds.

His business, Electronaut, has been ‘long-game’ since day one. It all started with a passion for the product, and a desire to give people the means to record sound using high quality equipment that lasts.

He speaks technically, but in a way that is incredibly informative and not at all that hard to understand. In this episode of Xero Gravity, Campbell breaks down the differences between digital and analog. And he shares his journey: from working at a printing company, to manufacturing equipment that's used by studios and musicians around the world.

 

Analog vs digital

To an untrained ear, the differences between the two aren’t always obvious. Campbell says it's further encouraged by the ever-increasing quality of digital equipment available.

“Music is mathematical. When you have distortions, oftentimes the distortions come through in mathematically-related way. For example, if you strum a 12-string guitar and compare the sound to a normal 6-string guitar, the 12-string will sound much more rich sound. This is because every string has an octave.”

With regard to analog equipment, he says “there are distortions that happen in analog equipment that mimic some of the aforementioned effects. When vacuum tubes add distortion, they tend to add harmonic distortion or octaves, and it ends up sounding very musical. From a technical standpoint, engineers were trying to get rid of that, and yet sometimes it’s very musical and interesting to use as a component.”

“On the one hand there’s mp3 compression which filters out frequencies that somebody determined we’re less sensitive to. It is to save data. Then there’s CDs, which aren’t compressed, and therefore significantly better than an mp3, but analog tape is my favorite medium. I’m really excited about labels released on analog tape again,” he says of the vastly varied mediums on the market right now.

“People are trying to find ways to develop their own signature sound and part of that is having your secret weapon equipment, a cherished compressor or secret microphone,” and it’s here that Campbell’s skill set comes into play.  

The benefits of analog

“People are trying to mimic the distortions that can be introduced by analog equipment in the digital environment with software emulation. They spend thousands of hours writing code to try mimic it. A lot of it does a pretty good job, but it will never cross the ‘it’s the same now’ threshhold,” he says of the alternatives on the market. The alternative that will do alright, but never sound exactly the same."

The deeper Campbell gets into the reasons behind his love for analog, the more you can’t help but wonder how it ever ended up on the backburner.

“Recording in an analog format, it’s a different kind of psychic space. When you’re recording digitally you’ve got this terabyte hard drive available. You could record 24 hours a day for three weeks and never miss a thing. People end up spending a lot more time trying to get things right. They do things over and over again, and they scrub every bit of error out of it. In the studio, trying to trim everything perfectly oftentimes sucks the life out of the performance. In the analog world, if you’re recording to tape you’ve gotta get it right. There’s a tension and energy there behind trying to capture a good performance. So there are aspects of analog recording that go way past sound quality,” he says.

Early days

So how does one find himself in the analog audio game? From a life spent around music, naturally.

“I’m a musician, and as a kid my dad was in a band that practiced in our living room. He had a four-track recorder, which was my first exposure to this idea of multi-tracking. I thought it was the coolest thing ever, that you can record something, then go back in time and add another layer. That experience is probably why I was always the guy in the band doing the recording. And then one day I just decided I wanted better recording equipment.”

Timing was everything with Campbell. Tracking down old equipment in a pre-eBay era meant it was easy to find old vintage gear that no one wanted anymore. Because they were all focused on digital.

After doing a bit of reading, Campbell realized he could find the parts and try building his own equipment.

“I was partially inspired by seeing another electronics person here in Chicago, seeing some work he had done with guitar amps, and realizing a single person can make equipment. It blew me away and got me on the path to making my own gear.”

“I started off making things that could process the audio and make effects. When I got more serious I made a microphone pre-amplifier, because because I knew it would be challenging,” he says of the jump to building his own gear.

“I thought, if I can make a good mic pre-amp then I must really know my stuff. That was the first time I really thought I could make a product to sell, and it only took me about seven years to turn it into an actual marketable product [laughs]”

The day job and the sidegig

During those early days, Campbell worked full-time in an IT role as a technical consultant. It was a role that required constant learning, and left him struggling to find time to learn about analog equipment.

There was also the push/pull between a good salary and a start-up salary. The final push he needed coming from the Global Financial Crisis.

“I feel kind of lucky the financial crisis hit, because three of my clients went bankrupt and I very suddenly found myself without work. I had to make the transition right then and there. In hindsight, I wish I’d just jumped off earlier. It was hard and scary, and I wasn’t quite ready with my product, but I needed it,” he says.

Relationship building

Catering to such a small market, Campbell definitely had his fair share of growing pains in the early days.

“One thing I’ve learned about being a small manufacturer is relationships with your vendors are some of the most important things you have. I got turned down a lot, and it took a while to find some companies willing to work with me. I wasn’t a metal fabrication expert, so trying to convey my ideas, when all I cared about was making a mic-amp, was hard. I didn’t care about any of it, but it became very relevant. I ended up setting up my own metal fabrication shop as part of my workshop and did all my own metal work for three years,” he says.

When the price isn’t right

Campbell’s signature preamp was redesigned “about ten times,” and to this day is one of just two products he sells. It’s now sought after, but Campbell says that wasn’t always the way.

“We had this product that sounded amazing, and there was a lot of excitement about how it looked, but when people asked ‘how much is it?’ they were shocked I wanted $1800. I ended up selling my first mic preamp to a friend for a just $100 over cost.”

“I looked at my competition at the time and they were selling them at $3600, yet I still couldn’t get anyone to buy it. Eventually I learned about pricing structure, and my price almost doubled. It’s something you don’t really want to do, but I’d gone back to the drawing board, taken a year off, and sure enough, they started selling like crazy. When I went closer to the competition, there was less scepticism around the product. People took it more seriously,” he says of the turning point that for the first time, really put Electronaut in motion.

Still a long way to go

As someone who strives for excellence, Campbell says his long-term goal is to spend all his time designing equipment. But at the moment a lot of what he does is counting parts, ordering inventory, and doing admin.

“I think success for me will be when I’ve reached a point of just doing the part of the work I want to do,” he says.

It’s a reality that for now, Campbell seems okay with. Building analog equipment requires patience and care. They’re traits very few people possess, and they're needed not just for making products, but for the business as a whole. There are no quick fixes or cutting corners. Just a love for the product and a desire to always do better.

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