Audio-Technica—Forty Years of Innovation
May 14, 2004 12:00 PM
In 1952, Hideo Matsushita, a 32-year-old art and music lover, came from the province of Fukui on Japan's west coast to work at the Bridgestone Museum of Art in Tokyo. During the 1950s, money and resources were scarce in Japan — even in the capital city—and Matsushita began to organize “record concerts” at the museum, where people would gather to sit and enjoy LP playbacks of great performances—a sort of symphony without the symphony. These concerts were quite popular in Japan, especially with the introduction of the first stereo records in the late '50s.
Matsushita saw the coming mono-to-stereo revolution as an opportunity and left to found Audio-Technica in 1962. “We began with three employees in a single-story barracks in Shinjuku [now a major financial district in Tokyo]. I was interested in producing audio equipment, and at the time, there were few companies making phono cartridges in Japan. I believed that manufacturing phono cartridges was ideal, as it required less start-up capital than other components,” explains Matsushita, who, as the chairman of the board, is still active at A-T. However, there were also some learning and growing pains to endure. “Sales of our first product—the AT-1 stereo cartridge—were abysmal.” By expanding its line with higher-end products—such as the AT-3/AT-5MM carts and precision tonearms—and focusing on consumer sales, as well as supplying OEM cartridges directly to phonograph manufacturers, orders took off. Over the next few years, A-T's continued success led to outgrowing several other facilities, eventually settling in the Tokyo suburb of Machida, where the main factory remains today.
Audio-Technica's familiar logo debuted in 1964. Its exact look has changed slightly over the years, but it still comprises a circle surrounding two inner triangles, signifying a round vinyl record, its “V”-shaped groove and a stylus in the groove. True to its roots, Audio-Technica enjoyed years of global success as a leading producer of phono cartridges, with its MM (moving magnet), patented and proprietary VM (dual-magnet) and MC (moving coil) models.
In 1977, Audio-Technica celebrated its 15th anniversary (as well as the 100th anniversary of the invention of the phonograph) with the opening of Technica Gallery, a museum exhibiting an impressive collection of more than 100 phonographs. In addition to showcasing historically significant machines, such as early Berliner disc and Edison cylinder machines, the collection also includes more obscure models such as my personal favorite, a 1924 UltraPhon, which features two tonearms that could be placed any number of grooves apart to create a delay effect in the home.
But even as the 15-year festivities went on, A-T was watching distant changes in the market. Early discussions about new digital disc formats were under way. The company launched a plan for diversification, which began with advanced designs for headphones—such as the 1977 ATH-7/-8 condenser headphones and the AT-800 Series of microphones for contracting and broadcast applications. For the time being, vinyl (and phono cartridges) was still king. “However, the commercial debut of the compact disc in 1982 triggered a rapid shift from analog to digital,” says current A-T president Kazuo Matsushita, son of founder Hideo Matsushita.
Perhaps A-T's most significant change—at least to the pro audio community—came in 1991, with the introduction of the AT4033, a low-cost/high-performance, medium-diaphragm cardioid condenser mic, which remains in production today. The 4033 quickly became a popular choice among top producers and engineers, with names such as Ed Cherney, Tom and Chris Lord-Alge, Alan Parsons and Phil Ramone joining a growing roster of A-T users. The 4033 was followed by models such as the 4050 (a large-diaphragm, multipattern design), the 4060 tube mic and the popular 30-Series of mics for project studio users. Along the way, A-T has expanded its mic locker with more products for the pro market, including wireless systems, shotgun mics, lavaliers and a full range of live performance mics.
Anything but a “me-too” company, Audio-Technica has developed cutting-edge technologies, such as its revolutionary AT895 Adaptive Array system, a DSP-controlled, five-element mic array that enhances directional pickup by canceling up to 80 dB of background noise. Earlier this year, A-T debuted the AE2500, a mic with side-by-side dynamic and condenser capsules in a single body for kick drum miking, allowing users to combine the two elements at the mixer for the right blend of beater snap transients and low-end boom.
With A-T's deep-rooted love of music, it was no surprise that the exterior of the company's new Technica House headquarters in Tokyo was designed to resemble a large loudspeaker. The eight-story complex also houses AstroStudio, a working commercial studio.
According to president Kazuo Matsushita, another function of AstroStudio is to “provide Audio-Technica with a real-world 5.1 environment to test and evaluate microphones and new transducer technologies.” The studio features an Amek Media 51, a 5.1 Genelec 1031A system, large Genelec 1038A stereo mains, and outboard racks filled with familiar names such as Aphex, Avalon, dbx, Eventide, Focusrite, Lexicon, Neve, Summit, Tube-Tech, TC Electronic, Universal Audio and Yamaha. Recorders include 2-inch analog and Pro Tools. Classic keyboards, guitar amps and drums are available, as is a full selection of…Audio-Technica mics.