When Ian Robertson and I talked recently, he’d just wrapped up a series of educational events in Vancouver (among them a Meyer Sound system design/optimization class co-presented by GerrAudio and Soundgirls), and he was getting ready to head to Alberta for additional workshops.
As manager of technical services/industry training specialist at Brockville-Ontario’s, GerrAudio Distribution, Robertson often hosts events in central Canada. “But we also spread them out across the country,” he explains, “and when we come out west we try to pack in as much bang for the buck as possible.”
GerrAudio’s expanding focus on education is aimed squarely at ensuring users are successful and have a good experience with the products the company offers, Robertson notes. “So, it’s important to understand the day-to-day reality of the person you’re talking to and provide context for how to use the tools in their situation. I don’t like to call them ‘students’ because we’re all students. Every time I do a class I learn something from the class participants.”
Figuring Stuff Out
For Robertson, a 40-year-veteran of the pro audio industry, facilitating that exchange is a natural extension of his passion for audio and an opportunity to feed his own abiding curiosity. “I’m not comfortable just observing something – I want to know why things happen,” he says. “If I do something in venue A that works, then do the same thing in venue B and it doesn’t, there’s a reason, and I want to know what it is. And that only comes from understanding why something went wrong or right in the first place.”
That ethic is grounded in Robertson’s lifelong fascination with technology, one that began with a childhood tendency to “fiddle with wires,” he notes. “I’d tear old radios apart just to figure out how they worked. One of my first school science projects was a Morse code device with a light bulb at either end. I was always interested in that kind of stuff.”
Although he played bass early on, “I never could get both hands doing what I wanted at the right time to actually be good at it,” he says, laughing, “But even before I realized I was focused on audio, I remember going to a concert and being mesmerized by the front of house engineer. I thought controlling all those sounds was the coolest thing.”
Robertson has rarely come across a technology he considers unworthy of a thorough test drive – literally, in the case the modified Honda Civics he raced as a teenager in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Like his interest in audio, his tendency to take things apart and rebuild them is a lifelong passion, he shares, citing a vintage Porsche 911 he rebuilt in recent years, and a newer project – an old 28-foot motor boat he refers to as “a hole in the water you pour money into” that he’s restoring.
Both are examples of his desire to not only accumulate knowledge, but to do something tangible with it. It’s a personality trait that’s integral to his career and one that prompted him to found his first audio company in the 1970s with a pair of schoolmates. “When I was 14 or 15, the church basement in town was a youth club and had dances on the weekend,” he says. “I had a bunch of audio gear, so we thought, ‘Why don’t we take the sound system over there and play the music for the dance?”
Out of that, a successful mobile DJ company was born, with Robertson handling audio, a friend on lights and another DJing for high school dances and other events. That ultimately led to Robertson’s first gigs in live sound, mixing punk and new wave bands in the early 1980s in the Halifax bar scene.
“The entrepreneurial spirit, I think, was a family thing,” he says. “My parents ran a corner store and then a laundromat, and we all worked there. Oddly enough, there were a lot of musicians and music people – some who are still working in the industry now – that remember me as the guy they dropped laundry off to.”
Moving On Up
That spirit has expressed itself throughout Robertson’s career – as has his willingness to partner with friends, again, to start a regional live production company, ABI Systems, in 1986. “In the Maritimes, at that point, the only place to rent audio equipment was at local music stores. The equipment was of reasonable quality, but it wasn’t packaged for the road. And we wanted to get out on the road and do sound.”
Touring was often a “rough and tumble” affair, he says. “We’d attach ourselves to a band and work six nights a week in each town through the Maritimes and into Quebec. It could sometimes be an aggressive environment, so you had to be a bit of a fighter to survive.”
ABI eventually incorporated lighting services and, by 1990, had become fundamentally more install oriented. “Basically, I found myself hanging from the rafters in nightclubs putting in disco lights and that’s not why I started the company; I wanted to mix bands,” he explains. “So, I took a buyout, bought a bunch of my own gear and freelanced.”