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It’s Alive: The Process Of Bringing New Pro Audio Products To Life

Product development is an undertaking that begins with an idea or concept, and most of the best ideas come by way of filling a need.

The annual NAMM Show is billed as the “Super Bowl” of the music (and increasingly pro audio) industry, and it’s where manufacturers introduce their newest products.

Over the years, folks came by the Radial Engineering booth (the company I founded) and were amazed by all the new products that we’d conjured up. At any one time, we might show a dozen new products, with as many as 30 more in R&D and well over 60 on the drawing board.

I recall one attendee saying to me, “You guys come up with products that I never thought I needed and afterwards realized I could not live without it. How do you do it?” Funny he should ask…

The Conception

Product development is a process. It begins with an idea or concept. The best ideas always come by way of filling a need. When visiting sound companies, I would look at the gear they had on tour and pay close attention to what they were manufacturing in house.

If they had to build one-offs, it usually meant that the market was either not fulfilling their needs or the cost to buy was too high. If they were utilizing a particular widget, logic followed that others probably wanted to do so as well.

Another great resource was speaking with the touring techs backstage. I’d study the various setups used on guitars and bass, how keyboards were connected, and how the wired snakes and wireless systems were interfaced with front of house and monitors. Sometimes I’d suggest simpler concepts and sometimes they would lead to better solutions.

Once an idea was hatched, I usually sketched it on the back of a business card or napkin to discuss with the techs. Upon returning to the office, I would transfer it to a piece of paper and then to a scaled version in a computer art program.

I recall at one point we decided to build a balanced line switcher that could handle the +24 dBu output of a console without distortion, yet do it quietly and eliminate ground-loop noise. Once the first concept drawings were done, the development team got together to discuss the product and the feature set, and to work through various connectivity options.

Could it be used on digital guitar systems as a backup? What about situations where multiple wireless systems needed to be routed to the same input? Could it be expandable to switch multiple consoles? This invariably led to a more sophisticated design.

Thinking It Through

The next big question: Would we sell any of these new widgets? The “right” approach to this hugely important subject is to create a SWOT analysis. SWOT is short for Strength, Weakness, Opportunity and Threat, whereby you ask questions such as: What are this product’s strengths? What makes it special or unique?

It’s important to note, however, that being unique is not always being smart. I often tell folks about my idea for square tires: “When you park on a hill, they don’t roll, plus I’d be the only person in the world selling them – no competition!” But would I actually be able to sell any of them? Are there weaknesses or limitations? For example, will they be expensive to build?

Next, the opportunity could be huge sales volumes or limited sales volumes yet commanding a premium price. And finally, the threat may be that it could easily be copied by a competitor.

At this point I must confess that we would often put a product onto the market without enough due diligence, but thankfully, we were more often right than wrong.

Making It Real

Once we’d agreed upon a design it then went to engineering. Actually, this was where the “napkin” is sent to two different places.

The first is mechanical, where product design engineers “virtually” place all of the new device’s XLRs, switches, and LEDs into a 19-inch rack space to see if everything fits. Before the advent of 3D software, 2D drawings would be sent to the metal shop, where the primary focus is manually adjusting the bend radius of the metal to compensate for thickness.

A caveat here was that when we decided to have a second manufacturer produce the same part, it would invariably be different because the adjustments never made it back onto the original mechanical drawings. Fortunately, modern 3D programs, although very expensive, are able to predict the bend radius based on the thickness of the metal, thus the drawing and subsequent production accuracy is greatly improved.

The other destination for the napkin is electrical engineering, where a block diagram is created that attempts to electronically explain and determine the functionality of the device.

This may sound simple, but creating a circuit that addresses all of the needs that the product development team has in mind is often a major stumbling block. (“Scotty, I need warp drive now!” … “Captain, I’m doing the best that I can!”)

Often one can use previously developed building blocks and insert them into designs. Other times, small circuit sections must be built for testing to see if they’ll work before integrating them into the bigger picture.

The next stage is creating a circuit prototype. The mechanical engineer provides the electronic engineer with the size constraints in which to lay out the circuit board. As a rule, the smaller the enclosure, the greater chance of noise.

Further, using parts that are common throughout a product line not only saves costs but unifies the product as a family. For instance, we would purchase 100,000 switches at a time for 10 cents each while the same part could alternatively be purchased from a local part supplier for $2 each. If there are 20 switches on a product, it means a cost differential of $2 versus $40 for the exact same parts.

As a rule of thumb, we multiply the build cost by 6 to arrive at a retail price. By buying right, the switches only contributed to $12 at retail instead of $240! This isn’t always easy – sometimes it takes weeks or even several months to source parts. They can come from domestic suppliers, or the UK, Europe, China… and part shortages are often the bane of purchasers.

Worse yet, we would design in a part that we’d been using for years only to discover that it had been discontinued. This is becoming all the more common with the shift from analog to digital audio technology, and it sometimes forces one to buy from secondary markets and build up inventory well before getting any sense of a product’s market acceptance. At the end of the day, it’s all about risk tolerance and risk aversion.

Additional Aspects

Testing the prototype circuit board is usually next in line and invariably, changes are needed to deal with noise, distortion and sound quality. And I’ll say it: all electronic engineers stretch the truth. Ask them “How does it sound?” and they invariably reply, “It sounds great, look at my scope.”

In other words, they don’t always use their ears, but rather rely totally on their equipment. I recall one instance when we were building a coil EQ and discovered that the prototype was noisy. As a solution, the engineer sourced a series of induction coils with individual shields, and after he had retrofitted the parts, he said it worked perfectly. Not so!

Although electronically it tested fine, it sounded absolutely awful. I sent him back to his cave and told him not to come back until it was fixed. He discovered that the small shield collapsed the coil’s natural magnetic field, causing the tone to shift. The problem was solved by building a mu-metal box around the complete EQ section to shield the sensitive coils from the power supply’s magnetic field.

Once the prototype circuit board and the steel chassis are built, they’re assembled to ensure they fit together properly and easily. Creating an enclosure that’s difficult to assemble on a shop floor adds labor costs, which in turn increases the end price. Fitting circuit boards into the steel chassis has become easier as parts such as switches and potentiometers get drawn into 3D and can be viewed in a virtual space.

The last piece of the puzzle is bringing the original artwork into the drawing. Unless one is diligent about temperature, getting the silk screening to adhere to the paint can be a challenge.

Finishing It Off

Because of the simplicity of our products, beta testing was usually done in house or by our development team. But as products became more complex it sometimes moved out of house, where we put beta units in the hands of qualified users. It’s a time-consuming process that can sometimes be frustrating, particularly when you’re working with techs who are on the road constantly.

Finally, if a product has any form of internal digital switching, it must be submitted for Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as well as Conformité Européenne (meaning European Conformity, and CE for short) evaluation and approval. Often Underwriters Laboratories and/or Canadian Standards Association (CSA) approval is necessary as well.

Additional aspects that must be part of the new product package include packaging that will withstand the UPS delivery gorilla, an owner’s manual, warranty cards, product support specialists, and more. And don’t get overlook things like marketing tools, competitive analysis, application notes, and photos for the press release.

Creating a new product is a big jigsaw puzzle that involves a team effort, plenty of documentation, and weekly (sometimes daily) meetings along the way. Our process could take six months from start to finish, and in some cases, years. Despite the challenges, headaches and heartache, I must admit that it was the part of the job that I truly enjoyed the most.

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