Jessup firm's future sound

Audio boards, service win entertainers' trust

Equipment used at concerts

Touring experience gives company edge, it says

Howard County

November 24, 2003|By Donna W. Payne | Donna W. Payne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Some of the best-known musical performers in the United States and abroad depend, in part, on a Jessup engineering company for the successful production of their live concerts.

Audio Toys Inc. designs, manufacturers and services massive audio sound boards (a typical console is 8 feet long with inputs for 64 microphones) that have been used on tour by Ricky Martin, Jackson Browne, the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, the Dixie Chicks, Tina Turner, U2, Bon Jovi and Styx, as well as numerous entertainment venues and large churches.

Audio Toys recently delivered the biggest sound-mixing console it has made -- with inputs for 88 microphones -- to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn. And the company's mixing consoles were used on Cher's recent national farewell tour.

"The object of a mixing console and a mixing engineer is to take all the microphones on stage, whether they be instruments or vocals, mix them together and send them to the big speakers so that the audience can hear the performance on stage in a well-balanced manner," said Larry Droppa, president and co-founder of Audio Toys.

Droppa and his wife, Jane, who live in Ellicott City, spent many years on the road doing audio mixing for entertainers. They met while on tour and married in 1985.

Three years later, Droppa formed Audio Toys with two colleagues (who are no longer with the company); his wife gave birth to their first son and stopped touring.

Larry Droppa worked on developing the company and continued to tour from time to time, primarily with Stevie Wonder -- a job he said he got through his wife, who had previously worked with the entertainer.

He continued touring with Wonder through the end of 2000. The gigs were hard to give up, he said.

Wonder is "such a fabulous guy. Every time he'd go on the road, he'd phone me up and say, `Let's go,' and I'd go," Droppa said.

On those tours, he mixed the sound generated by the microphones and singers -- as many as 72 signals -- into one stereo signal that was fed directly into Wonder's earphones.

Droppa credits the success that Audio Toys has had in developing a product that appeals to a wide range of entertainers to the hands-on experience that he and others in the company have.

"We figured, well, we can do a better job [than other sound board designers] because we've all used this stuff before," he said.

Beneficial change

Droppa added that Audio Toys also benefited from an "industrywide change" in the early 1990s, when tours started to improve the level of their concert sound.

The move, he said, came in response to the demands of audiences who owned high-end home audio equipment and expected equal quality when they attended a live performance.

The industry changed from "throwing a bunch of stuff on stage and turning it up until everything worked, to having more of a technical approach to mixing sound and taking care of performers," Droppa said.

Audio Toys managing director Gordon Smart said that the multimillion-dollar company, which has 28 employees, supplies audio equipment to performers and equipment-leasing companies worldwide.

The company acquired API Audio Products, a company that produces studio sound boards, in 1998, and Audio Toys now uses the name The ATI Group.

Smart said the studio consoles cost from $200,000 to $500,000, and the consoles for live performances cost about $100,000.

Service

Smart emphasized that supplying round-the-clock service to customers is a matter of company pride.

"[Our customers] have very high expectations, the gear is not cheap and we bend over backwards to make sure people are happy," he said.

Production manager and chief troubleshooter Richard Josephs has the airline miles to prove that commitment.

Josephs said that he flew in and out of St. Louis recently for a minor three-hour adjustment to the mixing consoles being used for Cher's concert there.

"I've been known to fly from here to Chicago just to take a switch out," Josephs added. "It doesn't matter where [the customers] are and it doesn't mat- ter what time of day. It will be fixed."

Sideline gig

Josephs also has a weekend job during football season: making sure that the headsets for the Ravens coaches work properly, allowing them to communicate with one another during home games.

His wife, Patricia, also works at Audio Toys, assembling and testing equipment components.

The couple moved here from Great Britain. Other employees are from Vietnam, India and the United States.

Patricia Josephs said she values the camaraderie among the employees, as well as Droppa's jokes and encouragement.

"We have a lovely combination, which makes it work for us," she said. "We're all a team together."

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