New Direction

New Direction
  • As a drummer in the '70s, Tom Stephenson spent 15 years touring the college concert circuit and playing a lot of contemporary classical music and some free jazz on the side. As the climate and audience began to change, he found himself becoming more involved on the studio end. "As a drummer, I saw drum machines coming on the scene and realized how digital in general was going to eventually become a huge force in the market," he remembered. "So I got into digital editing." Working with artists from Phil Collins to the Grateful Dead, he developed a new range of music industry skills through the studio. But times again were changing for the industry as well as for Stephenson. "With the uncertainty of the music industry, the way it was changing, the way the large studios were beginning to face big competition from home studios, I looked to move on."

Stephenson joined Roland in 1991 as regional sales manager for the company's new Pro Audio division, which had been designed to take digital recorders and digital effects processors into the broadcast market on the audio side. "I didn't really get a 'real' job until Roland," he admitted. "While there's nothing in the corporate boardroom experience that equals standing in front of 5,000 people calling for their fourth encore, it's quite interesting and can be very rewarding."

Stephenson quickly grew in his new role, and after only a year was promoted to national sales manager. He took over the general management of the division in 1996, at which point it merged with the musical instrument (MI) division. Thus Stephenson was back to his roots as manager of Roland's recording products.

With many successes in the audio market, such as the widely-used VS Series of digital recorders, Roland has been simultaneously developing video technology for over a decade. One market Stephenson saw that could use this technology was AV integration, and he credits the vision of Roland founder Ikutaro Kakahashi for the crossover. "I've been pushing to get this division started for more than ten years," Stephenson said. "I started out by inviting Mr. Kakahashi, over to NSCA in '95, showing him the business, and letting him see the U.S. market."

After progressing with a number of products in Japan, Roland started a new brand of audio and video equipment called EDIROL (EDI of "edit" and the "ROL" of Roland) in 1995. And since the company had both video and audio technology, the confluence of those two forces made the jump into the AV integrator market very natural. "We have had all the technologies for most of the products that are in the AV integrator market for a long time," Stephenson said. "We had major DSP engines, digital mixing chips, remote control of pre-amps, remote control of DSP; we're one of the leading companies in many of these areas."

Today Stephenson is the director of technology for Roland Systems Group U.S., a division that started about a year ago to provide support, sales, and marketing services for Roland System Solutions (RSS) audio products, the commercial audio division that formed in 2005; and EDIROL video products. Roland Systems Group has been designed to bring a special focus to users, installers, contractors, and architects of audio and video systems.

A major challenge has been for Roland to address the AV integrator channel from a new sales point of view. Stephenson admitted that it's much different from the MI channel, and that the formation of the new division allowed the company to more easily separate those two market channels. This has been a very important opportunity for Roland, because on the MI side, distribution has been consolidating rapidly. As one or two major chain stores grow in the market, technological innovation becomes more difficult to sell. "They tend to want simpler products that can be sold by salesmen who are not necessarily well-trained," he explained. Though he points out it's not the fault of the chains, but the overall climate and culture in the U.S., it can nevertheless be a limitation on product development, since, as he said, "We specialize in exciting new technologies."

To that end, Stephenson finds his new home in the AV integration market more appealing. He sees this industry as more willing to welcome innovation and to embrace new technologies. "We have more opportunity for people to tell our story, to understand the subtleties of a complex product and sell it," he said. "As we look at a broad roadmap for Roland over the next five years, we have many products on line, and a lot of them will be very sophisticated, powerful products that require somebody who can understand the products and their applications and benefits to get them widely sold into the marketplace."

One of the greatest responses so far has been for the RSS S-4000 modular digital snake, delivering up to 160 channels of high quality 24-bit/96kHz audio over Cat-5e cables. With remote controllable XR-1 mic preamps, redundant Ethernet ports, and splits using standard Ethernet hardware, the S-4000 has gained a large following since its introduction last year due in part to its resistance to high frequency loss and induced hums and buzzes. At this year's InfoComm Expo, Roland Systems Group U.S. will preview the SI-AES4 and the SO-AES4, new AES/EBU input and output modules for the S-4000. The modules allow the S-4000 to connect with a wide range of digital sources and destinations, creating a fully digital pathway for the audio signal from the stage to a digital mixing console or to a recording or broadcast system. "You can bring in digital sources like samplers or broadcast decks for playback, and send it out digitally to recording rigs," Stephenson explained. "Because you can split with a standard GB switch, it's very easy to send a feed over to a recorder, using one of these new modules. It's a total digital solution, saving money in the installation process and offering greatly improved intelligibility and sound quality."

On the video end, Roland Systems Group U.S. is tackling real-time digital video playback with its EDIROL PR Presenter Series, a benefit to houses of worship, sporting arenas, retailers, and more who require a presentation system that can be set up and run quickly and without significant training. The company is also creating a stir in the club market with its EDIROL CG-8 visual synthesizer. Winner of the 2005 Club World Awards, the CG-8 allows users to create moving visuals from still images that can be manipulated and performed in real-time. "With the proliferation of inexpensive LCD flatscreens, bars, clubs, and restaurants have the potential for affordable multimedia presentations," Stephenson explained. "But where is the content going to come from? Roland is pioneering a new product category, the video synthesizer that can generate compelling and exciting images. This allows small business owners to customize their content easily without having to be experts in video technology, lighting, or other such skills."

These developments have proven Roland's position in the AV integrator market is a strong one, and Stephenson acknowledges the company's history has played a key role. "We've got an advantage because we have a strong reputation on the MI side, where our key points have always been reliability and sound quality," he said, "and that carries over."

Designed for use in any live event, the PR-1000HD is a real-time visual playback and performance system that allows instantaneous recall of hundreds of HD and SD video clips as well as still images. Regardless of the original format, the PR-1000HD scales video from the DVI terminal as a variety of HD, SD, or RGB formats.
The operator can participate, spontaneously, in what is happening on stage providing a unique visual performance. In addition to RS-232, 422A, and touch screen support, the PR-1000HD can also respond to any MIDI based control device, such as a MIDI keyboard. This allows the user to combine digital video clips, digital audio, and still images into a synchronized presentation.

Import and export are simplified with HDV/DV inputs, multi-drive DVD, and a 10/100/1000-T based network. The unit contains an internal hard drive, two removable hard drives, USB, and FireWire ports for large storage capacity while maintaining optimal quality with an internal video format of HDV or DV. This maintains quality for LED wall, large screen, and plasma applications. Playback of clips is instant and can be configured to loop or play preset sequences. Assigning clips, triggering, speed control, audio levels, and other functions are executed via the graphical user interface.

Mary Bakija is a writer and editor with more than 15 years of storytelling experience. Bakija is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Library and Information Science to help others find and tell important stories that might otherwise be lost, and to ensure those stories are preserved for future generations to see.