Hear Your Art Out
An innovative sound system with a digital twist.
Sound-system technologies have improved and compacted over the years, allowing home surround-sound systems to not only sound live and more intense, but also necessitate less space.
In the UK, Mark Butcher had developed a large following in the speaker and sound system industry, but by 2004 his customers sought more improvements. Only it wasn’t the sound that they were displeased with-it was the sight. His high-end customers were "footloose," as he says, wanting contemporary systems sans the large, obtrusive speaker boxes that looked bulky and unattractive inside their otherwise custom homes. Design had become an integral part of homeownership, and that entailed concealing as many wires, speakers, appliances, and hardware as possible. What dawned on Butcher was the idea for aesthetically pleasing speaker systems that produced quality sounds-to make the sound system not appalling, but visually appealing.
His solution: SoundArt, a speaker system that would incorporate his Distributed Mode Loudspeaker technology-the use of vibrations, with no air transfer through the speaker front. And, to accommodate his customers’ need for aesthetics, the speaker front panels would integrate whatever color was desired, to mesh with a person’s home environment. Of course, digital printing would play a major role.
The concept of visually pleasing speaker systems was easy, but the actual manufacturing of such systems was more complex. "The process was long-very, very long," Butcher says of the research and development phase of SoundArt.
What he needed in his printer, ink, and media was intricate compatibility: a quality media-and-ink combination that could produce durable, nearly fine-art-quality images but not interfere with the acoustics. Because SoundArt’s speaker technology uses vibrations, not air transfer, the material used to cover the speakers could be canvas rather than mesh. But the quality had to be as pristine as any other fine-art canvas. Butcher eventually settled on Seal 340-gsm Grand Canvas, which addressed the speaker functions while fulfilling the art’s requisites.Finding printers was the next obstacle for Butcher, who was inexperienced in the printing-technology department. He initially looked into outsourcing the printing, and even went this route for a while, but, he says, "We were let down on too many occasions." So the decision was made to bring the entire printing operation in-house.
He test-drove a number of different printers, finally choosing the Epson Stylus Pro 9800, partly because he liked the Epson UltraChrome K3 8-color ink set. "The Epson allows us to print at the giclee level...and the Epson 8-color doesn’t have any adverse effects. We can choose vivid, contemporary graphics," he says. Dura25bility was also a factor. Butcher wanted his images to last, and added a Drytac JetMounter laminator to his equipment arsenal to help ensure that the graphics would last as long as the speaker technology behind them.
The array of SoundArt image options has been drastically enhanced since Butcher’s initial plans of solid Pantone-based colors to match a room’s decor. Today, stock photographs- ranging from nature and animals to cityscapes and abstract art-are available on the SoundArt website; Butcher has contracted with various photographers and artists, who receive royalties based on each system sold with their image.
In addition, customers can send photographs and images directly to SoundArt, which he then outsources to a local provider for scanning. He also has a system through his distributors in which they will bring in local photographers to shoot photos for customers (typically for those seeking portrait options).
Regardless of how or where the image comes from, it won’t be printed until it’s perfected. "Sometimes the quality just is not there. We have great technicians who work wonders to get rid of blemishes and marks," Butcher says. SoundArt technicians use Photoshop to manipulate the images until the files are print ready.
The speakers-and, therefore, image sizes-range from 40 x 50 cm (16 x 20 in.) to 95 x 150 cm (37 x 59 in.), and come in both portrait and landscape options. For output, SoundArt currently prints on two Epson Stylus Pro 9800s, though Butcher states that the company only needed one initially. But, he says, he prefers to err on the side of caution, especially when it comes to color calibration and emergencies.
"We like continuity. I’m a great believer in technology, but I’m a realist. These thingscan fail," he says, and by having redundancy a technological breakdown will not interfere with SoundArt’s production. In fact, he says that he is in the market to add at least three more Epsons to his fleet, although, again, it might be a little excessive. "We do things on an overkill basis," he says.
Visually satisfying audio
From family photographs on the dining room wall, to African wildlife photographs hanging in a themed hotel, to even a risque Sienna Miller photograph on one customer’s home speaker system, Butcher and company are now bringing "visually satisfying audio" to consumers worldwide.
After a March 2006 "soft launch" in a few bars and homes, Butcher took his product to the UK-based Grand Designs Live show in October of last year (displaying the speakers beneath the tag, "This is a Sound System," to ensure visitors weren’t fooled into believing it was simply a graphic reproduction). In March of this year, SoundArt traveled to the Ideal Home Exhibition in London, resulting in networking connectionsin Russia, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Belgium, "and it just grows and grows," says Butcher. In the United States, a registered distributor is soon slated to open in New York, and Butcher is seeking more retailers; Internet orders already have generated about 100 SoundArt shipments to US homes.