Sound Devices of Reedsburg filling a niche for the pro

REEDSBURG — Sound Devices is a global company in the most literal sense.

Its products are sold in 50 countries and are used in Middle East and southwest Asian deserts and conflict zones, atop the Himalayan Mountains, in South American rainforests and, this month at least, in Sochi, Russia, for the Winter Olympics.

That’s why the company, founded in 1998 by Matt Anderson and Jon Tatooles, has a climate-controlled test chamber that allows its professional-grade audio and video recorders to be tested for days at a time in temperatures that range from minus 40 to more than 150 degrees.

Sturdy, lightweight molded metallized carbon fiber housings protect the complex electronics from the elements and rigors of field use by news crews, documentary filmmakers, sports production companies and reality television shows.

Video production industry changes are also helping to spur growth for Sound Devices, which employs about 100 people. Producers are using multiple cameras and multiple microphones to shoot a scene instead of one camera and one microphone. That means more need for Sound Devices’ multichannel and multitrack audio recorders to simultaneously capture the interactions of multiple actors, athletes or reality stars. Sound Devices also makes video recorders that are attached to the side of cameras and provide superior images over those built into the camera.

“We’re an inch-wide, mile-deep kind of company,” said Tatooles, chief business development officer. “When you look at our products and you see all of the features and the depth of them, it’s very specific for the applications that they’re used. These are very deep, multitrack recorders for the most challenging

production environments.”

Sound Devices products are nowhere to be found at Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Radio Shack or any other consumer electronics retailer.

Instead, the customers include NBC, Al Jazeera, NFL Films and the production companies for Glee and Game of Thrones. When a Veritas Film documentary about an annual singing competition in Dubai’s labor camps was filmed last year, the sound technician used a digital audio recorder and a controller from Sound Devices.

“For the people buying our gear, this is their job,” Tatooles said. “If it fails, and they don’t have a backup, they don’t work.”

The electronics are all designed and assembled on Reedsburg’s east side in a 30,000-square-foot building that for years was home to a flag company.

In January, the Reedsburg Area Chamber of Commerce named Sound Devices its business of the year. The award comes two years after the company moved out of leased space and into its more prominent location on Highway 23.

Kristine Koenecke, chamber executive director, said Sound Devices’ growth, dedication to the community, providing jobs for a wide cross section of workers and its work with high school students who get hands-on experience in engineering and computer programming all led to the award.

The company’s employee roster includes assemblers, technicians who use stereo microscopes to repair battered equipment, software designers, and electrical and mechanical engineers.

“It did not surprise me they were nominated. We look for businesses that are multidimensional,” Koenecke said. “I just think they’re a business that will be here for a long time. They’re stable, and they’re part of the community.”

Anderson, 45, a University of Illinois graduate, and Tatooles, 46, a Northwestern University graduate, met while working for audio electronics giant Shure in Evanston, Ill.

After about eight years with the company, the Illinois natives branched out on their own to build field-production audio products for professional users. Video recorders were added in the last three years. Most products cost from $1,500 to $6,500.

“It fit us well because that market is characterized by very high-quality stuff, which we know how to do,” said Anderson, whose office is also a design studio and workshop complete with soldering guns, pliers, screwdrivers and cables hanging on the wall. “It’s something I wanted to do my whole life.”

Anderson and Tatooles began by leasing space and using employees under contract at Hankscraft, a company founded in Madison in 1920 but located in Reedsburg since 1949. In its early days, Hankscraft was known for its electric egg cookers, baby bottle warmers, sterilizers, vaporizers and humidifiers.

Today, the company makes tap handles, point-of-purchase displays and home water treatment systems.

In 1999, Sound Devices had four employees and $20,000 in sales. In 2002, the company surpassed $1 million and by 2005 had 12 employees when it introduced a four-track field recording system when most other companies were selling just two-track systems.

When the company made the decision to buy its own facility and spend $500,000 to renovate it, 40 were employed there. That number doubled after the move from Hankscraft.

In the last two years alone, sales have increased 40 percent and some of its products can record 32 tracks at a time.

“Everything now is being shot multicamera, multitrack,” Tatooles said. “In some of these competition reality shows, they may have five or six crews going at the same time. There’s so much audio and so many cameras. It’s just remarkable.”

Products are designed in Reedsburg, but parts are bought and shipped to contract manufacturers in Whitewater, Winona, Minn., and Taiwan. Finished components are then shipped back to Reedsburg where they are assembled into finished products. About a month of inventory is kept in stock, which means orders can be filled typically on the same day.

“It’s still an awful lot of work that we do right here,” Anderson said. “We could go totally vertically integrated and own milling machines and stuff like that, but we just think that doesn’t make sense in order to remain really nimble and stay ahead of new technologies.”

When Anderson and Tatooles first attended the National Association of Broadcasters (trade show) convention in 1999, their booth was 10-foot square and featured one product.

When they return to Las Vegas in April for this year’s exhibition for the radio and television industry, their display space will be more than twice the size and feature more than 15 products, including three new entries yet to be released.

“I never really looked out to see what Sound Devices would look like in 10 years,” Tatooles said. “It was always: What’s the next step? The next six months? What’s on our plate right now? We had numerous failures, but we’ve never really looked back, either. We took those lessons and simply moved forward.”