A Brief History
By James C. Chen, Partner
I have been around audio my entire life. I can remember helping my Dad hang Neumann mics from the catwalks of the Stockton Civic Auditorium to record the Stockton Symphony. I played in a variety of bands in high school and ran a mobile disco company called Thunder & Lightning with my good friend Drew Kutlik. I headed up the sound company at UC Berkeley called Technical Operations and we did the sound for hundreds of events concerts every year. Our big shows included the UC Berkeley Jazz Festival, Cinco de Mayo, and more new wave and punk rock than I can remember. I definitely had the audio bug. Soon I left the world of music to do accounting for Hewlett-Packard and new I somehow had to get back to the audio industry. At UCLA, I fronted a band called the AGSMs (pronounced like orgasm) and almost got kicked out of school. John Anderson had donated $15M and the UCLA business school was renamed AGSM from GSM. How rock n roll!
In The Beginning
AUDIO Images was incorporated on November 6, 1986. The company was founded by Ron Timmons, Dr. Thomas T. Chen, Jim Chen, and Dave Van Hoy. Audio Images was first conceived over lunch at Pedro´s in Santa Clara, CA. The premier professional audio company in San Francisco was Sound Genesis and they went bankrupt during the summer of 1986. We collectively felt that there was an opportunity in the marketplace and that we could do a better job. Ron Timmons owned a company located in Concord, CA called AIC Pro Audio which evolved from a branch office of Audio Industries that was located in San Jose, CA. Dave Van Hoy was working for Lockheed after being one of the top salesmen at Sound Genesis. Doc Chen was practicing medicine in Stockton, CA while also running Custom Recording/Studio C, a recording studio. I was attending graduate school at the University of California at Los Angeles working on my MBA and studying Entertainment Management with visions of working in the record industry. When the opportunity to start Audio Images arose, I changed my focus to starting my own small business. This was the beginnings of the Entrepreneurial Studies Center headed by Al Osbourne, one of my former professors.
When we started Audio Images, our first major vendors included Otari Corporation, Sound Workshop, JBL and Dolby Laboratories. We had the expertise to sell and service large 24 track analog tape recorders and mixing consoles. We worked with every major recording studio in Northern California and were particularly successful with film post production facilities such as LucasFilm, American Zoetrope and Saul Zaentz Film Center. We would work closely with our customers helping design custom recording solutions for each customer. We were selling tape recorders the size of a washing machine and recording consoles that could take three people to run. We also saw the ability to hook up new synthesizer to computers from companies like Emu Systems and Apple Computers.
During the late 80´s and early 90´s, we soon developed expertise with digital audio that could use a desktop computer as the editing front end. We worked with companies such as WaveFrame which was able to edit audio on a 386 computer with $100,000 worth of hardware behind it. Soon we saw new digital audio editing systems from companies such as Digidesign, Opcode and Passport. The days of the analog tape recorder seemed numbered as more and more customers were moving to computer-based digital audio editing systems like Digidesign ProTools or tape based digital audio systems like the ADAT from Alesis Corporation. During this time, AUDIO Images expanded to add locations in Seattle, WA and Portland, OR.
By the mid-90´s, the professional audio business had experienced a paradigm shift from analog to digital technologies. The business changed dramatically and AUDIO Images was forced to change also. We had developed a wealth of experience with a variety of both analog and digital technologies to share with our customers. One of these technologies was the ability to record digital audio to recordable compact disks. We had a customer that was constantly coming in and buying recordable CD´s from us. One day I asked them what type of music they were recording (after reading "In Search of Excellence" and trying to get closer to the customer) and they informed me that they didn´t make music at all. I asked what they were doing with the CD´s and they informed me that they were a software company that was writing a software program that would change the world. They had the ability to combine images, video, audio, and interactivity and could create a "multimedia" CD-ROM. The company was MacroMind and the software was Director 3.0. They sent a woman named Karla Boisvert over to see us and she signed us up as one of her first resellers. We soon found ourselves representing Macromedia at tradeshows all over the country and selling Macromedia products. We were soon one of their largest and most knowledgeable dealers. We were also proud to be one of the first people to make full-screen, full-motion MPEG video inside of Director.
Spinning The Web
Scot Lancaster from California State University, Hayward was the first one to tell me that the work we were doing with multimedia would soon be surpassed by a new phenomenon called the World Wide Web and the Internet. We learned about the web and Macromedia soon released a technology on December 5, 1995 called Shockwave which allowed Macromedia to deploy items created with Director on the Internet within a Netscape 2.0 browser. The following January, Macromedia purchased a company from Campbell, CA called iBand and a product called Backstage. Backstage was the beginning of our HTML development. One day, I received a telephone call from Karla Boisvert and she informed me that she had quit Macromedia and had gone to a new Internet startup in Redwood City. She asked me to take a look at the product that they were soon going to release and wanted us to be their first dealer. I called her at home that night and signed up immediately. The company was NetObjects and the product that I was looking at was a beta version of NetObjects Fusion 1.0. We were also one of the first dealers for Progressive Networks (RealNetworks), Intershop, and Equilibrium.
Dot Com, Dot Gone
As the success of NetObjects grew, we also grew. We established our own training center to teach NetObjects Fusion and the NetObjects Authoring Server. We helped write the training materials for the NetObjects classes, taught NetObjects to their employees and customers, and developed a very successful consulting business. I was traveling around the country and helping corporate customers such as Calvin Klein, Caterpillar, Coherent, Dr. Pepper, the State of Utah, Peavey, AgriBank, Retek and Fireman´s Fund. What a great experience it was!
From 2000-2002, the internet boom turned to bust. Our neighborhood in San Francisco´s SOMA district was affectionately called Multimedia Gulch and the gulch had turned to a literal ghost town. Commercial vacancy rates were around 80% and all the glory of the dot com new economy was gone. We were fortunate during this time that we were able to turn some of our dot com success into a real estate boom by purchasing the building that we are in now at 735 Bryant Street which is right around the corner from our original location at 70 Oak Grove Street. As our business with NetObjects was on the decline, it was time to look for something new to do.
Back to Our Musical Roots
In January of 2002, I was at the NAMM show in Anaheim and I was walking down a hallway and out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a guitar that looked like Brian May´s Red Special. Being a big fan of Queen, I had to take a closer look and indeed it was. Burns of London had made the guitar and it was being sold by Burns USA. I asked if they had a dealer in San Francisco and they said they were just setting up distribution. Immediately I decided to jump on board. I also found a guitar stand that holds seven guitars in very little space. I ordered one for myself and decided to try to sell these unique stands at Audio Images.
From that humble beginning, I decided to go back to my musical roots and build a new business around music products. I decided to sell unique guitar products that had a sense of history to them. Burns and Brian May definitely fit the bill. I also found Hofner and the Beatle bass, and the Ventures guitars from Wilson Brothers. From my guitar stand business, I found Krank amps which moved us to servicing the metal guitarist. Dimebag Darrell of Pantera had just started playing Krank when he was tragically killed in December 2004. From Krank, we also brought in Dean Guitars to the Audio Images mix. We started selling guitar pedals that were endorsed by a guitarist (i.e. Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Zakk Wylde, George Lynch, etc) and soon had a full selection of guitar pedals. I want us to be where Guitar Center isn´t. If you love GC, you´re going to hate our store.
We have taken our philosophy from the beginning of being knowledgeable about the products we sell and passing our experience on to customers and developed a successful business model. Our goal is to make our customers successful with the products that they buy from us. That doesn´t matter if you´re an audio engineer, musician, producer, club or restaurant owner, or artist... Audio Images is here to help you succeed!