Monday, April 13, 2009

CI Blog Introduction

So this is the first of many CI blogs. Let me start by saying hello, and welcome to the world of D'Addario … I know, you're saying, “Wait a second, I'm on the Planet Waves site.” As a matter of fact you're actually on the Planet Waves CI site. What does this all mean?

Well, we're all starting blogs at the company now, and CI looks to be an interesting topic to Blog about. We will have installers sharing some of their stories, either with the product or otherwise, and we will try to get a diverse group of PW enthusiasts to write here on a regular basis. And we will continually try to incorporate valuable information about the trade so it isn't just a PW love fest or product answer forum.

So let's get the introduction and history thing out of the way on this first go around:
Planet Waves CI is a division of Planet Waves, Planet Waves is a division of D'Addario & Co. Inc. Who is D'Addario & Co., Inc.? Ah, now there's something to blog about …

D'Addario & Co., Inc. was officially founded in February 1973, but if we started there it just wouldn't be that interesting. The real story starts back in the 1600’s, when from what we can tell a D'Addario married into a cordaro family (that's string maker for those of you that don't speak Italian) in the sheep herding town of Salle, Italy. Salle was a lot bigger back in those days, and making strings out of sheep gut was relatively common among the inhabitants (at least that's what we've been told). Believe it or not, you can still go to the town (it's not exactly in the same place) and there are still cordaros there today.

So, how on earth did we end up in the USA making hundreds of thousands of strings per day? An earthquake hit the town and the rest, as they say … well you get the idea. My Great Grandfather came here in 1905 looking to expand the reach of D'Addario strings and began importing strings from Salle; after some time he then began manufacturing the strings States-side in his basement in Astoria, Queens.

The fate of Charles D'Addario & Son Instrument String Manufacturers was such that his son, John Sr. (my Grandfather), decided at some point that modern steel guitar strings were the future of the business and went out on his own to build a new brand. That brand was Darco strings (yes the brand name is still around). When my great grandfather Charles retired, my grandfather merged both businesses in 1959. In 1969, John Sr. felt the best opportunity was to merge with Martin guitars and the Darco company was sold for equity in the Martin company (at least that is how I've heard the story).

At that point, the D'Addario family business was in effect Martin's; at the time my father was in his early 20s, running the printing presses for the company and working in sales. He decided in 1973 that he would be better off trying his hand in business on his own while his father and brother continued at Martin. By 1974 they decided to start making strings under their own name, and once again the brothers and father were reunited at J. D'Addario & Co., Inc.

So how on earth did we end up making cables, and AV cables to boot? One thing you'll learn if you were ever to meet my father (that is Jim D'Addario) is that he is never satisfied. When my family started making strings again and they inevitably started having problems with machinery, my dad began to take apart the machines, rework the parts, and make them better. Now mind you, he does not have an engineering background, but qualifies himself as compulsive tinkerer and problem solver.

You could also say he was the classic early adopter - he wasn't the computer junkie with a Commodore 64, but once IBM put out the 8086 with dual floppies and 8k of memory, he was all over it. One of the first programs he bought for the machine was AutoCAD. You see, he's not much of a drafter (he has too little patience for that) but the computer allowed him to draw machine parts effectively, and from there it allowed him to draw other ideas he had.

My dad always looks at something and asks himself, “Is there a way this can be better, easier, faster, more reliable, etc?” … nothing’s never perfect, you can always improve upon a design or product. So in 1998, after the purchase of Planet Waves (I know I'm jumping ahead here), which at the time was only manufacturing straps for guitars and basses, we all started to look at PW as Jim's playground. It was a safe haven for ideas or products that just didn't fit in any other part of our organization.

One of the principals that he taught me at a very early age was why he did what he did: it was always to make the musician's job easier. That is, make a better string so it's easier to tune, is more durable, sounds better, stays in tune longer . . . make a better drumhead that's more consistent, sounds better, is more durable, etc. Well, with Planet Waves it was and still is a wide open playing field. If you look at our complete product selection in all of the categories, at a glance it appears to be scattered and fragmented … then you take a closer look, and in each category there is a product with the stamp of added value, or differentiator on it. Some of those ideas were his improvements to audio cables, specifically on the connector part of equation.

Planet Waves cables started out with two ideas - one was a compression spring on a quarter inch guitar connector, which insured positive contact regardless of how old or bad your guitar jack was; the other was what we later dubbed “Cablestation.” Cablestation was an improvement on the existing technology which used a pin and set screw to make a connection with a coax cable. While the idea was innovative 20 years ago, let's just say the previous implementations of this type of technology left room for improvement. (I'm not about bashing other's products, it’s not worth it and it's simply not the way we do things at D’Addario/Planet Waves) Once we perfected the system for instrument cables we looked at other markets or channels where it could be applicable.

So, when Cablestation launched back in 2002 it was geared towards the music retail channel, we packaged it in consumable packages, and had a limited offering of cable. We weren't focused on the Custom Install marketplace because we didn't understand how the product needed to perform - we simply had a innovative way of making a coax connection that could be used for audio, video, and digital audio signals.

Jump to 2004 - this is where I come in (Rob D’Addario, by the way). After studying music and science at DePaul University through 1999 (which encompassed an emphasis in Electrical Engineering, Music and Sound Recording Technology), I, like many others of the day, tried my hand at the world wide web. More specifically, my studies led me toward multimedia applications.

In the fall of 2002 I joined the family business as an IT systems analyst, helping with network design, a new phone system installation, etc. … stuff that is all relevant, fun in many ways, and can be a derivative of signal flow. The Cablestation product geared toward Audio Video was collecting dust in the warehouse, and we had hired Buzz Delano (Long Time CEDIA Dean, and now CEDIA Board member) to take a serious look at whether this product could make sense to the discerning CEDIA Custom Installer. It was a tall order - the product just simply didn't look like the robust professional product we would be put up against.

Buzz assembled dealer roundtable focus groups on both coasts, we put what we had on the table, and asked for feedback. The message was clear: cool idea, bad execution. They loved the ease of use, the reusability, and the fact that you didn't need $100 tools to assemble the end product. But we needed to reinvent the connector to look like something worthy of a true professional grade custom installation. The overall signal performance was there, but the aesthetic was way off. In addition, we didn't have the breath of cable required to meet the needs of these potential customers. Even with all of these negatives, half of the original group liked it so much that they started using the product right away .

The next 8 months leading to CEDIA 2005 was a race to improve the connector, make the packaging installer-friendly, and expand the cable segment of the line to make sure it met the highest quality standards for HD Digital coax. We wanted to make a cable that our installers could use for everything. That is, coming from an EE background and understanding the geometry constraints of an RCA connector, there was no physical reason why we couldn't make a cable that had the right characteristics to be used for Audio, Video, RF or Digital Audio. We succeeded!!!

Not knowing what to expect in September 2005 we went to Indiana for our first CEDIA show …

The rest is for next time.

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