(This is Part 1 of a two-part feature on RØDE Microphones. Part 2 can be found here.)
THE STORY of how RØDE Microphones got its name hearkens back to its earliest days. Founder Peter Freedman started the company in the 1980s by disassembling Chinese capacitor microphones and replacing the electronics inside to yield better performance.
After a particularly successful day demonstrating the product at a convention, the team noted that the microphones were taking off “like a rat up a drain pipe”, which eventually led to the name “Rodent”.
Freedman then arrived at the final form of the brand, RØDE, by replacing the O with the minuscule Ø in tribute to his roots in Sweden, and separating the latter “NT” part of the word to use as a designated prefix for his range of microphones.
Today, RØDE Microphones is a name known throughout the global home recording, cinematography and professional sound and music recording markets. All its manufacturing is done at its facility in Silverwater, NSW, and it employs 200 people world-wide.
A line of enclosures for RODE Microphones' various products.
In recent months, it was named NSW Exporter of the Year in the 2012 Premier’s NSW Export Awards.
In addition to its headquarters in Silverwater, RØDE Microphones has a design and marketing studio in Surry Hills, an office in Santa Barbara in the US, and an adjunct facility in Seattle, dedicated to R&D for the Event line of studio monitors, which RØDE bought in 2006.
The success of the company today is due largely to the drive of Freedman and his staff, their dedication to the world of sound equipment, and his ability to build a business and a highly competent team, as well as a rare dedication to quality Australian manufacturing.
Phoenix from the ashes
The predecessor of RØDE Microphones, Freedman Electronics, was started in 1967 by Henry and Astrid Freedman. Henry, an Englishman, was an audio engineer who moved to Sweden where he met Astrid. While in Sweden, Peter was born, and the family moved to Australia in 1966.
RODE Microphones founder and CEO Peter Freedman with a casing for a shotgun mic.
Freedman Electronics started out importing German sound equipment from DYNACORD, and Peter took over the company after his father passed away in 1987. Hoping to expand the company, Freedman borrowed large sums of money in the late 1980s, but then the stock market crash hit.
“I ended up owing a fortune, lost the business, lost my house, lost everything,” Freedman said. “I was looking for ways to try and make money. It was just being at the right place at the right time, trying things. I had access to a recording microphone which we sourced, and modified.”
Freedman managed to catch the wave of modern home and digital recording. RØDE Microphones catered to the home users who wanted better microphones, but without the exorbitant costs associated with traditional German units.
From this early success, RØDE Microphones continued building on its capabilities, developing its own products, even collaborating with the CSIRO and academic and industry physicists to push the boundaries of what it could do in the area of sound.
The secret of Australian manufacturing
The decision to retain manufacturing operations in Australia was one that Freedman consciously made throughout the years, even as droves of manufacturers started outsourcing to Asia in the 90s.
“A lot of accountants told us that you could get things in China for very low cost, the labour is great, and people want to supply. Even today, we have great relationships with people over there,” Freedman told Electronics News.
“But I could see that companies there were going to eventually want to do their own thing. And some of the ones that I was talking to did go on to try and do their own brands.”
To protect his company, Freedman started investing in machinery 16 years ago, gradually building up a formidable arsenal of manufacturing equipment, which allowed him to bring more operations in-house.
Most of RODE Microphone's manufacturing and logistics operations are done in-house.
“It’s taken 15 years of learning how to use the machinery, getting the staff and buying these very high tech machines to get to where we are now,” he said. “I have machines that make labour irrelevant. People ask me about low cost labour, and I say I don’t care, I’ve got no labour in some of the stuff we make.”
But it’s not just about the gear: staff training and know-how is the glue that keeps the model together.
“That’s the secret of Australian manufacturing: high tech machinery and very clever people,” Freedman said. “People think you can just turn on manufacturing by money. You can’t. It takes ages to train people to the point where they understand it. We’ve got many people here who’ve been at it nine or ten years or more.”
18 months ago, finding itself needing to manufacture greater quantities of products, RØDE Microphones upgraded its SMT line with a new Yamaha system, which is ten times faster than its previous SMT machine.
This highly-automated SMT line, which runs the length of an entire room in the facility, has board stacking capabilities, so hundreds of panels can be loaded up for processing.
The machine silk-screens the paste, loads the surface mount components onto the board from reels and carousels, conveys it through the reflow oven, and stacks the completed boards at the other end.
Along the way, the Yamaha machine has temperature controls and humidity controls, as well as scanning capabilities to ensure quality control.
“One engineer can produce as many boards as we ever want,” Freedman said. “We only run one shift at the moment, but we could move up to three shifts with no problems. No matter how big the production gets, we can deal with it.”
According to Freedman, the degree of automation means RØDE Microphones can, in many cases, beat Chinese manufacturers at their own game.
“Other than big companies like Foxconn who does Apple in China, I don’t see this quality in China. They do a lot more hand work,” he said.
RODE Microphones' advanced SMT line.
As a result of building its own manufacturing capabilities in-house, RØDE Microphones is able to bypass certain cost restrictions on components. For example, it makes its own transformers for its valve microphones.
“The secret of a good audio transformer is in the laminations, and they’re expensive,” Freedman explained. “Some of these older transformers, their measured frequency response is 5Hz up to 200KHz, amazing.”
But these transformers are manufactured in small quantities by a few companies, and they cost around 400 dollars each – clearly an unsustainable solution for a cost-conscious microphone manufacturer.
“So if we want it, we have to make it ourselves. So we bought the best Swiss auto-winders. We get lamination material specially made which has those characteristics we need…all the vacuum impregnation – every single thing you need to make high-tech transformers,” Freedman said, as he held a completed transformer in his palm.
The raw material cost of each transformer? 15 dollars.
Precision and speed
Automated and highly precise manufacturing has for the most part eliminated variability in the quality of the company’s products – when every part is manufactured and assembled in temperature-controlled environments to micron tolerances, there is little that could go wrong.
However, every microphone master panel is still tested on a bed of nails, which runs a diagnostic check in place. Valve microphones have their own rack, on which they are soak tested for 24 hours.
RODE Microphones' "money-making machine".
For the casings of the microphones, automation is again the key for RØDE Microphones, which churns them out using a large automatic machining line housed in a room packed with manufacturing equipment.
“You load up long bars of brass and they automatically load, and machine anything you like, and you go home. 24/7, it’s a money-making machine that just spits out the parts,” Freedman said.
“People say ‘labour cost’ – no labour. But 600,000 dollars in tooling and programming? That’s the future – now.”
The RØDE facility is like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory for manufacturers: name a manufacturing technology, and it’s likely to be here: a chemical machining plant from Germany; electric discharge machining for tool-making; a precision grinding table which produces a mirror finish, again for tool-making; and a five-axis mill capable of turning an aluminium block into speaker chassis within half a day.
RODE Microphones' chemical machining plant.
To ensure manufacturing precision, the company has a metrology room which can check surface flatness down to 10nm, and a laser interferometer for highly accurate measurements of moving elements.
The move to bring more and more operations in-house is something Freedman relishes. For a company like RØDE Microphones, the cost of the alternative – outsourcing to China – is time. And time, ultimately, is money.
“If I order now from a factory in China, it takes them 30 days to get the parts, 30 days to produce it, and then maybe 30 days to ship it,” Freedman points out. “With this, we can get the parts next week.”
“What’s that worth? That’s speed to market. We can move fast. You can’t start planning 3 to 4 months ahead. The world changes. You can make a mistake or something goes wrong, or it arrives and it’s wrong. You need to have it all to be able to move that fast.”
(This is Part 1 of a two-part feature on RØDE Microphones. Continue on to Part 2.)