When the employees of Autograph Sound say they wear a lot of hats, they're not kidding. In the back of the company's sleek promotional brochure, you'll find a list of its 23 employees and their various roles within the organization. Co-founder Andrew Bruce, for instance, is listed as "landscape gardener and managing director." Andy Brown is "Formula 1 follower and production/design engineer." Mark Underwood is "non-conformist and service engineer." Other roles include that of raconteur, gymnast, financial administrator, sound designer, mariner, hire administrator, and my favorite, stock breeder.
It's all in good fun, of course, but it also helps to underscore the wide variety of roles that this London-based company has performed in the last 25 years. Formed initially as a hire facility (a service it still provides--Autograph Sales distributes all of the major audio brands to the European market, from ATM-Flyware to Meyer Sound to Clear-Com), the company has grown over the years to offer sound design and consultancy, an equipment sales division, even a digital-effects recording studio.
Bruce and his crew of designers, engineers, and support staff are something of a mainstay in the West End: Autograph has been involved in such seminal events as the London premieres of A Chorus Line, Evita, and Cats, and such current London hits as Saturday Night Fever and The Iceman Cometh. The company's staff of sound designers includes Bobby Aitken (Return to the Forbidden Planet, Five Guys Named Moe, The Fix), Bruce (the original Paris version of Les Miserables and all subsequent productions in Europe, Asia, and the US, plus all productions of Miss Saigon), and Terry Jardine (Crazy for You, Fame). Sometimes Autograph provides only the sound designer, sometimes it provides only the equipment, and sometimes it offers the whole package.
Rarely do companies offer such one-stop shopping. In the world of entertainment technology, designers design and rental companies rent. That's usually the way things get done, and it makes a certain amount of sense, when you think about it. How many designers enjoy pushing papers, making cold calls, and negotiating contracts? How many sales people want to spend hours alone at a computer or drafting table, worrying about texture and nuance? On the other hand, if you can provide a client with a complete package--the designer, the equipment, the support staff--that makes a certain amount of sense, too. And it has certainly served Autograph well.
"We're a team of individuals," explains Bruce, "which I know is contradictory, but we really are a close-knit crew with very distinct styles, all capable of handling different types of projects, either as production sound engineers, sound designers, or simply advising and supplying the very best audio and communications equipment. We offer each other the support needed for each project, and in turn we supply our clients with the very best in sound reinforcement design, service, and equipment."
"I think most people would agree that few people join this company doing the job they eventually end up doing," adds Terry Jardine, who's been with Autograph since 1989 and now serves as the company's director. "I know I came in with the idea that I was going to be Andrew's assistant. And except for a few dates on a Cats tour, I've never assisted Andrew. And that's not because I was particularly good, but things tend to overtake you, because we're such a busy company. There isn't time for people to break themselves in normally, so you just have to get on with it."
Autograph's team of individuals started out as a duo back in 1973. Bruce started his career at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 1968 before moving on to the Royal Opera House, where he met Paul Clifford. A West End producer asked them for advice on the sound equipment used on his shows, and put the idea in their heads to form their own company. "Their parting words were something to the effect of, 'If you ever start a rental company, do come back to us, and we'd be happy to send some business your way.' We walked back to the office thinking, 'Well, that's an offer we can't refuse.' Then we spent the next week or so thinking about it, and then planning it and getting quite excited by the idea. So we did it, and about three or four months later, we realized we hadn't called the producer. We did, and it turned out he had a crop of new shows that spring and had contracts for all of them except Absurd Person Singular, the Alan Ayckbourn play. He said, 'Yeah fine, do that one if you want.' And we immediately got into a conflict with him because of the budget! But that's how we started."
Bruce and Clifford chose the name Autograph because it had a "personal touch," and also because they thought the company would end up in the recording industry, with studios and mobile trucks for television broadcasts, in addition to rentals. There were plenty of other rental companies around London at the time, however, and nobody really took the company seriously until a show called City Sugar came along.
"It featured an actor/singer called Adam Faith, who was fairly well known at the time as a 60s crooner," Bruce recalls of the show. "But we came into conflict with him, and he ended up maneuvering so that we were fired by the producer, because he wanted his friend's company to do the sound. The producer fired us, and we had to bow out gracefully. But then the friend's company made a mess of things, and we were called back three days later to rescue it. We did the show, and we were quite proud of it, and it happened to coincide with the time when Abe Jacob was on the lookout for a company to help him with A Chorus Line. He saw City Sugar, met with us, and basically, we hit it off and ended up doing A Chorus Line." Subsequent to that, Autograph worked with Jacob on all of his other West End shows, including Evita, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Beatlemania, and Evita.
Around that time, in the late 70s, Clifford decided to leave the company, and Julian Beech came onboard as Bruce's partner. It was also around that time that a little French musical called Les Miserables entered Bruce's life. He recalls getting a call from a Frenchman who was in London recording an album of songs for a musical he was working on with his partner. They had seen Evita, and were interested in talking to Bruce about the use of radio mics, but were flying back to Paris that night.
"So I drove out to CTS Studios in Wembley, in the rush hour on a rainy Friday night," he recalls, "and waited for them to finish their session. Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil get in my car and say, 'Take us to Heathrow, we'll talk on the way.' So I was their taxi service to the airport. We talked about radio mics and when I got them to their terminal they said, 'Thanks very much; we'll be in touch.'"
A year later, Bruce got another call from a manufacturer who had supplied a 10-way radio mic system to the co-producers of a new musical opening in Paris. The sound people on the show couldn't figure out how the radio mics worked, and they needed a specialist to fly into Paris the next day and show them how they were used. Bruce and a freelancer who spoke French flew out the next day. "They were in an absolute muddle," he recalls. "There were more sound people making a mess of this than I'd ever seen in my life. And we were like the knights in shining armor, come to rescue them." When Les Miserables became a hit in Paris, it was translated into English for the London production produced by Cameron Mackintosh, and featured sound design by the knights in shining armor.
"That was sort of the beginning of the design thing for me," Bruce says. "I'd never had any particular aspirations to be a designer, because I enjoyed running the company. But it was quite fun. It was learning the art of the possible, really. There was never any equipment that you could say was designed specifically for the theatre. You had to adapt everything. That's what we did, and we had a good time doing it."
From that point on, Autograph began to grow beyond being a strict rental house, as Bruce brought on more and more sound designers. Today, Autograph has five house designers, who work all over the world. "Sometimes we supply those shows, sometimes we don't," Bruce notes. "But it's a very efficient way of working because you get feedback from the designers to the hire company and back again, all the time. And we're always inventing new bits and pieces for the designers."
Other aspects of the company have also changed recently. Beech, who served as the company's director for 19 years, was forced to take an early retirement last year due to ill health; this past summer, Jardine took over as director. While Bruce started off in management and veered off into sound design, Jardine has taken the opposite route. "I still want to design; I just did the Oliver! tour," Jardine notes. "Julian designed to a certain degree, so we lost a designer when he left, and we don't want to lose another one. It's very important that the company is seen as being able to offer a total service. We're the only company that can do that in this country, and perhaps other countries as well. It's something we're careful about protecting and building on."
As Autograph moves into its second quarter-century, work keeps on pouring in: current projects include the UK tour of a revamped Martin Guerre, North American tours of Oliver! and Martin Guerre, Raymond Gubbay's annual opera event at the Royal Albert Hall (last year it was Madame Butterfly, this year it's Tosca); and Mamma Mia!, the new musical featuring songs by Abba. The company has its eye on the future as well. "We intend to build on our existing relationships in the major theatrical production houses, here and abroad," says Bruce, "while also developing interests in other areas that offer new challenges." According to Jardine, those other areas including large arena events, the trade show market, and broadcast work.
But while focused on the future, Autograph has also managed to find time to celebrate its past. Last September, during PLASA, the company threw a huge bash in a nearby park for over 200 guests that featured barbecue, jugs of Pimm's, and plenty of beer. The festivities culminated in a softball tournament, where Bruce and his crew donned yet another set of hats, this time the baseball kind.