Today's wide range of case options provide ways to protect your equipment as you tour the world
With A/V equipment more expensive, mobile, and delicate than ever before, the need for sturdy road cases has never been more critical. Fortunately, as A/V technology becomes more sophisticated, so does the science of road case design and construction. Today most major manufacturers can readily supply off-the-shelf cases of every size, material, and configuration, or units custom made to exact specifications.
Ironically, although industry professionals are well aware of the bumps and bangs of the road, many production companies and rental agencies balk at spending too much on road cases, or even spending much time on equipment protection issues.
This is unfortunate, because the number of road case options has never been greater. In recent years, many new players have entered the case production industry. To shed light on this often misunderstood area of the rental and staging industry, SRO recently chatted with representatives from some key case manufacturing companies. They pointed out one of the main misconceptions about road cases: the difference between a standard case and an Airline Transportation Association (ATA) certified case.
You will often hear manufactures or dealers say a particular case is “ATA-300 certified.” But, as a matter of fact, the ATA does not certify cases at all. Rather, it simply provides a set of standards that case makers can subscribe to. If they do, they can then say their products provide “ATA level protection,” but don't believe anyone who refers to “ATA certification.” And, of course, only hard shell cases need apply.
“ATA cases are the Harley-Davidson of cases. They may be a bit heavier than plastic cases, but they really do hold up best under brutal conditions and are the most aesthetically pleasing,” says Agatha Gerutto, U.S. marketing director for case manufacturing company Road Ready Cases, Gardena, Calif. “People who spend a lot of money on their gear and do heavy traveling usually go for this classic style. But the consumer should beware of a new brand of these cases that are appearing on the market — the ‘junk ATA case.’ They look fine, and the price may seem unbelievable, but there is a reason for this. They are usually made from inferior plywood, laminates, and substandard hardware.”
Gerutto points out that many companies make a variety of cases, bags, stands, and other equipment. Road Ready focuses on one type of product, universal equipment cases, which are built so that one model can carry different types of equipment. Gerutto says the advantage of universal cases is that if users update their gear, they don't need to update their cases. Road Ready also makes a utility case series that features Pick-&-Fit Foam, a series of pre-cut pieces of foam to customize the inside of a case for different pieces of equipment.
Road Ready is a fairly new player in the industry. One of the established industry giants is Calzone of Bridgeport, Conn., which merged with the second-largest industry player, Anvil Cases, in the mid-1990s. Calzone creates both standard and custom cases, which are used by many major acts.
“Some of our competitors use similar, if not the same, parts suppliers as we do,” says company President Joe Calzone. “Simple yet important items, such as the right fasteners, can drastically affect the life and durability of a case, however.… Our cases are engineered, not just assembled with whatever off the shelf parts that are available.”
One of the biggest recent developments in the case industry has been the emergence of new, hard plastic composite materials. This has sparked an ongoing industry debate about whether these materials are as good as traditional, wood-based products. Some industry players say they are every bit as good, and that the lighter weight of the cases is useful. (This side includes the three main manufacturers of these cases: Gator Cases, Porter Cases, and SKB.) Others say such cases do not offer the same level of protection. Still, the lighter cases are starting to proliferate through the industry.
“As polycarbonate becomes more prominent, we'll see the raw materials cost reduced, which will make these cases an excellent value in the long run,” says Jerry Freed, CEO of Gator Cases, Tampa, Fl. “Today, they're expensive and may not be the best value for some applications.”
Freed adds that the case industry is going through a major transformation right now.
“The emerging case market and the new materials being utilized address cost and portability,” he says. “Features like wheels and pullout handles, and lower weight, all of which is driven by restrictions from the airlines, will become standard. This trend has accelerated dramatically over the past two or three years.
“I also believe that we'll see more high-tech plastics coming into the case industry in the near future, which will only accelerate the transformation from the old, heavy, conventional trunk-like cases to the new modern plastic transportation products.”
Porter Case Company, of South Bend, Ind., has taken a different market track. The company specializes in smaller cases with unique features, focusing on today's more computer-driven music and theater productions. Porter cases are airline-ready, hard-shell, wheeled, carry-on cases. The line includes a case with a built-in cart that will carry 200 pounds of other baggage on top.
“There's really no such thing as a perfect case,” says Gary Pond, president of Porter Case. “We make ours on the lighter side so that it's more user-friendly for airline carry-on, but still strong enough to carry 200 pounds of other gear on top as a cart.
“We've now expanded to three styles, and 17-plus models to fit the needs of most professional A/V travelers. These professionals use our cases to help transport, protect, and organize their expensive and delicate items for travel. They roll their notebook computer, digital projector, photo/video gear, etc., on board and check their other stuff into the aircraft, train, or bus baggage area. After the trip, the patented cart feature is there to roll it all away.”
Lots of things can happen to a road case on a professional tour, so crew members in particular appreciate a good case.
“The main thing we care about is gear protection,” says John “Boo” Bruey, road manager for band Limp Bizkit. “I remember during a recent loadout in Barcelona, a stagehand lost control while pushing his wheeled guitar amp hard-shell case. It fell 6 feet off the edge of the stage. The next day, we opened up the case to find that all the contents were totally intact. After all, without protection, the case is no good to the user.”
But Bruey and his peers also want their cases to be lightweight and flexible.
“Airlines have tightened up on the weights and sizes that they'll take these days,” he says. “Each airline is different, and they will let you know what the charge will be if you call ahead and give them the size and weight. But our road crews work hard, and the lighter the load the better. Most people that do road work also want a case that is flexible. Rack size is a standard width (19in. rack mount), but height and depth can vary. Luckily, these days you can get a case for just about anything that you want.”
Bruey also wants wheels on his cases — lots of them.
“Wheels, wheels, wheels! I can't say it enough,” he says. “Wheels are super important, unless you want to hand carry your case everywhere you go. I personally have a bad back, and would rather push a case than carry it.”
Bruey also has suggestions about how to load trucks for larger tours.
“My suggestion for packing into trucks and shipping containers is to get standard cases with what is called ‘truck pack’ dimension,” he explains. “Truck pack dimensions are 22½ inches, 30 inches, or multiples of those dimensions. A normal workbox, for example, would probably be 22½ inches wide by 30 inches deep by 45 inches high. So if you have multiples of this type of box, you can fit four of them across in a standard semi-truck that is 96 inches wide. Using the same dimensions, you can get more gear in less space.”
Bruey says Limp Bizkit uses equipment from Chili Case — another major industry player. Elisabeth Steves, Chili president, says the case industry has become very competitive, and that quality manufacturing is crucial to competing successfully.
“In this slow economy, competition has become fierce,” she says. “Many prospects are shopping by price only, and many sales are lost over just a few dollars. Some RFQs (request for quotes) we've gotten in the last few years have been addressed to 30 or more case companies.
“But what the public may not realize is that case manufacturers are caught in a vise between demand for lower prices from customers, and rapidly escalating costs from suppliers. A manufacturer may agree to build your case for less than the next guy, then cut corners to offset his losses, counting on his customer's ignorance. As one of our customers said, quite eloquently, ‘Most people think that if it looks like a road case, it's a road case.’ But that's not always true.”
Touring performers also have lots of ideas about what makes a good road case. Veteran drummer Carmine Appice, for example, has been using cases for decades, and has very specific requirements. He has performed in groups like Vanilla Fudge and Cactus, and has worked with Rod Stewart. Appice says since 1978 he has used Anvil and Calzone cases.
“I initially started using huge trunks for my drums, which were actually Timpani trunks that the Ludwig Drum Company supplied me with,” says Appice.
“They were re-configured to fit my drum set, but they were much too heavy. So in 1978, I got my first set of Calzone cases. I was on the road with Rod Stewart and we toured the world several times. I needed strong, but lighter weight cases, and also wanted something a little different so my drums could be readily identified in shipments. (Calzone President) Joe Calzone custom-made my first cases in red and they fit my drums perfectly,” Appice says.
“That's the No. 1 thing you look for in a good quality road case — they must be strong and not weigh a lot. They must also use the room in the cases intelligently. Using the room in the case properly is very important because you can reduce the cost of shipping if you use case space efficiently.
“I've never had any drums damaged with these cases. I don't have to worry about my drums being damaged, and given that my drums are a hand-made, custom-built Slingerland kit worth $16,000, there's a lot to protect.”
Tom Patrick McAuliffe is journalist, entertainer and video/audio creator. He can be reached at www.tompatrick.com.
Major Case Manufacturers:
- Anvil Cases 800-359-2684
- Calzone Case Co. 800-243-5152
- Chili Case Co. 800-345-9771
- Gator Cases 813-221-4191
- Nelson Custom Case Co. 908-996-3939
- Olympic Case Co. 888-246-5525
- Porter Case 800-356-8348
- Road Ready Cases 310-767-1772
- SKB 800-410-2024
A Veteran's Perspective
Since the 1970s, Calzone Case Company has been among the top road case manufacturing companies, making products for just about all categories — musical tours, theater, television, and motion pictures. With three main offices in New York, L.A., and Dallas, hundreds of employees, and thousands of clients, Calzone remains a major industry player. SRO recently sat down with Joe Calzone, president of Calzone and Anvil, to discuss today's road cases and the state of the industry.
SRO: How did you get started in this business?
Calzone: I am a drummer, and needed cases for myself. Most of the people who work here are also musicians or have come from various areas of this crazy business.
SRO: Where is the road case industry headed in the future?
Calzone: From the Calzone/Anvil perspective, the “custom case industry” is strong and getting stronger due to the continued development of sensitive and delicate equipment throughout all market segments. But growth will not necessarily come from new users — it will be due to market share gained by superior service and quality. Domestic manufacturers of all products face foreign competition like no other time in American history. As is evident with the large retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot, the philosophy of a win/win relationship between customer and supplier has evaporated. It's been replaced with a price-only attitude, sometimes at the expense of quality and service.
This is why domestic case manufacturers must search out markets whereby their clients require service, quality, and a fair price. Without getting into an entire economics dissertation, to grow, a company must earn — a very important word — their profit every day. Service above and beyond can no longer be an exception, but the rule. We build a low-tech product to protect some of the most sophisticated and expensive equipment in the world.
SRO: What are some of the biggest challenges in manufacturing these kinds of cases?
Calzone: These customers are demanding. Calzone and Anvil must be both proactive and reactive to their needs. Our company still has the advantage of shipping within the contiguous United States within a reasonable time frame to meet our customer's deadlines. We must meet the deadlines, and be transparent to our customers. We don't want them thinking about us, other than when they need more cases … and, of course, for paying the invoices.