Music company sees high demand for American-made electric instruments [Columbia Daily Tribune (MO)]
(Columbia Daily Tribune (MO) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) After decades in the music industry, Paul Davis has become accustomed to seeing storied instrument manufacturers move production overseas.
A lifelong pianist and keyboardist, the last straw for Davis was when Baldwin Piano Inc. shuttered its U.S. operations in Arkansas and moved production to China in 2008.
PHOTO: Paul Davis, the president and chief executive o... more [+] PHOTO: Don Moore, chief information officer and execut... more [+] PHOTO: Organ parts and components sit in bins at Davis... more [+]
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"We've lost our American ownership of the music industry," Davis said.
Davis is trying to bring it back, and he has picked Columbia as the place to do it. He arrived a year ago, and he and his partners have since been quietly ramping up a new domestic instrument manufacturer, Davis Muller Instruments, or DMI. With production and development of electric guitars, electric keyboards and amplifiers rooted in the United States, Davis is hoping to bring production of another storied instrument back onshore: the jazz organ.
Originally developed by the Hammond Organ Co. in the 1930s, the electric tonewheel organ was designed to be a low-cost alternative to standard pipe organs. It wasn't quite the same, but its distinctive sound was adopted in the ensuing decades by jazz, gospel and rock musicians.
Now, the Hammond organ, used in conjunction with a Leslie rotary speaker, is the gold standard for electric organists in almost every genre of music. The storied company, though, was sold to an Australian business in the 1970s, and in 1991 it was purchased by Suzuki Musical Instrument Manufacturing Co. in Japan.
"A lot of the traditionalists, the purists, will tell you they felt that the Hammond quality went down once it started being manufactured overseas," said Jerry Roberts, the owner of Midwest Music, a St. Louis-based instrument retailer.
Roberts, though, is planning to travel to Columbia soon to take a look at the line of jazz organs being produced by DMI in its nondescript warehouse just east of town at 191 N. Rangeline Road.
"Their price point is attractive," Roberts said. "And the fact that it's essentially built here in the U.S. is a big plus."
Davis, along with business partner Michael Muller, had been working on technology to replicate the tube amplifier sound while keeping the power and reliability of a modern solid-state amp. Countless engineers have tried to pull that off, but Davis thinks that what they devised will work. They developed an amp that can replace aging parts in a Leslie speaker while keeping the tube sound, and they set to work developing a better remake of the Hammond organ to complement it.
With aging Hammonds in gospel churches across the country and musicians longing for a better Hammond sound, Davis and Muller looked at how they could start mass producing their patent-pending inventions.
"The market is screaming for an American-manufactured musical instrument," Davis said.
Not only that, but DMI has purchased renowned keyboard company KeyB. The former Italian company, endorsed by huge names in jazz as the best replication of a Hammond/Leslie sound, was never able to produce enough to meet demand outside of Europe. DMI hopes to change that, making the instruments in Mid-Missouri to meet domestic and international demand.
Davis, who used to work for Generalmusic Corp. in Chicago and was most recently working out of Philadelphia, eventually hooked up with Don and Janet Moore, both Mid-Missouri natives and musicians. Manufacturing heavy musical instruments on a bootstrap budget, it made sense to move to the middle of the country for shipping reasons. With plenty of skilled manufacturing workers out of jobs and engineering and technical know-how coming out of the University of Missouri, the quartet has decided to make a go of it in Columbia.
"It makes sense logistically," Davis said. "You've got this perfect storm here."
What DMI is doing in Columbia is starting to make waves in the music industry. Their products have been endorsed by all-star jazz organist Joey DeFrancesco, who played with Miles Davis and is considered among the best alive. Thomas Dawson Jr., the Commodores' keyboardist and music director who has worked on projects with the likes of Beyonce, Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder, is working as DMI's vice president of artist relations -- signing up musicians to use the products and sell the brand.
In January, DMI made its debut at the National Association of Music Merchants in Anaheim, Calif. In a phone interview, Dawson said most jazz organists who have played an old Hammond don't expect a new imitation using digital technology to completely replicate the sound. They expect it to sound "a little cold, a little sterile, as opposed to warmth and the fullness" of a bona fide Hammond B3 model with a Leslie speaker. When they sat down at one of DMI's organs at the biggest musical instrument trade show in the country, their preconceptions were "dispelled from first note they played," he said.
"We had lots of organists who are die-hard Hammond players or tonewheel players, and they all had the same reaction," Dawson said.
DMI is just getting started. It has dubbed its line of jazz and gospel organs Moore, named after Don Moore's father, a former preacher in the area. They see gospel churches as some of their main customers, and they say they can make tonewheel gospel organs cheaper than what Hammond Suzuki is making.
Davis is an engineer by training, and Moore is an information technology professional who was an electronics technician in the Navy and worked for IBM when it was still making hardware. They're still innovating, something Davis said has been absent from the music industry since it mostly went offshore in the '70s.
The Moore line has two organ models, an amplifier and other equipment. DMI makes the organ cabinets here, using wood from Missouri. It has worked to engineer the sound electronically to replicate an old Hammond and Leslie setup, including the defects musicians embraced that give the instrument its sound. The Doppler effect of a rotating speaker inside a Leslie cabinet is captured in their Vortex cabinet, and the distinctive click of a Hammond organ, a kink that musicians came to love and use, is in Moore's Heritage and Epoch models.
"We're working hard to design in what they probably tried to design out," Don Moore said.
Davis, with his connections in the music industry, has brought some big artists through Columbia to listen to the sound and give feedback on the design. Many have existing endorsements with other companies, so Davis asked that their names not be revealed. But if even a couple of the people whose names Davis dropped have in fact been here, the word about DMI is spreading in the industry.
Roberts, the St. Louis store owner, thinks DMI might well make it as a domestic manufacturer. He's been impressed with its business model and drive in a tough economy for high-end goods.
"Their approach is gathering professionals in the industry to get input from relatively renowned musicians, as opposed to only basing their business model on accounting," he said.
With many churches still using old Hammond organs made in the '50s, and even '40s and '30s, DMI sees a major opening in that market.
"It's getting very difficult not only to find parts for those old organs but even to find someone knowledgeable enough to work on them," Don Moore said.
Davis reckons there are about 300,000 gospel churches in the country. The main worry DMI has is getting enough capital to make as many organs as it sees a demand for.
"Even though they're just a small company, it's a huge undisturbed market," Dawson said. "When you look at the number of gospel churches in America, that's a huge underserved market."
If you're not in the music industry, you wouldn't know, but DMI's acquisition of KeyB is big. KeyB keyboards have been endorsed by DeFrancesco and sought out by professional musicians as the best portable replica of the Hammond/Leslie sound.
Tony Orant, a keyboardist in Chicago and a writer for Keyboard Magazine, had been trying to get his hands on one for a year, but the company's U.S. distributor was unable to fill its back orders. When Orant heard KeyB was going to be made by DMI and it would be at the music merchants' trade show, he set out for California to buy one. Although "there's nothing like a Hammond organ," he said, KeyB is as good as digital replicas get.
"While I've used almost every digital clone out there, this is the first one, not only did it sound right, better than anything I'd used, it felt right," Orant said.
DMI is moving the last of the Italian company's equipment and assets to Columbia, and it's already making as many keyboards as possible.
Kevin Wong, a professional musician and the musical director of a gospel church in the San Francisco area, is trying to convince his church leaders to purchase a KeyB organ. He had heard of the brand, and he heard DeFrancesco favored them at his shows, but he'd never been able to try one until he went to the music merchants' show in January. The instrument, the speakers -- they were dead-on, he said.
"I didn't think it would sound that good, but it actually sounded almost better than the Leslie sitting right next to it," Wong said.
With the buzz building about Davis Muller Instruments, the company says it cannot produce nearly enough Moore and KeyB instruments to meet demand. It has about 15 workers, half of which are part time, but it needs more. Davis estimates there are 150 backorders for KeyB models, and another 40 for the Moore models.
"If we were properly funded, not just doing it out of the founders' money, you would see 200 to 300 people working here," Davis said in the sparsely populated warehouse space filled with organ cabinets, keyboard stands and parts.
Government incentive programs won't help the company with upfront cash. DMI walked away from the local angel investor group, deciding it wanted too much of a chunk of equity in the company. Banks have been unwilling to lend to the company because it is so new. Davis estimated that a $1 million loan would allow DMI to get dozens of people manufacturing jobs making instruments.
"The domestic demand, and the international demand, is overwhelming," Davis said.
As it is, DMI will be bootstrapping it, ramping up production as cash flow allows. It plans to add new lines and instruments, and Davis said that in a year or two the company could be up to 100 employees. If all goes well, Columbia could well play a part in a rebirth of American music manufacturing.
"We used to be the powerhouse, and now we're not," Davis said. "My drive is to bring back the innovation of the music industry."
This article was published in the Saturday, March 9, 2013 edition of the Columbia Daily Tribune with the headline "HOMEGROWN SOUND:Music company sees high demand for American-made electric instruments."
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