Tucked away in a non-descript Brighton business centre, managing director / owner Alex Claber and his bass guitar speaker factory, Barefaced Audio, are developing an international reputation for innovation and quality.
Matt Pulzer sat down with Alex to hear the company’s story.
Are you an engineer seduced by rock or a musician who turned his hand to engineering?
Alex Claber: I’m an engineer by inclination and degree. When I was 15, I wanted to join the Army and be an engineer.
I went to their sixth form college, but I quickly discovered that while I was good at giving orders I was pretty bad at following them, which doesn’t really work well in the Army. I cut my losses and went to Bristol University to study Mechanical Engineering.
Music arrived in my life a little earlier – at the end of my A Levels, I started getting distracted by guitars, and of course I formed a band. I continued to play bass while at university.
After university, I had various financial services jobs, and I was still enjoying being a bass player. I tend to work my amps and speakers very hard, in fact to the point of destruction.
I got used to seeking out new equipment and that was what first piqued my interest in design. I’d read the spec for commercial speakers and started to get very skeptical – the claims manufacturers made just didn’t make any sense.
It got to the point where I was reading data sheets and I had to ask myself, if this is all true then surely you’d only need half a dozen units at the main stage for Glastonbury, instead of the lorry loads of very expensive high-end equipment that you see piled up either side of the stage.
I decided to try and find out how bass speakers really work. I was lucky in that loudspeaker design is essentially mechanical engineering – not electronics. It’s all about resonances and frequency response, suspension systems, damping and physical geometry, and these are topics I’ve always found fascinating.
Plus, I enjoy the kind of engineering that involves working out how to make things, as in mechanical problem solving.
It’s easy to be a critic – how did you take the plunge to actually become a manufacturer?
My irritation with the claims made for commercial products continued, and I started to get on my high horse with speaker companies who, in my opinion, had essentially been lying about their specs and what their gear could do.
It really annoyed me and I decided to put my money where my mouth was and come up with something better. So, I started designing my own speakers and before long I was building them from scratch – cutting up plywood, sourcing drivers – the whole works.
I was also blogging about the topic and I noticed people were genuinely interested in what I had to say. This enabled me to take a risk.
I came up with a coherent design and decided to build 10, sell eight, keep two and break even on the project. It worked and the business just kept rolling from there.
How did you grow your business from what was essentially a one-man band to the factory we see today with 10 employees?
Initially, I was scratching around asking carpenters to make my cabinets, and it was a fairly chaotic and unreliable system – every few weeks a van-load of cabinets would arrive and I’d paint them, insulate them, screw on the hardware, solder crossovers, mount speakers and generally finish them.
At this point, it was still very much a garage-based start-up. The next step was to move into a business unit and take on an employee. By now I had also realised that the carpenter route wasn’t really working, and the obvious next iteration was to invest in a CNC router to cut up the cabinet material, enabling us to build the cabinets ourselves.
There were two main drivers behind the move to CNC. First, it meant we would be in charge of when woodwork happened. Second – and just as important – we’d be in control of quality.
When it came to tolerances, carpenters just weren’t able to build to the required accuracy we needed – our cabinets don’t go together right if dimensions aren’t bang on. Now it’s a different story, we have nice clean tidy joints, which has been one of the real joys of the CNC router route.
Tell me a little more about your CNC machine.
It’s an XYZ 8 x 4-foot machine, which means it can handle a standard full sheet of plywood. And it’s not just an XY cutter, its Z-axis means we have full control over the depth of cuts which is very important when you are slotting together plywood cabinets. We’ve even started to look at cutting ply so that it can be curved.
The machine was made in South Wales and we’ve been very pleased with it, regularly upgrading its capabilities. Our latest improvement is a more powerful 3kW variable-speed spindle. It can cut a whole sheet in around 45 minutes, which, depending on the cabinet model, will form between one and three speakers.
It hasn’t been all plain sailing – it was a very steep learning curve, but definitely worth it. Each time we build a new cabinet type we use the knowledge of previous designs to inform and improve later versions.
To date, we’ve probably designed 30 different cabinets that have been CNC cut, something that would be unimaginable with the carpenter supply chain.
Speakers have been designed, built and tested for more than a century – surely speaker manufacturers know what they’re doing by now?
Yes, and no. Most speakers are designed either not to be moved as they’re essentially pieces of furniture, or are designed to survive the very harsh life of band touring – built like a Chieftain tank.
Plus, in the guitar industry, most speaker manufacturers historically were valve amplifier manufacturers who thought it would be a good idea to sell speakers with their amps.
Their approach was simply to build a big heavy box and put speakers in it, and in that narrow market sector not much has changed since the 1950s. In fact, the sonic colouration of these basic designs often suits guitars, but it is a very old-fashioned approach, a bit like everyone driving around in Morgan cars.
Yes, Morgans have their place, but they are hardly an optimised design for everyday driving.
The problems I’ve just described are even more prevalent for bass guitars, which historically have struggled to be heard over ordinary guitars. The resulting speakers have been huge, and of course the problem with that approach is who wants to drag around a very large, heavy array of speakers?
Even these arrays didn’t address another important problem for bass players, which was that they didn’t hear on stage the sound and tone that they heard in a studio.
So, our challenge was to do something that nobody else has done, despite a century of speaker design, which was to offer a bass speaker that was light enough to easily carry around, affordable and which had the frequency response to give a proper studio-quality sound.
Achieving all of that is really difficult and that’s how our mission started. We wanted a big, loud, high quality sound in a practical package.
I’ve just picked up one of your speakers and they are extraordinarily light – what’s the story behind that?
Well, that started when I asked myself a very simple question – why are speakers so heavy? Clearly they need to be stiff and they need to be non-resonant, you definitely don’t want a cabinet flexing and vibrating.
I thought about Formula One cars – they have to be incredibly stiff and strong, but of course they also have to be very light. So, I started thinking about designing cabinets along those lines, initially looking at carbon fibre and aluminium honeycomb – but, the costs are prohibitive.
So, I went back to plywood. My industry’s default material is 18mm plywood, which is very heavy. Our approach is to use 9mm ply, but we use a great deal of clever internal bracing to add rigidity.
Our key design approach is, don’t just build a six-sided box. We crossbrace it intelligently. Then we realized that ‘lightweighting’ coupled with a very good sound could be a winner and that has pretty much been the secret of our success.
You’ve clearly invested a lot time and effort in product design and moving production to CNC level, but what about materials? Do you just use any old plywood?
Absolutely not! Our plywood has been carefully chosen for both its wood types and dimensional accuracy. We’ve sourced a lot of plywood samples from different suppliers; bent them with weights, hit them with hammers – real old-fashioned R&D testing. We even looked at foam-cored and composite panels, but we decided that wood is the right choice.
Over the years we have upgraded our plywood choice to make our cabinets lighter, stronger and more consistent. We now use poplar, faced with an African hardwood, and we insist that all our plywood comes from just one Italian mill.
We’ve reached the point with our CNC technology where mill-to-mill variations in thickness of just a third of a millimetre mean that we have to recalibrate our whole setup. Raw material quality and consistency are very important in ensuring our cabinets assemble properly and perform as designed.
Looking around your factory I see nothing but busy hardworking people – is this just a busy day or have you had time to optimise processes?
I actually enjoy the ergonomics of production, noticing if people have to walk over to pick up a tool or component and then walk back to the bench, and then deciding if it would be better to have the trolley next to the bench.
There is a difference between being busy and being productive and solving those kind of problems appeal to me. I like analysing processes; I have the kind of mindset that is intrigued and fascinated by efficiency.
We measure everything and we get everyone on production to measure processes and how long each job takes. Until they were shut down, we worked with the Manufacturing Advisory Service, looking at lean manufacturing and 5S methodology. That approach is definitely making a difference and it is generating useful results.
We’ve found that people generally hit targets for big processes, but the smaller, shorter processes are more of a challenge. We’re still deciding how to use all the data that is being generated, but I’m absolutely certain the Manufacturing Advisory Service experience and advice improved our productivity. They were invaluable to us in our early days.
Do you export?
We sell all our speakers direct to customers via the web (barefacedbass.com), which pretty much halves the cost to buyers, and the orders are coming in. We sell about 60 cabinets per month, of which slightly more than 50% go for export. Half of the exports go to the US and a quarter to the EU. The rest end up all over the world: Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Switzerland and Scandinavia; we’ve even shipped to India, Mexico and Lebanon.
A small company making a big noise
It can be a real eye opener discovering a small company that has generated so much clever and original manufacturing. I came away from Barefaced Audio genuinely impressed by how much it punches above its weight in terms of challenging lazy industry design assumptions and its fearless pursuit of constant self-analysis and improvement. Plus, it’s always nice to hear export success stories – Matt Pulzer