Written by Thomas S. Friedman
Tuesday, 18 August 2015 14:23
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Founded in 1999, Sommer Cable is an innovative designer and manufacturer of high-end audio, video and data cables, connectors, assemblies and electronics. Based in Germany’s Black Forest region, the company recently opened its U.S. branch in Santa Rosa, CA, headed by German/American citizen and 35-year industry veteran Martin Ucik.
We spoke with Sommer Cable CEO/co-founder Rainer Blanck to learn more about the history and future of Sommer Cable. Like many in the pro audio industry, Blanck began as a musician. “My passion since my youth was to front bands as a vocalist and guitarist,” he recalls. “After earning my business degree in 1986, I joined the company of Friedhelm Sommer, a German inventor and cello player who manufactured and sold his patented pneumatic arm structure (U.S. patent #4960040A) and other products for industrial robots to car manufacturers and the space industry.”
In 1995, Blanck went to a Manfred Mann’s Earth Band concert with the company’s IT manager Thierry Miguet and met his brother, Pascal, a keyboard player and audio fanatic who designed cables for a German boutique manufacturer of hi-fi products. “He bragged that he could design the best guitar cable on earth,” Blanck recalls, “and after several trials and errors, we came up with the now-legendary The Spirit, which blew every cable I had ever used out of the water. Today, it is the celebrated guitar cable of choice for top players such as Steve Morse (Deep Purple), Richard Z. Kruspe (Rammstein), Clem Clempson (Colosseum) and many others. We knew we were on to something and continued to design and improve microphone, speaker, multicore, video, data and hi-fi cables.”
At the time, Friedhelm Sommer wanted to diversify further. After he sold Sommer-automatic in 1999, he, Miguet and Blanck started Sommer Cable in his 35,000 square foot production/warehouse/office building, which the company still occupies today.
The Growth Phase
“In tried-and-tested Sommer fashion, we created our first cable catalog in 2000, which has now grown into a 525-page, 4-pound mega encyclopedic ‘door-stopper’ of over 12,000
cables, connectivity products and electronics,” says Blanck. He adds that the company began reaching out to other markets as well. “We also exhibited at Musikmesse and the NAMM show for the first time that year and sent out flyers to more than 20,000 recipients. At our beginning, many people laughed at us, because the hype at the time was to move away from traditional copper cables towards fiber and wireless. But we stood our course, and nobody is laughing about us today,” he laughs. “Of course, we went on to innovate and build fiber and data cables [Cat-5/6/7], as well as matching connectors.”
Most employees who work at Sommer are performing musicians, so it was only natural that they designed innovative stage products like the award-winning Plug Mama stage box, cable reels with integrated stage boxes and cable looms. Working with German broadcast console and speaker manufacturers, high-quality Sommer Cables were soon exclusively used at mega-events such as soccer world championships, the Olympics and the Eurovision Song Contests. In fact, with one exception, all soccer stadiums for the 2006 Soccer World Championship in Germany were wired with Sommer Cable.
Yet with this acceptance, the company did not rest on its laurels. “Although we were happy with the Neutrik connectors we used at the time — and still use today — customers asked us for more affordable and improved alternatives,” says Blanck. “So we began to design and manufacture our HiCon connector line, which now consists of over 500 products. Besides the standard XLR, quarter-inch, RCA, BNC, multi-pin and HDMI connectors in many variations, we offer some unique products.”
A few examples of Sommer Cable innovations in this area include the Hi-Fiber connector with four optical lines that can be serviced in the field, the Tricone XXL quarter-inch gold-tip solder and gas-free crimp connector with an impressive 230 Newtons of strain relief. That is also available in a DIY version that does not require any tools to assemble or to repair on the road. Also popular is Sommer Cable’s cool-looking, super-flat 90-degree quarter-inch pancake connector with improved strain relief. The company now sells more than 150,000 units per year.
“On the cable side, we continued to innovate with such unique solutions as Cat-6 and 7 cables with PUR jackets, which are flexible and robust enough that you can roll a heavy case (or even a truck) over them without causing damage,” Blanck says. “For guitars with magnetic and piezo pickups, we created the Tricone Symasym cable with a balanced and unbalanced line under one jacket. The unique Tricone 241P runs power, two MIDI, four send/return audio lines and CAT.5e to sophisticated guitar effects boards. The HiCon WoodPlug Limited Edition features Black Forest nut or pear-wood connectors that look, and if you believe it, sound great on acoustic guitars.”
The latest addition to the Sommer lineup is the Cardinal family of stage and installation products. Of special interest to FRONT of HOUSE readers may be the German-manufactured DVM 120 active and passive rock solid “Heavy Metal” DI boxes with Lundahl transformers, which provide linear response from 5 Hz to 50 kHz. Also new is the DIT tube direct box, which is designed to combine the warmth and character of a vintage tube device with the low noise and performance of advanced modern audio technology.
The Cardinal line also includes unique HDMI extenders and distribution solutions that also transmit RS-232 control and infrared control data over long distances, an affordable and potentially “life-saving” HDMI 2.0 4K measurement toolkit with a separate analyzer and generator in a rack or battery powered mobile version and several powered mixers and control units with Ethernet remote access for fixed installations.
“We are proud and honored that many national and international musicians and bands like Roger Hodgson (Supertramp), Mezzoforte and Magma record and tour with Sommer Cable. Also, the engineers of Metalliance (George Massenburg, Al Schmitt, Chuck Ainlay, Frank Filipetti, Elliot Scheiner and Ed Cherney) are currently evaluating both our Carbokab 225 high-end studio cables, which feature 65 strands of highly compressed, carbon-treated copper per conductor, with 100 percent copper-braided/aluminum fleece shielding, as well as our Epilogue Quad cables with a stunningly low 11.3 pf per foot capacitance.”
For product quality assurance, Sommer Cable developed proprietary equipment to test torque, plug and bending cycles, which often exceed industry standards by a factor of ten. This is partly the result of the high quality 99.9999% N6 Oxygen-Free (OFC) Chilean copper which is employed in all of Sommer’s media cable products, as well as the high-quality machined metals used in all of its connectors.
Each of these innovations resulted from customer feedback and frequent employee meetings where new ideas are discussed. “Sommer Cable is still small enough to respond to customer ideas quickly, yet we are large enough to realize complex and costly developments,” Blanck explains.
And as for the future of Sommer Cable, Blanck is definitely optimistic. “We are always good for some surprises. This includes unique hybrid cables that combine audio, power, video and data in various combinations. Recently, we opened an office in the U.S to serve the American markets, headed by our longtime friend and fellow spätzle eater Martin Ucik. As with all our cables, free samples are available from our American office so you can see, feel, torture/abuse and listen for yourself.”
FOH: Can you tell us a little about your background?
Martin Ucik: I grew up in Germany and am proud to be a U.S. citizen since 2011. In my early childhood, I was fascinated with musical instruments and making sounds. I played my first paid musical gig when I was 14 and made $50. After studying electrical engineering and playing keyboards in a soul band in New Orleans for six months, I made my passion into my profession and opened a music store in my hometown near Stuttgart in 1980. The store quickly moved up into the top 10 in Germany. We modified most of the gear we sold and imported unique products from the U.S. like the Forte MIDI Mod or Cakewalk Software.
In 1995, another dream came true when I moved to Northern California to serve as President of Hohner Midia, a joint venture I had formed with the legendary German accordion and harmonica maker. It turned out not to be a good fit, so in good American entrepreneurial fashion, we moved our business into my garage and began selling Samplitude and Sequoia software, as well as SEK’D hardware. In 2000, we added distribution lines, among them Sommer Cable, and I became good friends with Rainer and Pascal.
After 9/11, I franchised my business to the American Sanken and Brainstorm Electronics distributor, and we formed plus24, where I worked as general manager for 13 years. In December 2014, I took a break to write a book and work as a consultant. Pascal from Sommer Cable called me and asked if I knew someone who could help them out with a new strategy they had for the American markets. A few weeks later we met in Germany. I could not resist their offer to do it again — to build a business from scratch, using the industry experience I had gathered in the past 35 years. We established Sommer Cable America, Inc. as a wholly owned subsidiary of the German mothership. What is especially exciting to me is that I can put my multicultural background into the service of our American customers.
With the new Sommer Cable America, what kind of changes can new and existing customers expect?
We want them to know that we are here to stay. Our customers now have a reliable, consistent and affordable source for all Sommer products, including all cables, HiCon connectors, cable assemblies, SysBoxx A/V installation products and the Cardinal electronics line. They can buy factory-direct or through the distribution and reseller network that we are establishing. Sommer Cable America handles all technical questions (with a little help from our German friends), customer quotes, sales, billing, marketing and customer service. Since we are a 100 percent subsidiary of Sommer Cable Germany, we keep the middle-man out and have a very close ear to the market.
Sommer Cable manufacturers thousands of products — will the entire line be available in the U.S.?
Yes. We accomplish this through a network of specialized stocking distributors and dealers, our sample and parts warehouse in Santa Rosa, and three to five business days factory-direct delivery to any American customer — at UPS ground rates.
Sommer Cable also offers a variety of customization services. Will these be available via the U.S. office? How does the custom process work?
Customized products are available to American customers. We have a well-equipped custom shop in Germany that I recently visited, with a highly skilled, effective team. They can produce custom solutions within a few days and thanks to our deal with UPS, they ship to our American customers within three to five business days at ground rates. In addition, we teamed up with U.S. companies like Pacific Radio Electronics in Burbank, CA and companies in the Midwest and the East Coast who customize products with Sommer Cable and HiCon products.
What’s the industry response to Sommer Cable America so far?
Many U.S. companies, bands and engineers who have a presence in Europe (such as Meyer Sound, PRG, SSL, Pacific Radio Electronics, George Massenburg, to name a few) have heard about Sommer Cable and the uniqueness, high-quality and reliability of our products. They can now source Sommer’s audio, video and data connectivity solutions in the U.S. Sommer is “the new kid on the block” to American customers with a more domestic focus, and they are sometimes a bit overwhelmed by our vast product line and solutions. So we see some early adopters in a bottom-up way and some large customers who have a top-down effect. We have the time, resources and experience to build our U.S. presence by sending out full catalogs to interested customers and to follow up to learn about their needs and provide them with the right solutions.
- Founders: Friedhelm Sommer, Pascal Miguet, and Rainer Blanck
- When Founded: 1999
- Product Line: High quality cables and connectivity products
- Latest Focus: Cardinal line of stage/installation products
- Where Based: Straubenhardt, Germany
- Distributors: Sommer Cable America, Inc.
- More Info: www.sommercable.com