‘The voice of the UK music industry’ – we meet Hitchin’s Aston Microphones
- Credit: Picture: DANNY LOO
Stevie Wonder, Thom Yorke, both Gallagher brothers – these are just a few of the world-famous musicians using groundbreaking microphones developed right here in Hitchin.
The pioneering firm is Aston Microphones, whose offices in Hunting Gate have been the base for an extraordinary invasion of the microphone market over the past three years.
The success is built on the fact that the plucky Hitchin firm has truly gone back to the drawing board with its products – from their architectural design, to the feedback from top musical ears every step of the way.
And Aston’s microphones aren’t just pretty steel cylinders, as managing director James Young tells the Comet on the top floor of the Hitchin offices. They’re chock-full of innovation too, and proudly built in Britain.
“Pretty much everyone would agree the UK is one of the biggest formative music markets, but we’ve never before had a mainstream UK mic brand,” says James, from Knebworth.
“We’ve got brands from Germany, Austria, Japan, the US, Australia, China – and a lot of those are branded as Western but come out of China.
“We had this chance to be the voice of the UK music industry.”
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There’s a bohemian vibe about Aston’s Hitchin base, where almost all the staff are themselves musicians. The walls are adorned with everything from comic posters to Far Eastern sculptures and, on the top floor, a swathe of graffiti-style tags in English, Chinese and Russian in memory of colleague Mitch Carey – who tragically died in 2010, aged 43.
The Hitchin firm threw out the rule book on design, stripping right back to basics and having architect Jack Monro craft unique designs. The mics, designed for use in the studio, are so versatile they are used on stage and even pointed towards the crowd during gigs. And they’re tough to boot, as James shows by clubbing one over a table, then dropping it directly onto its head – something that would destroy most mics.
“They look beautiful and they’ll last forever,” he says, as he swivels the Spirit-model mic in his hands to point out the laser-engraved words ‘The Art of Audio’.
The story started back in 2002, when James and his friends set up Sonic Distribution – handling the marketing, distribution and more for business partners in China called sE Electronics. “The only thing we didn’t do was actually build the products,” says James.
James and Mitch invented a first-of-its-kind portable vocal booth for sE in 2006, and business went well. But in 2014, the relationship with the Chinese firm abruptly collapsed.
That spelt the end of Sonic, but the knowledge they had picked up about microphone manufacturing remained – as did the contacts with top music producers, engineers and artists.
“We turned our adversity into a massive opportunity,” says James. “We were working with some of the best ears in the business – and we could have them listen to it and tell us which direction to go in, right from the beginning.”
Thus was born the Aston 33 – a panel of ears including producers Gil Norton, Chris Porter and Andy Bradfield. Many more have now joined the original 33.
“Big, big names,” says James. “We involved them in blind listening tests from the beginning of the project. We’d record male and female voices, acoustic guitars, and we’d send it all over unlabelled. They’d give marks. We did that all the way through – something nobody has ever done.
“Our goal was to produce something here in the UK better than what we had done in China, while keeping the cost the same.
“People compare our £200, £300 mics with £3,000, £4,000, £5,000 mics – nobody is comparing them to their peers. They just blow them away. And the biggest reason for that is the Aston 33 panel.”
Aston’s manufacturing is done across the UK, with the vast majority of supplies sourced domestically too. Some parts still come in from China, but James says they hope to produce these in the UK as well within two or three years. “It’s all British,” he says.
Aston has now moved beyond just making mics, with products including the Halo portable vocal booth – which has quickly become an industry standard.
James, a keen guitarist since he was eight years old, tells the Comet that Aston’s products are much more than just gadgets.
“They’re the first point of entry for everything we do that’s not digital,” he says. “They’re not just a bunch of electronics, they’re instruments.”
For more, see astonmics.com.