Russell Brown talks history and the latest developments for his DJ cartridge giant, Ortofon.
Russell Brown (left) with Sander Kleinenberg.
By John Landers
At the tender age of 31, Russell Brown is already the general manager of Ossining, NY-based Ortofon, Inc., the United States-arm of the Danish phono cartridge company Ortofon (ortofon.com). Unlike many GMs in this industry, Brown has spent enough time in various DJ booths around the world to know what works, and what doesnít, in a real nightclub environment.
After his tenure as a full-time club DJ, Brown went to work with industry giant Behringer, where he worked his way up from the bottom. Along the way, he gained valuable insight into every aspect of the DJ gear business, from research and development, to manufacturing, to distribution, all the way down to the retail level. Despite his considerable experience, however, Brown scoffs at being characterized as an industry veteran. ďI canít be a veteran,Ē he laughs. ďIím still in my thirties!Ē
Today, as Ortofonís man in America, Brown enjoys a remarkable degree of autonomy. ďI only report to the owner of the company,Ē he explains. ďI pick up the phone, call him in Denmark, and things get done.Ē The companyís relatively small size allows the firm to rapidly identify and respond to its customersí ever-changing needs. ďThere are generally five of us from different parts of the world when we have a DJ meeting, and everyone gets their input,Ē says Brown. ďThings get done quickly. And the new Digitrack cartridge is a great example of that fast-track development capability.Ē
To stay on top of emerging trends, and to spread the Ortofon gospel, Brown spends much of his time on the road. In addition to all of the major trade shows, heíll be at many of the regional DMC DJ competitions, as well as the finals. ďIíve already got over 100,000 frequent flyer miles for the year,Ē he admits, although he doesnít seem to mind the constant travel. ďI really enjoy getting to know our customers.Ē
Ortofon has been around since before I started spinning records. Just how long has the company been in business? Since 1918.
Obviously, Ortofon wasnít building phonograph cartridges back then as we know them today. The company was actually founded from a grant from Edison. While weíve always been in audio, it was slightly different. Two Danish inventors, Axel Petersen and Arnold Poulsen, started Ortofon, and they were the first people to put sound on film. Ortofon actually invented the talking movie. The founders took out several patents and issued licenses to film companies all over the world for their ďSystem Petersen og Poulsen,Ē which is still the basis for motion picture optical soundtracks.
When did the company start concentrating on phono
cartridges? After World War II. The reason, so Iím told, was that during the German occupation of Denmark, the two owners were given an ultimatum: either make Nazi propaganda movies or go to a concentration camp. Supposedly, rather than collaborate, they took all of their film-making equipment and dumped it in the Baltic Sea. After the war, without that equipment, Ortofon was kind of re-launched in 1946; production was reorganized to include record cutting and playback equipment. Thatís when we got into cartridges.
And that was making mono and then, later, stereo cartridges? Correct. We invented the stereo cartridge. Unfortunately, all records were pressed in mono at the time, so we had to invent a stereo record press in order to use the cartridge.
So, you invented the means to play records that didnít
yet exist, and then invented the means to manufacture those
records? Exactly. We did sell off the pressing part of
the business in the 1960s to concentrate on manufacturing
phono cartridges. I should also point out that Ortofon pioneered
moving coil technology. We produced the first moving coil
cutter head in 1945, and later applied the moving coil principle
to cartridges. For a small company, we have an unusual history.
Ortofon has always been a big name in the hi-fi and broadcast markets. How did the company first get involved with the nightclub industry? Was it in response to the unexpected ways in which early DJs were using vinyl and turntables? Not really. Itís more like the Technics story. The Concorde cartridge was designed in the late 1970s. It won a prestigious Danish design award, but it was designed as a hi-fi cartridge. Just like the Technics 1200, however, people started using it for DJ-ing. There were no dedicated DJ cartridges out there, and this one fit the bill the best. Eventually, it became a DJ standard. We didnít actually realize it until years later.
Turntable band Birdy Nam Nam draws a crowd to Ortofonís booth at the 2005 DJ Expo.
What makes the Concorde so well-suited for scratching, back-cueing, and other aspects of live, artistic performance? Is it the shape of the needle? The tapered chassis? There are five parts to any cartridge: the diamond tip, which is the stylus; the cantilever, which is the little piece of metal that the stylus is attached to; the rubber bearing, which acts like a shock absorber for the cantilever; the magnet; and the copper coils. Those are the functioning parts. Around the copper coils and the magnet thereís an aluminum tube to hold everything together, but itís minor, and then around that is the plastic shell of the Concorde. Scratching and back-cueing impose heavy mechanical stress on the cantilever and its rubber bearing, but Ortofon DJ cartridges are equipped with cantilevers made from aluminum tube with increased wall thickness, and our rubber bearings are much stronger than those on typical hi-fi cartridges.
Also, the Concorde design is easier to hook up, because you donít have a head shell. You just plug and play. Itís easier to cue, because the needle is much easier to see. Thereís no head shell, no needle guard. And the [Concorde series] Nightclubs have those high-visibility fluorescent tips, which are helpful in dark DJ booths.
So, the robustness of the design is due to some very tiny elements? So tiny. We have a sister company in the same plant that makes medical devices. There are very few companies that can do it. We supply a lot of parts for hearing aids.
DJ cartridges and hearing aids. Thatís an ironic combination. You need copper coils and you need rubber, and no one has the machines to do them that small. The machines are always working, the factory is always at full production, and the company will never go out of business.
[And] we donít really have capital investment costs, because the machines were built and paid for 30 years ago.
Very Old-World craftsmanship. Indeed. Thereís a person at every single machine. The diamonds, which arenít microscopic but pretty small Ė about the size of the period at the end of a sentence Ė are attached to the cantilever by hand. And every hi-fi cartridge is totally assembled by hand.
I know many of the Concorde cartridges come in a version for mounting to a standard tone arm head shell. Is that just to give DJs a choice, or is there a specific advantage? There are all kinds of rumors out there that one is better than the other, but the truth is that the standard Concorde is ideal because itís all fixed. You canít adjust any of the settings. Theyíve been tested. The angle at which they meet the record, all of that is very important.
Q-bert and his signature scratching.
You canít screw it up. Well, you can, but thereís only one way and we think weíve fixed that. People used to over-tighten the locking collar, and that would eventually kill the contacts in the tone arm. We changed the shape of the contacts; the little metal pin, which used to be steel, is now made of aluminum, just like the tone arm and the collar. Itíll pop inside of the cartridge before it tears a hole in the tone arm. Itís like the crumple zone of a car.
Whatís the story behind the Digitrack? I had been with company about six weeks, and we were sitting around a pub during the PLASA show talking about emerging DJ trends. We started discussing Serato and Final Scratch and how those products might affect our sales, and I suggested creating a specific cartridge just for those applications.
Developing a new cartridge canít be cheap. No, but itís not as expensive as developing something like a mixer, either. Because there are only five things you can change. Six, if you count the color. Itís a matter of finding the right shape for the diamond, the right density of the rubber and things like that.
Half of us thought it was a great idea, assuming it wasnít just marketing hype and a paintjob, and the other half thought it was a bad idea and might hurt our hi-fi image. We bought a bunch of Serato control records, sent them to Denmark, and they tested all the different variations. Generally, they knew what they were going for, and it was just a matter of tweaking the components. They know how each piece works and how they all work together. Our head engineer has been there over 40 years.
Some companiesí R&D departments donít have that much combined experience. He and [DJ] Q-bert developed the Q-bert signature cartridge together. Anyway, we needed to have the Digitrack working perfectly, and multiple samples of it, for the NAMM show.
That was a fairly short development cycle. For that one, yes.
The decision was made at PLASA, and...The decision wasnít even made then. The idea came up, and we kicked it around for a couple of weeks first. But we had the Digitrack delivered within six weeks of NAMM.
How does the Digitrack differ from, say, the Concorde Nightclub series? Itís got higher output than any of our cartridges except for the Q-bert. The output is ideally suited for the control signal. If itís too hot it can distort the computer interface. The diamond was changed to reduce wear on the control vinyl.
In an emergency, can the Digitrack be used with regular vinyl? Absolutely. Some people even prefer it to our other cartridges.
So, in the event that youíve using Serato or Final Scratch on one turntable, and decide to use good, old-fashioned analog vinyl on the other deck, you can keep on spinning and mixing without worrying about changing out cartridges? Exactly. The beauty of our company is that we also have a hi-fi side. What we recommend is that you use one of our affordable audiophile cartridges and rip all of your vinyl with that for maximum sound quality, and then use the Digitrack for playing back your mp3 files with Serato or Final Scratch. For example, our OM5E hi-fi cartridge is under 50 bucks, and it sounds phenomenal.
You mentioned the new Q-bert signature cartridge. Was that another fast-track development? It took over two years. That was our slow track. We went in with one idea, and then changed our minds. We went back and forth. It went from 11 to 13 millivolts, trying to get it just right, adjusting the frequency roll off, and so forth. Q-bert was living in Hawaii at the time. The factoryís in a tiny town in Denmark. It wasnít easy.
And the end result? We believe itís the best scratch cartridge on the market, in terms of frequency response, tracking ability, record wear Ė the whole package. And itís got the highest output of any cartridge on the market. Thatís one of the reasons why DMC is only allowing people to use Ortofon cartridges.
We also used the launch of the Q-bert cartridge to revamp our packaging. All of our cartridges now come in miniature flight cases.
We also have a new line of cases that will fit the cartridges; thatís part of our bag line. Weíve got the Digibag, which holds 70 records, control vinyl, your laptop, plus all kinds of other compartments for headphones, stylus cleaner, even a book of CDs or whatever else you need.
Having everything in one bag seems like it would an ideal solution for DJs using Serato or Final Scratch. And it looks good. Weíve also got a messenger style bag, a record trolley, and a cartridge case that holds three cartridges, extra stylus, and all of the tools that youíd need to install and service cartridges. Thereís actually a patent on the design, because no matter how you put the cartridge in, the stylus never touches anything. Theyíll be making their official debut at the DJ Expo.