INTERVIEW: Fatman and TL Audio’s Tony Larking

The overarching theme of Tony Larking’s several business ventures is to provide warmth to digital music. Whether it is mixed with the valve outboard and consoles under the TL Audio brand, or played on the Fatman hifi products, Larking offers a range of products designed with valve circuitry to add slight harmonic distortion to the
signal chain.

With the VTC console selling steadily all over the world, the Ivory 5051 becoming a standard for studio and live work and his brother Don focusing on Larking List – a used high end used console supplier – Larking has brought his technologies to the commercial market with the Fatman brand. Born six years ago with the release of a compressor and channel strip for the entry-level market, Larking found it impossible to remain competitive in the commercial market when manufacturing in the UK, so the products were shelved and Fatman had a rest for a few years.

In 2006 Larking explored the option of partnering with a Chinese manufacturer and Fatman was able to have its first taste of success in the consumer audio hifi market. Larking explains: “We sold thousands of the original Fatman outboard units, but they had to be at a certain price point and manufacturing them in the UK made it hard to make them financially viable. We sold them for about two or three years and then they were discontinued. In 2006 we launched the first Fatman iTube product – a valve hybrid amp and dock for the iPod – and won the What Hi-Fi Product of the Year award. From that we developed a whole range of products and in 2009 won a Diamond Award at The British Inventors Show for Innovation.”

The Fatman team has recently extended the capabilities of its products with the introduction of the Wi-Tube dock with Bluetooth. “Whereas some other products are made to use just with Apple products, the Wi-Tube lets you use any phone or laptop with Bluetooth, and the valve circuitry adds warmth to an otherwise cold, digital signal,” Larking says. “Our product line offers something for everyone. Our most affordable products start at around £300 and the price goes up to just under £2,000. With Fatman, it is all about educating people because many of our customers have grown up listening to music on computers on small speakers. It is quite eye opening when people outside the audio industry realise the advantages in sound quality that we can bring to their home setups.”

Pro to consumer

With over 20 years of experience in the professional studio market, Larking explains that things aren’t exactly greener on the other side of the fence: “We have distributors that we have worked with in the pro market for years; it is very stable and we get regular orders. The consumer market is much bigger and the potential is massive, but there are pitfalls we need to be careful to avoid. We also have to be careful who we deal with and how you deal with them. A lot of people want us to put thousands of units on sale or return, which is something we would never do. It is all about knowing who you are dealing with.”

Niche markets

Although the TL Audio brand is highly revered in the studio world with high-end users like Coldplay and Brian Eno, the producers of Dr. Who and Plan B singing its praises, Larking describes TL Audio’s professional business as niche and limited: “In order to continue our growth as a company, we needed to expand ourselves. The pro market is limited, and being in a niche end of it, we are slightly restricted so it is hard to see large growth every year. Getting into the consumer market was an obvious transition for us.

“I always thought the association of our TL products in the consumer market would be great. People are using digital means to play music more and more each year and valves are perfect for it.”

Plugins are dead

Larking has revealed that the feedback he is getting from his professional users indicates that the plugin revolution is slowly loosing strength. Larking explains: “I hear from our pro distributors that plugins are not as good at outboard and there is a definite trend back towards outboard. Firms like KMR are doing the best business it has ever done because there are a lot more studios around. It used to be that commercial studios were few and far between, but the advent of the home studio is really driving big sales in that sector.”

Fatman lives

The Fatman concept was originally intended to offer a ‘fat with a ph’ sound for the home hifi market, but Larking has since realise a future for the brand name and the corpulent man who represents it. “I am working with Stevie V and using his Dirty Cash song as the theme for a new animated series called The Adventures of Stevie V and DJ Fatman,” he explains. “I have known Stevie for over 20 years and it occurred to me that Dirty Cash would be a great theme song for Fatman. We have had quite a few meetings with animators. We also have a Radio One DJ and some other high-profile people who are very interested. Baby D is also interested in being animated as Fatman’s girlfriend, so it could turn out to be something like an animated version of Hollyoaks,” Larking laughs.

According to Larking, the intention of the Fatman animation is to drive the brand name into the heads and homes of consumers around the world, and make it cool so that teenagers on a budget will be drawn to the brand when buying home stereo equipment. “People love the Fatman brand; they associate it with this cute cool little character,”
he explains.

Plan B

Considering the success Larking has achieved in several markets, it is not inconceivable that Fatman could become the new Homer Simpson in a few years. In the interim, Fatman and TL Audio continue to win awards for design, the most recent being Plan B’s MPG accolade for Best Single with She Said, a song that was recorded and mixed on TL’s M4 console at The Sanctuary Studio by Eric Appapoulay.

An additional project added to the Larking’s what-will-we-do-next list is a 15 Watt valve guitar amp/combo that will be ready for the Christmas season,” Larking states. “We already have a few out in the field and people are loving it. The one thing that we always maintain is that, no matter what market we are dealing in, great sound comes first.”