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Mercenary Audio Celebrates 15 Years

It's A Mercenary Territory (August 03, 2004)

Mercenary Audio

Mercenary Audio

Lowell George and Richie Haywood wrote a song for the band Little Feat called "Mercenary Territory." The first line of the song is "It's a mercenary territory, wish you know the story, I've been out here so long dreaming up songs, I'm temporarily qualmless and sinking." To the original four that were Mercenary Audio, a booking agency for independent engineers in the mid to late 1980s, it summed up the vagabond existence of being an independent engineer.

Mercenary Audio left the booking business and began as a vintage equipment brokerage company on January 9, 1989, "with fifty dollars and a hangover." By 1990, they were working with the most god-awful, useless database known to mankind to track brokerage deals. At that point it became pragmatic for Mercenary to purchase the equipment as they found it rather than brokering and fighting with the horrific database.

During the mid 1980s when Fletcher was still touring, he was roommates with a guy named Rizzi (who is a completely certifiable maniac and, last anyone at Mercenary heard he was hiding from the government). In 1991 Rizzi became an instrumental part of Mercenary's humble beginnings. He heard about Capricorn Recording Studios in Macon, Georgia, going up for sale. He was absolutely relentless in making sure Mercenary bought it. Having few dollars of capital at that time, Rizzi and Fletcher were able to go to their respective families and borrow some money with the remaining $35k procured from a shylock in Providence at two points a week.

With funding in hand, Fletcher and Rizzi flew to Atlanta and then drove on to Macon. When they arrived at the studio, they learned that Otis Redding III (who is apparently the son of "the" Otis Redding) had been operating the facility and dropped by to see if they had any questions. When Otis arrived, he was carrying a paper sack of freshly deep fried pork rinds dripping with grease and upon entering the room he gently tossed the sack onto the console. "Somehow with Otis' generally relaxed and jovial demeanor we had a sneaking suspicion that this wasn't the first time Otis had tossed a paper sack literally dripping with grease onto the desk." They shared pleasantries, thoroughly tested the equipment, renegotiated the deal, moved the stuff back to Massachusetts, and commenced to rebuilding it.

Thus began Mercenary's formal incarnation as a dealer of vintage equipment. "Things actually went fairly well," Fletcher notes. "Much to our friend in Providence's chagrin, we paid the loan off in four weeks."

Fletcher mixing four-inch 16-track with Longview Farm's Neve 8078

Fletcher mixing four-inch 16-track with Longview Farm's Neve 8078

During the time Mercenary was a vintage equipment dealer, Michael Beinhorn called during the production of Soundgarden's "Superunknown" and mentioned they were having a tough time getting a guitar sound. Mercenary sent a pair of 1058 modules with an RCA BK-5. "It must have worked because both Beinhorn and Jason Corsaro bought more 1058 modules from us."

During that period there weren't many companies building custom racks and the rough beginnings of Mercenary Ironworks, a division of Mercenary Audio, was born. As Beinhorn began buying more gear and wanting it racked, a very popular cartage company saw to it that his equipment got trashed in transit as often as humanly possible. Consequently, some unsuspecting insurance company ponied up all the R & D expenses for Mercenary Ironworks.

Between 1994 and 1998 Mercenary Ironworks built mounting frames for vintage Neve and "any other module" that could withstand a ten-foot drop off the Mercenary loading dock. Mercenary Ironworks became respected by the world's top engineers, producers and rental companies for building module frames that could withstand the rigors of the road.

Mercenary today; Samara in MethLab

Mercenary today; Samara in MethLab

Jack Ives, who ran the Mercenary Ironworks steel design division, was playing around with building a website and putting it on the net. Nobody but Jack took it seriously. In 1995 Mercenary went online and by 1996 they were operating a fully functional online web store affectionately named "HAL".

At the same time, Mark McQuilken from FMR Audio had challenged Fletcher to check out his $175 RNC audio compressor. Fully expecting it to "have the charm and appeal of a Honda 350 motorcycle (meaning none)." Fletcher plugged it in and found a bear on the other side. The FMR RNC was quickly added to the Mercenary Audio web store. "All of a sudden the strangest thing happened - people actually started to order stuff off the Internet."

While the focus was still vintage gear, they seemed to have an eye for truly excellent hardware from small to unknown boutique manufacturers. At this point they had been Manley dealers for six years and had taken a wildly unsuccessful shot at national distribution for Crane Song, LTD. The slow, methodical modulation from vintage equipment to newly manufactured equipment was deliberate. Mercenary had spent the last seven years building up a reputation for quality above all else, with the lack of quality vintage product to be found at reasonable prices, the best route for Mercenary Audio was to become the leader in the world of representing "boutique" audio manufacturers.



At the 1996 AES, Alesis had come out with "the perfect match for the cheap Mackie boards of the era." As a visceral display of Mercenary's disdain for the Mackie/ADAT combo, they harpooned a Mackie 1202 and an Alesis ADAT with a 4.5-foot steel spike.

They called the sculpture "Shit on a Stick" with the full intention of drawing the ire from both Mackie and Alesis. "Unfortunately Greg Mackie was blessed with a marvelous sense of humor and said, 'Hey you bought it, do whatever you want with it.' Fortunately, the mooks at Alesis possessed no such funny bone," notes Fletcher.

"It was the best thousand dollars anyone has ever spent in the history of marketing, because if Mercenary Audio wasn't a household name in recording before that show, it was after." Dan Daly's subsequent article in Studio Sound helped to perpetuate the myths and legends of both Fletcher and Mercenary Audio creating brand recognition and street credibility copied and imitated by numerous professional audio companies to this day.

Leveraging its experience with vintage equipment, custom work and modification, national and international distribution combined with their long-established relationships with many of the world's respected audio designers, the next logical step was to put the Mercenary stamp on equipment that would one day become "vintage."

Learning from their previous failures, Mercenary was able to help some smaller boutique manufacturers strengthen production, distribution and profitability. The aim was to work with manufacturers "on developing their product so that it would have a color, a sound, a texture, something unique and special about it that would make it a necessary tool in people's arsenals," explains Fletcher. The first true Mercenary Edition was the Drawmer 1969, a product that "looks like a 1960 but the only parts they have in common are the basic chassis, the meters, the direct box, and the power transformer."

Drawmer 1969

Drawmer 1969

The Great River Electronics MP2-NV Mercenary Edition, designed by Dan Kennedy, was born out of a problem that Fletcher was encountering in his recording sessions. "I'd been using Neve 1073s for years, but after twenty or so tracks the 1073s were adding a haze that was making it more difficult for me to get the separation in tone and texture between the instruments," Fletcher explains. The development took nearly 18 months, but justified the effort. "Its overall sound and incredible versatility have made it a truly special product."

The newest members of the Mercenary Edition family are the Great River EQ2-NV and the Pendulum Audio Quartet II, the Drawmer 1968 and the Little Labs STD. Next year comes a versatile solid-state/tube microphone produced with Josephson Engineering that features a capsule based on the Sony C-37.

"We're trying to attain maximum flexibility and usability, to get a variety of tones and textures from one piece of very high-quality equipment," comments Fletcher. "That's the crux of what Mercenary Editions are. 'Mercenary Edition' means the quality and reputation we've built up over the last 15 years-no corners cut, no punches pulled."

Mercenary Audio does not receive a royalty on any Mercenary Edition equipment. The only way Mercenary Audio profits from Mercenary Editions are when a unit is purchased from Mercenary Audio, "which is fine with us. We have the hardware we want to use on our own sessions... how many people can get gear custom made to their preferences?"

The chorus of "Mercenary Territory" starts, "I did my time in that rodeo, been so long and I got nothing to show, don't you know I'm so plain loco, fool that I am I'd do it all over again."

Mercenary has shifted its core focus five times to this point without ever having trivialized its unmitigated dedication to providing the finest tools available. They have gone from a brokerage to a dealership, though manufacturing and product distribution and a custom repair shop to somehow land on its feet as a nearly functional "dot com" providing only new equipment to clients worldwide. Despite all of their manic failures, the original M.O. to provide customers with the best products and services has always, and will always, remain the same.

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Related Keywords:Mercenary Audio, Fletcher, Jack Ives, Alesis, Mackie/ADAT, Drawmer 1969, Dan Kennedy

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