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SoundStage! Audio Online
THE Y-FILESMarch 2000

The Forgotten Component

What’s in a name? This can become a question of considerable merit -- especially when your parents have immortalized you as Volkmar Drübbisch and your company’s nôme-de-guerre becomes pARTicular Contemporary Design. An initial rough translation might equate this with "an obviously Germanic fellow with an equally apparent and rather insistent mission statement of doing things his own way."

Now that you’ve astutely divined the "how" and "who," the "what" still remains elusive. What actually does Herr Drübbisch do in such particular but artistic fashion?

To answer that question is precisely the purpose of this article. Let’s first take a closer look at the actual man behind the company. Don’t consider this a detour or cheat by skipping ahead. It’s a package deal. It’s a colorful journey that surprisingly ends with audio. With a name as precisely chosen as particular Contemporary Design, it’s obvious that the man’s personality and history must be inextricably intertwined with his company and its products or services. Some background should prove pertinent to understanding the "whatever," all the better. Furthermore, this perspective coincides with my personal motive to introduce to you some of the people of our industry whom you’re unlikely to personally meet, whether in the ads or on the retail floor of your favorite dealer. Our industry harbors some very unique fugitives from diverse disciplines who often have some astounding and complex backgrounds. Their stories are not often told. That’s sad. A product is only as unique as its maker. So then…

Volkmar Drübbisch, born 1963, is raised in Cologne and indelibly patterned by what he today calls "city impact." It’s perhaps not surprising that his residence since 1991 has been San Francisco. Many Germans consider it the most European and sophisticated of all American cities. Sitting comfortably in his downtown apartment after a very satisfying meal he invited me to just down the street minutes ago, Volkmar shows me an obviously deeply cherished woodcarving to kick off the interview. It’s one of his few remaining mementos of his grandfather. The Elder Drübbisch had craftily used his Russian internment as prisoner of war to literally sharpen his woodworking skills, not with a dull knife but a junk-metal edge. Even though he passes away by the time the youngster turns 14, the stern, well-rounded amateur woodworker of considerable ingenuity instills in his protégé a strong sense of accomplishment. This must be earned by hard work alone. Careful attention to detail is mandatory. Doling out praise rarely but fairly, this exacting treatment stimulates in the adolescent a growing commitment to consistently push the envelope.

And push Volkmar will, forever onward. Called to army duty right out of high school, he signs up to become an emergency medical technician. In his own words, he thrives on the responsibilities involved with life-and-death decision-making. Predictably, he soon becomes disenchanted with the rank-and-file mentality of military regulations. Volkmar’s fuse is slow to blow. When it eventually does though, it erupts in grand style. Yours truly, expatriate German-to-the-bone, feels entitled and amused to call this explosion typically Teutonic in character. Our subject, upon surveying his options, proceeds to exercise our famously thick-headed and peculiar self-righteousness and elevates it over what would have been infinitely more practical and self-serving.

Private Drübbisch files for civil disobedience after he completes his 15 months of mandatory army recruitment! In other words, he could have just quietly taken the exit and be done. It merely involves ad infinitum attendance of two weeks per year of ongoing NATO training to stay abreast of new rescue techniques and equipment. His belated and public act of defiance does put an end to that, but it forces him in turn to serve yet another seven months to complete the required total of 22 months for CD. Such can be the consequences if you speak your mind. To this day, Volkmar is rather stubborn about being forthright and direct and admits that it occasionally gets him in conflict with those who would practice less honest "diplomacy." Just my kind of guy -- a bit difficult in the best what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of way.

Still in Germany, he works as a paramedic in an area known for notoriously severe car and motorcycle accidents. His paramedic expertise advances him to be in charge of and respond to 911 rescue calls. Two years later, the now 23-year-old sets his sights onto a very desirable post with the Medical University of Hannover. The position referred to is part of a Search & Rescue helicopter team that specializes in airborne extraction and in-flight administration of serious traffic accidents. When, despite his openly acknowledged professional acumen, his application is turned down purely because of age -- generally accepted applicants are 30 or older, which makes him an intolerable overachiever -- he continues perplexed and miffed as a paramedic on 911 emergency calls. Simultaneously, he teaches emergency medicine at the school of nursing for another year. But the mental gears are clicking, deciding upon the next course of action. He soon enrolls in what is to become an 11-semester commitment of pharmaceutical studies at the Braunschweig Technical University.

As is his wont, Big Brother then inconveniently intervenes with the dreaded recall to CD duty. Because of his previous training, Volkmar is now stationed as pharmacist in a clinical pharmacy. With little surprise to the reader but much consternation and frustration to our subject, his prior five years of laboriously accumulated know-how are neither appreciated, recognized nor prove themselves at all useful in an atmosphere dominated by "proper" medical doctors. As if pharmacists weren’t qualified. More grist for the mill.

A 1989 visit to the US now plants the seeds that will eventually detour his entire medical career and bring us full-circle to audio, in case you doubted. For now though, Volkmar embarks on a nine-week motorcycle Enduro trip with a friend that introduces him to most of the mid-Western states. A chance encounter with a wealthy couple in Death Valley results in a house-sitting invitation to their massive estate in the Bay area. A particular suggestion ensues that’s aimed at maximizing Volkmar’s prior education whilst transcending his pent-up frustrations with its inherent applicability. He follows the invitation of the vice chair of the School of Pharmacy at the famed University of California in San Francisco. He clearly aims at an enrollment in their Scientific Research Program even though consummation will be another two years in the future when he concludes his final studies in Deutschland.

Right on schedule in 1991, he takes stock of his possessions and sells off his handmade furniture, motorcycle and considerable audio-gear collection in Germany. He is prepared to weather what is naturally a non-paying assignment in one of the most prestigious of US campuses for his chosen field -- the pharmaceutical department of the UCSF. The project he’s been accepted for is scheduled for one semester only. It is to continue previous participants’ studies in molecular biology that have not yet concluded in satisfactory results.

Ever the optimist -- or perhaps rightfully sure of his abilities -- Volkmar negotiates a challenging contract: If he successfully completes the assignment within the allotted time frame, his status will be changed to full-time hired staff. When his professor accepts this unlikely scenario, Drübbisch gets to work and completes the project within the first half of the allotted time frame. He is hired in accordance with the agreement and spends the next five years in charge of training newcomers while directing and managing the lab. He now works on the underlying biochemistry and molecular biology of opiate tolerance and dependency. As any serious scientist with an ongoing position at a major university is required to, Herr Drübbisch’s research findings are routinely published in international publications. This allows him to eventually obtain his immigration papers, the famous green card, which is green only with the envy of those still waiting for theirs.

I have followed this impressive evolution of Volkmar’s medical career with keen concentration so far. I’m nonetheless puzzled at this moment at how all this relates to the reason for my being here. After all, I’ve dispatched myself to San Francisco as your ever-intrepid SoundStage! correspondent hot on the heels of newsworthy audio/video-related stories and as-yet-secret products and procedures.

Prescribe me a pill, Volkmar. Am I dreaming or am I in the right place?

His reply to my informal joke cuts right to the bone of the matter. Volkmar thrives on the daily rewards and personal satisfaction of work well done. His protracted gig at the UCSF drives home the need for consistent publishing to obtain the necessary grant funding. Publishing is directly contingent on newsworthy results that are dependent on successfully setting up fortuitous parameters at the onset of a research project. Otherwise you might end up with a full semester’s work of dead ends. The results? No published white papers, that’s what; no funds to continue, no personal satisfaction, no control-in-your-own-hands. All this is deeply frustrating for a can-do kind of guy with a sharply delineated sense of self and reward. His deeply ingrained, perhaps inherited, need to excel is left starving, hungry to produce, to get his hands dirty with work that begins in the early morning with raw parts and transforms by day’s end into concrete results that bear only a minor semblance to the raw materials involved. Maybe his blue-collar beginnings in his grandfather’s workshop are making themselves felt now, putting into sharp relief his present-day existence as an over-trained, eminently capable but deep down frustrated researcher-cum-pharmacist-cum-ex-paramedic.

To follow the prompting of his muse -- or the silent voice of his forefather -- the now 32-year old signs up for evening machine-shop classes at a junior college. He soon obtains certification in five levels of construction welding. Thinking back, he reckons the financial outlay for this line of training amounted to $40.00. Good things often don’t cost a lot if you know where to look.

The intrinsic advice of this last sentence sends Volkmar on a hunt looking, but he’s not entirely sure where. He’s ready to rebuild his stereo system that he sold to finance his first semester in the States. Damn, though, if he can find an audio rack that fulfills his European sense of aesthetics and offers the functionality he demands. Ever resourceful, he determines that the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas will be the place where he will surely hit upon what he wants. After all, this show is the biggest, most important industry event in the world and assembles the international who’s who of audio/video under the roofs of one single spot.

Two CES shows later --1995 and 1996 -- as well as having visited countless retailers, Volkmar has prudently assessed everything the market has to offer. He is convinced beyond a doubt now that he needs to build his own audio furniture. He’s taken stock of all existing lines and models. Still, he hasn’t chanced upon anything he’d settle on for his own place, never mind expect friends or acquaintances to purchase and take home.

For the 1997 CES, Volkmar submits his now famous Ypsilon rack to the annual Engineering and Design contest judges. He promptly walks away with top honors in his field. Only a minor fly in the ointment keeps flapping its noisy wings -- in order to accept the award, he must be an actual exhibitor at the show. Because the space reservation clock has advanced to five minutes to twelve by the time the winners are announced, not a single rooms is left. Calamity. Stress. Sad ending.

Not. Grandfather’s two key dictates of willpower and determination must have rung in the Drübbisch belfry loud and clear by now. He proceeds unflustered and serene. He follows up on a suggestion by Los Angeles retailer David Weinhardt of Ambrosia Audio/Video to contact Geoff Poor of Balanced Audio Technology. BAT just happens to be looking for a hi-tech rack to complement their CES display. Their own challenge is that it has to accommodate their unusually deep amplifiers. Volkmar is contracted to build a custom version of his Ypsilon design and thereby turns joint exhibitor with the start-up electronics manufacturer. He now is entitled to accept the award for his very first audio/video furniture design. This he does in January of 1997 with a well-deserved sense of accomplishment. He sells the rights to his design with a mass-manufacturing exclusive to the well-known Lovan Corporation of Malaysia and purchases a 70-foot teak yacht with cash, on which he now lives docked at the most exclusive pier of Sausalito.

Not, again. True to form and never one to rest on his laurels lest they gather dust -- or worse, actually disintegrate into from-dust-we-come-to-dust-we-must-return entropy -- Volkmar follows his first CES with a Design & Innovations Award in both 1998 and 1999. This unprecedented triple winning streak nevertheless excludes the designer from a CES-sponsored workshop billed as "Audio Furniture - The Forgotten Component." Company principals of established furniture-manufacturing firms are invited to the open-mike format. He isn’t. Never one to dull his opinions with platitudes, Volkmar expresses disappointment with this incident. Despite obvious peer recognition as embodied by three consecutive awards, this overt oversight rankles him for various reasons. As part of a San Francisco-based designer association, he relishes the mutual exposure and dialogue with gifted colleagues. He also feels strongly about his abilities to contribute to the industry at large to everyone’s benefit. However, both a dialogue of the two-way kind and actual hands-on interaction require inclusion and free cooperation between all players involved if the state of the art in audio/video furniture is to truly get advanced.

As examples of his expanding ambitions, Drübbisch cites five completed loudspeaker models for which he fashioned the industrial design and look. There’s also a pending bid to revamp the external appearance of a high-profile electronics line. He is actively soliciting further offers to broaden his current furniture focus and apply his creativity in all areas of the audio/video industry. His take on "endless black boxes of monotone sameness" mirrors my sentiments precisely. I dare say most if not all consumers and end-users would agree if polled.

Rather than entrusting manufacture of his designs to others and thereby defeating the purpose of creating particular in the first place, every single rack, stand and support that make up the current line are entirely hand-fabricated by the designer. He estimates his 1999 sales volume to have been about 100 units. Basic math tells us that this equals one finished and packaged, ship-ready rack every three days throughout the year, come rain or come shine. It’s fair to say Volkmar Drübbisch keeps his candle burning, especially on long rainy days. Sunny days may see him flying his beloved hang-glider high above the western cliffs of the city. Early mornings routinely see him running the streets in beat-up workout threads to ignite the body electric. His growth as a business is documented by the growth of his dealer network. From seven dealers in his first year, he expands to 18 by year two and 32 by year three. His original workshop, perfectly in sync with the American archetype, is his garage with a proud square footage of 250. He’s moved thrice since and upgraded to the current 1600-square-foot shop, each move doubling usable workspace over the previous one.

Asked how the dealers respond to his novel, suspension-based designs and their ultra-modern, uptown appearance, Volkmar reveals that many US dealers seem at first ill prepared to sell upscale furniture at all. They regard it as merely an accessory to make their electronics look good, akin to the humble beginnings of cables and power cords when all cables sounded alike -- just plug them in and go. Dealers appear to act as though just because the particular designs are beautiful and different, they ought to sell themselves. With European indignity and a minor mode of intolerance -- a diminished ninth perhaps -- he expresses dismay that the United States, world leader in so many affairs, severely trails European design trends by about ten years. This leads to a concomitant lack of sophistication and experience by retailers and consumers alike. He observes that this trend is only slowly beginning "to catch up." Being of Germanic descent myself and thus suitably inclined to occasional bouts of arrogance, I have to basically agree with his assessment. It isn’t arrogance either. Europeans do have a major edge in design, and not just in our industry. A quick cyber stroll through Euro speaker or amp manufacturer’s websites proves the point. Nobody can look at Bow Technologies, Burmester, mbl, Sonus Faber or Unison Research equipment, secretly compare notes with equivalent US marquees and not come to similar conclusions. Maybe this Drübbischer Deutschländer in our midst should be pulled back into active duty no matter how outspokenly he’d resist. But rather than waste his talent on the army again, this time he might contribute his particular ideas to US-based manufacturers to "get with the program"?

Volkmar shudders with contempt at $40,000 audio systems housed in $400 Circuit City racks. Furniture indeed is the forgotten component of audio systems -- the fifth wheel, the ugly duckling. He claims stands need to be recognized as fully active components. Though I’m at first skeptical -- hey John, check out my new stand; dude, it sounds way better than yours -- I’ve since heard the error of my ways. I’ve purchased Volkmar’s most basic stand, called, fittingly, the Basis. I did so purely because I liked its looks. I hate to admit it but bloody damn if my system doesn’t sound significantly better than it did before. It used to be situated on a perfectly stable, very dense and well-designed Chinese-style rosewood table, with components appropriately de-coupled by spikes. Now I’m beginning to sound just like the audio voodoo sycophants I so love to torment. Volkmar warns that replacing my wooden shelves with acrylic ones and going for the full Ypsilon suspension would make an even more drastic improvement. This is seriously alarming. I was perfectly prepared to spend money on appearances’ sake alone, maintaining a saint’s aloofness from all claims or even concerns over how positively or otherwise the audio performance might be affected. Serves me right that in my shallowness I now not only have to contend with a bitchin’ audio rack but have to suffer mightily improved sonics to boot. Life can be so cruel. At least my wife shares in the punishment. She hears it too. Happiness in misery.

Here’s our informal "who-is-particularly-hip" list of exhibitors at CES 2000 who used Volkmar's racks: Art Audio, BAT, Jeff Rowland, Meadowlark Audio, the Levinson/Madrigal/Revel conglomerate, Soliloquy Loudspeaker Company and Wisdom Audio. They all either own particular stands or have made prior loan arrangements for the show. Reviewers who have caught on to his designs are Chip Stern and Brian Damkroger of Stereophile.

Now that I’m all worked up, I want to make Drübbisch sweat. I want to know what goes into the actual manufacture of a stand -- a blow-by-blow, elbow-grease itinerary.

Life for any particular rack begins as 1000-1500 pounds of truck-delivered raw metal, both aluminum and steel, and usually in 20' lengths. All this must first be received and signed off. This unloading and stacking of heavy and unwieldy parts in the shop is the one task that Volkmar dreads, but it keeps him fit. The procedure then calls for 1/32"-tolerance size cutting, deburring, drilling and tapping of holes, beveling, cleaning, two-sided welding, grinding, paint prep, powder coating and re-tapping of all holes -- never mind cutting and sanding of support boards or all the tedious steps that go into packaging. It's one short sentence, but as our red-hot, in-flagranti photos prove (they were shot while Volkmar was plying his trade in his San Francisco shop), there's a whole lotta grinding going down at the Drübbisch plant. I do my best work after dark -- isn’t that how the refrain of that song has it?

All racks feature easy assembly and disassembly; a modular flexibility to accommodate the ever-changing componentry of the dedicated music lover; the use of dissimilar metals, woods, rubbers and composites to absorb various resonances; partial or complete suspension to minimize or avoid floor-induced vibrational contamination; stunning contemporary looks; and upgradability to more complex designs. As an example of the last feature, the Basis rack I bought can be reconfigured into a Novus rack simply by adding the external frame, flipping the rear supports upside down and threading them into the frame. By subtracting an H-bar from the Basis rack, it can become a dedicated mono amp stand with the simple addition of the machined aluminum cones with adjustable gold spikes.

To familiarize yourselves with the complete line outside of the new designs featured in this article, log onto http://www.particular.com/ to learn more about this unique line of audio/video furniture. Like me, you might realize that how we support our electronics not only can affect our marriage -- very positively if you’re particular enough -- but also maximizes the rather substantial financial investment most of us have made into our cherished audio systems over the years. Audio racks are not a mere accessory. They are an active component and need to be thought of as such. Whether this or that particular or not-so-particular design floats your boat is not the point. You should first investigate and then validate this entire issue for yourself.

Since you can’t refuse, let me give you my opinion undiluted: Stands do not all sound alike. Going through the list of about 40 high-end manufacturers who have used the Drübbisch stands time and again at trade shows, it seems that most of them feel these stands are the most neutral ones in the biz. Neutral? Yes, for crying out loud, apparently stands have a sound all their own. There, I’ve said it. I’m disgusted. You can shoot me now. Just say a prayer for yet another soul getting more deeply involved with his hobby than can possibly be good for him.

Cheers From the Great Beyond. Oh damn, you missed.

...Srajan Ebaen
srajan@soundstage.com

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