Spend time at restaurants, shopping malls, cinemas or concert halls across the country, and the music you will hear is likely coming through an audio system made by QSC of Costa Mesa. Laguna Beach resident and QSC founder Patrick Quilter has steered the company from a hobby to a $100 million enterprise, and he has plans for a repeat performance: his new venture, Quilter Labs, features top-quality, lighter weight amplifiers. A chance, Quilter says, to incorporate all he’s learned about equipment over a lifetime devoted to sound.
With Quilter, everything old is new again. A collection of early model record players and radios adorn his office, and he recently constructed a garage to assemble his vintage automobiles. Now he is producing state-of-the-art guitar amplifiers that recreate the best quality sound of the past, and better. Given his track record, and his reputation, it seems a sure bet he will achieve his goals, even while continuing to serve as chairman at QSC. And this time he won’t need a repeated infusion of capital from family members who sustained him through the early years.
Sister-in-law Ann Quilter says that she encounters musicians in all sorts of places who are in awe when they discover that her name is the Q in this revered company. However, locals know him best as the quiet Quilter, the third of four sons of Susi Q, and the resident homeless malingerer in the annual Lagunatics production.
Laguna Beach resident Scott Reckard, a journalist for the LA Times, has one of Quilter’s 50 prototype amps, which he obtained, he said “through serendipity and self-indulgence.” A musician back in the 70s, Reckard’s wife [Indy editor-in-chief Andrea Adelson] purchased an electric guitar [a Fender Telecaster] as a gift some time ago, and when Reckard wrote a profile on Quilter last year, he was intrigued with the new machine. “I took it as an omen of sorts, mainly because Pat is so unusual, a local, child of the 60s and all that… I justified the purchase by telling myself it would encourage me to resume playing guitar and I actually have been playing quite a bit,” he said.
Quilter, a tinkerer from an early age, says that there was always music at home while growing up, and that he was “imprinted” by early black and white television. “Cartoons on TV had rinky-dink music in the background that appealed to me.”
His aunt gave him a 1920s radio to fix up, and he subsequently haunted flea markets for early record players, now worth considerably more. His intent back in the 60s was to play “78’s” [early recordings made on a shellac material that preceded vinyl] through radio speakers, to improve on the tinny quality. “I just kept poking around until I got better sound,” he explained.
Quilter’s favorite high school class was physics. He studied mechanical engineering at college first in Rochester, NY, before settling into electrical engineering back in California. But, like better-known technology giants Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, he never graduated, preferring instead to become a hands-on entrepreneur.
“I invented a boom box loud enough to be heard in a car – this was just before they introduced car stereos. I just had to amp in up by a factor of 20.”
With partner Barry Andrews, a cabinetmaker, he produced products lovingly by hand. However technology was moving faster than he was, and he had to start over. So the business did not take off until the early 70s, and by then competition had heated up. And, despite larger competitors, he takes pride in products “grown in California.”
“Companies like Fender and Marshall, they made good products that wouldn’t blow up, which was all that was needed really, so we exited the guitar amp business and focused on good sincere power amps [loudspeakers] at a fair price,” said Quilter.
The breakthrough came when Dolby Systems incorporated QSC amplifiers into their theater systems, although Quilter has never ceased to focus on inventing new methods to reduce the size of the amplifier without compromising, and rather enhancing, the sound.
These days, QSC has the largest share of the cinema business and is a major player in retail installations and networks, like those found at airports. The privately-held company employs several hundred people and operates through a management team, allowing Quilter time to pursue his new venture, and also contribute to the community – he helped upgrade the high school sound system, tuned-up the sound at Laguna Playhouse, and installed a system for the Woman’s Club, not to mention building sets and making music for No-Square Theater.
Whatever his past success, Quilter focuses on the future. Deploying a marketing strategy using social networking and attending events like the recent guitar “geek-fest” in Anaheim, Quilter Labs deploys a renovated bright silver Airstream van as a mobile showroom, as impossible to miss as the tall white-haired Quilter himself.
What advice might he give to a budding entrepreneur? “Everything takes longer and is always harder than you think – make sure to get good partners. If you’ve got something special, give it a go.”
Read more at www.quilterlabs.com
Randy Kraft is a freelance writer and book review blogger for www.ocinsite.com