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Sound Business

Bob Hartman, right, and son Todd travel the world installing and running professional sound, stage lighting and video projection systems that they design from their Portage facility.
Bob and Todd Hartman provide sound and lighting for big-name artists

Bob Hartman points to a glossy magazine photograph of a 2013 fun. concert at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, Calif. His finger circles the massive crowd around the stage. “See these people? All of these people don’t know what it takes to pull off a show of that size in that venue,” he says. “That’s what’s so cool about what we do.”

What Hartman and his son Todd do is design, install and sell professional sound, lighting, video projection and recording systems and acoustical treatments for facilities and churches. Hartman started the company in 1975, after he began selling public-address systems out of the back door of his father’s auto accessory business.

Now, almost 39 years later, Stage Lighting and Sound Inc., located in Portage, provides lighting and sound design for performers such as Bruce Springsteen, ABBA, Art Garfunkel and fun. The company is on the preferred vendor list for the White House, providing lighting and sound setups for local presidential events. Stage Lighting and Sound also designed and installed the sound system for Western Michigan University’s Miller Auditorium, which Harman says is currently the largest and most complex acoustic enhancement system in any facility in the U.S.

“It’s a long way from selling touch-up paint and convertible tops,” Hartman jokes.

He got his start in the industry when his interest in music and hi-fidelity led him to build a portable public address system for a local Youth for Christ music group. After a while, he was selling equipment at a fast enough rate to start his own business, which he named Sound Reinforcement.

When Wings Stadium was built in 1974 and the venue decided to host concerts, Hartman looked into what it would take to provide sound for the multi-purpose arena. Before long, he purchased some “Super Troupers,” high-intensity xenon lamps used to light arenas for concerts and other events, and the company branched into lighting systems.

He was able to shoulder the cost of purchasing such large-scale equipment so arenas could rent his equipment instead of buying their own. (The company stores the massive equipment in its facility on Vanderbilt Avenue.) Pretty soon, Wings Stadium wasn’t the only venue taking advantage of Hartman’s business, which was renamed Stage Lighting and Sound.

“We were renting equipment in Traverse City, Lansing and Muskegon. Then promoters started calling, asking us to do shows locally and on the road,” Hartman says.

As his client list began to expand to include performers such as Conway Twitty and Pearl Bailey, Hartman continued to offer sound set-ups for local venues, from churches to auditoriums.

His son started working for the business in the early 1990s, and now the labor is split between the duo — Bob Hartman consults with clients, develops quotes and helps set up equipment locally, while Todd Hartman is usually in “the field,” touring with artists.

Just this year Todd spent two months touring with fun., two weeks in Germany and Italy touring with Bruce Springsteen, and numerous weeks on the road setting up one-time shows. In between all of the touring, Todd earned a nomination for a Parnelli Award — Best Audio System Tech of the Year — for his work on the fun. tour.

“The Parnellis are like the Emmy Awards for us,” Bob explains. “Todd was nominated by professionals in our field, and it’s an honor just to be nominated, much less to win.”

The Hartmans keep up on technology by continuously buying new equipment and selling their old equipment, and both are well versed in the best sound and lighting equipment available. The equipment and knowledge help them stay at the top of the market, they say, but it’s their passion and talent for sound and light design that helps the business retain customers and grow.

“Most of the people who do this type of work are coming from a telephone, home-sound or paging-system background,” Todd explains. “They don’t understand live sound. You only have an hour in the morning to figure out how to implement a sound system correctly for the 12,000 people who paid $75 to see the show. That’s where our success comes from. We understand how to make that happen.”

With the late nights, long hours, expensive equipment and technological challenges, what drives the Hartmans to continue in the sound and lighting industry? Both father and son say it’s in their blood.

“It would be really boring for me to show up at the same job site day after day,” Todd says. “For me, I like showing up and knowing that at the end of the day my job will be done and there will be this sense of ‘Wow. I did this.’”

His father agrees and says the exact measure of what they do can be determined by the reaction of the artists they work with, the production companies and the audiences.

“When a group the size of Styx asks your business to come down to Texas for a one-off show because they like what you do that much, I’d say that says it all,” Bob says.

As Stage Lighting and Sound continues to grow, with Bob working 12 hour days and his son spending much of his time on the road, neither seems to worry about what’s to come.

“We don’t really think of it that way,” Bob says. “People always ask me when I’m going to retire. Why should I retire? I’m having too much fun.”

Tiffany Fitzgerald

As Encore’s staff writer, Tiffany writes — a lot. She is responsible for our Upfront, Savor, Enterprise and Good Works features every month, as well as other stories in the arts. If that wasn’t enough, she is also the editor of FYI, our new family magazine that debuted last month. When we aren’t working her to death, she hangs out with her husband and two sons and dreams of having the time to complete Pinterest-worthy projects.

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