A Musician’s Understanding: Whirlwind’s Michael Laiacona Leads with Innovation

by Wilson Burke • in
  • Features
  • January 2019
• Created: January 23, 2019

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Whirlwind (whirlwindusa.com), based in Rochester, New York, has been leading the audio interface industry for over 40 years, having built their well-earned reputation on offering some of the most rugged cables, interface boxes, and all things that connect audio products. Whirlwind was founded in 1975 by Michael Laiacona, a musician himself, who had already started and sold a booming music electronics business that supported musicians internationally.

“Products that we made in the early days were basically products that I had made myself for the use in our recording studio,” says Laiacona. “We had a little recording studio near our factory, and we made our own direct boxes, our own patch cables, and our own snakes to get in and out of the control room.”

Laiacona tested the waters at his first NAMM show in 1975, with a couple of imported guitars that were made in Europe; he also brought along a few of his guitar cords that he had made to show off the guitars. “For three days in Chicago, no one wanted to talk to us about the guitars, but they wanted to talk to us about the guitar cords! We ended up selling about 25,000 of them in three days and I remember sitting in the car driving home going, ‘Well, I guess we’re a guitar cord factory.’”

After the first two years, Whirlwind was already twice as large as his former company and expanding the interfaces they offered for the audio and music industries. Guitar cords led to microphone cables, speaker cables, stage snakes, et cetera – in fact, Whirlwind built the first 48-channel snake. The company was the first to take the interface connections business seriously and provided high-quality products, as they pioneered this market segment in the entertainment technology.

Laiacona has some great stories from his years in business, one of which was a customer who “gave something back.” Laiacona recalls, “Back in 1978, I was invited to a party down in Maryland and, while I was there, they asked me if I would come to another room; someone wanted to meet me. I walked into the room and standing in the room was Les Paul. I’d always been a fan of his, not just because he is an amazing guitarist

and entertainer, but also because he is an inventor and innovator who is responsible for many of the advances in instrument and electronic technology. While I was at MXR I had sent a complete set of MXR pedals to him and when I was at Whirlwind, I had sent a complete set of Whirlwind cables to him. I had always felt that he was the reason for our existence – he was the father of rock ‘n’ roll, and without rock ‘n’ roll there would be no music as we know it today. Les Paul told me that a lot of people sent him things, but that they usually wanted something from him in return.

‘You gave me all that stuff over the years, but never asked for anything. Why?’ I explained that I had always admired him and considered him the father of the solid body electric guitar and just thought he’d find my stuff interesting.’ Les Paul then said, ‘I went up to my attic; I have many guitars up in my attic and I went through a few of them to find a good one.’ He handed me this guitar – a ’53 Les Paul Goldtop. I was just totally blown away!”

Laiacone, being a musician, brought that understanding to the Whirlwind product line, as do many Whirlwind employees.

He points to the Whirlwind employees as a major reason for the company’s success and continued growth over the last 43 years. Most of the employees have been at Whirlwind longterm with decades of experience. “Whirlwind is a unique community of individuals,” says Laiacona. “Most of us have been in bands or have worked as sound contractors or have worked as roadies or sound men for different bands, different sound companies in the area. Myself, I played professionally for 38 years. We have a production manager who still works on weekends doing sound for major acts all over the country.”

That wealth of hands-on experience is a big part of Whirlwind’s strength. They are always innovating to provide the best solution to their customers. Being innovative is important to Laiacona and core to Whirlwind as a company.

“We are the people that create the product from scratch,” he explains. “We’re the pioneers of the product line. And because of that, we have a philosophy that we have not changed over the life of the company: build a good product and build it consistently. And if

there’s a component or part out there that we don’t like, or we think we can make better, we build it ourselves. We build our own multi-pins, we design and build our own XLR connectors, we design and build our own chassis and boxes. That’s what makes us different. Every time you pick up a piece of Whirlwind gear you can hold it in your hand and you know it came only from Whirlwind. That’s our commitment.”

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