The Rest of the BUFF Story by Luap C. Ffub
Paul C. Buff, Inc.™ was formed in 1980 as a research company, with Paul as the sole stockholder, as he is today. He is known as a maverick who marches to the beat of a different drummer and is highly qualified as inventor, engineer, marketing trendsetter, philosopher and staunch defender of his customers and of the Golden Rule. His roots are depression era where necessity is the mother of invention.
Following his numerous gold records as a maverick audio recording studio owner, he evolved into manufacturing professional audio equipment. He remains widely recognized in the audio community for his wildly inventive gadgets and is known as the father of modern computerized recording console technology. Peers, customers and a few key works include Frank Zappa, Ray Dolby, The Beatles and perhaps 50% of other top new age artists from the 60s and 70s, Wipe Out, Incense and Peppermints, Green Eyed Lady, Carole King and Barry White to name a few.
His Pal Recording Studios
was recently recognized by the California State Legislature and a plaque stands near the site (Cucamonga, California) crediting Pal studios as a birthplace of the Surf Music revolution. Paul was also awarded an honorary lifetime fellowship in the prestigious Audio Engineering Society by then-president Ray Dolby of Dolby Sound Labs.
In 1980, Paul turned his attention toward studio photoflash. His premise was that the equipment of the day was reserved for very few who could afford it, and that the state of the art was industrial/dinosaur technology, inefficient and inaccurate, and packaged in gigantic black steel boxes and sold at way-inflated prices. One of his peeves was that, by the time equipment arrived in the hands of the customer, it had gone through many levels of middlemen, each adding to the price and isolating the customer from the manufacturer. He reasoned that hundreds of thousands of photographers would welcome a practical and affordable studio flash and the many advantages it offered over the ubiquitous camera mounted speedlite.
In 1981, Paul introduced his $139.95 White Lightning™ 130 as a super simple but fully featured studio flash with accuracy and versatility beyond the almost non-existent $1500+ offerings of the day. Emphasis was placed on direct-to-customer marketing and direct access from customer to manufacturer and to Paul himself. So 2011 is considered our 30-year anniversary.
By 1986 Paul had learned the ropes of the industry and felt the need to offer "the ultimate monoflash" in the form of the technologically trend-setting White Lightning™ Ultra Series. Extremely compact, high power, short flash durations, very wide and accurate range of power control, remote control capability, deadly accurate voltage regulated modeling lamp control and other features previously unheard of in the industry. This catapulted Paul C. Buff, Inc.™ toward the top of the U.S. photoflash market almost overnight. It is said that most monoflash competitors today can trace their roots to the White Lightning™ Ultra system.
Throughout the 1990s, Paul worked diligently toward creating means of battery powering of AC studio flashes for location work, and of controlling them via radio remote control. Both goals were realized in the form of the Vagabond™
and Radio Remote One, and Paul became the de facto father of both technologies. Competitors took notice and began the process of copying Paul's innovations, typically coming up with me-too products five to ten years later. However, all competitors continued with old-school distribution and customer service methods, and none were able to seriously compete on the basis of price/performance, or to come close to Buff's now-legendary level of customer service. Paul refers to his customers as "the world's largest cult" - numbering in the 500,000 range. When he wants to talk about himself in second party language, as here, he often uses the name Luap C. Ffub. This reveals a good bit of what Paul is all about…tongue in cheek, but dead serious about his work and company.
By the year 2000, Paul recognized the onset of the digital camera explosion and the pending new market segment. He also realized photographers were becoming younger and hipper, and had less money to spend than in the past. So he launched, as a separate company, AlienBees™
in 2001 (later folded into the Paul C. Buff™ corporation). Using tried and true White Lightning™
technology, he created a smaller and more compact consumer friendly package, at a still lower cost, and marketed it in an extremely radical, tongue in cheek manner, directly to the growing hoards of eager young customers. Pushing further away from industrial look and feel, AlienBees™
were introduced in a choice of neon colors, while still offering traditional black for purists. But the direct sales and absolute customer satisfaction/communication aspects were retained and enhanced. AlienBees™
sales were not limited to young entry-level customers however, as fully half the sales went to top professionals and onto a high percentage of images appearing in fashion magazines such as Vogue and others.
Within a year, Buff's percentage of the U.S. studio flash market rocketed to an estimated 60%, while many previous competitors faded into obscurity. This approximate market share remains today and it can safely be said that more photographers use Buff products than all other brands combined.
In recent years, Buff's innovations have exploded, in a repeat of the 1986 White Lightning™ Ultra phenomenon. The core of the new technology lies in the Einstein™
and Cyber Commander™
products, and in the revolutionary Vagabond Mini Lithium™
portable power system and the PLM™ (Parabolic Light Modifier™) systems. There is little question that Einstein™
and Cyber Commander™
represent the highest technology available anywhere in the world, at any price.
Because camera stores, dealers, distributors, representatives and other middlemen have no profit-access to Buff products, there is a predictable constant drumbeat of negativism toward the company from these sources and on many internet forums where they lurk in disguise. But the daily streams of praise and loyalty from our customers render this moot. Ask a dealer about Buff and they'll tell you it's cheap junk and Paul is a con man. Ask a customer, and they'll likely tell you Buff is the best in the industry and that they are a customer for life.
At this point, Buff has a number of further innovations in the pipeline…
Q&A with Paul C. Buff
NatBEE: You are constantly creating products from scratch - products that have never existed before. Do you think first about a need in the industry and how it can be intelligently filled, or do you think of a new capability that you’d like to see available? Or....?
Paul Buff: Actually, neither. I rarely pay much attention to what is going on on the industry, and never try to do what most companies do: copy a product because it's successful. I feel I have good instincts regarding products I think people would like, but have never thought of. Ideas pop into my head...they control me, not the other way around. At any moment I probably have 20 projects I would like to do. From there, I select those I feel have the best potential appeal, reject those that are not ready for prime time, and go from there.
N: Of the many flash units and accessories that you’ve designed, do you have a favorite? Is there one product that was the most fun to develop or the most exciting to see come to life?
PB: That's like asking Little Richard what his favorite song project was. But I would say AlienBees. It was my first actual marketing plan. It began with the premise "What if a new, young company came along and challenged the whole industry with a fully professional light, at a lower price and profit margin, with radical marketing, style and colors aimed at younger digital shooters?" The next premise was "What if that new company was mine, but separate from White Lightning?" My conclusion was that my total market share would go up, while all competitors would shrink. Boy did it work. My wife Deborah was very instrumental in the look and feel, and drew the Happy Bee Logo and cheered on the colors. Magazines thought I had gone nuts and that it was a stupid idea, but Deb and I knew by instinct it would succeed in a big way. I also credit you, Nat, for all the initial graphics and ads and literature.
N: You’re really active on the photo and lighting forums - something that’s unheard of for presidents of companies like yours. What is it that you like about being part of these discussions?
PB: I'm in a unique position here. As both owner and product designer/engineer, I can safely say whatever I want without a CEO or Marketing Director looking over my shoulder. More importantly, I am self-educated and truly love sharing information with others. Unfortunately, the forums are full of haters and people tied to competitors who live to fill forums with false accusations, insults and character assassination. It seems some forum readers would rather watch an online Jerry Springer show rather than actually exchange information. While they comprise perhaps 5% of forum posters, moderators tend to give them preference over serious members. So I'm now off most forums other than our own.
N: You like to keep your company small - under 50 employees. Why is that?
PB: My most influential mentor ever was recording engineer/producer and magazine owner Martin Gallay. Back in the 1970s he said "There are two kinds of companies that work...those with under 50 employees and those with over 500." Another memorable Gallayism is: “The 11th commandment is Thou shalt not take thyself too seriously.” The reason for the 50 employee thing is that when a company grows much beyond that, it changes from a tight knit open-communication model into a bureaucracy requiring human resources departments, staff lawyers, staff CPAs and a general chain of command much less efficient than smaller companies where all employees personally interface with the owner, and all know what is going on. Lately, the government has begun to really set regulations that kick in at 50 employees that severely limit effective operations. Luap be nimble, Luap be quick, Luap jump over the hurdle stick!
N: What is the biggest change that you’ve seen in the photo industry over the years?
PB: Digital photography and the shift from big ugly black boxes into higher technology in smaller packages at affordable prices. The industry is no longer dominated by established "professionals” with rigid rules, but is rapidly moving into new ideas and concepts and individualism. Good lord, imagine Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) becoming a multi-billionaire in his early 20s and outdoing General Motors by a wide margin. Couldn't have happened 30 years ago. (And no, I'm not a Facebook fan). Kids like this and Google are moving from billionaires into global society political shapers. Not a good thing IMHO.
N: Touchy question. Do you have a religious affiliation?
PB: It took me a long time to realize I am officially an agnostic. I believe in, and may write The Gospel according to Luap. To be clear, an agnostic is not an atheist. I have no tolerance for atheists. Merriam-Webster defines an agnostic as “a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable” - someone who feels the existence or non-existence of God can neither be proven or dis-proven.
I strongly believe in and have extraordinary faith in God. My problem with most organized religions is that they attempt to define what God is and tend to use it as a political tool to demand certain behavior from their followers. I treat this exactly like I do my customers: by eliminating the middleman and dealing directly with the source. So my beliefs, while very strong, are theories rather than statements of unknowable facts. While I fully support Judeo-Christian beliefs and followers, there are too many inconsistencies and conflicts in all religions. I believe the Bible contains references such as "No man can define God or create an image of God" yet that's exactly what they do. "Theology" derives from "theory" - so in my universe, when theology is presented as fact, it is not credible. The Gospel According to Luap is never presented as fact, rather as a collection of theories of what God might be. The underlying theme is that reality is in the eye of the beholder and should not be dictated by others, including me.
N: Another touchy one. What is your political position? Democrat or Republican?
PB: Neither. I suppose I am officially a Constitutionalist or Libertarian. I vote, and my vote goes to the candidates who most closely follow that position and the Constitution. Both official parties have become so corrupt that I can't in good conscience support either. We have to get the government off of our backs and return to our founding roots, which were neither conservative nor liberal. Live and let live...the Golden Rule.
N: Why do you use the “Luap C. Ffub” moniker?
PB: Because I like to communicate tongue in cheek sometimes. Comes from my music background I guess. It gives me a way of talking about myself in a second party tense and avoiding the constant stream of "I" "I" "I" or hiding behind a ghost writer.
N: You have an extensive collection of cool t-shirts. Do you have a favorite t-shirt? Where’d you get it?
PB: I rarely buy a tee shirt. Deborah and her family give most of them to me as presents. I love them all. Most are based on Southern Rock. My fave is an Allman Brothers shirt that has really nice design and color combinations. I wear some retro tie-dyed shirts but am not wild about retro stuff. Have several Jimi Hendrix tees, the US Constitution, MC Escher, DaVinci, etc. No "World's Greatest Dad" type stuff. For formal wear, I like, say, a lime green tee with a loose orange tie and a retro 40s houndstooth blazer with jeans and tacky shoes. I own no slacks...always 30-30 Levi’s.
N: What kind of music do you like to listen to these days? Do you still like to write and/or record music every now and then?
PB: I have Ronnie Milsap's 1915 Baldwin 9-foot Concert Grand Piano and play something on it most every day...it’s relaxing and keeps my modest chops up. Don't like rap or hard core country. Still lean toward soul music like Little Richard, James Brown, etc. Also like a good jazz trio, Steely Dan and Sheryl Crow, though I hate her politics. I've recorded seven or eight new things on my Mac with Logic Pro in the last few years, but haven't had time lately.
N: Anyone who knows you and Deb knows that you work around the clock. But do you have anything special that you like to do in your free time?
PB: Patio cafes, Waffle House, watching House, 24 and Medium when they were on, etc. We bought a 35-acre farmlet on Mobile Bay last year and are setting up a depression compound for Deb's less fortunate family members and for ourselves if things get really bad. 560 feet of beautiful bay frontage. Don't fit in well with the yuppies, malls and social elite. Deb spends a lot of time preparing gift baskets and cards for elderly nursing home patients, quite anonymously.
N: What’s the most fun: designing the product? creating logos and artwork for it? having it manufactured? coming up with the marketing and ads? seeing it in action in the field? or...?
PB: Coming up with inventive designs and concepts and being able to bring them into the marketplace. As a teenager I always said, "I'm not going to end up sitting on a park bench talking about all the ideas I had, but never got around to doing anything with them.” Success or failure are unimportant...it's just doing it that matters.
N: Do you have any heroes or mentors who have been especially important to you?
PB: I detest hero worship. Shared that with Zappa. My favorite mentors are the aforementioned Martin Gallay and Art LaBoe (Original Sound Record Company) who gave me my financial start in Pro Audio manufacturing and partnered with me in building and operating my second recording studio. Gallay has passed away, but Laboe, now 85, is still on the air 7 days a week playing Oldies But Goodies in LA. He's fed up with California politics and is contemplating a move to Utah. We communicate regularly.
N: What would you say to a 21-year-old who wanted to start their own business?
PB: Don't do it for the money...do what you love. But make sure it's something that can potentially support you at some point. Lead, never follow. Go way out of the box. Don't seek a lot of financial backing...it will come back to bite you if you make it. Don't worry about failing...that's a lot more valuable than doing nothing.
The Music of Paul Conrad Buff
While his name is now synonymous with the lighting industry, Paul’s first notoriety came in the music industry where he was a wildly successful studio engineer and recording artist. With no experience and a borrowed $1,000 start up fund, he began Pal Recording Studio in Cucamonga, California in 1957. Pal was an alternative to the big recording studios, offering a unique sound that produced a swarm of surf music hits, including the well-known instrumental anthem “Wipe Out” by the Surfaris.
Paul was a pioneer in the industry with his creation of multi-track recording equipment, building a ten-track system for the Original Sound Recording Studio
in Hollywood, owned by his friend and ultimate mentor - noted DJ Art Laboe. At Original Sound
, Paul engineered well-known hits such as “Incense and Peppermints” by Strawberry Alarm Clock and “Green-Eyed Lady” by Sugarloaf along with some of his own recordings under the names The Hollywood Persuaders (with hits such as “Drums A-Go-Go" and “Tijuana”), The Bongo Teens and The Masters. More than sixty of these recordings featured Paul’s friend and creative accomplice, Frank Zappa. The pair would meld their musical interests and mark a moment in the history of music with their avant-garde artistry, remaining friends until Zappa’s early death.
In 2010, Paul Buff released his entire collection as digital downloads, including all of his recordings from Pal and Original Sound
along with some of the best recordings of his engineering work for others. Featuring the earliest studio recordings of Frank Zappa and the beginnings of the multi-track revolution, the tracks (many of which have been previously unavailable) span the period from February 1956 to November 1973. Paul Buff Presents the Pal and Original Sound Studio Archives: The Collection
is now available for purchase at Crossfire Publications
with listening and downloading available for individual albums in the series on CD Baby
Paul Buff Presents the Pal and Original Sound Studio Archives: The Collection
is now playing on our phone system! We don't like to put you on hold, but when we have to, enjoy the sounds from the Pal and Original Sound studios.
Paul Buff Presents the Pal and Original Sound Studio Archives
The Collection is now available for purchase at Crossfire Publications
with listening and downloading available for individual albums in the series on CD Baby