|Wittner GmbH’s “world’s largest selection of metronomes” includes electronic quartz models and traditional clockwork mechanical models such as the Maelzel, Taktell, and Animals Series models shown.|
Wittner At 125
While its signature metronomes embody tradition, Wittner has also shown an innovative stripe in a product category that hardly welcomes change—the violin.
IT IS RARE for any family-owned business to make it past the 100-year milestone. The inertia of time alone can be determinative, as familial splits, disruptions, diverging interests, and uneven aptitudes over generations chip away at the numbers. Cataclysmic events of the 20th century including the Great Depression and two world wars also took their toll. The pressures and allure of merger and acquisition can dilute or even transform corporate identity, and in some cases evolving technology and popular music tastes have rendered whole product categories obsolete. Now approaching its 125th year in business, family-owned Wittner GmbH & Co. KG, has been buffeted by several of these forces. Best known for its mechanical-style metronomes, Wittner stands as a testament to focus, resilience, and determination—along with a pursuit of innovation and occasional embrace of risk and redefinition.
Wittner products are sold in about 70 countries, with major markets including the U.S., Europe, and increasingly China, where music education of the younger generation is especially prized. In addition to the “world’s largest selection of metronomes,” Wittner manufactures tuning pegs, chinrests, and tailpieces for bowed orchestral stringed instruments, and tuning pegs for flamenco guitars and ukuleles, plus tuning forks, music stands, capos, and CD/DVD storage boxes and cleaning products. Based in Isny im Allgäu in southern Germany, the company is run by Horst Wittner and Sabrina Wittner, who respectively represent its third and fourth generations.
|Third-generation CEO Horst Wittner with his daughter, Assistant Manager Sabrina Wittner.|
In 1895, Gustav Wittner left the clockmaking industry to establish a small metronome workshop. His wares were delivered to music stores throughout the region by horsedrawn carriage. Exports began in 1900 with shipments to Russia. In the early 1920s, Gustav’s son Rudolf took over the firm and transformed it from a small workshop into a much larger enterprise in a Black Forest factory.
Around the same time, in addition to metronomes, Wittner began manufacturing fine tuners (string adjusters) for the newly invented steel strings for violins, violas, and cellos. The operation expanded with the addition of tuning forks to the product mix, requiring the company to hire employees gifted with “absolute pitch” to tune the forks because no other pitch reference devices were available. (This deceptively small development was further complicated by the period’s variety of observed tuning standards including Paris pitch, normal pitch, new American pitch, Vienna pitch, English pitch, high Austrian Military pitch, and high break pitch.) Later, capitalizing on exploding record sales in the 1930s, Wittner further expanded the company’s catalog to include a line of recording accessories.
Wittner escaped World War I largely unscathed. But its factory was mostly destroyed in WWII, and in subsequent years the company turned to making wooden toys until currency reforms and replenished resources allowed it to resume production of metronomes and record accessories. With the post-War economic boom driving sales, Wittner outgrew its factory. Between 1952 and 1953, the business was transplanted to its current production facility in Isny (IZ-nee), which is equipped with state-of-the-art tooling and automation.
Current CEO Horst Wittner began doing easy jobs at the company to earn pocket money around the age of ten. Starting in 1960, at 16, he worked as a translator for his father at the Musikmesse Fair in Frankfurt. By the time he joined the company full time in 1967, he already knew many of its customers. He recalls the era as “a great time” and “a 100% vendors’ market. We had delivery times of six months, so our customers treated me extremely well in order to advance their deliveries.” By that time, the company’s line of storage and cleaning products for records, cassette tapes, and videotapes was also booming. Over the next decade, the biggest challenge was to manage the company’s growth by adding new machines, new buildings, and finding enough people to meet the market’s growing demands.
But by the 1980s, new technologies impacting the company’s core business began altering its outlook. As it became clear that demand for the mechanical metronome had passed its peak, Wittner’s management began to explore other product categories that would suit its business philosophy, manufacturing strengths, and customer base. Prior success in manufacturing fine tuners for bowed instruments pointed to further engagement in orchestral instrument parts and accessories.
Determining that the path forward would require developing new solutions to longstanding problems, in the 1980s Wittner committed what in the world of orchestral stringed instruments borders on sacrilege: It introduced tailpieces made of metal. The company risked an even worse faux pas in the late ’90s when it unveiled its Ultra series tailpieces made from an advanced composite material. “Plastic on a violin was something one just didn’t do,” Horst admits. But in time, due to their superb sound properties, even famous old instruments were equipped with these tailpieces—though some were sanded to make them look like ebony and not recognizable as plastic. After a few years, Ultra composite tailpieces became a standard of the industry. Looking back, Horst adds, “We hardly know any other article that has been copied so often.”
While much of the world has
and Wittner offers a selection of
electronic quartz metronomes—
there is still a sizable market
for mechanical clockwork models.
Today, Wittner’s bowed instrument parts division targets an array of challenges ranging from the declining availability of certain wood species to nickel allergies to slipping and sticking tuning pegs. For example, in its chinrest designs it avoids the use of wood and nickel, instead opting for a hypo-allergenic material that eliminates nearly all skin reaction known as “violin stains.” Its “Zuerich” model was developed in collaboration with the Zürcher Zentrum Musikerhand based on research conducted at the Zurich University of the Arts. The study investigated how different violin positions influence the degree of objectively recorded muscle tension and subjectively perceived effort, with the ultimate goal of helping violinists avoid posture-related maladies. Offering similar attention to player comfort, Wittner’s Isny model shoulder rest is height- and tilt-adjustable, and its height can “grow” along with the player, a real plus for children and adolescents. It is also designed to be fitted easily and securely on any violin or viola. Both the Zuerich and Isny are gaining popularity due to their smart engineering and superb quality.
Wittner addressed another challenge faced by many bowed instrument musicians—sticking and slipping tuning pegs—with its composite material Finetune-Pegs. Introduced in 2009, Finetune-Pegs have been continuously improved to help students, teachers, and professionals tune their stringed instrument more easily and securely, especially those whose travel subjects their instruments to temperature and humidity changes. Wittner’s geared Finetune-Pegs enable even younger and elderly players to tune their instruments themselves. The innovation has been rewarded with double-digit sales growth every year since its debut.
As with most of its products, Wittner’s innovative and uniquely engineered bowed instrument parts and accessories are made entirely in-house, to the same level of precision and high quality standards as its metronomes. Steady growth of the line has made it an important contributor to the company’s overall business. Some general wholesalers carry both lines, but the parts and accessories are also offered as premium or upgrade features by respected instrument manufacturers, and some are deemed mandatory by many school music programs.
|Wittner’s geared Finetune-Pegs eliminate sticking and slipping and enable even younger and elderly players to tune their instruments themselves.|
Old World Charm
While much of the world has “gone digital”—and Wittner offers a selection of -electronic quartz metronomes—there is still a sizable market for mechanical clockwork models. Beyond Wittner’s typical clientele—music teachers and students—the traditional metronome is still an essential decor accent for many music lovers and piano owners. But Horst is quick to point out their functional advantages as well. Early metronomes, he explains, consisted of a weight swinging on the end of a thread, producing no sound; the clicking sound was added later, giving the timekeeping tools both visible and audible components. Seeing the swinging pendulum enables the musician to anticipate the coming click sound. In the same way orchestral musicians instantly pre-gauge a work’s tempo by the velocity of the conductor’s first upbeat, the mechanical metronome’s pendulum provides a continuous visual reference that facilitates anticipating the correct tempo rather than reacting to a discrepancy after it is heard. The benefit is subtle, but real, promoting the player’s ability to internalize the tempo. Also, many musicians prefer the pleasant, woody “tock” of a traditional metronome compared to the sound generated by electronic devices, which is often described as “annoying,” “disturbing,” or even “fatiguing” in extended practice sessions. And because traditional metronomes are powered by wind-up springs, no batteries are required!
Wittner’s traditional metronomes feature precise clockwork mechanisms and solid wood cases, and they’re available in a variety of natural wood finishes as well as gloss black and other colors. Two major lines are offered—Maelzel and Taktell—although both utilize a center-axel Maelzel pendulum. Referencing takt—the German word for “clock” but also associated with time, beat, measure, rhythm, and meter—Taktell metronomes’ casings are distinguished from traditional pyramid-shaped models. The line became so successful worldwide that in some areas Wittner’s registered trademark, “Taktell,” became synonymous with “metronome.” Across the lines, materials range from traditional to modern, and shapes from classic to whimsical, as in the Animals Series—with a choice of penguin, cat, or owl wearing a bowtie on the pendulum—designed to delight younger students.
"Considering all the challenges
that Wittner has survived
over the years—
and since it’s my job to be an optimist—
Excluding its line of electronic tuners and metronomes, which are produced in cooperation with a South Korean partner, all Wittner products were invented and designed in-house, and all are manufactured at the company’s 115,000-square-foot factory in Isny, Germany. This includes all woodwork, from raw wood to finished metronome casings. The factory also houses metal stamping, injection molding, and nickel-plating departments, and its tool shop builds and services molds, tools, and special handling devices for assembling and testing the company’s products. The diversity of these operations, Horst explains, challenges Wittner to maintain its expert workforce, since many of the tasks require specific occupational profiles, and few of the positions are interchangeable.
Horst predicts that digital metronomes will continue to consume a bigger market share over traditional types, “especially considering the fact that you can download metronomes to your cell phone free of charge.” Other challenges on the horizon that frustratingly distract from “our genuine creative tasks” include the proliferation of counterfeit products and patent and trademark infringement. Over the past five years, Horst reports, the company has spent more than $500,000 for lawsuits to protect its intellectual property in other countries. Rampant abuse in these areas is just one of the contributors to what he calls a negative “paradigm change” in which doing business has become “very uncertain and irrational.”
Wittner continues to conduct business as it has for decades with wholesalers and dealers who honor its loyalty and policies, but it has had to become increasingly vigilant to supply only companies that do not offer copies of its products. With a personal perspective of the industry that stretches more than half a century, Horst laments that “the traditional rules of dealing together and the way in which agreements are honored seem to have changed. If I try to put many current issues into a historical context,” he admits. “I’m rather pessimistic. But then, considering all the challenges that Wittner has survived over the years—and since it’s my job to be an optimist—I am.”