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Keeping it in the family - An interview with a founder of Universal Audio: Bill Putnam Jr

The idea of interviewing Bill Putnam Jr. emerged from a motorcycle ride (nice road!) to the Scotts Valley, CA office of Universal Audio on an unrelated KVR business visit. As a happy owner of a UAD-2 card I have always been impressed with the quality of the UA plug-ins. Their well-merchandised online store is also impressive as is the painless way one updates their software.

UA founder Bill Putnam Sr.
in session

Universal Audio was first founded in 1958 by M.T. "Bill" Putnam Sr. who, in addition to being a sought after recording engineer, was the inventor of the modern recording console, and the multi-band audio equalizer. A natural entrepreneur, Putnam Sr. started three audio product companies during his long career: Universal Audio, Studio Electronics, and UREI. All three companies built equipment that remains widely used decades after their introduction, including the legendary LA-2A and 1176 compressors, and the 610 tube recording console.

Bill Putnam Sr passed away in 1989. Upon finding some of the original notes from his analog products designs 10 years later, his sons, James Putnam and Bill Putnam Jr., decided to re-found the company to "faithfully reproduce classic analog recording equipment in the tradition of their father." They started by releasing carefully re-created versions of their father's LA-2A and 1176 products.

Bill Putnam Jr.
Co-re-founder of UA

Bill Sr's. spirit seems to be in every move they make from replicating his original products in exact detail to modeling them as software plug-ins, to the recently released Apollo. Under the leadership of the Putnam family UA has become an industry leader known for innovative products and, according to the people laboring there, a place that treats its hard-working employees very well.

Bill Jr, was kind enough to spend some time with me a few weeks ago. I found him straightforward, refreshingly positive, and of course passionate about music and audio products. He described how a morning listening to a Ray Charles recording could energize his mood for the whole day. He clearly loves keeping the spirit of his father's work alive.

Did you always have an idea that you would follow in your father's footsteps?

I think as any kid you think you're going to be the fireman and then decide you're going to be the superhero. I think it was sixth grade, I came across one of those "What are you going to be when you grow up?" and I said I'm going to go to Stanford, I'm going to be an electrical engineer, and that turned out to be what I did. I never thought I was going to be around the recording business, but I absolutely always knew I was going to be around technology. My dad had manufacturing facilities in North Hollywood, and recording studios in Hollywood, United and Western. I saw him at recording sessions behind the board at the studio, but he was equally interested in solving problems by inventing gadgets at home. I saw and interacted with him more on that side.

So he had a lab at home….

It was at home, right. To him, and I mean this in a really good way, there was never a separation between work and home life. I'm not saying he was a crazy workaholic. He just loved what he did. When he was designing the Urei 813 coaxial loudspeakers he hauled a 45-foot trailer into our front yard to be a makeshift anechoic chamber. He put up a scissor-lift, and later a scaffold to get speakers up in free space to do measurements and sent warbled sine-sweeps through the entire neighborhood. I'm sure people thought aliens were coming.

We were always doing little work projects together. We went to Sears and got one of those little sheds and turn it into a workshop with a workbench when he got interested in radio. Radio was my big hobby that I shared with him.

Ham radio?

Ham radio, yea. I was way into radio before I was into audio. And in fact I have probably spent more time designing radio circuits than I have audio circuits. My dad and mom got me a radio kit for Christmas; I think I was probably ten. It was from Radio Shack back when you could get cool kits from them, and it was called the Globe Patrol.

Radio Shack Global Patrol

It was a short wave receiver. I still have it, with the soldering iron and screwdriver and all that stuff. We threw an antenna up in a tree, turned it on for the first time, and it worked. I heard this woman with a foreign accent. It was the BBC (British Broadcasting Company). To me it was like magic. That was the moment I got infected by technology.

I get goose bumps thinking about it, and technology stills feels that way to me. Everyday I'm amazed by what we can do and how far technology has come since I've been paying attention. And that's a gift he gave me.

Did your father have any formal engineering training?

He did. He went to a school called Valparaiso Technical Institute. I remember him telling me that when he was in high school he started a car radio repair and installation business. He also told me about ruining a few cars and getting in trouble, for drilling holes in the wrong places.

Valparaiso Technical Institute
(circa 1950)

It was radio that got him first interested when he got drafted into the Army and went into the Signal Corps. He did mostly live recording and some of the broadcasts for the Armed Forces radio. So when he came out of the war he got right into recording. He worked with some of the best in the industry, people like Sinatra, and Nat King Cole.

What about Music in your life?

My dad got me excited about music when I was really young. I think the first live music he took me to was Duke Ellington. Sitting front row during the show and getting to meet Duke, and some of the guys in his band, Cat Anderson and Johnny Hodges was so exciting. So I grew up hearing a lot of great jazz, a lot of great big band music. And then later got into rock and stuff on my own in my teen years.

So music plays a really big role in my life. I think you have to do all of this with music in mind. Otherwise you're just making widgets. Here at UA it's music widgets by people making music. So that's neat.

Did you have any formal music training?

I was in the electrical engineering department at Stanford, but I was based at CCRMA (Center for Research in Music and Acoustics), which is part of the music department, so I was around a lot of composers there and took music classes. It's always been a fairly serious hobby for me.

Is there anything you think was particularly good about being at CCRMA?

CCRMA has produced a lot of important technology for music. I think it's the people, from the professors to the students. It was the first place I was in my life where music and music-related technology was taken very seriously. At the time there were only a few places that would let you do media-related things at a graduate level. When I was looking at schools for electrical engineering to do stuff related to music or audio it was not considered a worthy academic pursuit. Thankfully, that has changed now.

At the time, the emphasis was on physical modeling of musical acoustics at CCRMA. I was into audio processing devices, speakers, and microphones. All of the other students were doing physical modeling of musical acoustics. I thought - why can't you do physical modeling of audio effects processing? It made me want to do the kind of emulations we do here at UA.

How did the first UA plug-ins came about?

Back '95 or '96, I was talking to my friend Dave Berners at CCRMA. I had brought along schematics of the LA-2A, and some other compressors, like the DBX 160. We ended up talking about using physical modeling to simulate the characteristics and essence of these devices. This kicked off an ongoing discussion starting at Stanford in the mid-90s up until 2000.

At this point time, the UAD-1 was on the drawing board and we needed to come up with the first set of plugs that would come out and make the UAD a viable product. So we started with the 1176, the LA2A, and a couple channel strips and other more generic stuff.

We felt that magnetics were going to be one of the harder things to model on the digital side so one of the first things we did was put a transformer model together. We found my father's notes on the transformers for his products. Transformers are like a black art, but also what gives these devices their character, so it's very important to get them right. We were having the worst time on the 1176 until we looked at these notes and there was a drawing, a tracing he did, and it was a one kilohertz square wave in exactly the same ringing and the next page was how he'd solved it. He spent a lot of his time doing transformer design and working with transformer folks and so he has pretty extensive design notebooks on what he did. If you look at the 1176 schematic, there are several layers of feedback and that's how we got it right.

So what do you say to people that say "Well I need the analog." It must be an interesting conundrum for you.

I don't mind talking about this, because we started Universal Audio knowing we were going to be doing both. I thought we'd start with 1176 hardware and it would taper down. It hasn't, it's gone up. If anything, we have sold 1176s and LA-2As rock steady since we released it 10+ years ago. It's a different customer and there are absolutely valid uses for both.

One of the things I like about analog, and this doesn't have to be limited to analog but being more "old school," and I know my dad was the same way; you just want to grab a knob and not have to look at it. It's on the rack, it's there, you know what it does. On the other hand fewer people are using line-in, line-out external rack mount effects now. It's in the box. It's a customer that, if you want to stay in the box and have 1176 on every channel, you can. That's the digital value.

What have been the hardest components to model?

I think generally magnetics have been hard along with non-linearity's in general. Linear stuff, if something is really and truly linear, that tends to be easier. Although, a linear EQ, with a lot of interaction between bands can also offer its own type of complexity.

Non-linearities that occur in feedback loops occur in some of the most interesting devices with interesting sonic characteristics. These tend to be very complicated. Additionally, these often involve a lot of computational complexity because as soon as you have non-linearities, you are going to get overtones and you want to be able to model all of the harmonics without aliasing, so there's a burden of getting the algorithm right but there's a burden of implementation because you need a lot of processing power if you want to do it alias-free.

I think we've got our digital stuff incredibly, incredibly close to analog. If you look at what we're doing now versus what we were doing ten years ago, we just keep pushing the envelope each time. We have more and more processing power and we're getting better and better results.

Let's talk about Apollo. It's a pretty obvious move for a company like UA, because it re-imagines the recording console. You must have been thinking about it long before it actually happened….

For the last ten years, really. And I think it goes back to when we were starting the company, this idea of analog and digital being integrated together like this. So I think getting a really great sounding, high quality audio interface that can then have the ability to integrate plugins in as part of the tracking and monitoring workflow, and then creating a lot of the workflow more based on an analog world, is exactly what we're after. We've already talked about our analog side, we talked about the digital side, and the fact that we wanted a company that had an analog side and a digital side was based on the idea that there was a world that embraced both, and it didn't have to be analog versus digital. And indeed our digital side has been about emulating analog gear, but we've really never had a product that embraced both, that was analog and digital in the same box. In this sense this is the very first product we've done that is an example of the original idea and vision for the company, which is analog and digital coexisting.

Apollo - Coming to a store near you...

It's been a long road to get there. We've had a successful analog product line and a successful digital product line and bringing those together and getting an I/O with the analog quality that we're known for along with the ability to run all of your digital emulations, but not just as coprocessor, but in-line track monitoring through it. So you can be running console emulation in Apollo and tracking through that and hearing what it's like through a tape machine, any of our compressors. The latency is a sub 2-milliseconds so you can play your guitar through it and be listening.

What would your father have thought of the product?

It looks like a console and you can put up to four inserts on each one with some extra buses. And also a kind of monitoring section, which is really cool.

I think he would be surprised at the way we look at and dissect gear. He definitely wanted to get stuff right, but I think that for some reason the industry has become more particular and we have got to nail that 1176 or we have to nail that Fairchild or whatever. And I think we obsess about it, frankly more than I think he obsessed over stuff back then. I don't know if that's a good or a bad thing.

What are your thoughts on the way music is being produced today? How is it different from when your father was making products?

At the end of the day you also have a generation that is listening to what it means to alter and process music. They are listening to other recorded music and a lot of that other music has focused us on certain sounds that we've liked. I was actually just listening to a really great snare on a Ray Charles's recording and I can tell that the way they got it was that that's just a really good-sounding room. It's like no processing there. People are still listening. And they are listening to the way other people make music, and they need creative tools for processing that.

A Fairchild 670 - Model this...!

I haven't spent time using, except for when we measured it, a real Fairchild, but I love just pulling up the Fairchild and putting in on a bass, our plugin. And can get great sounds from it. So I think that even if people are disconnected from it, there are a lot of creative tools. And I look at us (UA) as providing a pretty large palette of those types of creative tools.

We have talked about the technical side, but from the business side, what do you think of the industry the way it is now versus when you started in the company?

First, I have enjoyed the business side way more than I ever thought I would. I wanted to start a company so I would have an excuse to be an engineer and make products and I underestimated how much work the business side was going to be. But I also underestimated how much I would like it. It turned out that business can be creative just like engineering or music can be creative.

Being in a company that has grown from a few people in my basement, to a facility with considerably more people has had its challenges. It's more important to be making the right decision, and you can still be creative and you can still have fun but you have to be a little more constrained, careful, and better.

Obviously technology is constantly changing, and I think the audio industry used to be further behind the curve as far as how it used technology and I think it's not as far behind the curve now, so I think we're all going to have to be developing faster. There's a lot of clever stuff going on and as someone said, if you're into gadgets, now's a good time to be alive because there's a lot of good stuff going on.

I tend to be an optimist in all of these things. Technology is going to move on and the advancement of technology is always going to happen. I think ultimately people want to be creative and they will find a way to be creative with the new tools as they appear. It might be very different in fifty years but I think we will still have those same creative neurons, we will still have a need to massage them and people will find a way.

That's a great answer. Thanks.

Cool. This was super fun.

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