Vale, Billy Woodman (1946-2022)
Greg Simmons on the legacy of Billy Woodman.
Billy Woodman changed my life. Let me put that into context…
I’d spent much of the ‘80s working in studios and venues around Melbourne, and had embraced the freelance sound-engineer life to the point of hating it. My immune system was shot due to substance abuse, my mind dreaded the thought of spending 15 hours per day in rooms that could not even support plant life beyond mould and mildew, and my doctor had given me an ultimatum: choose a different career path or die.
I chose to teach and write about sound engineering, rather than doing it. Breaking free of the magnetic pull of Melbourne’s underground music scene, I moved to Sydney, took on the role of editing the Sonics Yearbook, and became passionate about mountain biking and the great outdoors.
One day Lesley Sly, then editor of Sonics magazine, asked me to review ATC’s SCM20 passive studio monitors. Curbing my lack of enthusiasm (“Another pair of studio monitors, meh…”), I accepted the job and received two relatively small but heavy monitors, a worthy amplifier, and a collection of CDs from boutique audiophile labels I’d never heard of. After the first listening session I was, uncharacteristically, lost for words — not just for the review, but for my life. The supplied CDs contained details I’d never heard before in recordings, and the ATC speakers were revealing them. I pulled out some of my own recordings, things I had multitracked over weeks or months in 24-track studios and thought I knew every little nuance, and yet, through these speakers, I was hearing new things and wondering why I’d never noticed them before. What kind of trickery was this?
As part of the review process I had the fortune of interviewing Billy Woodman, ATC’s founder and chief designer (that interview was published in Sonics magazine many years ago). I wanted answers. How were these speakers making previously unheard details so audible? Surely there must be some kind of deception? Nope. Every one of Billy’s answers was based on solid science, tests and measurements, tinged with a subtle hint of indignant disbelief that such things even needed explaining. I have no idea if Billy had any allergies, but I’m willing to bet ‘snake oil’ would’ve been one of them. After speaking with Billy I came to realise that the ATCs weren’t revealing anything, they simply weren’t hiding it in distortion and masking as most other monitors up to that time did.
Some years later I was starting a new magazine, AudioTechnology. For the premiere issue I had interviewed Rupert Neve about his latest product designs for AMEK, I had interviewed Stephen St Croix about his design work on Ensoniq’s PARIS DAW, and I had a chance to interview Billy Woodman about the latest version of the ATC monitors mentioned above: an active model called the SCM20A SL Pro, featuring ATC’s SLMM (Super Linear Magnetic Material) which had reduced driver distortion by an order of magnitude. I’d recently purchased a pair of these monitors and was impressed by their very low distortion figures, which were more akin to an amplifier than a speaker. Again, I went through a similar listening revelation as the one described above. Again, I wanted answers. Again, Billy delivered them with his characteristic blend of solid science, tests and measurements, and that subtle indignant disbelief that such things even needed explaining. Reflecting upon that first issue I realised that Rupert Neve, Stephen St Croix and Billy Woodman all had something in common: they were all audio equipment designers who had one foot firmly in the objective world of tests and measurements, the other foot firmly in the subjective world that things need to sound good, and an unquestionable understanding that great audio products stood solid in both worlds.
So how did Billy Woodman change my life? That first experience of reviewing the SCM20 monitors described earlier — and especially Billy’s reassuringly confident, forthright and straightforward answers — rekindled a passion I thought was completely killed off. I became very keen on getting a pair of high quality mics and an equally worthy recording system just to make recordings that benefitted from the quality of my ATC monitors. Thus began an entirely new career for me, specialising in minimalist two-mic direct-to-stereo recording of acoustic music. It started with community choirs in local halls, evolved to regularly recording the world’s finest touring chamber music artists in some of Australia’s finest venues, and ultimately took me to remote places in Asia and the Himalaya to record traditional music. I’m writing this from Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, where I regularly make forays to record the music of the surrounding hill tribes. I wonder where I’d be now if I’d said “No thanks” to Lesley Sly’s offer to review the ATC monitors and interview Billy Woodman?