Name Behind the Name: Bill Putnam Jr. – Universal Audio
Name one person who’s serious about pro audio who hasn’t heard of the 1176. Anybody…? Yep, I thought so.
It must seem peculiar to older audio engineers to see the number of brands from bygone eras resuscitated in the 21st century. There are so many iconic names reappearing in the marketplace from the heady days of the hula hoop and Sputnik that you might be forgiven for thinking this is 1957, not 2007. And if you believe that every plug-in on the market which claims to be the ‘second cousin twice removed’ of one of these original designs actually has something in common with the gear beyond the faceplate, then you probably believe (as many did in Britain in 1957) that spaghetti grows on trees. Names like Pultec, Telefunken, Neve, Fairchild and EMI – to name a few – are back with a vengeance and proving popular amongst a generation of audio folk who’ve been all but starved of overtones, (good) harmonic distortion, transformers and tape saturation.
Many engineers now lean romantically towards glowing amber VUs like plants towards sunlight. But VUs don’t always denote quality – they never did. Regardless, people are gobbling up ‘retro’ gear for a complex combination of reasons, the dominant of which is still (hopefully) the search for the aural colours and textures that have arguably been endangered by mass production lines and profiteering. There are also myriad other reasons: some are convinced by the mythical stories of recording sessions involving particular valve equipment – often simplistically recounted ad nauseum by marketing departments that thankfully don’t also write history books – while others are convinced that ‘vintage’ equipment will improve their ability to record, mix and produce music on par with ‘classic’ recordings from the past. Some people even develop ‘friendships’ with retro gear, describing it as ‘sexy’ and ‘desirable’. I know I do… I say it all the time!
The wave of popularity vintage gear has ridden in recent years has lead to an unexpected phenomenon. Companies are now falling over one another like stampeding blind men to corner a slice of the market, regardless of whether they’re steeped in ‘old timey’ design or not. It’s even got to the point now where there are – in at least one case – several companies claiming heredity over a single brand name, causing even the most naïve consumer to grow cynical.
There are lots of companies riding this ‘retro wave’ but most of them are either ‘hanging out wide’ on their 10-foot guns only pretending to be ‘living the lifestyle’, or under the water poised to attack the hapless but well-intentioned newbie. There’s one company, however, whose ‘stable of classics’ is comprised of some truly legendary products, most notably the UREI 1176LN and Teletronix LA-2A – what’s more, they even make credible digital recreations of them.
The company is of course Universal Audio, and its owner is the son of one of the most well known American sound engineers and audio equipment designers of all time, Bill Putnam.
Bill Putnam Jr. is by name and heredity the man charged with preserving his father’s substantial legacy and driving American pro audio equipment design and manufacture into the 21st century. I caught up with Bill – and several other members of the staff – in Santa Cruz recently and quickly discovered that there’s far more to this company than a penchant for Bakelite knobs.
Andy Stewart: Bill, can we start by talking about what makes the ‘modern’ Universal Audio tick? Presumably the aims of the company today aren’t the same as they were when your father started back in the ’40s, given that analogue gear is often used more as a ‘spice’ these days than a main ingredient…
Bill Putnam Jr: I’m glad you asked that because it’s something I love to think about. I can’t say I have a definitive answer but I love to bring this very thing up as a point of conversation with people. I think there are a couple of potential answers to it. The real point of analogue gear right now is to use it as a colour – after all, ‘sanitary’, ‘clean’ and ‘static’ is easy to find elsewhere. The question is, ‘what’s the goal and why do we like this vintage stuff so much?’ In some objective sense it isn’t any better or more musical than a very ‘clean’ thing and some people certainly argue that ‘clean’ is preferable.
I remember when one of my engineers first started working here, he couldn’t believe I wanted our preamps and compressors to be anything other than a ‘wire with gain’. His assertion was: ‘I do my best to make something that’s transparent; it should just sound like a wire, have no sound as such. And I’m like, ‘Well, no, there’s musicality to this old stuff and I don’t want you to ‘fix’ it’. To me there’s something fundamentally important about the way these devices distort; the non-linearities they produce are very ‘musical’… but that’s just my opinion. You could just as easily argue that these characteristics are simply what we’ve grown accustomed to. Sure, you might like the sound of an 1176 on snare – but this preference might simply be because you grew up listening to that sound on so many Zeppelin albums. So, is it what we’ve gotten used to or is it a little bit of both?
AS: Well, presumably it’s both. The gear wouldn’t have developed cult status if it hadn’t been intrinsically good. Outboard gear like the 1176 has only become iconic because over decades it’s proven itself on countless occasions to work and sound great.
BP: Yeah, I agree. And importantly, the people who were designing the equipment – including my father – were designing it with music in mind and that’s what made some of it so good. My dad was into specs too, of course – I remember watching him run frequency response curves and looking at the square waves on an oscilloscope all the time – but at the end of the day, it was listening, ears and music that mattered most. Putting a sine wave through a piece of gear and looking at it on an oscilloscope is all very well but that’s not what we use these things for. They’re supposed to make music.
The most humbling aspect of being in this industry is that it’s really the music that matters, not all this gear stuff that we geek out on all the time. I’m a gear geek and I love technology, but at the end of the day the only reason I’m doing this is because I’m not a very good musician, and this is compensation! It’s all about the music that goes through the gear. People who’ve designed great stuff with gear – like my dad, like George Massenberg – have understood this. Critically they have both been users of their own gear.
AS: Presumably you’re in the perfect position then to assert that what makes gear great isn’t always something you could measure on a spectrum analyser, and that ‘good’ isn’t necessarily expected to equate to the highest ‘spec’.
BP: I think what’s important today is to make gear that can broaden a person’s sonic palette. And it amazes me still when people ask, ‘should I buy your pre or should I buy a Manly pre?’ because there’s effectively no answer to that question. I always answer with: ‘What are you buying it for? What are you going to do with it? What mics are you using?’ Listening is the only way to find out what works and, frankly, there’s no such thing as ‘better’ on a philosophical level. You can’t answer that in this business, right?
Putting a sine wave through a piece of gear and looking at it on an oscilloscope is all very well but that’s not what we use these things for. They’re supposed to make music.
I’m a gear geek and I love technology, but at the end of the day the only reason I’m doing this is because I’m not a very good musician, and this is compensation!
THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE MUSICAL
AS: There’s often a gulf between what a designer perceives to be ‘good’ and what musicians and mix engineers want. In terms of Universal Audio gear, do you just ad lib this philosophy?
BP: Well, I think the philosophy’s changed a little bit from when we first relaunched Universal Audio. When UA first began in its modern form my brother and I talked a lot about its design principles. My brother and I are quite different: he’s very much an analogue soul – he owns an API console, loves outboard gear and analogue tape, and he’s also a very good musician and songwriter. I, on the other hand, have always been an avid listener and more technically minded.
I studied physics and electrical engineering at grad school and focused mainly on digital signal processing, and I always knew I wanted to apply that learning to audio and acoustics. So it was really through our differences that we recognised the potential for the company to embrace both design philosophies: digital and analogue. In the end we concluded that there’s no right and wrong to any of this. So we combined the two camps together.
AS: My impression previously was that UA was principally an analogue company with a digital arm tacked onto it – coming here it’s obvious that this isn’t the case.
BP: Well, from day one we realised we were going to develop digital and analogue gear in equal measure. And let me tell you, it was a challenge to get those original analogue designs to market in a very pure, great-sounding form. As you know, people have done analogue recreations of these ‘classics’ before, but they’ve always fallen into the trap – as we did ourselves initially – of trying to make them ‘better’. You know, one of us would say: ‘Oh, I can make this design better by changing that resistor,’ or ‘there’s a problem with that meter circuit,’ or ‘I know how to make the 1176LN quieter.’ In that situation my brother used to just slap me (across the phone) and say: “Anything different is wrong!”. And he was right.
AS: But you obviously can’t apply that philosophy to UAD cards for instance…
BP: No, of course. And the digital gear is every bit as important to us as the analogue designs, so we really wanted to take the ‘soul’ of the analogue gear and somehow encode that digitally. With our other newer analogue designs we’ve also tried to take the essence of some of the original gear and expand on that heritage. But again, it all comes back to the palette – we have stuff like the 110 that can be very clean, and the 610, which has a very distinctive sound that’s great for some things and not right for others.
A BRIEF HISTORY LESSON
AS: Was there much of gap between the demise of the old UA and the birth of the new one?
BP: There was definitely a gap. My dad started the original Universal Audio in the ’40s, which later turned into UREI in the late ’60s… around ’67 that was.
Then, in the early ’80s he sold UREI to Harman Electronics due mainly to health problems. He wanted to focus on family and those types of things – his priorities changed, I guess you’d say.
AS: Did you have much to do with your dad’s company back then?
BP: Yeah I did. I would hang around the studios, especially when people like Bing Crosby were coming in; I’d always want to go see that! But it was my older brother who really experienced the company during its heyday, during the ’60s when my dad was recording a lot of stuff. By the time my dad had me he’d already turned more into the business executive. He’d come in to record special acts but he wasn’t mixing a new act every night. He was very much focussed on design by then, which is what he loved as much as anything.
I spent a lot of time with him in the lab working on speakers and power amps mainly. So my shared experiences with him were more of the technical side of his personality, less on seeing him behind the console. He actually built the test labs at our house so it was difficult to avoid really! We had a 45-foot trailer pulled into our front yard at one stage, which was equipped with a 30-foot scaffolding that hauled speakers up into the air to get them away from reflections so he could make free-space measurements. He wasn’t you’re average dad, that’s for sure!
AS: Does the modern incarnation of UA feel linked to the past in a visceral kind of way, given that most of the original ‘classics’ are often no longer used for the purpose they were originally intended?
BP: I think it does, but then it would be hard for it not to, I guess. You know what’s different though – and let me just be careful about how I say this – there’s a lot more attention to detail and scrutiny of products now than ever before. With computers being as powerful as they are today, you can analyse specifications to the ‘nth’ degree, far more so than I ever remember my dad doing. And I think this is primarily because the world has changed, and gear is used in so many different ways now. For instance, my dad would never have taken a distorted kick drum track and tucked it behind his ‘clean’ kick drum; he probably never even dreamt of doing that! But we can do that sort of thing now; it’s an extra tool in our production palette. But because there’s so much gear in the world now, so much technology and so much capacity for mangling a sound, you can get lost in the gear, lost in the manuals and forget about the music. It’s easy to obsess over this stuff and sometimes it’s hard to know where to stop.
So I think, in that sense, the company feels different but it’s mainly because the world we live in is different. I certainly don’t think my father cared any less about the equipment – au contraire. What has changed is that his designs are used today in ways he probably never thought possible.
An Interview with UAD plug-in developer,
Dave Berners is one of the ‘minds’ of Universal Audio; a quietly spoken, subtly humorous guy with a brain the size of a planet, you might say. Dave studied electrical engineering at MIT, did his masters degree at California Tech and his PhD at Stanford. He’s now building plug-ins for UA by day while lecturing in electronic engineering at Stanford by night. Dave has worked on the UAD software since the company’s rebirth – along with Jonathan Abel, (who was Dave’s lecturer at one point, as well as one of the co-owners of UA up until a few months ago, and a digital mastermind himself). Dave seems to keep his own hours, often working back late crunching numbers just for fun. It was during one of these evenings that Dave and I had a chat about how plug-in ‘emulations’ actually work and miraculously there was the odd sentence I understood! I started on the front foot by asking Dave if the UA plugs did anything more than just emulate the faceplates of classic gear…
Dave Berners: Yes they do.
Andy Stewart: So how do you digitally emulate, for instance, something like the Neve 33609 compressor, which presumably has so many non-linear characteristics as to be almost chaotic? Now given that I won’t understand a word of your response I guess I should just leave the room!
DB: Oh gosh, there’s a lot of different ways to look at it. To begin with, I’d contest that the 33609 is predictable in the sense that we can model it and get our model to do the same thing that the real unit does, so in that sense it’s totally predictable. It’s just that it’s not linear. By that I mean, if you put two identical input signals through the compressor at different volumes, and the threshold setting of the compressor acts upon the louder of the two signals, the two outputs won’t correspond in volume or character. That’s a non-linear system.
AS: Hang on, I think I understood part of that… so by that definition any compressor is non-linear?
DB: Yeah, well, yes and no… actually I’d have to say ‘yes’ to that question. Compression itself is a non-linear effect, in that, presumably, you have a threshold for when the compression starts, otherwise it’s not a compressor! What this means is that if your signal’s under the threshold, you don’t get any compression, whereas if the signal’s above the threshold, you do. So that in itself is fundamentally non-linear. But if you strip off the dynamics behaviour for a moment and, for the sake of argument, make the attack and release so slow that they can hardly do anything, in that scenario there’s a possibility for what I call ‘audio path non-linearities’. Which means that, even when the compressor isn’t really trying to do anything, you’re still getting some sort of distortion, saturation or clipping.
AS: …based on, for instance, a different gain structure if nothing else… just running a hotter signal through the unit you mean?
DB: Right. And so depending on how the thing’s designed, that can either be significant or insignificant. And to that extent there are a lot of technologies that are basically linear until they clip – the perfect example of this might be a digital recorder. In equipment like that, people aren’t usually pleased by that type of distortion. If they hear clipping they back off a little. And so if I wanted to model something like that – unless it’s a piece of gear that always used to clip things – I wouldn’t implement that because it would massively increase the cost of designing the plug-in for no practical application. But when there’s gradual saturation, or ‘warmth’ as people like to call it – as is the case with the 33609 – of somewhere between two and eight percent total harmonic distortion (which is a healthy amount), I put that in. When something’s non-linear, you could do all the listening tests in the world and someone could later come up with a different signal and something unpredictable could happen.
AS: This is where I find emulations puzzling. How do you possibly predict the endless array of input sources? Surely that’s impossible.
DB: Well even though these devices might appear to be chaotic, they aren’t actually chaotic at all. A 33609 compressor, for example, is very complicated but it’s also very rigidly defined and none of the outputs are random in any way. If you didn’t know what components were in the original device, but instead had to guess what made up the circuit by simply looking at the output signals, then sure, you’d have a really hard task because the device is so complex that it appears to be chaotic.
That’s why we’re so comfortable with our method of modelling these things at UA, because we don’t just look at inputs and try to extrapolate from that what the outputs might be to some unknown input because we don’t (and can’t possibly) know that. We simply cannot determine what’s in there by doing measurements either. It’s impossible. It’s not just hard, it’s impossible! But if we make a model of the behaviour based on what we know to be inside the hardware unit, then it’s a totally different situation and way more predictable.
AS: So what you’re saying is that you model circuits and components, rather than guessing outcomes based on unknowable inputs, is that correct? The software is like a digital emulation of the circuit itself.
DB: Exactly. For example, if there’s a diode bridge in a device that creates distortion – because of the fact that we know how diodes work – we have real physics models for what happens within a diode, so we don’t have to just put in a signal and look at what comes out and then guess what the diode is doing, we know what the diode is doing. Based on that, we can come up with a set of specialised inputs and characterise the behaviour. In other words, we know the entire class of behaviours that a diode can exhibit. We know the physical model for that device’s behaviour. But if we didn’t know what that component was, we’d be helpless.
So what we do is we analyse every component that’s inside a device and model everything that could possibly have any relevant effect.
AS: … too easy!