The Soul Power Behind Burl Audio
How has Burl done it? How did they build one of the world's greatest gifts to creating music? If you ask Rich Williams, it's all about "soul power." We caught up with Rich, along with Product Specialist Will Kahn and Marketing Coordinator Bristin Millard, to talk about the company's history, their digs at Burly Acres and the impact that a great converter can have on a studio space. Read on to discover the magic and soul power that has given birth to one of the best companies in pro audio today.
Talk a little about how you got started in this industry, Rich.
Rich Williams: I have a degree in Computer Engineering, which is electrical engineering and computer science combined, from UC Santa Cruz. While I was there a lot of my friends were musicians and I was just pulled into the whole music scene in Santa Cruz. When I graduated from college, I worked over in Silicon Valley and I really didn’t like it, I didn’t like the culture and I didn’t like the people. I was working at a company that made video processors and I was the lone audio hardware engineer. It was cool because I got a lot of great industry experience, but I was also really unhappy and it wasn’t what I wanted to do.
So I went to a really good school in the Bay Area, the California Recording Institute which was at the Music Annex in Menlo Park, and that’s where I learned how to record. We had Neve consoles and Studers and it was amazing. When you recorded a band in the evening, over three or four hours, you’d have three or four songs that sounded pretty much done. From there, my Silicon Valley job came to a head and I ended up leaving there and starting a recording studio called Paradise Recording. I had Paradise for about five years and the property where the studio was located was sold. While I was looking for a new studio space, I happened to walk into Universal Audio, handed them my resume and got hired on the spot.
How did your experience at UA shape what would become Burl Audio?
RW: I got a job that was based on turning the UAD1 card into an interface through optical link-up. Then after that, we were going to make the 6176 have a digital output, but that turned out to be too involved, so that’s how we spun off to the 2192. I was then allowed to create the best A/D and D/A converter that I could to compliment to the 6176. While I was at UA, I was just doing audio designs like everyone else at the time and using integrated circuit op-amps. If it did its job, it was done. So, when I was working on the 2192, I was encouraged by the analog designer John Henson to use a transistor design, instead of integrated circuit op-amps. I compared it to all of the other integrated circuit op-amps out there and the discrete circuit blew everything away, night and day. That was the “Hallelujah” moment. At that point, the best recordings were still done with analog boards and tapes, but with the 2192, I was like, “Wow, we’re actually getting somewhere.”
So we started getting rave, rave reviews. Mix Magazine came back and gave us a rave review about it. I was like, “Holy shit. This is a huge honor.” It felt good to be working at UA and coming out with a hit product. When you look at studios, you look at 1176, that was designed in 1967 and it’s still in use today. That’s the threshold of what I was trying to do, I was trying to design something like that, which would still be in use 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years later. So, UA didn’t want to do a multi-channel 2192, which was shocking to a lot of people in the company and outside the company. It just got shot down and with it, so did I basically.
RW: In the back of my mind, I always thought if this doesn’t work out, I’m going to start my own company. The times had changed. Back in the 90s, you couldn’t do that, you needed a special computer and a big staff. Now, years later, all you needed was a PC, the software and you could start designing. I, along with my design partner Kevin Colomby, started Burl Audio in 2006 and it was the greatest feeling in the world. Now I could finally design whatever I wanted, no holds barred, without any constraints from the executives of the company. I was the executive of the company. I could do whatever the hell I wanted and I set out to design the best goddamn thing I could come up with.
There are a million ways to skin a cat when it comes to audio, but if you want it to stick, you have to listen to the electronics over and over again. You go back, over and over and over again, and refine the design until it sounds the best you can get it to sound. I could never get guitars to sound right, it sounded pretty good with the 2192, and the dream was to have the multi-channel, but I was never satisfied with heavy guitar. It still sounded better on tape. One day, I just tried a transformer in the circuit path and I’m like, “Holy shit. That’s it!” That was the magic juju for tracking. I went through lots of iterations with transformers until I got it right. It’s never 100% perfect, but it came out really good.
When you do something like this you never know how it’s going to be received and I knew the transformer on the front-end was going to cause a huge controversy and it did. Immediately on Gearslutz, it just set off this explosion of people who never had heard the B2 Bomber ADC, but just theorized on how it wasn’t going to sound right. Well, over time, all of those people have been proved wrong.
Explain the significant impact an amazing converter like the Mothership can have on a studio.
RW:Well, I can’t tell you what other converters add to a studio, but Burl converters add soul power. That’s the thing I push. Music is intangible, it’s non-linear and, in the very end, the listener who puts on the record, pops in the CD or, God forbid, listens to the mp3, that’s the final word right there. We don’t give the average person credit for knowing what sounds good, but your average listener does know what good sound is and so does your average band. At Burl Audio, we’re not just trying to make the engineer or the producer happy, we’re trying to make the end listener and the musician happy. They’ll be much happier, much quicker, using Burl instead of anybody else. I can guarantee that without any hesitation.
Will Kahn: I started in digital myself and there is such a big difference when something sounds right. Justin Niebank is a really great example. He said something about the Mothership to the effect of that when he has a band in, by the time they come back to listen to what they just recorded that it has to knock their socks off. They have to say, “I can’t believe that’s me.” It sounds so good and they have just been blown away. He says Burl stuff is a really big part of that because he doesn’t have to fix it. Converters aren't often built with the analog sound quality in mind. It’s more of a digital device and the people who design them, I assume, are either not recording engineers or limited by a corporation that is giving them a price point or other limiting factors. Sound quality is not first. A bad converter can make you scratch your head and say, “How am I going to make this sound good?” after you record it. On the other hand, the Mothership, you hear it back and it’s just gorgeous.
What’s changed at Burl with the massive success of the Mothership?
RW:In the very beginning, it was just me full-time and Kevin part-time, and I basically took a vow of poverty. I had very little income and just really scraped by. If I went to a trade show, I slept on the floor, and that’s if I could afford to go to a trade show. Before the Mothership, when I had the B1 and B2s, I had a little bit of income to eat, but the Mothership made the company. It’s been such a far and away success that the ability to hire and grow the company has been completely based on that. From 2011 until today, we’ve had employees, and from 2006 to 2011, it was just me, that’s it.
Is this how you envisioned Burl? What’s it like working with the team now?
RW: When I started Burl, I didn’t know where this would take me, but it felt like something I just had to do. I knew had design ideas that other companies weren’t capitalizing on. I didn’t have a vision of how it would grow, but I like where we’re at. We’re very small and tight, but I would like to see us grow a little more.
Bristin Millard: We’re definitely like a big family up here.
WK: It’s true. One thing about Rich, even though he’s the brains behind the company, he always barbecues and cooks lunch for everyone. There’s definitely a good morale. There’s vinyl playing all the time and the barbecue is going. It definitely could be worse.
WK: When Rich first got the Mothership working in May 2011, he booked a tour that went Hollywood, Nashville, New York, London, Paris, Moscow, Istanbul and some more in Europe. He was in Paris and literally on a barge in the Seine River, he’s starting to feel better because he had pneumonia when he left and it’s his first day off he’s had in a long time. He says to Ramine (Parsivand of Floating Point Audio), “This is the first time in five years that I’ve felt this relaxed.”
Meanwhile, back in Santa Cruz, we shared a building with a screen print shop and they caught a fire. We had a really phenomenal party the night before with 150 people, kegs of beer and recording live to two-track. The next day I was cleaning up and I was between the hallway of the control room and the mixing room and it’s just filled with smoke. I run outside and the far end of the building is up in flames.
What ended up happening was that Rich got insurance money from that, they paid him out on all of his losses and he bought a piece of property, two and a half acres, which we now call Burly Acres. There’s a 4000 square-foot barn and basically, once the house is fully remodeled, we’ll be building our actual studio in the barn.
A lot of people in our industry ascribe a “laidback” vibe to Burl, would you say that’s pretty fitting?
BM: I’m from upstate New York and I moved to Santa Cruz like three years ago just for a change. Rich came into my old job and didn’t think I belonged there and offered me a job and rescued me from the grips of corporate. I guess if we’re talking corporate vs. non-corporate, it’s a lot better than that type of job.
WK: I was getting in my car to come to work today and my neighbor was like, “Hey, looks like you’re going on vacation.” And it was just like, “Nope, I’m just going into work today.” I’m in flip flops, shorts and a hat. I think that we do have a very laidback attitude in a lot of ways, but the kind of work that Rich did in the design of the Mothership was seriously hardcore. We take this really seriously.
What makes Burl different than any other pro audio company?
RW: The soul power and the mojo, I can’t emphasize that enough. A lot of companies are approaching this from a digital standpoint. They’re computer engineers or software engineers and don’t sympathize with the musician, the recording engineer and what it takes to get good sound in the digital domain. That’s what we want to do, we want to help people get there faster.
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