Make Your Mark With Bill Putnam Jr. of Universal Audio
"Bing Crosby asked him to come back and record what ended up being Bing’s last session," Bill Putnam Jr. says. "I remember my dad showing me a letter from him that said, 'Hey, do you think you can come out of retirement and record and mix one last album?' My dad sent him back a letter that he showed me as well and he said, 'Well if you think you can sing, I think I can mix.'”
While Bill Sr. would go onto create some of the most significant studio innovations of the modern era, including the LA-2A, 1176 and the 610 tube recording console, he eventually sold Universal Audio. In 1999, Bill Putnam Jr. and his brother, James, revived the company and dedicated themselves to furthering the idea that analog and digital could co-exist in the studio setting. Since the brand's relaunch, the Putnam brothers have done just that and in the process have built Universal Audio into a pro audio giant.
In our latest Make Your Mark, Bill Putnam Jr. talks about his father's legacy, his first job matching transistors and how his love of technology led him to relaunch Universal Audio. Watch the mini-documentary below and continue reading for an expanded interview with Bill, where he talks about the struggle to perfect analog gear and the philosophy behind emulating those classic pieces of studio equipment in plug-in form.
Did growing up around the studio and your father's workshop make you want to follow in his foot steps?
Maybe 10 years ago, I was going through a bunch of old papers from probably elementary school. “What am I going to be when I grow up?” Mine was, “I want to be an electrical engineer and go to Stanford.” I veered away from that and there was a crucial point in my life where I was really questioning what I was going to do. I realized whatever I was going to do, it had to be related to music. It was super important. I tried to learn guitar. Luckily, I have skills other than my musicianship to rest on, but I knew that what I wanted to do was do something connected to music. Once I had that thought, I just couldn’t lose it. It was like a signal. I just had to pay attention to that.
Talk about restarting your dad’s company. What was the plan at the outset of the brand’s relaunch?
We had the genesis of a vision. My background is digital DSP, an electrical engineering degree at Stanford, which was really all math. The group I was in, CCRMA, focused on physical modeling of musical acoustics for the purpose of synthesis. I was interested, but not to spend a lifetime doing it. I was more interested in the portion of the industry I had seen through my dad; the studio, the outboard gear, the recording side. So I wanted to use my signal processing chops and get into some things that hadn’t been done.
My brother is all analog, so his studio at the time had tape and nothing digital in it. I think that clash at that time felt like opposites, but my vision was that they didn’t have to be and that they could augment each other. Anybody who was really serious about analog at that point thought it was crazy to make digital sound warm and have character and sound as good as their favorite analog gear. I just knew that didn’t have to be the case. Out of the opposition between me and my brother was the synthesis of the idea, "Let’s make digital sound every bit good as the analog we know and love."
In the early days, we started with the 1176 and the LA-2A, and we wanted exact copies. When I dropped out, I always intended to go back and, just like every engineer I’ve ever met, I underestimated how long it takes to do anything. I really thought I could spend a year, get the company humming, take time off from school and finish my degree, but during that year, Universal Audio started some other ventures, I had a kid, bought a house and I never went back to school. I really underestimated how much work it was going to be.
One of the first things we were up against was how hard it is to get analog right. Maybe I wasn’t thinking this consciously, but as someone who is so focused on DSP, I thought, “That’s the real stuff right there. We’ve known analog forever. That’s got to be easy. We’ve got to be able to understand what’s in there. It’s just a bunch of components.” The nuances of analog were really stunning and getting things like transformers exactly right took years. It took two years to get the transformers on the 1176 right for me.
When you started reproducing the old units, how did you go about proving they were right? Did you pass them out to people who had used the classic gear?
Definitely. The first bit was looking at it on the scope and I had found some of my dad’s old books and realized we were doing the exact same tests he was. He was taking Polaroids of square waves passed through the output to the transformers. It starts with test equipment and that gets you in the ballpark and then it's listening and then it’s getting it front of golden ears. It’s the same thing we do now with our plug-in development process. It starts with measurements. You can get close, but you never get everything. Then, internal sets of ear and then get it out to a wide range of folks.
How did you end up moving from recreating classics to developing new gear like the Apollo?
From day one, I had a vision that I wanted to do digital versions of analog classics. We started out dipping our toe into analog gear. I felt we couldn’t really do it justice unless we knew it inside and out. We learned so much and the work to get the analog right has really informed the digital and vice versa. That led to the UAD product line and pretty much when we started UAD-1, the vision for Apollo was something that I had already and wanted to do, but I realized each of the steps that we’ve made we’re so challenging and it was all about getting the sequencing right. The UAD-1 was a big challenge for a small company, UAD-2 was a big challenge again considering our size and resources and Apollo was huge once we finally got to it.
The first time I sat down with Dr. Dave Berners, who is our Chief Scientist and was in school with me over at Stanford, we sat down with a bunch of schematics at the table. It was the 1176, it was the LA-2A and the dbx 160, and I said, “Do you think we can get down to a set of equations that we can run in real-time?” We spent an hour or two and thought we could definitely do it. I don’t think we started in earnest and tried to figure it out then, but when he started we needed some general knowledge first. We went with trying to model transformers and tubes, a bunch of the underlying components. So we spent maybe about a year investing time on the underlying components and then I think we spent about another year and a half before the first emulation came out.
For those that might not know how you do such things, talk a little bit about the process of creating a model of a transformer, tube or larger piece of gear.
It goes back to physical modeling and this was pounded into me at Stanford. If you look at a trumpet or a compressor and you can say, "Here are all the characteristics that are important," and come up with a method to match Characteristic A and Characteristic B. Then someone says, “Well this is a little different,” and then you have to add on another layer.
Our approach is that you just want to model and if you model the thing correctly, it will just do everything right. Even stuff that you haven’t tried out yet, it should just do the right thing. So our goal is to get an underlying model, and by that I mean a mathematical description of what’s going on and have that be as close as possible or completely accurate. That really is our unified approach across the group to get the structure of the underlying model right.
You mentioned a transformer, that was a particularly hard one because there is just a lot of physics going on. There is the core, the saturation, the hysteresis, but these have been well studied by physicists and so you can actually write down those equations. Trick one is learning how to write down the equations. That means knowing physics, electrical engineering and how to describe the various components mathematically. That’s the first half of step one, the second half is understanding all the interesting stuff like the saturation on a Neve and those are the things that kind of deviate from the textbook. You have to adapt and extend the models to deal with those unique cases that only us audio folks care about like how something saturates. A lot of audio engineers in different disciplines would think, “Well just don’t saturate it,” but that’s what gets the interesting sonics that made that piece of music sound so awesome.
That’s just the first part than you have to get it to run in real-time and process an audio signal. A lot of the equations that you use to create the functions of a transformer just can’t keep up, so we have to simplify the equations and make approximations. This is where it becomes an art. There are lots of ways to simplify, hack out, or get rid of a behavior, but you have to do that and not change the sonics. This is where the listening comes in, a gut feel and the art of simplifying without affecting the sound quality.
The Ocean Way rooms did some really interesting things with modeling acoustic spaces. It’s different from the circuit type of modeling that most of our products have been, but that was a favorite for me because I got to work on it with Allen Sides at Ocean Way. It took quite a long time, way more than we ever thought, and I actually voiced every single, not just preset, but response, with Allen in his studio. I did a lot I hadn’t done before.
When it was released, I got this call from Allen saying, “I was just thinking about this and I just realized how cool it was. Your dad designed this room back in the 60s, I spent more time in that room with my mic collection and know exactly where the best place to mic drums are or where the best place to put a choir is and then you learned how to emulate those acoustics in a plug-in form that captured it as much as possible. It’s like you, me and your dad had all collaborated on a single product.” It was really an amazing experience to realize that.
The other side of it was that my dad was really passionate about producing artificial reverb and artificial delay. That was something that the technology during his time wasn’t anywhere near what we could do now and he was just driven to create artificial spaces ever since he was piping sound into the stairwells and bathrooms at the opera building in Chicago. He was always looking for ways to create spaces. He always had a passion for that.
Where do you see Universal Audio going in the future?
We still haven’t finished the original vision. Every year we get better at emulating analog gear, but we aren't done by any means. Just on the technical side of it, we’ve been doing plug-ins for over ten years and we know stuff now that we didn’t know then and we know stuff now that we didn’t know last year. That’s incredibly fun. We brought this out to our customers as our plus plug-ins; when we now how to do something better, we’ll go back and do it and rerelease it. There’s still a lot to do there.
Over the last couple of years, we announced Unison, which is a hybrid analog/digital technology with a goal of making a digital piece of gear appear to the outside world as its analog counterpart would have. That means letting a microphone see the correct input impedance and it might be different in a Neve or API pre or UA-610 or something like that. That’s a really interesting place for me to have the input circuitry and use our combined analog/digital technology and making products that blur the distinction. If we do our job right, no one should know, the piece of equipment should just do the right thing. There’s still way more interesting things to do there.