Universal Audio: Our Story

Founded in 1958 by M.T. "Bill" Putnam Sr., the Universal Audio name and company have been synonymous with innovative recording products for more than 50 years. A favorite engineer of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles and more, the late Bill Putnam Sr. was a passionate innovator who is widely regarded as the father of modern recording  — with many of his legendary studio and equipment designs still in use today.

Specifically, Putnam was the inventor of the modern recording console, the multi-band audio equalizer, and the vocal booth, and he was the first engineer to use artificial reverberation in commercial recording. Alongside his friend Les Paul, Putnam was also involved in the early development of stereophonic recording.

Putnam, a natural entrepreneur, 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 ubiquitous LA-2A and 1176 compressors, and the 610 tube recording console. The 610 console in particular stands as one of the most beloved designs in audio history, used to record everyone from Sinatra to the Beach Boys to Van Halen I.

A lifelong music pioneer, Bill Putnam Sr. founded successful recording studios in Chicago, Hollywood, and San Francisco. These studios served as fertile creative ground for his numerous inventions and innovations, as well as fostering a new generation of influential producers and engineers. Of Putnam Sr.'s accomplishments, former colleague and famed engineer Bruce Swedien (Quincy Jones, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson) noted:

"Bill Putnam was the father of recording as we know it today. The processes and designs which we take for granted — the design of modern recording desks, the way components are laid out and the way they function, console design, cue sends, echo returns, multitrack switching — they all originated in Bill's imagination."

Putnam passed away in 1989. In 2000, he received a posthumous Technical Achievement Grammy award for his contribution to the music industry. (For more on Universal Audio's legendary founder Bill Putnam Sr., our friends at Mix Magazine have published a great article here: http://mixonline.com/recording/business/audio_bill_putnam_2/)

Re-founded in 1999

Universal Audio Inc. was re-founded in 1999 by Bill's sons, James Putnam and Bill Putnam Jr., with two main goals: to faithfully reproduce classic analog recording equipment in the tradition of their father; and to design new digital recording tools in with the sound and spirit of vintage analog technology. However, as Bill Jr. recounts the genesis of "UA, part 2," the full story is actually a bit more serendipitous.

Having grown up in the music industry, Bill Jr. and James ("Jim") Putnam naturally assumed that the music business is where they'd eventually end up. Jim, a touring musician and recording engineer, and their older brother Scott, a studio designer in Southern California, were the first to follow in Bill Sr.'s path. However, Bill Jr. took a more circuitous direction, working for a number of engineering companies before undertaking a doctorate in Electrical Engineering at Stanford University. It was at Stanford that Bill Jr. became closely involved in the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), specializing in signal processing. It was also at Stanford that Bill Jr. began to assemble a team of the best and brightest minds in the field — who continue to steer many of Universal Audio's engineering efforts to this day.

However, the precise event that led Bill and Jim to start (or "reinvent") Universal Audio in 1999 was unexpected. As Bill Jr. tells it, when Bill Sr. passed away in 1989, he and Jim were faced with the Herculean task of cleaning out their dad's workshop and storage areas. While going through Bill Sr.'s old test equipment, boxes of parts, bits and pieces of consoles, and half-cannibalized 1176 compressors, Jim came across their father’s old design notebook. The two spent the evening poring over his notes, realizing that this was the map to every technical problem their father had ever solved. It was at that moment that they decided to bring back Universal Audio and its classic products.

Fast forward a decade. Now with nearly 80 employees and legions of new customers worldwide, UA is headquartered near the Silicon Valley, in Scotts Valley, California — where our classic analog gear is still hand-built, one unit at a time. The lengths we go to deliver the exact sound and performance of classic analog audio gear is unparalleled; in fact, the goal is for UA's modern units perform identically to well-maintianed units built decades ago.

Of course, analog is only half the story. At Universal Audio, we employ the world's brightest DSP engineers and digital modeling authorities to develop our award-winning UAD Powered Plug-Ins platform, featuring the most authentic analog emulation plug-ins in the industry. Our DSP gurus work with the original hardware manufacturers — using their exact schematics, golden units, and experienced ears — to give UAD plug-ins warmth and harmonics in all the right places, just like analog.

Software or hardware, every UA product is backed by a 50-year legacy of innovation, superlative quality, and technical passion.

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