UA Founder Bill Putnam, Jr.
I realized this month that I’ve never interviewed Bill Putnam, Jr., for the Heritage column. I thought it might be interesting to hear more about his background and how he decided to resurrect his father’s company, Universal Audio.
When did you first become interested in music and audio? Did you play music as a kid?
Well, I was interested in music as early as I remember. I was always captivated by it, because I was always around it. I remember getting the opportunity to meet Duke Ellington when I was probably four years old. I actually still remember it. I used to go to a lot of jazz clubs with my dad around the L.A. area when I was, I don't know, twelve, thirteen. He was doing some projects, some live recordings of an L.A. jazz big band that was made up from a lot of alumni from the Basie band, the Frank Capp-Nat Pierce Juggernaut. They're still playing, Frank Capp's still around. I saw them a lot back then and got excited about big bands more than anything. He took me to see the Kenton band a lot, and various small groups formed by people from the Kenton band.
So I was interested in music way early on. Then I decided I wanted to try to play music. I think I was probably around sixteen or seventeen. Other than just dabbling at piano lessons, I really wanted to play trumpet. My mom took me down to see the trumpeter Cat Anderson at a local jazz club when I was eight or so. There used to be a lot of little local clubs around the Valley, a lot of good people coming through. Cat was one of the premier trumpet players for the Ellington band: He was the guy who hit all those high notes. He actually let me play his trumpet! That was something … although for whatever reason, I never followed up on trumpet, and just kind of did the piano lessons. And never really dug it — it just never got me going. I think it wasn't 'til I was about sixteen or seventeen that I picked the up guitar.
Where did you go to college?
Undergrad, I went to Cal State Northridge in physics.
Physics? How did that happen?
I always wanted to be a physicist. Actually, I really wanted to be an astrophysicist, I was really into astronomy, which was kind of my first thing. Even at that time, I'd already been working as a programmer, doing DSP projects, but I picked up all that on my own, kind of on the job. I worked for Dennis Fink, and learned a lot of DSP and computer stuff from him. So I was doing that professionally, and programming as a consultant and so on, but I was going to school in physics, and always wanted to do astrophysics, or some particle physics. But I really did enjoy engineering, probably even more than I enjoyed physics.
Finally, one day I moved up to Santa Cruz, thinking I wanted to go study astrophysics at the UC, and then suddenly thought, "Wait … why am I studying this thing that is cool, but not what I really, really like?” I realized engineering was something that I enjoyed so much more. So I decided to go to San Jose State and study electrical engineering. Then I shifted over to signal processing, like a last-minute decision, just like I switched from physics to engineering [laughs]. I got a masters in electrical engineering at San Jose State, and then I got accepted into the Ph.D. program at Stanford.
Did your father’s passing, when you were only 25, change you? Do you think that might have influenced your career choices?
I always knew what I wanted to do, so it didn't really change that aspect. It did get me thinking, "OK, now's the time. Let's finish up school, let's start working on the next degree, and move forward." So I think it did inspire me to decide to sit down and make plans for life. I think engineering was always what I was destined for, and what I wanted to do … but I did really enjoy studying physics.
"From the very beginning, the idea was that it isn't a battle of which one's better,
analog or digital — both need to be embraced in the studio going forward."
Tell me how you and your brother Jim decided to start the company.
I'd gone back to school, and studied signal processing. Electrical engineering's a big field, and the area I was most interested in was still signal processing. I ended up at CCRMA [Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, Stanford University]. The majority of the work at CCRMA was doing physical modeling of musical instruments. I was, at that time, less interested in that than I was interested in physical modeling of audio devices — gear used in audio recording. All the research going on was focused on how you look at the physics and the differential equations behind musical instruments and then how to create efficient digital models that recreate the behavior of a musical instrument … like all the work that Julian Smith did in physical modeling of guitars, violins. Other people there worked on trumpets and saxophones, actually modeling the physics of the instrument. I always thought, "Geez, no one's doing this for pieces of audio gear." I'd been around the audio world enough to know that there were certain pieces of gear that were almost mystical in how they achieved the sound that they achieved. People were saying you'd never be able to achieve this digitally, but I thought that those methods, the kind of work that was going on at Stanford, applied to the world of audio equipment would be a great area to make cool software that could introduce a lot of that essence into a digital era, retaining a lot of that quality of the analog gear. So I was thinking about that, and interested in that area, the whole time.
Meanwhile, Jim was doing a lot of great things. My dad had a TEAC 4-track, the 3340, that I had borrowed and was doing my own recording. Jim just asked, "Hey, can I borrow this for a weekend?" And during that weekend, he locked himself in his room with his guitar, saxophone, drums, and the tape machine. He came out with way better recordings than I'd done after trying for a year. So he clearly showed his talent as someone who could create and record music, and it just blossomed from there. He'd set up his studio, and he was producing his band's music and making really wonderful recordings, both solo and with a band. It was very much steeped in the world of analog technology, from the console, all the outboard gear, and so on. Whenever we'd get together, we'd talk about audio, analog equipment, and we'd be in these endless arguments about if you really could recreate it digitally. He was typically on the analog side of things, I was always "let's push it digitally."
I think the third thing that was going on at that time was that it was kind of in the middle of the whole dot-com bubble. Just about every other student at Stanford was dropping out to pursue business opportunities of various sorts. It was exciting to be around that — although there's a lot of both positive and negative to be said about that time in general. Being in Silicon Valley during that time, there was a lot of opportunity, a lot of excitement. I always knew I wanted to be involved in business, I just didn't know if I wanted to go into academia first. … I really liked teaching. I was already teaching digital signal processing at Stanford and really enjoyed that, but I always knew I wanted go into business as well. I was kind of sitting there, weighing in my mind, should I really spend most of my life doing business things and then finding ways to teach, or should I spend most of my life teaching and finding ways to do business on the side? I finally just made a conscious decision that I wanted to do business mainly, but would find ways to still be involved in the academic world and teaching.
So I started looking around and thinking of all sorts of business opportunities. One of the things that Jim and I talked about was recreating old analog equipment, both from an analog perspective of making equipment that isn't being made any more and from a digital perspective of making digital versions of the same gear. From the very beginning, the idea was that it isn't a battle of which one's better, analog or digital — both need to be embraced in the studio going forward. Analog could benefit from all the automation, and digital is great in terms of workflow but was at that time lacking in terms of quality of signal processing and so on. So digital recreations of analog gear, and making actual analog gear that fit into the niches of the digital studio seemed to make a lot of sense.
How did you actually start the company? You assembled a team of people?
How did I start? Well what I first did was actually … I had just gotten a laptop–and I had just hurt my back. [Laughs.] I was on a couch for a week, without being able to move. I was able to prop up the laptop, and I just started thinking about business plans. I had been reading books about business plans and had been going to some business classes at Stanford. I'd been going to seminars, and doing as much learning on that side of the world, which was not one of the things that I had ever studied or really thought much about. I'd really limited myself to the technical side, so I had been doing a crash course in MBA-type stuff on my own, as well as taking any classes that I could at Stanford. I spent that couple weeks thinking about the business plan, writing a business plan and thinking about how to research market size. Just doing what I could to try to put together projections, like how much it would cost to build things, and figuring out a lot of that stuff from scratch. I spent a lot of time doing that.
Then we talked long and hard about what our first product should be. We quickly realized that the 1176 made most sense, probably for the main reason that it was the product my dad was most proud of and it was also still a very sought-after piece of gear. So I started researching the 1176, and its history, and all that — also seeing what else was out there. Although some people had been trying to make versions of the 1176, and other vintage analog gear, they tended not to completely stick to the originals. I realized there was an opportunity for just doing it right, making it as absolutely close to the original as possible based on parts, and found we could get very, very close.
Then started what was a much longer process than I ever anticipated: developing the first prototype. It turned out to be much trickier than one would think, because it's actually a complicated design, largely due to its output stage, and the output transformer. Specifically how many windings that are on the transformer. To get that transformer on the output stage right took a very long time. It took well over a year, probably a year and a half, from when we first started working on that. So I hired a consultant at that time, Wayne Stade, to start that process with me. At the same time, I was doing the business side — finishing the business plan, shopping it around to get some funding, and then starting to look for people who were going to be part of the team. It started off slow and methodically, trying to nail the 1176, and by the time it was ready to ship, we had a team of five people. We had decided towards the end of that process that it was time to start looking at the other side, which was our goal was from the very get-go — the digital side. I started to work on the research that would lead to our physical modeling technology and the various technologies we use to do emulation of analog gear in the plug-in world.
What is your current role in the company?
You know, the team that's been assembled is so good, I have, for a while, not had to be involved in day-to-day stuff. I'm still very involved in product strategy, which is what I like the most, long-term product strategy, and business strategy. One of the reasons I wanted to start the company was because I wanted to do engineering, but I underestimated how much work it was to get a company off the ground on the business side. I found that I rarely — aside from coding the first couple of our plug-ins — got to do much of the development work or engineering that I wanted to do. Which turned out to be OK, because business is also a creative process, and is exciting for a lot of the same reasons … but it is very different. So these days I'm getting back to actually being able to do some engineering, and research in some areas that I think are interesting, but a little bit more far reaching — not necessarily things that'll become products in the next year or so. But I'm getting to work on that, on my own research projects.
Are you happy with the way it's all turned out?
UA? Tremendously. Every day I walk in, especially into our new building — like today, I gave a fellow a tour of the place — and every time I give a tour, I'm just stunned by what's going on. I'm still kind of in disbelief, the size of it, how professionally it's run, the quality, the people. The team is a dream team, just a great team… it's just amazing to see. So yeah, I am very thrilled with it.
And UAD-2 launch... ?
There's going to be a ton of surprises. It's going to be a great launch. I'm thrilled about the UAD-2. I really do think it's great. The technology is going to lead to a lot of even more amazing things in the future. It's so nice to see the culmination of years of effort.