George Petersen on the TECnology Hall of Fame

November 19, 2008 11:23:11 AM PST
George Petersen & Bill Putnam, Jr.
George Petersen and UA CEO and founder Bill Putnam, Jr.

This month I got to interview one of my favorite people in the audio industry: George Petersen, Executive Editor of Mix Magazine. I spoke to George about one of his pet projects, the TECnology Hall of Fame. I recently had the honor of attending with Bill Putnam, Jr., the ceremony at which the 1176 was inducted. The TECnology Hall of Fame honors significant innovations that have changed the audio industry. The LA-2A was honored in 2005

Let's talk about the TECnology Hall of Fame.

I think the TECnology Hall of Fame is the coolest thing in the universe.

I loved that ceremony. I thought it was so wonderful and I learned so much. I loved the historical aspect, and that people's children were there to accept the awards. It was really meaningful and nice.

It's really neat. In the first place, history--and certainly recording history--doesn't have to be boring. There's a lot of really cool stuff where you think, "Oh, so that’s how that happened," and you realize how one thing leads to another. It was a great experience.

How did the TECnology Hall of Fame get started?

The TECnology Hall of Fame essentially sprung out of the TEC Awards. They started in 1985, to honor technology and innovation. For the 20th anniversary of the TEC Awards, we thought it would be cool if we did something special to look back at history. Things that were before the TEC Awards, and things that shaped the industry and made everything work. So we came up with this idea--we meaning mostly me [laughs]--I came up with this idea of doing this TECnology Hall of Fame, where we would honor the 125-year history of professional audio.

I didn't want to do it as a reader's poll, so I formed a committee of about 50 or 60 people that are really knowledgeable about audio history--journalists, historians, engineers, and producers … even some of the people who were actually there at the time. People that really had a sense for audio history and where it comes from. There are people in this industry these days that don't even understand that there was recording before analog tape. We used to joke that people thought electronic music started with MIDI.

I think there are a lot of people who think that. [Laughs.]

I would think that Mr. Theremin would disagree with them on that. It goes back to 1919. But anyway, there's this amazing legacy, and we wanted to celebrate that. So we formed this committee.

I always thought you were the committee.

No, [laughs] I'm not. Essentially what I do is send them a list of things that I think should probably be honored. I send them a list of about 150, 160 things, going back to the 1800s. Products in the TECnology Hall of Fame have to at least be 10 years old before they can be inducted. So I make a list, and I send it out to this committee. Then the committee can either pick things from the list or they can write things in. Sometimes the write-ins actually make it to the top, and if they don't, then they get added to the next year's list. So I'm constantly getting suggestions from other people. That’s how it works.

It all happens in about a week. Then I have a couple months to sort through and try to research these things, which is sometimes very difficult. It can be hard to verify sources, and who did what. In fact, a lot of the information that you get is passed on from one person to another, so sometimes it gets embellished along the way. Or somebody says, "Yeah, I did that," and you find out later, no, he didn't do that at all. It's a real exercise in unraveling mysteries for a lot of this stuff. At the same time--it's really sad, because some of this information is really just a hair's breadth away from being totally forgotten. How do you go back to a company that's been out of business for years to get information?

"I knew that he had created the Fairchild limiter, and supposedly had created it on Les Paul's dining-room table."

How do you find the proper person to accept the award?

Of course if the person's still alive, we give them the award directly, and if they’re not with us anymore we try to track down somebody's family, if there are survivors, or somebody who was instrumental in working at the company and knew them, who can accept it on their behalf. In a lot of cases, it's interesting, you find out that now, much later, they're working at some other company and you think, "Oh, I didn't know that." A lot of these people are still in the industry, you just didn't realize it-they could be in a different part of the industry.

Do you have any favorite moments?

Favorite moments … I don't know if this is really a "favorite" moment--more of a difficult moment, for me--was when one of the inductees was Bob Moog for creating the Minimoog. When the decision was being made to induct him into the TECnology Hall of Fame for the Minimoog, he was quite ill, but he was still alive. He passed on just a couple weeks before AES that year. I was very close to Bob Moog, and it was incredibly, incredibly difficult for me to just get up and try to keep composure within myself and talk about a person who was not only an industry legend, but somebody who I could actually call one of my friends.

He was such a nice guy, and gracious, and so humble.

Absolutely. He was just fabulous. But back to the question — I would say one of the most memorable moments for me was Rein Narma. He was the inventor of the Fairchild 670 limiter, which is really the absolute holy grail. These things go used for $20,000-$40,000 now. Being able to track him down--he's been out of the industry for years--and get him to attend was amazing to me. I was really touched by that. Not only that, but as I talked to Rein, I found out more about him. I knew that he had created the Fairchild limiter, and supposedly had created it on Les Paul's dining-room table. I thought, "Wow, that's something!"

When I talked to Les Paul about Rein Narma, he said, "Rein Narma! Oh! Rein Narma's just the greatest." So I asked, "What's the deal about him creating the Fairchild limiter on your dining-room table?" He says, "Well, it's not entirely true." So I said, "OK, well, give me the truth here, Les." It turns out that when Les Paul had Ampex build him an 8-track recorder to do his own multitracking--he worked with Ampex on developing the first 8-track recorder--once he had this recorder built, he realized that there were no consoles that could actually function with an 8-track recorder. He ran across this guy Rein Narma, who was a young guy that was just brilliant at electronics, and he said, "Hey Rein, you're a pretty smart guy, can you build me a console to work with my 8-track?" So Rein Narma actually built the first 8-track recording console for Les Paul … and it's still in Les Paul's house. I had no idea that Rein Narma was the guy who built this.

Then, after he built this console for Les Paul, Les said to him, "Hey, would you like to build me a limiter? A compressor/limiter?" Rein says, "Well, yeah, I know kind of how they work, so yeah, I could build one." So he makes this long list of parts, and tells Les to go off and buy all these parts, and he's sitting at Les Paul's dining-room table, building this thing. While he's in the middle of building it, this guy by the name of Sherman Fairchild drops over to Les' house--he was also a friend of Les'. Sherman is the man behind Fairchild instruments. So Sherman Fairchild meets this guy and asks, "What are you building?" He says, "I'm building this compressor." Sherman says, "Wow, I like the design here, this is really cool, why don't you come work for me, and we'll make these compressors, and I'll give you a job?" Of course Rein says, "Wow, what a great idea!" It was like they met on a Friday, and on Monday Rein left Les Paul's house and started working at Fairchild, building these Fairchild compressors. Interestingly enough, Les never did get his compressor built by Rein Narma … and Les still has that whole box of unfinished parts in his basement, with the front panels that he had made [laughs]--it's an amazing story.

Les really wanted to be there when Rein Narma received his TECnology Hall of Fame induction for creating the Fairchild limiter. So Les was there in the audience to cheer him on. And Rein brought his family. Rein and Les had not seen each other since 1972; they'd been completely out of touch. There they were, the two of them were just hugging each other and reminiscing about old times. It was a fabulous moment, very touching. So that is my most fabulous moment … and it's a great story.

I know it really meant a lot to Bill Putnam, Jr. I was really happy that I went to the ceremony with him.

I think it was the first year of the TECnology Hall of Fame that we inducted the LA-2A. I was really touched that Bill Putnam, Jr., came, and invited the family of Jim Lawrence. Jim was the actual inventor of the LA-2A, who actually designed the original units, which were later built under the auspices of Bill Putnam, Sr. I was really touched by that, that immediately Bill Putnam, Jr., says, "Well, we have to get Jim Lawrence’s family involved. I’ll help to get them involved." Unfortunately Jim Lawrence passed on a few years ago. But that was a fabulous moment.

Well, keep up the good work. … I’m really looking forward to next year's award!

— Marsha Vdovin