Tim Prince on Manufacturing the 1176 Reissue
This month, we decided to look at the history of the 1176 as reissued by Universal Audio (roughly) ten years ago.I interviewed Tim Prince, who was the first Manufacturing Engineer for then-new company and helped bring the 1176 reissue to fruition.
How did you get involved with Universal Audio?
I got a phone call from Suz Howells, who I worked with at E-mu. The funny thing about it was, about six months before she called me, some friend of mine told me that there was a guy in town--in Santa Cruz--who was a tube guy. That he had something to do with tube preamps or something. And I was in the market, looking to buy some tube mic preamps for my studio. I spent a long time trying to figure out who this tube guy was, to no avail, so I forgot all about it. Then when I got the phone call, and talked to Suz, I realized that Bill Putnam was that guy I had been looking for.
Did you know who his father was? Did you know who he was?
No. I knew a lot about UREI. But I didn't know that Universal Audio was the same company. I wasn't really all that well versed in the history. I knew something about the 1176, I'd seen pictures of them, and seen them in studios. But it was a bit of a new thing for me, learning more about vintage gear, and particularly the UREI and Universal Audio lines.
What was your job at E-mu?
At E-mu I started out as a technician, about the time the Drumulator came on the market. Then I became a test supervisor, and then the production manager. I also spent some time as a manufacturing engineer.
You were there a long time.
Yeah, I was there for ten years. Prior to that ten-year stint, I worked at E-mu in the mid-'70s, when there were only five of us. That was because I went to high school with the two guys who started E-mu, Dave Rossum and Scott Wedge. So I spent a brief time, way back then, when we were hand building walnut-cabinet synthesizers.
So you got this phone call from Suz, and then you got together with her and Bill?
Yeah. I think Suz just made the introduction. I met Bill first at his home, and we just took a walk around his Seabright neighborhood. I'm trying to remember if we went down to the pub or not. [Laughs.] But yeah, it was fun. We just walked the streets in this beautiful neighborhood, and just talked a lot about audio gear, and my experience. We both were pretty excited about the potential, and what we could do together, to help the company grow.
When you started working with him, was it in his basement, or his garage?
Yeah. I was actually in the basement with Bill. Hmm… and who else was there then?
"I think the 1176 is just such an incredible tool. It's almost like a musical instrument to me, like the kind of feeling you have for a beautiful guitar, or a saxophone."
Dave Crane was in the garage. And Dave Berners was kind of in the garage, and sometimes he'd be in the basement with us. And Susie, Susan Webster, came on at one point when we were down there. And Erica. So we had a bit of growth there. It was pretty interesting, because it was just a basement--and had very low ceilings, and being almost 6'5", it was intimidating [laughs] to have the ceiling always an inch from my head.
Did Bill already have the concept for doing a reissue of the 1176?
Yeah. At that time, the main focus was Kind of Loud, and the software products, but in parallel--it was really two companies. We were developing the vintage products, and at that time, the LA-2A was really the first product. It was being built turnkey back east. So one of my first jobs was to work with the engineer who was developing the 1176 reissue … which was pretty interesting. His name was Wayne Stade. We spent a lot of time--mostly Wayne's engineering chops--figuring out which of the actual components, electronic circuits on the board, still behaved the way they behaved thirty years ago. He discovered that the key transistor, that had a lot to do with the way the 1176 would ride the gain, had actually changed character. In other words, the same part number that was used in the originals no longer behaved the way it did. That was a really key discovery that he made. He was really diligent in analyzing the characteristics of the components. I think that had a lot to do with the success of the 1176 actually behaving like the original did.
How did you track down all the parts? I've heard that some of them were the original suppliers. Was that hard work?
Yeah. And again, I give credit to Wayne, the electronics engineer, who did a lot of that work. Not only did he find these parts, but he analyzed them in the original products, and vintage products. So he would take out what was there, in an original, and substitute in what he had found to be the replacement. And if it didn't work, he would keep looking for something that had the same characteristics. And in many cases, parts were not available, so he would have to analyze the parts, and I think at some point Dave Berners was also key in analyzing the characteristics of transformers. So we would work with manufacturers, and give them an original, if they were no longer available, and tell them, "We need to recreate this." So I think the answer is, it was just a lot of hard work, and patience.
How long did it take to finally get a finished unit from the time you started?
I would say a good year was spent in just analyzing vintage units, listening tests, prototyping the current reissue, in terms of validating all the components. Then we probably spent a good six months doing what we called the manufacturing hand-off, once the engineering phase is done. Doing a reissue in some respects is easier than creating a new product, because the schematic is already there and you have prototypes by looking at the old, vintage units. But it's actually harder in many respects, because when you create a brand-new product, there's no benchmark, you're free to have any features you want, you can make it look like whatever you want. So on one hand, people can say, "Well, they just copied that. It should have been easy." But on the other hand, it was extremely difficult, because we wanted it to be a true reissue, even down to the colors of the circuit board, in trying to match the shade of black on the anodized front panel. Let alone finding all these transformers, and creating ones that behaved just like a vintage unit. That's an interesting part of the reissue game. You start off with a lot done for you, but because you have to be true to what you're doing, it's actually extremely difficult, and time consuming.
Getting back to the whole issue of bringing the product to the market, which is really where my expertise and my background is, we started out by outsourcing as much as we could. There was a company in Santa Cruz, Dallas Electronics, who incidentally I had worked with at E-mu twenty-five years ago. It's also a real family company, the same people own it and run it, and even some of the employees are the same, so it was really fun to be in the community in Santa Cruz, in the music community, and the electronic music manufacturing community, and still be working with the same people. Anyway, Dallas was really, really helpful as more or less a turnkey operation. They would stuff the circuit boards, solder them, even build all the cables, and final assembly. Then we would test them in the basement. In the beginning, I had about ten hats on. I was ordering the parts, working with Dallas, testing the circuit boards, troubleshooting them, and doing final assembly. As the months went by, we just started doing more and more ourselves to the point where finally Dallas would just stuff the circuit boards, which as you probably know is common in the electronics industry. Everything else, we brought in house.
Did you have a big party when you shipped the first unit?
We had big parties all the time! But I don't know if we should talk about that … [Laughs.]
Was it satisfying, when you shipped the first unit?
I think the 1176 is just such an incredible tool. It's almost like a musical instrument to me, like the kind of feeling you have for a beautiful guitar, or a saxophone. I don't want to get all mushy, but I was just using it last night--I use it all the time. The 1176 is Tom Petty's vocals. There's this guy Steve Earle, that's sort of an Americana guy, he actually takes two on the road, one for his drummer's snare drum, and one for his voice. It's probably the greatest compressor ever for bass guitars. The thing about an 1176 is the range of adjustment for attack and release time is not real great. In other words, it's kind of limited, compared to others. Which means that as you turn that knob, a full clock face, it's more of a fine tune. Does that make sense? So what that means is, you can really fine tune just how quickly the compressor lets go of its attenuation. As soon as you take a note and turn it down, it's the way you turn the volume back up, how quickly, and what's the nature of that motion. I always explain compressors to people by saying, "Imagine there's a little person in this box, and he is going to take care of your volume. If you play too soft, he will turn you up." And how quickly he turns the signal down and back up, that's the character of a compressor.