UA Heritage: An Interview With Bill Putnam, Sr.
Part Two of Three--Adventures in Recording!
By Larry Blakely
Reprinted with permission from the pages of Mix magazine.
Bill Putnam's recount of his pioneering years in the recording industry, continued from. . .
"As my great loves were both music and electronics, I decided to go into the recording business. During the latter part of World War II, I was stationed in Los Angeles with the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS). I met Otto Hepp (who later joined Westrex) and purchased from him my first disk recorder, which was called the Universal lathe. It was belt driven and was a great piece of machinery, as was everything that Otto built.
"In 1946 I started my own recording studio, Universal Recording Corp., on Ridge Avenue in Evanston, Illinois. We had one small studio with an old Western Electric broadcast console and the lathe that I had purchased from Hepp. My original partners were Bernie Clapper and Bob Weber. Bernie and I were roommates at Valparaiso Technical Institute (VTI) and I met Bob during my civil service and military years. Our original capitalization was $20,000, most of which I had borrowed from my family. This may seem like a lot of money to start a recording business in those days, but it was not. Being undercapitalized is a chronic problem with any small business and we were no exception. I had a great love for the technical side of the business and far less affection for the affairs of finance. However, I knew that in order to succeed, we had to be innovative in every aspect of the operation.
"In addition to managing the business and finances, my goals were to concentrate on two prime areas: (1) the development of new recording techniques; (2) the development of new technical equipment which was more specialized and suitable for the specific needs of a recording studio.
"Most of the available gear was standard broadcast equipment and not particularly suitable for a recording studio's needs. A need for such equipment created the nucleus of a manufacturing company which started out as Universal Audio and later became UREI. The creative aspect of designing and developing new equipment was challenging and exciting. This continued to motivate me.
"Starting a business on a shoestring was a most serious undertaking for me. My personal life had just been impacted by the death of my father, in addition to the added responsibility of my own family, and a newborn son, Scott.
"I was in close contact with the chief engineer of ABC, Mr. Ed Horstman, as a result of my contacts and activity in the broadcast field and my recording of network radio shows at Ft. Sheraton. I became aware that the blue network of NBC, (which was then the beginning of the ABC network) intended to embark on a program of delaying the radio broadcast to the West Coast. All programs that originated from Chicago and eastward would be delayed for the Mountain time zone and again for the Pacific time zone. This would allow programs to be aired in "prime time" for each time zone.
"Our fist major accomplishment was winning the bid of the delayed broadcast contract. We had bid against two other very capable recording companies in Chicago, and won. The contract stipulated that there must be a supervising engineer from ABC. We were also informed that the networks required all records to be played by a member of the musicians' union rather than by members of NABET (the engineers' union) or IBEW!
"It was a mad scramble to get the facilities and equipment going to meet the contract deadline. I had a rack full of Langevin equipment. The turntables weighed about 100 lbs. and were belt driven, powered by a low torque Crocker-Wheeler motor. We could change the belts for either 78 or 33-1/3 rpm operation. The overhead cutting lathes were made up of modified Rek-O-Kut lead screws. The cutting heads were RCA Presto 8Ds and the Olson head. The Olson head was a very good magnetic cutter head which Les Paul was also using at the time. I modified an Olson head and added 'feedback' which made it a pretty fair 'feedback type' cutting head. We used 50-Watt recording amplifiers with push-pull parallel 6L6s. (It was obvious to me that 10-Watt cutting amplifiers, which were used by most companies, did not provide adequate headroom for disk recording.) Most of our recording equipment we built in the back of the maintenance shop. We also built our own recording console.
"Over a two-year period we had successfully recorded and broadcasted over 7,000 radio shows for ABC through this very lucrative contract. It became obvious, however, that a studio located in Evanston, Illinois, was not going to be very successful as a 'live' studio. Chicago was not the hub of the recording industry at that time. RCA had a studio on Lakeshore Drive, in which they recorded primarily their own artists, and did virtually no custom recording. Columbia Records had a studio in the Wrigley Building which was used mainly for recording their own artists. World Broadcasting also had a studio on Erie St., which later became United Broadcasting studios (not to be confused with United Recording).
"So we decided to open a studio in Chicago on the top floor of the Civic Opera Building. Prior to moving the recording equipment, we operated the studio by using Class 'A' phone lines between Evanston and Chicago. (The phone lines had a frequency response from around 10 Hz to 11 kHz.) This meant that we were actually doing 'live' remotes from Evanston to our 'studios' on the 42nd floor of the Opera Building. After our second year in the ABC contract, I moved the whole operation to the Civic Opera Building.
"It was there, in 1947, that I recorded 'Peg-O-My Heart' with the Harmonicats. 'Peg-O-My Heart' was released on our own Universal Recording label and was an overnight smash. It is reported to be the first 'pop' record to utilize artificial reverberation. (In those days we referred to it as 'echo.') I used the men's room for an echo chamber. I had become interested in adding reverberation to pop records, and built separate echo feeds in the new console. I used a power amplifier to feed a speaker in the men's room and picked up the reverberant sound with a microphone, and routed that signal back to the console. I had a lot of opportunities to experiment with marble walls in the men's room and in the long halls of the Opera Building in addition to a wide variety of configurations for reverberation rooms. The men's room was great, except for the occasional interruptions when someone flushed the toilet or made other non-musical noises.
"While we were in the Civic Opera Building I also started doing recording for Mercury Records. At this time, Mercury was beginning to make its mark with such artists as Patti Page, Vic Damone, Dinah Washington, Frankie Laine and Eddy Howard. Then I had another million-selling record on the Universal label entitled 'Jealous Heart' by Al Morgan. The success of these records on our own label as well as our other custom business provided the financing for us to acquire facilities which were more suitable for a recording studio.
"It was about this time that I met Emery Cook. I was very intrigued and impressed with what he was doing with feedback cutter heads. He had developed a system called the 'QC' system, which was a process by which he could detect the maximum stylus velocity that could be reproduced satisfactorily.
"Emery is a very ingenious and talented individual who was far ahead of his time and made many contributions to the industry. It was through the facility of his equipment that I conceived the idea of a 'double feature' record. This was a four-selection, 78rpm record which was cut using the 'QC' system. For the first time, people could buy four 'hit' tunes on a single disk.
"We made and sold a number of these through dime stores such as Woolworth's, but it was never a huge success. Unfortunately, I did not know anything about marketing and didn't realize the potential for a four-selection record. A number of years later the 45rpm EP (extended play) record gained a great deal of popularity.
I used the men's room for an echo chamber. [It] was great, except for the occasional interruptions when someone flushed the toilet…
"I recorded the first 'multiple voice' recording with Patti Page in 1947. A more difficult task was overdubbing 5 parts on the tune 'Eyes Wide Open I'm Dreaming.' In an attempt to improve the quality and
minimize additive distortion we were using a Magnacord wire recorder (at 30 ips) and a 16" disk on a 78rpm disk cutting lathe (to obtain the highest linear groove speed). I first recorded the rhythm track on the 16" disk and used additional high frequency roll-off to reduce the noise. The artist sang along with the previously recorded disk, which we recorded onto the wire recorder. Then for the third generation, we recorded on a 16" diameter disk (just using the outside portion of the disk), and so on it went.
"There was a lot of experimenting going on in those days, and this was probably the keynote of our effort. Most of the major record companies--Columbia, RCA and Decca--were well established in their own practices and procedures in addition to rigid standards. The independent recording studio did not have the limitation of strict engineering policies, so whatever mistakes we made, we paid the price. In some instances we were able to make worthwhile contributions to the recording art and at other times our results could be poor, or certainly less satisfactory when compared to the standards of Decca, Columbia, RCA and Capitol.
"The most innovative record company of the time was Capitol Records; they were number four in sales and coming on fast. At the time, Capitol had their own facilities on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, in which innovative approaches to improve the art of recording were taking place with people like Bill Robinson, Johnny Paladino and others.
"During this time the Chicago recording scene was developing rapidly. The growth of Mercury Records accelerated, and so it was with Universal recording as well. We soon outgrew the single studio in the Civic Opera Building and leased a building at 111 East Ontario, in Chicago. (While there, Universal Recording went on to become famous as a beehive of activity in the early days of rhythm and blues records.) The building on Ontario St. was not available at that time due to delays in construction, so we were forced to operate in a 'temporary' studio at 100 East Ohio. It was there that I met Mitch Miller, who was the A&R head for Mercury Records, and Tutti Camarata, who was A&R director for London Records.
"Then I began producing records for Decca. I re-wrote a lyric of an ole Mary Lou Williams tune which I re-titled 'Pretty Eyed Baby.' It was published by Leeds Music and was recorded by the Jane Turzy Trio (a group that I signed on Decca Records). It went to Number Five on the Billboard charts. This was the start of a career producing additional acts for Decca. I also wrote a tune called 'Good Morning Mr. Echo' for the Jane Turzy Trio, which was also recorded by Margaret Whiting and Prez Prado. The lyric was constructed so it lent itself to the gimmick of tape repeat in 2/4 time. It was a novelty record that made it to Number 10 on the 'pop' charts and stayed up there for several weeks. To the best of my knowledge, this was the first use of a 'tape repeat' on a finished record that was intrinsic to the musical composition.
"London Records was interested in expanding their catalog and my contact with Tutti Camarata provided me with a good opportunity. You see, London had a very limited country and western catalog and there were a lot of country and western artist in Chicago, on West Madison St. So I began producing country and western records, which were then referred to as 'hillbilly' records.
"The tremendous success of the rhythm and blues record activity in Chicago played a major role in the growth of Universal Recording. We were doing all the recording for Chess Records from their inception; artists like Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddly, Little Walter and, later, Chuck Berry. Vee Jay Records had Jimmy Reed and there were other local R&B record labels that made their mark, such as Chance, United and Aristocrat. By early 1950, Chicago was the R&B center of the recording industry. Legendary blues artists like B.B. King and Joe Turner came to Chicago to record.
"Universal Recording was growing rapidly, and so was my family; my daughter Sue was born in 1949. By 1950 we finally moved into our new facility at 111 East Ontario. The total facility, in addition to the studios, consisted of two mastering room, one with a Scully lathe and a Grampian head. The second room had our own home-brew belt drive turntable and the converted Olson feedback cutting heads. The tape machines were Magnacords, but the hottest machine was the Ampex 200, which was quickly followed by the Ampex 300. Most of the mikes were RCA 44BXs and 77DXs, 639 Western Electrics, and 633 Salt Shakers. We also had a couple of Altec condenser mikes, and a short time later, the Neumann U47s.
"Our studio was involved in many of the innovation of that time. We built an acoustical isolation screen. We built a vocal booth, and a drum shed. We conducted the first 8-track recording experiment and demonstrated it for the Chicago Acoustical Audio Group. (Pentron Corporation had built a staggered head 8-track recorder which had a signal-to-noise ratio of about 30 dB.) We also demonstrated the first half-speed disk mastering to the Chicago Acoustical Audio Group using a Shure Brothers cartridge. We had a lot of cooperation from the engineers at Shure Bothers, like Lee Gunter, Bob Carr and, of course, the head of engineering, the late Ben Bauer.
"We used the Stevens 2-way speakers for monitor speakers systems, which had a 15-inch woofer and a high frequency section that crossed over at 500 Hz. We also had a Jensen Tri-Axial speaker in one of the control rooms which we used for only a short time, as it did not have a great appeal to the artist. We had two echo chambers. The best chamber was in the basement of an adjoining building. I had also built new mixing consoles for the studio, which incorporated feedback equalization on each preamp, and, for the first time, echo sends. I also developed the Cascode Preamplifier, which was first published in the AES Journal a few years later. The development of this equipment and other related products led to the expansion of our small manufacturing company, Universal Audio.
"It was during this time that Universal really began to skyrocket and gain a great reputation. This new recording facility, at 111 East Ontario, had given me the opportunity to use what knowledge I possessed in designing and planning recording studios. There were two studios: 'A' was about 25 x 40 x 15 feet and 'B' was about 15 x 20 x 12 feet. One of the innovations that carried over for about 20 years was a band shell that I built for recording strings. It was constructed on plywood and was movable, on wheels. The inside was fitted with poly-cylindrical diffusers to avoid any focusing effects inside the shell. Playboy magazine ran a feature story on a Nat Cole/Nelson Riddle session in which the shell appeared; it became a trademark of Universal. Another innovation was the use of a drum shed which we built for recording the Kenton Band.
"The Kenton Band was, without a doubt, the most powerful band on the road and remained so for many years. They had a ten-piece brass section and a screaming trumpet player by the name of Maynard Ferguson.
"The first time that Kenton recorded at Universal was during a rain storm in 1951. The late Lee Gillette was producing the date, and in the middle of one take he said, 'I think I hear water dripping at the end of the tune as the reverb died away.' Upon further investigation and a trip to the echo chamber I found the head of the mike was about 6 inches above water. As I opened the echo chamber door the water came streaming out and the speaker was practically floating. We had to get the water out of the chamber before we could continue recording. On that particular date, we recorded a very famous Kenton record called 'Prologue,' where Stan introduced jazz solos by every member of the orchestra.
"There were many road bands which we recorded in those days: Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Ray Anthony. Norman Granz and his 'Jazz at the Philharmonic' label was recording a lot of small jazz bands in addition to artist like Ella Fitzgerald, Sara Vaughn and many, many others. I was fortunate enough to have recorded most of those dates myself, and it truly was a labor of love. I was a jazz fan and stood in awe of these great artists. I also enjoyed recording Hank Williams; he had already gained a great reputation as a country and western recording artist for London Records. For Liberty Records, we recorded Spike Jones and a number of lesser-known artists.
"One individual who had a great influence on my life and career was Duke Ellington. I guess that the best description of an Ellington recording date was that it started out like the last act of a Russian opera. It was no doubt the most organized musical chaos that you ever heard, until all of the little pieces got glued together. It then became a picture of musical ecstasy.
"Ellington was a genius in every sense of the word. Not only was he a great composer, he was an excellent arranger as well. He was the most creative person I have had the opportunity to be near. He was kind and warm; a true friend. I consider it a highlight of my life to have known him and have played a small part in the pursuit of his work. He surrounded himself with the 'giants of jazz,' such as Billy Strayhorn, Harry Carney (a member of the original Cotton Club Band), Cootie Williams, Juan Tizol (co-writer of 'Caravan'), Johnny Hodges (a fantastic alto player), Russ Procope, Cat Anderson (a screaming trumpet player), Jimmy Hamilton, and the great tenor player Paul Gonzales.
"An Ellington date was a thing to behold because of the 'short sheets,' which were little four-bar charts of riffs. I think he shuffled them around, picked out things in the same key, and then passed them out. Duke would walk around the studio during a take and whisper a riff in someone's ear while someone else was playing a solo. During the next chorus, the sax section would be playing a riff. I heard him compose many tunes right on the dates, which later became famous jazz classics. Up to the time of Duke's death, I had the opportunity to record over 250 sides with his bands. I was also flattered by having Duke accept a lyric that I wrote for one of his compositions. The tune was entitled 'Don't Ever Say Goodbye;' it's in a discography. To be around this great man was its own reward.
"Mahalia Jackson is without a doubt the greatest gospel singer that ever lived. The connection between Mahalia and Duke is rather interesting. She was recording for Apollo Records while Duke was working at the Blue Note (a jazz club in Chicago). He often came to the studio late in the evenings. One night he came over when we were doing a date with Mahalia and stood quietly in the back of the darkened control room, listening in awe. He waited until after the take and walked into the studio. She was flabbergasted; she had never met him. Over the years he tried to get her to record with the band. She finally did, in the vein of spiritual music. Without a doubt she could have been one of the greatest jazz singers that ever lived. Knowing Mahalia Jackson was also an important experience in my life.
"By 1955, the growth, profits and popularity of Universal Recording at 111 East Ontario permitted us to consider a very serious and dramatic expansion move. Our growth certainly was accompanied by growing pains, i.e., lack of working capital, which related more to the extraordinary growth than it did to the lack of profitability. We had substantially established ourselves as a successful independent studio with a widespread reputation throughout the industry. We decided to make a move to 46 East Walton (in Chicago), which gave me the opportunity to design a 'dream' facility from the ground up, in a space of about 15,000 square feet. The landlord was willing, based on our financial condition, to make an investment in a portion of the leasehold facility as part of the lease cost.
"The facility consisted of three studios. I was determined to have the largest independent studio in the country, and at last be able to record in a 'big' room. Studio A was approximately 40 x 90 x 20 feet. Studio B was 25 x 40 x 15 feet and C was a small diagonal studio 15 x 20 x 12 feet. We had a disk dubbing room to meet the needs for the large quantity of disk jockey dubs we were then making. Our disk dubbing machine was an updated version of the original lathe we had built on Ridge Avenue. We had ganged four tables together with a single belt, so we could make four dubs at once. That lathe was driven with 50-Watt amplifiers and modified Olson cutter heads. Our mastering room had two Scully lathes, one of which was capable of 16-2/3rpm operation. I continued to experiment with half-speed mastering. We had both the Grampian and Cook cutter heads. Later we added the Westrex 'stereo' system in the second mastering room. We had four stereo echo chambers using two speakers and two mikes in each. They could be matrixed and serve as either mono or stereo chambers.
"The project engineer for the construction of this new studio was Bob Bushnell. He came to work from Universal in Chicago and later went to the West Coast to join United Recording, and after that started his own firm, Bushnell electronics. Bob did a great job keeping the whole project on track. When we finally moved into the new facility, the experience of recording the first date in Studio A was very exciting; I had never recorded in that large a room before.
"This time period was at the threshold of the so-called 'hi-fi spectaculars' and stereo demo records which were coming into the marketplace. Prior to the Westrex 45-45 cutter system, stereo recording were made on staggered head Magnacords. About this time, Jim Cunningham created some of the most exciting early stereo sounds in his experimental work as well as in his commercial efforts. Emery Cook had already established himself with the two-pickup stereo disk. Some may remember these early recording in which Emery had two separate tracks played with two pickups.
"There was a period in the early 1950s that accelerated the growth and consumer awareness of 'improved quality' in the recording industry. By this time the LP (long-playing record) had found its way into the marketplace, and the battle between the 45 and LP was still continuing, but the LP was growing in predominance.
"Many record companies were capitalizing on this audiophile market, and it changed in industry's thinking in terms of devoting more effort to creating exciting sounds on phonograph records. We employed a special recording technique for Mercury Records that produced spectacular-sounding disks that gained a great deal of acceptance at hi-fi shows as demo records. We also used our band shell with the poly-diffuser which we had dismantled and moved from 111 East Ontario. This band shell became famous because it provided a very dramatic enhancement of string sounds from small string sections.
"We completed the move the 46 East Walton in 1955 and also enlarged our staff. Universal was really on a roll. The revenues continued to grow at a rate of about 35-40% per year. The outstanding mixer, Bruce Swedien, joined the staff shortly after we opened the facility there. The hit production rate continued to be consistent with the track record we had established on Ontario Street. By this time we were recording regularly for about 30 of the top record label. Chicago had become a nationally recognized center of recording. Many famous conductors and arrangers were now coming in from New York and L.A. to record their artists. The staff musicians and studio musicians in Chicago had also gained an outstanding reputation. The studio musicians had come from the network stations, NBC and CBS. People like Nelson Riddle, Don Costa, Mitch Miller, Eddie Sauter, Bill Finegan, Quincy Jones, Sy Oliver, and so many other conductors all came to Chicago to do record dates on a regular basis.
"The elegant new facilities of Universal Recording at 46 East Walton were, without a doubt, the most advanced and certainly the largest independent recording facility in the country. Things were really moving along. Many of our clients, who were owners of record labels, urged me to start a studio in Hollywood. This urging had gone on for several years but it seemed like the hotter we got at Universal, the more intense the urging became. I had to make a decision whether to remain the 'big frog in the small pond,' or take the giant step. I had to rely heavily on the pledge of continuing loyalty of the many clients who were urging me to make this move. The decision was a tough one, but one influencing factor in my personal life helped me to make the decision to move to Hollywood. This meant I would be going 'head to head' against the legendary 'Radio Recorder' who were the giants of the independent recording studio. I was about to take a step that would help me find out where I 'really' stood in the pecking order. My long-time dreams that I would someday have the opportunity to record some of my idols like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Mel Torme and others, could conceivably come true if I made the move to Hollywood an was successful."
To be continued. . . .