Universal Audio: The Democratisation of Music Craftsmanship

Written by Becca Inglis
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It’s fair to say that music production today wouldn’t be the same without Bill Putnam Sr.’s inventions. Known as the “godfather of modern recording”, he was the first person in the US to create an artificial reverb with an echo chamber - he placed a microphone and a loudspeaker in a bathroom, the resulting song staying at No. 1 on the charts for weeks after - and he designed the 610 console and first multi-band audio equalizer. His attention to detail and determined creativity made him a favourite engineer with stars like Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Ray Charles.

Bill Putnam Jr. was at a crossroads when he discovered his father’s old designs in a box and, looking for a life beyond lecturing in Programming at Stanford University, he set about building the vintage sound equipment that had revolutionised the music industry fifty years before. It was a tribute to his dad’s life’s work, starting in the basement before upgrading to the garage and finally becoming the second generation of Universal Audio.

With the help of his brother James and family friend Dr David Berners, Bill Putnam Jr. reconstructed the old models that still remained a preferred choice for recording artists. But the new Universal Audio couldn’t keep making the same machines forever. The music industry was changing, with decreased revenue and slashed budgets leaving labels and artists with less to spend on costly equipment. Universal Audio turned their attention to developing software, most famously the UAD Platform. A customised DSP platform to run the most authentic software models of vintage analogue equipment.

The culmination of 20 years of development are UA’s latest Audio Interfaces, Apollo X. What sets the Apollo X apart is the way that it reduces latency. Its box contains a DSP chip, meaning that the code programming the sound is running on the audio interface rather than an attached computer when music is played. Any delay is completely reduced, so musicians can play undistracted with added effects giving their performance a richer sound. From the confines of their bedroom, they could play as if they were in concert, capturing the heart and soul of the music on the recording.

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Ordinarily this quality would only be achievable in high-end studios, with tens of thousands of pounds thrown at heavy equipment, but Universal Audio’s software puts sophisticated sound production in the hands of small-scale artists. It is cheaper, portable, and can place a producer’s bedroom on a level playing field with the flick of a switch. The internet has democratised releasing music for artists, and this software aims to complement that evolution.

Universal Audio’s equipment has now caught the attention of celebrity artists and contributed to several platinum albums. Kendrick Lamar used it to add autotune to his hip hop tracks on Damn, while its flexibility allowed Arcade Fire to record new music for Everything Now on the road. Sitting in a hotel room or on a tour bus, they can capture a unique spontaneity in their music.

“Craftsmanship” is a word that Putnam Jr. uses often to describe the work at Universal Audio. It encapsulates his father’s care in creating equipment to suit musicians’ needs in the 1950s and the company’s response to the new changing landscape of the modern music industry. First at the forefront of one recording revolution, then adaptive to a second one, they’re more than ready for a third when the opportunity arises. 

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Universal Audio are running a production workshop with Ali Staton at Alison House (12 Bristo Pl) on Saturday 17th November from 2pm - 4pm. Everyone that goes along will be entered into a prize draw to win an Apollo Twin MkIII Twin Due worth over £750!