Few technology companies can maintain their market leadership for a decade or two, let alone build a solid reputation that has endured for more than 60 years. But that’s exactly what CEO Bill Putnam Jr. and Universal Audio Inc have done by producing some of the music industry’s most popular recording technologies. Universal Audio has an incredible heritage. I wanted to know more about how the company was founded and how it managed to build such an iconic reputation in the music production industry.
Universal Audio (UA) was founded in 1958 by sound recording pioneer Bill Putnam Sr. The company was revived by Putnam’s sons Bill and Jim in 1999 after their father’s death. Over the years, the company has built an enviable reputation among professional audio engineers and producers. UA Equipment has become synonymous with quality, innovation and craftsmanship.
Over the past 60 years – minus a 15-year hiatus between the death of Bill Putnam Sr. and his sons re-establishing the brand – UA has moved away from making classic 1950s-era tube-powered mixers. These consoles were used to record legends like Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra – right through to the 1960s audio compressors that shaped the sound of bands like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. Today the company makes advanced computer audio interfaces, digital effects pedals and plug-in software used on recordings by Adele, Lizzo, Doja Cat and many other A-list artists.
“It’s really exciting to design gear that’s part of a great musician’s palette, knowing that the gear we build will help inspire their art,” says Bill Putnam Jr. “As someone who loves my father’s passion for both music and technology, I have found them to be a wonderful supportive role in helping artists create the sounds they love. But I’ve also seen rock stars throw mics at me from the stage when they weren’t… it’s all part of the fun.”
Headquartered in Scotts Valley, California with offices in Boulder, Colorado and Amsterdam, Universal Audio today employs more than 250 musicians, engineers and audio professionals who deliver a growing selection of audio and music products to a customer base that includes Grammy-winning producers , professional and aspiring musicians, home studio owners, bedroom beatmakers… actually audio content creators of all kinds.
The briefest history of “modern” UA is that Putnam Jr. re-founded the company as a side project in 1999 while studying digital signal processing at Stanford University. The goal of the side project was to faithfully recreate some of his father’s classic audio gear from the 1960s. The project led Putnam Jr. and his colleagues down a rabbit hole of DSP and algorithmic modelling.
By the time Putnam and his group completed their first hardware prototype (a version of the classic LA-2A audio compressor), they already had the blueprint to recreate the fabled rich, warm analog sounds in software.
Fast forward to 2023, and UA now has more than a million users of its music hardware, including Apollo and Volt computer audio interfaces, UAFX guitar effects pedals, and UA microphones. The brand also has a booming audio software plug-in business and a popular new subscription service called UAD Spark.
With the democratization of the music recording business over the past 25 years, there has been a shift from expensive professional recording studios to smaller home and bedroom studios. UA’s products have filled that niche, delivering sound quality arguably only available when using large recording consoles, tape machines, and racks of fancy esoteric gear. Going forward, UA wants to go beyond recording music by turning its attention to the burgeoning market for audio content creators, helping them deliver studio-quality sound for their podcasts, TikToks, and YouTube videos.
“I’m excited about our growth trajectory, which includes expanding our ecosystem and playing a much bigger role in the creative process of our clients. We’re not the company that makes a “me-too” product at a lower price. We work to solve new problems for our customers and deliver inspiring quality, no matter where our customers are on their journey,” said Putnam Jr.
UA’s early software success depended largely on its ability to emulate expensive, hard-to-find analog recording gear and effects with greater sonic authenticity than ever before. Today, after two decades of emulating classic audio gear, UA has more than 140 software titles in its UAD plugin library that are known for their authenticity. UA has recently incorporated this software know-how into new product categories, such as its line of UAFX guitar effects. It is now considered one of the finest emulations of classic guitar amps ever built into a stompbox.
“Our customers’ passion for their creative tools is what makes music technology such a unique industry,” says Putnam Jr. “You have to understand musicians to excite and excite them. At UA, we’re obsessed with the nuances of audio. We go to great lengths that few others can or will because we know it can be the thing that inspires a musician or engineer to create something unique.”
True to its 1958 roots, UA continues to make the classic analog gear and microphones that Putnam Sr. was famous for. This classic gear is made at the UA Custom Shop in Santa Cruz, California.
“The analog gear we build in our custom shop is handcrafted and highly finished, some using vintage vacuum tubes. Analog hardware has a unique sonic fingerprint that musicians still crave,” says Putnam Jr. “We do a great job of capturing that sound in our software plug-ins, but there’s still a creative immediacy with physical knobs and a romance with glowing tubes can inspire a performance. We know that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to creativity. There is room for all kinds of gear.”
Bill Putnam Sr. was a famous engineer and producer for artists like Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra and dozens more. He was also a born entrepreneur who founded several audio product companies during his long career. Equipment built by these companies remains in widespread use decades after their introduction, including the LA-2A and 1176 audio compressors and the 610 tube recording console. The 610 console in particular is considered one of the most popular designs in audio history and was used to record all from Sinatra to the Beach Boys and Van Halen. These products sprang from Putnam Sr’s sense of pragmatism rather than a conscious business strategy.
“When my father started the business in the 1950s, there wasn’t an industry around selling recording equipment. It was all equipment that you had to rob from radios, broadcasts or telephones. It has to be adapted for the studio,” says Putnam Jr. “And my father realized that if he needed a mixer or compressor specifically for music production, there had to be a lot of other people around as well. So he just started making his own gear and started selling it.
“My father was fascinated by the recording technique, but ultimately it was just a tool to arrive at a musical performance. His favorite places to go were jazz and big bands,” recalls Putnam Jr. “He always said musicians were his favorite people. His love of technology rubbed off on me at first, but at the end of the day it was the music that was everything to him.”
Growing up with his father’s entrepreneurial spirit and technical know-how, Putnam Jr. sparked his passion for electronics at an early age. But it wasn’t a direct route to re-establishing Universal Audio. Initially, his appreciation for music gave way to his dreams of becoming an electrical engineer, until he took a break from college to travel around the country after the Grateful Dead.
“This experience was a great lesson in how great an impact music can have on all levels – personal, cultural and technological. It was at one of those shows that I realized I wanted to be a part of music technology. And from that moment I focused on learning what I needed to do, specifically manipulating audio in the digital realm, which allowed me to combine my engineering passion with that of my father from decades ago.
“When we relaunched UA, I realized we were committed to craftsmanship to make my dad proud. I accepted his Lifetime Achievement Grammy after he died, but I never thought I would personally accept another Grammy. A few years later, the “modern” Universal Audio was awarded a Technical Achievement Grammy in 2009.
“To have come full circle, to recognize my father’s work and then to be recognized for the work we are doing now is amazing. Like, we got it right. We’re doing it right.”
More info: www.uaudio.com