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A Conversation with Universal Audio President Matt Ward

Matt Ward, Universal Audio president, discusses current priorities and what's coming up next for the company.

Santa Cruz, CA—About a year after moving into a new headquarters, Universal Audio has managed to keep its relaxed corporate culture intact as well as launching a major new DSP platform. Analog hardware manufacturing, software and hardware product development, marketing, distribution and sales are all handled within the new facility, with added bonuses of an on-site gym, hiking trails and a co-located caterer. Surfboards, ready for dashes to the nearby beaches, share space with photocopiers and other office paraphernalia, and there’s room for UA to grow. Just after this year’s AES Convention, Pro Sound News sat down with Matt Ward, UA president, for a free-wheeling conversation.

PSN: It’s been about a year since Universal Audio relocated. The old location seemed spacious enough, what was the motivation behind the relocation?

MW: There was plenty of room that was in that building, and I think our plan was that we would always expand. In fact, one of the things we talked about doing was remodeling the whole other side of the building then kind of moving over there, and then starting to expand back into the space that we were in.

There’s sort of a weird chain of events involving this real estate broker and the landlord in that place; he [the landlord] was great to work with, but he was the CFO at a residential development company that just somehow ended up with this building. So it wasn’t really his business, and he was kind of hands-off.

This broker kind of worked this whole deal out and just kind of assumed that I would be happy with what he ended up with and the space that was left. He carved up the building in this weird way and put in this batting-cage business, a strange business. And so all of a sudden there wasn’t any room to expand and we said, “Well, it’s not going to work for us.” So the landlord actually kind of got screwed in that thing. We were his tenant; we were a good tenant, and he would’ve stayed with us.

We ended up starting to look around for places and actually in this area, well I think in most areas, we’re a little hard because we’re manufacturing, right, we need a big manufacturing floor, we need a loading dock, but we also need R&D offices and that kind of stuff so it’s sort of a hybrid, you know.

This was really the best place that was around. This building had been vacant for five years so they were eager to do a deal and it just kind of came together. And it’s a complete coincidence that it’s five minutes from my house (laughter).

And it’s beautiful. It’s an upgrade physically, and they have a gym and there’s a hiking trail; it’s really a nice facility. And, other than the caterer, who’s obviously a godsend, they haven’t put anybody else in here yet, so who knows; we may end up taking over the whole building.

PSN: When you did the initial UAD-2 launch, you were talking about how that was a groundbreaking step for UA and was going to define a change in the style of company. Tell me more.

MW: I think the UAD-1 was an incredibly clever product for a very small company to do in that it took an existing technology, the Chromatic Mpact 2 chip, which was meant for one application—video—and cleverly converted it for audio use; we leveraged this technology in a different direction and made it work. But, because of the fact that we had to build our own toolsets and make it for this one particular application, it made it very, very difficult. It was a very difficult product to expand and build upon and to put into different kinds of applications like an embedded system or into laptop kind of solution. All that is made much more difficult by the way it was built.

So by going to this much more scalable [Analog Devices] SHARC platform—which is also a DSP family that’s got a roadmap, it’s got lots of new compatible products that are coming down the road—we’re in a much better position to be able to branch out into different kinds of product directions, different places where DSP to make music sound better, which is really what we’re about, can be used. Porting our entire plug-in library and getting totally re-acclimated to a new platform like that was a big piece to bite off, but by being able to do that, we’ve now put ourselves in a position where we can expand and go in a lot of different directions we wouldn’t have been able to do before.

PSN: Will you ever look at going in the third-party developer route for your platforms?

MW: Yeah, certainly that’s something else that this allows us to do because there’s such a wonderful set of generic tools. What would’ve been involved to build a software developer kit around the Mpact would’ve been really almost impossible. We would have had to have a whole lot of our own work to port anything, but we now could do that. We’ve certainly had a lot of interest. One of the things that was really gratifying about AES was we had a lot of software companies who expressed an interest in being on our platform.

First and foremost, we’re still porting over some remaining titles, which will all be done by the end of this year. We’ve got new stuff that’s coming down the pipe, and we’ve got other things and product categories that we’re going to develop. So we have a significant amount of work already on our plate to just finish off and then enhance our platform with our own titles.

Once we’re done there, then we have the ability to look at a few select partners that we would bring on. I don’t think we would go for a more wide-open model where “here’s a developer kit” anybody can get it. I think we would work with a select few people who are doing things that are compatible with what we do and enhance what we do and [have] quality that’s compatible with what we do. So it would be a much more select thing than other people who have supported third-party things have done. We’re not looking to turn our UAD product line into being a generic plug-in accelerator.

PSN: Will you ever look at making your plug-ins for non-UAD platforms—VST, RTAS and so on—or will you continue to restrict your plugs to UAD?

MW: In the current climate, the model that we have seems to work really, really well for us in terms of security, and it allows us to be aggressive with plug-in pricing. I can certainly imagine a world where that kind of security could exist in a more generic PC platform.

That world does not exist now. If it did, then it certainly could be something that we would look at. Some combination of security and the expansion of host power could put us in that world, but [that’s not] the world that we’re in right now. Despite all the crowing that people do, even just looking at it from a power standpoint–the incredible power of these host processors, with bigger, fatter OS’s, bigger, fatter applications, and all these other things–the people are still craving more power. And I can tell you that even we have been surprised by the mix of the Quad cards that we’ve sold over the Solos and Duos. It is the big iron that people are buying from us. It certainly seems to indicate pretty strongly that there’s still a big thirst out there for more power.

Having a DSP coprocessor in addition to providing extra power gives you a more opaque system where it isn’t as easy to see what’s really going on the processor should some nefarious person want to hack it. But really, for the most part, that isn’t what’s happening. What people are doing is cracking the copy-protection scheme for people to use. What they end up with is an executable that can run anywhere. And once there’s one of those, there are a million of them, so it’s pretty scary.

PSN: In the analog world, it seems UA has pretty intelligently chosen the hardware to build. You’ve not built any hardware that isn’t still selling, I don’t believe, unless you’ve deliberately modified it yourself and replaced it with another version. And UA has accomplished this in a world where hardware sales are dropping off.

MW: One of the things that’s different about our [newly designed] analog products versus particularly the vintage stuff is that the vintage products (1176s and LA2As to use the extreme example) have been popular forever, and what people want are the ones that are just like the ones that were around 30 years ago. So they sort of naturally have a real continuity in the market.

But I think we have tried to not do anything too esoteric in the hardware world and kind of stick to meat-and-potatoes products that sound great and are relatively easy to use. If you look at a lot of those classic older processors like LA2As, like 1176s, like the 610 mic preamp, they’re fairly simple straightforward products without tons of features. They’re a little hard to make sound bad. I think that that’s particular to the success of our LA610, which is a very simple 2-band EQ and a simple 2-knob mic preamp and a 2-knob compressor. Most of those knobs are really big, and it’s really simple to dial in a sound that sounds really great. For experienced users who know what they want to get out of an LA2A circuit, know what they want to get out of a 610 circuit, it’s right there, but for an inexperienced user, some pretty simple basic setups produce a really nice sound. I guess that’s one of the reasons that they’re so popular.

PSN: You’ve focused your analog products on the front end and capture of sound: It’s the mic pre, the EQ and the compressor that are still selling. You’re making analog products, but you know it’s a DAW world.

MW: Yeah, that’s very astute. Even though you see EQ in products, for example, one thing that you don’t see in our product line is standalone EQs, outboard EQ processors, because we’re living in a world where more and more that’s happening in the digital world, the plug-in world as opposed to the outside. You see much more coming from us in the channel-strip product category, because here again, for a DAW customer [using] that one golden channel, there is utility in having an analog compressor. Therefore, you can limit peaks a little bit before you go into the A-to-D conversion and having a great-sounding mic preamp, obviously, to get that sound, which is why the channel strips are so popular.

The 710 mic preamp that we just came out with, that’s an $800 product, so it’s the lowest-priced analog product we’ve ever made. And that product, by virtue of having a completely separate but concurrent tube and solid-state preamp circuit with the ability to phase coherently blend between them, gives a desktop kind of guy, for not much money, an incredible amount of flexibility in terms of having high-quality front end that he can capture sounds with and use in different ways. We definitely had the desktop user in mind with the 710.

The 710 circuit seems to be really well received, and I think you’ll see some more and interesting products from us with that circuit in it. That circuit is going to have an interesting life, because it’s quite unique—that ability to blend between those two sounds.

PSN: We were looking at the vintage 610-based console earlier. With the popularity of other manufacturer’s small modular consoles, do you see Universal Audio approaching that market?

MW: It’s a great question, and we certainly have talked about it. I think that the honest way to answer that question is that our assessment is that the market for that kind of a product, which would be very expensive, is very small, but that it could have some tremendous value as kind of a flagship marketing thing to do. So, no announcement or heads up that I can give you, but it’s an interesting idea. We’ve had a number of requests for, in addition to products like that, other sort of customizable kinds of things some would like to see.

PSN: Some manufacturers have had success building modular consoles based on already successful modules they have in inventory. But with something like the 610s, the size of the 610, is that feasible? If you change the original spacing and wire weights and those kind of things that you’ve carefully re-crafted, you’re going to have to make a different product. Would it even be a 610 at that point to get the form factor?

MW: There are a number of mechanical and heat, thermal and design challenges to doing something like that. I think it’s all do-able. Whether it would turn into a product that would be marketed at a price that would [be feasible in the marketplace is a] tough question.

PSN: Would you be able to do it in such a way that satisfies those in the market who are always critical of any minute deviations in the original sound of the circuits?

MW: There’s always a little bit of that with whatever it is we’re doing. To do a console like [we ‘re discussing], you’re in the hypersensitive part of that market. Another part of the challenge is that you really would have to do it right.

PSN: Nothing on the drawing board that you can talk about?

MW: Well, no, not really. We’re developing a reputation of being pretty circumspect about our product launches.

PSN: Only announcing things that are ready to ship, how dare you?

MW: Yeah, it’s very strange, I know, but it really is a good way to go in terms of the products in the market; let’s all make music with what we got. If you’ve got something new that’s exciting to talk about, talk about it then. [If you don’t] why talk about it and get everybody all worked up. I think another thing that happens when you start talking about a product too early is expectations get created in the market that often are not even correct about what it does, and since nobody can actually work with the thing because it isn’t available for six months after the announcement, you can create some inevitable disappointments.

Or what can even happen, is you announce early what it is that you believe it’s going to be. When you release it in six months and the product schedule slips or you have challenges or whatever and it either doesn’t ship in that timeframe or you end up having to change the feature set or limit it in some way, you create disappointment. So I think there’s a lot to be said for announcing what you really have and what’s really available and selling to people then. We’ve got a pretty good product line right now.

PSN: One of the issues with re-creating vintage products that Bill Putnam Jr. and I have discussed in the past is that various components have aged in a way that changes the sound. A hardware re-creation or software emulation based on perfectly re-creating the original circuitry may sound different than an “aged” vintage hardware unit. In a discussion with some of the British press on the way down here, we postulated a software module you could add to all your emulations as an option—a “Vintagizer” that would, say, emulate what the gear would sound like with weak, sagging tube, or would randomize the value of components in the schematic that you’re emulating to various points in their individual tolerance ranges.

MW: Or how about replaced with incorrect components, which also happens a lot?

PSN: Or you start an age clock that begins adjusting the unit sonically based on its virtual age, maybe adding an age accelerator or an age de-creaser. And it could be an add-on for every one of your products. Maybe you give it away free, but they’ve got to pay when the tube fails to replace it.

MW: (Laughter) And we sell ’em a service contract. The closest we have to that is the RA201 space-echoing emulation, which has three settings for tape–new tape, OK medium old tape and very old tape. And you can also turn on or off whether or not you hear the tape splice when it goes by. We actually did emulate the response, a brand new tape, an old tape, a really old tape. It’s high-end loss, all that sort of stuff that you can hear but there’s more going on than that.

PSN: The Vintagizer idea may be being flip, but I’m sure you do have customers who question the sound of modern re-creations of vintage hardware.

MW: Absolutely. We sold a pair of LA2As once to a producer who had two old LA2As, and he wrote us back and said, “You know what, these things, boy they sound better than my old ones.” He added, “My old ones just sound a little dark by comparison.” We sent him out new T4 cells, he had 30-year-old optical cells, they wear out and what happens is you lose high end. I think he ended up changing one of them and leaving the other one, so he had one that still had the old worn-out cell. [Replacing the old cell] made [the new and old unit with the replacement cell] sound almost the same.

PSN: Universal Audio’s approach to software emulation has been much more than just mapping out a transfer response or using some of the other methods of approaching emulation from a measurement perspective that can sometimes not transfer well when program material is substituted for test signals. I understand that you have also used a mathematical model of the actual schematics, down to individual components.

MW: Right. I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that Dave Burner, our chief scientist who’s the main algorithm guru and the emulator of the analog processors, is an analog engineer and a really good one. Building analog circuits in the digital domain with digital emulations of components, that’s what gets our emulations to respond and interact and add program dependency and all that like analog processors do.

Taking an extreme example of the 1176 with all the buttons pushed in, that’s a crazy frickin’ circuit, it’s going bananas on itself. Our emulation actually does it because of the way we did it. When we did the LA2A emulation, we learned something about the way the LA2As work. That caused us to make a change in the way that we build hardware LA2As. So, the emulations are so sophisticated that they actually produced results and produced data that have at least in one instance, caused us to change the analog design that we already had to make it more like the original.

PSN: Bill has told me that in some emulations, looking from the schematics backwards and then playing the emulation, that they’ve determined that there ought to be another component in the circuit. When they’ve gone back and looked at physical units, a component had indeed been tacked on that was not on the original drawings.

MW: Yeah, so it can get a little spooky around here sometimes.

PSN: Bill and I have discussed the viability of transformer plug-ins. After measuring gear myself, I am convinced that a huge percentage of the character of most of the old gear really is the iron.

MW: We’ve modeled transformers as far as doing other things we’ve done. What I’d love to see, and this maybe because I’m a guitar player, I would love to be able to sort of build your own tone stack amp emulation. You take bits and pieces from different kinds of amplifier designs and, in the digital domain, craft your own little custom guitar amp emulation.

PSN: There are a lot of physical factors that affect the character of guitar amps and speakers, with some of the gear folks enamored with getting their character from things like undersized wiring, overly stiff cone mounts or off-center magnets.

MW: The speaker cab emulations that I’ve looked at that are in the guitar realm, are just equalization curves, which gives you a piece of the puzzle for sure, but there’s so much more to it than that. Something that most guitar players never do that’s incredibly eye-opening is that you find an amp head or an amp sound that you like and you take that amp around and listen to it playing through 10 or 15 different speaker cabinets, your mind will be blown. You won’t ever again say, “Oh, I like a 6L6 kind of amp sound” or such. [EQ curves alone are] a tiny little piece of the sound compared to the speaker cabinet and speakers that you hook them into. I think that cabinet emulation is huge, and I have not seen it done right.

PSN: Is that something UA would ever get into?

MW: You know this building is just lousy with guitar players, and so I think the honest answer is that we see some significant growth for us still in the recording market. Having said that, there is some significant overlap or there’s some great use in the recording world for guitar kind of products. Of course, we’ve already done the Nigel collection, so we’ve dipped our toe in that market. I think it’s safe to say you’ll see more from us for the guitar player in the future. But our focus in the short run is getting the UAD-2 really completely stable and optimized and with all the plugs ported over. Right now, a month past the launch, the entire core team of UAD-2 is still on the project. We’re not making the mistake that a lot of companies do of pulling people off and immediately going to a small maintenance team and going onto the next big thing. We’re still totally focused on optimizing and enhancing this product to keep the momentum going that we’ve built up.

PSN: How is the economy downtown impacting UA?

MW: That’s a good question. When you launch a product like the UAD-2, it kind of muddies the waters. We have had a ridiculous [positive] response. Would it have been ridiculous plus X if the economic [situation was better]? It’s hard to know. We have seen some impact on our analog business, particularly in some of the high-end products like the 8110 and 4110, which are not selling as well because they’re big-ticket items. It’s not a huge impact, but it’s definitely discernible.

We’ve seen a very, very steady growth in our analog business year after year, and this year we’re still going to have growth in our analog business, but smaller than we used to. It’s a little bit flatter despite some new products that we’ve come out with. So on the digital side we’ve seen this real explosion, but it’s really based on the success of this new product. On the analog side, I think things have slowed a little bit. We’ll be keeping an eye on that, to see how that goes.

I think also the direction that we’ve been taking with products like the 710 where someone, that DAW customer that we were talking about before that might not want to spend $2,500 on a very high-end channel strip, might instead opt for $800 and get a really, really great signal path, and so we have a product for that guy now.

PSN: So was it a deliberate approach to go for products in that price category?

MW: Well, no. I’d love to tell you that we’re that smart and that prescient, but I think it was more about knowing that there were customers in that category who were price-sensitive. We’ve come into that direction, and this is maybe a bit of luck that now we seem to be entering into a market where the really higher-priced products are going to have a little more difficulty in the market.

PSN: You use a combination of direct and retail sales, do you not?

MW: We manage a network of U.S.-based dealers ourselves. Erica [McDaniel] manages the major accounts here in the United States and then a not-very-large list of dealers on top of that. Then we sell to a network of international distributors in countries all over the world. On the software side, we sell software bundled with our hardware, with our UAD-2 skews throughout that worldwide sales channel, but we have an online web store where individual plug-in titles are available.

PSN: After an initial UAD purchase, are your software sales to customers almost exclusively online?

MW: Yes, it is.

PSN: And even from the initial purchase, with the bundles, it’s still retrieved from online?

MW: What we sell to the channel are software vouchers. So [the customers] redeem vouchers on the online store.

PSN: You’re actually providing most of your plug-ins on disk, with the authorizations being what’s sold online, correct?

MW: Yes, you’ve got a 14-day, full-function demo of every single plug-in, so you can run everything and try what you like and then decide where you want to spend your vouchers. It’s been a really good model for us, and it allows people to try them out and gives us an opportunity to give people an experience with our products. And it’s not 14 calendar days. If there’s something you’re not sure you want or not, you don’t turn it on. You just don’t turn it on, and then later down the road you want to try it out, you’ve got 14 days from the first time you do that. The hybrid approach answers some real challenges that the sales channel has with selling software because of different versions on the shelf. It’s a difficult thing for them, and this allows them to let us handle all the upgrades by just selling these vouchers along with the cards.

PSN: When a customer adds to his/her plug-in collection beyond what they purchase via the vouchers, those proceeds stay with UA directly?

MW: Right. That’s a trade-off that we make with the channel where we say, “Look, we’ll let you sell software bundled with the products that we’ve got, so you’ve got a model to generate [revenue] where you sell a box.” Then we service the customers on an ongoing basis with additional titles. It’s worked both ways.

PSN: What’s your prescient vision for the future?

MW: As I said, we believe we’ve still got some significant room to grow in the recording market. There are some significant product categories in the recording market that we haven’t gotten into yet. I mentioned before the 710 being a great circuit that I think is going to show up in some other products and in other classes of product. We’re in the DSP co-processor market, we’re very well known for high-quality analog circuitry and we dipped our toe in the market of the I/O, not the interface but the digital I/O market, with the 2192. We have a lot of the components of a pretty interesting interface, so I think that’s a market that’s obviously interesting to us in that we have so many of the components that we’ve already developed.

PSN: What about the live market? By virtue of the fact that you are using embedded cards in the PCs and such that it doesn’t really lend itself for you to get into this burgeoning plug-in market for live sound. Is there a path?

MW: We’ve gotten into the live market through people who would take our analog processors on the road because they like to use them. Part of the reasoning behind the 2-LA76 and the 2-LA2 was to create 1176s and LA2As that were more roadworthy and were more practical to take on the road. But we aren’t really marketing into that space. We don’t really have the channel that’s direct to that space. It’s just sort of something that kind of happens.

I think there’s obviously a helluva lot going on in the digital world in terms of live sound with all the digital consoles that are now taking over in live sound. I think that there are opportunities for us to do signal processing for those kinds of products. And we’ve been approached. I think there are potentially some interesting opportunities for us. We’re really focused on recording now; perhaps there’s an intriguing partnership that could happen where we would work with somebody that would get us into that market, but I think from where I sit right now I don’t see us, in the short term, taking on “productization,” channel development, marketing–all of the things that would be associated with really making a serious move into the live sound market. I don’t see that happening in the near term for us, or doing it ourselves.

PSN: Perhaps if there’s a console manufacturer that’s using SHARCS in their console already, it could be another easy step to port over your plug-ins in a protected environment?

MW: Sure, that would be one example. It’s not necessary the only one.

Universal Audio