The tale of Atomic Instrument is one of necessity and innovation, built on the stories of a pair of partners: Norman Druce and myself.
Norman began building racing transmissions and loudspeakers with his dad, a former Navy technician turned automobile electronics expert, in a small-town TV repair shop north of Detroit, MI. The inspiration was Fleetwood Mac, Bob Seger, The Rolling Stones…. The teenage Norman used tube reel-to-reel and cassette decks to make “multitrack recordings.” As a teen, he formed a band with his buddy (and future Black Keys engineer) Collin Dupuis and started more serious recording.
You can’t drop an MCI JH24 off at any old TV repair shop, so Norman began teaching himself electronics. He became the go-to Detroit tech for tape machines and consoles, and ended up owning a building with a recording studio on the third floor. The onset of home studios killed that particular dream, so Norman moved to Florida to work and learn with a notable tube audio guru, who schooled him in analog design. He helped move Mushroom Studios from Vancouver to Toronto and began designing custom gear, sidecars, speakers and more for many notable studios and bands.
As for myself, it all begins with Bob Clearmountain. At 10 years old, living in the epicenter of Bruce Springsteen’s New Jersey when Born in the USA shook speakers worldwide, I remember asking Mom to crank the station wagon’s radio when the song came on, and then rolling down the windows and hearing it simulcasted from cars and backyard radios as we drove. The entire state was enraptured by that song. I was blown away by that sound—majestic, cinematic, epic. I was hooked; I wanted to create such sounds.
Fast-forward to my work as a mix engineer. Like it or not, we were (and are) all following Bob’s work. I mean, c’mon… That Robbie Robertson album? Roxy Music’s Avalon?! Bowie’s Let’s Dance. INXS. Tears for Fears. Bryan Adams. Seriously. So, of course, I ended up mixing on SSL desks, and after many years, finally built my own mix room.
Owning a studio is different than renting one. All of a sudden, you’re responsible for this big, expensive SSL desk. Every power dip, every thunderstorm makes you paranoid. Nashville is big on epic thunderstorms and this was not doing my psyche any favors. And the original SSL supplies weren’t doing the electric bill any favors either. After a year or two—and several power supply rebuilds—I started thinking that there must be a better way to do this.
Norman knew there was a better way to power a recording console but nobody else believed him. In fact, people told him that his concept was impossible (telling him he can’t do something just motivates Norman, thankfully). By that time, I had met Norman’s friend Collin, who introduced me to Norman. We began talking about remaking the way consoles are powered. Technology has come a long way since my SSL was born in 1984. Norman’s genius designs centered around the newest medicalgrade switching power technology inside a walled garden of proprietary filtering and power protection that no one had ever attempted to deploy in a recording console supply. My concerns were reliability, cost to operate and absolute protection for the desk. We did two years of back and forth testing, listening, changing and tweaking until we arrived at the Atomic S1.
We’re both recording engineers, so this supply is designed for the actual user. We concentrated on making it bulletproof. The fact that it sounded better was, honestly, an unexpected bonus. Norman designed a fantastic protection scheme that shields the console and all its electronics from any type of harm. The supply ramps power up and down like a variac—no inrush, no circuit shock—which allows you to turn a desk on and off as often as you care to. This “die-as-a-team” circuit ensures that if anything goes wrong in any stage of the power to the desk, the entire supply shuts down and stays down until you manually restart it. It will take voltages from 85 to 255 volts and provide the desk with absolutely clean and steady power, and in over/under voltage situations, the supply will shut the entire system off and keep it off. We designed this to be the Gandalf-on-the-bridge in the face of AC power anomalies: None shall pass.
As I was first testing the supply, I told Norman that it sounded better. He didn’t believe me (thanks, Norman!). We took an Atomic to a friend’s SSL room where he was working on a new Michael McDonald album. The sonic improvement was obvious, even to Norman’s wife Misty, sitting on the couch. Then Norman believed me (I think).
The Atomic supplies run on about half as much electricity and produce about half as much heat compared to the original designs. They are also quieter and much easier to align. We put digital metering and adjustments on the front panel, and one Atomic replaces multiple supplies and changeover units. It looks cool— and it sounds better. But don’t take my word for it, ask Bob Clearmountain. He now has Atomics on all his desks—SSL 4000 and Neve 8068.
My anxiety level—and my electric bill—are significantly lower now. I’m calling that a win. Norman likes to say that if your console is the heart of your studio, then the power supply is the heart of the console. I’m happy to have transplanted this into my mix room, and after two-plus years of no worries, we’re bringing it to our fellow SSL, Neve, API, Harrison and other analog console owners. And this is just the beginning; we’re dedicated to making solutions—gear we actually need to make music better— and we have a few new things we’re working on that we think everyone who makes music is going to really love. Plus, Bob F**king Clearmountain!
F. Reid Shippen is a co-founder and partner at Atomic Instrument.