Designer Talk : Rich Williams | Burl Audio
Rich Williams is the owner and designer of BURL Audio, a small boutique manufacturer from Santa Cruz, California renowned for their sonically inspiring and musical converters.
I caught up with Rich for a chat about all things BURL and how his converters have gone from strength to strength and the lowdown on the other designs now available in that famous green metalwork.
KMR : How did you start this journey into equipment design, were you always into gear or did you start as a musician?
RW : The town I grew up in there wasn’t much music going on, and I didn't even know that being a musician was a possibility in my life! But I was in love with music and had a great record collection and was fascinated with my dads stereo and stuff like that and he had a pioneer stereo which would always stimulate my imagination.
Anyway so when I went to college I wanted to be an electronic engineer, I went to UCC Santa Cruz, but there were tons of musicians, and there weren’t really that many singers, so I concentrated on singing and eventually was a singer in a band called Burlacticous Undertone - a psychedelic funk rock band with go-go dancers!
KMR : That's one way to get through college!
RW : When I got out of college, I worked in silicon valley, and it's two completely different cultures Santa Cruz and Silicon Valley. Santa Cruz is a college town, a hippy town, there are lots of musicians, and Silicon Valley is full of engineers and business people - pretty much devoid of all soul!
I was the chief audio designer at the company I was working for, and just hated it, so I quit that job, got a degree in recording and started a budget recording studio in Santa Cruz called Paradise Recording. Over time I got Pro Tools and a Studer, and it was no longer a budget place more a high-end recording studio.
KMR : What year are we talking here?
RW : This would have been the mid-90’s. I’d quit electrical engineering entirely and had been running the studio for five years, and then the property that my studio was on was sold, so I had to get a temporary job until I could find a new location and build a new studio. It just so happened that both EMU and Universal Audio are in Santa Cruz, so I got back into engineering but now doing high-end audio stuff.
KMR : What was it like working for EMU and Universal Audio, and what did you work on?
At Emu, I worked on the PARIS recording project (a DSP DAW system) and at Universal Audio I designed the UA2192, the 4110 and the 8110. When I was designing the UA gear the bar was set very high - you know you have the 1176, La2a and the 2-610’s so when I was creating the AD/DA it had to be on that level, it couldn’t just be a ‘run of the mill’ AD/DA.
So it was while I was there that I was turned on to Class A discrete transistor electronics and this was what I felt was the holy grail of AD/DA. It’s not the conversion so much that is the bad side of recording digitally, it’s the analogue action in the converters.
At this time I’d built my new studio, and as I was designing the 2192, 4110 and 8110 I was able to test them in real studio conditions. At this stage I had Digidesign 192’s and the UA2192 was clearly better than those. So the dream and the next obvious step, I felt, at UA was to do the 8192 an eight-channel version that would’ve just been an AES/EBU connection and just bolted onto a pro tools systems.
Anyway, UA didn’t want to go that direction they wanted to go the way they are now with the Apollo and for the recording musician so that’s when I started BURL Audio as I could see the light here!
KMR : It must have been good having a studio so you can run real-world testing and comparisions?
RW : I have a Studer 800 here, and Tape Machines sound great, but they break down all the time, and you’re constantly maintaining them, they’re just not practical in a lot of recording situations.
So I was driven to start this company to build a high-end multichannel AD/DA with ClassA electronics, and while I was doing it, I was just trying to top the UA2192 and the way I discovered how to do it, was to put a transform front end on there. The complaint that I always had myself was things like guitar still sounded better on tape and so did bass, they still sounded kinda’ hollow with the UA2192 so when I design the Burl B2 Bomber ADC was when I started experimenting with transformers on the front end that was the ‘Hallelujah’ moment!
I knew it was going to extremely controversial, which it was - it created a shit-storm on Gearslutz! - But over time I proved to be right because we still sell the B2 ADC like crazy today - we’re selling more of them now than ever, alongside Motherships.
KMR : How did you deal with the online and user response - when I presume a lot of users probably hadn’t even heard your converters at this time and were just voicing an online opinion?
RW : First off there’s no such thing as transparency, as every AD/DA chip is different. The filters sound different, the only thing that’s transparent is standing in the room next to the person playing.
So I was going for tone and a sound that complimented instruments but still with tons of clarity, so that's something I like to get across. It’s not about the transformer front end; people get stuck on that, it’s all about the Class A, a very simple minimalistic circuit path in the AD/DA, the D/A doesn’t have any transformers.
KMR : I like the way you have various options like the B2, Mothership and 500 series so that you can get the Burl sound gradually, and it gives you expandability as well…
RW : Exactly, the 500 series is the perfect model for that, with our B1 and B1D. The real working studio owner who’s actually paying the bills with money from recording needs that expandability.
KMR : So the B2 Bomber ADC was your first product. Is the current version of the B2 the same as the original or have you changed it, and when did you bring out the D/A?
RW : It’s the same, and the DAC was out about a year later. First, it was the B2 ADC, then the 500 Series B1, B1D then the B2 DAC. The very first units I built up so that Eddie Kramer could do the surround mix of Woodstock the 40th anniversary in 2008, released in 2009.
KMR : How hard was it to get Producers and Mixers like that to embrace your product?
RW : I grew up listening to records that Eddie Kramer, Glyn Jones and Andy Johns had done, so I developed my ear for music and tone listening to those records, especially Jimi Hendrix. One day one of the sales guys I was working with got a call from Eddie Kramer asking about some Distressors, and he told him he had Rich from Burl Audio here, and he’s got a bunch of ADC’s, and "what are you using for conversion?"
He said he was using Digidesign 192’s, but he didn’t like the way they sound. So he decided to try my converters out on a Jimi Hendrix session, and I was like ‘oh shit’ wow.
KMR : How did you showcase them?
RW : I had a bunch of them, and we hooked them all together, and this was before the Mothership, so I had to set up 8 of them for 16 channels. But, it turned out at that time that the B2 was still in its infancy, and it had a bug in the code at 48k, and they wouldn’t lock together! I got kicked out of the session, and was completely heartbroken! ..haha
KMR : Oh nightmare...
RW : So there I am packing them all up, practically in tears, and Eddie said: “I liked what I heard, too bad they didn’t work, but we gotta’ get on with the session.” But I left my mic-preamps there, and he said he’d give them a go.
Well, I thought it was over and would never hear from him again. But a couple of months later I get a message on my answer machine, back when we had answer machines, and it was “ Hey this is Eddie Kramer, I loved the mic-pre’s I wanna’ give the A/D’s another go.”
So I drove to LA, so broke that I knew if I went to meet him I wouldn’t have enough money to put gas in my tank to get home. But I went down there and left him the B2 ADC, and on the way home I had some friends come and put gas in my tank for me!
I got a call from Eddie saying he loved the B2 ADC's and every single thing he’s done since has the B2 ADC’s or the B80 Mothership on it - so if you go and buy a Jimi Hendrix record now, they’ve all been through a Burl.
KMR : That must have been an amazing feeling when you get approval from people who have influenced your listening through the years?
RW : Oh absolutely - Eddie Kramer is one of my heroes for sure, and now he’s a really good friend.
KMR : How long did it take to design the B80 Mothership and then get it out to the audio world?
RW : The B2 had started getting some traction on its own; I hadn’t done any events with it as I was just really struggling and was broke, I could hardly do trade shows at the time. But the thing that turned it around was the BURL B80 Mothership. I worked on the Mothership for two years straight and then that’s when I did the Burl Tour in 2011 that launched BURL Audio into the next level.
KMR : I remember hearing the B80 Mothership on that tour in London and chatting with Jules (from Gearslutz) about how good it sounded.
Yes, I went to LA, Nashville, New York, London, Paris and other places across Europe. One of the key events was in Nashville, where only three people showed up, but those three people were Michael Wagener, Vance Powell and Joe Chiccarelli and I blew their minds! Vance has been beating the Burl drum in Nashville like crazy, if you don’t own a Mothership in Nashville and he knows you - Vance will call you!
KMR : He’ll come round and visit you...
Haha yeah! Well, Vance and Eddie really put Rocket Fuel in the whole operation and not only that but dealers got it, and so now if you go to our Artist Page you’ll see the long list of Burl users, and a large percentage of the Grammy nominations and winners are Burl Audio Projects.
KMR : The Vancouver 32 channel Summing mixer and Orca Monitor Controller are two products that provide the ‘complete Burl Family solution’ - alongside your converters and mic-preamps, how does the summing mixer work to the same philosophy as your converters?
RW : Well, I developed a couple of discrete op-amps. Discrete op-amps are op-amps made from individual transistors and running in Class A - and I designed one for the B2 DAC and BDA8 in the Mothership. Those op-amps sound great in everything because they’re Class A, they’re super clear.
Wherever you use them they sound great, you could make a compressor with them, or in an EQ, (which people have been asking me for - but I haven't got there yet). So the B26 Orca and the B32 Vancouver are further applications of this op-amp. It’s a magical component, once I designed that we could use it in everything.
With the B32 Vancouver without the transformers engaged it’s super clear and ”transparent “ haha…but then everybody runs it with the transformer in, and it has the gain boost which also adds a little bit of harmonic love to the whole thing.
Recently I’ve been mixing at East West down in LA, and they have a beautiful Neve console, but I still run my busses out to the B32, and do the final mix in the B32 - because it sounds better.
KMR : Do you find mixers are using your summing mixer in conjunction with other consoles?
RW : Well, I think this is a way to start introducing it to people - even if you’re mixing on an SSL, Neve etc. there is still a benefit to taking those busses out and running them through the B32. There are no capacitors in the signal path; it's all ClassA so there's no cross-over distortion and it’s got huge headroom. Yeah, when you attenuate in the digital domain, you lose resolution.
KMR : Surely a much more pleasurable experience than just totally ITB.
RW : Absolutely!
KMR : Are you still running Paradise Recording and does BURL Audio still operate from the same place?
RW : I’m sitting in it right now! It’s a temporary studio though, I don’t know if you know the story but when I was in Paris in 2011 on the Burl Tour the building that housed my studio caught fire! It was a blessing in disguise really as I bought this property up in the Santa Cruz mountains and we’re intending on building a new studio in the Barn, but meantime it’s in the downstairs portion of my house.
KMR : So a Studio in progress?
RW : Yeah, it’s functional but not the grand vision we have for the Barn.
KMR : How many people work for Burl - do you do everything in-house, or do you use local companies?
RW : Roughly about a dozen. As we're so close to silicon valley there are lots of metal shops and circuit board assembly shops, so everything is done out-of-house, but the final assembly, testing, QC and shipping is all done here out of Santa Cruz.
KMR : What is the most labour intensive design? What took the most to put together, is it the Mothership - being that complicated I presume?
RW : Yes, it’s the Mothership, plus it's the culmination of 25years of music and electrical engineer experience coming together into one thing.
We were so driven on this, both myself and my engineering partner Kevin Dickie, this for us this was the equivalent of putting a man on the moon! When we got all the boards and all the metal and everything we put it together, and it all worked exactly correctly the first time.
We triple checked everything, and every time you're designing a board or code there are mistakes, and there are revisions, but the very first Mothership worked. We were very driven.
KMR : How long did it take you from inception to completion? And what proved the most challenges?
RW : It took two years, the analogue input section is the same as the Bomber A/D, so that was all done. But then the DAC section was different with tons and tons of listening sessions, not just drums and bass and guitar in isolation; I'd track it all and listen to how it stacked up. A lot of that work had been done when I designed the B2’s, but it was more because of it being a larger engineering effort and due to lots of cards having to talk to each other digitally. There was also the Digilink side of things that took time as well.
KMR : Do you find you have to provide many formats these days, as I know you run DANTE, MADI and DigiLink on the Mothership?
RW : Right now we support Digilink, DANTE, MADI and SoundGrid and soon we’ll have a USB solution for the B16. When audio over Ethernet came out, everybody went in their own direction, so it does make it somewhere ridiculous as there's too many Audio over Ethernet standards. The beauty of the Mothership is it’s able to support all these different formats because of its modularity. It doesn’t take a too much of an effort to go from one format to the next on our gear.
For Burl Audio our future is the digital connectivity of our Mothership, for example, Live sound is all digital now, and we would love the Mothership to be the go-to stage box as well as mic preamp cards, mastering cards - all things we’re working on...
KMR : Is this the product you are most proud of?
RW : Yes, it’s the Mothership, that’s an easy one - it’s the heart and soul of the studio, it’s the Studer of today!
KMR : How do you see BURL Audio and what is your mission?
RW : In the end, we’re trying to make musicians happy and listeners. It’s about the person who’s listening to the record at the end. That is what Burl Audio is about.
We’re about the soul of the music, and preserving the soul of the music and soul of the performance. When you record with the Mothership, it’s similar to recording with Tape, in that you get there quicker.
You make either the band and the musician happier, you use less compression, less EQ and you’re preserving the true element of the original music. I’ve listened to 1000’s of records, and I feel those records.
Perfect example: the loudness wars…is that really benefitting the end listener?
KMR : Your studio is burning down - (apparently it did before !) what would you grab and why?
RW : Our original prototypes, things that can’t be replaced and my records! That's what happened in the other studio fire, the Firemen went in and got the records out first!
KMR : Appreciate the interview, Rich,
RW : Thanks! You’re welcome.