In our segment, World’s Greatest Sound Engineers, we feature the favorite engineer of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles and more, the inventor of the modern recording console, the multi-band audio equalizer, and the vocal booth, and also the first engineer to use artificial reverberation in commercial recording, Bill Putnam Sr.
Producer, lyricist, label owner, engineer, studio owner and technical designer were titles Bill Putnam could be placed under. Repairing radios and renting out PA systems is how Bill developed interest in the business side of music. After completing his college, Putnam worked at radio stations and was the radio engineering for the American army during WWII.
Bill opened Universal Recording Corporation in Evanston, Illinios. He later formed Universal Audio, which built most of the equipment used in Universal Recording, including the console.
Born Milton Tasker Putnam, he relocated to Chicago, and in 1947 recorded what is considered to be the first pop record that used artificial reverb. That recording, The Harmonicats- “Peg-O-My-Heart”, went on to sell over 1.4 million copies.
“Many of the recordings that were done prior to that had reverb, but it was part of the acoustics of the recording environment. Bill’s contribution to the art was that he literally came up with the design of the way the echo or reverb sound is sent from the recording desk and the way it’s returned to the mix so that it can be used in a variable amount.”
– Bruce Swedien, legendary sound engineer
Bill Putman’s Many Firsts
The engineering techniques pioneered at Universal, by Putnam, made waves in the audio world. The first use of tape repeat, the first vocal booth, 8-track recording trials, and experiments with half-speed disc mastering, just to name a few.
Putnam sold his interest in Universal Recording in 1957 and opened United Recording Corporation on the West Coast with the Universal Audio business upstairs. It was here that Putnam had the forethought to begin recording in stereo. Stereo was new at the time, and the record companies weren’t interested, but Putnam foresaw stereo as the future and began recording both a mono and stereo feed. His efforts and vision paid off when the record companies realised the quality of stereo recordings.
Bill Putnam’s use of an echo chamber, a microphone and loudspeaker placed in the studio’s bathroom, was probably the first artistic use of artificial reverb in music, lending an extra dimension to the song.
Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack
In the early ’60s, Putnam became an unofficial member of the Rat Pack. At the time, Frank Sinatra was arguably the most powerful man in show business. At first meeting, organised by legendary arranger Nelson Riddle, Sinatra’s instincts suggested that Putnam wasn’t merely a techie, but a fellow leader, a fellow swinger. Putnam would become only “technician” Sinatra ever became true friends with.
Coincidentally, Sinatra’s contract was up with Capitol. He started his own label, Reprise, which would record all of its seminal tracks at United’s A and Western’s 1 rooms, including monster hits like “It Was a Very Good Year” and “Strangers in the Night.”
Sinatra, got so heavily depended on Putnam that he would go on to record all of his sessions. The association was so thick that the Sinatra would be annoyed if Putnam was busy with another artist. So he put Putnam on retainer to handle virtually all of his sessions from 1960 to 1964.
The legacy lives on
The ‘father of modern recording’, passed away in California in 1989, at the age of 69. Ten years later Universal Audio was re-started by his sons, James Putnam and Bill Putnam Jr. The company remains a vital force in the development of studio equipment. In 2000, Putnam received a posthumous Special Merit/Technical Grammy Award for his contribution to the music industry.