Jim Williams has spent much of his 56 years working with some of the biggest names in the music business, including Frank Zappa, John McLaughlin and Stevie Wonder. He's the owner of Audio Upgrades, where he sells his transparent High Speed Microphone Preamp and upgrades stock professional audio equipment — preamps, compressors, EQs, mixing boards, tape decks, signal processors and microphones. This work involves replacing op-amps, capacitors, direct-coupling audio paths and other sonic improvements. He's also involved in instrument amplifier design, and is helping with the return of the classic Rhodes electric piano.
You're well known for your modifications of existing equipment, such as AKG mics, Aphex compressors, Lexicon signal processors and Soundcraft boards. How did you get into this game?
I started out building guitars and designing electronics in the early '70s, and while I was attending college I met up with Rex Bogue at Cal Arts in Valencia. Bogue and I made several custom guitars for folks like John McLaughlin and Frank Zappa, and I did the electronic design for the on-board active guitar preamps that I still make today. I don't remember anyone doing the mod thing back then, besides studio staff engineers and techs that just did it as part of their jobs. I was hired in 1979 by Stevie Wonder to design and modify his keyboard gear and effects, and I also crafted some recording gear for him. I still work for Stevie today and design circuits for his Clavinets and other keyboards.
What are your favorite mods, the ones you think turn out sonically superior to the originals?Some of my favorite modified pieces are AKG 460B mics that I think sound better than Schoeps or DPA. The ADL 1000 LA-2 knock offs are another fine transformation, and modified Aphex Expressors are the most transparent compressors going. AKG 414Bs are exceptional large diaphragm mics when fixed up, and I like dbx stuff with good analog and VCAs. I'll take my modified Alesis HD24XR over any DAW — it's as good as any converter can get while still retaining the depth and surround of analog. I love old, modified MXR graphic EQs too, since those can be made to sculpt audio without destruction. I tend to gravitate to gear that's transparent and allows every nuance of the source to be heard, so I buy the stuff that comes out the best after modifications. I don't care about age, looks, vibe or mojo — it's about pure performance with nothing added and nothing taken away. I got over vintage recording gear when it was new. Much of what is collectable today is what made me figure out improvements in audio. I used [Universal Audio] 1176s way back when, but never loved them, only tolerated them.
You do champion clean preamps and components rather than "colored" sound. George Massenburg is another — but you guys are definitely in the minority.
Yeah, a lot of us old salts do like the clean sound. We've been doing this before dirty became fashionable — since the '70s. It's a design concept and philosophy that's dedicated to the truth of the player rather than the illusion of the recording chain. For me it comes from the background I have working with top-notch players, such as Frank Zappa and Stevie Wonder. Those kind of cats were so good I couldn't go up to them and say, "Hey, you're good, but I've got a black box that will make you sound better than you really are." I would have been thrown out of the room. The truth tends to work better with these people, since they spent a lifetime crafting a unique sound. I've seen the color thing used more commonly with acts that don't have the talent or ability of the great people. Some engineers are turning a mouse into a man, fattening up a track that's shitty and making a player sound better than he really is. The people I work with don't need to be better than they are — they just need the world to hear how good they are. My goal at Audio Upgrades is not to add anything, but I don't want to take anything away either.
Is that why things such as Neve, API and Quad-Eight are all the rage?
Are they? Where? It's pretty much all the rage with alternative rockers and new rockers, but not classic rock, R&B and other pop acts — particularly established players who've been around the block. If you want to hear an API, put on Stevie Wonder's Hotter Than July. The whole record was cut through API and it sounds small, dry and dull to me. Compare the sound of that record with A Time to Love, his newest stuff. The quality of the sound is stunning. The cymbals really sound like cymbals on the new stuff. The record breathes and his voice sounds powerful and open.
Then one of the keys to a clean setup is that you have to record a really good artist?
It's a double-edged sword — it reveals the good and it reveals the bad.
Do you advocate clean components at every part of the chain? Transformerless mics and preamps? Clean compressors?
Usually. For compressors I look for boxes that work like there's a little man inside who's working a fader up and down — a little man that's faster and smarter than I am.
Who makes compressors like that?
There are a few out there. I like the Aphex 651 Expressors after I clean them up, and the same goes with the dbx 165As after they've been cleaned up, too. You don't hear the sound of the compressor unless you drop the threshold down. But if you keep things reasonable, when you put the bypass button in or out you won't hear a change in tone. That's the kind of compressors I tend to like. I just want to control the dynamics — I don't want to hear a sound. Most of these colored boutique compressors have a sound, so you get a tone shift. If I want the color, I'll insert the compression during mixdown, but not in the tracking signal chain. You can make clean as dirty as you want, but you can't make dirty clean.
What about converters? How important are they in the signal chain?
It depends on the source material. If you're doing alternative rock, then you're going to have a hard time hearing the subtle differences. If you're recording acoustic stuff using very high quality instruments and great players in a nice environment, you're going to hear subtle differences. It also depends on the quality of the monitoring. Even changing a cable will change the sound. I use certain mics, preamps and converters to track with neutrality and then play with it later on. Or not. I have the control at that point.
Do you lean toward transformerless, non-tube microphones?
Pretty much. In fact, I don't even own a tube mic anymore. Tube mics are too thick and midrangey in a way. I find that tubes flatter less-than-stellar sources better than great sources.
What about microphone preamps?
I like my solid-state transformerless ones. I still use those transformer, front-end FET designs for certain things when I want a rounder sound, particularly on a vocal track or solo acoustic guitar. But on a rhythm acoustic guitar I always use the High Speed. It sits right in the mix — it doesn't add or take away anything.
What brand converters do you prefer?
Crystal Semiconductor and Burr-Brown Corporation converter chip sets. I make my own converters, but I'm not making them commercially — it's too tedious.
Do you have other products coming out?
Right now I just make the High Speed Preamp and also preamp cards. The problem is the market changed. I scrapped plans for a super-clean EQ. I like an EQ that when you patch it in you hear no difference until you turn a knob. Very few are made that way.
What other projects are you working on?
I'm working with Basson Sound. This company makes the nicest guitar and bass cabs I've ever heard in my life. The bass cabs are 8x10 at 2000 watts and 4x10 at 1000 watts. The SPL is off the charts and the low end is amazing. I've got the 4x12 guitar cab here. You put this up against a Marshall cab — even with the same speakers in — and the Marshall cab has this boxy, nasal resonance but the Basson cabinet is smooth, tight, no midrange ring, the low end is unbelievable and the volume is higher.
What's your involvement with Basson?
I designed the BGA1 guitar amp for them. It's 120 watts, with two channels and an effects loop. It also has what I call an additive EQ design. The treble, mid and bass controls are actually band-pass filters, so if you turn all the tone controls down to zero you don't hear anything. You can adjust and blend the three bands together with an infinite range of tone.
I understand you're also working on the resurrection of the Rhodes piano.
Yeah, the Rhodes is making a comeback, without Fender this time. The last Fender Rhodes was the Mark V made in 1984. The Rhodes family owned the trademark and patents, and then they were sold to the Roland Corporation in the late '80s. Founder Harold Rhodes bought them back in 1997, and then Joe Brandstetter bought the rights from the Rhodes family and has worked for the past ten years to get the company off the ground again.
Roland came out with a digital piano that bore little resemblance to the original. Is the new piano going back to the original tines?
Yes, the tines will be back and will use the same metal alloy and physical dimensions. We'll even be able to sell new tines to Mark I and Mark II owners who break them. We've got the original design people from Rhodes, and they're working with new Rhodes guys like me and basically we're trying to put out a superior product — we're building for quality, not for the price point. This piano will satisfy the old Rhodes users by retaining the sound and quality of the past, but also offering new features such as lighter action, a three-band EQ with sweepable midrange, a triangle-wave based vibrato, and balanced and unbalanced outs with full MIDI implementation. I hooked up with the Rhodes people because I had a longtime reputation for hot-rodding keyboards. All of Stevie Wonder's Clavinets are customized, and some of his Rhodes have modified circuits I made for him. I guess they figured it would be a natural for me to do their circuit designs, and I think I have to agree.