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...