"Sound Devices started as nothing but a crazy idea inside my head. I had grown up creating little businesses mowing lawns, fixing bikes, repairing electronics, motorcycles, cars and such. I was heavily into music, and started building speakers and audio circuits as a kid. I eventually went to college, got a formal Electrical Engineering degree, and then was hired by a fantastic pro audio company, where I worked for several years. As I was nearing 30 years old, I figured it was time to give it a go on my own, designing and manufacturing audio equipment. I enlisted fellow engineer and friend, Brad Lovett, and we started drawing up plans. We first hired a lawyer to make sure we were squeaky clean legally, and then started planning from my basement outside of Chicago. Brad and I realized that - while we could handle the 'tech side' of things - if we wanted to be truly successful, we’d need more than just engineering. I then convinced Jon Tatooles and Jim Koomar to join us on the journey. They became the heart of the Sales and Marketing team. We found a good angel investor, did more planning, and then we incorporated. The four of us set up shop in a small office in Park Ridge [Illinois] above a paint shop - this is where we found the infamous box labeled 'Sound Devices' — our name was set, and we were on our way. I started designing what was to become the MP-1...”
"Before long, Brad Lovett decided to exit, and Jim Koomar and I both uprooted and moved from Chicago to Reedsburg, WI. There we established Sound Devices' manufacturing division in a rented space within a company owned by the angel investor. We met Libby, who worked at said company, and hired her as our first employee (later Jim and Libby got married - our first SD marriage!). Libby has a math degree but turned out to be brilliant at mechanical engineering, and she replaced Brad Lovett as my primary engineering partner in crime. Jim, Libby, and I were the 'three musketeers' who set up all of the original manufacturing, and heavily collaborated on the design of the original products. Later on, Jon moved north to Wisconsin as well, and the four of us worked on all aspects of the business, designing products, finding and visiting vendors, talking to potential customers, creating ads, establishing a reseller network, setting up tradeshows, hiring employees, and everything else needed to get a company going. After many years of hard work and meticulous attention to detail, we designed many groundbreaking products (more on these in subsequent posts), and attracted and gained the trust of many customers. Slowly but surely, we became more well known, turned a profit, paid back the seed money, and bought our own 30,000-square-foot manufacturing building down the road from our original rented place in Reedsburg...”
“Over time, many wonderful people have come and gone, and the Engineering group has expanded far beyond just me and Libby Koomar. One notable person who came into the SD fold back in 2006 was Lisa Wiedenfeld, our very hardworking CFO/HR/Manufacturing head. Without her, we would have never grown to where we are today. In 2021, we decided to sell Sound Devices to Audiotonix, and things have never been better - truly a match made in heaven. Many people have asked me “how’s it going with Audiotonix?”, and the answer is always the same: “Fantastic!” James Gordon & the gang at Audiotonix are amazingly hands-off in that we've been left alone to design, build, market and sell products like we’ve always done, but with many more engineering, financial, sales, and marketing resources at our disposal. It's the best vibe we've ever had in the company – we are working on many new products, and having a lot of fun at the same time. I feel grateful to say that after all this time, I remain here, as active and engaged as ever. Along with Lisa and Libby (and dozens of other truly incredible coworkers), I feel fortunate to run this fantastic company, and on a daily basis do what I truly love - design products. In the rest of this series, I will focus on the individual products that we've made, and my memories from designing them."
"This was the product that started it all, and formed a template for where we'd go product-wise: phenomenal sound quality, simple to use, and very durable. I worked a long time on this preamp to give it excellent dynamic range, along with great battery life. I evaluated every microphone transformer on the market and was bowled over by the quality of the Lundahl, still the best microphone transformer on the market, IMO. The output transformer was my own design, and the (analog) limiter used a glorious Clairex opto-isolator. I stole the idea for black powdercoating and laser etching from Lectrosonics -- I loved that look. I gave a Maglite to Libby Koomar and she designed the battery compartment based off of it -- one of her first brilliant designs. The name "MP-1" was an homage to a mentor of mine at Shure, the wise and wonderful Michael Pettersen. For a short while, we also OEM'd [Original Equipment Manufactured] the MP-1 to Shure, re-badged as the FP23. We manufacture this product in Reedsburg and sell it worldwide to this day."
"The original MixPre was very different from the MixPre line that we make today, yet similar. The original all-analog MixPre and the digital MixPre line of today are both all about killer mic preamps in a tiny package - however, the original MixPre has no digital anything - analog through and through. I knew that it would be possible to design a mixer that was very tiny yet rugged and with extremely high-quality audio. I copied the transformer-based mic pre from the MP-1 and modified it a bit to have nice conductive-plastic potentiometers for gain instead of a stepped switch. I also decided to turn the extrusion sideways so that we could have more control "face" for the unit. However, I couldn’t figure out how to make daylight-readable meters. I was investigating mechanical meters [like I designed into the FP32A back in the day], when Libby Koomar (Mechanical Engineer) suggested LEDs. I informed her that there was no such thing as a super bright, low current LED. As she’s done many times since, she then proved me wrong by finding GaN LEDs from Nichia that were brand new and absolutely blinding, with less than a milliamp of current. Jim Koomar (Sales) came up with the name which emphasized the “PREamp” in a mixer, and we’ve never looked back since." This original MixPre is, by today's standards, still a stellar performer and sounds great. If you can find a used one, and don't need any digital I/Os, it still a killer little package."
The MP-2 was a variation of the original MixPre. We started to get word from the field that 'tapers' were using the MixPre for their mobile taping rigs at music concerts, and that it was missing a couple of features. As we’ve done many times since, we branched out a bit product-wise and market-wise to see what would happen - threw clay against the wall, so to speak, to see if it would stick. I put an M-S matrix into the MixPre circuitry and changed the gain pots for more precise matching. To differentiate from the similar-looking MixPre, Libby Koomar had the front panel anodized in a nice gold color, and the MP-2 was born. We picked up a couple of dealers who catered specifically to the tapers, and the MP-2 became fairly popular as a front-end to the DAT/MiniDisc/etc. recorders used at the time. Eventually, we learned more and developed our own recorders with nice inbuilt mic preamps.
The first-generation USBPre was the very first USB microphone interface ever, from any company. I had been playing around with this new 'USB' computer protocol and a SPDIF-to-USB box from Opcode. It dawned on me that I could design a couple great mic preamps and supply the necessary amount of power for true 48V phantom all from the 2.5W that USB supplied if I did the power supply carefully, which was not a problem. At this point in my career, I was very strong in analog design, but less so on the digital side of things, so Jim Allard from Allard Designs did much of the work on the digital side of things. Today, there are hundreds of microcontrollers available with a USB peripheral built in, but back then the only game in town was the UDA1335 from Philips, and it left a lot to be desired but we wrapped enough parts around it to make it work for our purposes. The housekeeping was done with a venerable PIC processor. Like all of these other early products, Libby Koomar designed the mechanicals. I was very happy with the mic preamps I did in this product - all discrete, class-A, our first transformerless design. In the first couple years we shipped the USBPre, we spent a lot of time working directly with Apple and Microsoft, as both of their OSes were full of bugs in the new-to-the-world USB Audio class. Several months after shipping, we came out with a revision, USBPre-1.5, which included the much-requested SPDIF In and Out. Since this came out, there have been dozens of great (and not so great!) USB interfaces from other companies - many still bear a passing resemblance to their original predecessor.