"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."
"The HX-3 was born out of people telling us they loved the headphone amp in the MixPre. This was for good reason, as that headphone amp features 30V of signal swing -- all off of a couple of AA batteries. It is one of the many products that we make that I say are 'sophisticated power supplies with a nice audio circuit hanging off of it.' After shipping for a few years, this product was ripped off lock, stock, and barrel by an unscrupulous company in Taiwan, which upset me. They even copied my exact PC board layout. I’ve been asked many times: 'Don’t your product and that other one come off of the same assembly line somewhere in Asia?' The answer is *no*, we only make this product for Sound Devices - in Reedsburg, WI, USA, where we're still making and selling it all these years later."
"The vaunted 442 mixer was our entry into 'the big leagues' at the time and really put us on the map. We knew that there was a hole in the market for a full-featured, high-end 4-channel portable mixer for around $3000. Jim Koomar (Sales) and I took a trip to Minneapolis to pick [famed product designer] Peter Engh’s brain about what the product needed, and he correctly said 'it’s all about outputs,' meaning have many types of outputs along with the input side of things. This is where the 4 direct outs came from. This all-analog circuit is still one of my very favorite designs and near and dear to my heart. The preamps were again copied from the MP-1, complete with their Lundahl transformers and opto-isolator trim limiters. The bus limiters and mixing were done with THAT VCAs. The VCAs were trimmed on the assembly line to null the distortion using DACs and a microcontroller. Libby Koomar (Mechanical Engineer) did a superb job on the elegant mechanical design. She came up with the now-distinctive posts flanking the unit, giving it such style, which we still call 'golf tees' internally. We had a hard time coming up with a name, but I remember when Jon Tatooles (Marketing) came in and suggested '442,' after the famous Oldsmobile muscle car. We all loved it. 4 inputs, 4 direct outs, 2 main outs."
"The MM-1 was something we were asked for quite a bit: 'I need the MP-1, but with a headphone amp.' This was a fairly short putt product-wise, so we did it: preamp from the MP-1 and headphone amp from the HX-3. This evergreen product is still used for many things, most often along with parabolic mics to provide a nice limiter and headphone amp for the operator. This is still manufactured today on our line in Reedsburg, WI."
"Back when audio products had mechanical meters, different countries/regions had different types of meters - meter colors, scales, and ballistics were different. An American VU meter with its 'buff' colored background would never be confused with a black British PPM meter numbered from 1 to 7. We started with LED meters and avoided mechanical meters since LEDs were inherently more reliable and smaller. However, the meter scale remained a very hot topic, and differed markedly from region of the world to region of the world. The only topic that was debated almost as much was 'left-hand or right-hand meters??' The 442N was a request from our European friends and featured a metering scale for the Nordic countries laser etched on the front of the unit (we as Americans thought the scale was fairly odd, but it is what our friends wanted) -- and this was a very popular model! Today of course things are easier as we have LCDs and OLEDs with generally everything marked in dBFS."
"The 302 was a product that Libby Koomar (Mechanical Engineer) and I squeezed out during the tumultuous development of the 7-Series recorders. We were getting asked regularly for a mixer that fit in between the MixPre (too small) and the 442 (too big). Circuitry-wise, the 302 was fairly straightforward, mostly being a cut-and-paste exercise from the MP-1/MixPre/442 circuitry. However, the mechanical design was difficult because we wanted to use the same extrusion that we used everywhere else - this also ensured its ridiculously small size. Libby and I resorted to all sorts of tricks to make the circuitry fit. Cramming 3 full-sized Lundahl LL1576 mic preamp transformers in meant that we didn't quite have enough room for the batteries, so Libby let half of one of the batteries protrude out the unit. Jim Koomar (Sales) christened the battery compartment the 'angry inch' which was as unorthodox as it was functional. The 302 went on to become one our most popular mixers ever, which we still get asked for today - a hard-to-beat mixture of size, battery life, audio performance, and ruggedness."
"The 744T (and variants) was really where Sound Devices hit its stride sales- and product-wise. The origins of these recorders came from a European trip that Jim Koomar (Sales) and I took, selling the 442. Unexpectedly, everywhere we visited, dealers and customers begged us to make a hard-disk recorder. By the time we got back, I was starting to sketch out a recorder. The first mechanical prototype was housed in the same black powder coated extrusion that we used for MP-1 and other products. It didn’t look very good, but we showed it at NAB 2003 anyway. The original concept did not have mic preamps until Libby Koomar (Mechanical Engineering) one day asked me why not include mic preamps. As I gave her all the reasons it couldn’t be done, I realized that what I was saying didn't really make sense :) I spent more time on this preamp design than any other up until that point. My goal was to make them as good or better than the popular Grace Designs 2-channel mic preamp that a lot of tapers were using at the time, and succeeded. The 744T mic preamps, even today, are fantastic sounding. Getting the magnetic noise from the spinning hard disk motors out of the preamps was a real nightmare, but through a lot of trial and error (and Mu-metal), we prevailed. The first production runs of the 744T were really rough, and we had a hard time keeping up with the intense demand. This was when I spent many nights sleeping at the office on a cot and working several 40-hour days to help produce units. The first versions of firmware were also slightly less than stable, especially regarding the Firewire port operation. The 744T (and 722, 702T, 702 variants) kept us fully busy in Engineering and Production for a couple years. We eventually got all of the issues sorted out and the 744T has become one of our most beloved and successful products."
"If you feel like you know all of our products, but not this one, it is because the product that never saw the light of day. It was a rack-mount hard-disk / DVD-RAM recorder / telecine playback machine to try and supplant the Foster DV824. This aborted product was the first one on which Paul Isaacs (Product Design) and I collaborated - me in Wisconsin, and he in New Zealand at the time. I had become a hard-core digital designer by this point, however, I reached for the secret too soon on this one. This product was designed around the ill-fated Virtex-4 FPGA and my first attempt at using Linux for the core OS. Both Linux and FPGA-based architecture were the future (it is what is used in the A20-Nexus today) but it was too soon for either to be viable. Paul did a great product definition, and I ended up hiring him full-time. He ended up moving to Wisconsin and has lived happily ever after with Sound Devices."
The 788T was a phoenix rising out of the ashes of our ill-fated rack-recorder. Well, this and the IBC 2007 show. At this tradeshow, I saw that there were several very compelling competitive recorders being introduced — and I was getting badgered by many dealers and users about doing a 6-channel audio recorder (which seems so quaint now!) On the flight back from Amsterdam, I drew up the product design and architecture for the 788T. This product went from my paper sketch to shipping in 7 months, which is sort of unreal (normal product development is more like 1-2 years). The hardware of this product was done by me (all circuitry), Jason McDonald (all mechanicals) and Dan Fuller (PCB layout). Dan reminded me recently that right before release, we discovered noise from the HDD motors was getting into the mic preamps (low impedance circuitry like mic preamps is especially susceptible to magnetic flux, which HDD motors excel at spitting out). I pulled an all-nighter to redesign all of the mic preamps and shove them into the corner of the unit which had no stray flux. Then Jason pulled an all-nighter to redo mechanicals, to squeeze the board above the XLRs. Dan pulled an all-nighter to lay the PCB out, and we paid (through the nose) for a 1-day turn on the raw boards, then our PCB house in Minnesota did a 1-day turn on populating the boards. Voila! In less than a week, we had this problem licked and we were able to show the 788T at NAB and start shipping. Several of my firmware team were ready to quit after that intense experience, so I turned management of the firmware team over to Paul Isaacs (Product Development) after it shipped, who was less abrasive than yours truly. The 788T you all know and love was fairly spartan -- feature-wise -- at first, and I credit Paul with all of the features that he added later, which really made it a huge success."
"The CL-8 was not part of the original plan with the 788T system. However, when we saw the tremendous popularity of the 788T and people asking for a larger mixer to along with it, I thought it made more sense to design a controller. I had designed the 788T to have the horsepower to do all of the mixing needed, so we did the CL-8. Jason McDonald (Engineering) came up with a way to mount this after the fact to a 788T and I got the USB interconnection going. The CL-8 and the 788T combo became the next best thing since the 744T and 442 combo."
"It is sometimes hard to remember, but our recording media used to largely be done via high speed spinning disks. We spend a ridiculous amount of time making the spinning glass disk reliable inside of a portable unit which could be carried, shaken, and dropped. Solid state drives (SSDs) in the early days were still considered somewhat exotic. We also were a bit unsure if they would be as reliable as the spinning disks (!). After quite a bit of testing, I figured we could substitute the spinners with SSDs reliably. When I saw 256GB SSDs finally coming down in price, I saw an opportunity to do a "new" product which would have real benefit. This was perhaps the shortest product development of all time — substitute this spinner for this solid-state drive, and voila! The 788T-SSD."
"The 552 (and the 788T) was the start of the melding of mixers and recorders for Sound Devices. Of course we now have both the MixPre line and the 8-Series line, both of which are mixer-recorders. But before the 552, these were physically two different devices, and it was quite popular to carry the 442 mixer along with the 744 recorder. The 552 was our first hybrid unit which combined both a mixer and a recorder in one power-efficient unit. The 552 was mostly an all-analog mixer featuring 5 Lundahl input transformers. I just looked over the schematic for the first time in years - each input had dual opto-based limiters along with one stage implemented with depletion-mode MOSFETs -- a total of 3 limiter stages per channel. To this, I grafted a small 2-channel recorder based on an ARM926 microcontroller from Atmel. Jason McDonald (Mechanical Engineering) designed the top and bottom panels out of injection-molded carbon fiber to save weight. The 552 was also the first (and last!) time customers met Sven, our much-maligned voice assistant. This was an effort to make navigating the blinking LEDs from the 442 that controlled settings easier to use. The microcontroller in the 552 had just enough oomph to run a primitive voice synth, but small power-efficient displays or pre-recorded voices were out of the question. A funny story: Sven had an internal setting to be a female or male voice. Foreshadowing the movie "Her", one of our programmers had it set to female during development and said that after hearing it so much, he “sort of fell in love with her.” We all agreed that he needed to get out more...!"
"The CL-9 was the first of our flat-panel fader panels in the growing 788T ecosystem. Like the CL-8, this was also an 'after-the-fact' development. Since I knew that the USB port would work for this function, I designed the CL-9 around this port. Jason McDonald (Mechanical Engineering) as usual did the mechanicals, and Francois Morin (Field Programmable Gate Array expert) wrote the VHDL (Very High-Speed Integrated Circuit Hardware Description Language) code for running the entire CL-9. One unique feature is the fader caps in which Jason integrated neodymium magnets to pull down on the faders to eliminate an audible “click” sound on quiet movie sets when touched."
"After 10 years of making the original USBPre1.5, we had learned a lot and solicited lots of customer feedback. Also many of the parts from the original USBPre1.5 had gone obsolete. I designed the entire USBPre-2 with new improved mic preamps - class A long-tail pair with discrete transistors, better metering, and used the Blackfin DSP which was may more powerful than the original bizarre Phillips processor used in the USBPre1.5. The entire code stack for this product was written by Mark Ketilson (Software) and has not really changed since day 1. We are still manufacturing this product in Reedsburg and it stays popular even today. I can't count the number of FoH and acoustical measurement folks I've met who know our company primarily through this device."
"The original MixPre came out in the year 2000, and in the intervening years, USB digital audio had grown in popularity. This new version, called the MixPre-D, is in some ways one of the coolest products we've made, as it was the last of our transformer-based input products. I took the digital guts (Blackfin DSP) from the USBPre-2 and fitted them into the original MixPre chassis along with some other enhancements, like an AES digital output and an M/S matrix. The analog section stayed the same as the original MixPre with the Lundahl transformers, opto limiters, and conductive plastic pots. The power supply was another one of my super-efficient flyback varieties featuring several supply rails (+15V, -15V, +48V, +5V, +3.3V, +1.8V, and +1.35V for the DSP core) with my custom-designed multi-tap transformers that we hand-wound at our headquarters in Reedsburg, Wisconsin. This design was truly old meets new... which is now old, but so am I :( We made this product for several years, but it was eventually eclipsed by the modern generation of MixPres which featured even more features and higher quality audio for less money."