Meeting Topic: Useful Arts
Moderator Name: CRAS AES Faculty Advisor - David Kohr
Speaker Name: Peter Swann - Founder of Useful Arts
Meeting Location: Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences, Gilbert Az
Last Wednesday, The Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences hosted an event featuring Peter Swann, the founder of Useful Arts. Peter spent the afternoon discussing the background of his company, as well as presenting
multiple A/B comparisons of his products.
According to Mr. Swann, Useful Arts was founded after having spent numerous years within the audio industry, yet being unable to attain the sound that was in his head regardless of how much high-end equipment he used in pursuit of it. A turning point came when he was invited to the mix session for Tom Petty's Last DJ album. The mix sounded amazing, however, he noticed that they were mixing directly from Pro Tools to the Passive fader of a Neve console whose EQ was turned off. Upon inquiry, he was told that there was no reason to have any of the gear turned on at that point because they had tracked it to achieve the sound that they wanted right from the start.
At this point, he started listening back to albums by Chet Baker noting, "His vocals sound like they're in your head." That was the sound that he had wanted for so long but could not achieve. Back when those albums were being recorded, there was no such thing as mass-produced, name-brand gear; it was all home-brewed and handmade. This was Peter's inspiration to limit himself to the reference material that was available to the engineers back in 1954 to develop the SFP-60, a 2-channel fully tube mic pre. Mr. Swann noted that he wanted to take the best of the modern world, such as the hardware and connections currently available, but utilize the components that give that vintage gear its desirability within the modern era.
One of the features that give Useful Arts products the ability to accomplish this is the color knob, which adds pure second harmonic distortion to the sound without clipping or affecting the EQ. Peter explained, "Your brain isn't listening to the notes, it's listening to the second harmonics... Therefore, if you focus on the harmonic content, you create compelling tracks right out of the box that doesn't need all kinds of extra plugins to sound good... Making a mic pre more than just a boring utilitarian tool, you become a powerful creative professional."
Mr. Swann also discussed how he implemented the technology of vintage Telefunken Preamps: "One really cool feature that nobody else has ever done since is that the last tube was loaded with an inductor rather than a resistor, acting like a trampoline for your signal. The transients in the sound have a springboard to pop out of the mix. You hear more of the environment that way... The guitarist's fingertips across the windings of the strings."
Having developed numerous products, Peter reached out to Abbey Road/ Berklee professor, Jerry Barnes. He discovered from that discussion that if a studio can't fit in a backpack, it is becoming irrelevant. Thus, the Hornet was created. Currently their best-seller, the Hornet is a portable mic pre with a transformer on the input as well as on the output, with JFET DI and the aforementioned color control.
All of the Useful Arts products currently available are intended for front-end use, for the things that plugins can't do, giving you all of the best qualities of analog/tube equipment while still working with the convenience of the digital realm. "Give the digital stuff you use the best chance at having the best source to work with."
Peter noted that he never got a degree in engineering, in fact, he failed his high school, electrical engineering class, five times (but eventually got an A)! However, he uses his experience from fixing gear, research, and computerized circuit simulations to develop his products. "The sound is unconventional because I don't know how to build things the conventional way." Having listened to the results first-hand, I don't think that's a bad thing.
For the live demo, 2 Neumann U87s were set up, one plugged into the solid state Hornet, and one to the tube BF-1. There was also a BF-S PRO DI that was demonstrated for use with bass by our AES chapter's Vice President Tyler Miller.
The Hornet and BF-1 were tested with a trumpet performance by Miles Harder, as well as two vocal performances by Nathan Swiss and Andrea Coronado.
The Hornet currently retails for $299, well below what you would expect to pay for the quality you get. As Mr. Swann notes, "The object isn't to make money, it's to make the world sound better." Useful Arts is currently expanding to keep up with extremely high demand.
Written By: CRAS AES Secretary - William Walton