PreSonus at 20: Innovation Born on the Bayou

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Two decades in, this digital audio powerhouse is just hitting its stride.

By Marty Paule

I first met Jim Odom when he visited Musician's Friend headquarters in 2007 to do a show-and-tell session with our team. The story Jim told that day was a remarkable one that’s remained with me since. One of the more memorable elements of his talk about the origins of PreSonus was geography: The company Odom cofounded came of age in Baton Rouge, Louisiana of all places.

PreSonus 20th Anniversary Logo

At the risk of revealing my innate Left-Coast leanings, I must admit to being surprised. Baton Rouge? Bayou Country? Where you go for alligators and Cajun music? As Jim put up a photo showing the company’s early nondescript office-factory, located over a furniture store in drowsy, downtown Baton Rouge, I thought, “That can’t be right.” The digital recording gear and software that began revolutionizing audio production in the late 20th century was designed in tech strongholds like Silicon Valley and Germany. Right? Wrong.

As it turns out, like so many great entrepreneurial stories, PreSonus grew out of a mixture of love, need and circumstance. The love was of music. The need was for affordable gear on which to professionally record, mix and master that music. The circumstance was having the right combination of passion, education and work experience. That’s where Jim Odom and Brian Smith, both LSU electrical engineering grads, enter the picture. With Jim’s love of music (he’s still a gigging musician with Platinum and Gold record production credits) and the pair’s deep experience working with military-spec circuit boards, the essential elements that led to PreSonus’ 1995 founding were in place.

The early years

Original PreSonus Headquarters
Behind this drab facade a revolution in DSP was unfolding.

Odom, still at the helm today as PreSonus president and still an active musician-producer, was keenly aware of an unmet need back in the 1990s: solidly built, affordable gear that would deliver pro-studio results for the rapidly growing home and project studios market. That realization coincided with Odom’s desire to quit his boring engineering day gig so he could design gear for music—his first love. But music and tweaking technology weren’t exactly new preoccupations for Jim.

A self-confessed “nerdler,” as a pre-teen, Jim took up guitar around age 10 and proved to be a fast learner. Around the same time, he ransacked his family’s home stripping the speakers out of clock radios, intercoms and phones to rig up a 20-speaker surround sound system in his bedroom. Lacking an amp, he then wired his guitar with a phonograph pickup in order to to play through the speakers. “It sounded like crap, but it was fun.” Jim remembers.

In Part 1, Jim Odom talks about his “nerdler” tendencies and the performance that got him a full ride at Berklee.

The electric guitar proved to be a gateway into recording technology for Jim. Shut out of the local recording scene due to his lack of experience, he got his hands on a small mixer and eight-track recorder and proceeded to set up a studio in the loft of a horse barn. A community of young musicians soon sprung up around this modest enterprise with Jim doing the engineering to gain experience. There were no hourly charges—all he asked was that the musicians supply their own tape.

Jim Odom of PreSonusJim Odom earned a free ride to Berklee straight out of high school on the strength of a knockout festival performance. He’s still an active musician, producer and, perhaps most importantly, continues to be chief instigator at his brainchild, PreSonus.

As a senior in high school, Jim was awarded a full-ride scholarship to the prestigious Berklee School of Music by DownBeat magazine on the basis of a winning festival performance. A week out of high school Jim found himself in Boston at 17. Attending Berklee for a couple of non-consecutive semesters, Odom rubbed shoulders with fellow students such as Pat Metheny and Steve Vai during an era in which the school was a breeding ground for guitar heroes.

Returning home to Louisiana, Jim got involved in various jazz and rock bands, most notably playing in LeRoux, a pop-rock outfit from Baton Rouge that was signed to RCA Records and had enjoyed some top-ten singles. Still active with LeRoux today, Jim has also backed popular blues guitarist Tab Benoit both on regional tours and recordings. During LeRoux’s most active recording period in the 1980s, Jim was exposed to world-class studios, whetting his appetite for more experience tracking and mixing at the professional level. Back in Louisiana, he began engineering and producing sessions at the fabled Studio in the Country in Bogalusa, Louisiana, where Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson and The Neville Brothers have all cut records. Odom parlayed this work into songwriting, placing his compositions on major film soundtracks including National Lampoon’s European Vacation.

Engaging with electrons

As Odom’s studio resumé grew, so did his embrace of the technical side of recording and mixing. Seeking to expand his circuit-design chops, Odom went back to school at 24, this time earning a degree in electrical engineering and computer science from LSU. “I wanted to make the gear I had in my head,” he remembers. The hardware and software that PreSonus produces today continues to be informed and motivated by the real-world studio challenges Jim had experienced first hand.

Following a slight detour into acoustics equipment designed to provide water depth information, Odom felt the urge to return to music gear. Just about then, Mackie had begun introducing mixers aimed at the home and project-studio market. Tinkering at night, Jim began designing what would become the DCP-8, a digital processor that expanded the Mackie boards’ capabilities with compression, gating and mix automation—the kind of capabilities then only found in high-end studio consoles. The technology won Jim a patent for MIDI control over analog audio.

In Part 2, Jim talks about building state-of-art DSP gear over a furniture shop and the design philosophy that went into the gear.

A tiny startup with a staff of four or five, PreSonus began building DCP-8’s entirely in Baton Rouge in 1995. Jim was determined to introduce his new processor at Winter NAMM—the giant music gear trade show—arriving on the convention floor with a prototype that was “barely working,” according to Jim. The DCP-8 was among the top ten picks from NAMM that year.

PreSonus DCP-8 Compressor and Noise Gate

The DCP-8 was a DSP game-changer in 1995, but then users demanded knobs and the PreSonus response was on a heroic scale.

The DCP-8 dynamics processor was a big hit with home-studio owners, but almost immediately those users began insisting PreSonus give them knobs. Odom’s response set the template for a company culture that persists at PreSonus to this day: one that listens very carefully to what customers want then often delivers far more. The resulting controller had 64 knobs!

Upping the game

Building on their successes in the realms of monitor control, tube mic preamps and channel strips led the way to the introduction of the StudioLive digital mixer series in 2009. Meanwhile, on the software front, PreSonus partnered with the German firm, KristalLabs Software Ltd to develop Capture, a recording application tightly integrated with StudioLive boards, as well as Studio One, the company’s first foray into a full-blooded DAW. As The HUB recently reported in our review of the latest version, Studio One 3, it’s a complete drag-and-drop recording, mixing and mastering environment with songwriting and score creation tools plus instruments and effects galore—all wrapped up in a super-intuitive, single-window interface.

Meanwhile, hardware development was keeping up. A new generation of StudioLive digital mixers was introduced in 2013, boasting unprecedented integration with the company’s AI mixer operating system and its extensive software library. As just one measure of the company’s focus on the interoperability of hardware and software, mixer scenes saved in Capture can be opened in Studio One for editing.

PreSonus AI Mixers Chained

With powerful software integration and chaining capabilities for a custom-configured board, PreSonus AI mixers bring large-format console mojo to the project studio.

Pulling back from all this intense development, it becomes clear that PreSonus has a long-game strategy that goes far beyond the world of traditional studio gear. A couple of recent acquisitions offer clues. In 2013 PreSonus acquired Notion Music, developer of Notion and Progression, the heavy hitters in notation and composition software. Broadening its reach further, PreSonus has upped its involvement in the mobile-recording world with the AudioBox iOne and iTwo interfaces that work with the iPad, as well as Mac and Windows. And most recently, the Studio Remote app has just been made available for free download. It’s a robust way to control Studio One without being anchored to your computer, interface or rack gear.

On the hardware front, PreSonus has been putting an emphasis on monitoring lately. Aside from introducing the affordable Eris monitor series in 2013, it also debuted the up-market Sceptre CoAxial monitor line that uses state-of-the-art speaker management and coaxial driver design technology. On the FOH side, the company acquired WorxAudio, producer of a highly respected line of sound-reinforcement speakers in June 2014.

Goin’ uptown and worldwide

In February, 2014, PreSonus moved into its present headquarters—a gleaming research facility and administrative center in Baton Rouge. A far cry from its decidedly low-tech original facilities, the new PreSonus building houses a world-class recording studio with a live-sound room designed by the blue-chip Walters-Storyk Design Group.

A tour of the new headquarters in which old PreSonus hands marvel at the journey they and their company have taken.

PreSonus is by any measure a global player these days. Continental operations are headquartered at its PreSonus Europe Limited office in Co. Caven, Ireland, and the company hardware and software is sold in 60 countries around the world. PreSonus Software, Ltd. in Hamburg Germany continues to create some of the most groundbreaking applications and audio production tools anywhere.

On the PreSonus website, the company’s about-us page proclaims, “Music is our life—PreSonus is our day job.” While that may strictly speaking be true, it’s evident from the vibe at headquarters, as well as the gear and software that issues forth, that no such neat division exists. As with Jim Odom, the engineers, designers and code warriors at PreSonus have got music in their bloodstream. And it shows.

Tags: Recording

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