Jim Odom is a co-founder and CEO of PreSonus Audio Electronics, a Louisiana-based designer and manufacturer of digital audio equipment. Since the company’s inception in 1995, PreSonus has been a leading pioneer in the home studio movement and is responsible for many of the standard products used in the industry today. Adhering to the PreSonus ideal, “for musicians, by musicians,” the company has experienced exponential growth, designing affordable equipment for recording and live sound without sacrificing quality. Over the summer, The MBJ had the chance to talk with Jim about his company and its role in the changing recording industry.
MBJ: Tell us a little bit about your background
JO: I started playing music around Baton Rouge in the mid seventies. I started playing guitar at about 10 years old – I got good pretty quickly, it was kind of natural for me. By the time I was about 12 or 13 my mom was dropping me off at gigs around town. By the time I was about 15 or 16 I started doing session work around Baton Rouge. There used to be something called professional studios everywhere – there was a place called Miscellaneous Records, and a lot of jingle studios making radio commercials…so there was work doing that.
MBJ: You toured with the band, LeRoux, playing guitar for a while. How did this experience affect you as a musician?
JO: In 1981, after a few semesters at Berklee [College of Music], I left and joined a band from Baton Rouge called Louisiana LeRoux, who was signed to RCA records. I recorded and toured with them for a few years until 1984 when I went back to Berklee for one last semester.
The experience was a whole lot different than what I had at Berklee. I went from playing in a local scene around Boston to a whole different world. You end up loosing a little bit of your creativity when you go into something like that. We did a record, went on tour, it was fun; I met a lot of people, played on a lot of big stages. It was my first taste of $300,000 dollar recording budgets. We’d spend a month living in the recording studio recording – and that’s where you really get your chops up.
We were recording down in Bogalusa, LA at Studio in the Country – Warren Dewey did the engineering. We mixed at Studio B in Capitol Records out in Los Angeles. That experience really kicked my career, in terms of business, into gear.
We were working with Budd Carr – he managed Kansas and us (LeRoux) at the time, so he kind of helped me get a career path together.
MBJ: Were you developing any engineering chops?
JO: Absolutely – I guess my last year in high school my dad had an old barn – I took it and renovated the upstairs. I was about 17 or 18. It was just a practice room at first – but then I bought a Tascam 80-8 analog recorder. We put that and a small console up there and isolated everything and just started recording. The rates to record in town were ridiculous, so we just built our own. We let that studio run 24/7 – it was free if you brought your own tape. People were in and out all the time – we met a lot of people doing that. It helped me get my chops up.
MBJ: When did you first become interested in designing/building gear?
JO: Speaking of studio in the country – after LeRoux fell apart in about 1985, the members moved all over the place. I was helping Gene rebuild the room – we installed the Neve console. Him and I spent months doing that.
I was playing guitar, mixing, and engineering and doing a lot of stuff. I would run into issues and there wouldn’t be a piece of gear to fix. Back then, one of the things we would run into was synchronizing multiple machines – we had Linn drum machines, Ensoniq sequencing machines – none of it would sync up. One of the things I did was design a box to sync all these different signals together. Out of frustration, more than anything, I went back to LSU and got a degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Engineering because I wanted to design my own product for the studio environment. That was born out of “I can’t get anybody to do this for me so I’ll do it myself” and my eagerness for chops. That’s kind of how I got involved in Electronics and Electronic Design
MBJ: Where did you start PreSonus? Did you have much help?
JO: I was always doing a lot of recording and working in studios, but between college and starting PreSonus I was designing Sonar Equipment – working with underwater imaging and acoustics. After doing that for four or five years it was really all that I could take.
I had started on a project – I was mixing on a lot of old consoles that didn’t have a lot of automation and it was a little frustrating, so I designed a product to insert into every channel of these analog boards called the DCP8 that gave you automation, compression and gating on every channel. Same thing we used to have on the Neve and SSL boards but we could use them on the older, cheaper consoles. You could take the sequencer and automate your whole session to bring up later.
MBJ: The DCP8 was truly a groundbreaking product in that it brought previously unavailable functionality to the consumer level. Tell us a bit about how this product set the tone for PreSonus and its future developments.
JO: We created the DCP8 in 1995, but honestly we haven’t gone too far away from that. Now we’re making products for live sound, which incorporate some of the same functions – automation, recall, and now the incorporation of digital recording. Our new console, called the StudioLive, allows you to do all of those things plus recording live, plus performing with tracks. All of our developments have spawned from that.
Then we got into interfaces. In about 1999 we started working with FireWire products – We released a product called the Fire Station in 2001 and followed that up with the FirePod shortly after.
MBJ: PreSonus is known for creating powerful tools for the musician at an affordable price. Was this always your vision for PreSonus?
JO: Absolutely. I came from being a musician – I didn’t come to this industry being an engineer or a music business guy. The thing about us musicians is that we want to make a great record, but we can’t afford a lot of stuff. This was really true in the mid 90’s. There was a huge gap between the two – that gap has closed a lot, you can make good recordings now with pretty inexpensive stuff. But we wanted to empower the musicians – that was our goal.
MBJ: My first recording interface was a PreSonus FireBox – a lot of other musicians can say the same. What impact do you feel that you and your products have had on the home recordist and the bedroom studio trend?
JO: We were certainly part of it – PreSonus and M-Audio were the first two companies on the market offering firewire products. The reason that we liked firewire was because of the ability to get high channel counts at the time, as well as the ability to power the device through the firewire cable. This made our interfaces extremely portable and very simple to use.
Our vision has always been to give you an affordable product that sounds as good as some of the really expensive consoles I used to use – if our product can get you a solid recording and prevent you from having to rent an 1000 dollar/day room, we’re done.
MBJ: A lot of musicians are seeing the ease and value of recording themselves. How has this trend affected your business?
JO: It has been tremendous – we have this saying that “the record business is over, but the music business is just beginning” and that has to do with a shift in control. Instead of being controlled by the industry, the industry is now controlled by the people. There is an amazing amount of talent that can be found on the Internet now.
We’re very excited about some cloud-based technology we’ve been working on. Our software, StudioOne, now works with SoundCloud and we’re working on some collaboration software so that musicians from all over the planet can easily work together on the same project without a whole bunch of work.
MBJ: It seems like more and more famous studios are closing their doors these days. Some attribute this to the explosion of affordable technology available to musicians on a budget. Do you feel as though companies like yours have been vilified and/or blamed for this?
JO: : Not at all. It still takes, in my opinion, a room and an engineer and a producer to produce certain records at a certain level. Sure there are some talented musicians who have the chops to do it at home, but there still are a lot of artists that need help. A lot of the artists you hear on the radio still need a producer and an engineer – they need someone to keep them on track and on budget in order to get their record released.
The record industry really just lost its footing – maybe it was overspending. They just weren’t properly managing their businesses. There was a lot of excess going on – too much profit was being taken off of artists, there was a lot of excess spending going on.
The studio world has an opportunity now to get even bigger now, but the rooms will continue to get smaller and will be managed more efficiently by better business people. The demand for content isn’t shrinking – it’s growing like mad. In our world of iPads and iPhones and portable devices, I think an insatiable demand for content is about to hit us. Think about all that stuff that everyone’s buying – the whole world has gone to a, “I want to see it and hear it now” mentality. If you are in the media creation industry, you’ve got a real opportunity.
MBJ: Word of mouth is the best promotional tool, and an active stance in social media means lots of word of mouth. How does PreSonus tie into web 2.0 and social media?
JO: We help with the content creation side – without content you’ve got nothing. We’ve been working on integration with companies like TuneCore and SoundCloud who focus on content distribution and tying in with social media.
Your product has to be good though, that’s what I tell musicians all the time. If you want a good business you have to make a good product – it’s just like Presonus. We make hardware – you make records!
MBJ: Having established yourself as a musician and a techie, how approachable/unapproachable did you find the business world when you first started out?
JO: In the mid 90s, this industry was a little more open to newcomers than it is now. We walked in with the DCP8 to the NAMM show in Los Angeles. For our first show we had a little 10 x 10 booth where we put the product out, had some cool graphics done up. As it turns out we got a spot in the top 10 products of the show by Craig Anderton. They were open to innovation of a really big kind. I think its still that way – where you run into problems today is with distribution. Distributors aren’t really keen on taking big chances like they used to be, especially with new products. What I’ve found over the years is that brand is really your most valuable asset. You can create hype like crazy over the Internet with all of the newly available avenues, but to go all the way through that to the basic consumer (the musician in his bedroom) is very difficult. It takes time and a lot of hard work.
MBJ: As a businessperson, how does your training and experience as a professional musician come into play during your day to day?
JO: I think it had a lot to do with it – I often tell people that being a musician is the ultimate entrepreneurial event. Even as early as high school, if you’re going to be a musician, you have to be a good entrepreneur. You have to create a product and advertise it. You have to sell and promote your product. You have to take care of issues and handle problems, deal with people and listen to feedback. You have to handle employees and pay people – it is basically no different. By the time you want to start a business, having done all of that for five or ten years, you have a good idea of how to handle yourself. Being a professional musician was wonderful training for the business world.
MBJ:What advice would you give to someone interested in creating/marketing his or her own music equipment?
JO: Fortune favors the bold – even if you don’t have the most breakthrough or innovative concept, you’ve just got to show up. You have to put it out there. You learn more from the response you get then by all the schooling and studying in the world. You learn more from the feedback than you ever will in a classroom.
By Hunt Hearin