The seeds of Symetrix were sown in the imagination of founder Dane Butcher in the early 1970s, while he worked on the East and West Coasts as a recording engineer. Immersed in the world of Jazz Fusion, Butcher worked with members of Return to Forever and helped engineer the world's first gold instrumental album, Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters. The tools of the recording engineer captivated his imagination, and Butcher recognized an opportunity. Where others saw empty rack spaces, Butcher had a vision of high-performance, signal processing equipment that was, as contradictory as it seemed at the time, affordable.
"I had too many product ideas to continue recording!" he laughs. With only a degree in music from the University of Washington, Butcher took a job working for Greg Mackie at Tapco and learned to design electronics with the ferocity of the truly inspired. In 1976, and only six months after taking the job at Tapco, Butcher started Symetrix in an artist's loft and former garment factory in the Belltown area of Seattle, Washington, less-formally known as Skid Row. The price was right—$75 a month—and Butcher and his first employee, James Husted, found they could supplement their modest Symetrix income by doing repair work and studio maintenance around town.
Serendipity smiled on the fledgling company. A surplus electronic components company was located across the street, and with their parts Butcher manufactured the very first Symetrix product, the SG-1 Signal Gate, and the company's subsequent compressors, limiters, and phasers. Again, the price was right, and Symetrix products slowly gained a reputation that was true to Butcher's original vision: high performance at surprisingly low cost. After about two years, the small Symetrix team was able to cast off their odd jobs and devote themselves fully to the company.
In the nearly three decades that followed, Symetrix grew tremendously, not so much in physical size, but in the technological sophistication of its products and in the markets it serves. Consistent with Butcher's early experience as a recording engineer, Symetrix' first products were aimed at the studio and live PA markets and enjoyed considerable success there. As the years went on, Butcher and his team developed a knack for finding and fulfilling unmet needs in related markets. One of their early and enduring hits was the 528 Voice Processor.
Butcher explains, "By the early 1980s we'd had some success in the broadcast market making telephone interfaces for talk shows. We wanted to do more, and so we thought pretty deeply about what was already there and, more importantly, what wasn't. On-air processing was pretty well dominated by Orban, and they seemed to be doing a pretty good job with it. Similarly, mixers weren't our thing and the field seemed pretty well stocked. We thought, what about the very front end? Let's go to the mic and work our way in. It was simple logic. There was no inboard processing on a broadcast mixer, so we put together a good mic pre, a compressor/limiter tweaked for broadcast, a downward expander, a de-esser, and a three-band parametric EQ, all in one box. It wasn't a giant engineering feat. We only had to combine technologies that we had already mastered in other products." Thus, what started out as a cocktail napkin sketch grew into one of Symetrix' most successful products. A variant of the original 528 Voice Processor—the 528E—still sold today and used extensively in recording studios, live PA, and, of course, broadcast studios.
The company applied that same ingenuity to the installed sound market at around the same time. There were already a few companies making amplifiers that could automatically adjust their volume based on ambient noise levels—so-called SPL computers—but those companies lacked the extensive experience with voltage-controlled amplifiers that Symetrix possessed. As a result, their devices were notoriously poorly designed. Symetrix recognized the need for a solid, reliable, easy-to-adjust product and brought their wisdom to bear in the 571 SPL Computer. They started attending NSCA and other contractor shows and found a great measure of success. Variants of the 571 are still used, most notably by CNN, in their airport waiting area news feeds.
"For a small signal processing company we, perhaps more than anyone, go across a large number of markets," Butcher reflects. "However, we came to the conclusion that those markets were having trouble identifying with one company that could work in so many different areas. They were used to companies that vertically aligned themselves. We decided to communicate our dedication to each market by branding our products accordingly." With that decision, the Lucid, AirTools, and SymNet brands were launched.
The Lucid brand serves the digital recording studio market with low-jitter converters and master clocks. While its converters have earned the respect of the industry's golden ears, Lucid is perhaps best known as the brand that introduced digital studios to the tremendous benefits of locking everything to a single, highly-accurate clock. The alternative, daisy-chaining word clock around the control room, introduces delays and glitches that compound. The aural difference between the two methods is not at all subtle, and studios were quick to embrace Lucid's popular line of master clocks.
The AirTools brand serves the broadcast market with profanity delays and launched only ten months before Super Bowl XXXVIII. Normally that would be an irrelevant fact, but Super Bowl XXXVIII was special. Janet Jackson's bare breast was exposed to the world during the half-time show. "The FCC decided to increase the single-incident fine from something trivial to something very sizable," Butcher recalls. "The stations started buying profanity delays like they buy insurance, and it ended up being a big year for us. It was the year that Janet made."
The SymNet brand serves the installed sound contractor market with general purpose DSP products that are expandable and scalable. It was never meant to be its own brand, but as Butcher explained, "we created it as a series of Symetrix products in 2002 and the market was really taken with the name. The sales started rolling and they just haven't quit."
Apart from markets and branding, the biggest change at Symetrix over the last 30 years has been the shift from analog to digital technology. The benefits to the end user are many, but chief among them is a tremendous value for the money. A rack that used to have 25 pieces of analog gear can now be replaced by a single digital device, almost always with improved quality and a lower cost. The shift is hardly unique to Symetrix, and Butcher is fatalistic about its progression. "No single person or company is willing digital technology on the rest of the world. It's just a sea change, and everybody jumps on the raft."
Of course, there are always inherent tradeoffs in any technology, and digital units are easily over-engineered and often complicated to use, as anyone who's fumbled through layers of menus and submenus on a tiny LCD screen knows. Butcher recognizes how frustrating and potentially costly this can be and, while still maximizing the amount of DSP under the chassis of everything Symetrix engineers, is trying to strike a happier balance between functionality and usability.
The new Integrator Series is an excellent example of the Symetrix design philosophy. While the installation and sound contractor industry has been quick to recognize the benefits of general purpose DSP units, where routing, signal processing, and controls can be exactly tailored to a particular installation, the resources and overhead required to program them are considerable. The first product in the Integrator Series—the Zone Mix 760—an application-specific DSP unit that is every bit as powerful as the general purpose boxes, but with fixed I/O configuration, external controls, and GUIs. As a result, the Zone Mix 760 is a lot faster to set up, and the contractor doesn't have to think twice about the signal path and what might go wrong with his design.
The future of Symetrix will be grounded in its past success, and Butcher's original dream of designing high-performance, yet affordable, equipment will serve as its cornerstone. Continued growth in international markets, particularly Southeast Asia, Europe, and India, will introduce the Symetrix name and reputation to a wider audience of demanding audio professionals. Reflecting on his past and the course he has charted for the future, Butcher is modest. "Symetrix has been around for a long time, and people say we make good products. That's good enough for me. As long as our customers perceive us as a partner that will help them be successful, we can both be successful together."