Inside Track: ATC’s Billy Woodman, Remembered
Sad news comes that Billy Woodman, founder and owner of ATC, passed away on 21st July 2022, aged 76. His son Will Woodman is now taking over as the company's Managing Director, and his father's footsteps are giant ones to walk in. The Acoustic Transducer Company has ploughed its own, highly distinctive furrow since Billy started it back in 1974 – and is now one of the world's most respected pro audio loudspeaker manufacturers.
Australian-born Billy launched ATC after working in the Special Projects division of Goodmans Loudspeakers in the early nineteen seventies. In 2014, I was fortunate to interview him at length at his Stroud factory in the picturesque part of southwest England, the Cotswolds. He explained that “ATC was set-up to make transducers as good as you could engineer. There's nothing new under the sun, so the aim has always been to better engineer what's already there. We started off just making PA drivers, our first substantial customer was Martin Audio in London, building the systems for Supertramp, one of their principal customers.”
“If you're going to have any legs, then you need to have a mind of your own”, Billy told me. He was fascinated with loudspeaker drive units. When I last met him, he reminded me of Soichiro Honda, who decided to manufacture motorcycles and cars as a reason to make more engines! “I'd had the idea for the midrange dome when I was at university,” he told me, “and it was in 1976 that I made the first successful three-inch dome. There were lots of papers at the time that said you couldn't make a device driven at its edge work consistently, successfully! I was entirely driven by making high quality components, but any idea of having a long term vision in 1974, no I didn't! I was and am very into drive units. There were no professional drivers made in the UK – you had Altec, JBL, Gauss – and there was an opening for a pro drive unit in England, that's how we started. If you made a good PA drive unit in the nineteen seventies, you had business!”
The big 12″ PA75-314 bass driver was ATC's first ever design and was widely applauded for its excellent power handling and efficiency. The company then launched its SM 75-150s soft dome midrange driver, and this went on to become emblematic of what Billy could do. Highly technically advanced at the time, the latter offered excellent dispersion, bandwidth and distortion characteristics compared to midrange drivers like KEF's B110 – which used Bextrene cones and had far lower power handling. The ATC midrange dome is still in production to this day, albeit in a highly modified form.
Indeed, Billy says that when he launched ATC, the UK market was full of speakers with “good acoustic quality” but with no dynamic range – citing the BBC-designed LS3/5a with its B110 working as a mid/bass unit as an example. “They wouldn't even replay a piano played at pianissimo! And yet the Americans had loudspeakers that were born out of the theatre, that ended up in studios, and then ended up in hi-fi, that had huge dynamic range and not particularly good acoustic quality. I thought there's got to be somewhere in the middle that you can reach, and the obvious thing to do is if you make the voice coil large enough you can make a direct radiating device handle enough power to give you enough maximum sound pressure level. And the way to do that is to drive a dome. The development process was fairly tortuous, but the result has been sustained now for a long time.”
Billy spent those early years drumming up interest for his dome midrange driver. “It was a terrible story really because at that stage ATC didn't have any money, and no one was interested. Then ProAc used it, Stuart Tyler started using it, and it was not until the advent of digital recording in studios that I could convince any studio to take it seriously. Engineers were made so uncomfortable at the time having to change their recording medium that they were also willing to change their monitoring – it's a terribly conservative business! That created the opportunity for ATC. It started with DJM Music in central London, where much of Elton John's recordings were done, and it slowly grew from there…”
Billy – coincidentally a gifted piano player – told me that his philosophy was entirely new. “We had to get away from this idea that you could have a loudspeaker of 25 watts and start off with an efficiency of 88dB at 1W at 1 metre and be able to replay piano; it was just impossible. You need power to reproduce that huge dynamic range, and piano's the worst probably – you're not listening loud. You need that huge dynamic range to reproduce that initial transient.” By the nineteen eighties, ATC was making what it called 'systems', by which it meant complete loudspeakers with drive units set into cabinets, as opposed to drivers. These reflected his philosophy and were designed to give the sort of scale that rival British speakers couldn't, whereas US designs could but didn't sound as neutral.
ATC 'systems' began to be purchased by many in the music industry, with Pink Floyd, Supertramp, Sony, Telarc and the BBC being high-profile customers. Billy then began work on active loudspeakers, adding the EC23 Active Crossover to his product portfolio, and then came amplifiers which were built into active speakers. “The very rigid loudspeaker design orthodoxy of the nineteen seventies slowed down ATC's progress”, Billy explained. “We launched the S50 in 1977, but it wasn't until 1987 that ATC started being taken seriously in the hi-fi world with SCM50. The pro drive unit market in those days was huge, and seventy-five percent of our production stayed in the UK. Nowadays, it's just ten percent, because the market has become lowest common denominator and is price-driven.”
Even in 2014, towards the end of his career, Billy found it hard to conceal his enthusiasm for his midrange driver. “I believe the only other loudspeaker transducing mechanism that will produce the midrange clarity of our soft dome is an electrostatic. The difference is that one has got a huge dynamic range and the other one hasn't! When it's all said and done any loudspeaker system is only as good as the bits you start with, so we concentrate on making really good transducers, then integrating them becomes less of problem because they're well behaved. And if you think about it, that's what Peter Walker did at Quad – those ESL-57s were streets ahead of everyone else.”
In the last couple of decades, ATC has continued to design and manufacture new drive units – now including tweeters – and refine its speaker cabinet design. Billy says that nothing has fundamentally changed in this department. “As new technology and materials become available, we do different things, but that's often more about style and presentation rather than underlying acoustic engineering. Cabinet width is defined by bass driver size, and I think it's simply fashion that drives the narrow slim trend in speaker design… Other than being aware of the technical developments of other manufacturers, fashion is not that important. You can't ignore it, but it must be driven by a logical and pragmatic engineering approach.”
Billy's intellectual confidence has been the rock upon which ATC's success is based. When I spoke to him, I could see that he instinctively understood different loudspeaker designs. He had missionary zeal, speaking passionately but matter-of-factly. “You can make loudspeakers very consistently if you only ask them to do a 'decade', i.e. 20Hz to 200Hz, 200Hz to 2k, 2k to 20kHz”, he said. “And in two-way speakers you're always fighting to get that last bit of response out of your bass/mid driver. That's why three-way systems will mostly give you the best performance. With a four-way, it's a bad enough problem having two crossovers, let alone three. The more you have the worse your problem. The ATC fingerprint is a three-way loudspeaker with our own bespoke midrange dome – the properties of that midrange dome, its versatility, means we can build such a wide range of speakers.”
Billy was an unprepossessing sort of fellow, a straight talker with no love of hyperbole. He spoke softly and calmly yet had a laser-like focus on what he was doing. It's going to be tough job for his son to take over the reins at what's now called Loudspeaker Technology Ltd., so we wish him well. Still, Billy made it very clear what ATC was, is and should be. “We're one of the only loudspeaker companies left that is truly concerned about transducer design, and the neutral sound that comes from it. We have a strong idea of how things should be. We're old fashioned in that we operate more like a family business than a large corporation, it's a long-term sustainable business. We've never been flavour of the month, we've always been floating just under the surface. I'm much happier there actually! What differentiates us is our ability to make components that are at least as good as, if not better than, anything else available.”
Billy Woodman 1946-2022, RIP.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.