USL @ 30! Technology company celebrates three decades of innovation
“We celebrate the 30th anniversary of our incorporation, but Jack has been in the business way, way longer than that.”
Clint Koch, sales director at USL Inc., is talking about company founder and president James A. “Jack” Cashin, who has been designing and engineering solutions for sight and sound at the movies since attending graduate film school at USC. Cashin’s innovations, which will be honored in this special section, include a portable eight-channel location recording system for Robert Altman, amongst several others. “A lot of our products actually started in Jack’s elite garage in Malibu and for a while were manufactured there by him with a small group of technicians. It was really a homegrown company right from the beginning.”
Founded in 1982 as Ultra-Stereo Laboratories, Inc., Cashin’s company evolved from a predecessor called Advanced Cinema Solutions, a still-timely name given the wide range of products on offer today. From its headquarters in San Luis Obispo, Calif., USL Inc.—the name since shortened to better reflect that very range—engages in the manufacture, development and sale of motion picture audio equipment, including sound-process controls and assisted-listening and captioning devices, as well as advanced equipment for testing image and sound. USL equipment is used by major studios and soundstages, production companies and movie theatres, large and small, around the globe.
Originally, “Jack was making power supplies and footage counters for film. He had also come up with synthesizer modules that took the old mono soundtracks and turned them into stereo,” Koch recounts. While both products continued to be available at the then-new company, the first product under the Ultra*Stereo trademark was the Ultra CS (Cinema Series) analog sound processor. In 1984, “the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Jack the first of his two Scientific and Technical Achievement Awards for the matrix that was inside the box,” Koch notes.
Along with overall advancement of stereo sound, “we went from the traditional 5.1. analog, A-type noise reduction to the SR-style.” Koch brings up the much larger but friendly competition that celebrated its own 40th anniversary at CinemaCon 2011: “While this was patented by Dolby Laboratories, Jack had designed the circuitry differently from what the Dolby technology was doing. So he was able to still emulate and process [Dolby] SR encoding without infringing on their patents. At first Dolby didn’t quite see it that way,” he readily admits. “But once Jack sat down with them and explained everything, it was all good. We actually still sell and maintain every one of the original CS and JS Junior processor series,” he assures.
That service promise goes far and reaches wide. Under the USL name and trademark, Ultra*Stereo equipment is sold and used on “every continent on the planet,” Koch assures. “Fifteen or so years ago, someone called for a replacement module that needed to be sent to a military base. I had never heard of the town and it turned out to be located in Antarctica. I don’t really know if it is still there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was.”
Long product life is obviously a sign of quality design and craftsmanship, Koch agrees. “While a lot of the units have obviously been replaced with newer digital models, there are a lots and lots of theatres out there still running the old analog processors with D to A [digital to analog] converters.” (www.uslinc.com/products-sound-DAX202.html)
One example is the CS Series processor installed at the projection booth at the UCLA film school. “Periodically, when their card would fail,” he relays the story, “they would bring it over to have it fixed by our bench technicians. Every time that happened, I tried to give them a newer processor. I said, ‘Here, just take it. I’ll donate it to the school.’ But they would not take it because of the way the CS matrix was running in there. It is such a good technology. When they finally did upgrade to newer digital equipment, they insisted on keeping their CS Series processor too. I believe that it is still there after all these years.”
The same can be said about Koch himself, who started at USL in 1992 as one of the electronic bench technicians just mentioned. “I was hired to produce, on a daily basis, Ultra-Stereo’s infrared assisted-listening devices. I would take the product in its raw form and test it, making sure it does everything that it is supposed to do. The units were then placed into the rack where we ‘burn’ them in for at least 24 to 48, and often 72 hours straight.” By “burning in’ electronic components like chips, transistors and capacitors onto the board, he means “sealing them in, all cooked, nice and neat” before running them nonstop. “You’re really giving that unit a quick, hard test that all of the components in there are properly working.” Any faulty element would be breaking early on, otherwise guaranteeing uninterrupted service for the next 20 years, Koch explains. “After that I retested that they were still properly functioning, cleaned them up and was getting them otherwise ready for shipping.”
The position was full-time but supposed to be only temporary, he chuckles. “We were going to be flooding the market with assistive-listening devices and then never sell another one. Well, we are still making them today and have another full-time employee dedicated to their testing. Oftentimes we have to give him some help to keep up with the demand. With two channels of audio, including one for descriptive narration, and a third one for captions all from the same emitter panel,” the UPC Series (Ultra Phonic Devices) and IRH (Infrared Headphone) models “surely have evolved over the years,” he states with obvious pride.
The soul of any one of these ever-evolving products is Jack Cashin himself. “When I first started, Jack was the president and chief engineer of the company, with one more person as his right-hand man,” Koch recalls. “Today, we have a dozen engineers upstairs, all working under Jack. Everything is designed here in-house and individually to Jack’s specifications, in the way he thinks something should be done. Obviously, we are not reinventing the wheel,” he contends. “Audio processors are audio processors, but we are always doing things that are uniquely Ultra-Stereo, if you will.” Koch elaborates, “Jack is very consistent in his designs, always trying to keep everything streamlined. Like everybody else today, we send out our boards and parts for assembly off-site, but everything comes back here for final check-up and testing before it gets shipped out,” he assures. “Since USL offers such a diverse product line, we don’t want to have to buy specific parts for just one product. We are trying to incorporate resistors, capacitors and integrated circuit chips, for instance, that are usable across different products. That obviously helps getting the cost down so that we can keep the pricing lower to the end user as well.”
At USL that very same customer—be it a sound editor, booth and service technician or a theatre operator—is a trusted source for inspiration for new products and always invited to make suggestions about how to improve on existing ones. The RTM-100 (Remote Theatre Manager, www.uslinc.com/products-control-RTM100.html), Koch opines, is just one of those hands-on ideas brought about by changes in cinema technology and design. “In the boothless cinema world, you have to be able to operate that projector somehow. It’s the perfect tool for that.” (For the first application at Santa Rosa Entertainment’s Blue Oaks 16, see “Big Box Breakthrough” in our October 2010 issue: http://bit.ly/fji1010blueoaks.)
The VCC-100 (Video Conversion Camera) is another example of practical design. It helps in the alignment of d-cinema projectors by precisely imaging the convergence pattern on the faraway screen and displaying it on a laptop right next to the projector set-up controls. “The idea came up during one of the training seminars for our product lines that we regularly host,” Koch confirms. “We really listen to the field technicians out there in the trenches who are doing the hard work and are often coming up with ideas how to make their lives easier and our products even better.”
Even with the best products, life can be hard sometimes. Koch recalls one particular episode when we asked about some calamities that happened during his 20 years at USL. “One of our dealers called about a fairly large contract for one of the top three circuits in the country. Although the dealer had actually forgotten to place the order with us for a 20-plex, he put us with our back against the wall. ‘You don’t want the exhibitor to know that the racks aren’t coming, do you?’ We pulled our troops together and what usually takes a week and a half to prepare was delivered on-site within two days. Our crew pulled it off and, if my memory serves me correctly, we even sent that dealer a dozen red roses at the same time,” he notes, giving credit to co-owner and VP Felicia Cashin. “And for the cinema owner, there was never any doubt that it would not be there,” he says with audible relief still. “The main point of this is that we can stop and turn on a dime to get done whatever needs to get out of the door.”
Test equipment for sound equalization, screen luminance and color values is also part of the product package that USL gets out the door. First in line was the Projection System Analyzer PSA. “Measuring light levels on every part of the screen and thereby assessing and aligning motion picture projection systems,” as the official product description goes, resulted in the second Technical Achievement Award bestowed upon Jack Cashin by the Academy—this time in partnership with Larry Jacobson and USL’s chief engineer, Roger Hibbard. Koch calls the 1997 honor “remarkable and unique. Jack’s first Achievement Award was for audio and his second for visual, for testing the image on the screen.”
After the PCA (PCA Projection Color Analyzer) was deployed in 2005, USL presented possibly its most important quality-monitoring device at CineEurope 2012. The LSS-100 (Light and Sound Sensor) projection and audio analyzer allows theatre operators “to continuously monitor onscreen technical performance to ensure the highest presentation quality,” USL stated at the time. Bill Miller of TSS-Consulting, who has worked with USL for many years, agrees. “We honestly believe it would benefit the entire industry if one of those sensors were in every single auditorium around the globe. This is something that Jack created and we already have more than a thousand units up and running. We expect many more to be ordered and installed. LSS is fully networkable, going all the way back to the company network operating center for constant monitoring. While it doesn’t record image or sound, of course, the LSS captures both reflective light levels and color temperatures and also gives detailed readings on actual sound-pressure levels.”
The latest—and certainly not the last—product is the JSD-60 model in the Junior Series of digital-cinema sound processors. It should be available “right around the time this article comes out,” Koch promises. Building upon the features of the best-selling JSD-100, the first all-digital processor which USL manufactured, “the latest incarnation is boiling everything down to the performance essentials. Jack’s work has always been about seeing what’s good and great about any one of our products and then making it even better. He is always looking to the bottom line, keeping the quality up while trying to keep costs and prices down.”
That certainly sounds like a good recipe for 30 years of success and counting.
Saluting USL and Jack Cashin
"I can’t believe it has been more than 35 years since I met Jack Cashin. That was well before USL and before he and Felicia got together.
I was with Xetron and we needed a good DC power supply for our new console. Jack was working in a small back room in Charlie Ajar’s shop. I gave him an order for 100 power supplies and I think that was his first real manufacturing job.
Jack, you and Felicia have built a wonderful, highly respected and successful company! Congratulations to you both and everyone at USL!"
—Phil Rafnson, Chairman, Moving Image Technologies
"Before there was "Digital" and even before the era when all things were "Digital-Ready," Jack Cashin was pioneering leading-edge products for our industry. His accomplishments over the past decades have been multi-faceted and the USL product line spans literally all technical aspects of our business.
I recall Jack in the ’80s moving through the early Showarama and NATO trade shows with a circuit board under his arm, touting his latest innovations. And innovative they were. His core developments in audio have withstood the test of time, many still in use today.
Likewise the digital transition has enjoyed his leadership and he has made contributions in the digital imagery discipline that too will prove timeless.
Jack is still innovating, improving and breaking new ground. I don’t think Jack recognizes time as a continuum but as a series of innovations and the decades past are simply an accumulation of nonstop developments."
—Larry Jacobson, CEO, CineGenesis
"Our congratulations to Jack and USL for their 30th anniversary. They have always dedicated themselves to support of the industry, typified by the wide range of downright useful support products they have introduced over the years. And they have always been at the leading edge of new technology, as can be seen now as the industry becomes wholly digital. Hey, Jack, what are you going to do for the next 30 years?"
—Ioan Allen, Senior VP, Dolby Laboratories
"Jack was one of my first clients when starting MKPE, beginning a great friendship that’s still going strong after 23 years. Jack is the daredevil of cinema technology. I've yet to come across anything he can't do. In the early days of Dolby Stereo sound, he was the only person to create a perfect equivalent to Dolby A-type noise reduction without violating Ray Dolby’s patent. When he began pondering media blocks, I tried to talk him out of doing his own, thinking that this was the straw that would break the camel’s back. But far from it, he designed it his way from the ground up, and passed DCI compliance testing in record time. Few, if any in the industry, understand the technology of picture and sound as well as this man. Jack, you deserve this recognition. Congratulations!"
—Michael Karagosian, President, MKPE Consulting
"Congratulations on making USL one of the most innovative and customer-friendly vendors to the exhibition community."
—John Wilmers, Former CEO, Strong International
"The first purchase I ever made from USL was for a JS-2 front/surround processor. I was so impressed with the quality of the product that I decided to pay a visit to USL, which was then located in Tarzana. My impression of Felicia and Jack was that they were very bright and energetic people who were managing a small but highly innovative company whose products were very market-specific and useful. Since that time, the industry has changed a lot, but USL’s tradition of excellence in producing relevant, high-quality products—mated to superior customer service—has not. Over the last three decades, USL has remained one of the preeminent cinema equipment manufacturers, and Felicia and Jack deserve all of the kudos and accolades the industry can bestow. Many, many thanks for being who you are and not compromising."
—Jim Lavorato, CEO, Entertainment Equipment Corp.
"Wow, 30 years! Since I’ve known you for about 24 of those years, my first instinct is to talk about Jack’s 'Doomsday Preppers' proclivities like the standalone water tower on his old Malibu Canyon property, or Felicia’s unhealthy obsession with pampered, yapping little mongrels.
But I’ll refrain and only say that since we met, they have become my friends. They have invited my wife and me into their home and hearts! Thanks, Jack and Felicia, you make a hell of a team!"
—Joe Delgado, Executive VP, Moving Image Technologies
"Congratulations on 30 years of wonderful products and services."
—Steve Owen, VP, Purchasing, Cinemark
"Of all my years working in film, some of my happiest and proudest were with Ultra-Stereo. Jack and Felicia built a great company on quality and integrity, and a family grew inside of it. It is a tremendous accomplishment to have done such fine work for 30 years, and I am honored to have been a small part of it.
Congratulations to everyone at USL, Inc. You have much to be proud of."
—Brian Slack, C.A.S., S.M.P.T.E., Former Ultra-Stereo Encoding Engineer
"Congratulations to Jack and Felicia Cashin and the entire USL group as they celebrate 30 years of continued success in the motion picture industry! USL’s ability to anticipate the needs of the market, design innovative products, and deliver them with high-quality customer service earns them their reputation as pioneers in our field."
—Bill Miller, Digital Cinema Consulant, TSS
"Congratulations to Ultra-Stereo on 30 great years in cinema! You’ve been great fun to work with—once as a competitor, later as a business partner.
Ultra-Stereo Labs: 'Cinema is their business. Their only business.'"
—Sam Chavez, President, Bay Area Cinema Products