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An interview with Plugin Alliance Founder Dirk Ulrich

Dirk Ulrich

The most common theme in our industry is that the participants start their careers with the dream of being an artist or recording engineer, sees an opportunity, and jumps on it. Whenever this epiphany happens it's really helpful if you have already developed a network of relationships, both with artists and other companies within the music products industry. After all we all have a passion for these products.

Dirk Ulrich's story is instructional in that regard. When the moment came he was not only equipped with ideas, but also a Rolodex of people he had worked with over the years. That, and a great attitude, will go very far for anyone thinking about starting their own company.

Where are you in Germany?

Leverkusen, which is the town that Bayer, the maker of Aspirin, comes from, and it's right between Cologne and Düsseldorf.

What is your earliest memory of wanting to be involved with music?

It's a funny story because when I was in my first grade in school, and they offered lessons in flute playing for kids, my mother said, "Well, nobody in our family ever played an instrument, so it doesn't make sense." But I insisted and I got a little flute, and then my teacher threw me out of this class after three or four weeks because I couldn't concentrate and I was disturbing the whole class.

Building the passion
in 1987

Then in 1987, my friends were big into Metallica and Iron Maiden and we decided to form a band, but none of us played an instrument. We decided I would play guitar and my other friend would play keyboards. I got lessons and I started practising. I would come back home from school and do nothing but play guitar for four or five hours per day. And as soon as I could play a few chords, I started recording. I bought a 4-track tape machine and later a 16-track, and recorded a lot of demos for my own band, but also with all the local bands pretty much because we had a nice rehearsal room that allowed for recording, even late in the evening, so I had a lot of bands come to my little studio that were into punk rock and metal and hard rock—all of these guitar driven bands—because that was my specialty.

Did you actually go out and promote yourself or did people find you through word of mouth?

Dirk in the studio circa 1994

In the beginning it was all word of mouth, because there was no Internet, so you couldn't promote your studio page or your band page. We sometimes sponsored a music contest, where the winner of the contest could record a song in my studio, and usually they'd end up recording three or four songs, so I charged for the extra songs.

I worked in a music store also, so I could borrow equipment. And the store was famous for tuning Marshalls, so I worked with the guys there and got a lot of insight into guitar tone.

How did you get into the music software business?

I never had the vision to become a software engineer, or even a software company owner. Our first software title more or less was a coincidence. There wasn't a business plan to start a plug-in company or software company, but the interest for technology came from the very early years when my dad used to work for Sony.

I rented a studio some years later, the owner happened to own the Cologne SAE schools. They had a professional mastering studio in Cologne, and I gave him my CD-R with a stereo mix on it. He pressed a few buttons and listened to only the mid and side channels of that recording and I was just completely blown away that he could isolate everything in the stereo information, and suppress more or less the vocals or snared bass drum.

I found out that he had this external matrix that he used with his Mastering EQ and some other stuff, then I had the wish to just have a Stereo EQ with a built-in M/S Matrix for my studio because I liked it so much. I had a friend who was an engineer, so we started to design the hardware.

Creamware modular synth

I had another friend who worked for Creamware, who were using my name and quotes for ads at that time. When I told him about my EQ idea, he said, "Well that's cool, but why don't you use our software, so you can actually prototype this thing in the box without spending money for power supplies and housings and other stuff. The Creamware system had a toolkit. You could pick filters and other electronic parts and pull them into the system and connect them with virtual cables, similar to Reaktor now. I really got into this, because it was so exciting just to build your own plugin with these widgets. The result was very similar to what the bx_digital is now. So I made the first bx_digital plugin happen without knowing anything about coding. I just had an idea for the signal flow and what kind of filters I wanted.

What happened next?

Creamware asked me if I'd be interested in making this a commercial plugin, and they'd help me to finalize the project. This was around 2005, I guess. So all of the sudden, I had a Creamware plugin that they started selling and I went with them to the NAMM show in California. During the show, somebody from Avid came to the booth and invited me to their developer meeting after signing me up as a 3rd Party for Avid on the show floor! So all of the sudden I was sitting in a room at the Hilton hotel next to George Massenburg and together with guys from Waves and TC Electronics and a lot of the companies I knew as a user.

And I didn't understand a word, because it was a very technical meeting. But afterwards, Avid took our bx_digital version into their Massive Pack 7 and this got us the first big check. I had worked a lot as a music producer, even with some bigger artists, but I never made much money. You know how that goes, where you make a few bucks and then you have to buy a new microphone or something breaks and you have to repair it. So to receive this money in a relatively short amount of time was amazing for me.

That was the point that you knew this was going to be a career?

Dirk's family

Yes. This is absolutely when I felt that the music stuff is so much fun, but it's hard to make a decent living if you're thinking about having a family. I then hired a full-time developer who turned out to be a really good guy. He did all the first modeling plugins for SPL. And he had the smart idea of creating a customized framework for us so all of the different plug-ins we made would run on all of the different platforms and make supporting native, TDM and UAD plug-ins possible with relatively little extra effort.

How did you hook up with Universal Audio?

Matt Ward and Dirk Ulrich

It turned out that our engineer was very good in modeling analog, and at that time there weren't many people around who could do it. I knew people from SPL, because I met them when I worked in the guitar store. They signed an exclusive deal to model their hardware with us. UAD wanted to do more plugins, and they had heard of our framework. The president of UA at that time was Matt Ward and I knew him from tradeshows. When he started working with us, we were really small and he offered us a little advance, which really helped with the (SPL) Vitalizer and the bx_digital for UAD.

SPL Vitalizer

So when Matt left Universal Audio, we stayed in contact for about a year and during that time we had a weekly phone call. The idea started to become real that maybe we should team up. We found a way to do it and now Matt runs the Plugin Alliance office in Santa Cruz. That's where we have our business development and also our marketing and sales team, including support for the website, tech support, all that stuff. Matt had already done lots of plugin deals, so he is a huge help, and we're always looking for long-term partnerships. We approach every single company with a customized proposal and we offer fair royalties.

Being a guitar player yourself, are there any particular players you admire for the way that they use technology?

Dirk with his prized Ibanez Steve Vai

When I started playing guitar, I was completely blown away by Steve Vai, He was just on the opposite side of things with all of the H-3000 harmonizers at that time. The Passion and Warfare album, that was exactly when I started playing guitar, which was like the peak of technology for rock guitar at the time.But I also admire my friend Pete Thorn, who has amazing tone in his fingers.

Why did it take you so long to get a guitar plug-in out there?

When I started I never used any guitar plugins or any digital stuff because I had worked in this store and there were many JCM800 Marshalls that we tuned for big international touring bands and even the Scorpions and bands like this. And so I knew about the quality of real tube sound, and all of the plug-ins just never sounded right to me.

Also, our first focus when we went into software was all about the the mastering and M/S stuff we invented. I was heavily into mastering music at that time because I had produced so many bands and mixed so many bands, and then I didn't have the time to record everything anymore, so a lot of bands gave me their music to master.

Engl E765 RT

So the guitar part came many years later. I saw Igor Nembrini's guitar amp plugin prototype video and there was something that I thought would be the right approach for Brainworx to start modeling guitar amps. I drove to ENGL Amps in Bochum / Germany, another brand that I endorsed during my time as an active player, and said, "I would love to do branded guitar amps and make a deal like the one we have with SPL." And they liked the idea and signed up.

What do you think are some of the most important developments in audio processing technology in the last five years?

The one thing that really blew my mind when I saw it when it came out was Melodyne from Celemony. And not just the monophonic correction, but they had demos at trade shows where they had a piano playing and a flute melody, and they changed the melody of the flute but the piano just kept on playing what it played. So the polyphonic version of Melodyne, when that came out, I thought was pretty outstanding.

Where are your products being used in live environments?

bx_boom!

My favorite memory is a few years ago, I was invited to attend a Supertramp show in a soccer stadium because their mix engineer used some of our plugins with their TDM Venue and he had a question and he invited me. So we're sitting on a case next to the Venue console and I heard how the guy used our bx_boom, sub frequency boost that targets bass drums. In that soccer stadium, he turned it off for a few seconds and the whole drum kit collapsed and sounded really small and tiny, and then he switched it on again and you heard that really big bass drum sound again. That was pretty amazing, to see the plugins in action.

We've now have a bundle of ten plugins for live use for the AAX Venue consoles. We had been supporting the TDM Venue systems for a while and we're also now on Waves Soundgrid and consoles, so I'll look forward to going to more shows. We basically support all the major live console formats now with many of our plugins.

So what's in the future that you can talk about?

Dirk with his Neve Console

One of the most successful releases we had in the last year was the bx_console, which is an exact emulation of my own Neve VXS console. This plug-in uses a new technology we've developed and applied for a patent on, Tolerance Modeling Technology, or TMT, which mimics the natural channel to channel variation in an analog console by varying the tolerance values used in the digital model bx_console has been a big success, so we're now working on other consoles. We're modeling a lot of analog units from new partners and from existing partners.

bx_console

One thing that's exciting, we just, for the first time ever, started making what we call "plus" versions of existing modeling technology, with the SPL Transient Designer Plus for example. We've learned a lot about how to create better digital emulations over the years and with the computer power to run those models continuing to grow, it enables us to do some things we weren't able to do before. We talked to SPL, we all had some ideas that are not in the hardware and would be pretty hard to implement in the hardware, so we made a plugin version now that actually exceeds what the hardware can do. That's a pretty interesting story I guess, because now not only can plugins phase cancel hardware that we model, but now you can even have features in plugins that maybe the hardware never had.

How important has personal networking has been to your success as an entrepreneur?

I think networking was important, but never intended. Like I said, there wasn't a business plan because I just got this offer from Creamware. And that would never have happened if I didn't know the company or work with them as a promoter before that. The people at Avid liked the EQ. In the beginning they gave me space on their tradeshow booth and sent VIP producers over. Like Bruce Botnick, the producer from the Doors, had a big problem with a really old live recording that was recorded before I was even born, and he wanted to up-mix the stereo mix to 5.1 and there were phase issues, so they sent him over to me and we fixed his problem with the Mono Maker in the bx_digital plug-in.

I wouldn't have met him I hadn't been at the Avid booth. There was no venture capital or any big budgets behind us. We were (and to a degree still are) just a bunch of crazy German guys making rock and roll plug-in software.

Any thoughts about where all of this is going? Not just you guys, but this segment of music products?

Dirk - Still playing
with passion

One of the big challenges will be to let different units talk to each other and all of these formats to transfer digital signals and to store them and mix them. One of the things we are working on right now is a preset management system that will be inside our plugin toolbar, so it'll be a unified thing for all our plugins. No matter if you're mixing on a Venue live console or Ableton Live, we're just trying to make it easier for the companies working with us to make plugins so they can concentrate on making great sounding algorithms. I see a lot of potential there still with computers getting stronger of course, especially in the analog modeling domain. This is where people really go crazy about everything that's nonlinear, and even the little artifacts that analog circuits have, and noise that they want modeled accurately and stuff like this, so there's more power you have on your computer and mixing board, which is ultimately a computer too.

the bx_ team in the studio circa 2016

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