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East West - Crossing from creating content to creating applications

Doug Rogers working on
Fab Four
with Ken Scott

Steve Jobs said: "Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things."

Creativity takes many forms and great software programming requires as much creativity as composing a piece of music, but the approach one takes in connecting the dots for a piece of music (literally and figuratively) is very different from the way that a software engineer strings together code or a GUI designer thinks about the way someone might use their application.

To start with, when a piece of music is done it's generally done. In contrast software applications like DAWs and audio plug-ins are never done. Between the maintenance necessary to remain compatible with of the underlying platform and responding to user needs and requests each software application takes on a life and distracts the programmer from the ability to create new products.

Apple and Microsoft don't add or subtract features or routines from the operating systems based on the needs of the music software industry. In fact changes to the kernel of the OS will often mess up threading services, which has a significant impact on real-time applications like DAWs. It often means that new features must often be delayed in favor of making the existing features continue to work when the OS or host changes.

It has often happened to companies that were at the 'golden master' stage and subsequently had to go back to the drawing board because 'service packs' and 'update releases' appeared from the OS companies. And software plug-ins, despite being smaller code bases, have the additional burden of needing to work inside a changing host.

I can say from experience that managing all this is not easy and hard to truly understand if you are coming from a musical background rather than an engineering background. It hard to plan development and can have serious financial impacts as well.

So, why would someone from a music recording background want to start a software development project?

Doug Rogers of East West was kind enough to discuss this. As many of the KVR community knows, EastWest founder and producer Doug Rogers started as a recording engineer and producer, created a successful business producing sample libraries and virtual (software) instruments and has been involved with the development of many of the technical innovations in use today; purchased and restored a famous Hollywood recording complex (used primarily for recording new products); and developed their own sample playback engine. Some of their history is outlined here.

Why did you decide to develop your own sound engine in the first place?

A lot of the companies that we compete with license software from third party software developers. But I believe the downside of that is that you can't really make any innovative products because you're stuck with a one size fits all limitation, and if it doesn't fit what you want to do, then you simply can't do it. You must innovate if you want to stay competitive and at the forefront of the business. We started in the virtual (software) instruments business by working with a partner, Native Instruments, but we soon realized that arrangement was not going to work for us long term because we had a lot of ideas that would require custom software, and they didn't have the resources to accommodate that. After years of running a software development team myself, I now fully understand their position; software development is a minefield with constantly changing hosts and operating systems, and extremely time consuming, so we simply had to do it to control our future.

What's been the most difficult thing for you to learn, about moving from being a recording company to being a technical company?

If I've learnt one thing about the music software business, it's patience, and I'm not naturally a patient person. Seriously, building the infrastructure to support our own engine was a whole new experience that is fraught with different issues. First, there is the expense of hiring the best software developers you can find (Ed. Note: It's common knowledge in software development that one above average programmer can do as much work as several average programmers. But, how does someone without programming experience go about finding that kind of person…? It's not like they come to interviews with iTunes ratings stamped on their foreheads.).

And it doesn't end there because you need graphics people, and QA people, and a big tech support department. At the time we had a very small tech support department because we only had to support the libraries, rather than the software. Our infrastructure is now at least ten times what it was before.

As a contrast, what's involved in developing one of your sound libraries?

We'll come up with a concept and then figure out who can best partner with us, like we did with Shawn Murphy and the Hollywood Series, and Keith Johnson and Symphonic Orchestra. Shawn has worked with John Williams for decades, and has been the engineer on all of the Spielberg blockbusters. He has spent his entire life learning this craft. Likewise, Keith Johnson is a 12-time Grammy nominated classical recording engineer. Of course these people are the best recording engineers in their genre, but they know nothing about how to make software instruments. So that's where we come in. Apart from our musical knowledge, we provide that experience, and we've been doing that for 24 years. The recording part is very quick usually, it's the post production and software development that takes most of the time.

Do you ever have to go back to instruments that you've already created and change them again or are they done once they're done?

Basically, what happens more often than not is we make changes to the actual instrument programming. That's something that happens with almost every product. When you have a product that has over 800,000 samples, like Hollywood Strings, and you have a team of editors who deliver us content to program, something is going to get overlooked. Over the initial cycle of the product, usually within the first year of the products release, they report things that they think are odd or need to be improved and we have to go back and improve them. And that's an ongoing process, one that we try to get as right as possible from the outset, but just because of the sheer logistics involved, it's just not possible.

How did the Dark Side come about?

I decided that we didn't really have a cutting edge product that covered some of the latest music trends, including musically distorted and mangled sounds, so I made The Dark Side with David Fridmann, which is a collection of highly processed instruments intended for alternative rock, like Radiohead, Chemical Brothers, etc.

Some people think, "I can distort anything." But you can't really distort it in a musical way if you don't know what you're doing. Between David and myself we have some very unique equipment, particularly some old tube stuff that distorts instruments in a very musical way and we're very happy with the final result. We were somewhat surprised that The Dark Side won the MIPA Award in 2011, that is voted for by over 100 magazines, we really didn't expect that, in fact we expected the product to get trashed by reviewers. The Dark Side is actually great for film/tv/game development also, especially those looking for edgy atmospheric sounds.

Now that you have your own playback engine what's the biggest problem you have had to deal with?

We don't just have to operate in a changing operating system, we also have to operate within another piece of software that is operating within that changing operating system which is changing also. So we've got two levels that can break us at any point in time. And just because of the intense competition in the industry, it's very rare that we get a look at either before it's made public. So you're always in the situation of playing catch up. And as our users up the ante in what they expect out of each new product, it places more demands on us as producers, on both sides, in terms of the content and what the software needs to do.

We have to work in dozens of hosts, all of which are changing the whole time, and operating systems that are changing the whole time. And then there are things like moving from 32-bit to 64-bit and all that that entails. We're basically making the software so it can handle the ever-changing advances in sample technology. The kind of programming and scripting and sheer size of something like Hollywood Strings is something that would be unthinkable even five years ago. The technology is changing at a rapid pace, and staying ahead of that change is really the hardest task. Computers are getting more powerful, and as they do we can do more to add more realism to the instruments.

People often overlook the cost of support. How does that work for East West?

We're into about our seventh year of software development right now. It takes a really long time for this kind of software to really mature. So what you do initially is focus on making it work for a majority of popular hosts that most people use and then expand it from there. Now, going back to the pre-computer days, where we had samplers from Akai, Roland etc., it was a known environment. We knew that a user had this operating system and this amount of RAM and we could make it work with that. Now you have people, some of whom even build their own computers, trying to run this stuff, and you have thousands of combinations of hardware, software, RAM, hard drives, sound cards and everything else to deal with, all of which can contribute to something not working. Particularly when you're pushing the computers as hard as we are. So the difficult part is not making it work; it's making it work with all of those combinations of software and hardware that everyone uses.

Ed. Note: The extreme costs of supporting software are often overlooked and/or discounted in people's minds. I am pretty sure this is going to create problems for customers in the future because a company that creates a $.99 application is not going to want to answer the questions people are going to want to ask.

So what I think I hear you saying is "It doesn't matter if it was worth it, because we had to do it.".

That's true, but it has been worth it. Our sales have increased year after year, and as time has gone on and our software gets more mature, we expand into new markets, instead of the four or five major hosts we focused on initially. It's definitely been worth it. The number one benefit is we get to control our future. I don't want to be controlled by another company, we've been there and done that. That's OK if you just want to make the same product that everyone else has made, but you can't innovate under those circumstances. Our professional users are competing as well, and need something unique that gives them an edge over the competition. The only way you can achieve that is by controlling the whole process yourself, even though it's a lot more work and a lot more expense. I have absolutely no regrets whatsoever. It's been extremely frustrating at times, but there's no going back.

Any advice for those entering the world of virtual instruments?

Yes, invest the time to get enough knowledge to put together a good computer system, have realistic expectations of what you can do given your computer's resources, use popular and proven software that works reliably with our virtual instruments, and you will have a very powerful tool to explore your creativity and create some great sounding music.

A final Ed. Note: of advice from for all you creative musicians out there who enjoy using DAWs and plug-ins. A lot of work by other creative people goes into making them, and their job is never finished. Piracy makes it harder to make new products so please buy the software you use.

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