Interview with Eric Persing by Chris Halaby for KVR Audio.
Every industry needs champions. These are individuals and companies who propel the market forward and continue to set the bar higher for everyone else to aspire to. Spectrasonics' Founder and Creative Director, Eric Persing, is such a person for the sound design and software plug-ins industry.
Like many of us in the musical products industry, Eric's career began in a music store, but shortly afterwards he started working for Roland Corporation at the birth of MIDI in the early 80s. It was there that he was discovered by Tom Beckmen, who was then president of Roland Corp US and became a shareholder in Opcode Systems. (Tom has since retired and is living the hard life making wine).
Though I didn't know it at the time, I first encountered Eric when I bought a Roland D-50, because he had developed its well-known sounds and had created the sounds for many classic Roland instruments. Since then I have bought just about every product he has developed. In addition to their flagship plug-in, Omnisphere, my personal 'go to' products include Trilian and Stylus RMX. If you haven't tried them you are really missing something.
Let's talk about how you got started with Roland.
In 1982, I was working at an unusual new Goodman Music store in Orange, California. This store was amazing because its goal was to have every keyboard in the world. Every synth, every keyboard, every organ, every piano.
However, it was a weird situation because although the store was gigantic and you could see it from the freeway, it was really hard to get to and so unfortunately, we had almost no customers come in.
With no customers, we had almost nothing to do - so we'd spend all of our time experimenting with the gear. It was a super exciting time and MIDI had just been introduced, so we started MIDI'ing everything in the store together! At the time it was really complicated to do this because most MIDI keyboards could only send on one MIDI channel but would receive on all sixteen in "omni mode", but we discovered some tricks to make everything work properly together.
We felt like we were pioneers in the store all day and all night. A customer would come in and we'd have the whole store MIDIed. We had this huge PA and we'd be like "Come back here and check this out!" And we'd hit the play button and the whole store would be firing synths and stuff. And the guy would go: "Whoa! What is that?!".
Right about the same time, the Roland JX3P came out and it had horrible factory patches. It was the 'funny cat', 'space boys', era (lame synth sounds from the early 80s) so I made my own patches. The JX3P was a two-oscillator synth that was a lot less money than the Prophet 5. I could get the Prophet 5 sounds out of it and I had my own set of highly tweaked 32 patches. So if you came into the store, I would sell you the JX-3P and also a data cassette with my 32 patches for an extra $100." (Editors note: compare this to the fact that Omnisphere now ships with 5,000 patches for $499) And then I figured out a couple of other tricks, like you could double the sequencer's memory if you held down a certain combination of buttons. It's hilarious to think about it now in the age of the internet, but back then for $20 I would teach you those tricks! (laughs).
Then the sales training guys from Roland came in and said: "How are you doing all of this?" So we ended up training them! Tom Beckmen (founder and president of Roland US) heard about this incident and started asking, "What's going on with this store in Orange?" When he came down to the store to check it out for himself, I gave him a big demo of all the stuff we'd been doing and my JX3P patches, etc. As a result, he invited me to come to the 1984 Chicago NAMM show and demo for Roland. That was my first NAMM show and it was a blast. That was the show that introduced a whole bunch of new things: the SBX-80 which was the first SMPTE to MIDI device, the Octapad which was the first MIDI drums, the first MIDI controller keyboards and modules, the Super Jupiter, etc, etc. After that show had gone so well, they hired me to be a product specialist and Chief Sound Designer/consultant to Roland Japan.
Do you still stay in touch with Mr. K? (Ikutaro Kakehashi – founder of Roland and another industry pioneer).
Yes, I do occasionally see him....he's definitely a hero of mine and a wonderful man. I've always thought of him as the "Walt Disney" of synthesizers.
I'd love to get back in touch with him soon as he's now in his eighties.
Tell me about the history of Spectrasonics. What drove you to start your own company?
In the early 90s, I was really busy as a session musician/producer/arranger in Los Angeles and also with Roland Japan - recording and developing their extensive sample libraries. It started to become clear to me that both of these worlds were going through some dramatic changes.
In the music world, artists and producers I worked with were starting to work more on their own, instead of hiring a lot of people and bringing them together in the same room to produce music. In Japan, I came to realize that Roland's philosophy did not really embrace the idea that anything "virtual" could be a very strong product on its own. For them, the sounds we created were just an accessory to the hardware they made. Their focus is to keep their factories running and you don't need a factory to create a virtual product.At the same time, I was hearing about this little thing that was starting called the "Internet"... (laughs)
Yes, that changed things a bit....
Meanwhile, these worlds started to collide for me around the time I worked on the JV-1080 synthesizer - since it was cheaper for a music producer to buy a Roland synth that came with 500 of my sounds than it was to hire me for a day to create a few custom sounds for them...I realized I was actually putting myself out of work.
However, I knew that Roland would not be the best avenue for this idea and so I was pretty discouraged about what to do until my wife Lorey said, "Hey, let's do it ourselves!" and that was the very humble beginning of Spectrasonics.
So the beginning of Spectrasonics was purely about creating sounds for hardware samplers?
Yes. We were blessed to work with Hans Zimmer and some other great people right at the beginning, so even though in reality we were just a tiny home business with five phone lines in our kitchen, from the beginning we had a high-profile professional image to the public. It started as a very small idea to sell a few sounds and then has grown into what it is today.
Spectrasonics was one of the first companies to introduce large-scale, virtual instrument plug-ins. How did you make the transition from sound developer to a full software development company?
Trying to support the myriad of hardware sampler platforms quickly became a burden and was really limiting us in the realization of our ideas. So we were following the developments in computers and software synthesis with great interest and believed that this was the future.
However, since I am not a software programmer myself we had little idea how to realize a virtual instrument. So our first series of virtual instruments - Atmosphere, Trilogy and Stylus - was launched with licensed technology from our friends in France who developed the UVI engine. This was a great success and taught us a lot about what it means to be a software company.
Everything is developed in-house now?
Yes. After the first stage of instruments, it became clear that to realize and support our ideas the way we wanted to do it would require us to build our own software team. We were incredibly fortunate to bring on Glenn Olander (developer of the Crystal synth) to head our software team. Since then, we've been able to transition our whole product line to our own technology, by building our own S.A.G.E. and STEAM engines which power Stylus RMX, Trilian and our flagship synth Omnisphere. It's been quite a journey.
If you could describe Spectrasonics development philosophy in two words, what would it be?
"Powerfully Simple". That's always been our guiding design principle, to make complex and powerful tools that are really easy and inspiring to use.
Did you have any formal music training?
Yes. I grew up in a musical home. My father plays all of the instruments and is a choir director, he taught at Stanford University and played in the Symphony. I was around music all of the time and it was my mom that taught me to play the piano. In a lot of ways I'm mostly self-taught though. The synth thing was so new in the 70s, you pretty much had to learn it on your own. There was one book by Alan Strange Electronic Music: Systems, Techniques, and Controls. I got that book as a kid and just read everything else I could possibly find way before I could afford to have my own synth.
I think I was about in sixth grade maybe when I took a trip to the Guitar Center in San Francisco. There was only one G.C. at the time and it was just a little store. They had this cool synth room in the back with all these Moog Modulars. They had the first Sequential Circuits programmer. This was even way before the Prophet 5. It was a pretty heavy room. And I played a Minimoog all day in there and couldn't figure out how to turn off the sound.
Can you imagine that happening at Guitar Center now?
(laughs) No, but I was there all day and it kind of altered my DNA forever. That was my first time playing a synthesizer and it was pretty much all I thought about after that.
What do you like to listen to and has that had any impact on the products you create?
I guess I have really eclectic tastes and I think that really helps a lot. The customers we have, especially now, are all over the map in terms of styles and sounds. It helps that I have a broad taste and like a lot of things: all kinds of acoustic, electric and electronic music.
Obviously Vangelis is a huge influence, Kraftwerk and the original guys like ELP, Jan Hammer, Yes, Genesis, Thomas Dolby - everybody knows that stuff. There's also some really important electronic music from that time that a lot of people don't know about, like Roger Powell's solo work. These days I'm a fan of anybody that is pushing the edge sonically or incorporating it musically in a way that it sounds original and musical. I love where guys like Amon Tobin, Square Pusher, Aphex Twin and all of that experimental stuff are taking things. Pop-wise, I'm a big Imogen Heap fan. She's great.
All of Larry's stuff, and especially that one, it's kind of the first time I heard that rich sample and hold analog sparkly stuff. But not just like the Karn Evil #9 (Emerson, Lake and Palmer) type of filter thing, but where a modular synthesizer is firing lots of sounds and everything is random. So it was quite an honor to have Larry Fast join our Bob Moog Tribute Library (more on that later). The sound that he submitted is the actual sound from one of those albums. It was from those multi-track masters. I recognized it instantly. It was from his Games album.
I think a lot of current people don't know that Larry Fast did a lot of work with Peter Gabriel. A lot of those iconic sounds, like the bagpipes in "Biko." That's actually something Larry created with a Modular Moog, not real bagpipes...and of course all of the Wendy Carlos stuff, her contribution to the vocabulary of sound can never be overstated.
You have always been very concerned about how your customers interact with your products. How do you think the user experience has changed over the years with technology products. What's good and not so good?
On the positive side, the access to everything, the portability, the size of things has come down so much. If you know how to use these things, you can do whatever you can think of, really. Obviously what you have available now in terms of color and quality of sound for so little money is staggering.
It's like the walls have come down. Which leads to an interesting new problem, which is that you really don't have to work for it anymore....so it's easy to lose the motivation to create. Unlike the days of hardware synths and megabuck studios, you don't dream about the iPad app that you can someday afford. You just get a little app, try it for a few days, get bored and then get another one. The disposable-ness problem is the dark side of the music technology that no one really anticipated.
For example, I've noticed that hardly anyone is MIDI'ing their iPads. It's not hard to do at all, but so far it's mostly developers that are actually doing it. I've seen very few end users. And when you show someone, they are like; "wait, you can do that?" There's a Camera Connection Kit from Apple with a USB cable. It's like "Oh, my keyboard doesn't have a USB" but you just get a USB to MIDI cable. It's no big deal, you can get it in any music store. (laughs).
Now this may change with some of these new devices like the Alesis IO Dock, which I just got. That's going to be a game changer for sure and really turns the iPad into an amazing portable multitrack recorder/sound module/MIDI device. Maybe that was the missing link for people to see what the iPad was really capable of.
So yea, I think things have definitely changed a lot for both the better and the worse.
I wonder what this will do to the industry. It's like a land grab right now. You have all of these companies, whether it's a bigger company like NI or tiny companies you've never heard of. As long as it's new and it's novel, customers are going to buy everything and try it out.
I do think that it'll slow down. I think we've already reached a saturation point and it happened really quick.
Do you think that the price will eventually go back up as the products become more involved? I don't know how long it took you to develop Omni-TR, but it had to be longer than a few weeks.
It took the better part of year, but the way we look at it is that Omni-TR itself, we don't need to make money on that, because it makes Omnisphere even more desirable. The Omni TR app opens a possibility for a new physical way to use Omnisphere. We're excited about the iPad giving us this TR "Touch Remote" concept, that's definitely a concept we'll keep pushing. No matter what happens with the iPad/tablet world, we think there's a good chance that the traditional computer will always be more powerful - so they can be very complimentary, using the strengths of each.
My interest has always been in the next possibilities in what the new computer power will let me do sonically/musically, and how that can take us to the next level in terms of our development - instead of making a smaller, 'lesser than' product for the mass market. There's always been plenty of people doing that, and there's a lot of great stuff, but a lot of it tends to be short-lived. I see the primary advantage of the iPad as a fantastic interactive touch user interface. When the computer is giving you the horsepower you need, then you have the best of both worlds.
Industry-wise, I think what Apple did with Garage Band on the iPad is pretty amazing... but, it's kind of crazy that it's only $4.99. As a musician, I love all of the excellent ideas they implemented so well, but in a way Apple has killed a lot of innovation by pricing it so low. Why didn't they make it $20? Sometimes when something goes so mass market like that, it just stifles independent developers. How do you compete when a powerful DAW is only five dollars?
It's funny, I feel exactly the same. Why would anyone else do an iPad recording application after this?
They presented it as "we're raising the bar." From a programming side, they did, but they lowered the bar with the price. I 'm not sure it's healthy to treat software like it's nothing and it's hard to see where it's going to go. What is clear is that the iPad and things like it are going to be a big part of the studio because of what it adds in terms of interface and mobility.
We're starting to see integration of the iPad like this in a lot of musical products. StudioLogic has a MIDI controller now where they were able to make a less expensive controller because they didn't have to make a display. The display is very simple, you just slide your iPad in which gives you a very nice display of all of the controllers. So the iPad becomes the display component of musical instruments.
In cases like this, a company doesn't really care so much about profiting directly from the app, but it adds tremendous value to the instrument, and it does something more important to the larger product.
How do you think "touch" relates to virtual instrument design?
Lately we've been getting people contacting us saying that they want to get rid of their instruments because they are no longer making music. To me that's just like "wait, what? You're not making music anymore?" The idea that you're making music for a while and then you're not making it anymore… To me that's a real danger sign for the music software world. It means that people aren't having a soul connection with their instruments.
So one of the things that the iPad allows is that when you touch the instrument something happens and creates a stronger connection like you have with a physical instrument. It's hard to have that feeling with only a mouse.
The world of music production is easier than ever, but it can often feel like there are too many choices. You have 10,000 channels but you don't care about any of them. That's one of the reasons why we just focus on a few, very powerful products.
The DX7 had 32 patch slots, 64 if you bought the expansion cartridge. Do you think being overwhelmed by choices could be turning people away?
Exactly. That happens sometimes with Omnisphere even, because the library is so huge. It's a constant challenge to keep the browsing experience so that you can quickly work with it and not become overwhelmed.
One of the things I'm experiencing myself as a musician and I've also noticed this with a lot of other electronic musicians that use software plugins, is that the reason we are drawn to hardware synths, is the experience of working "in the moment." With a non-programmable, hands-on analog synth like the Minimoog or even the Jupiter 8 which is programmable, you don't have a large preset library to fall back on for the Jupiter 8. When you go over to the Minimoog you're making a sound specifically for that thing you're doing right now. And there's something beautiful about that interaction.
I've always tried to keep instruments around that have no presets, where it's like I'm going to make something for this song, for the mood I'm in right now, and I find that extremely satisfying. So you see people that use Moog synthesizers, they have a bond with their instrument that is deep, really deep.
That's much harder to have with a software synth, so we're working really hard to bridge that gap, and I think the iPad is fantastic for that. The new Imposcar2 hardware controller is very exciting for that same reason.
The fastest way to get that connection with an instrument like Omnisphere is to simply ignore the factory library, get in there and create your sounds from scratch.
So you think all musicians need to "love" their instruments?
Right! I think it helps people to understand that we love these instruments too and want to see them grow. It's not just a business thing. At $500, in today's world, we're at the high end of the scale. We're working really hard to remain that way. We want people to feel that this is a great value and you would be crazy not to get it. And it's a price that, for a lot of hobbyists, is a stretch. We've got to give them a lot of reasons to make that commitment. And if you're a pro that used to pay thousands of dollars for every piece of gear in your studio, it's like "Of course!".
Let's talk about the Bob Moog Foundation and the Bob Moog Tribute library you produced, a noble thing and obviously very important to you for many reasons.
We had a blast putting together an amazing tribute library of sounds with over 45 of the greatest sound artists in the world. 100% of the proceeds go to the Bob Moog Foundation for the wonderful work they are doing to educate the next generation.
Like I've said, my experience of first playing the Minimoog as a kid seems to have altered my DNA. It really is true that there wouldn't be a Spectrasonics without Bob Moog and that spirit of creativity he had. We think it's important that the next generation understands where all this stuff came from and to spread his spirit of openness. Sometimes it seems like there's more segmentation and close-mindedness now amongst electronic musicians - which was never the spirit of Bob Moog himself. After all, Bob Moog actually introduced the Fairlight (a competitive, non-analog sampling instrument) himself and wisely predicted that computers were the most important thing to happen to musicians since the invention of cat gut strings. He thought musicians should use it all - Use that FX pedal. Use your amp. Use hardware or software, or plug-ins....Use it all! The most important thing is to be creative, to be inspired. Use whatever you need to use to realize your vision.
I already bought the library myself and I've got to believe it's doing really well.
It's been a big success and we're really excited to see that it's raising significant funds for the Foundation. I also hope that it inspires other developers to come up with their own creative ways to raise money for this worthy cause.
Our OMG-1 contest has also been a big hit, with hundreds of participants from all over the world! We are looking forward to announcing all the winners on September 15th(there will be multiple prizes announced in addition to Persing's custom OMG-1 synth)
Last question: What's your favorite desert island piece of gear?
It would likely be my 1976 Yamaha CS-80. It's pretty great and always an inspiration to play.
Now if you can just find a portable generator on that island...
Like his hero Bob Moog, Eric Persing wants to create products that inspire creativity and most people would say he's achieving this goal in a big way. Check out Spectrasonics' Omnisphere and the Bob Moog Tribute library for further examples of his work.
Many thanks to Paul de Benedictis for the help with this post.