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In Search of Reason - An Interview with Propellerhead's Ernst Nathorst-Böös

Ernst

What is the second best-selling cross platform DAW (after Pro Tools)? OK, Pencils down. The answer is Reason from Propellerhead Software.

Propellerhead is based in Sweden, where it is dark and cold in the winter, and there's not much to do except work, and practice playing really fast on your instrument of choice.

What some people may not know is that Propellerhead has been responsible for a number of important innovations in the music technology sector. Among these technologies are ReCycle, one of the earliest beat creation applications, and ReBirth, one of the first software applications to faithfully emulate a music hardware product. Along the way they have also had the time to share the inter-application audio router ReWire with the industry. Recently they offered Rack Extensions (RE) a new plug-in format that offers special benefits for plug-in developers.

Let's start with a dumb question - Is the name of the company "Propellerhead" or "Propellerheads?"

Propellerhead. That was my mistake, to put an 's' in the web address, in 1999. I've been hearing about it ever since. But the name of the company is Propellerhead Software actually.

For more detail on the history of Propellerhead and the origin of the name you can go here.

Was it your first business?

Not exactly. Before that, I did tech writing. But it was the first company I had that made any products. I actually started in MI in 1980 working for this import company and took all the cool stuff at the time to Sweden. We represented Linn, Emu, Simmons drums. So I worked there back in the day and we called it "programming" synthesizers at the time, so I worked as a programmer for studios and stuff.

What was the genesis of the company?

Propellerhead founders

I had met Marcus (Zetterquist), one of the founders of the company, before that and we had done some projects together. We thought, okay, this is working; let's see if we can do a real application.

What was your first product?

ReCycle

It was ReCycle in '94 already. We released it with Steinberg. It was actually called Steinberg ReCycle, and later we agreed we could put our name on it in later versions.

At the time people were using all of these loops in their music, but the way it was then, you had the loop, and you had the CD and you connected it with the sampler. And an hour and a half later you would know if it actually fit with your music. But people loved it and all these sample CDs came out. So we said okay, it seems like there's an opening here, and we started designed the program. And then Peter (Jubel), the third founder, came on board and did the DSP part for us, and it just went from there.

ReBirth was a pretty radical departure, from slicing things up to the first DAW that included content and synthesizers all bundled into one.

ReBirth for iPad

The three of us shared the love of synthesizers, so ReBirth was the product we really wanted to do. If you look at some drawings and sketches from the ReBirth days, you can kind of tell that the program we actually wanted to do was Reason, but there was no computer power and we didn't have the resources ready.

(A complete Propellerhead timeline can be found here)

Yeah, I'd like to say ReBirth was the first really usable application that allowed you to use a computer you already had to make music. There were other products out there, but ReBirth was complete and it ran well, sounded cool. That's what put us on the map.

If I remember, ReBirth was a Roland TR-808...

And two 303s. And then we added a 909, and some more effects.

How was your relationship with Roland at the time?

It's funny. For a while there they were our biggest downloader, of the BETA version. But we had done our homework and made sure we weren't infringing on any of their copyrights or anything. And then they contacted us, which of course was a little bit scary for three young guys.

They were extremely nice and forthcoming and practical about it. All they wanted was credit. So we arranged that with them.

Note: If you want the real thing Roland has just released the TR-8, an updated version of the TR-808.

So, in 1999 with Reason you were just taking that concept and broadening it?

Yes. We didn't have audio recording at the time. It was just more synthesizers and more instruments. But it also included real-time playing, which ReBirth didn't have. At that time, latency was actually down to a point where we thought that was actually useful.

How do you think Reason has changed the way people make music?

Prehistoric
Reason

We have users mailing into us and they either say, "I didn't think I could do this at all, and I'm doing it. Thanks for bringing me the tool that got me started." Or the other thing they're saying is, "Gee, I had this other thing before and now I'm using Reason and I've made more music in the last three days than I did in three months with whatever." So there's something about the program that helps people be creative.

The DAW is a pretty daunting prospect in itself, so anything you can do to help people to concentrate on making music rather than operating the program is a good thing.

When Rack Extensions first appeared, a cynical viewpoint was: "Oh no, another standard." And it was at a time when developers were going to 64-bit, so they were already pretty busy. But at the same time, you offer some real benefits.

We looked at existing plug-in platforms and people were asking why we didn't have plug-ins in Reason. Plug-ins are a great prospect, but by our standards there are to many things about them that just don't work. To be blunt, it's old crappy technology. It's being patched up, but still. For starters, if the plug-in crashes, your document is in jeopardy. Automation and remote control are very complicated whereas in Reason they are all automatic. User interfaces are all different between products, which to newcomers is completely bewildering. I could go on.

But there's also things like the purchasing experience. If all you want for example is to find what is the best VST compressor for you personally, you have to go to all these web sites, register, deal with different trial schemes, etc. It can take a day just to get things installed. With Rack Extensions you go to our web site and see the whole available market, click on a few products and you are and running with test versions only a few minutes later. It's for all those reasons that we did it.

There's a lot to be said for you guys taking care of the underlying operating systems...

With Rack Extensions we completely isolate the plug-in developer from that. Most of the things that can make a plug-in crash, you can't even do in them; it just doesn't happen. And then we've got all of this other technology sandboxing around it that helps also, but just by design it differently it makes things more stable.

What's the latest for Rack Extension?

The latest version has two new big features in it. One is that we've changed the way you can do the GUI. A developer can now do full interactive displays with graphics, which was a limitation before. Now you can do graphic envelopes and such. It's like an interactive display technology. It's going to make the RE products much more useful and probably more exciting and more creative I think.

And the other thing that you can now make the rack extensions based on samples. So you don't have to code any DSP yourself. A sound developer that worked with one of the other platforms can now do a rack extension without doing any deep coding or anything. You can load in samples and there's everything you could ever wish for in terms of processing. And then you can build your own user interface with the controls you want.

How many different developers are signed up?

I can't remember exactly but I think it's around 800. Slightly over 50 have delivered products by now.

Fifty different products, in two years. That's pretty impressive...

Yeah. It's gone really, really well, but the cool thing that's happened because we offered a platform where it's easy to get something running without knowing how to code against the operating system, we've got all these grass root developers, people who haven't done any products like this before And we have a business solution where we sell products for them too.

What I like so much about that is that's sort of a parallel to the decisions that they use Reason. They come back to us and they say, "I actually made a product." And they're selling it and people are making music with it and that's really great. And they're really creative and smart in doing things other companies maybe wouldn't.

What music did you listen to in 1980 and what do you like to listen to now?

I've been going through these phases. (A) I want to hear something that I haven't heard before. Something that makes me think, "you can't do this." And then you listen to it and say, "yeah you can." So that is through hip-hop and drum and bass and all that. It's always coming out and I want to figure out how's that done. What makes something that Skrillex does suddenly come up, which is completely new and what makes that exciting for me.

And then the other part of me is just that I like songwriting, which puts me in more of an indie category, with bands like Radiohead. So I've been through all kinds of periods through electronic and techno and all that stuff, but that's what seems to stick—the songwriting part.

A lot of people started out with Reason, and it's grown in its capability over the years. So there must be a lot of people that are finishing with Reason now too...

There is, a couple of things. It's gone both ways. On one hand, we've made our application more complete so you can make a full production, with the mixer and professional effects and everything.

On the other hand, what's happened at the same time, is there's so much software out there, and it all runs well and it's easy to setup and get going. I mean, there was a day that you're happy that your ProTools system ran, right? But these days you can install something and it's going to work, and it's not super expensive either. So more and more people are using multiple applications, either for different types of productions or what they want to get out of it that day, or a different aspect of a music production where they start and they finish. And that's fine. I actually like that.

What have you learned in the last 20 years that you really enjoyed, and what parts have you not enjoyed?

The two aspects of the work that I've enjoyed the most is designing the products and coming up with the stuff... something that answers the question of "how can we help people make more music?" Or better music. Or at least have more fun doing it. That's one aspect. The other aspect is bringing it to market and figuring out how to communicate what we're doing so the people understand it and try it out. But those aspects, product design and marketing, are the ones that I love the most. At the same time, a lot of what's going on in the industry doesn't really impress me that much. I think we're too much doing the same thing as we did yesterday.

Can you give me an example of that?

There's an obsession around certain technical aspects of music creation. It has to be this many bits or something, which makes people focus on the wrong things in their music making. I think we could do much more to actually help people create more music and have fun doing it. And also, inviting people that don't feel invited right now because there are a lot of people that are not making music with what we call technology. An acoustic guitar is just as much technology as a computer. But we keep talking about that as if it's a special thing which makes a lot of people feel it's not for them or they're not invited. We need to look up a little bit and see that we can do a lot more for a lot more people. And that's what we want to do.

Propellerhead has just released an update to Reason. The details can be found here.


www.propellerheads.se


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