KVRaudio presents an exclusive, behind the scenes interview with Angus Hewlett, FXpansion founder and CEO.
You are a serious fan of synthesis and technology in modern music. Can you talk about some of your favorite recordings of synthesizers and why you think they were important?
There are so many! Where do I begin? Er, is this KVRaudio or Desert Island Discs!? I guess the BBC television Doctor Who theme was the first electronic recording I really learned to love. For me the definitive version is the Peter Davison-era theme from 1982 or so. I remember listening to that when I was 5 or 6 years old and being just blown away. My parents are more into acoustic and folk music – not great fans of synths really (so much so that my mum only stopped telling me to 'get a real job' once FXpansion had 5 or 6 employees), so I'd just never heard anything like it before. What's fascinating with the Doctor Who theme is that, as with the shows themselves, you can listen to the different versions right back to the original BBC Radiophonic Workshop recordings from the mid '60s and really hear how they've evolved with the technology.
Next up – I would have to pick "Leftism" by Leftfield, and "Music for the Jilted Generation" by The Prodigy. These records represent UK dance music at its absolute peak, and although many fantastic records were released around that time, those two stand out. They seem to be able to hop between genres without losing any authenticity along the way, and you can hear a real melting pot of influences there. Too much electronic music is made by people who only listen to their own narrow genre.
These two records also happened at an interesting historical point in the evolution of music technology, occurring at the moment where musicians could really push the technology right to the edge and get maximum results from it. If you listen to earlier electronic stuff, say from '87 thru '92, you can really hear the limits of the technology inherent in the recordings, especially on low-budget dance tracks. Once everything started to go "virtual," the only real limit for those on a major label budget was imagination (and of course skill, patience, etc…). Those albums were recorded right before the technology started to evolve faster than most musicians could keep up with it. You don't really get to hear the limits of technology on albums any longer, only the limits of how people know to use it.
Tells us something about the history of FXpansion. Who were the original founders and what were their backgrounds? What made you decide to get into the virtual instrument business?
I founded FXpansion in early 1999, ran it pretty much as a sole proprietor for about three years, before joining forces with Rhiannon Bankston-Thomas (now our CFO) and SKoT McDonald (now our CTO). In 2002-2003, we incorporated as a limited company (which is the equivalent of a corporation in the US) with proper offices and stuff. The plug-in virtual instrument business was just getting going at the time SKoT and myself started out. Before FXpansion, SKoT developed plug-ins with Andy Simper – now of Cytomic – under the 'Vellocet' imprint. Long-time VST aficionados might remember their VReorder beat-mangler plug-in. At the time, Native Instruments, Propellerhead and VAZ had all been established some years already, but they were building stand-alone instruments.
Anyhow, when you consider that my two dream careers as a young kid were to be "inventor" and "composer" ("astronaut" having gone out the window, as for a lot of my peers, the day Challenger blew itself apart on live TV), it was an obvious choice in some ways.
Was there any one product that you think really announced your arrival in the industry as a force to be reckoned with?
That would be the DR-008 (pictured). It proved that a "one man band" (well, with a little help from, amongst others, Paul Kellett of mda & Wizoo/AIR, along with Bram and Andreas of smartelectronix) could build something that challenged the dominant commercial players of the day. It also really paved the way for BFD, GURU et al – although there is not much technology in common, everything that's happened since was in one way or another set in motion by DR-008.
How has your company changed – if at all – to accommodate new styles and influences?
If you mean musical styles, not so much – music is much less directly driven by technological progress than it was 20 years ago. There are few records released lately or new genres that couldn't have been made with the technology from 10 years ago by someone with sufficient patience… In any case most R&D lately has been focused on recreating real or vintage instruments; it's hard to say which of those is the cause and which the effect.
The biggest influences on the company have been the democratization of music technology in general, accompanied by an ever more diverse user-base with ever-higher expectations and, simultaneously, a highly competitive and, some would say, overcrowded marketplace. All of which means we have to strive to make "best-in-class" products that almost anybody can get results with, without even reading the manual… no small task.
What product through your company's history do you think best represents the soul of your company? Why is that?
Currently, there's no doubt it's BFD2. It brings together all the strands of sound, technology, design, and features that run through the company: an incredibly detailed and comprehensive sound set, very high-quality signal processing better than many stand-alone dynamics plug-ins, an audio engine that has to perform quite some feats to get everything served up on time, and the phrase sequencer, mix engine, and browser components which work together to make fully tweakable, raw, real-time processed sounds as easy to use as most "ready to eat" loop libraries. Everybody gave it their all on that project, and the level of attention to detail really shows through.
You've achieved significant growth and just celebrated a decade of great products. What has been your most successful contribution to the industry, and why do you think it has been so successful?
Can I pick two? In terms of customers served, BFD1 was a runaway commercial success – we knew there was an audience for something like that, but we had no idea at the start it was going to be anywhere near that huge. It was the right product, the right time, and the right price. One of the things we learned the hard way with DR-008 is that, as developers, listening too closely to your loudest and most vocal fans can sometimes lead things in the wrong direction – they don't necessarily represent the wider user-base. With BFD we tried to listen to some of the less strident voices, and surprised ourselves with just how many there were. The other thing that made BFD a hit is that it solves a genuine problem that people have (your drums sound fake, dude!), and know they have. Selling something that isn't a solution, or solves a problem people don't realize they have, is much harder to do.
The other smash hit has been our adapter technology (including the VST-AU Adapter and VST-RTAS Adapter products) – you're very likely using it right now, without even knowing it. We have a crazy number of licensees for that code, I have no idea how many DAWs it's installed on in some form or other but it must be six figures. Again, it's popular because it solves a problem… I'd love to spend all day coding up whacked-out sequencer effects and ring modulators (heck, I wrote the original VST-DX adapter – now owned by Cakewalk and, I think, still part of SONAR in some form or other – precisely to buy myself some time to do just that), but it's hard to convince most people that they have a lack of whacked-out-sequency-ness in their lives.
Recently you expanded your technology offerings into synthesizers with DCAM. Why did you expand into this area, and what challenges do you face to establish the same level of success you've enjoyed in the drum software realm?
It may seem like a recent development, but we've been working on that for ages. Even when we released Orca, three years ago, the DCAM tech had been in development at least two years. Releasing some form of algorithmic synth has been part of the plan since day one, took us longer than we'd have liked to get there is all.
Synths are quite a different market from drums – it's less cut-and-dried as to whether a product that is good for Alfie will also suit Ben, though we've aimed to make Synth Squad a crowd-pleaser (hopefully) for a pretty good-sized audience. There are some well-established competitors with great marketing, and some others with great sound quality… at the same time we've put a LOT of thought and effort into the design and workflow of these synths; not as much, perhaps, as some of the hardware companies did back in the day, but close.
I think people who understand what analogue synths are about, and know where they want to get to, sound-wise, will appreciate those design details. I hope it'll make some other people who currently stick mainly to presets feel less daunted about learning to create their own. One of our guiding philosophies has always been to empower people to make their own sounds… I'm amazed by how many people nowadays are scared at the thought of doing their own sound design. Sure, the bar has been raised higher than it used to be in terms of factory presets and sample CDs, but it's really not that hard to make your own. It's almost like the sound companies want to keep people coming back to buy more sounds instead of helping customers learn how to make their own.
You were one of the early supporters of Receptor. What did you see in the product that made you decide to support it?
I've played gigs with a keyboard, and gigs with a laptop… to be honest, I hate the sound design on most workstation keyboards, but I love the convenience; taking a fragile laptop on stage for a band gig on an overcrowded, badly-lit stage in some 'toilet' venue with a dodgy electrical supply and beer glasses everywhere is a recipe for disaster. At one point I toyed with the idea of building a single-board PC and 6.5" mini-LCD in to the chassis of my Fatar SL88 (there's a ton of empty space in those big controllers), but then Muse Research launched Receptor and my band folded anyhow. VSTi sounds in giggable format = WIN / WIN… but I'm still waiting for you guys to make one built in to a 61-key 'board, of the kind a skinny nerd can carry under one arm... think XP-30 sized, price it at $999 & you'll all be driving Aston Martins by next Christmas. Seriously! (editor: You promise??).
Where do you see FXpansion 5-10 years from now? How do you think the competitive and technology landscape will change over the next decade?
Well, I can't comment on unreleased products, so on that front let's just say… more of the same, and some more of not the same. Five years is not that long in terms of our product life cycles – BFD 1.x was on the market for just over four, GURU 1.x has done about the same – so keep those expectations realistic :o) I'm not really a fan of the annual release cycles some companies seem to be on, I think it's a recipe for "bloatware," as it doesn't give you enough time to step back and design the next version.
Competitively – I think we'll see perhaps less competition from plug-in companies – these things are getting so expensive to develop properly that it's now much harder for new players to sit at the top table. I think we'll see more competition from the host companies – most all of them have instrument divisions now, they have deep pockets, and they don't want to be caught short on features versus one another, so there is something of an "arms race" happening at present. It remains to be seen though whether the whole bundled-instruments / vertically-integrated approach they're taking is a good bet for the long term, and what effect this will have on the likes of FXpansion.
Other tech-wise: we'll be seeing a lot more cores on the desktop. That trend does not seem to be slowing down, and it's really all the chip companies seem to have at the moment. I'm expecting 32-thread x86 desktop boxes next year, they can likely do that on the current 32nm process… with 16nm supposedly in production by 2014, it's not unreasonable to think we'll have 128-thread desktops in the 5-10yr range, though how developers will get decent use of all those cores is anyone's guess.
The big unknowns really are these: What will have to happen to operating systems, programming models and audio app architectures to deal with that many cores? Will mobile or other tech platforms start to become a viable alternative to desktop/laptop computers for serious audio work? Also, what's to become of the very interesting UI technology waiting in the wings? If you haven't checked out the various Microsoft Research projects on YouTube (Surface, Project Natal etc.), do so! Again, it'll be interesting to see if some of that catches on for audio work; finally, I don't think many people would have predicted 10 years ago that apparently sane adults would spend hours playing with a fake plastic guitar plugged in to a console, so "who knows"… if Project Natal works as advertised, maybe we'll see "Air Guitar Hero" next… party on, dude.