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KVR Interview with iZotope and BT: Artists Making Products/ Products Making Art

KVR Interview with iZotope and BT: Artists Making Products/ Products Making Art

What do you get when you cross a prominent techno artist with a high-tech software company? The answer is BreakTweaker...

BreakTweaker is the result of a collaboration between the pro-audio software company iZotope and the recording artist Brian Wayne Transeau aka BT. It's not the first time that a recording artist has worked with a musical instrument company. It's a time-honored tradition in the electric guitar market with products developed by scientist/musicians like Les Paul and Tom Sholze, but it's still fairly new with software applications (as opposed to sound libraries). I expect we will see a lot more Artist/engineer collaborations in the future. Artists need to expand their revenue sources and companies need to differentiate.

Don't try this at home without adult supervision. BT is more technical than most artists, a combination of both personal choice and circumstance. The folks at iZotope have music and Computer Science educations at MIT, and by all appearances an unusually well-developed capacity for patience.

What follows is a bit of the story of how the BreakTweaker product came about...

How did iZotope get started?

Matt Hines (Product Specialist): The founders were dual computer science and music majors at MIT. They started recording at concerts and messing around with the idea of making plugins to make their concert recordings sound better. The first product they made was Vinyl in 2001. We gave it away, which in turn gave us a big mailing list so that a few months later when Ozone came out they had people to talk to. Even at the time, the idea of mastering audio yourself was a little mysterious.

Jack Côté (Breaktweaker Product Manager): After the initial release of Ozone we reached out to a lot of mastering engineers. People were saying, "Well we need the EQ to be like this and we need the multi-band dynamics to be like this."

Did subsequent designs of the user interface come through the interaction with those users?

We got some influence from that but I think they'll tell you that video games were a bigger influence to them than hardware. If you look at the early Ozone, the EQ is like a crosshair. It looks kind of like a little shoot-'em-up game or something. They were super into the idea of video games being an immersive experience. You know you just get drawn into it. That kind of approach is definitely what informed the earlier products.

When did the founders know: "Okay, this is how I'm going to make my living."

My guess is that it was when Spectron, Trash and Ozone 3 started to sell really well. They were distributed by M-Audio.

That was the first time that those three products were in the Ignition pack for the light version of Pro Tools. Ozone 1 was still done in the parent's basement office.

How did the collaborations with BT get started?


Stutter Edit was the first BT project. Both Stutter Edit and BreakTweaker were big projects that he was going after before iZotope. They are both built around the concept as the generative stuttering thing. Stutter Edit was meant for live playback and audio manipulation, and BreakTweaker was supposed to be the drum machine complement. It was more like a generator than it was just a live processor. So it just sort of worked out and we started working on BreakTweaker. By worked out I just mean the timing was right with the team and we got everyone aligned. We just kicked it off. We went down to BT's house, at his studio next to a frog pond, and took a look at the prototype that he had.

How long did you work on Breaktweaker before you showed your ideas to the folks at iZotope?

I began development in earnest of 3 applications Stutter Edit, BreakTweaker and one other about 10 years before showing them to Mark Ethier (iZotope CEO). When I did show them to him, Stutter Edit was finished right down to the UI (although not cross platform) and BreakTweaker was a fully functional working prototype. The prototype of BreakTweaker has a lot of functions that haven't (yet) made it to the application. The iZotope guys rewrote BreakTweaker from scratch and significantly optimized what is an extremely computationally complex engine. During development of the prototype, one of my lead developers, who now works for iZotope, consulted his physicist father in law to work out some of the math. It's a beast under the hood.

What tools did you use to develop the prototype?

I built it in Csound and Max as a proof of concept. We then built it as a team of four in Objective C.

How was the initial UI rendered?

BT had code. I think it was all in Objective-C. He did it himself a little bit, and he had contractors and others who had worked for Sonik Architects. He gave us a prototype we could sit down with. We worked together to come up with how we were going to make a modern drum machine that maintains the original idea of what BT was going after, but also infused some 'iZotopeness' into it.

Is the GUI different from his original concept?

It's pretty different. e worked with different designers and kind of all did it together. We definitely worked pretty collaboratively on everything.

And it's not so much just user interface, but I remember a time where they were like, "Hey, all of those curves would be pretty cool." So we put extra sound shapes in just because we were at iZotope playing with synths and saying, "Hey, this thing would sound really cool." A lot of the DSP was done by iZotope. Our DSP guys spent a bunch of time modeling several filters.

iZotope Trash

Distortions from Trash, as well. There were particular distortion algorithms that we really loved from our Trash 1 that we revamped for the modern age.

Did iZotope use any of BT's code or did you start over again?

There were portions of things that we used the same code, but it was mostly for things that were very specific. In terms of the actual engine of the software, it was all from scratch. Also we built a wavetable oscillators and things.There were a few similar things that were in the prototype, but as they were, it would have taken much longer, been more difficult and would've sounded worse to try and port it all in directly.

What's the best thing, you think, about working with an artist like BT?

He can hang with the technical part. You can talk about spectral interpolations and he's like "Yea, got it." And, probably more importantly, is when we go to start to make something, I can send him a command line utility that does what we were talking about and he'll be like "Yup, great, awesome." And he'll be able to churn out a bunch of stuff. Which is really awesome because as a Product Manager you're trying to marry the super technical detail with the creative artist aspects of it.

Where did you develop the ability to communicate with engineers in technical terms?

As a kid my primary focuses were studying classical music at our local conservatory, math (eventually programming) and computers. I began learning programming at the same time my love of synthesis blossomed (about age 10). My first language was BasicA and eventually led to Fortran, some Pascal and eventually C languages. I also learned CSound, super collider, MAX/MSP and (my latest) CDP which are wonderful prototyping environments. I find in much harder to communicate with my "peers" who talk about kick drums. Programmers are my people.

How did you go about finding engineers to work on your ideas?

I began by reaching out to programming teams that made my favorite hardware and software. I also found programmers from local universities in Los Angeles. People that understood DSP signal programming at the time I began these projects were highly uncommon. They still are I might add but there are more people that have come into the development community with a signal processing slant since the proliferation of Mac iOS. Collaboration with someone adept enough to script a clean and robust music application is often 50% convincing them of the musical validity of certain ideas. This is why prototyping has been a crucial part of my development workflow, it makes those battles easier. You can say, listen to this...this is why we are making this function.

How has your music training helped with product development (as opposed to conceptualization) efforts?

Definitely. I had that one in a million theory teacher that was playing me Bartok and John Cage as a 9 year old! I had a pretty expanded idea of what was possible in composition as a kid. I think that incredible guidance made me feel an actual responsibility to innovate.

How do you segue from creating music to the process of product development?

They are one in the same to me. If you listen to a piece like Le Nocturne de Lumiere on These Hopeful Machines. There is a segment in that piece that is a proof of concept of a technique I call "Metric Convolution." I came up with this idea that expands the concept of metric modulation and actually state changes over time. Duplet figures become flams as they morph into triplets (depending on meter. That would be a /4 to triplet type morph). At any rate this idea came hand in hand with the notes and harmonic figures. I made a 30 page chart for sixteen bars in that composition for the sample level placement of every 2048th note. It was a monumental pain it the ass but ended up being pretty amazing sounding. An idea worth pursuing. About one idea like that in five amounts to something of interest. Lots of experimentation.

How long was the BreakTweaker development cycle?

I think it was about ten months, but it's safe to say a year. There was definitely some ramp up time. We really wanted to go down and visit with BT before we really started to build anything. So we were just setting up frameworks and getting things brewing until we could all sit down together.

Did the project take any longer because of BT's schedule?

BreakTweaker Launch

Yeah, I mean this is our job. We do this every day and the team lives and breathes the products the whole way through. And he's just got a lot of other stuff and he's touring. There were definitely times where we would have all been able to sign off on the way something looked or sounded, but if he had a gig or whatever, he couldn't get to it right away. That's the challenge with any sort of collaborative thing with someone who's obviously not just sitting at a desk at the company.

How would you communicate?

I think we did it all: email, phone calls, Skype when you could, or visit in person. We'd fly out to see him or he'd fly out to see us. I think the thing that eclipses everything is that BT is a very creative guy and he, like us, has lots of ideas, so the feature creep is the biggest challenge, especially when you're working with creative people who get very passionate about EQ and filters, and synthesizers. It's really hard to navigate through the future and to balance getting everything in and shipping on time so people can actually enjoy it. As musicians its very easy to approach building software like making an album and because of that, BT was constantly pushing for every idea and every feature to get in and did not want to release until it was all just right. Software however just isn't like that and the way that users interact with software is very different from listening to an intricate album. That difference ended up being the majority of our communications and also the largest source of any tension in the partnership.

Did you have a process?

We're an Agile Development company, and at the time our sprints were about four weeks. We would talk, sketch things out, work with our product designer, and in order to keep the developers moving, every four weeks we'd queue up work for them. If you needed to, there were other things that were ad hoc on top of it. We sent over the builds to BT when we got to Sprint reviews, where the team is prepared to demo and the developers reach kind of a mini milestone. The builds usually speed up towards the end. In the beginning there's not a lot to show because it can take so long to get the code ready. At the end we'd send BT builds every other day.

573 builds before release.

Did you use the beta versions for your own music? How did that go?

I make all these tools because I have some compositional need or objective that cannot be achieved with current commercially available tools. I made BreakTweaker for the album This Binary Universe. The project began about 5 years before I wrote a note of the film. Same with Stutter Edit. This technique began as a teenager in the 80's assisting at a local studio. My first "Stutter Edits" were laying out 8 feet of 1/4" tape on the ground and cutting it in half with a razor and grease pencil. This experimentation with recontextualization of recorded events and non-linearity in music were in my consciousness way before they ever became working modalities in my own work, much less an application.

What part of the process have you enjoyed the most?

Releasing finished products to the world for other composers to use is incredibly rewarding. I'm very grateful to iZotope to making these instruments with me.

How does it feel to be a software company in 2014?

We've been very lucky so far in that we're just growing like crazy. When I joined three years ago we were just under 40 people. Now we just hit 80. By the end of this year we're going to be over 100 people. And that growth historically is from the continued success of our products.

We focus a lot on education. We have guides, we do videos, we do tutorials, we travel, we speak to people, we do master classes and webinars. We partner with other companies to teach people about audio, because we've found that even if we're teaching someone on how to EQ or use sound, even if they're using some other product out there, we're still helping them in some way and ultimately that comes back and creates some good will and helps us out. So that, historically, is how we've been successful and continue to be successful. It used to be very much just word of mouth, and as we've grown we've been able to tell more stories and help more people and create more content. It starts with one person in the marketing department and then several more and more people in the tech support department.

iZotope RX

iZotope has a reputation of making products that help people develop better workflows. RX is a really good example of that where eight years ago there weren't many options for noise reduction and now it's a standard.

You'll go out to LA and people there are saying, "Yea, we'll RX it."

It's become a verb.

Yea, it is a good thing. It's widely used and people are finding new uses for our products all the time in markets we never thought we'd be in. And then we see something like Iris come out of RX with a synth built on a spectrogram, so I think we're trying to push the envelope to see what we can get out of software.

So what have I not asked you guys that you would like me to ask you or that I should have asked you?

The coverage of BreakTweaker so far has been just very feature focused, but the story is cool too, so it's nice that someone's asking.

What (music) are you working on now?

I'm scoring the new Anthony Hopkins project Solace. It's a dark thriller and I'm really excited about the score. Lots of modular work for this one. I'm working on new electronic music releases and collaborations and have a band side project with my friend Christian Burns that is an entirely analog synth album. 17 songs that sound like they fell out of 1983. That's called All Hail the Silence. There's some top secret stuff afoot too but that's what I can talk about.

BT is currently touring the US and dreaming up new products. He will be a keynote speaker at the Advanced Audio + Applications Exchange (A3E) event September 23-24 in Boston, MS. Izotope continues developing new products and updating the ones that are already in the market.





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