A common thread running through all of the company's plugins is they offer something that's never been done before in their product categories. Beginning with the innovative G8 Dynamic Gate, which debuted in 2014, the boutique software developer has continued to surprise with the subsequent releases of their Sandman, Fault, Indent and Dent plugins for Plugin Alliance.
Eager to learn how they spin their magic and keep it fresh, we recently chatted with two of the company's three co-founders and plugin designers, Michael Hetrick and Joshua Dickinson. The conversation first delved into their musical backgrounds and quickly progressed to a bull session on the fascinating technologies behind their current and upcoming products.
Plugin Alliance: How did you guys get interested in music, pro audio and technology in general?
Michael Hetrick: I started music when I was three years old and got into electronic music around 6th grade or so. My major when I went to Vanderbilt University was Digital Media and Distribution. I mainly studied film, with a few composition and music business classes. I started pursuing music as a career and now play primarily guitar, bass and percussion.
Joshua Dickinson: My background is in jazz and classical music originally. I started playing saxophone when I was around ten years old. I eventually got into musique concrète and using Reason. In college, I got into the computer-music scene at the Columbia Computer Music Center. It's kinda like a computer-music punk scene. I now play saxophone, keyboards and electronics.
PA: How did you guys meet?
MH: We met in 2010 when we both started the Media Arts and Technology graduate program at UC Santa Barbara. We both had art and engineering backgrounds, so we hit it off right away. I'm still in my PhD candidacy, which is about teaching methods for modular synthesis; my focus is on electronic music and sound design.
JD: I was at first a Music Composition undergrad. But the more I got into computer music, it led to programming and data visualization. That in turn led me to the Media Arts and Technology program because it combines engineering, visual arts and music. I've since graduated with a Masters in Science degree in Multimedia Engineering.
PA: Was there a seminal moment when you guys decided you should start a pro-audio company together?
MH: The plugin-company idea didn't happen until 2012. We were both becoming much more confident programmers. I had released a few iOS applications at that point. Propellerhead had launched their Rack Extensions store. Because it was a new market at the time, we thought it would be a great way to start developing audio software in an uncrowded field. It served as a way for us to learn how to do real-time audio programming for commercial releases. We have three Rack Extensions in the store and an amplitude splitter—a first in the world of plugins—in development. You'll be able to use the amplitude splitter to route low, medium- and high-volume audio to different respective places, such as to reverb and other effects.
JD: The formation of the company was almost ad hoc, like starting a band. We were serious about it, but I don't know how far we thought it would actually go. It definitely took a different direction than we were anticipating.
MH: The third co-founder of Unfiltered Audio, Ryan McGee, was absolutely critical to our company because he had an electrical engineering background. He added stability in the early stage of the company. Joshua and I were like, 'Well, we're artists. We don't know if we're plugin developers (laughs).' So he helped us a bunch. I don't know if we would have a company without him.
PA: The design of all your plugins, even the G8 Dynamic Gate, seems to be significantly influenced by synthesizers.
MH: We took a lot of influence from modular synthesizers in designing G8. It's a noise gate with features that haven't been released in a noise gate before. I had been using Make Noise MATHS (a Eurorack-format module) at the time and was obsessed with using envelopes in many different ways. They can be LFOs, percussive envelopes, slowly droning things... All those ideas made it into G8, which isn't just a noise gate but an amplitude modulator, a tremolo, a granulator, all essentially using the same noise-gating techniques. G8 was released in 2014 as our third Rack Extension, and we used it as our launching point for VST and Audio Units plugin development. It served as a wonderful introduction for us into programming for mainstream plugin formats.
PA: How did you balance your higher-education studies with running a pro-audio company? You must've drank a boatload of coffee!
MH: Yes (laughs)! A lot of the academic work we did ended up being useful for our products. We thought about how we could add what we learned to a plugin. It was this all-consuming three to four years of nothing but audio programming. When we were working on G8, one of the papers we referenced throughout the development process was written by one of our academic advisors, Andres Cabrera. He wrote this great paper on analog simulations for compressors and dynamics control. We were surrounded by so many incredible engineers and musicians. We were able to get great advice when we needed it.
JD: We'd also get ideas from being around Curtis Roads, the father of granular synthesis, who was teaching and lecturing at UCSB.
MH: Yes, most of our products wouldn't exist without Curtis! His books and classes have shaped our research and design process in a big way.
PA: With all those crosscurrents, what ends up motivating you most to take a product in a certain direction?
MH: One guiding principle when I design is, would I use this? As a musician and composer, I'm very picky about the gear I use. So when I'm developing a product, I'm considering, 'Does this knob feel correct? Is this interface too complicated? How quickly can I get from the sound I start with to the sound I want?' I'm always trying to tackle product design from a musician's standpoint. It took me about three years to develop Fault, because I was initially not pleased with the sound or the way a knob felt. About two years into the process, I realized I was selling off all my other frequency shifters because I was using Fault for that. That's the point where we go, 'Okay, now we have a product.' If I'm using it to make music and picking it over everything else in our plugins folder, then I know we'll be happy to share it with other people. Our other guiding principle comes from being exposed to so much in academia that is unimaginably cool. Sitting in on a seminar, we'll see some research paper or software that another student or visiting lecturer has developed, and we'll go, 'Wow, why hasn't this shown up in mainstream software? Oh, because it has 200 knobs! How can we take these futuristic ideas and make new software that hasn't been done before, but also make it musician-friendly?'
JD: I always repeat, "Low floor, high ceiling." Our plugins are really easy to start with, and you can make some really cool sounds right away, but they're deep in that they allow for a very high level of technicality and virtuosity if you put in the time with them.
PA: It's crazy what you can do with your plugins. They're really inspirational and different from what's been done before in the plugin world. Which leads us to ask: where did you get the idea to develop a left-field product like Dent that uses wave-cycle distortion?
MH: That's a funny story. Dent, like Fault, had a long gestation period. I became obsessed with learning about saturation techniques, how to emulate various distortion pedals, things like that. I kept seeing in the literature the same ideas: are you doing symmetric or asymmetric curves, are you shaping it, are you clipping it? The same techniques. So, the top row of controls in Dent became, 'okay, instead of picking the mode of distortion, how about you design the distortion yourself?' And that was when it came together. That opened up interaction with our modulation system in a new way. For example, you can slowly evolve from one distortion form to another just by routing an LFO to the upper-multiple control (modulating the amplitude and polarity of only the positive-phase component of the sound). You're doing this slow rectification, which I've never seen in another distortion plugin. Dent's waveset processor came from reading Curtis Roads' books in which he mentions Trevor Wishart's waveset-distortion techniques. I looked into those. They make these amazing sounds. They can sound very aggressive, or add really cool octave effects, or create harmonic overtones. We decided to mix up all of these distortion techniques into one interface. That way you can tackle distortion and saturation on your own terms instead of doing what we decided for you.
PA: How do you like to use the Frequency Shifters in Fault?
MH: I especially like to use very low frequencies on the Frequency Shifters to create very wide stereo images. The reason I like the shifters so much for this type of stereo-upmixing is at low frequencies it doesn't really change the timbre of your sound yet it adds this spatial excitement. That's my favorite thing about Fault, how it can maintain a sound's original timbre but throw it all over the stereo field.
JD: I really enjoy using it on acoustic instruments, particularly drone-like steady notes, slowly tweaking the knobs and evolving the sound on otherwise really static tracks. It takes on a characteristic of early computer music from the '80s. It's really cool to get that sound quickly and cheaply.
PA: Fault's Pitch Shifters are remarkably free of sonic artifacts. How did you overcome technical limitations to produce such clean algorithms?
MH: A lot of pitch shifters are based off of delay lines that are being modulated. For Fault, we decided to use an FFT-based pitch shifter, so we're doing a spectral transform. We put a lot of work into ensuring it's a fairly neutral algorithm that favors guitars, basses and keyboards. But we also put in a few phase-protection algorithms to ensure that percussion doesn't get smeared during the attack phase.
JD: A lot of our processes start as theoretical or mathematical but then become very empirically tuned.
PA: We're really excited to see your products get out into the world.
MH: It's been great working with Plugin Alliance. It's allowed us to just focus on research and development. The really hard aspects of running a small plugin company—maintaining a research and development schedule simultaneously with customer support, bug fixes and marketing—really took up a lot of time. Especially after Sandman came out, we were pretty overwhelmed by all that. Plugin Alliance really gave us the freedom to develop a large project like Fault.
JD: Plugin Alliance obviously put us on the map in terms of the whole plugin community. But the quality of our products also increased exponentially. Previously, we had nowhere near the ability to QA our plugins to the level they needed to be. They had so many bugs because we didn't have the time to test and verify. With the QA team that Plugin Alliance provided us, we went from being a kinda wierd, academic-y little company to where now our products are on a par with anything released by the major players.
MH: Plugin Alliance has found some of the craziest bugs. Things we never would have had the opportunity to test for as an independent company. The partnership has been absolutely positive for us. It's given us a much larger audience. Before we joined Plugin Alliance, G8 and Sandman had all but stopped selling for us. Plugin Alliance was able to show it to a completely new audience and get it going again.
PA: What products from you guys can we look forward to seeing in the future?
MH: Ryan's PhD was about a new synthesis technique called spatial modulation synthesis, which is the focus of a plugin we're going to release early next year. It's going to be our first virtual instrument. It's a really exciting form of synthesis that combines FM synthesis, Doppler panning, spatial audio and a number of advanced techniques to create unbelievable sounds.
JD: We're also going to do something with sample slicing that hasn't been done before. And we're talking about refactoring Renoun, our modulate-able reverb plugin, and doing something off the wall.
MH: Early next year, we'll have this really nice spectral transformer called Spec Ops coming out. There are over 30 modes of spectral transformation in it, some of which have never been done before. We're really excited about it, but we want to make sure it's really perfect before we release it. It'll have brickwall filters, pitch inverters, phase reversers, speed controls, and a spectral compressor with around a thousand different compressors running simultaneously on each frequency band. It's a bizarre plugin. We love it!
JD: It's kinda the spectral-effects version of Dent, approaching these spectral effects from an elemental level and then building out this workhorse that you can't create any other way.
MH: We're also working on an instant-delay effect where you can change the delay times without producing any pitch artifacts or clicks. So, you get these instantaneous transitions. It will also have a pitch-shifting delay mode that produces classic shimmer effects, where your audio changes pitch with every echo, and a multitap mode and a glitch shifter that mangles your audio. Furthermore, we've applied our modulation system to it. It's the best delay I've ever used.