It’s only been a few weeks since Softube joined the Time+Space stable of music software brands, but these Swedish-based, self-dubbed rock n’ roll scientists are already making waves with our customers with their world class plug-ins for audio professionals and musicians.
With the recent release of Modular – a modular synth plug-in that has the look, feel and sound of analog Eurorack hardware, we thought it was about time we had a chat with one of the masters behind the incredible software – Niklas Odelholm, Softube’s Vice President of Products.
Hi Niklas, lets start at the beginning, how did Softube come about?
It was back in 2003. Oscar and a friend of his were studying Control Theory at Linköping Institute of Technology, and as the subject for their master thesis they decided to try to emulate a guitar preamp. A normal master’s thesis would be more like “Adaptive Performance Parameter Control in GSM Relay Networks”, or something about fighter jets, so a thesis about guitar amps was quite unusual.
Nevertheless, the result came out really good, far better than the competitors at the time, so the professor decided to help them start a company. During the first five years or so we were heavily research focused, and there was a ton of master theses written for us. In fact, I did the second thesis for Softube, about loudspeaker nonlinearities, Arvid wrote about valve power amps, and Torsten about DSP optimizations. And Oscar, me, Arvid and Torsten became partners and we all still work at Softube today, along with ten other extremely talented and smart guys.
Tell us about the backgrounds of each of the founders.
Oscar founded the company, together with the professor at the university and his friend Per. But quite early on the team became Oscar, me, Arvid and Torsten. Oscar is a synth geek, studied computer engineering and control theory at the university. So for Oscar, these 13 years has just been a long build-up to the release of the Modular! Arvid graduated in applied physics and is a trombone player (we still haven’t released a trombone plug-in), Torsten’s a great singer and has a background in computer engineering. Me, I’m a jazz bass player that did my degree in signal processing. So depending on when you ask us, we’re musicians first and engineers second. Or vice versa …
Your first product release was actually a hardware product – can you tell us more about that and how you went on to produce software?
Well, not quite, at first we only licensed our emulation technology to other companies, rather than releasing products on our own. That led to a bunch of collaborations, with Marshall amps, TC Electronic, Abbey Road, and more. Among the first of these projects was the JMD:1 amp by Marshall, which was their first digital modeling amp. It was a fantastic project to be a part of, and working closely with the talent at Marshall taught us many things, for instance how difficult it is to make hardware … So eventually, in 2007, we decided to start making software plug-ins under our own name, since we wanted to have complete control of the product. Our first big success was the Tube-Tech CL 1B compressor, which incidentally was a TC Electronic software at first, but with the blessing from TC and Tube-Tech we got to re-make it and release it ourselves.
What key lessons did you learn from your first releases?
Wow. What did we not learn? Well, first and foremost, a product has to sound good. That also means that when someone dials it in for the first time, it has to sound good. So get rid of the knobs that makes it sound terrible … Sound quality first.
But another lesson learned is that regardless of how many pieces of gear you have modeled, you can be sure that there are no “easy” projects. Every amp, eq, compressor, synth module, or whatever it may be, has its quirks and characteristics that turn out to be extremely complicated to model. And that is usually why that particular unit is considered to sound great.
That’s the thing with component-by-component modeling. There are no short-cuts, just hard math. And if just a tiniest little component turns out to behave oddly, that will really complicate the math.
We are 14 or 15 people working full time at the head quarters with an additional bunch of people working part-time building Console 1, helping out in customer care, doing the boring economy stuff, and so on.
Who would you say Softube products are primarily aimed at?
Music producers and mix engineers.
As a company, what do you feel has been your greatest achievement so far?
Every time you release a new product it feels like the greatest achievement ever, but looking back I must say that I am extremely proud of being able to produce the Console 1 with a, back then, very small staff. We were just five people when the project started, and number six got hired about a half year before release.
Console 1, Tube-Tech Classic Channel and the TSAR-1 Reverb are our all-time top sellers, but lately the Drawmer S73 Intelligent Master Processor broke both the first day and first month records. Even more lately, the Modular broke Drawmer’s first day sales record and is most likely going to beat the first month record as well. We’ll know for sure in a couple of days!
Tell us about some of the more well-known users of Softube products and on what tracks/albums can we hear the plugins being used?
Lately, the Fix Flanger and Doubler was featured on Kanye West’s “The Life Of Pablo” album, and by having users like Tony Maserati (Beyoncé, Jason Mraz), Axwell (Swedish House Mafia), Greg Wells (Katy Perry, Timbaland), Joe Chicarelli (The Strokes, Beck, U2), the products we do are heard on everything from Beyoncé to jazz albums. And Andrew Scheps said that Spring Reverb was the only reverb he used on the Adele mixes. That’s nice!
With the release of instruments like Heartbeat and Modular we get a lot of new users, like Christoffer Berg (Depeche Mode), BT, and Richard Devine.
Softube also has strong relationships with many high profile brands in the industry including Abbey Road, Ableton, Native Instruments and Fender, can you tell us a little more about the work you’ve done with them?
For Native Instruments we did a lot of products, like the RC24 and RC48 reverbs, a Vintage Compressors collection and the Premium Tube series. Together with Fender we did a guitar pedal based on our Acoustic Feedback algorithm called “Runaway”, for Propellerhead Reason we also did the amps that replaced the Line 6 amps that were included with Reason. We did an emulation of three super rare equalizers for Abbey Road (The Brilliance Pack), the amp sims in Ableton Live, and so forth. There are a lot of projects we have been involved in, and we always appreciate working with other companies. We have a partnership with Marshall, and they just released the Marshall Code amps that we did the algorithms for, and they in turn were very involved in the Marshall Legends series we did for Universal Audio.
You’ve recently released the eagerly awaited Modular which is a modular synth plug-in that has the look, feel and sound of analog Eurorack hardware. For those readers who have yet to check it out, can you run through some of the key features and capabilities of this plug-in?
We wanted to make a real Eurorack system in software, so we asked Doepfer if we could emulate his units and have his approval of the result, and that was what happened!
Technically speaking, there’s a lot of tricky things you need to solve to get a true modular system within your computer. In a real system you can patch back and forth, create weird feedbacks and pretty much do anything you want until you accidentally burn up the modules. We wanted to make that, except for the burning. No unnecessary limitations, just patching galore! In order to do that, we had to have exact replicas of the real modules from Doepfer, as well as a couple of modules from Canadian cutting-edge manufacturer Intellijel, and a back-end that can support all crazy ideas that a user might have. And since a lot of people are asking this; the CV cables can support very high frequencies, just like the real thing, well above human hearing range. So if you want to sync the sequencer with a 20 kHz signal, just go ahead!
In addition to the Doepfer and Intellijel modules, we did an additional bunch of modules in Eurorack style, like a couple of sequencers, some utility modules, DAW sync modules and so forth. And there will be many more modules coming out!
You can also route the CV signals in and out from the Modular, and if your audio interface allows it, connect your hardware Eurorack with the Modular.
When Modular was announced at Musikmesse, there was great excitement that the Eurorack synth was suddenly a whole lot more accessible. What has the feedback from users been like so far since it was released?
The feedback has been awesome! I spend my evenings listening to all cool patches folks put up on Soundcloud and YouTube and enjoying every second of it! There’s a lot of talented people out there, and they create some funky shit that I didn’t even knew was possible to do with Modular. Keep it coming!
There are currently additional modules available from Intellijel, can you tell us more about how you will expand Modular in the future?
More modules, that’s all I can say!
Finally, talking of the future, the music/audio software industry moves at a wildly fast pace, where do you see Softube in 5 years?
Sitting at a bar, listening to the DJ, trying to guess what Softube instruments she used on the latest production …
Sounds great, thanks Niklas!