Three of Audio’s Biggest Names Turn 20: SoundToys, Empirical Labs and Wave Distribution

It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention. If that is the case, then the pro audio community can thank necessity for bringing into existence three major players in music production that all turn 20 this year: Soundtoys, Empirical Labs and Wave Distribution.

In the mid 1990’s, the three entrepreneurs who founded these companies, Ken Bogdanowicz, Dave Derr and Gil Griffith, were all working jobs at Eventide that were about to come to an end.

Young and hungry, with the creative mindset of musicians, these three had found themselves working in an environment where ego took a back seat to innovation, allowing them to make their first huge contribution to the history of music production.

Bogdanowicz and Derr, alongside software engineer Bob Belcher, were the key players on the team responsible for bringing a classic studio staple to the world: The Eventide H3000 (along with its successors, the H3500 and DSP4000). Unlikely is the chance that you’ve walked into any big studio worth its salt that doesn’t have one of these racked up.

Bob Belcher and Ken Bogdanowicz of Soundtoys pose with Gil Griffith of Wave Distribution and Dave Derr of Empirical Labs, holding the classic H3000 effects unit they helped bring to life together more than 20 years ago.

Bob Belcher and Ken Bogdanowicz of Soundtoys pose with Gil Griffith of Wave Distribution and Dave Derr of Empirical Labs. Belcher holds the classic H3000 effects unit that they helped bring to life together more than 20 years ago.

During their time working for Richard Factor at Eventide, this young and tenacious crew conducted a clandestine, around-the-clock operation to finish the design and get it into the hands of musicians and producers, pushing the boundaries of recording technology into then-unprecedented frontiers. (If you’ve ever heard of diatonic pitch shifting, you can thank Ken Bogdanowicz for that.)

20 years later, the post-Eventide brainchildren of these three men are Soundtoys (Bogdanowicz), Empirical Labs (Derr) and Wave Distribution (Griffith). Just as improbable as finding a great studio lacking an H3000, it’s unlikely you’d find one without a Soundtoys 5 bundle installed and a pair of Distressors in the racks.

I had the opportunity to chat with all three of these old friends as they rang in their 20th anniversary of leaving Eventide to start their own groundbreaking companies, and learned about what it takes to leave a sure thing behind to venture out on your own.

Transitions

As the final days at Eventide were drawing to a close for Bogdanowicz and Derr, each had already begun keeping busy with their own side projects.

In addition to his duties at Eventide, Derr was running a studio that had begun to require increasing amounts of his time and energy. Grown weary of balancing those two jobs, Derr was the first of the three to transition out of Eventide—a process that took about six months.

At this point, his design for the Distressor was still yet to hit the drawing board. It wouldn’t be until 1993 that Derr’s vision began to take shape. But we’ll get to that a little later…

Bogdanowicz had already rolled out his own company, Crescent Engineering, while still at Eventide, with Factor’s blessing. Through this side hustle, he manufactured expansion ROM chips for the H3000 under the product name “ModFactory,” as he felt that even after taking the audio market by storm, the H3000 was still not yet complete. Bogdanowicz’s transition out of Eventide took two years, and when the tipping point finally arrived, Bob Belcher came with him.

Bogdanowicz then went on to launch Wave Mechanics, one of the very first companies at the forefront of plug-in development for DAWs.

Wave Mechanics released a suite of four plug-ins called Ultra Tools, the first two of which were called Pure Pitch and Pitch Doctor. (These vocal pitch correction tools were eventually eclipsed by AutoTune, which was released around the same time.)

Next came Sound Blender, a multi effects processor that Bogdanowicz describes as “the closest thing to the H3000 in the plug-in world at the time.” Last was Speed, a time compression/expansion plug-in.

The next plug-in suite to follow in the Wave Mechanics line was, you guessed it, Soundtoys. After rolling out a few early Soundtoys plug-ins, Bogdanowicz decided to change the company name for the purposes of avoiding confusion with the Waves plug-in company, which was quickly growing in notoriety.

As for Griffith, Eventide just wasn’t quite the same without Dave, Ken and Bob around. And, the massive, irreversible changes brought on by the rise of digital audio began to permeate the industry as he knew it. As the internet began to take off, the shift towards the home studio market was steadily driving the pricing of hardware units down.

“[This was] a very promising development with huge implications for the future of digital audio,” Griffith says, “especially as it pertained to the distribution of software. I felt it was time for a change, and left Eventide in November of 1995.”

Due to the success of the Mod Factory algorithms, Griffith knew very well that if anyone had a handle on where DSP was headed in the pro audio world, it was Ken.

“It made sense to both of us to have me distribute his products to the artists, dealers, international distributors I had spent 15 years developing relationships with,” Griffith recalled, “so I started Wave Distribution with the goal to launch the Wave Mechanics brand and distribute Wave Mechanics products worldwide. Plus, we were friends and I wanted to continue working with him in some capacity.”

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