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

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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.”

Around this time, Derr had made some headway designing his quirky-yet-powerful compressor. Successfully implementing 2nd and 3rd order harmonic distortion options into its sound, he managed to sell a dozen or so units to some friends and studio clients. Knowing Griffith was off to Anaheim for NAMM in January of 1996, Dave asked if Gil could bring a couple along, in hopes of getting them into the hands of Steve Vai and Bob Clearmountain. “Gil, if you could help me sell a hundred or two of these, that’d be great,” he said.

“That was 20 years and 30,000 Distressors ago. Quite a ride!,” notes Griffith.

The Effects of Eventide

“The stuff I learned [at Eventide], I apply every single day,” remarks Derr. “There’s little doubt that I would have a company if it wasn’t for Eventide. [Gil, Ken and I] learned a lot from Richard [Factor]. About once a month, I’ll say to myself when talking to an employee or a client, ‘Oh my God, I sound like Richard.’ Eventide was a huge training ground, and my reference for the whole business.”

“[Eventide] was a company that made things for pros,” adds Bogdanowicz. “We were pretty obsessed about sound quality, and I think that came from Richard and Tony [Agnello] because they were dealing with high level people.”

“The other thing I got from [Eventide] was the creative thing,” Bogdanowicz says. “I was lucky to have a lot of latitude when I worked there [and] we were lucky to be left to our own devices… I learned a lot from that.

“We inherited a legacy of creativity and playfulness, where it’s not just about creating utilitarian things, it’s about creating things that people can really have fun with.”

Gil reminisced fondly of Factor, making note particularly of his skill in bringing the right kinds of new employees onto the Eventide team.

“I think Richard—by hiring young guys right out of college—knew they would want to prove themselves,” adds Griffith. “They would work beyond the standard work week because they had something to prove, and that internal competition made them work much harder than if he hired a seasoned engineer. They sweat bullets into these projects because they wanted to make a name for themselves as well as the product.”

“All of us have a little bit of maverick in us,” added Derr. “The three of us would go off and do something that wasn’t asked of us. It was always because we were excited and we saw a real need for it. For example, Ken and diatonic [pitch shifting]. That wasn’t in the game plan at all.”

The team operated without the approval from the higher-ups often enough that Belcher joked “if we could have put up a black pirate flag up in the corner of the building, maybe we would have.”

Perhaps we aren’t aware of what may be necessary until it is already available at our disposal. Had Ken not ventured off on his own to create diatonic pitch shifting, it’s possible that the artists who have since used it as a creative tool would have found some foreign workaround, producing a different end result unimaginable to us now.

That was Then, This is Now

“As an equipment manufacturer,” Derr says, “one of the most gratifying things is when you inspire [artists] in their composition directly. Pete Townshend said that when technology first allowed sequencers for synthesizers, he came up with Teenage Wasteland and Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

It is pretty amazing to think that the same people who provided artists with the tools that helped shape their creative processes 30 years ago are still doing so today, but with an entirely different crop of artists.

Pete Townshend and Steve Vai were among the many artists whose sounds were directly influenced by the capabilities of the H3000. These days, Soundtoys has creative masterminds like Trent Reznor, who filmed a three-part video series with the brand, affirming that their tools play a big part in his creative process.

When I asked about what it means to shape artists’ creative processes in 2016 vs 1986, Bogdanowicz points out that the biggest difference is in the accessibility of products today.

“The better part is [that] it’s a much broader audience,” Bogdanowicz says. “We can reach out to more than just a few hundred studios and engineers who hold the key to that sound. Now it’s very direct, where tens or hundreds of thousands of people are making music on their laptops.”

“The market is much bigger now,” adds Derr. “For someone to have a studio back in 1988, you needed at least a high quality tape deck, and that made it very exclusive.

“The playing field is leveled, but the downside is news travels fast. I’ve seen some of [Ken’s] plug-ins ripped off, it’s a matter of months before someone is competing with it.”

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” Bogdanowicz quips in reply.

Griffith says that “there’s been a change from selling to professionals through professional music stores and pro audio shops to trying to reach everybody through chains, Mom and Pops, and of course, direct through the internet.

“That really wasn’t feasible even ten years ago. The access to information and products at a reasonable price point means that we can sell to more people, and more people get to experience these tools. It’s not an exclusive club anymore.”

“Back in the Eventide days,” Bogdanowicz notes, “I could have counted on two hands—maybe—the number of people that had the capability of doing what we were doing. It’s kind of daunting to look now and see all of these people doing all of these things. Every day I look, there’s a new plug-in.”

Another glaring difference between the old landscape and today’s is that the end result of their work used to be a physical unit (by necessity), priced at $3,000, that “does one or two things on one or two tracks,” Derr says. “Now, you’re seeing plug-ins for $49—or even less—that can be used on every track. It’s [frustrating], considering where we come from, that people now expect the world for $100.”

Give The People What They Want

“A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” – Steve Jobs

“All of the products that came out of Wave Mechanics [now Soundtoys], and Empirical Labs were pretty much inside projects,” says Griffith, “where being musicians and being in the business, they were able to develop things that they needed for themselves—or wanted to see used by people like themselves—and I think that inside nature of the design is why the products resonate so well within users.”

Derr continues to uphold the standard of excellence that Empirical Labs has built its reputation upon. “The first 90% of a product takes 90% of the engineering time,” Derr says, “and the last 10% takes the other 90% of the engineering time, and that’s in the details.”

When I asked Bogdanowicz if he could ever see Soundtoys moving into the hardware domain, I was pleased to not have been met with a definitive “no.”

“Purely analog, I’m not sure,” Ken remarked. “The thing that would probably make most sense to us is a hybrid thing. I wouldn’t rule it out.”

Soundtoys users would surely rejoice over that. I would certainly be among first in line to get my hands on a Decapitator (or eight) in tangible form. Or, perhaps for old times’ sake, Derr and Bogdanowicz might consider putting their heads together for a hardware collaboration between Empirical Labs and Soundtoys.

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