Interview: Cakewalk CEO – Michael Hoover

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michael hooverWhilst I'm quite familiar with some of Cakewalk's synthesizer plugins, I had some catching up to do with their audio workstation, SONAR. From it's integrated 3rd part plugins to it's visually appealing interface, there was already quite a lot to attract my attention from a distance. But there was no better way to get acquainted with their products than to talk to their CEO about it. So below you can read my chat with Michael Hoover, main man at Cakewalk Inc.

What does your music background look like? We've heard that you have quite some experience in the world of live sound.

Actually, I play a little saxophone and guitar, although not much  as I’d like recently.  I studied audio engineering in college.  At the time it was almost all analog (2” 24 track tape machines, analog console) but my first sequencer experience was the Voyetra Sequencer Plus for DOS.  Looking at SONAR and other DAWs, we certainly have come a long way.

In terms of live sound, I worked with a few bands that played in small to medium-sized clubs.  This was a lot of fun and it gave me a chance to practice what I was learning in school.

How did you end up moving from the world of live sound to working at Cakewalk? Was that a quick process, or did it take a while for you to make that decision?

Actually, it was a lot less of a transition than you might imagine.  While I was learning primarily analog audio production techniques in school, lots of exciting new developments were happening in the software world.  So when I graduated I found work at Passport Designs, who were local and developed Master Tracks Pro, Encore and Alchemy.  Being able to combine music and computer technology at a cool company was a perfect fit for me.  And I’ve never looked back.

Moving from Cakewalk's Product Manager to being President seems like quite a significant career progression. Was that something you originally aspired for?

I enjoy designing and building cool stuff and that’s what led me to become a product manager. It was only natural that as my career progressed, I looked for new challenges. I’ve been involved in most aspects of Cakewalk during my 16-year career. I started as a product manager, but soon found myself managing marketing, product development, and engineering. This wealth of experience has prepared me to become President of Cakewalk, where I am responsible for building a successful company and designing the products of the future.

As President, what does your daily work routine look like?

In software development, things move quickly and situations change. New ideas to develop and there are always new opportunities to explore.  It’s never routine, and I love that. Ultimately, I try to keep the Cakewalk team focused and motivated while making sure we hit all our milestones and goals. Lately, I’ve been more focused on integrating with Gibson and discussing all the exciting opportunities that lie ahead with other Gibson brand companies like TASCAM, KRK, Stanton, and more. What I can say is that it’s never boring and there’s always something exciting around the corner.

What is your main priority and long-term vision for Cakewalk, particularly in an age where you have a lot of competing companies that make similar products? Do you have a masterplan of sorts?

Without giving away too many secrets, I can say that the long-term vision is to make products that matter to musicians. It’s great to be the leader in market share and make lots of money, but none of that is achievable if you don’t have great products. That includes the entire experience – from purchasing our products, to installing and using them, to getting support and learning resources. The biggest asset we have is customers. If they love our products, they will tell others, who will tell others, and so on. That’s how we built Cakewalk and that’s how we will continue to grow it.

As technology evolves and musicians gravitate towards new ways of making music (like tablets and touch devices), it’s our job to respond to these market shifts and create amazing products and experiences for these musicians. We’ve always been technology leaders, especially in the Windows space, whether we get the credit for it or not. That’s not going to change and is only going to improve over the next few years.

With Sonar X1, X2 and X3 being released in 2010, 2012 and 2013 respectively, the various editions came out at very close intervals. Why such a fast pace with the releases? You must have a fast-working team to be able make such major upgrades so quickly.

Yes, we are a small but passionate team who can work quickly.  Our customers have a lot of choices today. Our goal is to create the absolute best platform for music production, and this means we need to be constantly innovating and improving our products. Rather than go off in a cave for 2 years, we want to deploy updates more frequently and in smaller doses, so our customers don’t have to re-learn the product with each new major release.

If you were talking to a newbie music-maker, would you say is the single-most thing that sets Sonar apart from other DAWS out there?

It's tough to pinpoint this to a single trait.  I think there are a few major components to SONAR that set it apart:

No limits -  SONAR is one of the most complete, comprehensive digital audio workstation out there.  We don’t limit the tracks, busses, or number of effects and synths you can run.  We try to provide the largest canvas possible so that during the music creation process the user is free to explore without limits.

Workflow - SONAR’s Skylight user interface works with musicians more like a creative partner.  The way this DAW ignites inspiration for music creators.  Recording and mixing these days is different from that of the past. It used to be that you simply record a bunch of tracks and then mix them down.  These days you have more options to add and shape sounds as your production moves along, and SONAR’s workflow really contributes to an efficient and creative experience like no other system out there.

Sonar seems to be big on not only functionality, but visuals also. Bright colors, bold text, well-defined windows, etc. How did that aesthetic for the DAW unfold?

The UI was the biggest focus when we upgraded to the SONAR X series.  The concept and goals of the skylight interface is to speed workflow, reduce clicks, give you all the functionality you need without a sea of buttons, and to excel on tomorrow’s larger resolution displays.  It was  a dramatic departure from previous versions but we felt a big reset was needed to prepare the environment for more advanced capabilities.

Would you say that Sonar lends itself better to certain genres over others? It seems to have caught on quicker among indie rock and other band-driven genres quicker than say EDM.

I’ve heard that said a few times before.  It’s a great system for studio-style recording editing and mixing. But I have to say, I’ve heard some awesome sounding EDM style productions come from our SONAR customers. SONAR has integrated ACID and REX support, a built-in step sequencer and arpeggiator, thousands of sounds in a variety of genres, and the Matrix view for triggering parts. If you are interested producing EDM, you should look at all that SONAR has to offer.

One of the most notable things about Sonar X3 is that it comes bundled with several popular third-party instruments like Addictive Drums and Melodyne. Can you tell us why Cakewalk took this approach? After all, most companies are hesitant about promoting products that aren't theirs.

Ultimately, we want to deliver the best for our customers. That starts with our DAW and all that goes with it. But we also recognize that there are lots of other companies who are doing amazing stuff, like Celemony, Softube, Alchemy, Overloud, XLN Audio, iZotope and others.  Our feeling is this:  if customers want to use certain tools, and there’s a way we can make that a better experience, we should do it.  So in the case of Melodyne, we didn’t just put it in the box, we also built the very best ARA integration into SONAR, so the customer gets fantastic technology that feels like its part of the product experience.

Was it a difficult process to have talks with the VST companies in question, about featuring their products? Or were they open to it?

We have excellent relationships with our technology partners.  We have a large install base of customers.  They have technology that compliments and strengthens our product.  It's a win-win, and that’s why it works well.

We've heard that there won't be any versions of Sonar for Mac, which is a bummer. Why is this?

We could port SONAR to Mac. It would take a lot of people and long time. My concern with this approach is how maintainable that will be over the long term, and what potential negative impact that may have on our current customers.

You've stated that a different product based on different code might be an option for Mac. Is this something that's in the works?

We have recently developed Scratchpad and Z3ta for iOS, which are built from a new platform.  As we develop more products, we expect this new platform to evolve.  We can’t wait to see where it takes us.

Given Cakewalk's somewhat late entry into the DAW world, are there any concerns about Sonar being an underdog of sorts, in a market that's been dominated by certain DAW's for years?

I guess this is part of the misconception about Cakewalk. We’ve been in business for 25 years and have been the leaders in adopting new DAW technology like x64, Windows 7/8 support and multi-touch for touch-enabled devices (just to name a few). Before SONAR, we made Cakewalk Professional and Pro Audio. We have sold millions of copies of our software and have one of the most passionate and loyal user bases in the industry. If that’s being the underdog, I’ll take it. Obviously, over the past few years there have been many changes, so maybe that’s why people see us as underdogs. But we have prevailed, and are owned by Gibson Brands which is going to open up so many new opportunities.

In an overly competitive DAW world, what's been Cakewalk's main way of marketing its products? Do you have to work extra hard to stick out, or do the products market themselves by word of mouth?

We’ve focused many of our efforts on web-based marketing for two reasons. The first is that is where the customers go to learn about products these days. The second reason is that web-based activities are easier to track, and calculating the return on investment (ROI) is very straightforward. Discussing ROI may not seem very exciting, but honestly, it’s important to spend your marketing dollars wisely and figure out what works and what doesn’t. Over the past few years we’ve invested more dollars in social media and paid search. We also spent a lot of time on search engine optimization (SEO), A/B testing, and email marketing. We still do some traditional advertising (print, physical mailers, etc), but being software geeks we do like our data.

Of course, the best marketing is word of mouth. When you build great products, you get happy customers who spread the word.

On a global level, many would say that Cakewalk's Z3ta and Rapture synths are more popular than Sonar. Was that something you realized at any point? Are there any plans to expand Cakewalk's synth line?

I have never heard that.  I might agree if you were speaking specifically about Mac users.  Prior to releasing either of these products, Cakewalk had over a million users.  Z3TA+ and Rapture have added to that but have not eclipsed SONAR in terms of users. There are some very positive irons-in-the-fire in terms of our synth line.

What would you say is some of the most positive feedback Cakewalk has gotten for Sonar?

It’s hard to narrow it down to just one. Overall, the response to SONAR X3 has been tremendous. It’s been our most successful X series launch and I think customers are happy that we are listening to them. The relationship between Cakewalk and its customers has always been special. They are passionate and they’ll let us know when they love something and when they hate something. There were some bumps in the road when we launched X1. And over the past few years, we’ve faced a lot of challenges including distribution changes and of course a change in ownership. SONAR X3 was such an important release for us and it was an opportunity to show customers that we are still listening to them. The mission is never complete in our world, but SONAR X3 was a huge step in the right direction. And with Gibson in our corner, I think you are going to see some amazing innovations over the next few years.

Can you share with us what some of Cakewalk’s next moves will be this year?

Hmmm. It's a secret. Actually, what I can say is that we just moved to a new office, nice bright and open space a little closer to downtown Boston.  It's more open and is already having a positive impact on the team. On another note of forward motion, we are currently looking on expanding our development team as well this year.  Thanks for the great questions!

My pleasure! I hope you guys continue to have success with your products, and that people check out your websiteFacebook,  and Twitter pages.
SamInterview: Cakewalk CEO – Michael Hoover

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