There are 2 companies based in California that I’ve been keeping my eyes on for quite some time. They’re run by a guy who has quite some experience in the music industry, in everything from recording and mixing to engineering, hardware manufacturing, and plugins creation. He’s been pushing out a range of hardware and software products for some years now that have been able to stand side-by-side with products made by his giant, corporate competitors. I’m talking about Steven Slate.
Slate products rank among some of the best-reviewed in the industry, having been used on multitudes of charting records, and are today perhaps more valued than ever, given the DIY situation that many producers find themselves. Bridging the gap between analog gear and digital plugins, with software like the Virtual Tape Machines , Virtual Console Collection and Virtual Buss Compressor, as well as contributing to the world of studio gear, with his DRAGON compressor and FOX preamplifier, Slate’s name is equated with nothing but quality products. Adding to his audio mixing products are even software instruments, like his famed Steven Slate Drums. How fortunate for me that I got the chance to talk to the CEO about his history in the audio world, and get his thoughts on his products.
Being someone who has their hands in different parts of the music industry, from recording to engineering, hardware manufacturing, plugins, and mixing, what would you say you want to be identified as first and foremost?
All of the above. Each one is a part of who I am. If I can’t play, write, produce, and mix music, I’m unhappy. If I can’t create products, I’m also unhappy.
Unless I’m mistaken, you first made a name for yourself in the world of audio consumer products with your drum sample CD, Steven Slate Drums. How did you get into the field of creating drum samples?
I first made drum samples in my Boston studio because I was obsessed with getting the fat sound from Nirvana‘s “Nevermind“. I brought a bunch of these drum samples to Hollywood when I moved here in the early 2000′s, and used that drum sample CD as a method of connecting to the industry elite mixers and producers. My intention was to get assistant work, and climb my way up as an audio engineer. What ended up happening of course, is that the drums really took off, and the birth of my role as developer happened instead.
At the time of the creation of your sample CD, wasn’t there a reluctance among audio and mix engineers to admit they were using such samples in their work? Was there any trepidation on your part when creating your samples as a result of that?
Absolutely. My samples were being used in Billboard top 20 songs, but I was unable to use this information, based upon the secrecy of the engineers who were using them. I finally achieved some mainstream pro audio success when guys like Mike Shipley, Jay Baumgardner, and Ross Hogarth started to promote their use of the samples.
I couldn’t find the original sample CD online anymore. Is it out of production now that you’re selling your SSD4 instrument? Wouldn’t it still be a helpful alternative for those who can’t purchase the software, to still be able to get the samples?
The original sample CD had about 100 CD-R copies of a lot of one shots and sometimes a few multi-samples. If you find one, please send it to me! I tried to buy one on Ebay a few years back. but it ended up going for $1,00o; I lost! But someone did send me an original copy that they found in a studio in mint condition. I plan on framing it. It has hand written text on it “Steven Slate Drums” and then my old cell phone number.
What came first for you, in terms of manufacturing audio products? Hardware with Slate Pro Audio or software with Slate Digital? What was it that led from the first to the second?
Both simultaneously. I met Tim and Greg (Slate Pro Audio hardware team) and Fabrice Gabriel (Slate Digital Co-Founder) at roughly the same time, and we began parallel development.
Among both your hardware gear and software, which product have been the most commercially successful for you?
For hardware, the DRAGON has consistently sold dozens per month, which is pretty good for boutique hardware these days. The FOX Quadtone preamp is really picking up steam ever since a lot of Nashville engineers started raving about it. For Slate Digital, it’s everything really. The FG-X, VCC, VTM, and now VBC are all amazing sellers and there isn’t one star among them. The same goes for the drum software. SSD4 and TRIGGER both sell about evenly. We’re pretty fortunate that so far (knock on wood), we have had no ‘duds’ yet!
Do you feel any connection more to one company over the other, with regards to Slate Pro Audio and Slate Digital? If you had to choose one line of manufacturing over the other, could you?
No, they are both very fun and fulfilling to me. I’m constantly switching back and forth between the various dev teams throughout the day.
After being successful in the sample CD world, why create Slate Digital in 2008, and not just more CDs, like Vengeance did for example? You were going up against many other successful companies like Native Instruments, Waves and UAD after all. Any issues about that, even today?
Because I did both. The sample CD has become a world class drum-replacer and virtual instrument, and we’re constantly adding new sample packs, like a pack by the famed Chris Lord Alge, which has sold through the roof!
Can you tell me a bit about the professional relationship you have with your partner, Fabrice Gabriel, and what role he plays in the creation of Slate Digital products? Does that role extend into Slate Pro Audio also?
Fabrice and I have an amazing partnership. We are constantly challenging each other, as well as learning from each other. Our method is a system where we go back and forth between his algorithms, and my tuning and tweaking of those algorithms. After many months, or even years, of this back and forth, the goal is to have a world class plugin, and so far it’s been the case! Fabrice does not do work for Slate Pro Audio though.
I’ve heard that many of your plugins took years to make. Has this process become shorter, now that you and Fabrice have developed a professional rapport, and perhaps have more resources to work with than before? If you got an idea for a new plugin today, how long do you think it would take for it be completed, on average?
Well, not really! However, we’ve recently added new DSP developers and programmers so that once the algorithm is done, the porting of that algorithm into a multi DAW plugin will be quicker. But the actual algorithm development can’t change. In order to reproduce complex analog circuits, the same back and forth tuning and tweaking must take place, and we refuse to compromise this system, even if it would ensure quicker product releases.
I'm particularly interested in what you’ve done with your line of digital products. Up-and-coming producers of electronic music, who mostly mix in-the-box, often find themselves engaged in discussions about analog vs digital, with most preferring the latter, for ease of use if nothing else. What are your thoughts on how analog-modelled plugins can improve an all- digital mix of electronic music?
So many great electronic music producers are using Slate plugins to give more depth, warmth, and analog fatness to their productions and it’s very exciting to me, since I’ve been a long time fan of electronic music.
Your mix plugins have received a lot of feedback, mostly positive. Have you ever received any testimonials from people who used it for electronic music production, saying how it helped their productions/mixing?
Every day. Some of the biggest names in electronic music have given us great feedback and endorsements.
Multitudes of bands and artists, since the 70’s, have incorporated electronic elements into their instrumentation, be it synthesizers, drum machines or use of sampling techniques. Nowadays, you have bands like Phoenix and MuteMath as some of most heavy users of synths and FX-processing in their recordings and live performances. What do you think about that fusion of acoustic and electronic, and how it translates into production/mixing decisions?
Music is a wonderful thing. It keeps reinventing itself. Sometimes taking several elements from other styles and combining them into new and unique styles. This makes the production process more fun and creative, since anything ‘new’ requires some experimentation. The new digital tools available allow for a lot of experimentation, so it all goes hand in hand.
Would you say that your SSD4 virtual drum instrument sort of caters to the above point?
Sure.We have some really great electronic and acoustic kits in SSD4. The new Demi Lovato album actually uses some of these electronic kits.
Can you take me through the process that led to the creation of your SSD? Did this become an extension of your sample CD success?
Yes, it became clear after the popularity of the sample CD that a more detailed and functional drum instrument would be needed.
If even from a purely theoretical standpoint as an engineer and mixer, what would you say are some of the most fundamental mixing considerations to take into account when mixing an electronic music record, as opposed to an acoustic/rock one?
I think it’s all the same. First, the song itself needs to be able to connect with people. Secondly, the balance, instrumentation, and dynamics have to have a delicately blended relationship. Whereas a rock/acoustic song needs to be able to blast out of the speakers and urge emotion from listeners in a car or a living room, electronic music has to entice emotion and movement in people, sometimes in a club. So there are a lot of similarities, despite the difference in genre.
For specific mixing considerations, the beat has to be strong and present, the vocal has to be discernible if there is one, and the overall clarity and frequency balance needs to be spot on, so our meager human ears can enjoy it.
For your SSD4, you’ve created some kits that are meant for dubstep, electronica and some other electronic genres. What was your thought behind this? Is it something you think might see an expansion in SSD5, if there is one?
I wanted to make SSD4 the most complete drum instrument on the planet, and I’m not foolish enough to think that the only drums are acoustic drums. So including dance and hip hop drums was important to me. We do plan on expanding this line.
Let’s talk a bit about Slate Pro Audio. Tell e about Raven MTX. For today’s producers that work in the digital domain, it’s quite an interesting product. Can you tell me about it, for those that have never heard of it? What does it do exactly? Is it meant to cater to the economically-limited bedroom producer, or studio pro with lots of money and studio real-estate?
For years, people have tried to control their DAW studios with third party hardware controllers. The RAVEN solves the need for this hardware obstacle by turning the actual DAW on the screen into the control surface. It has full multi-touch support of the DAW mixer and also allows touch of the editing functions. It makes working in the studio more fun, efficient, and modern.
The video’s I’ve seen about it use Pro Tools as an example. Most electronic music producers use other DAWs like Ableton, FL Studio or Cubase. Does the Raven translate well with these also?
We’ll be supporting multiple DAWs.
Wrapping up, what are your thoughts on making another sample CD? Surely that would be a walk in the park for you at this point?
SSD4 has over 100 sampled kits. So my sampling days are done for now. I’m letting 3rd party producers do some packs, starting with the Chris Lord Alge pack, last fall. We have some very exciting new 3rd party packs coming out too.
Does Slate Digital or Slate Pro Audio have any new products in the works that you can tell me about?
We have the RAVEN MTi, our 27 inch multi-touch production surface coming out in September, and it won’t break the bank!
Sounds exciting! Well, I appreciate you taking the time fill me in on your history and company. For all the producers who suddenly have an interest in Slate products, check out Slate Digital and Slate Pro Audio websites, as well as follow Slate Digital Facebook page!