For most music producers in today's digital environment, Softube is a name that you will most likely have come across at some point. Whether you've purchased their own line of products, or seen their logo plastered across the ones that came with your audio workstation, this Swedish company has made it a point to leave a mark in enough places to be very recognizable. The fact that their reverb plugins, EQs, compressors and even amp emulation software are used by the elite producers of today says enough about what you can expect from these guys. But in order to get into the details of what makes Softube tick, I approached their Marketing Manager with some question about the company and his role there. Enter Henrik Andersson Vogel.
Hi Henrik! Thanks for taking the time to answer some my questions. Can you tell us how Softube came about, and how you came to work at the company?
Back in 2003, Niklas and Oscar (the founders) got to know each other while they were studying digital signal processing at Linköping University in Sweden. The way Niklas has told the story was that he just happened to look through the window of a lab where a guy was sticking a lot of probes into a guitar amplifier, obviously making some sort of measurements on it. That was Oscar, whose main thesis was about seeing if he could find a better way of modeling tube amplifiers (he could). A few months later, the two of them formed Softube in Niklas’ dorm room, and the company took off via the University’s incubator program. So when Sound On Sound called Softube ”the rock n’ roll scientists from Sweden”, they were really spot on.
The company is firmly based in the academic world, and to this day, several of the professors from the University are members of the board. But still, the scientific and academic part is just half the thing—the other half being the love of music and sound. We’re all active as musicians and sound engineers. Torsten and Arvid soon joined the crew. Those four are the main owners and what I like to call Softube’s "Fab Four". About two years ago, Mattias joined—he’s also a computer engineer and handles customer support, testing, logistics and does some product demonstrating as well. I’m the last guy to join, which I did a little over a year ago. I’m also the only one who’s not an engineer. Needless to say, I get constantly mocked over that. On the other hand, while we have all recorded and mixed a lot, I’m the only one at Softube who has ever run a recording studio for a living. So I can use that to mock the others back, haha.
My background is pretty varied, I’ve studied songwriting and arranging at the Stockholm Music Conservatory, and I have a degree in philosophy and political science from the University as well. Before I joined Softube, I was editor-in-chief for Sweden’s biggest magazine for musicians and recordists, called Musikermagasinet. When I thought it was time to leave the magazine, I decided to look for a job within high-end pro audio. I had met the Softube guys through work and loved all their products, plus they are all such nice guys (this was before the mocking began). So I got in touch with them, and they thought it was time to hire someone to take care of marketing and sales. This was mainly done by Niklas before, but it’s a waste of resources to have a skilled engineer spend time on things other than development. So they hired me.
(From left to right: Niklas Odelholm, Mattias Danielsson, Oscar Öberg, Arvid Rosén, Torsten Gatu and Henrik Andersson Vogel)
That's an awesome story! So what does your current daily job at Softube look like?
My job title is Marketing Manager, but since we’re such a small company, I handle pretty much all external communication, which includes contacting our dealers and distributors. So I’m pretty much sales manager as well.
My daily job is varied to say the least. I see to it that advertising gets in place, and I arrange our appearances at trade shows. I also do a lot of one to one demonstrations at the trade shows and to our dealers in their stores around the world. I make sure our dealers and distributors understand our products and present them to their customers the way we want them to. I keep an eye on what people say about us in the press and on the forums, as well as what they say about our competitors and what our competitors do. I make sure the press writes about us, and that they don’t misunderstand things about the products. I handle our endorsers, set our deals up and interview them for our web site. I write most of the texts on our website, Facebook page and our Twitter stream. I’ve also just finished writing the Console 1 manual. I make most of the product videos too. And since I probably have the most recording and mixing experience in the company, I’m also part of product development from a user’s standpoint.
Sounds like you do a whole lot! But, which came first for you guys, making hardware or programming software products?
Hm, it’s a little tricky to say. The very first Softube product was a hardware prototype of a guitar amp emulation. The software from that became the base for our guitar amp plug-ins Vintage Amp Room, Bass Amp Room and Metal Amp Room. But the core technology of it also became the basis for the amp we made with Marshall, the JMD-1 series. That was Marshall’s first amp with any digital parts in it, and Softube made both the digital hardware, with the conversion and DSP solution, and the software models.
Softube seems to have put a lot of effort into the world of amps, and has made a lot of amp-related products. Why this focus on amplifiers?
I suppose Oscar found amps interesting and challenging, which is a little odd, seeing that he’s very much a synth person. Niklas on the other hand is a bass player, so it makes more sense when it comes to him.
What kind of reception has Softube seen for it’s compressors, EQs and channel strips? Are there any artists that come to mind who have found those products helpful?
Oh, you won’t believe what an ego boost it is to read about our products and meet the users at trade shows! We get so much love for what we do, and we’re undoubtedly considered among the very top quality brands in pro audio. We have the world’s top names among our users, I mean guys like Andrew Scheps, Joe Chiccarelli, Michael Brauer, Phil Tan, Michael Wagener, Tony Maserati. We know for a fact that our products get used on albums that sell by the millions. It’s quite baffling. Andrew Scheps recently told us our Spring Reverb was the only reverb he used on his mixes for Adele’s ”21” album and that our TSAR-1 reverb is all over Black Sabbath’s ”13” album.
And then we have the respect we get from the industry. I mean, Marshall picked us. Fender picked us. TC Electronic picked us. Universal Audio picked us. Ableton picked us. Abbey Road picked us. Native Instruments picked us. These companies are huge, and could have worked with anyone—and they picked us. If that’s not a quality stamp, I don’t know what is.
Can you tell me a bit about the TSAR-1 Reverb? What kind of effort went it to making this, and what do you think makes it unique from a standard reverb plugin?
In my personal opinion, the TSAR-1 is our flagship product, before Console 1 at least. It was the product that really made me love Softube long before I was part of the company.
What makes TSAR-1 unique is its way of blending so well with with sound source. It’s the only reverb I know, apart from Bricasti M7, that never sounds like it’s been added to the sound source, but sounds like it was part of the original recording. It can sound like the room mics you wish had been there at the time of the recording. And the way it treats panned and stereo sources also puts it way ahead of most other reverbs. If you pan a sound source to the side, you’ll hear how the early reflections change more than the reverb tail, which is just how a real room responds. You need an algorithmic reverb to do all that properly. The TSAR-1 uses four separate reverb engines, that feed into each other in a rather complex manner. It does take quite some CPU power, but it’s truly a non-compromise product.
After having been around for 10 years, what are some of the major changes that have happened at Softube, with regards to staff, workflow, company philosophy, etc?
Well, bear in mind I’m saying this from my perspective, and I’m the last guy to join the company. But from the very beginning, the idea was not to make Softube-branded products at all, but rather to assist other companies in product development. We still do development for others, but now we of course have our Softube-branded products as well.
It’s funny how it’s gone from people not really mentioning our involvement, to putting our logo clearly visible on their products! That a product has been developed by Softube has become a selling point. But other than that, I’d say it’s impressive many things my colleagues got right from the beginning. Not only when it comes to product development, but in regards to how the business should be run and how to cooperate with others. So my impression is that the core philosophy has been quite intact throughout the years. Softube has always been about making quality products that simply work, and integrate well into the user’s workflow. Stuff we like ourselves, and feel should be on the market. We are committed to supporting old products for a very, very long time. We’ll always be very structured in development and business work. And of course, we’ll do all that while out-drinking anyone at the trade show parties, haha. No, but seriously, life is too short to spend it on making crap, and Softube is about making good stuff and being a nice company to deal with. And quality will prevail —t hings are going really well for us.
You guys have done a lot of work with other pro audio software companies like Native Instruments, Ableton and UAD. How did you end up developing those relationships and getting those jobs?
The Fab Four developed their first prototype product, the guitar amp emulator I mentioned, and went to the NAMM show. This must have been around 2005. They simply started in one corner and worked their way through the entire convention center, talking to people, making contacts, showing the product, discussing possible collaborations. They simply went on doing that, trade show after trade show, until things started happening. That’s really how that all came about. Being nice people with great social skills has certainly paid off well.
Which company would you say that you’ve worked the most with?
Difficult to say. Historically, probably Marshall, since developing the JMD-1 amp took a while.
After having created software mixing plugins for so long, what led you guys to create the Console 1 audio mixer?
It was really like, "OK, so what’s the next step for mixing? How can things be moved forward?" And it came down to a discussion about workflow, and how it could be that people in this day and age still buy analog consoles. I mean, even cheap consoles are quite costly—so why would anyone spend their hard-earned money on that? The answer is that they do it because of the intuitive and simple workflow, and because not having endless possibilities can greatly enhance the end result. So the idea came up to create a system that provided that, but together with the advantages of the digital world. It needed to have the best of both worlds: The sound and ease of use you get from high-end analog gear, and the repeatability, mobility, low-cost and low maintenance of digital tools.
What’s unique about this mixer? Does it offer anything that normal mixing in-the-box doesn’t?
The unique thing is that it’s a mixer in the sense that the processing takes place in the computer, but you control the entire mix with a well built piece of hardware. Nobody has done that before. When a lot of people see it for the first time, they think it’s a plug-in plus a controller. But what they haven’t understood then is that you have all your channels available from the hardware, no mouse required. You select the channel with its dedicated button and then start tweaking. Select channel, tweak. Select next channel, tweak. That’s the workflow of Console 1. It’s so much faster than mouse mixing, and it removes all the left brain hemisphere type of thinking from the mix process. It lets you focus on the music. Hear a problem? Reach the right knob and fix it. So the workflow is way improved compared to today’s mixing in the box. You have the entire channel strip laid out before you at all times, you can use both hands at the same time to do things like compensate your EQ changes with the Output Volume in one movement. You don’t have to open separate windows for a gate, EQ, compressor and distortion.
Compared to mixing on an analog console, you first and foremost have the sound of a well maintained $50,000 console, which very few people have. So Console 1 sounds better than the vast majority of analog consoles out there. Furthermore, you get total recall and automation of every parameter, programmable in real time with the knobs. You not only get EQ and volume as with most analog consoles, you also get a compressor, distortion, gate, a transient shaper and high/low cut filters—for each channel. And then there’s the low cost. As anyone who has ever owned an analog console knows, the costs don’t stop with purchasing the thing, which is expensive enough. Just the cabling needed to hook up a 24 channel console is probably going to take you half the way to a Console 1. Make that all the way if you also want a decent patchbay! You won't need to install a cooling system in your studio to use Console 1. There will be other console models coming out for the Console 1 system, so if you’re not happy with the $50,000 dollar console that’s included in the purchase, get another one. And already now, you can use any Softube EQ and compressor within the system.
What price will you guys be selling it for?
Expected street price is $999 in the US. In Europe it will probably be €799 including sales tax.
Is there a particular group of people within the audio industry that you’re targeting with Console 1? Big studio owners, DIY producers, etc?
Level wise, I think it’s for serious amateurs, semi-professionals and upwards. Anyone who would be in the market for our plug-ins really. I mean, even the guys with big studios often have a small setup at home, so I can easily see it there too. I think the people who will be buying Console 1 are people who would consider buying an analog console and integrate it with their DAW. People who realize a smooth workflow not only makes your life easier, it actually makes you end up with better sounding mixes.
You’ve been showcasing Console 1 at conventions and schools around the world, from AES to SAE . How has it been going? What kind of feedback has it been getting?
It’s just really baffling. People are simply loving it. At the AES, we had a constant line of people wanting to check it out. It takes about 20 seconds to wrap your head around what it does, and after that you’re sold. We’ve already more or less outsold the first production batch, before they’re even done. It’s nuts. But sure, some people are critical, up to the moment they try it themselves.
There’s a great Henry Ford quote that applies really well to Console 1: "If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said—a faster horse.” He realized the customers didn’t themselves know what they wanted before they saw the car he presented to them, and understood what it could do for them. It’s really the same thing with Console 1. Two minutes before you try Console 1 for the first time, you may think you want all the flexibility in the world, all the tools you can possibly imagine. Two minutes later you realize what you really want is LESS flexibility. Because that means a faster workflow and better results.
What’s next for you guys? Will you be taking a break from making new products, now that you’re promoting Console 1?
Certainly not. 2014 will be the year when Softube will really start killing. There’s so much new stuff in the works. Of course, new channel strips for Console 1, new plug-ins of the more traditional kind, and more collaborations with other companies. And we’ll see if we can do something out of one of Arvid’s whackier inventions, the Geiger to MIDI converter. Yes, that’s Geiger, as in measuring radioactivity. If you hold it close to something radioactive, such as a smoke detector, the MIDI signals it puts out get intensified. That’s Arvid for you.
I think that in the eyes of the public, 2013 was a quite slow year for us. Now that Console 1 is finally coming out, it's been 18 months since our last product launch. But we’ve been working on porting our guitar amps to the UAD platform, porting stuff to Reason Rack Extension format and of course developing Console 1. It also took a while to take over the Brilliance Pack from Abbey Road. And then we needed to redo our entire build system, which landed in the recently released big upgrade of all our plug-ins, version 2.0. That did not only include support for AAX 64 bit across the board, but also meant significantly improved CPU usage. So we’ve been working like mad, but haven’t had much to show for it. But that is about to change—you will be hearing a lot from us in 2014.