Propellerhead may not boast the same corporate structure as some of its competitors, but has still been able to rise to similar levels of repute, largely thanks to its audio workstation, Reason. At the helm of this progress is company CEO and co-founder, Ernst Nathorst-Böös, who took some time to do an in-depth Q&A with me about Propellerhead’s journey.
Hi Ernst. Can you tell me a bit about your role at Propellerhead?
I’m the CEO and one of the three founders. I’ve been in the music industry for over thirty years, and worked as an composer, producer, synth programmer and tech writer before starting Propellerhead. I also did a bit of product design.
What was the origin of the name “Propellerhead”? I’ve heard it had something to do with Donald Duck’s nephews…
Yes, it’s a Disney reference. It refers to the know-it-all science guy we all knew in school at some point in life. The one that does weird experiments that often blow up in his face.
I hear that Propellerhead likes to keep it’s work environment casual, as opposed to the strict structure other companies tend to have. Is that true?
Propellerhead, as most tech companies these days, is a very casual company. We have an open-office landscape, and I pretty much sit in the middle, typing on my computer. Or I’m in one of our meeting rooms, discussing, designing or getting help solving problems.
How did your career lead you to create music software?
I would say that I got picked up by Marcus Zetterquist, who’s currently our CTO. To be honest, it was more his idea to start this company than mine. As a godsend programmer, he was looking for someone who had more of a marketing background.
(Above: Ernst Nathorst-Böös)
Has your role at the company changed at all over the years?
I couldn’t program anything even if my life depended on it; that requires a special kind of patience and mindset that I just don’t have. The big difference over the years is that I do much less product design now than I did in the early days. But I’m very happy with the change, as it’s has allowed me to grow, try new things and evolve in a number of ways.
If you desired a career in the software industry, why not seeking employment at Steinberg, since you were already producing the manuals for their products in the early 90s. Or why not have Propellerhead work for Steinberg?
We were co-operating with them, so yes, in a way that was a consideration. But it became clear to us fairly quickly that the cultures of the two companies were very different. They were distributing our products, among other things, and did a great job of it, but when Reason came around, we decided that it was important for us to also handle that aspect of our business ourselves.
Can you tell me what kind of response ReCycle had when it came out? Since Steinberg distributed it, did you ever feel that it stood in the shadow of Cubase?
ReCycle made us decent money, enough to finance ReBirth RB-338, which in turned financed Reason 1.0, so we certainly can’t complain. ReCycle was always meant to be complementary, and Steinberg did a great job promoting it for us, so we have a lot to thank them for.
I’ve heard that ReBirth RB-338 was a product you focused on because the technology needed to complete Reason wasn’t present in the late 90’s. So was the synth a challenge to create?
It was a great challenge, since we were pushing technology as far as it went at the time. Especially considering that we were only two developers (plus some great friends), and wanted to get to market.
Was there ever any thoughts of teaming up with Steinberg to develop Reason?
They had Cubase and we had ReBirth. When Reason came out, it just seemed like the natural thing to do to end the distribution relationship. But we kept working together on making our products work well together, using ReWire and REX technologies.
Can you tell me who developed the following Reason instruments?
Subtractor: Our software developer, Peter Jubel pretty much did that one on his own. He had designed the original Nord Lead before that, so he had strong ideas about how a synthesizer should be modeled.
Why did you choose to make an SSL-inspired mixing desk so central in Reason 6?
We’ve always been about putting gear in people’s hands that they’d dreamt about owning. When we were building the Reason/Record combo, we wanted to provide the console that all the big hits are mixed on. So that choice was a very simple and natural.
What kind of features are you guys hoping to introduce in Reason 8? Any plans for that yet?
Sorry, we never comment on future releases of anything. But we will stay true to the central Reason paradigm of trying to get as many people to make as much music as possible, whilst have as much fun as possible doing it.
How much has your workload reduced now that you have 35+ staff members and more resources at your disposal than before?
I’m not working any less than I used to. At certain periods, it’s quite the opposite. There’s always something to do, and a reason for the company and me to keep moving as fast as we can.
Reason has had three major upgrades in three years, which feels like a record among DAWs. What was the reason for that?
We’d like to think that we move deliberately, and there’s nothing I’d like to change, or that I regret, or anything like that. We are always walking a thin line between doing things fast and with great quality. The trick is to not choose, but to let one drive the other, and we’re getting better and better at that.
Does Propellerhead address software piracy, or do you leave it to users to decide whether to buy or crack Reason?
We have copy protection on the app, and we think that makes sense from all perspectives. If nothing else, we want to protect all the developers who make Rack Extensions for us. The way things are now, you can’t use Reason fully unless you pay for it. That wasn’t really the case before. So right now we don’t worry so much about piracy. People who decide to use commercial software without paying for it will have to choose something else.
You once said in 2003,“I don’t want to just do a ‘me too’ thing for adding hard disk tracks to Reason. Even though it would probably be practical, it’s not what we are about. We’d just be an inferior version of Cubase, and why would we want to be that? ” But “Record” came along six years later. What led to the change of heart?
People were asking us to throw in “a few hard disk tracks” in Reason. We didn’t want to do that: it would have just made the product inferior to real DAWs. Instead we created an app, Record, that in many ways took a new approach to recording. Yes, it records audio in tracks like other DAWs, but the elegance with which it handles projects, tempo and editing is still way ahead of the competition. But then it turned out that what users wanted was complete integration between the two programs, so we obliged.
It took us a little while, but we think that we’ve managed to make a program that carries all the positive qualities of Reasons’ way of dealing with synth-based music into audio recording. We still get comments almost every day from musicians telling us that switching to Reason unlocked their creativity more than anything else.
Ten years ago, when asked about Reason’s lack of support for third-party plugins, you said, “We take pride in making reliable products, and in making them efficient, so that the user can do a lot on just one computer…What we’d rather do is keep making instruments that can satisfy our users”. Yet here we are with Rack Extensions at our disposal.
We dreamt up Rack Extensions (RE) a long time ago, but it’s one of the biggest project we’ve ever done, if not the biggest. We just had to do all this work to make it possible. VST technology is almost twenty years old now and a lot of things have happened in computing since 1996. Basically, if you ask me, VST sucks from a technological standpoint, and I’m not sure how it will survive in the fast-changing computing landscape that we have now. Rack Extensions are a completely different beast and geared for the future.
Reason was created in the 90s, when the standard for music production was physical studios and recording gear, so the GUI makes sense by that standard. But in the 2010s, many young producers have never been in commercial studios. When they see all those wires and connections in Reason, don’t you think some may find it intimidating, which may deter new users?
Reason is a complex program, that’s for sure. But at least it lacks some of the stupid complexity found in other programs, exposing irrelevant technical information like sample rates and bit depths to someone who just wants to make a song.
The question about the hardware metaphor is interesting. Our design might not be for everybody, but that is also true for more abstract UI designs. We all have different ways to relate to technology. We see that new users, even the ones who have never seen the hardware equivalents of our rack devices, appreciate the design, maybe not because it emulates hardware, but rather because it’s well organized.
If VSTs are a frustration for you in general, why not work on a new standard to replace VSTs entirely?
Very rarely in history have multiple companies come together to create new successful standards. Most of such attempts drown in politics and administration. We make software for musicians, and that takes up more hours of the day than we sometimes care to admit. Having said that, if anyone is interested in collaborating with us on Rack Extensions, we are more than happy to discuss that! It’s great technology and if I dare say so, in many important ways ahead of VST, AU and AAX.
How much does popularity matter to Propellerhead? When you read DAW popularity polls, quite a few place higher than Reason. Does it make you think anything needs to be improved or done differently at Propellerhead?
Those polls serve a great purpose, but they do not necessarily reflect the market, which is good for us since we’re much more successful than some of that data would indicate. Why the market data and blog polls don’t line up I don’t know, but maybe we just attract people who spend time making music rather than thinking too much about what gear to use for it.
Are there ever times when you use other DAWs and think, “I wish Reason had this “?
That happens every day here. And if we don’t discover that stuff ourselves, our customers will tell us about it! The problem is that we have logged many hundreds of such requests, and they’re all different. So we have to walk a fine balance between making the program more attractive to majority of our users, and not burdening it with too much functionality so that only suits a small group of people. Again, our users are musicians and not audio engineers, so it’s more important that their creativity can keep flowing than they have control over all aspects of the program.
Another problem is that software applications can get obese and unattractive. For example, when was the last time you heard someone say, “I really wish they put more features in Microsoft Word! “.
Can you tell me about any upcoming Rack Extensions that users should be excited about?
Nope! Again, we never talk about future products.