Interview: Propellerhead CEO – Ernst Nathorst-Böös

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ernstAlthough users of FL Studio were bound to be happy when I interviewed the CEO of Image-Line Software, I suspected that other DAW users might have become expectant of receiving similar insight into the workings of their respective software manufacturers. Rightly so, as I'm not the one to leave stones unturned. Of equal interest to me was how another acclaimed DAW manufacturer has been able to establish itself in the now-competitive market of digital workstations.

The Swedish company, Propellerhead, may not boast the same corporate structure as some of its competitors, but has still been able to rise to a similar levels of repute, with an array of innovative and, frankly, gutsy approaches to music software design. At the helm of much of this progress is the company CEO, Ernst Nathorst-Böös, who took some time to do an in-depth Q&A with us about his company's journey.

Hi Ernst! For those not familiar with you or your position at Propellerhead, can you enlighten me about your history and current role at the company?

I am the CEO, and one of three founders. I have worked in the music industry for over thirty years. Before starting Propellerhead, I worked as an importer, composer, producer, synth programmer and tech writer. I also did a bit of product design.

What was the origin of the name “Propellerhead”? I’ve heard it had something to with Donald Duck’s nephews…

Yes, it is a Disney reference. It refers to that know-it-all science or tech guy we all had in our school class, at some point in life. The one that makes weird experiments that often blow up in his face.

I always want to know what a CEO does in his typical work day. I hear that Propellerhead likes to keep things casual. Is that true, or do you come to work all dressed up and ready for business?

Propellerhead, as most tech companies these days, is a very casual company. We have an open office landscape, so 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.

After having worked with music equipment distribution, and as an editor for a music magazine, how did your career lead you to create music software tools? Was it an accident, or was it deliberate?

I would say that I got picked up, actually, by Marcus Zetterquist, now our CTO. To be honest, it was his idea to start this company, more than mine. As a godsend programmer he was looking for someone who had more of a marketing background.

Has your role at the company changed at all over the years? You once said that you handled more of the business side of things at Propellerhead. Is that still so? If so, do you ever fancy being a programmer for a day, instead?

I couldn’t program anything if my life depended on it. It 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, it has allowed me to grow, try new things and evolve in a number of ways.

If you desired a career in the music software industry, why not seeking employment at Steinberg? You were already producing the manuals for their products in the early 90’s. Or why not have Propellerhead work for Steinberg? Were those ever considerations?

We were co-operating with them, so yes, in a way they were. But it fairly quickly became clear to us 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 those aspects of our business ourselves.

Can you tell me what kind of response ReCycle had when Propellerhead released it? Since Steinberg distributed it, did you ever feel that it stood in the shadow of Cubase and it’s other software components? I heard that it didn’t make you much money…

ReCycle made us decent money, enough to finance ReBirth, 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 also 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. Does that mean that creating RebIrth was easy, since you kind of settled for what the technology and resources allowed you to create? Or was it a challenge to create even that?

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.

Considering that Propellerhead used to work with Steinberg in order to distribute both ReCycle and Rebirth, was there ever any thoughts of teaming up with Steinberg to develop your DAW? Or would that have been a conflict, given that they already had Cubase? Did the relationship unravel in any way?

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 about how the Reason internal instruments were developed, and if you had any role in them?

Subtractor: Peter Jubel pretty much did that one on his own. You know, he had designed the original Nord Lead before that, so he had strong ideas about how a synthesizer should be modeled.

Thor: That was done by Mats Karlöf and Peter Jubel, with some guidance from me.

Malström: This was outsourced to Magnus Lidström. I project managed it, but did none of the design. But I’m proud to say that I came up with the name!

Kong: If I remember correctly, it was Mats Karlöf, Anders Ljung and Marcus Zetterquist who designed Kong, with support from Peter Jubel.

Why did you choose to make the SSL-inspired mixing desk so central in Reason 6?

We have always been about putting gear in people’s hands that they never dreamt about owning or even touching. And when we were building the Reason/Record combo, a full studio, we wanted to provide the console that all the big hits are mixed. So that was a very simple and natural.

Reason-7-bus

If you could magically dream into reality Reason 8, with all the thinkable features and tools that you could ever imagine your DAW would ever need, what would some of those features be?

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 as possible to make as much music as possible and have as much fun as possible doing it.

How much of a burden has been taken off your shoulders, as well as Pelle’s and Marcus’, now that have 35+ staff members and probably more resources at your disposal?

I am not working any less than I used to. At certain periods, 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.

I’ve heard a lot of people comment on the fast rate at which you guys upgraded Reason over the last 3 years. 3 major upgrades in 3 years sounds like a record among DAWs. What happened? For a company that had a name for being quite conservative in it’s ways, it sure seemed like some changes were going on at Propellerhead. In retrospect would you have done anything different? Waited and bundled Reason 6 and 6.5 together maybe?

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. We’re getting better and better at that, I guess that is what you are seeing!

You once said about people who pirate software: "No one knows how many of these people bought the program, who wouldn't actually have been your customers otherwise." Do you still believe that? Is piracy a problem that Propellerhead will try to crack down on, or will you leave it to users to decide about, and perhaps benefit from?

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 at the time of your quote. 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.

About adding audio recording to Reason you also said this: “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. It's not right for us. We'd just be an inferior Cubase, and why would we want to be that?" Ironically, “Record” came along 6 years after you made that statement in 2003. Granted, 6 years is a long time, but was what was it that led to that conversion, if we can call it that?” Pressure from users, personal change of heart, internal change of direction for the company, etc?

People were asking us to throw in “a few hard disk tracks” in Reason. We didn’t want to do that, that would have made the product inferior to real DAWs. Instead we created an app, Record, that in many ways took a new and different approach to recording. Yes, it records audio in tracks like DAWs, but the elegance with which it handles projects, tempo, many editing chores etc, was, and still is, way ahead of the competition. But then it turned out that what users and the market wanted was complete integration between the two programs, so we obliged.

It took us a little while but we really think that we have managed to make a program that carries all the positive qualities in Reasons’ original way of dealing with synth based music, over into audio recording. To this day we still get comments almost every day from musicians telling us that switching to Reason unlocked their creativity more than anything else.

You also made the following statement 10 years ago when asked about VSTs, and Reason’s lack of support for party plugins: “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". And here we are a decade later with Rack Extensions at our disposal, which is quite a crafty solution. At what point between then and now did that resistance start to wane, with regards to providing users with access to 3 and Marcus on this issue, or was it a unanimous feeling?

There never was resistance. We dreamt up Rack Extensions (RE) a long time ago, but it’s one of the biggest project we have ever done, if not the biggest. We just had to do all this work to make it possible. VST technology is almost 20 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.

One of the things that I’ve heard from Propellerhead time and time again, is that Reason and its software components were designed with musicians in mind, and not necessarily audio engineers. That it was meant to free up artists from restrictions that they face in other DAWs. But at the same time, Reason was created in the 90’s when the standard for music production was the physical studios and recording gear. So Reason’s GUI makes sense by that standard. But in the 2010’s, many young producers may have never even have been real studios. When they see all those wires and connections, do you ever think that some may find it intimidating, which may deter new users from trying it?

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.

You’ve been quite the advocate for how the VST format isn’t an effective standard for today’s modern music-production process, where people want things to be fast and impeding. Your Rack Extension feature address that within Reason, but since VSTs are a frustration for you in general, why not work on a new standard across the board, to replace VSTs entirely? Or is the solution of that Rack Extension brings to Reason enough to satisfy you?

Very rarely in history have multiple companies come together to create new successful standards. Most 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! 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? Sure, Reason has thousands of users, but when you read the polls of DAW popularity (if you ever read them), and see other DAWs that were created after Reason, place higher, does it make you think anything needs to be improved or done differently?

Those polls serve a great purpose, but they do not necessarily reflect the market, which is good for us since we are much more successful than some of that data would indicate. Why the market data and poll on music sites 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. Which is exactly what we are trying to achieve!

Was there ever a time when you used a DAW other than Reason, and was like, “Damn, I wish Reason had this. I need to create this feature for it!” ?

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 different such requests and that they are just that: different. It’s a fine balance, making the program more attractive both to old and new users, and not burdening it with too much functionality that only suits a small group of people. Again, our users are musicians and not audio engineers, and it is more important to them that their creativity can keep flowing than that they have micro-detailed 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.

Haha, alright then. Well, thanks for sharing about your company with me. For all the audiophiles out there, who either use Propellerhead products, or have gotten an interest for them, check out the Propellerhead website, Facebook and Twitter.
SamInterview: Propellerhead CEO – Ernst Nathorst-Böös

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