Any producer of dance music should already be reading this first paragraph with excitement, as the name of the company in question can clearly be seen in the title above. Ohm Force is the name of the French software manufacturers that brought us everything from high-end distortion plug-ins like Ohmicide, to free filters like Frohmage, and even vintage remakes like Minimonsta. Used by everyone from big-time producers like Skrillex, Stuart Price and Trent Reznor, Ohm Force’s products have a reputation that precedes them. Having already built a name for themselves in the plugin world, these software gurus are now aiming to break into the well-populated world of DAWs, with their one-of-a-kind collaborative sequencer, Ohm Studio. Being unique, in the sense that it offers users the ability to collaborate over the Internet, it’s a the first DAW of it’s kind to take such extensive steps at bridging the problem of proximity in music making. Whether it succeeds or not will be decided with time, though the beta tests have proven to be promising. In order to gain more insight into the inner workings of this small, but impactful company, I sat down with the lead developer of their Ohm Studio DAW, Raphael Dinge, and picked his brain on what the company is currently up to.
Hi Raphael! Tell me a bit about yourself. Why and how did you get in to the software industry, and what kind of background do you have in it?
I was born in 1976, which is an excellent year for red wine! A few years later, I was programming on computers with an old Apple II. I had a very good friend, Julien Boeuf, whose cousin, Gregory Makles, and best friend, Laurent de Soras, wanted to start an audio company. As we were all doing music, and most of us were into programming, getting into this industry seemed like quite a nice idea. Gregory and Laurent already had a plan at this time. I’ve been studying mostly Mathematics, while almost all the others did engineering in school, except for Gregory, who went to the art school, Arts Déco. When we started the company, most of us were still students. Laurent taught me how to code. I had also worked a few years earlier as a graphic designer for my father.
What’s your current role at Ohm Force? Has that role changed through-out your time with the company?
I’m the lead developer on our Ohm Studio project. This involves a lot of Research & Development and architecture, obviously programming, and from time to time a bit of graphic design. My role changed quite a lot through time though. When I begun, I was the only developer on MacOS so I was mainly “porting” our plug-ins to the Macintosh platform. Everybody in the company generally has multiple roles. For example Franck Bacquet, our CEO, is the one who redesigned from scratch our ohmstudio.com and ohmforce.com web sites.
Though I’ve been using Ohm Studio for a few months, I’m pretty sure a lot of people have yet to catch on to what it is. Can you give me a breakdown of what this software is and what it does?
Ohm Studio is the first real-time collaborative DAW. It is a real DAW, not browser based, which supports professional standards like VST, allows you to record Audio & MIDI, works with patterns, has a full featured mixer, etc. Its look is very similar to other DAWs, except for the chat window on the left when you’re working on a project. Its main distinctive feature is online collaboration. You can get in touch with other musicians, invite them to your project, share some ideas, work on the same document at the same time. All in real-time.
What led you to guys to decide to create Ohm Studio? Was it any particular experience that set things in motion?
Actually, the Ohm Studio concept was the starting point of the company. We did plug-ins only because we had no money to fund the software, and needed a way to do so. At this time, investors wouldn’t really trust us. Incidentally, Ohm Force became a renowned plug-ins manufacturer, thanks to Laurent’s incredible work on DSP. After a few years, we were able to start the Ohm Studio software.
How does Ohm Studio differ from other DAWs? It certainly breaks new ground in terms of collaboration. Does it have any other features that set it apart from it’s potential competitors?
Apart from the collaborative technology, we have this “Rack” feature, which has had a very positive response among our users. In a nutshell, this gives some more non-destructive features to the application. This simply allows users to create multiple tracks (audio or midi) for one instrument, particularly in the case of romplers, with one different instrument on each midi channel. This allows for non-destructive “touch” parameter automation, for example.
We also have a “zooming user interface”. This is difficult to describe, but a lot of our users gave us very positive feedback on it. This allows to navigate very fast in your song, while not getting lost. This is the first time such a concept is used in a DAW.
How has the beta testing been going? What kind of feedback have your testers and users been giving?
The beta test has lasted a long time. Our testers have been giving us feedback on the GUI and the feature that were missing. We’ve been closely listening to them and adding features, as well as correcting bugs. It required a lot of work to make VST plug-ins work, and we fine-tuned the GUI a lot; the first version and the current version actually look like completely different pieces of software.
Our testers are quite satisfied now. Some features are missing, but being able to create music with other musicians is an absolutely unique feature. We have the general chat which is public, and from time to time we have some great comments, and some funny ones, like : “Using Ohm Studio allowed me to stop playing World of Warcraft” and “At this pace, my wife is going to ask for divorce. I wish I never discovered Ohm Studio”
Given that Ohm Studio’s trademark feature seems to be it’s long-distance collaborative features, how does it fare for those without Internet access? Can it hold it’s own as a stand-alone DAW?
As of now, an internet connection is required in order to use Ohm Studio. As a lot of our users asked for the possibility to work “offline”, we started to look more into this. Some people want to be able to work on the road, and resynchronize seamlessly when reconnecting, while other people only wanted a way not to appear online.
Is bandwidth issues something that users should be concerned about? Do you think the limited bandwidth of a lot of people will hamper their progress with Ohm Studio?
In practice, and quite surprisingly, bandwidth did not appear to be an issue at all. Each user action will only send the difference he applied to the project, which is in most cases just a few bytes long. There are some concerns when using “big” VST plug-ins such as Kontakt, where the presets might be huge, as well as when transferring audio. However, this was never a real issue to our users, or at least it wasn’t reported as one. In this matter, I think we can say that we have found a quite robust solution, and we will continue to fine tune it a bit, like handling spurious deconnections a little bit nicer.
Does Ohm Studio feature 64 bit compatibility?
Not for now, but users can use their 64-bit VST plug-ins by using J-bridge. It should be noted however that the audio engine is running as a separate applications from the GUI. This means that our GUI does not “eat” memory that should be used for the plug-ins. So in practice, there was only a few times where this should limit our users, and we are in fact working on a 64-bit version already.
Is the long-term goal for Ohm Studio to compete with other DAWs on the market, or are you guys going to focus on marketing it’s collaborative features? If the prior, do you think it stands a chance in the overly competitive market for DAWs?
Actually this is quite difficult to answer. All users have different ways to work, and will have different preferences that will lead to the choice of a DAW. We want to enhance its features to match our users need, whilst at the same time enhancing inter-operability with other DAWs.
Should we try to compete with other DAWs, I think we have a chance, yes. Technically speaking, this is something you can see with DAWs like Studio One, and maybe DAWs like BitWig. The general idea is that as time goes by, making changes to a piece of software takes more time. At some point, you probably even need to consider redesigning your software from scratch. This is a very risky decision which, for some reason, some DAWs established on the market don’t want to take. For example, it’s easy to have 64-bit if you developed the software with this in mind from the very beginning. But if you have to do it later, it can be quite difficult to do, and this might explain why a lot of companies did it in a year. Because we are starting fresh, it is easier to meet users’ expectations. So yes, we do have a chance in the long run. Technically speaking, we also found a way to redesign the software or part of it, from scratch, without taking too much risk, to ensure that we are able to stay on the bleeding edge in the long run.
For something as unique as Ohm Studio, what has been your main means of marketing the software? Have you been able to maintain a decent level of demand for the product through it’s exposure and beta testing?
The project started as early as 2007. We made a lot of mistakes in the original DAW design. After a few years, we launched an alpha test, and almost nobody understood the software. The plug-in market turned out to be different from the DAW market. Being different is a good thing for the plug-in market. For DAWs, being too different is a very bad idea, unless you have a deliberate intention of fulfilling a user need that was not addressed by other DAWs. Users are also a lot less tolerant with bugs for a DAW than for their plug-ins. We found out that a DAW should be virtually bug free. Now, we have an automated testing code that is longer than the code being tested, and we are trying to push this technique in all the software to reach the maximum quality possible.
I’m guessing that if making something like Ohm Studio was easy, someone would have already created it. What have been your greatest obstacles in creating this DAW with regards to things like coding, funding, marketing, finding staff, etc?
We were actually quite lucky to quickly discover that bringing this technology to life was not a problem of coding, but rather about finding a robust mathematical model. There are some existing technologies that allow for the making of collaborative software, but they are not suited at all for DAWs ( the technology was mostly made for text editors).
Funding was essential, as it would let us take the risk to fine-tune the model, before we would actually implement it. Our first investor is none other than the state of France, as part of its innovation program, called OSEO.
I can say also that we were very lucky with the staff we have, without knowing it at first. 13 years ago, it just so happened that we made some kind of “dream team”, and I’m very proud to be a part of it. Every one here is pro-active, and can work autonomously, while putting a strong emphasis on internal communication. This allows for a fast pace of innovative incoming features, as acknowledged by our users.
Once the technology was made, we realized that using it was not that easy. Having a collaborative application brings totally new questions that still remain wide open : programming for multi-user is not far from programming for single-user with our technology, but there are some subtleties to know about. This was not so much about the technology itself, but rather about a new totally logic arising in a multi-user environment.
After this problem was solved, the GUI research took an important place in the process. The very basis of an interface (even a bad one), is to let the user understand his actions through the following questions : who, what, when. In a single user environment this is quite easy : who is me, when is now. But in a multiple environment, even “who” is a potentially difficult question. I think we found a quite nice solution to the whole problem, as our user feel that it’s very natural.
One of our users once spoke about “the Ohm Studio magic effect” : after spending some time working with a distant partner – possibly a thousand miles away – you have this strange feeling that they could be virtually in the same room as yours.
Any estimates on what the final release will be priced?
We will offer a limited free version next, for a standard monthly subscription, priced at €9. Some people would rather go for a one-shot price without subscription, and that’s something we’re still thinking about.
And the big question! When can we expect Ohm Studio’s release? And what will be the next phase in Ohm Studio’s development after that release?
We are fine-tuning some portion of the software, removing some bugs and incorporating our premium code into the client. This should happen by the end of July.
In parallel, we are already focusing on Ohm Studio “version 2″, and the code was already started ( at a slow pace for now, as we need to finish “version 1″) a month ago.
This new version will have a totally new audio engine, and will bring all the features that our users have been waiting for, and more! We already conducted some tests on the new audio engine, and results are just awesome. We cannot say a lot for now, but be prepared to see a game-changer soon !