Most producers will at some point become familiar with the software behemoth known as Native Instruments, which will lead them to also become acquainted with a company called Scarbee. With their sample libraries taking up a chunk of NI's production package, Komplete, Scarbee is responsible for some highly usable software versions of real instruments. From bass guitars to keyboards, their creations have received acclaim from the music world, and I was naturally pleased when the company's founder, Thomas Hansen Scarbye, was up for an interview.
Hi there Thomas. Can you tell me a bit about your music/audio background, and what experiences led you to create a company that makes virtual instruments, instead of being a recording artist or producer?
After high school, I decided to focus entirely on music and played in various bands as a bass player. I wrote a lot of songs and in my mid-twenties I aimed for a career as a film composer and started getting jobs for things like documentaries. At the point where things started to look promising for me, my sister and other family members died tragically in a drowning accident and that changed my life. For some years I composed very sad music - inspired by classical and film music (Eric Serra, Moricone, Nina Rota). Then I met my wife and she gave birth to my first son, Oscar, and I decided to “grow up”. I sold all my gear to pay the past loans I'd taken out, and I spent the first years home with my son, having taken a job as a postman, which involved getting up at 4am to stand in line at the post office to see if there was any work that day. About 3 years later, I happened to start reading the works of Soeren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher, and I suddenly realized that I had to start doing what I felt was true to myself. So I called an old friend of mine, Lars Daniel Terkelsen, and together we formed a very successful composer/producer team. Until the year 2000 we composed music for more than 150 paid jobs in TV, commercials etc.
We started using sample libraries in our Akai S3000 samplers and I gradually started to get interested in making my own stuff, as I could see the advantage of having sounds that could be used to make finished records, and not just demos. I invested in an Emulator E4-K and bought 64 MB of RAM for it. At that time my wife had bought me a Yamaha bass, so I started making a prototype on the Emulator. This was in 1998. One day Lars told me about the GigaSampler from Nemesys, and I was thrilled. I bought it, along with a Celinder Slap Bass, which I started recording. In 1999, I sent a demo of a slap bass song that was created using the GigaSampler to Nemesys, to show them what was possible with their software. They didn’t believe it was true; they thought it was fake - that it was a real bass performance. So I sent them screenshots of the programming and MIDI files. After having convinced them, they offered me a contract and released the Scarbee J-Slap, followed by the J-Fingered a year later. These are the same samples that were used for the Native Instruments Jay-Bass.
J-Bass was the first software instrument that featured recording/sampling/programming technique that we all use today, where we record phrases like hammer-ons and slides, and then split the recording and put it all together in the programming stage. Before I made J-Slap there were loops, phrases and single samples. With loops and phrases you were stuck with a specific key and tempo. J-slap changed that completely - suddenly you had freedom to make any articulation in any tempo and key - and you could create your own phrases and licks. I wrote a big manual with full explanation of the technique and with lots of graphics.
What were the early years like for you at Scarbee? Were you able to secure the Native Instrument partnership early on, or was there a period of being a new independent company that had to find its own clients and customers?
The early years, starting in 1999, were tough. I was with Nemesys for my first 2 years, but the sales were not that great, and I managed to get out of my contract to start selling on my own. I also started to make new products: the vintage keyboards. Until 2006, I made yearly losses, and me and my wife had to rely on her income, as well as the business loans I took to survive. The truth is that you can only base your income on legitimate customers; this is a rather small percentage of people who will always pay, no matter what. I'm not talking about just software, but people who will pay for whatever it is they they want. These people are everywhere in the world and they just have a built-in moral that can not be rocked. These are the same people who will point out to the cashier in the store that he gave them too much change after their grocery shopping. It takes time to reach these people, but eventually you amass enough of them to get generate the income you need. Software protection in form of registration keys and iLoks will extend your customer base this to the next group: those who will not “directly” do something criminal. But the biggest group are those who just steal your stuff.
In 2010, after the release of Funk Guitarist, I did a Google search and found 300, 000 pages that were offering at least one of my products as a “free download”, illegally. Now if one person on each of those websites had downloaded just one of my products that costs $79, that would have totaled $23, 700, 000 in lost sales. So you can imagine the frustration.
The reason why I continued despite this is because I’m an artist - not a business man or an engineer. I once saw an artist who spent years on making artificial plants of bronze. They looked 100% real. This is the way I work too - I want to create the illusion of real instruments. For that, I need a store to sell my work so I can afford making more illusions. But it's never the opposite - deciding to make a product that will sell. I can't work this way.
Native Instruments approached me in 2009, and since my wife had just had treatment for breast cancer that she got in 2008, I was open to a collaboration with them, as I had to secure my family financially in case my wife didn't make it (she is recovered and cancer-free now). At this time my own business was good, and the NI deal just made it better.
How many people make up Scarbee? Do you have a large staff to help with your work?
Not at all. In the beginning I did everything myself, and for many years my wife did the graphics for covers and manuals. I've have worked with Nils Liberg since 2006, who is an external programmer that does scripting, and when I did the Scarbee Vintage Keyboard FX, I worked together with Overloud guys, and Stefan Kengen did the GUI. Overloud is now in charge of that plugin, and sell it on their website.
When I did Funk Guitarist, I worked closely together with guitarist Soeren Reiff, who is an excellent guitarist, and Jimmy Ostbygaard helped with basic editing. He is currently working for me together with Steffen Soerensen on some projects. But in general it's a lot of solo work, after which the scripting and GUI has to be done, and for that I need help.
Scarbee has at least 12 of its products as a part of NI's Komplete, which is quite a lot. Has NI ever rejected any of your virtual instruments, or is there an understanding between you that all Scarbee products will be included in Komplete?
No, Native Instruments has never rejected any of my products, though they have rejected some of my ideas for new products. I've also rejected ideas from NI too. This is why my contract was changed in 2013 so that I could be able to release my own products again. It's connected to what I was saying earlier about coming from the art instead of business perspective. So imagine an art gallery that tells the artist to make more blue paintings, since they sold great. But the painter might want to make brown ones now. Even though the gallery tells him that he can easily paint blue ones and make easy money, he can't do it. This is same with our relationship. We have to be on the same page, which is what tends to happen, thankfully.
What do you think would have happened if the Native Instrument's partnership hadn't unfolded the way it did? Would you have opted for just selling your instruments on the Scarbee website?
Yes, I would have continued. I started to work with Alicia Keys in 2008, a year before NI approached me. The original plan was for me to do more work with Alicia and her engineer, Ann Mincielli. We would have worked on making more libraries for drums, bass and more pianos. I was also approached by several big companies at this point, who wanted to collaborate. However, I was simultaneously negotiating my contract with Native Instruments, and in the end I decided to go with NI. As a result, I had to drop all other projects, and had to give up selling the Vintage Keyboard FX, which was a pity.
Can you tell me about how your Alicia Keys collaboration unfolded, and how it was received by the music community? Are there any plans for other celebrity team-ups to model their instruments?
Prior to taking my vacation in the summer of 2008, I told Nils Liberg that I was ready to make a piano library. Two weeks later I received an email from Ann Mincielli that Alicia Keys wanted me to come to New York as soon as possible to discuss a collaboration. I spent the next weeks training in how to use Pro Tools, which we would use for the project, and I also spent many hours on researching how a piano should be recorded.
When it comes to the actual recording, programming and scripting I barely look at competitor software pianos for reference. My principle is this: if I can imitate an instrument perfectly, within the limitation of the technology, I don’t need to look elsewhere. This sometimes annoys Nils; he thinks it’s wise to keep an eye on other people’s work for inspiration, so we don’t make anything outdated. But again, I’m not a typical developer, and prefer to do things my way.
After the initial recordings, I was invited to travel with Ann and Alicia for some days while she was on tour in Europe. We would meet during the day, in a studio or hotel room to work on the prototype and discuss details. At this point we hadn't decided how the product should be released.
The main goal for the project was to transform Alicia’s beloved composer piano into software, so she could compose on it during her tours. The second goal was to create a great sounding piano and sell it for a reasonable price so that children could get a chance to learn to play music without buying or renting a real piano. Music had changed Alicia’s life and she wanted other people to have this chance too. Both Ann and Alicia are very bright and creative people. To be around people like that is a blessing. Alicia’s ears are really good and she would always detect the same “bad” or “good” keys as I did. We really agreed on most things, such as on which microphones worked best, and we also had the common idea that the piano sound should be personal. This way, the piano would feel right, the same as the real instrument.
The Rickenbacker is one of the most recent libraries you put out, and it sounds amazing to say the least. Why this instrument in particular, when Scarbee already had multiple other bass guitars. You seem to be fond of them. Is it easy to sample bass libraries?
Thanks for the kind words. It is very difficult to record a bass, since all articulations have to match and the strings get older during the recordings, etc. I’m a bass player and love the sound of a bass guitar. I will do more basses in the future for sure - I already have many ideas and many basses too, haha. Again, its like Van Gogh who painted the local postman several times; its a motive - each time you do it you go deeper until you master it.
Can you outline some of the timelines for making the instruments Scarbee has released? Does it take many months/years to create a virtual instrument library?
I'm not the fastest developer. It usually takes me 1 - 2 years to make a project. I often start by making 2 - 4 versions that I eventually abandon, as I would have discovered some better techniques during that process that makes me want to redo everything. I also need time for the scripting ideas - sometimes we need to break through several walls to be able to get to where we want.
The Funk Guitarist took 2 years, even though the initial concept took 20 minutes for me to write (we actually more or less used that one). It took more than a year until NI could hear and try the idea for real. We were close to giving up the project several times, as we pressed the Kontakt engine beyond its limitations very week. We built a sequencer inside Kontakt and at some point we discovered we needed more than 120,000 zones to be able to do what we wanted. NI told us they could maybe expand Kontakt's zones in the future but at this point we would just need to cut down on the amount we needed. I didn't like that, haha. So after a taking walk, I got the idea that we could cheat the system by putting multiple samples after each other. For example, I could put 20 samples in one zone and then use scripting to set start and end points of each slice. This worked, so we could have our 120,000 samples with no problem. There were many things like this that happened, so it was 2 years of brains burning.
Is there any reason why Scarbee has yet to move into the realm of drum instruments? Admittedly, there's a lot of competition in that area, even from Native Instruments themselves, with their Abbey Roads collection. Is that part of the reason?
I actually released Scarbee Imperial Drums in 2005 – fantastic drums developed by Simone Coen. Unfortunately he decided to leave with his drums that year to form his own company - which was his dream, so I let him go.
The fact that there are many drum programs out there is not something that will prevent me from making drums at all. Just a year ago I had meetings about a plan for making a drum library. But then something else came up that caused me to put it on hold - but it will come some day. I love drums!
What would you say has been the most successful or critically acclaimed product from Scarbee thus far?
Well, all my products have been received quite well. Before NI, all my products had received 5/5 in Sound on Sound so I can't complain. I can say that the Clavinet is the least-selling product because it's really a niche. However, it was one of the most difficult and time-consuming to create. But I love this one. The Funk Guitarist is the most advanced and difficult product to create, but it's also the one that is closest to my vision: to give a musician super-powers. Of course, he will still need his ears and ideas, but he'll be able to play like a pro with just 2 fingers. We basically give the user the result of 10-15 years of practice. And at the same time the product can teach you about how a guitar works, and can help you compose too. I really want to make more of these products in the future.
A useful driving force for me is love - it sounds cheesy but it's true. If I can imagine users are getting inspired by my work, it helps me go through hell to make the products.
Scarbee seems to have created niche for itself in the world of vintage instruments like electric pianos and bass guitars. Why do you think other high-profile sample companies have been unable to replicate Scarbee's customer acclaim for themselves? Do you think your NI partnership makes it unappealing for them to compete, or is it just hard to make the kind of libraries you make?
These products are hard to make. When I give people a chance to look at my work, they're always surprised by the complexity and all the hassle. It's much harder to make than you think - and I have very high standards.
What's next from Scarbee? Any interesting new virtual instruments on the horizon?
Its usually a secret - but since George Duke mentioned it in his last interview in Keyboard Magazine, it's public knowledge that I've been working on an electric piano for some years. It was a big loss to me that he died, as we were both so excited about the project, and he was supposed to be our beta-tester. He was also one of my biggest musical heroes and I had known him for more than 10 years and met him several times.
The keyboard project currently has the working title of "Scarbee - The Big E.P", and it's been very difficult to make. We had 3 instruments set up before we decided on one of them. One of the others may come later as a sister version, since it's another model. The keyboards will have a fantastic sound! For many years I looked for a specific sound I had heard on albums, and finally found it. Then we restored it ridiculously well, even with new Tolex material and all other stuff.
Keyboard player, Dan Stangerup, is currently recording the last keys and we are now beginning to map and program it. It will have several of the mods and dynamic details that George Duke suggested and will also have the classical amp sound included. It will be released in 2015 by myself and sold exclusively from the Scarbee site.
After this I have several plans for products - time will tell how what will come.