Though royalty-free samples have become commonplace, Erik Svahn is one of the early creators of sample CDs that were pivotal in genres like drum and bass, jungle, and golden age hip-hop. I tracked Erik down on social media and requested an interview about his 40-year career, where we talked about his background, his different sample companies over the years, and his current one called Hed/Nod.
– Hi Erik. It’s great to be talking to you. I’ve heard you started playing guitar at age ten. Is that true?
Yes it is. Guitar was my first instrument and I played it intently, practicing five hours a day. After playing jazz in different bands for a few years, I eventually switched over to other instruments.
– Do you have any notable memories from your time as a synth player?
Actually, I do. I remember being in high school and my keyboard player needed a new Rhodes piano, so I helped her track down a seller that turned out to be Hans Nordelius, who went on to start Clavia, the makers of Nord Keyboards. By chance, he was also selling a self-made synth because his focus had shifted to making larger ones, so me and a friend pooled together our money to buy it for about $150. I remember Hans saying, “I’m gonna build a better synth than the Prophet-5 “, but that was until the Yamaha DX7 dropped a year later and killed the market for large-format synths (laughs). Funnily enough, Clavia later tried to buy back his synth from me, but I’d sold it to someone else by that time.
– Is it true you built your own samplers in the 80s?
Sort of. I was working in a music store where one of my first purchases was the Roland MC-202, which is like an SH-101 but with a more comprehensive sequencer. I also had a Boss delay rack unit, and by connecting it to the sequencer, I was able to sample sounds into it. There were hardly any other means for sampling in those days, even if early digital workstations like Fairlight CMI had been released.
– It’s been said that you were one of the first creators of sample CDs. How did you get involved with that?
I had a high-school friend called Thomas Tibert who worked for a company that was one of the first to release their sound effects on CD. Seeing that, Thomas came up with the idea of making a CD that included musical sounds. I didn’t even own a CD player at the time but he asked for my opinion and I said it was a good idea. We presented it to the owners of the company and they signed us to a deal to make ten CDs. After a while, I came across one of the first Zero-G CDs called “Datafile 1“. It contained all kinds of amazing loops and samples that were far more interesting than what were making, and it inspired my later work. Years later, I learned from Ed Stratton how those discs were made, but it was a mystery to me in the early 90s.
– What happened after you and Thomas made your first CDs?
Thomas eventually left the sound effects company because he didn’t get along with the owners, which left me to produce the remaining nine CDs in six months. Once that was over, I decided to use the sounds from my DAT cassettes to produce my own CD.
Similar to how Thomas involved me in the first CD, I asked him if he wanted to work on this one, and we made our first double CD called Xstatic Goldmine. It had 3000+ sounds on it and was released under our own company, Polestar Magnetics. This was at a time when Zero-G and other companies were putting out a lot of CDs, which made me nervous that ours would underperform, but years later Ed Stratton told me that his sales fell significantly when Xstatic Goldmine came out. So I think we made an impact with it, and we certainly sold a lot of units.
– Is it true that Xstatic Goldmine later became unavailable because the samples weren’t cleared?
Not at all. The licensing agreement on our CDs was clear in saying that Polestar took no responsibility for what people did with the sounds. It’s no different than buying vinyl from a record store and later sampling it – that’s not the store’s fault. Clearing samples only became a reality when people started making money, but even then it wasn’t always obvious who to clear the copyright with. I remember a lawyer managed to get ahold of the rights for “Impeach The President” and started sending out letters to people, claiming they owed him money (laughs).
– Do you know which people bought your Polestar CDs during that time?
To be honest, I don’t really know who our individual customers were. I had a distribution network that consisted of companies in the US, Japan, Germany, France, the UK, etc. Where-ever there was interest in music production, someone would pop up and say, “Can we sell your CDs? “. So I mostly left the sales to them.
– How important was the development of the CD format in your work as a sample-maker?
It made a huge difference. It’s important to remember that storage was always a problem in the 90s. Even if you backed up your sounds to floppy disks, they sometimes disappeared randomly or wouldn’t always load. Some companies tried to sell one-shots on floppy disks, but sample CDs were the answer for those of us who wanted loops for our samplers.
Sample CDs became the tools for those aiming to replicate their favorite hip-hop and dance music tracks. Unfortunately, Akai and E-mu only sold multi-sample libraries and 80s sound banks, and for years they turned their noses up at electronic and urban music, which only proved they didn’t understand who their customers were.
– After Polestar Magnetics, I believe you set up eLab and eventually licensed content to companies. Tell me about that.
I started eLab in 1993 and handled my own distribution until 1997 when I handed it over to Time + Space. This was around the time when companies like Akai and Propellerhead started approaching me about sound content. eLab also licensed stuff to Steinberg and Yamaha. Funnily enough, the Yamaha relationship came about because one of our sounds was put into their instrument without our permission and they reached out to us about it. So we ended up working with them and licensed more sounds to their products.
In other instances, I provided sound content to companies I had a personal relationship with. For example, I remember meeting Gerhard Behles at a NAMM show and he showed me an early version of Ableton Live. He asked if I had any loops they could bundle with their program, so I gave some of our for that.
– How did you end up making sounds for the first version of Reason?
That came from me knowing the guys at Propellerhead like Ernst Nathorst-Böös and Peter Jubel. After creating Rebirth and Recycle, they contacted me and Thomas Tibert to make content for them. Thomas ended up not participating, so I finished up the content along with my partner Jan Lutgebaucks, and we were one of the first developers contracted to make REX loops for Propellerhead.
As an aside, the initial inspiration for Recycle came from an interaction I had with one of Peter Jubel’s bandmates. He came to my studio and saw how I chopped up sounds in my machines, which he later told Peter about. Peter thought a computer could do it better, so he started building the software that became Recycle. Interestingly enough, he made it on a NeXT computer, even though it was developed as a product for PC and Mac.
– Whilst you were making sample CDs with eLab, a lot of your peers were creating multi-sample libraries. Why didn’t you go that route?
I’d already created multi-sample libraries whilst working at the music store, prior to there being an industry for it. The store had samplers like the EMU Emulator II, and I would drag samples from the EMU to a Prophet 2000 and loop them, which was terribly boring. So when I saw companies like Prosonos release their “Sound Library: Brass” CDs, it didn’t inspire any of the excitement I expected from working with samples. So I stayed away from that sort of thing.
– In that case, what kind of production techniques were you using at eLabs?
Well, the techniques back in those days were birthed out of necessity due to the limited sample time. An SP-1200 offered 2.5 seconds of sample time per slot, which is more or less a one-bar loop by today’s standards, so you couldn’t make long sounds. We also didn’t have DAWs, so you had to work with an MPC or Ensoniq EPS that had an in-built sequencer. Or you could use a cheap Atari that triggered samples from MIDI.
– eLab released a drum break series called Vinylistics, which I’m a big fan of. How did those come about?
Those were started by Fabian Torsson, a well-known Swedish producer who goes by the name Phat Fabe. He asked my thoughts on making a drum break CD, and we agreed to give it a shot. Fabian made the first two volumes and I made the third one with the help of a friend.
– Do you know how many units your eLab CDs sold?
Quite a lot. At that time, I was making so much money from selling CDs that I was able to buy a house with cash. I remember my neighbour asking me, “So what kind of loan do you have? “, and I replied “None. I bought the house “, and he was like, “Yeah but who’s your bank? What interest do you pay? “, and I had to repeat myself, “I bought it. It’s paid for “, and he was like “….okaaayy” (laughs).
– Interesting. Aside from sample CDs, did eLab have any involvement in building other products?
We did. Thomas Tibert came to me and asked, “What if you could sell loops that were baked into a VST plugin? “, to which I replied, “You mean like the REX player in Reason?”, and he was like, “Kind of like that...”. So he and a programmer from Ableton developed a format that was basically eight REX players that loaded eight loops. After seeing it, I asked “What if you could load up a whole drum kit instead of separate loops “?, which they thought was interesting. So eLab got involved with the intention of eventually licensing them the technology, but for different reasons, we ended up becoming the developer and brought in the talent to build out the tech.
The reward would’ve been great if that product had been released as we planned, but one of our partners screwed us by deciding not to pay us. In addition to that, Spectrasonics released Stylus, which used similar technology. Those developments created a nightmare for us because we’d signed multiple distribution deals and had huge expenses from developing the technology. So rather than compete with Spectrasonics, we decided to use their Stylus engine for the content we’d developed. We called our products “RMX Expanders” and they were released as REX files for Stylus RMX. Jan Lutgebaucks and I then started Equipped Music so we could continue working without breaching our previous eLab contracts.
– I see. And what kind of work did you do with Equipped Music?
We hadn’t made any sample CDs since eLab’s Smoker’s Delight in 2003, so we went back to doing that, though we used DVDs instead of CDs because they had more space. But then the financial crash of 2008 happened and brought things to an end. Guitar Center had been bought by investment firms and were told, “You can sell your inventory, but you’re not allowed to buy anything “. That affected many of the sample creators who’d been selling their products to retailers, and we went from selling tons to suddenly selling nothing. By 2008, I was in a difficult spot where I had a lot of inventory and Jan wanted to get out of the business. Thankfully, I was able to clear out my stock by offering discounts and giveaways, which allowed me to make my money back.
– Got it. So how did Raw Cutz come about after that?
After Equipped Music, I wanted to get away from making huge libraries that took a year to develop, so I considered putting my products online, but no Swedish companies were doing that at the time. So I decided to focus on creating the material that later became part of the Raw Cutz catalog, and I eventually called Matt Pelling at Loopmasters to talk about it. I played him my material and we decided to become partners. He’d been running Loopmasters for nearly a decade and knew the online space well, so we launched the Raw Cutz website in 2013.
– How did the launch go?
Well, we hardly saw any traffic because no-one knew about Rawcutz.com, so not much happened at first. We later decided to put the content on Loopmasters instead and sales picked up after that. We felt that Raw Cutz could be a decent business, but it also seemed like there was a better way to handle our sales. Sample pack customers were typically attracted to large packs, so we created something called the Raw Cutz Super Pack as a compilation of our smaller ones. That ultimately made Raw Cutz successful and brought in a lot of money.
Through Raw Cutz we got the chance to work with companies like Native Instruments, and I made Prospect Haze for them, which became one of the best-selling Maschine expansion at the time. I also made the Basement Era expansion and returned to making content for Akai too.
– It seems you’re no longer a part of Raw Cutz. What led to you leaving the company?
Raw Cutz became one of Loopmaster’s top money-makers, but I think the company had so many packs that none of them could be fully marketed. Loopmasters was later sold to Beatport, so felt it was time to ask for a buyout in August of 2021 so I could move on to other things.
– In terms of sample pack marketplaces, do you think Splice showcased a more successful business strategy than Loopmasters?
I think Splice was a success because of their subscription model. On the other hand, they’re entirely funded by investment capital, which I’m wary of. The same thing happened with Swedish companies when all these Norwegian firms swooped in with their oil money, which is why the music stores in Stockholm like 4Sound went bankrupt after being acquired. So investment capital can be cool when you want to scale up, but the traditional way of doing business makes more sense to me, where you have good products that earn a profit.
– Ableton seems to be an example of a company that does business in that way. They haven’t got any investors and seem to operate based on their yearly profits.
Exactly, and they can do whatever they want. The opposite of that is when you need to produce graphs and presentations to reassure your investors that profits are rising, yet they still ask, “But you predicted that the new product would sell X amount? Why is that not happening? “. They have no interest in your customers at all, and would throw your business out the window if another company wanted to acquire it, which is why so many new companies come from previously failed ones.
– Now that you have Hed/Nod, what’s your trajectory for the company? Have you decided what kinds of products you’d like to create?
I’m not entirely sure what the future holds, but I know that I don’t want to make content that gets lost among thousands of sounds. I think we’ll soon see the end of plugins as we know it; people will eventually realize they don’t need to own 20 new compressors, especially if the next Peter Jubel comes along and makes a piece of software from his bedroom that blows everyone’s minds.
I believe those who can relate to music-makers are the ones who can provide the best content for them, and that’s what I want to do. After my first CD for the sound effects company, I realized that creating samples in isolation was very uninspiring. I’ve tried hiring session drummers, but I could never use their recordings because they weren’t playing along to any music, so the end result was three hours of the same beat. That’s when I thought, “What if you recorded regular music and then took it apart to create the samples? “. So my process isn’t to make a kick drum in isolation – all my sounds are extracted from complete music tracks. I’ve seen my products used in movies and even at the Oscars, and the reason they work is because the sounds were already within a musical context. So Hed/Nod will focus on staying real to that.
– Sounds great. Thanks for talking to me, Erik. It’s been a good conversation. What do you have happening in the immediate future?
I’m working on a product for a major company that I can’t name, so that’s my main focus. There’s a few other companies knocking on my door, so we’ll see what happens in the future.