Cakewalk – Michael Hoover [President]

Although Cakewalk’s synthesizer plugin, Z3TA+ 2, is a plugin I knew about, their audio workstation, SONAR, was less familiar me. Even though it’s integrated third-party plugins and colorful interface is enough to attract attention from a distance, I seem to have overlooked this DAW. But there was no better way to become more informed about their product range than by talking to their President, Michael Hoover, about it.

Hi Michael. What does your music and audio background look like? I’ve heard that you have some experience with live sound.

Actually, I play a little saxophone and guitar, although not much as I’d like recently. I studied audio engineering in college. At the time it was almost all analog, but my first sequencer experience was the Voyetra Sequencer Plus for DOS. Looking at SONAR and other DAWs, we’ve certainly come a long way.

In terms of live sound, I worked with a few bands that played in small to medium-sized clubs. It was a lot of fun and it gave me a chance to practice what I was learning in school.

How did you end up moving from live sound to working at Cakewalk? 

Actually, it was a lot less of a transition than you might imagine. While I was learning primarily analog production techniques in school, lots of exciting new developments were happening in the software world, so when I graduated, I found work at Passport Designs, who developed Master Tracks Pro and Encore. Being able to combine music and computer technology at a cool company was a perfect fit for me.

Moving from Product Manager to being President is a significant career progression. Was that something you originally aspired for?

I enjoy designing and building cool stuff and that’s what led me to become a product manager. It was only natural that as my career progressed, I looked for new challenges. I’ve been involved in most aspects of Cakewalk during my sixteen-year career, having started as a product manager. I soon found myself managing marketing, product development, and engineering, and these experiences prepared me to become President of the company.

As President, what does your daily work routine look like?

In software development, things move quickly and situations change. It’s never routine, and I love that. Ultimately, I try to keep the Cakewalk team focused and motivated while making sure we hit all our milestones and goals. Lately, I’ve been more focused on integrating with Gibson and discussing the opportunities that lie ahead with other Gibson brand companies like TASCAM, KRK and Stanton.

What is your main priority and long-term vision for Cakewalk? Do you have a masterplan of sorts?

Without giving away too many secrets, I can say that the long-term vision is to make products that matter to musicians. It’s great to be the leader in market share and make lots of money, but none of that is achievable if you don’t have great products.

As technology evolves and musicians gravitate towards new ways of making music, like tablets and touch devices, it’s our job to respond to these market shifts and create products for these musicians. We’ve always been technology leaders, especially in the Windows space, whether we get the credit for it or not. That’s not going to change and is only going to improve over the next few years.

With SONAR X1, X2 and X3 being released in 2010, 2012 and 2013 respectively, the various editions came out at very close intervals. Why such a fast pace with the releases? 

We’re a small but passionate team who can work quickly. Rather than go off in a cave for two years, we want to deploy updates more frequently and in smaller doses, so our customers don’t have to re-learn the product with each new major release.

What would you say is the thing that sets SONAR apart from other DAWS?

It’s tough to pinpoint this to a single trait. I think there are a few major components to SONAR that set it apart:

SONAR is one of the most complete, comprehensive digital audio workstation out there. We don’t limit the tracks, busses, or number of effects and synths you can run.

SONAR’s Skylight interface works with musicians more like a creative partner by igniting their inspiration. Recording and mixing these days is different from that of the past. It used to be that you simply record a bunch of tracks and then mix them down. These days you have more options to add and shape sounds as your production moves along, and SONAR’s workflow really contributes to an efficient and creative experience like no other system out there.

Sonar seems to be big on visuals. Bright colors, bold text, well-defined windows, etc. How did that aesthetic for the DAW unfold?

The UI was the biggest focus when we upgraded to the SONAR X series. The goal of the Skylight interface is to speed up workflow, reduce clicks, give you all the functionality you need without a sea of buttons, and to excel on tomorrow’s larger resolution displays. It was a dramatic departure from previous versions, but we felt a big reset was needed to prepare the environment for more advanced capabilities.

Does Sonar lend itself better to certain genres over others? It seems to have caught on quicker among band-driven genres than say EDM.

I’ve heard that said a few times before. It’s a great system for studio-style recording editing and mixing, but I have to say, I’ve heard some awesome EDM-style productions come from our SONAR customers. SONAR has integrated ACID and REX support, a built-in step sequencer and arpeggiator, thousands of sounds in a variety of genres, and the Matrix view for triggering parts. If you’re interested producing EDM, you should look at all that SONAR has to offer.

One of the most notable things about Sonar X3 is that it comes bundled with several third-party instruments like Addictive Drums and Melodyne. Why did Cakewalk took this approach? 

We recognize that there are lots of other companies who are doing amazing stuff, like Celemony, Softube, Overloud, XLN Audio, iZotope and others. Our feeling is this: if customers want to use certain tools, and there’s a way we can make that a better experience, we should do it. So in the case of Melodyne, we didn’t just put it in the box, we also built the very best ARA integration into SONAR, so the customer gets fantastic technology that feels like its part of the product experience.

Why won’t there be any version of SONAR for Macs?

We could port SONAR to Mac, but it would take a lot of people and a long time. My concern with this approach is how maintainable that would be over the long term, and what potential negative impact that may have on our current customers.

We’ve recently developed Scratchpad and Z3ta for iOS, which are built from a new platform. As we develop more products, we expect this new platform to evolve.

Given Cakewalk’s somewhat late entry into the DAW world, are there any concerns about SONAR being an underdog of sorts?

I guess this is part of the misconception about Cakewalk. We’ve been in business for 25 years and have been the leaders in adopting new DAW technology like 64-bit, Windows 7 and 8 support, and multi-touch for touch-enabled devices, just to name a few. Before SONAR, we made Cakewalk Professional and Pro Audio, and have sold millions of copies of our software, and have one of the most loyal user-bases in the industry. If that’s being the underdog, I’ll take it. Obviously, over the past few years there have been many changes, so maybe that’s why people see us as underdogs. But we have prevailed, and are owned by Gibson Brands which is going to open up so many new opportunities.

In a competitive DAW world, what’s been Cakewalk’s main way of marketing its products?

We’ve focused many of our efforts on web-based marketing, for two reasons: firstly, this is where customers go to learn about products these days. The second reason is that web-based activities are easier to track, and calculating the return on investment (ROI) is very straightforward. Discussing ROI may not seem very exciting, but honestly, it’s important to spend your marketing dollars wisely and figure out what works and what doesn’t. Over the past few years, we’ve invested more dollars in social media and paid search. We also spent a lot of time on search engine optimization, A/B testing, and email marketing. We still do some traditional advertising (print, physical mailers, etc), but being software geeks, we do like our data.

Some would say that Cakewalk’s Z3TA+ and Rapture synths are more popular than SONAR. Was that something you realized at any point? 

I’ve never heard that. I might agree if you were speaking specifically about Mac users. Prior to releasing either of these products, Cakewalk had over a million users. Z3TA+ and Rapture have added to that but have not eclipsed SONAR in terms of users.

What’s some of the most positive feedback Cakewalk has gotten for SONAR?

Overall, the response to SONAR X3 has been tremendous. It’s been our most successful “X-series” launch and I think customers are happy that we’re listening to them. There were some bumps in the road when we launched X1, and over the past few years, we’ve faced a lot of challenges, including distribution changes and a change in ownership. SONAR X3 was such an important release for us and it was an opportunity to show customers that we’re still listening to them. The mission is never complete in our world, but SONAR X3 was a huge step in the right direction. And with Gibson in our corner, I think you’re going to see some amazing innovations over the next few years.

Can you share what some of Cakewalk’s next moves will be this year?

What I can say is that we just moved to a new office, a little closer to downtown Boston. It’s more open and is already having a positive impact on the team. Also, we’re currently looking on expanding our development team as well this year. Thanks for the great questions!