Off-the-record: Sonalksis [ENG]

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Kieran Tyrrell and Dave Gamble, Managing Director e Chief Omnipotent Code Guru (?!?) at Sonalksis, talk to AudioNewsRoom about their “babies”, ethos, iTunes playlists, Wii Tennis, touch, and much more…
Oh, and we also have the exclusive scoop about their next products!

Boring questions have to come first… How did Sonalksis’ story start?

It started when myself and Gus Miller met at AMS Neve. We were working on large mixing consoles and hardware dependant dsp systems, but we realised that the direction of the pro audio industry was moving towards computer based systems, and in particular host based processing systems. So we started to produce the first plugin (the SV517 Equaliser), and after about 6 months launched the company.
Being a software only company allowed us to start up with very little (financial) outlay, and we both liked the idea of working for ourselves!

How many persons were at Sonalksis at the beginning, and how many now?

At the very start we were a core team of just 2, although we’ve always had other people working as contractors, so at any one time the ‘team’ can be as much as 6 or 8 working on any one project.
Now we are a ‘core’ team of just 4, but again, there are usually about 6 or 8 people working on each project.
[Below, the Sonalksis crew: were you brainstorming, right?]

Which is the product or the idea you’ve developed you’re more proud of, and why? And which are the competitors’ products that you would have liked to design?

He he, good question! For me personally, I love all the products.
It’s probably the combination of the products, combined with the values of the company, the people we work with (internally and as customers) and the development of the brand that I find most exciting.
As to competitors, whilst there are lots of people out there doing interesting things at the moment, we have a lot of very interesting things in development, so we expect that in the near future it’ll be our competitors wishing that our products had been made under their brand.

Well, we get a lot of feedback from customers, and generally the more excited the customers get, the more proud we feel – the products that the customers ask us for – like FreeG and TBK3 – have had amazing response from people, so I guess those are the most exciting.
As for competitors products… well – I think a big part of our ethos is making plugins “More Right” than anyone else does them.
I certainly notice that we spend a lot of time making sure that every little detail is correct.
Altho, it would have been great to be behind the MiniMoog!…

And Dave is responsible for all the TBKs, so I know he loves those babies, even if he’s too modest to say so!

Regarding your latest product, TBK3, I found it interesting also because it shows a different approach, beyond the typical “let’s try to emulate this particular outboard”, so common with software devs in these years.
How do you deal with the “simulation vs creation” dilemma?

He he… how much time have you got?…
A lot if it is watching what people expect and how they react when they get certain things. For example I give you a Neve EQ plugin, and it sounds identical (90dB phase cancellation) to your old Neve strip that you love.
It can be exactly the same thing. But it won’t be as good because:

1) you don’t have the tactile interface and the physical/emotional attachment that that provides

2) in your mind, you exaggerate the potency of the original, because of (1) and because “It’s a Neve”…

So we can do clones… that technology exists, there’s a lot of it about – the URS stuff is a particularly good example – but why isn’t it as exciting as the real gear? See above, 1+2.

So in TBK3, we started with the mechanisms for clones of a few key compressors, merged them together to make one “supercompressor” and then figured out how to do that “sound more”…
You can never give a plugin the tactile interface unless you build it a control surface so we compensate for (2), but making the plugin do way more than the hardware did and that way we’re as good or better than the hardware, he he…
We exceed the users expectations of what it can do!
Does that make any sense?

Yeah, absolutely….
Which are the artists/musical genres you’re into? And how, if it happens, your musical tastes influence your products?

I like any music that creates an emotional response in me!
I listen to a lot of hiphop, but also like rocky stuff too. Top of my iTunes playlist at the moment is Lily Allen and The Go! Team

I’m on a strict diet of James Last and Phillip Glass!

Dave, I’ve read you’re also a heavy d’n’b consumer, is it right?

Maybe…James Last is much cooler tho.. he he!
To be diplomatic I ought to say dnb + breaks, and i’m supposed to shamelessly plug Funkatech records and Viral recordings at any given opportunity…. but we wont go there!…

As to our own tastes effecting the development progress, we always ensure our products can appeal to the widest possible audience. And in the team we have people who use the plugs for so many varied styles of music that we can be sure the products work well in all intended areas, from eurotrash, to heavy rock, to dnb, to classical and soundtrack…

Does it happen to you to recognize one of your products, while listening to a song? And which has been the most surprising and gratifying “credit” you had from a record/artist?

People generally don’t tell me about it. I wish people would more. I know about all the goings on with our own beta group (who include some high profile producers)…
… occasionally I’ll hear a TBK1 sweep on something and know what it is… I’m hoping to spot TBK3 crunch on every new record made for the next six years…. here’s hoping!

I’m sure it wil be recognizable!

It’s always hard to pinpoint exactly when our plugs have been used in a mix (more so the EQs and compressors), but we have our suspicions…
We have good relations with some of our users and endorsers, so we get to hear a lot of stuff that they have used our plugins on.
Unfortunately we can’t really name names, ‘cos of our customer confidentiality rules…
But we will have an endorsements section on our website soon!

Which is the funniest request you had from a customer?

He he, occasionally we get support requests that just blow my mind… I remember one request we had where the guy seemed to be enquiring as to where he should insert the CD… yes it sounds like a joke, but I think he was serious!
Or… ‘Where’s the stereo link button on the mono version?’
As to ‘feature’ requests, most of our users know what they’re talking about so their requests are usually valid…

All the support questions I see are basically sane. We have lovely customers, it makes me sleep well!

I think one of the key issues in the audio software business is the “update factor”.
Every few months there’s new hardware available, OS updates, hosts updates, and plugs’ developers are forced to follow these trends (and users too).
And this sometimes brings also to complicated relationships with customers (see Waves’ often hated WUP).
In my view, new business models are needed. So, which is your approach? Which will be, in your opinion, the “winning business model”?

I think it’s become progressively more clear that the only real recipe for success is to obey a customer-centric business model.
Whatever serves the customer best will be the company that prevails. And the company who serves the customer best and provides the most innovative products is the one that stands to become dominant.
So I’m quite pleased that the Sonalksis ethos is predominantly focussed on serving the customer, and making them happy – with providing the most innovative products as a strong second!
We’ve never charged for updates. Ever.
As we observed, if you started off on an OS9 mac, with PPC, moved to PC and DX, then switched to RTAS on XP, then ended up using AUs on an intel mac on OSX, you won’t have paid us an extra penny, and we’ll keep it that way.

It’s a tricky situation. In the past we’ve always provided unlimited support and updates for all our products, but with OSs being updated almost yearly, and hardware and standards (ie new AU versions, VST3, migrations to intel macs etc) it can become a task in itself to maintain all this.
But as Dave said we still stand by this ethos. We don’t charge for updates. If we release new features (ie as with the Mk2 Essentials) then we have to charge a little to cover the cost of the development of the new features, but we still continue to support the Mk1 plugins, so people only have to upgrade if they want the new features.

Virtual instruments and fx’s quality and quantity growth and diffusion in these years is amazing, but we know that mice, touchpads, generic hardware controllers are far from being exciting “musical instruments”.
Brian Eno once said, about the importance of a physical approach when making music, something like: “…it’s important to add a touch of Africa..”.
Have you ever thought to implement your software products into an hardware device? And what do you think about new technologies like multi-touch screen, etc.?

Multi-touch screens are surely the next generation of generic hardware controllers…
But really, there can be no confusion over the fact that expensive exciting kit is made of metal or wood, and have expensive weighty heavy knobs and switches.
An actual military grade weighted potentiometer, like they used to use in the good old vintage gear feels different, and you can feel it. That’s when you know you’ve bought quality.
Positive actions on things (switches, center detents, endstops) feel good and are exciting.
Even a little friction on the travel of a knob makes it easier to use.
So, while I completely feel that hardware controllers provide tremendously useful functionality (I have a few and couldn’t live without them), the actual tactile element gets designed out of those things to pursue lower cost. I was around for the design/dev of a famous controller, and kept hassling them to use more expensive plastics and construction!

We’ve looked into quite a few options for producing hardware solutions, and it’s something we’d like to do in the future for sure. I think for us it’s a matter of finding the right partners, so we can be sure we’ll be offering a really great product, at a sensible price.

If someone would sell me a control surface with big, expensive, heavy knobs, that would be great! I want physical “analogue emulation” for the interface, he he!
We’re not (currently) a hardware manufacture company, but I’d love to do it, or see it done.

Touch is an incredibly powerful and incredibly underrated sense… after all, we get married for touch!…
Anyways, control surfaces aren’t that much of an impediment to making great music…
It just means we need to compensate when we make plugs!

is there any sort of “ritual” at Sonalksis just after the release of a new product?
Do you get drunk, do you go to a-la Eyes Wide Shut parties, do you shut down everything and go to sleep for a couple of days, or what?

Eyes Wide Shut parties: WOAAAAAHHH!! WTF?!?!?!?!

He he, yeah we love those Scientology parties, he he!

I smoked a cigar after the TBK3 launch!
We’ve all gotten into Nintendo Wii recently. I got one, so whenever we all get together, it’s Wii tennis!
No eyes-wide-shut parties… that I know of…
I’m not sure my girlfriend would like that! And I’m not sure I’d like that!
Generally, just after the launch, we spend a few days “on edge”, making sure that no mistakes have slipped through the net.
I think I disappoint the guys by staying a little too sober…
It means more time for writing plugins and making music tho, and at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about, no?

Last question, I swear I won’t tell anybody: what’s going on in your “secret labs”?

We have two research areas that we can’t say much about and two new plugs in dev which we probably can…

Two (three) plugins under the knife at the moment, aside from the usual things like bugfixes and updates (there’ll be a 2.04 of EssentialsMk2 at some point with some very minor fixes).
We’re starting on a range of mastering plugs.
The first up is a stereo swiss-army-knife, provisionally titled StereoTools. It does all the stereo things you need, balance and pan, stereo width adjustment and expansion, mono-everything-below xHz, stereo coherence display, that sort of thing. It’s very pretty and very useful!
Plugins two and three are the Mastering Limiters [they hope they'll be released "well before the end of 2007" - editor's note].
One is a smaller version of the other, featuring the most useful controls for when you want to do a quick limiting process for a rough master.
The full version is a multiband monster!
The design spec was roughly: “L3 is cool, but how the hell do I use it? I want multiband limiting that makes sense”…
So we’ve redesigned the process, and in doing so found that we can add in things like a linear-phase mastering EQ, multiband compression, spectrum analyser without complicating the process.
It’s a very complete mastering tool, and i’m pleased with how it’s looking so far. [see a detail of the GUI here]

Another crucial feature is this:
A lot of people don’t necessarily want a limiter for their mix – they want to multiband compress, and polish the eq, sure, but they want to get an analogue clip – just to get rid of the transients and come up raw and ready.
Now, people have to use a desk to do this, because a clip plugin aliases and sounds bad so we modelled an analogue desk clipping!
Just because it’s useful and people wanted it … in fact, that was one of the first things people asked for.
The smaller version hides away all the multiband stuff, it gives you a “bass” control… we found that’s the control that people use most on multiband limiters, just adjusting the bass contribution to the limiting, so we’ve just put it on a knob so you can just ease off the bass if you need to.
Other than that, it’s straightforward – drive knob, dither, track is limited and ready for master…

Do you think it will be a bedroom’s mastering tool or do you expect it to find a place in big mastering studios too?

The intention is to provide something that’s easily competent for big mastering houses
we’re already considering things like K-metering.
But, as always the strategy is to make something that’s efficient and intuitive enough that you won’t need to be a mastering engineer to use it and still get good results.

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