Off-the-record: Urs Heckmann (u-he)

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Since a long time we wanted to ask some questions to Urs Heckmann, the man behind Zebra, Filterscape, MFM.
If you’re into software instruments, you probably already have some of his products in your plug-in arsenal. And, well, even if you’re a hardware purist, you should have a look at u-he website
P.s: Urs is known to love smileys, so we’ve kept them :-)

Your father is a sculptor, you have an industrial design background. How would you put these two disciplines in relationship with your job as music software developer, and how did these things help you in doing what you’re doing?

Well, my father is a perfectionist and that’s something I’ve certainly got from him. Describing the relationship between audio software development and industrial design would by far exceed the frame of this interview. I think though that they are very similar things. An industrial designer anticipates and outlines a product up to the point where others can fully imagine its existance, looks and functionality. An audio software developer does the same thing. The major difference is, the result of audio software design is a finished product while the sketches of an industrial designer have to be engineered and manufactured afterwards. I just upload the software on my server and there it is. However, coming from that angle I guess I’m a quite exotic figure within the audio software business. A major scope of my work is making complex beasts very easy to use. Working out all aspects of the user interface purely an industrial design issue.

You’ve refused offers from big companies (Apple, NI?), how much time (read beers) it took you to decide?

Hahaha, well the companies you mentioned have only asked me to send a resume. The direct offers came from other (albeit not necessarily smaller) companies. It never took a beer. Refusal was always the immediate answer to that question. I live in the comfortable situation of earning money from my own ideas, without any pressure from marketing departments. Working in a company would be a step backwards.

About Zebra, in the past I remember you told me there was a remote chance to see an hardware product out of it. Did the idea evolve somehow and are you still interested in it?

I’m all for it but I can’t do it alone. I’ve spoken to some people but I found nothing yet appealing enough to take a risk. I’d love to provide the industrial design for a zebraesque controller keyboard with 4 joysticks though.


Which today’s musical hardware devices (both mass produced or not, controller and/or instrument) “excite” you most and why?

To be honest, I’m not a good keyboard player and thus I’m a bit dyslexic on performance qualities. The only hardware I currently find appealing are analogue modular synthesizers. I’m toying around with a little system based around several modules stuffed in a Doepfer Rack, mostly Cwejman stuff. It’s fun to wire this up with dozens of patch cords. Of course you can’t save patches nor play chords or anything. Thus for actual music I find software much more suitable.

U-he and Hollywood: Zebra and MFM are an important part of upcoming big movies/soundtracks (we’ve talked about this with u-he’s sound scientist, Howard Scarr). Which are the features’ request you get more often from this kind of professional audience?

Funnily there’s a really big blob of Zebra users in and around Hollywood, it’s almost disturbing (I’m afraid I’m not gonna enjoy movies anymore trying to spot Zebras in the soundtrack…). The requests from there are surprisingly not so much about sonical features, they are mostly about technical details, for instance about integration of the software in huge projects or certain environments. It’s about resizable user interfaces, MIDI Program Changes, support for Pro Tools etc. every now and then I get a request for surround capabilities.

Let’s face it: with so many mags’ awards, praises on the forums, etc, Urs Heckmann has gained a sort of superstar status. Are you still able to maintain a healthy self-critical attitude?

Hahaha, that’s a good one ;-) I wouldn’t perceive myself as a superstar. I think that my stuff is still pretty “underground” and “niche” despite the recognition it gets in magazines and such. This is certainly due to my lack of marketing ambitions. Selling over the internet is fine with me even though I could move a magnitude of boxes if I went with a retail distribution strategy. In fact I assume that moving only a couple of hundreds of licenses a year is very healthy for a one man business. In comparison a large company needs dramatic marketing to feed the overhead. About being self-critical, winning awards is flattering, but in the internet age there’s always someone who puts you back on the ground. My wife is good at that too ;-)

About piracy and melting screens: for the russian hackers “mafia” you’re probably marked as “Wanted”. I bet you double check before drinking or eating something in a restaurant or in a bar, isn’t it?

Nah, I don’t think so. I’m having some Russian forums translated and they don’t make the impression to be particularly angry with me (even though some have been stupid enough to assume that I wouldn’t read their stuff, same goes for a couple of Western crackers)

More seriously but still about piracy, what do you think of the BanPiracy’s approach?

I don’t like it. It causes too much lateral damage. Here’s a hypothetical scenario: a studio has a machine with demos from a software company installed by some engineer. An intelligencer of that company asks some other engineer in the studio if their stuff is installed. This one can’t even see if it’s a demo or not. He opens the demo and says “Oh, it’s only a demo, sorry we don’t have it”. The company can still press charges for license violation against them. There is a major flaw in this system. I think that any license which disallows “accidental demonstration of a demo version for a pending business decision” should be ruled nonsense. These tactics seem desperate to me. Any company that does this could as well just advertise with a webbanner “Give us more money or we’re going out of business”. Postponed is not abandoned, it just leaves a bitter taste. (I have no clue as to what state said company is in. I just say how their business tactics come across to me.)

Why do we always get so many interesting and innovative hw and sw musical products coming from Germany? Is it because german moms make you eat something special when you’re kids? Or it’s just you have good schools?

Ha ha ha, maybe it is because we don’t have any particular schools here. I wouldn’t know what to study here if i wanted to create musical stuff. Hence I guess there are lots of people with a non-specific background, and maybe that’s why the products are interesting? Also I think that in our culture (and probably same in Sweden, France and other countries) creating music hard/software “is good enough” whereas in cultures where business success ranks higher the same creative minds would go for other areas that have a brighter outlook.

In Berlin, where you live, several (big and small) hw and sw companies have their headquarters. Is there a sense of network, a “connection” among Berlin’s masterminds?

Well, some of my best friends work in those other companies. I would be all for a bit more talk, but it’s somehow too hard to organize. Hence we usually meet during tradeshows.


Since the beginning, you made an advanced use of the Apples AU format’s features. This format and this Apple’s choice has been often and heavily criticized by other devs. Why do you think there’s not much love around for this format?

The major problem of AU is that the SDK (Software Development Kit) is overly ambitious. It’s hard to find the things that one really needs. It also has a property that makes the transition from VST 2.x to AU very hard for many developers the separation of process and user interface. Now we have VST3 coming up and it seems to embrace all the same things that make AU hard to devlop for. Hmmm.

The u-he tech net part of your site is a cool thing, especially for the geekest among us; since it seems a bit inspired by the open source approach, I’d like to ask you what you think about music related open source projects, like those born for example in the monome community?

I don’t mind open source software. I once have open sourced my gui framework for AU (which now is hopelessly outdated though). However, I’m so deeply buried in my own stuff, I have no idea what’s going on in the realm of os audio software… The tech-net is for those who develop third party applications and resources for my stuff. Many people have done some things such as gui skins and sample converters. I want to encourage them to continue and enable them to do so on a high level.

I like the way your products have entered their “adult” age (and the tech net we’ve seen above is an important part of this growth): you’ve built for them a sort of modular underlying structure, that lets you add new features (resizing, skins, midi control, new filters, etc.). I know it may sound a bit abstract and it could be a broad (off) topic, but to me your approach is all about the value and the ecology of things, in a couple of words I’d say: “project culture”…

Yes. After the early years (More Feedback Machine, Zoyd, Zebra 1) I realized that products must be able to evolve over time. Hence the modularity that not only spans the musical modules such as filters and oscillators but also a general feature set such as the user interface. This meant that I had to write it all from scratch because I didn’t want to depend on others, so I basically have a pretty close relation to all parts of the code. I used to be afraid of feature requests, because adding a single parameter with a new knob is a major problem in common plugin structures. It means a whole lot of work and may in some cases make a plugin incompatible to its prior version. Hence I saw the need to come up with a structure that would be prepared for future changes and even invite to add things. I’ve abandoned the idea that a product is ever “finished”. My plugins demand constant attention and care. The future never stops 8-)

U-he products like Zebra, Filterscape, MFM are quite powerful but complex at the same time. Like you wrote for one of them, the philosophy is “If you can make a knob for it, do it!”. Yes, I know you did also some “light” versions, but do you think you could ever release something with a completely different philosophy, let’s say a minimalist, one-trick pony, plug-in?

Yes, I think I could do that. Maybe not. Dunno. 8-)

Do you think you’ll still be able to personally keep all email contacts with customers in the future, or sooner or later we’ll have a fake Urs replying from the good old India?

Well, for now I try my best, but I happen to reply late or forget to reply every now and then. Hence I try to direct correspondence into my forums, so that questions can be answered not only by me. By the way, my official sales address (“anybody at u-he dot com”) is already being answered by my mate Hans and me, so there you have it ;-)

Lately you gave several hints about possible future products, talking also of a drum-machine. What do you feel it’s missing from the existing software drum-machines?

Here speaks the industrial designer: Usability! Current drum machines are good at mangling loops, sounding like real drums and what not. But I think they lack in a really usable interface to actually create rhythms and grooves from scratch.
I’m working on a concept that enables people to use a pattern-based software drum machine in a live situation. Not like actually playing drums but by evolving patterns with various controls. Can’t say when this will ever hit the public though.

Last question: what’s on your iTunes playlists at the moment?

I’m currently rotating 4 albums and an EP:

Trentemøller – The Last Resort + The Digital Chronicles
You Pretty Thing – Tune In
Einstürzende Neubauten – Alles Wieder Offen
Storlon – Drill Of Silver Fir

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