As anticipated in the Virtual String Machine review, we asked GForce’s Dave Spiers some questions about, well, VSM, his past, piracy, and… his Citroen DS Pallas (?!?).
First of all, I am talking with Dave from GForce Software, GMedia, or what else? I admit I’m a bit confused with these brand names after all these years…
Hey, it confuses me at times too, eh eh! Gmediamusic was a company started by my partner Chris and myself way back. We initially released the M-Tron as well as some sample CDs which were branded as GForce. Discussions with other developers lead to GForce being used as an umbrella brand under which we started collaborating with other independent developers such as Ohm Force. The Minimonsta is a prime example of this – a joint project under a single brand. Eventually Chris and I found that GForce was taking up the majority of our time so this year we decided to stop duplicating things like websites and organize ourselves a little better. Hopefully this’ll give us a bit more time to devote to things like development and keeping the new GForce website fresh. Let’s talk about VSM: I’ve seen your picture with all those fantastic machines you sampled and, let me say: wow! Are they part of your personal collection or you borrowed them here and there?
Some of the instruments belong to us but we were lucky enough to talk to Gordon Reid (Sound On Sound Journalist) very early in the VSM development. Gordon was investigating the entire genre for a series of articles and had bought some wonderful examples during the course of his research. We recorded many of these and learned a huge amount about the String Ensemble history in the process. Chris and I would take it in turns to do the recording while the other picked Gordon’s brains about the actual instrument. While making VSM, did you thought that you were going to become the most hated person for all those people selling their old string machines at ridiculously high prices?
Actually, it might have the opposite effect. We’re half-anticipating that, in much the same way as with the M-Tron, VSM will simply introduce these sounds to a new generation and as it starts being used more and more, some of the wealthier musicians will think “I really want an original Freeman String Symphonizer/Solina/Elka Rhapsody etc”. If that happens, it’s possible prices will rise. Years ago you couldn’t give Melly’s away, that’s definitely not the case now. I know it’s not a rock’n’roll question, but… could you give us some details about the recording chain used during the sampling sessions?
All the instruments were recorded via either an RME Fireface 800 or a Metric Halo 2882. They key was getting hold of the best instrument examples as possible and if I remember correctly we recorded three ARP Omnis until we found the best one. Some of the instruments you sampled had also extra-string presets (like horns/brass), which in some cases could create an interesting blend with the string’s sound. Since I don’t see them in VSM I guess you just wanted to stay true to the “string-only” approach, isn’t it?
Yes. The whole idea came about when we were asked to find a Solina for a UK band, Kasabian. It took a while but and when we found one and started playing it, we just fell in love with that sound. I was a huge fan of 70s funk (Roy Ayers, Herbie Hancock, Lonnie Liston Smith etc) and playing it brought a ray of sunshine to an otherwise damp and miserable English day. It also coincided with a friend of ours working on the last Goldfrapp album and after we heard the track Number One, where the main riff is a Roland RS505, we thought “We have to build a retro string ensemble instrument”. Of course, we could have gone off at all sorts of tangents but we had to keep focus as much as possible – hence no brass or organs.
The additional synthesis module (filter, adsr) is a nice bonus: is it something completely new or did you re-adapt some of your previous creations?
It’s all completely new. We much prefer creating an instrument from a clean canvas instead of taking old code and tweaking it. Maybe that’s why we take so long, he he!
How many people worked on VSM? I’ve read that Art (ex Bitshift, and author of Phatmatik Pro) was involved in the team too.
We’re probably talking a hardcore team of three or four, but I have to say that it’s always hard to give a definitive amount of people who work on a specific instrument because people dip in and out of the project as it progresses. By the time you count beta-testers and various musicians, this figure would be much, much higher. We’re lucky to work with some very smart people and all their individual expertise is welcome and sometimes vital. However Art was the main engineer and he was the one who probably suffered the most amount of sleepless nights.
About the fx section: I suppose it’s thought for the machines who were originally missing a modulation section. After what the phaser and ensemble have been modeled?
We started by looking at a Solina-based ensemble but often when we added this to, say an Elka Rhapsody, it would make it sound too much like a Solina. The same would happen with a Roland type ensemble – it would just make everything sound very ‘Roland’ which defeated the idea of having this collection of diverse instruments, each with their own character. In the end we took an average and opted to give the unit a high degree of flexibility where people could add some colour without it becoming too overbearing.
Still about the fx section: why no delay? I suppose the answer will be: “anybody has at least one”, but I’ll try to ask anyway…
We did discuss this at length but when we heard the phaser in 12 stage mode, the phaser won the fight.
I’ve read that we’re gonna see some expansion packs for VSM in the future (like you did with the M-Tron). Could you tell us something more about them?
I’m working on these now and at the moment there’s a few things that have definitely been short-listed such as the Hohner K4, Yamaha CE25, Korg Lambda, Elektronika EM25 as well as something else which will be the jewel in the crown. Sorry, I can’t say what that is just yet though.
As expected, the VSM is also a “virtual award” to the italian manufacturers of the times (Elka, Siel which was the real responsible for the Arp Quartet, Crumar). But is it true that you thought the word “violoncello” on the Elka Rhapsody preset was a mistake? I had so much fun reading that!
Yep. I freely admit that I was confused by it which is embarrassing considering the time I’ve spent in Italy. I know my old friends at Generalmusic are going to tease me mercilessly at NAMM over this.
GForce describes itself as a company with “an emphasis on vintage synthesizer modeling”. Since “vintage” is not a static concept, do you think we will see you modeling 80’s and then 90’s synths in the next years?
It’s possible. We just love stuff that’s slightly ‘out-there’ and in the early days there was a lot more of that than in the 80s and 90s. I love it when an industry is trying to find its feet because people come up with totally oblique ideas within which there’s a certain magic.
I’ve read you worked with many, many artists, as programmer and engineer. Which has been the most difficult or the weirdest request you had during those years?
In the old days people used to say things like “Create me a sound that goes Zzzzzmmmmmoooooyyyoowww” and think that I could read their minds. That used to be difficult because studio time was amazingly expensive and they’d sit their tapping their fingers while I’d plug modules into modules and try to find what was in their heads while they commented “Make it more orange sounding” The thing is I love those situations because that’s where you learn your craft. It’s the same with being on the road – you have to have your shit together because the show MUST go on. I could talk about this kind of stuff all day but there’s one example I can remember where I was up a mountain in Switzerland reprogramming loads of borrowed keyboards for a Debbie Harry gig because none of ours had arrived for a huge festival gig. I borrowed various instruments from people like Dave Stewart & Billy Idol and set to work with about an hour to go before Debbie took to the stage. We pulled it off but the pressure was pretty intense. Chris, who worked with Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson, has some brilliant stories on that front too.
What’s your take on the (hotter than ever, lately) piracy’s affair? How does it affect your relationship with customers, and what do you think of BanPiracy’s actions?
Piracy is a major problem for all developers, especially small niche ones like ourselves and I don’t think there’s much of an excuse for it nowadays with all the good freeware available. I have more respect for someone who can take a few bits of freeware and create a great track than I do for a warez addict who just goes through the motions. The sad thing for me is that this industry is losing programmers to big business because we can’t compete in terms of salary and because they become demoralised by seeing their work passed around as worthless. It’s hard to see people who love what they do and are very good at it walk away to something far less creative. The BanPiracy thing is alarming on many levels – if their numbers are correct and studio piracy is as endemic as they say then maybe their existence is part of a ’cause and effect’ situation. I like to stay positive so we hope the pendulum will settle more in the centre-ground at some point.
You were a sort of pioneer in hardware midi controllers with the Phat Boy. Do you see GForce involved in something hardware related in the future?
It’s possible and there’s no denying that hardware can’t be pirated, which is what I think makes it attractive to software developers. What I love about software though is that these are still early days and there’s a spirit of adventure that’s exciting. I spoke to the boss of a hardware synth company who said “If you’re not able to manufacture in China, you won’t even get on the playing field” which to me implied that everyone is chasing lowest cost manufacturing over creativity – software isn’t like that…..yet!
Gforce is not known for being a super-productive company. Is that because in these years you spent too much time in trying to bring back to life your “vintage” Citroen Pallas ? (sorry, I found your personal page about that and I had to ask!)
Hehe – the truth is that my DS has been garaged for about 5 years and I still haven’t found the time to devote to it…..yet. Every year I say “This year I’ll get it back to tip-top condition” but something always conspires against me. Everyone here has outside interests and it’s these things that inspire and excite us within GForce. For example, during this last year I’ve contributed to two films, a couple of albums and helped out in a techie capacity on a couple of tours. It’s inevitable that you draw from this stimuli and ideas are formed. Some of mine and Chris’ best ideas have come from just talking about solutions to problems we’ve faced that day on the way to and from gigs or studios.
I swear I won’t tell anybody… What’s going on in your secret labs?
Hehe – I wish it was as simple as that but in truth we have lots of projects running concurrently and focus may change depending on what’s inspiring at a particular moment in time. For example, we may hit a difficult point with one product so we’ll put it on the back burner for a while and bring something else to the fore. I think of it like doing a mix – sometimes you have to give yourselves space so that you come back with fresh ears. VSM only came about because of having to find that Solina and if you would have asked me a month previously what we were working on, I’d have said something totally different. Ok, we’ve finished, you can have a beer now!
Cheers – Your health and our warmest regards to Italy!
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About The Author
Founder & main editor here at ANR, 'non-musician' and music-tinkerer. His first keyboard was a cheesy Yamaha PSS-270. He still loves it.