Off-the-record: Antares [ENG]

As promised in the Harmony Engine mini-review, this is the interview with Marco Alpert from Antares.

What’s your role in Antares?

I’m VP of Marketing. I have responsibility for all marketing and brand management activities as well as participating in product specification and GUI design. I’ve also been known to write owners manuals.

How many people work at Antares now, and how many at the beginning?

When I joined Antares in 1998, I was one of three full-time employees (including Dr. Andy). However, all of our sales and distribution was handled by an independent company that we eventually acquired.
Today, Antares consists of a core group of nine employees and an additional network of very talented people to work with us on a contract basis.

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Antares’ latest effort is Harmony Engine, released some months ago. At a first look it seems it shares a lot of things with Autotune and the Avox suite of plugs. Is it correct to define it as a sort of “modular advanced mixture” of your previous discoveries in vocal technology or does it add something new?

Well it’s true that a great deal of the processing technology shares some (but far from all) elements with Auto-Tune and AVOX. What we really believe is new is the way that a musician can interact with and specify the harmony generation. It was our goal to offer all of the traditional ways of harmony programming, but also add methods that let people without formal training in vocal harmony arrangement approach the harmony generation process from a purely musical point of view.

Harmonizers are a very special beast, that’s probably why we don’t see many of them on the market. Why it’s such an “holy grail” for a developer?

I’m not sure I’d characterize it as a “holy grail” in the way that Auto-Tune is considered a holy grail. However, it is a tool that is applicable to a lot of different types of musical endeavor. I think the reason you don’t see many on the market is simply that they’re hard to do (well).

I found Harmony Engine to be a powerful creative tool. I prefer to define it as creative tool, (in the vein of previous hardware products like the Digitech Vocalist Studio, one of Eno’s classics, by the way) more than a truly “realistic” one.
What do you think about that?

What I think about that is that I’m happy to hear anyone say that they find something we make to be a powerful creative tool. If it helps you make the music you want to make, it’s serving its purpose.
As to Harmony Engine’s “realism,” certainly, if you shift pitch a ways and solo individual harmony voices, it will be obvious that you are not listening to an individual singer singing that part. And, of course, for many of those “creative” uses, it isn’t about realism to begin with. However, it’s been our experience that used skillfully in the context of an entire mix, Harmony Engine can provide backup vocals that are quite convincing.

While testing Harmony Engine, I guess you tried it also on several instruments. Did you get any interesting or surprising result that you would like to share with our readers?

Well, quite honestly, virtually all of our testing was done with human voice. However, during beta testing, one of our testers sent us a track he did using it with a tin whistle, of all things, and it was quite wonderful.

I know you’re also the author of Harmony Engine’s user manual, and I think you did a great job with that. Writing a good manual unfortunately is often not a top priority for developers (both software and hardware). Is it because they estimate that just a very few users will actually read it?

I can’t really speak for the motivations of other developers, but I wonder if there isn’t a chicken-and-egg situation with people reading (or not reading) manuals. Maybe if the typical manual were less intimidating or, dare I say, less boring, more people would read them. If you have a tool with a lot of capabilities, you obviously do your best in the GUI design to help people understand how things work. But there’re always going to be subtleties that you will only discover from reading the manual. My goal is to write a manual that is both clearly informative and enjoyable enough to read that someone might actually read it. In the end, it helps the user to get the most out of our product and, incidentally, tends to reduce the number of frustrated customers calling our support people.

Auto-Tune is ten years old. Did you expect it to be the best selling plug-in of the decade?

Well, let’s say that we were cautiously optimistic that it would be a success.

Did you have a special celebration for its 10th birthday?

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Yes, we took it to the zoo and bought it all the ice cream and candy it wanted. It had a great time.

I’ve read that the algorithm used in Auto-Tune was first developed by Dr. Andy Hildebrand, while working as a geophysicist, to analyze seismic data for locating oil under the earth’s surface (?!?). How the thing evolved into the product that we all know?

Quite simply, geophysical exploration is heavily dependent on the analysis and processing of sound waves. The main difference between geophysics and music is that the waves tend to be of radically different frequencies. Consequently, a great deal of the DSP technology Dr. Andy developed for geophysical analysis is equally applicable to music.

Antares is basically a software company. Your latest hardware product, the AVP, was released in 2002 (by the way, it’s still on sale). Will we see more hardware Antares products?

Probably not as Antares branded products. However, over the years we have participated is a number of partnerships with other companies, and we are always open to technology licensing opportunities with other hardware manufacturers, so it isn’t out of the question that some of our technology might show up in other hardware products.

How do you see Antares in 10 years from now? Will you be busy at making androids singing in harmony or what?

Ten years? Yikes! I’m not even sure what I’m going to be doing tomorrow. But hopefully, whatever it is we’re doing 10 years from now, it will still include making cool, powerful, and fun-to-use tools for creating music.

About piracy: how does it affect your relationship with customers and, assuming you know about BanPiracy, what do you think of their approach? Will Antares join them?

That’s really a topic for an entirely separate discussion. But obviously, our ability to continue making tools like Auto-Tune and Harmony Engine depend on people being willing to pay for them, just like they’d (hopefully) pay for any creative tool they used. This is our livelihood. It’s how we all earn the money to pay our rent, buy food, whatever. I can assure you that if we were into becoming wealthy entrepreneurs, we’d certainly not be in the music software business. We do this because we love music and are happy to be able to make a living producing tools that help people make music. It’s unfortunate that there are enough people who believe, for whatever reason, that they should be able to essentially steal what we produce, that we are forced to take measures to try to protect ourselves from that theft. Our goal is to do our best to ensure that those measures have as little as possible effect on our loyal customers.

Oh, how could I forget this? After so many years and all the doubts about JFK, Marylin, Lennon, etc., could we, once and for all, at least know if the (in)famous Cher’s fx was AutoTune or something else?

It was Auto-Tune. Used by a second engineer on a grassy knoll just outside the studio.

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