Propellerhead 10 year anniversary interview

The three Propellerhead Software co-founders Ernst Nathorst-Böös, Marcus Zetterquist and Peter "Pelle" Jubel give a no holds barred interview and reminisce, look ahead and tell the whole truth about the fairytale.

Fredrik Hägglund listens in.

Tell us about the humble beginnings.

Marcus: In 1989 I was working extra for a company called Fitzpatrick Import Group, the Swedish distributor for Steinberg and a few other brands. I wrote this small utility program for the Atari, called TimeCalc, it wrote time signature and tempo changes into Cubase via MROS. This eventually got me a job at Steinberg - I ended up working on the tempo editor, hitpoints and other stuff. So I was going back and forth between Stockholm and Hamburg...

Ernst: ...dragging along this huge Atari hard disk unit everywhere he went, it got held up at customs every time...!

Marcus: The thing was that my one-man company Zetterquist Software needed an office space, and while working at Fitzpatrick I sometimes ran into this guy called Ernst - he was the author of the Cubase manual and had some dealings with Fitzpatrick through that. His company, Synkron, turned out to have a small office at a convenient location so I ended up moving in. Meanwhile I had landed a job at Clavia, where I worked on the ddrum and Nord Lead series in the daytime. Evenings and nights I spent at the Synkron/Zetterquist office.

So you shared an office. How and when did you start teamworking?

Ernst: Well, with a software developer in the house and my background as a technical writer, we took a stab at joining forces. In late 1991 we released our very first team effort, a computer based MIDI encyclopedia in Swedish called "Hyperbok om MIDI". Then Marcus coded an application called MIDI Happening, for controlling light rigs via MIDI - I wrote the manual and contributed a few ideas. Eventually we figured Steinberg might be interested in the MIDI Hyperbook, so we translated it to English and jazzed up the interface. The English version was called MIDI Xplained, a Steinberg release available for Windows, Mac and Atari.

How did ReCycle come about?

Ernst: We started discussing concepts for a music production tool of some kind. At the time I was reading a lot of music tech magazines and it struck me that every other article, review and advertisement revolved around sample CDs. Those were all the rave at the time. We wanted to tap into that trend somehow, and began toying with different ideas. We had the basic blueprint for ReCycle in our minds. That's when Pelle came into the picture...

Pelle: That's me.

Marcus: Yeah, Pelle was my colleague at Clavia and he too wanted to get into software development.

Pelle: I had written an application on my NeXT computer, it had certain features like loop points and slices which could be integrated into ReCycle.

Marcus: Pelle brought the slicing functionality to the table, and the two of us built ReCycle together with Ernst as an idea resource.

Who came up with "Propellerhead"?

Marcus: That was Ernst...

Ernst: No, it was you...

I vaguely recall something Marcus said about Donald Duck's three nephews in school, at the back of the classroom was this bright wizkid who always knew the answers to the teacher's questions, and he always wore a propeller cap...

Ernst: Yeah, Marcus used to say that.

Marcus: Ernst, it must have been you, I never read no Donald Duck comic featuring the nephews in class...?!

Ernst: Well, anyway, in the process we did a web search for "Propellerhead Software" and found this site where a guy had written an essay about crappy company names in the software industry, and he had listed Propellerhead Software as an example.

Marcus: I believe one of the other entries in that list was "Two Nerds and a Suit"...!

The company was officially formed in May 1994, and ReCycle 1.0 was released that summer. I guess the story of ReBirth begins here.

Marcus: It wasn't until the summer of 1995 when ReCycle 1.5 had been released that I started working on a "techno studio". It was quite big and had a rudimentary REX player and a few other gadgets. The money issue was becoming a problem, now that the ReCycle sales had to finance two programmers. We needed to do something quickly.

Ernst: ReCycle was doing OK and we got a lot of good press, but we weren't really reaping the benefits. There was some turbulence at Steinberg at the time, Cubase Audio for Mac didn't catch on the way they'd hoped and there was a substantial lag time before we got our due share of the ReCycle sales. We started thinking about using this new fangled thing called the Internet to market and distribute products on our own accord. What we said to Steinberg was basically "OK, we're gonna create a product and start selling it directly to the end user. If you guys want to distribute it too, that's fine with us." Oddly enough, they said sure, and that's how we found ourselves in this dual sales channel situation.

Marcus: The most bang-for-buck thing we could think of was a small, cool stand-alone application that could be used to make music without any hardware involved. We had my techno studio thingy and we had the DSP know-how through Pelle, and the TB-303 happened to be just the ticket - small, simple, monophonic and a hugely popular cult item. We borrowed a TB-303 from a friend, and Pelle started working on a software rendition. About six months later we were ready to show it to the world.

Were you confident beforehand that ReBirth would be a hit?

Ernst: We really had no idea until after we released an alpha demo. It was quite a revelation to see how fast word-of-mouth travels on the internet. The first day we had like three hits and a couple of emails. Two days later we had a massive amount of hits and were flooded by emails. It dawned on me that something big was afoot when the CEO of our webspace provider called me up in the middle of the night and rambled "Alright look, I don't know what kind of fiendish porn that you guys have put up for download - and frankly I don't want to know - but for the love of god get rid of it because it's eating all our bandwidth and the server is burning up!" I said "Gee, sorry, it's just music software." They had a clause in their standard contract that stipulated a maximum traffic of 1 GB a month - this was 1996, mind you - and they just put that there as some kind of astronomical upper limit that they never dreamed anyone would exceed. But when we released the ReBirth alpha version demo we saw something like 1 GB a week. They had to modify their standard contract after that. Anyway, one day we were looking at the download stats, when we noticed that Roland in Japan was one of the most avid downloaders...

How did Roland respond to ReBirth?

Ernst: It started with a fax and it was kind of intimidating at first, but soon enough it turned out that Roland were OK with ReBirth as such, they just wanted us to acknowledge the origin of the 303 and the 808. They asked us to put the phrase "ReBirth RB-338 was inspired by the TR-808 and TB-303, originally created by Roland Corporation. Their unique sounds and visual images have been re-born through digital simulation by Propellerhead Software..." in fine print on the packaging and the about screen. And we were like "Fine print?!? How about bold type?" I mean, they might as well have asked us to slap an "Endorsed by Roland" sticker on it. This wasn't a trade-off, it was a blessing - it brought legitimacy to the whole thing. An official thumbs-up from the original creators was so much better than just passing unnoticed. I never got around to thanking Roland for that, but I'll take the opportunity now.

How was ReBirth received by the press?

Ernst: At Winter NAMM 1996, Steinberg held a press showing in a suite at the Hilton. They were showcasing a product that was in rough shape - Cubase for Silicon Graphics - and the mood could have been better. I went on stage and did a demo of ReBirth, and I still can't believe the mood swing in the room. Suddenly everyone was clapping and cheering, and at the end I even think there even were standing ovations. Man, I wish Marcus and Pelle had been there to witness it - due to the nature of software, developers seldom get first hand credit.

ReBirth pioneered user friendly software synthesis, but the way you took advantage of the internet was also quite different?

Ernst: What people don't realize is that the whole "community" thing was virtually non-existent in those days. In the music software business, websites were little more than advertising space. We wanted two-way communication, and through the message board, the ReBirth song archive, our endorsement of ReBirth modding and the general friendly attitude (the mere fact that we answered email was astounding to some) we really established a community that's remained alive and well to this day.

You've tried their patience a few times, though. You've had a couple of, shall we say, interim years...

Ernst: Oh, you mean the years 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004? Are those the years you're talking about?

I'm mainly referring to 1998 and the better part of 1999, when you were...

Pelle: a coma?

Marcus: We rushed out ReBirth 2.0 and that wasn't wise. It took another few months to fix the problems and release the 2.0.1 patch in November of 1998, almost a year after we showed 2.0 at NAMM. Then we started on Reason, and with a manpower of 5 programmers it went really slow. Once again it took almost a year between NAMM and the actual release, we blew a couple of announced release dates, and once again we had to create a fix patch.

Ernst: We learned some hard lessons, and vowed to never again rush out a half-assed release just to meet some arbitrary calendar entry. We had worked hard to establish ourselves as makers of quality software, and it's hard to uphold that high standard and easy to ruin it. The thing is that a software tool is a big deal, it's something you work with and live closely to, and when software acts up you will eventually be conditioned into believing that the author sucks. It's like brainwashing; every time you double-click on that icon you remember "Oh, right, Propellerhead makes crap". Needless to say we want to be associated with rock solid releases, and the only way to make them rock solid is to take our sweet time. We have a long standing policy to never talk about future releases until the product is ready for beta testing.

Let's put that policy to the test, shall we. When is Reason 3.0 coming out?

Ernst: No comment.

Speaking of anniversaries, this year marks the sixth anniversary of not updating ReBirth. Is ReBirth dead, or...

Pelle: a coma?

Ernst: ReBirth is in hibernation, but it's not discontinued, in fact it's slated for revival.

So when is ReBirth 3.0 coming out?

Ernst: No comment!

What's your opinion on Sweden as a home base?

Ernst: There are pros and cons. The downside is that you aren't where everyone else is - there's the time zone issue, communication, interaction... not to mention the fact that headhunting is a pain in the neck. You have to speak Swedish and live in Stockholm or thereabouts, and that narrows down the number of candidates to the point where it's the same people who apply everytime we're taking applications.

Pelle: So we're opening an office in India. OK, I'm kidding.

Ernst: The upside is that our American representatives consider it an asset. They speak proudly of their Scandinavian providers, and say stuff like "Those clever Swedes, you know - Ikea, Volvo and Propellerhead".

What's the most flattering thing a competitor has said about Propellerhead?

Ernst: That would probably be when the founder of Roland Corporation, Ikutaro Kakehashi, received the MIPA lifetime achievement award. Afterwards, he shook my hand and said...

Pelle: ..."Hai"?

Ernst: ...and said "You are the next generation". Oh, and there was that time when we unveiled Reason at Winter NAMM 1999 - Yamaha had sent out a spy to gather info about trends in products. The idea was that he would report back and tell the Yamaha R&D guys about future trends in hardware. He stopped by our booth and checked out Reason. He told us there on the spot that he would write a report in just one word: "Motorcycles".

Marcus, tell us in what way computer games have influenced development (apart from countless nights of Quake-fragging, that is!)

Marcus: Hmm, I think I may have drawn some inspiration from certain aspects of games and gaming. I like the idea of software being addictive, and there's an element of that in both ReBirth and Reason. There's also a parallel to games in the way we approach modification. The gaming world has spawned a whole subculture of modding, it started with Doom and continued with Quake, Half-Life and others, and so when modified versions of ReBirth 1.0 surfaced back in 1997 we responded like id Software: This kind of reverse engineering is cool with us. In fact we encouraged it, we published ReBirth mods and eventually we built mod support into the program.

Where does ice cream fit into the picture?

Marcus: Heh, well, we were looking for some kind of naming convention for our internal projects, and for a while there we named them all after insects but that was kind of lame. So at some point we started naming them after classic Swedish ice cream popsicles like Smuggler, Igloo and Piggelin.

Ernst: For a while there I wanted to name products after Swedish towns. I always thought it would be cool with a music application called "Kiruna".

Give us some more scrapped product names...

Marcus: At first we didn't realize we had the key to a series of names through Re-Cycle, so we were going in a different direction. I remember Pelle came up with the name "Transistor" for ReBirth... and Reason had a whole bunch of names. We were considering ReAktor for a while, but Native Instruments put an end to that. We also considered calling it Realizer II to pay homage to the first softsynth workstation, Realizer by PPG. We even thought of calling it Radium because that's the crew that used to crack our ReBirth copy protection every time. We thought it would be hysterical because when people would try searching for "radium"+"crack" they'd get like a thousand hits on a thousand different cracks for every software except the one they wanted...! but ultimately we went with Reason, which is a reference to a device in a book called Snowcrash, by Neal Stephenson. The program in itself is actually the offspring of three different projects: My original Technostudio, Pelle's spare time project XApp, and of course ReBirth.

Let's assume we do this interview again in 2014. What would you like to be able to tell us about the second decade?

Ernst: That's a good question...

Pelle: We'd like to have acknowledged that Reason 3 is finally out...

Marcus: Woah, hold on... can't you ask about something vaguely foreseeable, like 2005?

Ernst: We will still be making music software. The journey from the moment you get a musical idea to the point where you actually have a finished production delivered to anyone who wants to hear it, is a long one, and we want to be part of more stages of that journey. There are plenty more words that begin with Re-...!

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