Designing in digital

David Gibbons For over 20 years Digidesign has been a leader in digital audio production, providing the professional multimedia industry with tools for audio creation, post production, collaboration, and distribution. Digidesign's innovative technologies have earned them a Grammy award for outstanding technical achievement and an Oscar for their Pro Tools digital audio workstation.

David Gibbons, VP product marketing for Digidesign and Joseph Saracino, director of application software development for Digidesign managed to find some time out of their busy schedules to talk to BCS about the current state of their industry and why they love what they do.

Can you provide some background information on yourselves, where you come from and how you got into the company?

DG: Sure, I started life as a musician and audio engineer in London. I lived there for 10 years. And as I was doing that I came to know the manufacturers of recording equipment. This was in the early days, before the recording process was really computerised and one of those manufacturers was starting to make digital mixing consoles which required computers and DSP1. I started working for them as a product specialist and then as product manager, helping them design and define how the product would work for actual recording engineers.

After doing that, until about 2000, I joined Digidesign doing pretty much the same thing to help launch live sound mixing consoles and now I help launch all Digidesign's products which include our software application development and of course the DSP algorithms that we create, in addition to the hardware products, like the digital interfaces and mixing consoles.

JS: As I was growing up I always wanted to be a musician and wanted to design synthesisers. That was my dream. I went to school at UCI Berkley and did a degree in electro acoustic engineering, which is a cross between music and electrical engineering.

After Berkley I worked at Apple for a little bit getting some computer skills and after Apple I got a job as a software engineer with Digidesign. That was 10 years ago. I sort of worked my way up, working on the entire system, and before becoming the director of the application development group I managed our signal processing development (our plug in) team and all our developer technical support. I've been manager of application development at Digidesign now for almost two years.

What new innovations have you and your company brought to the field of digital music and music creation?

DG: Digidesign has been around for about 20 years, and in the first part of its history it was one of the first companies to allow people to record stereo masters of recordings, onto a computer and edit them.

Before that point people used to record their stereo masters or mix them onto analogue tape and that meant that if you needed to edit something, (editing meaning to take out something, or to repeat a chorus, or something like that), you would need to take out a razor blade, cut up the tape, and stick it back together again without creating a glitch in the audio.

Computerising the process gave people a lot more flexibility and allowed them to work a lot faster; it just made things a lot easier when dealing with sensitive master recordings where they might otherwise be nervous about cutting up the tape and would need to make copies before they could begin.

And it also made it possible for people to do correction on performances where, for example, if an orchestra was playing and someone half way through dropped a violin bow, they could take the specific track those errors occurred on, record them into the computer, then very carefully edit out that error, so the recording was perfect apart from that.

I think that was the beginning of Digidesign revolutionising the way sound production was done in studios. That very quickly came to appeal to all studios as a means to master, where they could use it to synchronise what the computer was doing to the picture and use it to trigger sound effects to synchronise with the picture.

As the company grew the capabilities of what the company could deliver grew exponentially as well. Hence, by the mid to late nineties it was possible to do multi-track recording within the computer entirely, and Digidesign's Pro Tools system started to replace analogue tape machines and digital tape machines in studios and make tape a very obsolete way of working.

So that was a huge sea change for the industry. Digidesign were not the only company to do that but they were the primary company to make that move occur and to make it affordable for all studios to work that way, and we’re still at the forefront of that movement now. 

Other innovations the company has been involved with have been market-leading DSP processing, that is doing things with DSP which no other company has managed to do; creating mixing consoles which are fully integrated with the audio; integrating video and midi and other things that music professionals need in order to work on a full sound production and recently getting into the live sound business in order to get a lot of those same benefits to people working on live concert tours and mixing sound for live productions in concert halls.

You mention that your software has been used in various industries. Can you give any particular examples of where you technologies have been used, any particular games or movies or artists that you know of?

DG: Basically, almost all music production and almost every television and film soundtrack created today uses our equipment and our software, for most of the process or for a substantial part of the process. We touch almost all productions; I think if you look at the top ten albums in the charts we'll have been used on pretty much every one of them, the same for movies released at theatres, we’ll have been used on all of them; we're very widespread.

JS: You could almost ask 'where hasn't it be used?', because we've been used almost everywhere!

DG: We're extremely prevalent now - we're seen as the standard in audio production for both music and for post production now.

So could we say that you're the benchmark - the industry leader?

DG: Right, we are the market leader; we definitely have the greatest market share of any company supplying workstations and software for recording.

One of the aims of BCS is pursuing professionalism for IT. What are your thoughts with regard to professionalism in your industry?

DG: It's better to think of that question in terms of the professionalism of the IT professionals creating the product. From its early days it was a bit of a 'raggle taggle' band of engineers putting something cool together, but over time it's had to grow up as an industry because we have a very large system now where we have a dozen engineers working in, I guess, a similar style to that of other great application developers around the world.

JS: Digidesign has a very classic type of almost Silicon Valley, sort of, start-up heritage. We had two founders and the products were built on the back of tools that they just kind of developed on their own to help them mess with audio, to help them further some of their smaller private projects.

Once they realised they had something very powerful on their hands they started to make it bigger and bigger. Our code base is huge; we have many millions of lines of code, probably close to 100,000 files that we have that make up Pro Tools and its various components.

DG: By the way, that's the name of our flagship software product, Pro Tools.

I was talking to some people in the games industry the other day, again talking to them about professionalism, and they were saying that their industry has had to make a huge change in the way that it works. They've gone from being developed in people's bedrooms to being multi-million dollar, hugely costly, projects - I would imagine you would have a similar sort of scenario with your industry?

JS: It has dramatically. I've been with Digidesign since it was a small company. Now we're a medium to large software organisation. We've had to very much change the way we plan our projects, how we plan our designs.

It's the little things when you’re developing software that can make a huge difference. How you track bugs, how you approve new changes that go into the software. Basic things like having a system that automatically builds the software every single night so that the tester has 'build' to check in the morning.

Another big tool that we had to grow into was source control where you manage all the software that you're using. It's very similar, I'm sure, to the games industry. Any company that makes a large software product, you kind of go through these growing pains, where you say, 'wait, there are these best practices that we have to use just to manage the complexity that continues to build.'

Digidesign does have another side to it, which is unique for a software company, in that we do actually sell hardware that we are very tightly integrated on, so we have some unique challenges there.

That's one of the big technological distinctions about our product in that we sell a DSP card, it's a PCI card2 that actually sits inside your PC that has a bunch of parallel processors, Motorola DSPs on it, and we write special software on those Motorola DSPs that processes the sound very quickly with almost no delay and that's one of the big excelling points which makes our product very unique compared with other products on the market.

DG: Joseph has touched on a really important part of our business. Although what most people actually see as being of value, from what they buy from us, is mainly the software and the features and functions that come from the software, we almost never sell software on its own.

Only about five per cent of our revenue as a company is as a result of selling software; it's very much a hardware business. But the hardware itself is typically pretty useless on its own - people really want it because of the software that comes with it.

Another unique thing about the software is that these parallel processors that we've been talking about, these DSPs, we have a SDK3 where people actually write plug-ins that run on these unique parallel co-processors and these plug- ins that these third party companies create, provide a lot of really exceptional extra value.

A lot of companies have actually copied this model of allowing plug ins. When Digidesign was first running, when the first versions of Pro Tools were made, that had this plug in ability; it was a very useful technological advantage. I think there are approximately 200 third party companies that write plug-ins for Pro Tools that do all sorts of signal processing.

The PC archive? Would you have all these different channels coming into your PC? Is that how you do it?

JS: That's one way you can do it. You buy a number of PCI cards, which can be ganged together. It's not the only way you can get your multiple channels into the system but it's a very efficient way to get into some parts of our system.

Project failure is a big subject in the UK. We've had some high profile IT projects just fail to appear. What have you learnt from your involvement with various projects that could benefit our members; in terms of project success and failure?

DG: Is project failure when an IT project is being implemented for a customer and it doesn't meet the customer's needs or is it when an internal development is taking place at a development company and the company decides to cancel the project?

I think it's more when a project fails to achieve its goals, for example, a government scheme, where they've pumped in a lot of money, has, say after five years, failed to achieve what it set out to do.

DG: A small number of our sales take place to larger government run or owned institutions, particularly broadcasters in Europe like the BBC, and others like that, and in some cases they're looking for an integrated system that consists of audio production equipment that's supplied by Digidesign and video production equipment that's supplied by our parent company Avid Technology - that's the closest thing that we do that comes close to implementing a large system with many different parts and many different usages simultaneously. We don't have any examples of complete failures there, where we had to withdraw and uninstall all the equipment that I'm aware of.

The most that ever happens is that the company in question is waiting for some additional piece to become compatible and we can't supply that with all the rest of the equipment, so for a period of a few months we're waiting to close the deal and call it complete.

In general we always have a few deals that are in that kind of last stage where we're waiting for the last pieces to become compatible so we can install them with the rest of the equipment. And we'll typically have a few deals that are in that status and in our publicly available annual report you'll often receive notice of that because they sometimes run to a few million dollars, but we recently closed one for $18 million with a large French broadcaster that was in that status for, I think, more than six months and then the last few pieces were made available and we were able to close it down and call it complete. But there are never any complete failures in the way you're describing, as far as I'm aware.

BCS recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. With that in mind what are your thoughts as to what have been the most exciting and ground-breaking developments in IT for you, and your industry, over the past 50 years?

JS: Over the past 50 years?! The transition from tape to computer based recording is probably the biggest for us in the last 20 years.

DG: But it's not an IT industry development is it? That's what you're looking for isn't it?

Well the IT industry and your industry cross over - both really.

DG: Well I think personally the first one would be the advent of the personal computer because studios tend to be small owner-operated businesses and if it required super computers, or even just large business computers, to do the kind of audio production that they want to do it never would have happened - they'd still be using tape now.

But the advent of the personal computer put it within the price range that the average studio operation could actually afford. And it made it possible for Digidesign and many other companies within the industry to come into existence in the first place and offer something which previously required expensive work stations and large mixing consoles. So that's a huge development from IT that affected, in fact enabled, the business that we’re in now.

I guess others would be the advent of digital signal processing dedicated digital signal processing processor-chips. The kind of processors that are actually used in personal computers are not that suitable for real-time processing.

They don't do it the most efficient way and they also tend to do it in a batch processing way, which means that the sound comes out quite a few tenths of a second after it went in and for someone who's working on a live performance, or is actually doing a performance in the studio and would actually like to hear themselves as they sing or play, that's really a barrier that makes it quite unusable.

In fact it's still the main appeal for professionals, who want to eliminate that delay, which is off-putting to performers using our DSP driven products, which have dedicated fixed point DSPs on a PCI card installed inside a computer rather than using the computer's general purpose processor. And that, and the DSP, has also made something possible that wasn’t previously possible and is a real cornerstone of the industry in many ways.

You guys work in an area of IT that's perceived to be cool, but what do you think the industry as a whole could do to improve its image? IT can come across to many as seeming a bit dull.

DG: Communication is a big part of it. I think computers started life as something that was the preserve of people who were technical or technically oriented and in the early days of computing you always went to the computer team or the computer guy to get your processing done and now it's gone completely mainstream.

The last 20 years they've become a tool that everyone in every office uses everyday and if everything about computers is communicated in a way that is perceived to be about the destination, as far as someone who is non-technical is concerned, and they're approached in a manner that talks about the task that a non-technical person wants to accomplish, rather than about the equipment that lies behind the task, then all of those users will feel better about it. 

Non-technical users represent the majority now; they didn't always represent the majority and I think the computer industry is still communicating to the minority that do have an understanding of the details of their technology and that's something that could change that could make the IT industry feel cooler and feel more acceptable to the mass market.

JS: I think it's more than just about communication, I think it's about the design of the interfaces of the devices people use. The design of the devices tend to alienate and obfuscate what’s going on and if devices and networks and interfaces were designed to be a little more acceptable and better thought through then I think the outcomes might be a little more favourable.

It's funny but the designers (and I include myself here, as a software engineer, and the software engineers and the team that works for me) all tend to be technical folks so we approach design from that perspective and, left unchecked, we would have a tendency to make it intuitive for someone who comes at it with the same technical or highly detailed bent as ourselves - it could definitely stand to be simplified and be made more easily accessible for everybody. And we should design with that in mind.

What would you say are the biggest challenges to be faced by your industry within the next few years?

DG: I think one challenge for our industry in particular is that there are a lot of manufacturers making relatively high-end hardware that is used either without a computer or in conjunction with a computer, but the computer industry is a massive behemoth that tends to cost reduce and roll in functionality as it goes forward.

I think anyone who works in computing, or peripherals in general, has seen that occur. For example, it used to be possible to sell ethernet cards as accessories for computers, but now that's impossible because every computer has ethernet cards built in. So that's a potential threat for us, but it's unlikely that computers will have microphone pre-amplifiers built in.

However, the audio quality in computers is slowly increasing and the capability of a computer to do something useful with audio stand alone, without any DSP enhancement, is also increasing.

And I think the software tools that come on a computer are slowly increasing to the point where more and more people will think I can do what I need without buying anything in addition to the computer I bought. And that threatens industries like ours where we are trying to add that value as a separate 'after market' purchase that people make.

In the standard PC realm there used to be several manufacturers that made sound cards but now there's probably just one or two. I guess there is that concern that that might happen to you?

DG: There are parts where it will never make sense for the mainstream computer industry to roll in. But there are people who won't want to purchase basic soundcards from a third party supplier anymore, but will expect to get them in their computer.

What would you say is the hardest part of your job and also what's the most rewarding?

JS: I would say the hardest part is managing complexity. With any sort of product development type of job you have to decide what you're going to go for first and also at the same time, manage all the existing infrastructure of any previous development work you've already done.

So you have to decide where you want to make changes and how you're going to make them in such a way that you don't jeopardise the entire system. That's kind of a big thing. The most rewarding thing is seeing a product ship. It is wonderfully satisfying to see a box of something that you designed and developed go out the door and know that people want to use it and that people like it and love using it.

DG: Or even meeting a user who is using it and finding out what they are using it for and discovering that the cool creative thing that they did was enabled by the product that you helped put together.

JS: There’s a funny story in engineering about a couple of engineers who went down to meet one our product endorsees, Steve Vai, a really good guitarist. So they went into the studio and said 'we're not worthy to see you Steve Vai' and he turned to them and said 'I’m not worthy 'cause you guys designed Pro Tools'! And that was a very funny experience.

Who would you say, in the IT industry, was an inspiration or a role model for you?

DG: From the IT development side? This is going to be kind of clichéd but Steve Jobs did take that approach of taking technology and making it more simple for the majority of people.

And I think he was the first, or perhaps just the most visible person in the industry, to get that and to understand that if you want people outside the highly technical arena, (and I would consider most of our customers to be in that category, because they're highly creative first, technical second), if you want people like that to use a computer for something then you have to make it appealing and comprehensible for them and design things from that stand point.

And Steve Jobs did that from an early point, from the advent of the kind of 'Windows icon mouse pointer system', he realised that's the thing that would make it easier for people who are not primarily technical to use this computer for something cool and creative. And he did really foster the use of computers amongst the creative community, not just people producing sound but people working on type setting and publishing and printed matter and web design and everywhere else.

JS: I'm trying to think of someone on the technical side that I know people will really look up to. Again, a bit clichéd, but I remember when I was in high school working with some of the first sequencing software and I used to look up to Dave Oppenheim, who was one of the first at the company Opcode. They built one of the first sequencers and now Dave actually works in Digidesign, and now works on my staff, so it's kind of funny to think of him as a 'rock star' and now he works for me.

Quick questions

Open source or proprietary?

JS: Well from a technical point of view open source is awesome, we love it. From a technical point of view it's very informative, it provides you with lots of ideas and helps you quickly prototype and come up with things; it's a cool thing.

DG: From a business point of view there's always an appeal to getting capabilities without having to spend a long time in the wood shed developing them. When we've encountered open source issues it just raises a large amount of complications from the business perspective of what you're entitled to sell, and that you might be threatening the ownership or the clarity of who's entitled to the revenues of the products you intend to sell, after you've used open source. I think it still creates too many complexities for mainstream adoption by commercial companies like Digidesign.

Apple or PC?

DG: You know we're actually both, in that we make sure our products ship on both platforms simultaneously and whenever we do new software releases we ensure we've got feature parity available on both platforms at the same time.

From our customers’ perspective we'd just like them to be able to choose which computer they would like to use and to be able to get the same functionality out of our hardware and software on either platform. And in the past history of Digidesign our user-base was very much towards the Mac, but that’s slowly changing towards a PC/Mac split amongst our users now.

JS: From a development point of view we develop on both platforms simultaneously; everyone has a Mac and PC sitting on their desk.

In terms of most of your sales would you say it's a 50:50 split amongst your recording studio clients or does it depend on which platform they use?

DG: It's slightly in favour of Macintoshes; it's probably about 55:45 or 60:40, or something like that.

Wii or Playstation?

DG: Playstation 3, no question about it. They're a lot of fun.

JS: I would definitely have to say Playstation 3 too. Both David and I have a PS3. They're very good.

DG: You asked earlier what things threaten the development of our products in future; I think Playstation 3 might be a nomination for that.

JS: Because they spend so much of their time playing it.

Geeks or nerd, or neither?

DG: Which one is better? Neither!

JS: Some people in the company... but probably neither.

DG: I think we're the geeks who don't realise we're geeks. And when we hear someone else laughing at geeks we go 'geeks are funny, ha, ha, ha' and then we find out later that they were kind of talking about us.

JS: We're kind of the geeks who all aspire to be rock stars.

Well you probably work in the coolest part of IT so you can probably get away with that.

BlackBerry or Smartphone?

JS: Almost no one uses them here. Actually a lot of people buy iPhones now.

DG: There was a pretty big rush to buy iPhones, initially. Apart from that there are very few BlackBerrys now; I think there's a slight balance towards Smartphones but not that deep a Smartphone allegiance either.

JS: In the development world they usually will have the iPhone if they're kind of geeky and want to check that sort of stuff out.

What would you like to be remembered for and what words would you like written on your headstone, hopefully a long time in the future?

DG: David Gibbons got the highest score on 75 per cent of the PS3 titles that were available between 2007 and 2017.

JS: I remember seeing a film, 'The Royal Tenenbaums'. In that there was a headstone which said 'here lies so and so who died whilst saving their family from the wreck of a sinking battleship'...!

DG: But it isn't true at all.

JS: Yes, I want my tombstone to have nothing factual on it.

Notes:

1 Digital signal processing (DSP)
2 Peripheral component interconnect (PCI)
3 Synthesis developers toolkit (SDK)

Digidesign audio tools have been used recently by artists as varied as Tori Amos, Stevie Nicks, Placebo, Pearl Jam, Justin Timberlake, Bruce Jackson, Evanescence, Guns N' Roses, Beck, The Goo Goo Dolls, Def Leppard, Jackson Browne and Conan O' Brien, to name but a few.

February 2008