Urs Heckmann, german developper of the famous mighty modular Zebra2 vsti, has just been releasing a pack of plugin called Uhbik, which features a more straight-forward feature set and focuses on sound quality with a very-well thought design. Samplestation managed to ask some questions to the busy (but keeping cool) man.
Hi, Urs, can you tell us who are you ? Where do you live, where do you come from ? What’s your background ?
I‘m a 38 years old industrial designer living in Berlin. I have a wife, who‘s a singer (remember „Holiday[“ from The Other Ones? That‘s her!). I learned programming on a Commodore C64 in 1983, became interested in game music and wrote a little music sequencer that was used in 2 pretty unknown games 1987.
What music/artists do you like ? Do you play any instrument yourself ? Do you play in a band ?
I‘m not subscribed to a certain style or anything. The largest amount of money I spent on music was for records of Frank Zappa, Tangerine Dream, Yello, Weather Report, Pink Floyd and King Crimson. Recent favourites are Trentemøller and Stereolab.
What did lead you to make music tools and plugins ?
I think it was a logical step for me after my personal dot-com-bubble burst in 2001 – I lost quite some time and money on an internet service that was doomed to fail. I went for a safe day job at university with lots of free time. I decided to simply combine music and industrial design with my programming skills. So I basically learned programming again by writing VST plug-ins in my leisure time. Soon enough I spent every free minute on it, including holidays. Two years later I had Zebra 1.0 which immediately sold in the hundreds. I quite the day job and 5 years later here we still are!
Could you present us your company ? Are you the only zebra guy at your office ? Do you work with a close team?
Yes, [b]u-he[/b] is mostly just me. I have close relations to an „inner circle“ (Hans Hafner, Howard Scarr and Thomas „Tasmodia“ Binek) who help me a lot on different levels, from preset design over email support to trade shows. In addition there‘s an armada of beta testers, currently about 70 people. We have pretty lively discussions about everything and they have a big say in what direction things go.
I sometimes hire other developers to implement some basic things, such as file handling or even some dsp modules.
What is your company ‘s spirit ?
Honestly, I don‘t think much about these things. I just try to keep „genuine“. One major aspect is that I don‘t hide behind a fancy company name (I hope it‘s obvious that u-he is short for Urs Heckmann). Another thing is, I try to answer every email from customers. This has become less easy though, there are sometimes hundreds of emails especially shortly after a release. Which is why I‘m thankful for online forums.
Since months, you have put only a teaser website about a forthcoming plugin bundle (Uhbik), so I might guess a little bit your forthcoming projects, but can you tell us what’s hot now or what’s to come ?
I always had dozens of algorithms and semi-finished plugins in my drawer. These wouldn‘t make it into Zebra, mostly because they were overkill for the onboard effects section. Uhbik is a bundle of these plugins. It‘s basically an umbrella under which I can release souped-up left overs. Mind you, all Uhbiks are quite exceptional. They‘re all surround capabal and make no compromise in sound quality!
I‘m currently working on Uhbik‘s website so that I can hopefully release the first batch with a nice introduction offer.
Now, let’s tech-talk a bit : What is the idea behind the features you put in your plugins while designing them ? It seems that you always (well, at least with MFM2 and Zebra) want to create über-powerful-full-featured-above-the-top plugins pushing forward any boundaries, am I right ? Is it the reason why now you wish to release a more straight-forward bundle ?
This is a difficult question. With Filterscape I planned 10 knobs and ended up with hundreds. It seems to just happen. I think it‘s also related to the way I work. I don‘t start from scratch anymore. I meanwhile have what I call an „engine“ which lets me almost fully concentrate on the actual dsp algorithm. Adding a parameter to an existing plugin takes a single line of code for me, so I can just do it. The engine somewhat makes the complexity managable from the development side. The main ambition was always about the sound though. The complexity must not get in the way of the sound.
In respect of Uhbik, I found it interesting to see that the engine also works well enough to cater for relatively simple effects. They do have a totally different spirit than for instance Filterscape. But the last word hasn‘t been spoken here… I‘ve already planned an „Überuhbik“ that combines them all in a single plugin…
Can you tell us something about the importance of the GUI ? And about the presets ?
The gui is very important for my stuff. The key issue has always been about managing complexity. A lot of thought has gone into the user interfaces of Zebra, Filterscape and MFM to make these large numbers of parameters accessible without overwhelming the user (of course, it’s still overwhelming at first).
Presets are very important for a synth to show off. I was once recommended Howard Scarr because a fellow developer told me that “you move 10 times the boxes if your first 10 factory presets are from Howard Scarr. Now, Zebra ships with 250 presets by Howie and this certainly made an impression. Many people rely on the patches for synths, but good patches are also useful to demonstrate programming techniques.
For effects on the other hand things are very different. I would love to ship effects totally without presets because the sound heavily depends on the material to be processed. However, people love to switch through some selected presets. Thus I have added “patch descriptions” that tell the user about the intentions with the settings, i.e. “use on drumtrack to do this or that”. Almost all presets from MFM2 and Uhbiks have these descriptions.
being an indie dev
Your plugins are praised (Zebra was recently voted as number one synth in Computer Music Mag, heavily used in the latest Batman movie, etc), but you seem to will to maintain your prices affordable (with introductory prices, dinosaur crossgrade, etc). So, what is your take on being in the “pro” category and sticking to be a “cool guy” (selling your stuff at an affordable price, joking around on your kvr forum and putting some humoristic/geeky/sci-fi hints in your plugins names) ?
Well, that again relates to the question about company philosophy. It’s just like it is. I’m a single guy and I enjoy creating musical software. I don’t see a need to switch to the “corporate thing” because my wife and I have a decent life style. We don’t own houses yet, but I also don’t want to give up the fun aspects for that.
About piracy, I remember I had heard a while ago that you also had put some humoristic copy protection scheme with Zebra : is that right ? Could you remember us the tale ( amelting skin, that’s it ?) ?
Yeah, hehehe. “They” made the mistake to provide a keygen without proper testing. I smuggled some odd stuff into the serial which after a certain time would check the serial again and then… the gui would become unresponsive and by the time drown in black mudd. It was really funny at first, but the death threads and stuff became a bit weird. The good thing is, I learned a lot about copy protection and about turning warez users into customers.
On quite the same subject, what is your opinion about the bloat of free plugins on the internet ? Do you think that the huge amount of plugins released every day has an impact on the market the user’s expectations ? Do you think it is thrilling/challenging or mostly boring ?
I do not particularly care for most of the free stuff. There are certainly some goodies, and doing some free stuff (i.e. magware) is a great way of advertisement. But of course some stuff like [b]Zebra [/b]is high maintenance. One can’t do that on the side and people don’t expect that from freeware developers. The good thing is, if you pay for something you can demand support and maintenance. This is what my customers appreciate and that’s also why the sheer amount of free stuff doesn’t scare me.
On your website, you state in a quite humoristic way that Zebra can replace any hardware synth (the “dinosaur crossgrade”) : so, do you think that digital music tools has changed the way of making or listening to music in the last 2 decades ?
But of course! Not necessarily to the best, but still. I sometimes compare it to telephones. Back in the days we could only be reached at home and one couldn’t program numbers into analogue phones. I knew about fifty numbers out of my head, calling was expensive and we only used it when needed. With the advent of cellphones, one hadn’t had to memorize numbers anymore because they’re programmed in. Nowadays we have flatrates and we call people for any occasion, anywhere and any time. Back in the days synthesizers were exclusive and expensive. One had a few and knew them inside out. Nowadays everybody and his aunty have dozens, and many people are barely scratching the surface of most them.
In a way, making music has become more democratic. But also a bit more boring.
While the mighty modular synth Zebra2 is clearly on the experimental side and can produce yet unheard sounds, some presets are obviously new takes on classic hardwares (and even if Filterscape is not “only” a VA, it still have at first sight an “analogue” feel ). So, do you expect more that people use them in a modernist way (creating something new, etc), or do you see it as a powerfull “all-in-one tool”, putting in a convenient .dll hundreds of heavy and expensive hardware synths ?
Hmmm, I don’t know. I’d love to see people do something unexpected with my stuff. But I also appreciate when they use factory presets. For instance, in “Babylon A.D.” with Vin Diesel you can hear one of my own Zebra2 presets (“Drone Darkness Orchestra”) in several scenes. That’s great!
But I think it’s always been that way every since there are presets or “signature sounds” in synths. Just think of teh inevitable Moog bass (“Axel F” etc.) or DX-7 e-piano. But people have on the other hand sued these instruments in extremely creative ways.
What is your take on hardware ? Do you use it yourself ? Do you like both ? How do you like the combination of the two ?
I don’t do much music myself. But if then I use Zebra etc. to create demo tunes. Nevertheless I have a little arsenal of analogue and digital goodies, such as a Doepfer rack equipped with Cwejman and other modules. One just has to love this stuff, and exploring these things is a big inspiration for my own ideas.
Do you expect that your music tools will lead users to create new ways of making music… ?
To be honest, not really. The way of making music is mostly defined by the host environment and the hardware that accesses it. My synths and effects just fit into these working scenarios. If people use my software in new and creative ways, most kudos go to them and how they built their environment, not to me or my plugins.
As both Zebra2 and MFM2 look like a will to push boundaries, what is your music utopia ? I mean : both from an esthetic and technical point of view : what would be your dream digital music tool/plugin, and what use would you like people do with your creations ? Would it be safe if used as directed ?
All of my plugins are my dream tools for the certain task. Zebra as a digital modular synth, MFM as a delay, Filterscape as a creative filter/eq. All Uhbiks are my best and most faithful approach within their realm. But as with all things, demands go up as dreams come true, so it’s an endless cycle of developments. Whenever a plugin becomes the dream thing, new dreams appear on top of that.
Is there any other developers you admire ? (or hardware manufacturer, or anything/anyone ???)
There are *many*. Most notably the guys from FXpansion, Ohmforce and GMedia. And the guys from UAD. And Mr. Cwejman of course. The list is endless.
Now, some Philip K Dick-esque questions : How do you see the future in some years ? And how do you see the present ?
Hahaha, good question. I’m in the wonderful situation to faithfully say: I live in the present. The past had all facettes of life, and I have no fear for the future. There are so many new things to develop, I don’t think I’ll run out of ideas anytime soon
interview & traduction par snk