Writing music software

 3 February 2011

Andrew Simper's admirers include Steve Duda, of the Nine Inch Nails and dance act Deadmau5, but he's not a performing musician. He writes the music software that these producers use to create hits.

Andrew Simper writes 'plug-ins' for music-composition software.
Andrew Simper writes 'plug-ins' for music-composition software.

Andrew writes music ‘plug-ins’, the tools that plug into music-composition software and let musicians create new sounds. Most music-software writers build their sounds using entirely computer-based, digital processes. But Andrew looks to the past to find equipment that sounds good, and models its circuitry to create new software synths.

"Older synths have already been proven to sound great. Plus older hardware has a lot of noise in its circuits. Modern equipment is more cleanly manufactured and can sound sterile in comparison.”

Writing music software

He uses mathematical models to re-create the circuitry of old synths within his software, trying to find ways to add “the right kind of imperfection” to its sound.

“Noise is good. Noise makes an instrument sound live."

It’s very technical work. Andrew estimates that no more than 200 people in the world have the range of skills required.

“You need a musical ear so you know what sounds good. Maths and physics help you understand how sound changes as it moves around in space. Electrical engineering knowledge tells you how circuits work in old music hardware. And you need to know how to write computer code that runs at very high speed, or your tools can't be used to play live."

Getting into music software

"It's not an easy industry to make a living in. But my plug-ins have a good reputation and I enjoy making a living like this."

Andrew first wrote music software for his own enjoyment as a musician. While trying to finish a masters degree, he wrote V-Reorder, a tool for chopping up vocals and re-presenting them in new, random rhythms.

This plug-in proved to be a minor sensation. German band Funkstörung used it to write, Must, a number one in the German charts. Andrew’s website saw a huge surge in traffic after music-software company Steinberg featured V-Reorder on its homepage.

Andrew was even contacted by Steve Duda, of Nine Inch Nails, who wanted him to write a more powerful version of his plug-in for the band.

A new idea for music plug-ins

V-Reorder did not use the hardware modelling that has since become Andrew's trademark.

"Like most software writers, I was messing about, fairly randomly, trying to find something that sounded good. But then I had the idea: if hardware designers had already spent a lot of time making their hardware sound good, couldn't I build on that foundation to write new plugins?"

“Noise is good. Noise makes an instrument sound live."

Andrew's idea was to model existing hardware to create a new synthesiser called Strobe, which he eventually extended with two more synths, released under the name ‘DCAM Synth Squad’.

FXpansion, Andrew’s then-employer, asked him to use the same modelling approach for a new version of their most famous product, BFD (software aimed at the rock market, which stands for Big F****** Drums).

Both made an even bigger impact than V-Reorder. Dance musician Deadmau5 says that Andrew’s plugins were instrumental in the production of his breakthrough hit, Faxing Berlin. The software is now used by musicians worldwide.

Becoming a self-employed software writer

Andrew turned the compressor plugin into a standalone product called Glue, and went self-employed to release the plugins himself.

"As with any job that involves product development, there's a fair bit of drudgery, like writing manuals and database code for the web page. I'd rather own 100 percent of a smaller product than a tiny percentage of much bigger one controlled by someone else’s company. I make the decisions about how the software should works and how it is marketed.

Andrew now runs his own business, Cytomic, to sell his software direct to the public.

"It wasn't a spur-of-the-moment decision to go solo. It's not an easy industry to make a living in. My plug-ins have a good reputation and so far we’re selling enough copies to support my family. I enjoy making a living like this. I hope to stay self-employed indefinitely."

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