Garth Hjelte, President of Chicken Systems, Inc, Rubber Chicken Software Co. (http://www.chickensys.com) was living in Seattle in the1980′s, playing in in a band called Advent and rubbing shoulders with several other bands who were destined to achieve superstar status. Today he’s known throughout the industry as an expert in inter file format conversion. We spoke with Garth recently about his own history, the state of computer based music production, and the developments he foresees in this area of the industry.
Gary Eskow: “Garth, your products- particular Translator- have helped computer based musicians move between platforms for almost two decades. How did you get into this line of work?”
Garth Hjelte: “Back in the days when I was playing in bands part of the way we defined success was being able to cut yourself off from your day job. I programmed sounds for my band and had some ability as a programmer, so I was able to sell sampled sounds for the Ensoniq EPS. Bands come and go, but during the 80′s and 90′s the company- known as Rubber Chicken Software- became expert in all things Ensoniq.
“In the mid-90′s it became increasingly evident that the computer was going to become increasingly involved in music production, so the company focused on software that could port a variety of formats over to the Ensoniq platform. That work eventually evolved into the Chicken Systems Translator product. [editor’s note: Ensoniq was one of the first low cost alternatives to the Synclavier and Fairlight systems that only the super rich could afford.]
“At the same time, Gigasampler broke into the industry and Translator became very popular because it could convert into the Giga format as well. Chicken Systems changed from being a ‘one product, one manufacturer’ company to one that served the whole musical spectrum.”
GE: “How has the company grown over the years?”
GH: “Chicken Systems now licenses the conversion engine that powers Translator to various other companies, including Native Instruments. We also leverage that technology in new products – Constructor (an Instrument builder), Instrument Manager (a database/manager for software/hardware Instruments), and the Creation series for Motif, Fantom, Fusion, Triton/M3 (creates sample-based Porgrams/Voices for workstations).
GE: “Has a degree of uniformity come into the sample format industry, or are there at least fewer formats to translate? How has the industry changed in the 20 years you’ve been in business?”
GH: “In the beginning Akai was the uniform format. Giga then took that spot over. Giga was “de facto” for years. When Giga broke into the industry, it stirred up many new innovative sample developers and there were .gig files all over the place. As the Giga sun set during the last decade, there were less and less .gig files being made, and currently people have successfully completed the task of, or are working on, getting their sounds out of Giga format and into one that is usable.
“Currently there is no ‘uniform format’, but there are a couple that people naturally turn to. Kontakt’s .nki is the dominant format in the industry, and most people use it. SFZ has become popular for people wanting to write their own files simply in text format. SoundFont still hangs on, as many minor sample-playback engines simply choose to load SoundFonts because the format is public and they can design their playback engine around it.
“What’s important to people is the ability to download free sounds from the Internet and be able to use them. Translator is still critical because there are many sample playback engines that do not load all of the required formats. We project that this will be the case for some time.
“The other end of it (and the big change in the business) is the amount of libraries that are not part of a “player” package, where the sounds are copy-protected. Many top libraries are released in that form, and fortunately Kontakt is so good that not many people complain about using the sounds elsewhere. Some want to integrate those libraries into EXS24 just for organizational purposes, but using Kontakt in Logic is transparent enough.
“Of all the changes that the industry has seen over the last decade or so I’d say the “player” concept is perhaps the major one. Software has trumped hardware, but people still feel more comfortable with hardware workstations (Motif, et al.) when playing live. Even that’s changing with Mainstage and MacBook Pro innovations. And, the trend of downloading sould libraries has begun to eliminate the bunches of CD/DVD’s that companies have had to deliver. People are realy used to getting a two to four GB download, whereas five years ago people would choke at the idea.
“Lastly, there’s a sound glut. But that’s in the eyes of the developers, not the users. Users should feel very happy that they can do and afford just about anything. I hope developers continue to innovate; those who don’t will be weeded out.”
GE: “Has Kontakt established itself as the de facto sample playback platform?”
GH: “It really has. In the old days the cheap hardware samplers cost $1,500 and the expensive ones about $6,000. Now, Kontakt hangs around the $300-$400 range, and inexpensive playback engines are either free or obtainable for $100 or so. Kontakt can do what any other playback engine does, so I think what people think is ‘it’s within my reach, might as well get the best’.
“But things aren’t so cut and dry. Many other playback engines have their own niche appeal; for example Reason integrates their NN-XT sampler very well into their platform. Same with EXS24 and Logic. Some users have light needs, so they use a free player like the Alchemy Player and compose their own SFZ files. Others are company-loyal, so MOTU Digital Performer users use MachFive, and ProTools adherents use Structure.
“Touring bands (pro or semi-pro) still aren’t completely sold on bringing a computer along. I just consulted with a very well-known rock band and their hardware samplers are so rock-solid that even though they want to take a step forward in technology, they aren’t sold on the robustness of a computer system, whether it be Receptor or OpenLabs or even a MacBookPro laptop. So many use hardware, and even the new workstations like the Motif or Fantom have multisample-playback ability that lets them convert their studio stuff into
workstation format (using Translator!) and tour with that.
“So there’s always a place for a wide range of sample-playback engines. Still, Native Instruments continuous development of Kontakt over the years, with broad and unique features (such as scripting), has clearly paid off because it is clearly now the dominant player in this market.”
GE: “What are the main challenges you face these days?”
GH: “A lack of time! Sometimes I wish time could stand still so my partners and I could finish everything we conceptualize.
“Another challenge as a business is the fact that M.I. computer technology is starting to plateau. Maybe it already has. If, hypothetically, all innovation stopped today for 10 years, people would have plenty to work through to make
fantastic music with very little financial outlay. The revolution that started about15 years ago has been wildly successful. The sequencer/sample developer and virtual instrument plugins interface and features have expanded significantly over the years. Although there’s plenty to innovate on, the problem is that all the innovative features are not essential for many musician out there. They really need much less then they used to, so all companies are taking a hit, not just because of the economy, but because many end users don’t need the latest version.
“For the soundware and software developers this is a challenge because without funding the incentive to continue to design and create software decreases. Now, I’m not saying this is a unjust thing, because that’s just how markets work. It seems like more of a challenge, because perhaps 10 years ago you could put out ANY product and you’d get a respectable amount of sales. Not anymore.”
GE: “What developments in computer technology do you see coming down the pipeline in the next several years, and how will they affect sample based music production.”
GH: “I want to be frank and honest here, because the rage right now is iOS apps for iPad things etc., and I want to be the first to say that I just want to puke about it all! I really do think all the iOS stuff that’s being put out there now is a fad conspiracy and only a few things will really catch on long-term… there, I said it!
“That being said, clearly portability is becoming very important to people. I suspect that the appeal of these devices is the interactive interfaces that do not require a mouse to function. The industry will find a way to integrate this properly.
“Portability also tells us that people have contracting needs, not expanding ones. In other words, they are NOT looking for power – they’ve already got it. They are looking for usability improvements, better workflow design. I was talking to some very high-level LA industry pros the other day, and they still think the software programs generally ‘speak geek’ and do not really line up to how musicians think and relate. Maybe this is the avenue that iOS/Android things will take.”
GE: “And the name…”
GH: “In the ‘day job’ I mentioned earlier I was a mail clerk for the phone company. I would walk around aimlessly all day and drop company envelopes in small cubbyholes. Your mind wanders… I remember when I thought of it – ‘Rubber Chicken Software, featuring No Joke Samples!’ Well, as they say, all you need is a name, so really that’s what started it all. I even remember where I was when I thought of it. In those days, that was the thing; call your company something informal and casual because who in the heck really cares. One company I remember at the time was Starfish Software. I mean, what do starfish have to do with software? And remember, I grew up in Redmond, WA and half my graduating class went to work for Microsoft, where all pop is free and complimentary on campus (and still is, I think, though for health reasons that seems awfully ‘non-PC’ (pardon the pun!).
“When Translator was conceived and ready to launch, my current business partner and I knew it was going to be big and needed to be attractive to high-end clients, so we unanimously ‘chickened out’ and changed the name to something a little more palatable; hence, the current company name ‘Chicken Systems’.”