Silicon Audio

Nov 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Linda Jacobson

WHEN THE COMPUTER INDUSTRY MET THE AUDIO INDUSTRY

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Northern California boasts beautiful vistas, but the view from Highway 101 in Santa Clara Valley is not one of them. “Silicon Valley” doesn't sound pretty — and it's not. It's drab and sprawling, usually drenched in harsh sunlight. The Stanford campus is lovely, but that's about it. Otherwise, it's a hash of countless, nondescript business “parks,” uninspiring strip malls, million-dollar three-bedroom tract homes and god-awful traffic. Bland it may be, but the 4,000 or so tech companies located along Highway 101 from San Francisco to San Jose generate a very spicy $200 billion in annual revenues.

Although most people associate the place and its environs with native sons Adobe, Apple, eBay, Google, HP, Intel, Macromedia, Oracle, SGI, Sun, Wired, Yahoo, et al, Mix readers likely recognize Silicon Valley as one of the country's hotbeds of digital audio. Far from the N.Y., L.A. and Nashville music biz scenes, it's here — in and around the Bay Area — where ILM, Dolby Labs, Pixar, Euphonix, Digidesign, Sonic Solutions, BIAS, E-mu, Roger Linn Design and the come-and-gone Opcode, OSC, Passport Designs, IMS, Studer Editech, etc., chose to set up shop.

These are — or were — entrepreneur-led companies whose product development costs (heavily weighted on the front end with R&D and programming) resemble those of the computer industry rather than the traditional pro sound field, in which development expenses primarily involve fabrication and manufacturing costs.

Andy Moorer at Sonic Solutions, circa 1995

COMPUTERS AND AUDIO — SEPARATED AT BIRTH?

If the audio industry — like the rest of the free world — has embraced and adopted the technology created in Silicon Valley, have we also adopted the Valley's product development approaches, working style and organizing principles?

“The culture of Silicon Valley was always about being able to do it yourself, or providing the tools to enable people to do it themselves, and that influence has seeped into the recording industry as it moved from monolithic recording facilities to the current home studio paradigm,” computer music pioneer John Dalton says. For example, in the audio industry, “You also see the trend from specific hardware boxes to software emulations of those boxes in general-purpose computing hardware, and more of an emphasis on decentralized work environments. And the breakdown of the old distribution networks for the end-product of the recording industry — records, tapes, CDs — to a more fluid software market with music downloads and file-sharing.” Industry vet Andy Moorer agrees. “There is a relation [between the computer industry and the music industry], at least in Silicon Valley, on two different axes: the intense technological development there and the open, experimental atmosphere of ‘anything goes.’”

In 1968, when Moorer moved from MIT to Stanford University in Palo Alto (where he fell in with the other long-haired electrical engineering geeks at the Artificial Intelligence Lab), “It felt like a breath of fresh air,” he recalls. “Stanford was a much more free and open atmosphere — everyone talking about their work. The thing that knocked me out was the breadth and the creativity allowed. No idea was too wacky to be raised and discussed” — including ideas such as FM synthesis, which Moorer collaborated on with inventor John Chowning. Moorer's work helped lead Yamaha to developing the DX7, the first large-scale digital synthesizer.

Ironically, it was the audio industry that first influenced the electronics industry in the Bay Area. The Silicon Valley legacy began in 1939 when two earlier Stanford grads, Bill Hewlett and David Packard, founded HP in Packard's Palo Alto garage. Their first product was an audio oscillator for sound engineers; Walt Disney Studios bought eight to develop a sound system for the film Fantasia. Hewlett and Packard started their company with $538 and paved the way for the transformation of Silicon Valley from a bunch of fruit orchards to a place where dedicated, spirited entrepreneurs could raise some cash to create huge companies and implement decentralized management structures with innovation-oriented corporate cultures.

Some 45 years later, Silicon Valley was the locale chosen by the late, great, concert impresario, Bill Graham, to build Shoreline Amphitheater, which opened in 1986. By then, most rock and pop musicians and engineers had caught up with the avant-garde (Cage, Eno) in their embrace of digital technology. “The use of electronic technology became very important in much of the music in the '60s and '70s, reflecting both the scientific optimism of the era of manned space flight and cynicism with regard to the faith placed in the mass media,” wrote Andy Mackay in his 1981 coffee table book, Electronic Music. One major innovation of '60s psychedelic rock (which itself sprung from San Francisco and New York) was the introduction of new electronic instruments, specifically synthesizers. Naturally, the Bay Area had its own synthesizer inventor, Don Buchla. In those days, the Bay Area also boasted plenty of counter-cultural cynicism and space flight junkies (the NASA Ames research center is just two Highway 101 exits past Shoreline Amphitheater), so it was only natural that the Bay Area music scene would go deeply digital.

E-mu Emulator II (top) connected to a Mac 512 running Digidesign’s 1985 Sound Designer (below) sample editing program

BIRTH OF THE MAC

A few miles southwest of NASA Ames in Cupertino, a skull-and-crossbones flag was flown above the Apple Computer building in 1983. The reason became clear during that now-infamous 1984 Super Bowl commercial. Yes sir, it was 20 years ago today that the Mac taught the geeks to really play. The first computer platform to integrate stereo sound with heavy-duty data processing, Macintosh “has always been a creative tool, developed for creative professionals, visual or musical,” says Apple Computer senior director of applications marketing, Richard Kerris. “The Mac has audio as part of its DNA. Those creative professionals influenced what Apple is today. The audio industry is part of that.”

By the time the Mac debuted in San Francisco at Macy's, when ties were skinny, hair big and MTV VJs hot, Bay Area musician Paul de Benedictis was already using his Rhodes Chroma synth as the basis of an electronic music studio. One day in '84, De Benedictis went over to his friend Dave Oppenheim's house to help create MIDI Sync for the Mac software sequencer that Oppenheim (a musician, electrical engineer, computer scientist and a Stanford graduate) had written. “When Dave made his Mac sequencer and drum machine sync together, it was a thrilling moment,” De Benedictus remembers. “That day was the beginning of my working in the computer music industry. Gary Briber, Dave's partner in Opcode, had talked Dave into selling the software and MIDI interface — Dave had been planning to give the software away! It was just the two of them when I started. We sat around Dave's house, hand-assembling MIDI interfaces, trying not to get peanut butter on the nice aluminum cases, copying 400k floppy disks one at a time, hand-writing serial numbers on them.”

Dave Smith (in plaid) demos a Sequential Circuits Prophet 600 controlling a Roland Jupiter-6 at the 1983 NAMM show.

That was around the time when some profoundly smart people started flocking to the Bay Area — such as John Dalton, who co-wrote the first multichannel, hard disk audio recording software, Deck, and became a successful San Francisco entrepreneur who recently moved to a mountain home in Hawaii, where he runs Synthetik Software. “The dawn of the MIDI era and the dawn of the digital audio era were happening in the Bay Area at the same time as the initial growth of the personal computer industry,” Dalton says. “You were suddenly able to do things that were just not possible before, or at least not affordable to the average person.”

Not quite “average,” Silicon Valley is a Mecca for tech-savvy, eccentric over-achievers from every corner of the world, who come to where Type-A corporate culture reigns supreme and the mantra is: Stay competitive; anything is possible. The essence of life in Silicon Valley involves high-stakes risk-taking, long working hours and consumption of espresso and Red Bull, Snickers and power bars, ginseng and guarana, in cluttered office cubicles crammed with water guns and bobble heads. Silicon Valley's aggressive, risk-taking style matches a revolutionary mindset that enables its denizens to believe that a small number of people can change the world through technology.

Scott Silfvast had that attitude when he founded Euphonix in a Palo Alto garage in 1988. Then 25, he thought “starting a company was no big deal. Venture capitalists and reps from the semiconductor companies would come to call on a couple of 20-somethings in shorts and T-shirts in our run-down garage and say, ‘You guys are just like HP, how can we help you?’ We knew people involved in local audio startups like Opcode, Digidesign, E-mu and Sonic Solutions, so it didn't occur to us that we were doing anything out of the ordinary. At that time, if you wanted technology to solve a problem, you built it yourself and there was always the possibility that if enough people wanted the same technology, you could be rewarded for all your hard work.”

If you knew what you were doing. “Part of what's important about working with computer technology is being able to make the right choices because you can choose to do so many things with a computer, most of them useless,” according to David Zicarelli, Stanford CCRMA graduate and interactive music and audio software developer since 1984 (such as the classic interactive composition program, M) who now works on Max/MSP, the real-time audio development environment sold by his company Cycling '74. “In the Bay Area, we are surrounded by so many people who provide, from technical and sociological points of view, the information needed to figure out what you should do next.”

Could Zicarelli have created his groundbreaking software anywhere else? He acknowledges that “knowing what work to do and when, it was essential to be here then, although it's less essential now because the culture of Silicon Valley has been diffused into the larger culture.”

Opcode company portrait, with founder/programmer Dave Oppenheim (bearded, center)

DAYS (AND NIGHTS) OF COFFEE AND COLA

Like their computer industry counterparts, the entrepreneurial risk-takers in the audio industry worked feverishly, compulsively and sometimes obsessively, until they turned their ideas into reality. They knew the rush of being a bootstrap start-up thrill-seeker financed by serial credit cards.

“People worked insane hours at Opcode and Euphonix,” De Benedictis, who worked at both companies, fondly recalls. “The seven-day, work-as-many-hours-as-possible was definitely a part of Opcode's culture. There was an unstated mantra: ‘The more hours you work, the better.’ Some people slept at the office when crunch-time came; Opcode provided couches. At the time, the rewards seemed worth it. Some of the best music of the day, from Cyndi Lauper to Nine Inch Nails, was created using Opcode products. Creating them was so much cooler than building a widget for the tech industry.”

LucasFilm’s The Droid Works SoundDroid digital audio workstation, circa 1985

When Moorer left LucasFilm's The Droid Works in 1987 to co-found Sonic Solutions, “The big difference between the two was that at Sonic Solutions, we didn't have much financial resource, so we had to focus fairly narrowly on what we could bootstrap on our own. We started Sonic Solutions with a little over $400,000 in private capital. That took us through the first 18 months or so, which is what it took to break even.” The early years of Sonic Solutions were very spartan. “There were a few of us who pulled all-nighters. It was very much a start-up environment with a lot of intense work. It was a lot of fun.”

THE PLATFORM CONNECTION

All of the computer music pioneers with whom we spoke mentioned the benefits of physical proximity to Apple headquarters. Indeed, Moorer observes that at Sonic Solutions, “We were more synergistic with the computer industry than we were with other audio software companies. Digital audio on computers migrated toward the Mac because of the user interface, and Apple helped us out quite a bit. We got the first releases of the Mac II. It was easy for us to drive down to Apple, nose around there and make presentations. To some extent, my personal connections with Silicon Valley helped; I knew Allan Kay, who was a Fellow at Apple then, and he helped us get in the doors at Apple. It's as much the Silicon Valley network as much as the intellectual climate” that helped Sonic Solutions succeed.

On the other hand, dependency had its consequences. “One lesson of Silicon Valley is to know when the hardware is capable of keeping up with the software you want to create,” Zicarelli says. The costs and performance of even the most basic computer hardware — RAM chips, hard disks, processors — directly affected the software products that digital audio companies could make, and how much they could charge for them.

“Add in USB and FireWire and many new products emerged and changed,” De Benedictis notes. “When Apple took a standard serial port off the computer, when Opcode's product line relied on that port, it came as a surprise and created radical change. Opcode had to change all our serial port — based MIDI interfaces to USB. That made more work for folks, but you had to live with it. Apple always made the best host for music, and whatever they changed in their hardware or software, we just had to adapt.”

THE DARK SIDE?

Silicon Valley culture rewards the practice of sustained heroic efforts that disregard the need for relaxation, exercise, sleep and personal lives. Some people see the place as cold and soulless, a bastion of greed run by the elitist high priests of technology. They speak of Silicon Valley's paranoia, selfishness, sexism, racism and ageism. This article's author worked for seven years in a post-IPO Silicon Valley computer company and can attest to the nasty aspects that undercut the thrills, adrenaline rushes and brain jolts gained from working with totally brilliant people doing supercreative things.

In true Silicon Valley fashion, Dolby Labs respectfully declined to wax poetic about the links between the computer and audio industries, being cautious about the federal government's strict guidelines on the sharing of information by pre-IPO companies (i.e., Dolby Labs). The decision to keep mum was no doubt influenced by the brouhaha that erupted when nearby giant Google's founders granted a Playboy interview a week before they filed their initial public stock offering, which some critics said would violate the “quiet period” provision in the run up to the IPO. This provision is in place to prevent companies from influencing the market before the IPO and restricts any information coming from the company other than material facts.

A long-time Bay Area audio industry insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity, asserts, “People in Silicon Valley may seem cool and hip because they wear shorts to work and have beer bashes on Friday afternoons, but the work environment is conservative, anti-environment and dehumanizing. People go to work when they're sick and infect other people because you're looked down upon as weak if you call in sick. CEOs are paid 10 times more than workers. The goal is not to make an interesting product that does good things for people, but to make money — even in the music technology industry. Some [companies] go through millions before declaring bankruptcy and never delivering a working product. Or, when a company does go public and/or gets bought by a larger corporation, it's the executive staff and founders who profit, not the guys who worked in tech support for 15 years.”

To be fair, “It's unclear if you can run a business with the same kind of intense, artistic vision after a start-up gets beyond a certain size,” Dalton says. “It's why a lot of businesses make decisions that might not be in the best interest of their customers — decisions ultimately based on maximizing profit or growth, which is a very different thing from artistic integrity of vision.”

AND SO IT GOES…AND GOES….

The “typical” recording/production studio, then and now, shares much in common with the pioneers of digital audio: The business is the realization of an entrepreneur's dream. Few studio personnel are unfamiliar with the practices of working long, caffeine-fueled hours and aiming for greatness. Today, studios worldwide are getting things done in ways previously impossible, using new digital technologies that are the evolutionary outgrowth of what happened in Silicon Valley in the past.

The Silicon Valley spirit continues to live on, in the relatively small, creative companies thriving throughout Northern California, from Euphonix to Spectrasonics, from Universal Audio to Cycling '74, and in the sequential business dreams of visionaries such as whiz-kid engineer/musician Scott Silvfast and Dave Smith (the electronic music innovator who designed the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, laid the foundation for MIDI and developed Reality, the first virtual synth for the PC, and now runs Dave Smith Instruments). The fruits aren't hangin' as low these days. Entrepreneurs must adapt to tougher market forces. As Cycling '74 founder Zicarelli points out, “The cost of living in the Bay Area makes it difficult for individual entrepreneurs to start companies here in marginal industries such as audio software. Cycling '74 continues here, although a majority of our employees actually live outside the Bay Area. But Apple and Digidesign will stay here and act as consolidators of technical innovation.”

Silicon Valley is only part of the reason that so many digital audio product manufacturers start up and thrive in the San Francisco Bay Area. The world-class academic institutions here, along with San Francisco's legendary, experimental music and arts and literary traditions, are all part of the mix.

“The Bay Area continues to be a unique place,” Dalton says. “It has a mad energy from its mix of engineering and artistic cultures, and its focus on futurism, lingering hippie past, personal expression, creativity and getting things done. Hopefully, the business dynamics in this country will continue to foster a climate where a small group of people with a cool idea can take that idea and run with it. We all win when that happens.”


Linda Jacobson (lindaj@glasshousestudio.com) is a digital media marketing consultant, writer and event producer who recently hung out the freelance shingle after serving for seven years as SGI's virtual reality evangelist. Back in the day, she was an editor at Mix, EQ and Wired magazines.






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