Industry Spotlight is a new interview series dedicated to introducing interesting music industry companies and software developers, sharing their insight and showing you some of what’s going on behind the scenes.
There are a couple of reasons I wanted to start this series.
First of all the software devs are people who know what they’re doing. They understand sound inside out. They are also people with interesting visions and insight on music production.
Talking to a lot of plugin devs in the past few years I’ve realized we producers have a lot of interesting stuff to learn from developers. I know I’ve learned loads from these guys, and through this series I want to bring some of that insight to you.
My second reason for doing this series is that I think there are many people out there who deserve more recognition. In this interview series I’m not gonna discriminate anyone, big or small, it’s all good if it fits the bill.
However I especially want to help support the smaller guys out there who are doing a great job. The guys who are doing great work but don’t have the budget or time to spend on marketing.
There is no better way to kick things off than with Chris Johnson of Airwindows. Chris is a true connoisseur of sound with uncompromising vision when it comes to creating his ecosystem of plugins.
Airwindows creates Audio Unit plugins for Mac that are known for having no fancy graphical interface. The interface is just a bunch of sliders – plain and simple. Instead, the focus is on sound. The plugins are very straightforward – often designed to do just one thing and do that as well as possible.
Airwindows offers a ton of their plugins for free. The rest cost 50 USD each. I love their approach with trial versions. The trials have no time limit – instead they simply mute the sound briefly every now and then. This is great because it allows you to take as much time as you wish with the plugin before making a decision.
We touched down on many interesting topics with Chris, from his finnish roots to Neil Young’s Pono Music service – and of course his philosophy in regards to creating his plugins. Let’s get to the interview.
A warm welcome to Resoundsound industry spotlight Chris! First up, I’d love for you to share a little bit about your personal background when it comes to music and creating tools for music production. Where are you from? How did Airwindows come to be?
How far back do you want to go? Finns might be interested to know that my grandma Aili Kolehmainen translated the Kalevala to English: it was published 1951. To this day, I drive in Vermont winters without fear because I have a Subaru with AWD and Finnish rally driver blood.
I grew up in New England, USA and I’m still there (oddly, my first year was spent in Hawaii!) and I’ve always turned to music and audio, from an early age. When I was very small, I had my ears clog with earwax. Getting them unclogged at the doctor (they hurt) was nightmarish… but afterwards was like a religious experience. Suddenly I could hear EVERYTHING. Life was never the same.
Airwindows started as a speaker design hobby: the idea was ‘speakers are windows on the sound, so mine are ‘air windows’ through which you can reach in and touch the musicians, with no barriers’. Then, I started working on software called Mastering Tools, worked out how to make Audio Units, and it went from there.
Can you describe the underlying philosophy behind your work? Is there something that you would like people who are new to Airwindows to understand about the plugins?
All I care about is the sound (and being able to work the controls effectively: often the internal code for turning a slider into sound is very complicated). I am okay with not attracting people who get fooled by fancy graphics. I want only certain customers and I’m not worried about pleasing everybody. I started making these because I couldn’t get digital recording to sound right (I am an old analog audiophile fan, with a lovely record collection I grew up with).
Plugins without a graphical interface can at first be intimidating to some. These days people are used to visual feedback and a lot of plugins come with pretty graphics. However there are distinct advantages in your approach. I love the fact that the plugins actually force you to listen and judge things by what you are hearing. There must also be some not so obvious gains – perhaps in stability, CPU/memory use and development costs? Could you shed some light on why you prefer to have no GUI on your plugins?
Don’t need to, you’ve got it! Apart from updating every single plugin I’d ever made to 64 bit (knowing that Logic would eventually require it), I don’t typically have to do lots of maintenance. I make them so simple that they just work: the way of connecting to the DAW is not unusual, it’s pretty much pure Apple Audio Unit simplicity. They run on flawed implementations of Audio Unit hosting, too.
They do use less CPU and memory, allowing higher track counts, and it’s not so much about development costs, it’s about where I place my effort.
I’ve spent years working ONLY on audio. Almost everyone else has had to spend a lot of time on everything else, so I got to really advance things in a way most companies don’t get to do. I don’t advertise or market, either. It’s all about the DSP development, ignoring everything else.
I feel the results become pretty obvious when you start listening to mixes done using my stuff. I’m always thrilled when people do shoot-outs and blind tests. I had an old version of Channel, not even the current 80-bit-buss version, beat out a rival’s top of the line console emulation plugin for some listeners. Channel’s a freebie. I would have liked them to use BussColors for that, but it was pretty funny.
You obviously do tons of freebies and the rest of your plugins seem to all be selling for 50$. You also offer free upgrades for everyone who buys something (and you have several plugins that are now in their 3rd or 4th generation). What is the policy behind your pricing, how do you look at things?
I want people to be able to do things without robbing me, so I make sure to have lots of good free stuff out there, and want it to be used. As for the for-pay plugins, I figure $50 is reasonable for lifetime support (when the things won’t really break anyway) and I would want to get updates to a plugin for free myself, rather than having to keep going back and re-buying it if it improves.
I feel this helps earn me goodwill, and my hope is people will talk about it. I don’t need to make THAT many sales to survive, I am quite frugal! I feel my best defense against being treated as a ‘greedy rich corporation’ is not to be one. It’s just me doing everything, and I’m not asking that much in return!
How does the process of creating a new plugin typically happen for you?
I’ve got templates which I know are absolutely solid and functional (which sometimes evolve as I learn more about audio) and will start with the ‘Audio Unit framework’ already in place. I work out what’s needed in the sound, and will build many temporary versions and try them out as I go, experimenting wildly with the DSP. Past a certain point it’s doing what I want, and then it’s just a matter of seeing how far I can push the audio quality.
Community feedback and interacting with users seems to play an important role in your development work. It must be hard sometimes though to weave through conflicting opinions and needs. Could you tell us a little bit about that process?
Not at all. The best interacting with users I ever have is when they’ve had a hard drive crash, and they’re asking for help getting back on their feet. I have records of the plugin orders, so I can send them new copies of everything they need.
I also like it when I get phone calls from users (this is surprisingly uncommon) and they’re amazed they’re talking to the lead developer. Usually they didn’t really understand it was all just me doing everything, until then.
If it’s a customer who truly doesn’t know what they want, I tell them a list of freebies they must start with, and I won’t suggest a single for-pay plugin unless or until they know what they’re doing and have decided what they want. Many people have discovered this. I love that because I get to act completely unlike a greedy corporate stooge out to make sales, and hope the stories get around.
As for people asking me to do specific things, I’m almost certainly not going to do that. I do what I feel is needed, and people tend to agree. If they don’t, that’s why there are so many plugins: they have a lot of alternate choices if they don’t like what I did with a particular plugin.
I remember you mentioning somewhere that you have studied the sonic character of a large amount of hit records and found some common character trends behind them. This is extremely interesting – could you elaborate on that study, the results you got and how it has affected your work?
That’s not on the Internet at the moment. It was called Evergreens, and the most striking result was that timeless hit records (that just kept ON selling in huge numbers for their day) have way more peak energy than RMS, but it’s all very evenly distributed. It’s not like there’s a single peak that’s way hotter than everything else: you’d have peaks from -9db right up to 0db, but the RMS (body of the sound) would stay as low as -30db.
This is impossibly ‘quiet’ for current pop records (though EDM sometimes has very powerful peaks and can do this) but the peak energy is constantly active the whole time and covers a wide range rather than clustering up near the top.
I’ll be bringing Evergreens back (in my copious free time! heh. It’s taking forever to make time to do this)
This has directly affected the Pono mastering plugin, ‘Righteous’. That one is set up so you can only push peak energy up to high levels. If you try to put too much RMS into it, it distorts and sounds bad. You literally have to mix ‘evergreen’ and turn the volume up to use it at all.
Talking about sonic qualities/character… Could you mention some of your personal all time favorite recordings and tell us why you like them?
Sure. I’ve always loved Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes’, even after my wild college days: it’s an amazing collection of sounds, and has some of the coolest bass ever, and amazing guitar sonorities. I love Zappa’s “Roxy and Elsewhere”, and “One Size Fits All”.
But what I come back to, sonically, is Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung”. It might seem an odd choice, but there is something so raw and visceral about that recording. It’s not the same on CD, I’m talking about old vinyl. The vocals are shockingly alive and emotive, and then there’s stuff like when the band slams back into the verse on ‘Cross-Eyed Mary’: the way the guitars, bass and kick hit is like some kind of magic trick, a composite kick in the teeth that’s sheer rock and roll.
Other albums that do this for me are Yes’s “Fragile”, and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bayou Country”, which might be the hardest rocking thing ever. I defy anybody to listen to the start of ‘Born On The Bayou’ and not start bobbing their head like a fool: it’s simply perfect.
You’ve recently released a plugin called Righteous. It’s intended as a sort of finalizer that goes as the last plugin on the 2-buss for music that is to be released on Neil Young’s Pono platform. What are your thoughts on Pono and how does Righteous fit in exactly?
I’m thrilled about Pono, because I don’t think there’s any other way to connect people to the music the way I grew up with it. Pono (like other systems of its kind, normally a lot more expensive) is capable of delivering that kind of presence. It’s brilliantly designed: though the hype is about 192K recordings, Pono is actually using that extra time-domain information to produce a smoother, deeper audio-band result, through a technique called moving average.
It really works (I have a freebie demonstrating it, which can also be used to mix through if set correctly: turn it off once you have the Pono mix perfected, it can emulate what the Pono player will do with 96K or 192K content)
Righteous is an effort to force people to mix with good headroom and high peak energy vs. RMS, for the Pono platform. I’m convinced that if people do this, they’ll get ‘evergreens’ of their own, provided their music is sincere and good. That holds for EDM producers as well: anyone familiar with 70s synth music knows you can have wonderful big sound without resorting to traditional instruments!
Out of all the plugins that you’ve made, what plugin(s) are you most proud of and why?
I’ve got a category on the website for ‘Innovative’, and those tend to be my favorites. I think what I’m fondest of lately is something that’s been well recieved and something that’s been totally ignored! I added a ‘groove wear’ function to the plugin ToVinyl, and if used subtly the thing delivers an extraordinary vinyl-like ‘vibe’ through keeping some momentum to the path of the waveform.
The one that’s been ignored is ElectroHat. I came up with a way to do a ‘EDM hat’ which uses residue sequences to deliver a really wide range of synthetic hatlike noises (it takes the envelope of what you send to it) that are bright, unnatural, and not necessarily much like white noise (or even blue noise). They gradually evolve because of how the algorithm works, so it reduces the repetitiveness of such a syn hat. Virtually nobody has ever bought that one, but I still love it 🙂
What kind of stuff are you working on right now (if it’s something you want to share)?
I have an update to Righteous coming, and I’m finishing off the ‘Purest’ line of minimalist-processing plugins with a ‘warmer’ plugin. It won’t be appropriate for everything, but I think it’s going to become a permanent addition to my bass tone.
Is there something else you would like to mention to readers of Resoundsound – news, announcements or anything else?
Remember, if you don’t like the look of my plugins, you should buy a very fancy control surface and map the parameters to real hardware knobs! Then you get the best of both worlds. Also, check out Blue Cat’s Patchwork if you’d like the plugins ‘skinned’ with GUI knobs, or if you want to use them on Pro Tools! I’m excited about Patchwork, and it should host everything I do 🙂
Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions!
This concludes the interview with Chris Johnson of Airwindows. If you are using a Mac, make sure to go check his plugins – as mentioned many of them (89 currently) are free.
If you have any questions for Chris, feel free to post here in the comments. Chris has kindly promised to come back to discuss them.