|The Arturia MiniBrute helped define the affordable analog synth category.|
Bridging The Hardware-
SOFTWARE EXISTS IN THE ETHER of a “virtual reality” environment. Hardware is grounded in a tactile real world. This disparity explains why the mindsets of software and hardware developers are distinctly different, one focused on lines of code and graphic interface, the other working with industrial design. It also explains why so few music products enterprises have been successful in both realms. Arturia is one of the notable exceptions. Over a nearly two-decade span, the Grenoble, France-based company has earned acclaim for its V Collection of software instruments as well as its Brute line of analog synths and Keylab controllers. The fact that Arturia hardware and software integrate seamlessly, creating true “plug and play” solutions, has earned a loyal following in more than 50 countries. Arturia also operates its own sales offices in France, Mexico, and the U.S.
This family of acclaimed software and hardware products reflects ingenious engineering, a marketing team with a finger on the pulse of the market, adaptability, and astute management—in short, all the stuff you expect to see laid out in a formal business plan. Yet, Arturia’s origins were anything but well defined. Founders Gilles Pommereuil and Frédéric Brun trace the start of their enterprise to a chance 1999 encounter on the Paris Metro.
The pair had first met as students at the Grenoble Institute of Technology: Gilles was studying computer science and Frédéric was pursuing a chemistry major. What brought them together was their abiding love of music. Frédéric was an enthusiastic violinist performing in the student orchestra, which was conducted by Gilles. After graduation, the two lost touch. Gilles enrolled at ICRAM, the French institute for the study of acoustics and music, where he secured a master’s degree, while Frédéric pursued a law degree at the Sorbonne. At their unexpected reunion on the Metro, they exchanged some routine pleasantries, and they discovered they had something in common: Neither was particularly enthused about any of his potential career options. They left the Metro after less than an hour, but continued their conversation over wine and in cafes, ultimately deciding, “Let’s start a company.” Frédéric says today, “If Gilles had gotten into a different metro car, Arturia wouldn’t exist.”
“I’m glad I wasn’t a more experienced
manager, demanding results
Otherwise, we never would have
developed the code that became the basis
of our technology.”
Arturia set up shop with a skeletal crew in Grenoble in 1999. Although Grenoble is best known as a top skiing destination, Frédéric and Gilles chose to locate there because it has been ranked by Forbes magazine as the world’s fifth most innovative city and is home to labs for Apple, HP, and Xerox as well as two acclaimed universities. Proximity to a deep pool of engineering talent was essential from the very start and has continued to pay dividends ever since. Frédéric states, “Our success has been built on a team of brilliant talent. We have been able to attract great engineers with a love of music.”
The initial goal for Arturia, though not particularly well defined, was extremely ambitious: to create tools that would democratize music, allowing just about anyone to compose and perform. The Arturia trademark was derived from this vision to build an enterprise involved in ART, culTURe, and multimedIA. At a time when computers were used almost exclusively for word processing and spreadsheets, Frédéric states, “Multimedia was a breakthrough concept in the 1990s.”
The first Arturia product on the market was Storm, an all-in-one recording studio that incorporated a series of compositional templates to allow a non-musician to create their own song in about 20 steps. The intended market was the vast number of music lovers who had little or no musical training, but a desire to create their own songs. Although Storm was simple to use and could actually produce some surprisingly interesting compositions, ultimately it had limited commercial success. Part of the problem was due to some internal missteps. The fledgling Arturia team had created the program by mixing codes from games and professional-level music programs, making it difficult to update and balky to run. These issues were aggravated by the presence of better-organized competitors with superior products. After about two years of pushing Storm, Frédéric concluded that Arturia’s survival depended on a radically different product strategy. However, he says with some pride that he still regularly encounters people who speak enthusiastically about their experience making music with Storm.
Arturia’s new strategy came from an unlikely and unexpected source. While most of the company’s six employees had been focused laser-like on making Storm successful, a lone engineer had been working unsupervised on creating better DSP algorithms. In the process, he developed a program ideally suited to modeling musical tones. “I’m glad I wasn’t a more experienced manager, demanding results and accountability,” explains Frédéric. “Otherwise, we never would have developed the code that became the basis of our True Analog Emulation (TAE) technology.” With TAE Arturia narrowed its focus to creating high-value tools for music making and production.
“For some manufacturers,
being in the V Collection is like a model
getting featured in a Pirelli calendar.
They’re part of history.”
Capturing Sound In Motion
TAE uses mathematical equations to re-create the tonality of any given instrument, in all its complexity. Where sampling involves recording a note and freezing it in time, much like a still picture, TAE provides the sonic equivalent of a moving picture, reproducing the way notes interact with each other and change over time. The Arturia team first applied the technology to create software versions of in-demand vintage synthesizers that were difficult to come by, instruments such as Moog modular synths, the Sequential Prophet series, the Oberheim Matrix, the ARP 2600, the Hammond B-3, and the Yamaha DX-7. The modeling technology was also applied to replicate fine acoustic pianos.
The labor-intensive modeling process involved analyzing the performance of individual components including voltage-controlled oscillators, voltage-controlled amplifiers, and voltage-controlled filters, modeling how they worked in concert, and then capturing all these complex harmonic interactions in thousands of lines of code. To check the accuracy of their work, the team regularly tested their models against the actual vintage hardware. This was no small accomplishment, as in some cases, obscure instruments such as the Buchla Easel were tough to find and had to be extensively refurbished first. Ralph Goldheim, who heads Arturia’s U.S. operation and has decades of involvement with synths as a performer and developer. says, “The realism of modeling is incredible. Play any of our modeled synths next to the real thing, and I challenge anyone to tell the difference.”
|The Arturia team at their headquarters in Grenoble, France. The company also operates sales and distribution offices in the U.S. and Mexico.|
Like The Pirelli Calendar?
You’d think synth companies would be less than enthusiastic about another company developing software copies of their signature instruments. But that wasn’t the case. “We were able to sign agreements with the synth companies, or in some cases worked with all the original creators to make our emulations as realistic as possible,” Frédéric says. Bob Moog worked closely with the Arturia team to create the “Modular V,” a faithful re-creation of a vintage Moog modular synth. Cameron Jones, the developer of the Synclavier, was similarly helpful in the development of a virtual Synclavier algorithm. Yamaha even provided some guidance for recreating the FM synthesis sounds that defined the DX-7. “For some manufacturers,” Frédéric adds, “being in the V Collection is like a model getting featured in a Pirelli calendar. They’re part of history.”
The end result of this exhaustive modeling exercise can be found in the V Collection, a software package that includes stunningly accurate renditions of 21 of the most significant keyboards in history. The software is unquestionably a tour-de-force of programming, but it’s the sound quality that has generated its success. Goldheim explains, “Musicians care less about technology than they do about sound. When we talk to them about modeling, sometimes their eyes glaze over. But when we demo our piano or one of the modeled synths, their jaws drop.” As software goes, at $499 retail, the V-Collection is not an inexpensive package. However, it represents a compelling value. Frédéric notes that the price is about 500 times less than the cost of purchasing the 21 modeled instruments.
“Since day one, we always wanted
to bring amazing music-making tools
to anyone who wanted to
learn, play, produce, or perform."
They Used It But Didn’t Buy
The TAE technology that underpinned the V Collection has subsequently been applied to develop a family of software synth products, as well as the Spark line of drum tracks and a range of software-based effects. It also placed Arturia on a sustainable financial path. However, while the company was expanding, Frédéric noticed a disturbing trend. “Our early software was very popular, but it seemed that very few people were actually paying for it,” he says. This revelation led the Arturia team to apply its expertise to developing tangible, hardware synths that would be immune to counterfeiting or downloading.
The Origin, Arturia’s first hardware product, packed more than 500 TAE presets, and nearly unlimited flexibility into a sleek, ergonomic package. The Origin boasted a nearly unlimited ability to layer and combine sonic elements to produce original sounds. A user could easily combine the oscillators from a Minimoog with the filters from a Yamaha CS-80 to create a signature synth. Dubbed by some players “The Frankensynth,” it could work well as either a standalone instrument in a live setting or with a sequencer in a studio environment. While the Origin received rave reviews, the market for a $3,000 “Frankensynth” was relatively small.
Around 2012, the Arturia team was among the first to identify the growing interest in analog synthesizers. At the time a musician who wanted an analog synth had two alternatives: a $3,000 boutique instrument or a pricey vintage product that most likely needed repair. Taking lessons learned in the development of the Origin, they offered the first high-value analog synth with the MiniBrute, a two-oscillator synth with rich analog tones in a neat 25-note package, priced at $499. At the time it was released, there was nothing comparable on the market. Since then, competitive manufacturers have crowded into the entry-level analog synth price point. However, Arturia has maintained its market share by expanding its product offering. Pushing the value envelope, it introduced the MicroBrute, a single-oscillator synth retailing for $300. For the more demanding user, there was the MatrixBrute, which delivers the flexibility of a modular synth, with the convenience of modern digital control. Frédéric is particularly proud of the MiniBrute. “Since day one,” he says, “we always wanted to bring amazing music-making tools to anyone who wanted to learn, play, produce, or perform. The MiniBrute delivers on that front.”
The Plug & Play Solution
Arturia’s Brute synth line has been augmented by an extensive line of controllers. Outwardly, the “KeyLab” models are fairly conventional controllers; what sets them apart is their seamless integration with Arturia software. “Load the V-collection on your laptop, plug a KeyLab into the USB port, and you’re up and running immediately,” says Goldheim. “The knobs and sliders on the keyboard sync up perfectly with the computer screen like a dream.” Keyboard controllers used in conjunction with software have typically been better suited for studio applications. However, Goldheim argues that a KeyLab and the V-Collection would be equally at home on stage. “The operation is so simple and straightforward, you can really use it at a gig.”
Arturia’s BeatStep controller series features a “non-traditional” array of assignable knobs and buttons, but the same seamless operation. By linking one with a laptop and a collection of analog synths, Frédéric says, “you can bridge analog and digital worlds, production and performance applications, and classic and modern ways to make music. They offer ways to create grooves and simple melodies, using either analog or digital gear, all at an affordable price.” While they were designed with EDM applications in mind, he adds, “we didn’t envision everything musicians would do with them or are doing with them.”
"Some people feel more
comfortable with a piece of hardware
in front of them.
They like the hands-on, tactile control."
Expect More Integration
Market demand and technology, not to mention business plans, has taken a number of unexpected turns in the years since Gilles and Frédéric launched Arturia. Thus, they are hesitant to make bold predictions about the future. Frédéric says that the internet is not done disrupting the market, and that the future will see better integration between all tech-based products, driven in part by artificial intelligence. As for Arturia, he’s confident that the company has hedged its bets with a portfolio of software and hardware products. “Some people feel more comfortable with a piece of hardware in front of them, he explains. “They like the hands-on, tactile control, the physical presence, and an organic, analog sound. Maybe they have been working on a computer all day long and just want something immediate. Others feel comfortable in front of a computer and enjoy exploring the almost limitless options available; flicking through presets, maybe working in their home studio, and continuing to work on tracks while travelling. Software provides more power, but with the increased complexity, you lose some of the spontaneity and expressiveness.”
What ties these two strands together is the goal of developing useful and expressive tools for musicians. Arturia is no longer aiming at a broad consumer market, but it is working to place musical power within the reach of a wider audience. Whether it’s with affordable analog synths or software that offers nearly limitless sonic capabilities, the company can still lay claim to being a democratizing force. And, it’s a pretty good formula for success. No musician ever said, “I’m not interested in more and better sounds, and more flexibility, for a better price.”