Some software companies remain consistent, reliably pumping out new releases of a decent quality. Output don’t settle for that. Since their first piece of software – REV, a playable instrument of reversed sounds for KONTAKT – each of Output’s software instruments and effects has been noticeably more mature, and more effective, and all-round better. Gregg Lehrman is the man at the Output’s helm. As a composer, Gregg worked with Hans Zimmer and created music for both film and TV. But the move from the silver screen to the world of music software wasn’t actually so unexpected…
“Originally, Output was never intended to be a company,” Gregg reminisces from his LA office. I’d worked previously as a content provider for some large software companies, so I had the right background in sound design for software – I wasn’t a million miles away to begin with.”
In the years since, Output has launched more KONTAKT instruments and traditional-format plug-ins, with releases like the fabulous multisampled Analog Brass & Winds, the rhythmic processor Movement, and even a desk – no kidding, Output’s Platform music production desk, which is built with making music in mind, started shipping in 2017. Output aren’t leaving the NI ecosystem behind, as their effects and instruments are now NKS compatible, instantly controllable at the touch of a knob or a fader for MASCHINE or KOMPLETE KONTROL users.
What sparked off the first move into making tools of your own?
In the world I came from, you had to differentiate your sound from every other composer. I’d started dreaming about the sort of tool that I wanted to have for myself that would also encapsulate my own style. It was just an idea for something that I wanted to use rather than to sell to other people.
…and that would be REV – playable reversed sounds in easy reach.
Yeah! I mean I started building it with the expectation that it would just be this fun thing for me – it would only cost a little bit of money and would only take a month or two. In reality, it took two years and it cost a lot! Part of that was because we had no idea what we were doing. Like any new company, it was challenging not just on the KSP side [KONTAKT’s scripting language], but to actually build something that would be a good product.
As we started getting further along and realising that we needed help, we ended up hiring a KSP developer, and from there we needed more – we needed designers, we needed to record lots of audio, and it became a matter of trying to figure out how to prototype something. In those first couple of months, we realised, “OK, this is either a much bigger project or we just stop right now.”
It all happened in KONTAKT… until your fifth piece of software, Movement, which took the form of a VST/AU plug-in. What prompted the move?
We’ve developed KONTAKT instruments after Movement too. For every product, we start from the beginning with our wishlist, then we try and figure out how to prototype it, and when we actually start going to build, we try and find the best tool to build it with. Sometimes it’s one thing; sometimes another.
You see a lot of studios where they have one machine just for KONTAKT – there’s a lot of people that have built their workflow around it. Developing software in KONTAKT can certainly be easier for a lot of reasons: in the NI ecosystem, there’s a lot of things that they take care of for you. But on the other hand, if you want to do something that KONTAKT isn’t built for, you have to figure out how to hack your way through.
What sort of development tasks does it make easier?
First of all, we don’t have to deal with updates – every new operating system that comes out, every new version of Logic or Ableton. [NI] do all the work to upgrade KONTAKT, they handle everything from the serial system to the functionality. Building things from scratch really taught us about how big and necessary those things are.
A lot of our engines have macros in the front page. Some people think that we’ve re-used engines, but the sad thing is we have literally rebuilt every engine from scratch! Every time we start a new product, we say, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could just reuse the last engine and change some things”, but the minute you start making any changes, it’s almost easier to start from scratch.
And of course, your software is also NKS-compatible, so those macros can be changed really easily. Is it hard for you to retro-engineer that into your instruments and effects, or has that process been made quite easy?
It’s relatively easy actually. If we were a one-person company, it might be a bit more taxing on our resources, but for us it’s very easy, very doable.
We were one of the first – if not the first – company to support NKS, and part of the reason is that Output grew up within the Native Instruments ecosystem, so it made a lot of sense to help those customers be able to play back our instruments in the best way possible.
For some of those people, the best way to play is through Native’s hardware, and NKS makes so much sense – if you can color-coordinate everything and have it be really accessible… well of course we would do that! If it makes our customers’ lives better, then it’s a no-brainer. I think for any company that would be the case.
Could you define any particular principles you stick to when it comes to product design?
I think that our main principle is: never build something that does everything; build something that does a specific thing really well and in a new way, and if you can’t change up the genre of production that you’re working on, it’s not worth doing.
If you look at all our products: REV, Signal, Exhale, Analog Strings, Analog Brass & Winds, Movement, Arcade, Substance – every one of them was our attempt to jump into a specific type of production or instrumentation, and to say, “I’m sick and tired of the same old stuff that’s out there, I want something new in that world, what can I come up with?”
Is it hard to keep that attitude up within a team of people?
Not when you have a company made of all music makers – we have about 28 employees, and 27 of them are active musicians, recording records, performing, composers, DJs, electronic artists and more. We have a built-in audience here, and we try making products that work well for our own team. If they’re excited by it, we know we have something; if nobody wants to stay at night making music with it, you throw it out.
And nobody is afraid to tell anybody else that something sucks! That’s really important.
There must be a lot of ideas on the cutting room floor, then! But one notable idea that made it is Arcade, your recently launched sampling and loop-engineering tool. But where do you draw the line between sound-design and just doing producers’ work for them?
Most people – and that includes me – use Loops in their production. Some people use them as-is, but most people want to manipulate that loop and personalise it. It’s like any graphic designer who’s working in Getty Images and pulling some graphics from somewhere – you don’t just use it as-is, you have to manipulate it. It’s part of being creative and being a musician.
And how do you determine what tools to give people to manipulate those loops? Having, say, a pad in there will be completely different result to having a shaker in there. There’s no one-size-fits-all for that.
Absolutely right. We knew that there had to be different tools in there. You have effects, you have modulation, but then you have things that are more structural. We built the sampler side of it, but then after that we decided that to really change the loop, you need to make something that changes its structurally. We’ve built three different modifiers so far: the resequencer, the playhead and the repeater. Each has a completely different way of altering the sound, and you never know which one might do something interesting and unique to a given sound.
Looking at the past and the future, what is it that you think Output does best?
I think we’re good at helping people be creative and usually that means trying something new with their production. Now we’re just trying to think bigger Like anything in life, once you do something a few times you want to challenge yourself. We want to make sure we get excited by it – we’re always trying to figure out what excites us.