by Thomas Evans

Engineering Artistry: Math + music with Steinunn Arnardottir

It’s ten years since Native Instruments launched its flagship beat-making instrument MASCHINE. As part of our rewind through the last decade, we’re meeting key players at the company who’ve helped make MASCHINE something special, inspiring music-makers all over the world today.

Some features grab headlines. Others find favor simply because they sound so good. In this series, we’re taking a closer look at some of those under-celebrated, fan-favorite features – finding out the stories behind them, and getting to know the people who made them.

The global hip hop community has embraced MASCHINE over the last decade. According to its devotees, this is because it combines the best bits of classic hardware with today’s cutting-edge production techniques. It’s thanks in part to MASCHINE’s powerful sampling chops, and its ability to imitate the legendary samplers of old through its vintage sampler modes.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of this much-loved feature, we wanted to find out about the person that made it: Steinunn Arnardottir. Today, she’s the Director of Engineering at Native Instruments, steering a team of 50 developers, engineers, and designers. But it was in her early years at Native that she cut her teeth on a number of Digital Signal Processing (DSP) projects. These included MASCHINE’s Transient Master effect and vintage sampler modes – the focus of this story.

Like many working at Native, music has been a central theme throughout Steinunn’s life – and it started early. “My dad would go to record stores a lot. I would often go with him, and he would usually let me choose one record – this is how I started building my collection from age six or seven. As far as I can remember, I was always passionate about music.”

“I started playing the piano when I was nine, but then also got into listening to a lot of hip hop and electronic type stuff. It was my way of diverging from what I was playing in my traditional lessons. I remember a time when I was losing interest in my piano lessons, and my piano teacher – who was really great – was doing her best to save me. She asked me, “Okay, so what kind of music do you want to play?” and when I gave her the headphones from my Walkman she was like, “Whoa!” So then she handed me a Beatles book – and we jointly decided at that point that maybe it was time for us to part ways,” she laughs.

It was in Steinunn’s early-teenage years that music blossomed into a full-blown passion. “I was into funk, disco, and hip hop. I’m kind of from that crate-digging hip hop generation. When you start hunting down the samples, it traces you back to funk, jazz, and blues. I suppose it was a kind of research for me – even in those days I was doing it. I started analyzing why I liked certain types of music, on more granular levels of samples and texture, and this curiosity carried through into my studies in signal processing.”

Though aware that she had a knack for math, the thought of appearing nerdy was a source of anxiety for Steinunn. “As a teenager, I loved mathy stuff, but it created this inner tension with myself. I didn’t see anything very cool that you could do with it. The stuff that was used to attract interest in engineering studies at high school were things like models for queuing at a hamburger place, or anything that involves wearing a hard hat. Full respect to the people who do that, but if I’d have known about audio DSP earlier on it would have saved me a lot of anxiety about what I wanted to do.”

Music had always been Steinunn’s biggest hobby and passion, but she never saw herself as a musician. To her surprise, it was engineering that would provide her with a way to channel that passion. “I was a bit more of a behind the scenes kind of person,” she says. “I was always good at math, and I liked studying it. But when I realized you could actually combine math and music in the field of electrical engineering with signal processing, this was like seeing the light. It was early into my studies when I realized you could combine these two things – it was like finding my new self.”

After attending the Music Technology Master’s program at the Center for Computer Research (CCRMA) in Music and Acoustics at Stanford, it didn’t take long for Steinunn to find her way to Berlin. “Being into music, I’d known about Native Instruments for a while. I got to know the products as I started to dig into DJing and production a bit more. I decided to shoot them a line when I was finishing my first year in Music Technology, because it was my dream job.”

Those days of digging for hip hop samples in her teenage years would find new relevance when she landed a summer job at Native. Her first job was to create effects based on vintage samplers – the iconic hardware behind old-school hip hop – and to bring them to MASCHINE.

“I found it to be quite a meaningful project,” she beams. “Usually, at the beginning of such a project, I look up the cultural starters of these devices. Vintage samplers and their grittiness have had a significant contribution to the music that came from them.”

It’s often said that limitation drives innovation, and that was true of vintage samplers like the E-mu SP-1200 and MPC60. The SP-1200 had a maximum single sampling time of 2.5 seconds. But producers overcame this by sampling 33⅓ rpm records at 45 rpm and raising the pitch, then replaying the sample at a much slower speed. This technique, combined with the primitive pitching technology, resulted in a gritty, lo-fi sound that became synonymous with rap and dance music from the late-’80s and early-’90s.

“When you study the music production tools of the past, it’s hard not to grow enormous respect for those engineers,” Steinunn adds. “For example, engineers who had to work with components with limited linear range, or in the case of early digital technology such as samplers, limited memory. They had to create workarounds to the limitations of that time.”

Technology advanced, but the sound remained iconic. With an ever-increasing number of producers wanting to tap into the old-school magic, vintage hardware now commands prices into the thousands. But there’s an easier and cheaper way to get that sound – and thanks to Steinunn, it’s baked right into MASCHINE.

It’s hard to pinpoint why vintage samplers have a certain magic to their sound. So how do you go about capturing something so intangible? Steinunn’s approach is a mixture of systematic engineering and just plain trusting your ears. “Early samplers had sample rates significantly below the audio rate, which meant the engineers had to take measures to prevent non-desirable aliasing effects, as well as the lower bit-depth than typically used today. To recreate this effect, I had to create an algorithm that degenerates the signal. This included downsampling and quantizing the signal so that it sounds like it has a certain number of bits. I studied it sonically and visually – plotting out the frequency with spectrograms and so on.”

This methodical approach didn’t go unnoticed by colleagues. “I was sitting at my desk surrounded by vintage samplers, randomly hitting the pads. My DSP colleague Mickael LeGoff was working on a guitar tuner, so he was just picking up a guitar and playing random notes. Marcus Rossknecht [Head of MASCHINE Marketing] walked into our room, and we’d never been introduced, so he took one look at us and joked, “Who are you? What are you doing here? And do we pay you to do this?” It must’ve looked odd to him.”

With the project completed, Native packaged up the effects and released them as part of MASCHINE 1.5. It was an instant hit with the hip hop community. “The S1200, MP60 and all of those sampler modes, we had great feedback on that,” she says, clearly pleased. “A lot of big hip hop artists and producers said that it was something that turned them on to Maschine. That was so inspiring for me, particularly as I was only starting out my career.”

Steinunn’s career at Native would go from strength to strength. Fast forward ten years, and she’s risen from DSP Engineer to Director of Engineering, becoming one of the most respected figures at Native. Along the way, she contributed to popular products such as KONTAKTGUITAR RIGTRAKTOR, and of course, MASCHINE.

We’ve covered the past, so I’m interested in what about the future of audio technology excites Steinunn. “The trend of the last decades of having more and more processing power at our disposal has enabled increasingly sophisticated projects. Now we’ve reached another new level with commodity cloud computing. This is going to be interesting across fields, looking ahead.”

Musicians can breathe a sigh of relief – the robots aren’t taking over, at least according Steinunn. “I’m not concerned that machine intelligence is going to take over human creativity, but rather excited about how we can use such tools to help us package complexity and replace tedious, repetitive tasks. In a broader sense – and not only in music technology – I’m interested in how we, as humankind, will use increasing intelligence in technology to help us.”


10 years of MASCHINE

From artist stories and engineering tales to hardware makeovers and birthday freebies, join us as we celebrate ten years in style. Plus, stay tuned as we reveal what’s next for the MASCHINE software. We’ll be speaking to the developers working hard to bring about the features you’ve been asking for.

To see what’s new, head to the ten years of MASCHINE page.


Photo credits: Kasia Zacharko

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