Of particular relevance right now, Matthew has also been heavily involved in the design and build of KONTAKT 6’s three included Kontakt Play Series instruments. These ably demonstrate the potential of the sampler’s new musician-friendly instrument construction system, as well as being endlessly usable sound sources in their own right.
Living in Toronto with his wife and two young daughters, Matthew describes himself as a self-taught programmer coming from a producer and live performer background.
“I don’t think I would be any good at designing toasters or websites, but as someone who makes music every day, the transition to designing music technology tools made perfect sense for me,” he begins. “It happened very organically and certainly was never part of any plan. About eight years ago, I was working as an engineer and producer in a recording studio, and I started recording sounds that I wanted to manipulate further for the music I was making. I started exploring samplers and soon found my way to KONTAKT and its scripting language. Since then, I’ve gone from exclusively taking sounds I was recording and teaching myself how to build the things I wanted, to taking sounds made by others and building instruments for a wide range of internationally recognized companies.”
Talk us through your most notable projects.
It’s really amazing and humbling to me that I’ve been a part of over 50 music software projects. Some of these were completed in a few weeks, but the vast majority of them took many months, and in some cases over a year. I could talk for quite some time about this, but I’ll just mention two very different projects that have been important to me.
One of my most notable projects was also my first: Revolution by Wave Alchemy. Around the time I became interested in music software development, I purchased a vintage TR-909 drum machine for live performances and studio work. Since I had been touring a lot, it started to become very impractical to bring the 909 with me, so I started exploring how to recreate the nuances and subtleties of what made this machine special. The project started entirely as something for myself, but at a certain point I thought it would make sense to start selling it, so I built a simple website and dropped a message on an internet forum. To my surprise, I ended up selling a few hundred copies – I would wake up in the morning seeing purchases made while I was sleeping! That was my first sense that this could be a real business. After around a year, though, I realised I had no interest in maintaining an active online shop, so I contacted Wave Alchemy, who began selling the product and helping to develop it further.
Fast forward five years and numerous iterations, and Revolution is the culmination of that initial idea, incorporating direct feedback from thousands of users and a lot of gained experience with music software and KONTAKT scripting.
The second project is one I haven’t been able to tell anyone about until now: designing and developing Native Instruments’ new Kontakt Play Series, launching with KONTAKT 6! The product itself has been in development for the past year – I relocated temporarily to Berlin to do it – and although the end product focuses on minimalism and productivity, the system powering it is deceptively complex.
What, exactly, are the Kontakt Play Series instruments, and how do they work?
You get eight controls (volume blend between two slots, master volume and six assignable macros) and the ability to choose from a collection of sounds, which you can assign to each of the two slots. The controls are deliberately focused on the core essentials, but under the hood there’s a host of parameters for the sound designers who create the presets to modify and adjust.
At first glance, it might not be apparent how powerful the system really is, but that’s also one of the design goals. All those additional under-the-hood parameters will be slowly refined and made available to everyone with updates to the Play Series to be released in the coming months.
How did the development of the Kontakt Play Series instruments play out in both conceptual and logistical terms?
The three Kontakt Play Series instruments will be released with KONTAKT 6 are all based on a framework that I developed over the past year with the KONTAKT instruments team at Native Instruments. I was given the freedom to take the technology they were building into KONTAKT and develop something I felt would showcase the new features of the company’s flagship sampler.
The first area I began looking into was one that both myself and the team at NI were passionate about developing further: the idea of creating a range of instruments that focused on creativity, inspiration and fast workflow. As an instrument designer, one of the hardest parts of the job is curating exactly what should appear in a feature set, and how that feature set should be presented. My first months in Berlin involved lots of prototyping and user tests, where we presented our first drafts and made adjustments based on feedback. As we got further into this process, we could see that the more we curated the options presented to users, the higher they rated the experience of creating music with them.
As soon as you stop creating and start thinking, evaluating and modifying what your instincts tell you, the results drop. That’s definitely not to say there isn’t a place to evaluate creative output and strive to make it better, but most people would agree that the best experiences making music are when you can move quickly and get lost in your creative flow. These instruments are very much made with that philosophy in mind. They give you everything you need and nothing you don’t. They let you tap into your creativity and turn off the distractions.
Being someone who absolutely adores early music technology, I’ve always felt that limitations can be one of the best ingredients to kick-start creativity. With digital tools, we sometimes expect to have every option available all the time, but I rarely hear anyone talk about how limited a Telecaster or Minimoog is. Those kinds of conversations can make sense in theory, but as soon as you sit behind something like a Juno-106 and start feeding off the interaction between what you’re hearing and how it makes your feel, all of those discussions become meaningless.
What can you tell us about KONTAKT 6 itself, having used it extensively? What are your favourite new features?
I think the KONTAKT 6 update could easily go unnoticed at first glance, but once users get a chance to start using the instruments that designers will build for it, the changes are going to be profound. Immediately, my favourite update is that REPLIKA is now included as a built-in effect. It’s no secret that the built-in delay in KONTAKT left more than a little to be desired, but REPLIKA is one of the best delays available, so everything from world-class chorus to tape delay and diffuse reverb are now available inside KONTAKT.
Another huge detail for me is the ability for developers to use custom fonts inside instruments. This is something we’ve been waiting years for, and it’s going to greatly simplify the development process in terms of graphics. Along with that, developers now have the ability to set NKS labels for instruments on a per-preset basis and program actions via mouse clicks, which I’m especially excited about. Although this is a rather technical feature, it’s something I’ve been wanting for a long time, and it’s going to open up many new creative possibilities for the types of instruments that can be developed.
Creator Tools [a new standalone application for developers that makes building and debugging KONTAKT Instruments easier than ever], more than anything, could just be the most exciting development in KONTAKT over the past decade. Already, the mapping features are making ideas and products that would have once been unimaginable a reality.
Tell us about KONTAKT 6’s new Wavetable Module. A game changer?
I think the Wavetable Module in KONTAKT has the potential to absolutely disrupt the idea of what a KONTAKT instrument is and can be. It was a huge honor to be among the first instrument designers to build something with this in mind, and I’m really excited to explore where it can go in the future. One of the earliest prototypes I built at NI specifically exploited the 3D visualizer in a creative way that tested really high with users. Although we didn’t end up using this design in the final release of the KONTAKT 6 content, it was quite obvious how powerful this has the potential to become.
What, for you, are the best things about KONTAKT in general? And what would you change about it if you could?
My favourite thing about KONTAKT is the speed at which a product can go from concept to completion. The technical barrier, while not insignificant, is much friendlier than writing a program from scratch in other languages. I’m first and foremost a music creator, and KONTAKT has allowed me – someone with practically no background in computer sciences – to learn how to build music software and release products without having to devote my life to being a programmer.
I still think there is room for improvement, though. There are a lot of quirks and things you would only know through experience, or trial and error. Specifically, it would be great to have more tools to help speed up some of the repetitive tasks related to instrument creation, such as looping, mapping and editing samples. Also, the process of building a working GUI in KONTAKT for the type of products I’m usually building is a huge challenge at the moment. These issues are all fairly well known, but I think the KONTAKT team is approaching solutions to them, and there will be a lot of solid developments regarding them in the future. I’m especially excited about the new Creator Tools, which I feel has a lot of potential.
Returning to your previous successes, Wave Alchemy Evolution is a particularly sophisticated KONTAKT library, and you were instrumental in the design of its engine and UI. Tell us about that.
Thanks and yes, that was a very special product for me, and one of my personal favourites. Dan Byers at Wave Alchemy really needs to get the credit for the sample library and sound design on this, too. Dan is one of my favourite sound designers, and this is a personal library of his that he has built over the past five years. We had been talking about the idea of making Evolution shortly after the release of Revolution, and we both wanted to create an extremely powerful drum machine that offered users the ability to browse a massive collection of samples with a more intuitive experience than simply loading them from folders.
After several conversations regarding what this product could be, I began wireframing the instrument, detailing every screen and control that would be a part of the final feature set. From there, Dan finalized the sample set and development happened in a record-setting ten-week period where everything came together, from the first line of code, to graphic design and additional engineering, including resampling and editing all the samples from analog tape.
This was also one of the first projects for me that involved two developers at the same time: myself and Alex Gamble, another scripter I work with on the majority of all my projects now.
How would you describe your approach to KONTAKT scripting? What’s the most important aspect of instrument design, in your opinion: power or usability?
I would say the one thing all my products have in common is that they all answer the question: ‘How can I be inspired to approach music creation more creatively?’
As someone who spends just as much of his day making music as designing music software, I’m always thinking of how what I’m making is going to improve my personal music making. Music creation is certainly a broad topic and almost every person you would speak to approaches it differently. I’m usually somewhere in between songwriting, producing, sound designing and engineering. Each piece of music software that focuses on a different aspect of this spectrum requires its own approach. Some products are focused on a simplified user experience, such as Boost by Sample Magic, while others offer a well-thought-out but highly powerful set of features, such as Evolution.
Speaking of Sample Magic Boost, that plug-in marked your first foray into effects design. What other effects are you getting involved in, and how do you find the development process compared to instruments?
Boost was my first VST/AU effect, and it came from a collaboration between myself and Sharooz Raoofi of Sample Magic. He had a very specific signal chain that he was using for mastering his music, and I was doing a lot of sessions that required a zero-latency and easy-to-use mastering tool. The result was Boost and Boost Pro. Although Boost Pro is the more sophisticated of the two, I still really love Boost as it has a very similar philosophy to the KONTAKT 6 instruments. Although the end user only sees a few highly curated controls on the front panel, behind the scenes there are eight unique effect modules, fine-tuned for a result that would take much more effort to achieve manually – exactly the kind of thing I don’t want to find myself doing during a busy session!
I’m currently exploring a few new effects, which are just about ready to leave the wireframing phase and enter development. Unfortunately, it’s not something I can talk about yet, but I’m very excited about them.
I’m also managing the development of a effect specifically dedicated to drum compression. Although I’ve been more hands-off on this project, with other companies doing UX [user experience] and development, I’m equally excited about its release, and I think it’s going to be a much-needed and exciting tool. It’s going to make creative drum compression, especially for acoustic drums, quicker than anything else currently available.
What are the main differences between developing a KONTAKT library and a self-contained plugin?
Conceptually, I think one of the biggest differences lies in what is and isn’t possible. With KONTAKT taking care of many of the more mundane aspects of development (DSP, memory management, etc), those instruments tend to be more flexible regarding the movement from prototype to finished product. It’s also totally possible – and sometimes precisely the situation – that a product never truly leaves prototyping, and new features are added and removed all the way up to release. Although you always want to make a thorough wireframe based on solid UX and user testing, that’s sometimes a luxury you don’t get, and KONTAKT can allow the process of development to stay very dynamic all the way up to release day.
Have you ever been defeated by the complexities of a project, perhaps having to change direction radically to make it doable?
I would say in the earlier days of starting with KONTAKT scripting, this absolutely used to happen, but now I’ve started taking the approach that everything is always possible. It’s just a matter of whether the result justifies the effort.
When I first started, I used to have to do everything myself, from engineering the recording sessions to writing the music for the commercials/demo tracks. Now I’m fortunate to have a wider team of scripters, editors, engineers and sound designers who help me realize finished products.
I think there are many amazing things being done with KSP [Kontakt Script Processor] and still much more to be developed. One of the most intriguing systems I’ve seen recently is the Koala KSP library, written by the developer Davide Magni. Davide is another KSP scripter that I’ve been working with on current projects. We’ve been collaboratively developing new solutions to take instrument development further, and the work we’re doing is something I’m very excited about utilizing in my upcoming projects.
Once you really tap into the power that KSP offers, along with its lightning-fast development times, the results you can create with it are really amazing. I’ve often been told that the instruments I make don’t feel like KONTAKT instruments, and I take that as a compliment. I think many KONTAKT instruments have a stigma of feeling limited or in some way inferior to programs written in languages like C++, but when you’re not afraid to push the limits, the results can be truly surprising.
KONTAKT 6 is available to purchase now.
photos: Michael Libis