Interview – Dave Spiers of GForce Software

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GForce Software’s Dave Spiers shares some history of the company with SoundBytes, and also tells us some interesting facts that are behind some of their impressive products.

 

by Rob Mitchell, May 2016

 

The company named GForce Software has produced some of the finest synthesizer plugins in the world. They started out with the M-Tron, which was a virtual recreation of the classic Mellotron. Later, they tackled the world of synthesizers. Teaming up with Ohm Force, they put together the plugin named Oddity, which emulated the legendary ARP Odyssey.

They didn’t stop there however, and continued on with many other impressive titles, including the Minimonsta, impOSCar (and later they released the impOSCar 2), Virtual String Machine, and an improved version of the M-Tron named the M-Tron Pro. They recently released a sequel to their original Oddity software which was aptly titled Oddity 2, continuing their legacy as a top notch software company.

Gmedia Music was formed in 2000 by Dave Spiers and Chris Macleod (pictured above with Dave on the left), and GForce Software was formed in 2003. Mr. Spiers was kind enough to answer some questions I had about himself and the company.

 

SoundBytes: To start this off, I want to say thank you for taking the time to go over some questions I have, and hope all is well. I’m sure the SoundBytes readers will be glad to hear from you. I was wondering about how it all started. Before Gmedia and GForce took off, were you a musician and/or a programmer in the years leading up to that?

Dave Spiers: Thanks for asking me to take part. I’ve read a few previous interviews in SoundBytes and always found them interesting. Hopefully I won’t let the side down.

Music has dominated everything in my life. As a kid I’d had piano lessons but was always obsessed with records that had these fascinating sounding instruments on them, and eventually discovered they were called synthesizers. I’m going back to the days of Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book album, Chicory Tip’s Son Of My Father and ELP’s Trilogy. Synths (especially Moog’s and ARPs) were insanely expensive in the UK back then and my piano chops were never as good as my peers, so I ended up taking a detour by playing drums and very occasionally keyboards (with a cheesy Crumar Electric Piano and Roland SH-1000) in a variety of school and college bands.

In the early 80s playing drums eclipsed the keyboard side of things but while I loved it, any money I made, musically or otherwise, was spent buying synthesizers and electronic drums. Around this time there was a demand for people who knew about music and music technology … especially this new invention called MIDI … and as a result I started programming synths and drum machines for artists who simply wanted the freedom to play without getting bogged down in all this new-fangled technology. Through that I toured with a couple of name bands in the early 90s, but the first Gulf War decimated touring for a while and I found myself working as a researcher on a couple of synthesizer books, and then co-founding a software company with the same author. Later we produced one of the first mass market hardware controllers, the PhatBoy.

Chris Macleod effectively ran that side of the business and was pivotal in PhatBoy’s inception. In 2000, Chris and I decided to go it alone and start Gmediamusic which became GForce Software.

SB: Were there certain musical artists you listened to growing up that you were influenced by, and did that end up steering you towards the path that you’re on today?

DS: Absolutely. As a kid growing up with these electronic sounds on the radio, TV and records was magical. It was what the future was all about!

Obviously, I’d listened to a lot of pop music growing up and tracks like the synth-laden Nutbush City Limits had always grabbed me, but in pop music the synth was often only used for a solo or a hook which wasn’t enough for me. After this I got introduced to Prog bands like ELP, Yes and Genesis and I felt driven to understand their work both musically and sonically. I think the albums that first grabbed me were Brain Salad Surgery and Trilogy, but after a while I realized that it was all very cerebral and heavily inspired by the same compositions I’d been studying via piano lessons.

For a while, I became more interested in the instruments for the sounds that they were capable of. But because drumming was all about the “groove”, I adored the way artists like Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock and George Duke used these instruments within groove-laden compositions that felt less cerebral and more visceral. Later, when Gary Numan came along with The Pleasure Principle album, tracks like Cars and Are Friends Electric felt new and fresh and I remember walking into my A Level Music lesson and announced “The piano is dead”.

The lecturer’s questions were “Can you play more than one note on a synthesiser?” and “Are they velocity dynamic?” And while the CS80 offered both of those things back then (a) I didn’t know it at the time, and (a) I didn’t care either way. Later, Scritti Politti made me feel the same, and I think if there was one album that made me want to be a synth patch designer, it was Cupid & Psyche 85

SB: How did the collaboration with Ohm Force begin?

DS: Because Chris and I had previously built the PhatBoy hardware controller, we understood what was involved in selling into retail stores and had decent retail and distribution connections in various parts of the world. As a result, when we released the M-Tron we used the same method, and it worked really well for us.

Other independent, fledgling plug-in companies didn’t understand the complexities of getting boxed software products into stores, nor did they have access to distribution in places like the US and Japan, so we were approached by a few companies who asked us to help them in that arena. Ohm Force were one such company and we liked them as people and admired their work (Ohm Boyz delay was, and still is, brilliant) so after we’d created a boxed product for them to put through stores under the GForce banner, we asked them to collaborate with us on Oddity.

SB: The Oddity is well known for being a spot-on emulation of the ARP Odyssey. Were there any issues you ran into while developing it?

DS: Probably the biggest issue was making sure the Odyssey we used for the modelling process was calibrated properly and remained functioning throughout the epic emulation task. If I remember correctly we tried a few different Odyssey instruments and opted for the Black and Gold MkII model largely because it was robust and fully functional.

Think about it, if you hand over a piece of delicate vintage hardware to an engineer and it’s not working 100% correctly, those faults could easily end up in the modelled version. Actually, a few years later we did hear a rumor that this happened, and a certain software company released a plug-in complete with faults inherited from their original instrument. I have no idea if that’s true or not but, either way, it’s the stuff of nightmares, and why I’ll always be A/B-ing software builds with the original instruments throughout the development process and giving feedback to the engineers.


SB: I always dreamed of getting an actual Minimoog, but they are just a tad bit expensive, especially now in 2016. When I heard about the Minimonsta, it just made my day. It is still one of my favorite synthesizer plugins. This is probably a silly question as you probably have a good collection of keyboards, but do you have a Minimoog yourself?

DS: Of course. We’ve never modelled anything because it seems like a good business idea. Everything we’ve done has come from necessity or a love of an instrument and history back-story. All our plug-ins are derived from instruments we own and actually I was really reluctant to embark on a Minimoog emulation because (a) Steinberg had their Model E and (b) ours is an early oscillator Minimoog which, while sounding lovely, goes out of tune at the drop of a hat. Also, no matter how many times we try to sort it out, the keyboard tuning calibration has never been 100%. Over the years I’ve learned to tweak the Master Tune knob to a different position, depending on if I’m playing a bass line or lead line.

However, the idea of a stable, early oscillator board plug-in Minimoog emulation began to gnaw and eventually we decided to go for it.

The Minimoog is a very special instrument. You really do feel the electrons pulsing through it when you play it. Occasionally I talk about synth history at Universities and Colleges and I’ll always take the Minimoog along as an example of what defined everything thereafter. After I’ve done my talk I’ll then let these kids play it and every time, without fail, as soon as they touch it, they grin. Even the too-cool-for-school kids will make a connection with it.


SB: Having both the impOSCar and impOSCar 2, I’d just like to say they are two awesome synth plugins that have a unique sound and character. I have read that the filters from the impOSCar were licensed out to a couple of other companies. How did that all come about?

DS: The main company was Spectrasonics and again if I remember correctly, before we’d released impOSCar I’d posted some audio demos on our website. Eric Persing emailed me saying “Wow, they sound so musical. Can we talk about licensing?”

That was a big moment because I think Eric is someone who genuinely does have golden ears. He’s also someone who always approaches everything from the music first, and I think that’s vital.

In our industry, when good engineering dovetails with musicality, that’s when great products happen and in my opinion there have been many software (and hardware) companies who think that engineering is somehow more important. In fact, years ago I acted as a consultant to a company where the creatives wouldn’t listen to the engineers and vice versa. It was a case of each division working in isolation and then presenting their work as a fait accompli. Getting both sides of the fence to talk to each other in a way that each understood was hugely challenging, but incredibly rewarding when it came together. That whole experience is something I refer to regularly.

SB: I enjoyed watching those videos with Rick Wakeman and yourself demonstrating a few of the software titles. I really like the presets he programmed for the Minimonsta. (I’m a big time Yes fan, by the way). How did you end up working together?

DS: As I write this, we’ve just heard the really sad news about Keith Emerson and it’s especially poignant here because Chris spent many years touring as a tech (or ‘roadie’ as he likes to call it) with a variety of bands in his youth including Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson. He has so many great stories from back then and it was an amazing way for a young man to travel the world, something he’s eternally grateful for.

As a result, we’ve always regarded Rick as a friend, so we asked him to help during Minimonsta development, and also for him to create some of his well-known sounds as patches. Later we also asked him to come to NAMM with us for the launch and were genuinely blown away when he agreed.

Apart from being a superb musician, Rick is a great raconteur and one of life’s true practical jokers. Just before we were due to leave for NAMM, he came to my home and we spent a day chatting about what would be fun to do at the launch demos. We both disliked those rehearsed and impersonal product demos that we’d seen all too often at trade shows, so we decided to “wing it” and just have some fun talking about the original instruments versus the plug-ins and for him to do some playing using the latter.

Because we had some meetings and setting up to do before NAMM started, Chris and I flew separately to Rick, and I was actually preparing a few things on the stage when Rick arrived a few days later. He shouted “Hello” and I looked up to see him standing there with both arms in plaster-casts and slings.

My jaw hit the floor, and I know I said something along the lines of “Oh Sh*t!”

Rick saw the panic on my face, peeled off the plaster-casts, grinned from ear to ear and said “Gotcha!”

SB: Did you ever dream you would have so many varied software titles, or was that the plan all along?

DS: This is going to sound funny but there was never any big plan. In fact, half-joking, I’ve said to people that we’re more of a cautionary tale than an example.

The whole thing started out simply because we had that PhatBoy controller, and stores kept asking us to make a software instrument to bundle with it so they could create a point of sales display. We’d seen a glimpse of what was possible in terms of software instruments via Propellerhead’s Reason, Steinberg’s Model E and NI’s Pro 5 and to us that was really exciting. So we tried to build our own insanely ambitious software synth, and eventually realized it was beyond the capabilities of computing power back then, as well as our own abilities.

Knowing we’d have to take smaller steps we were driving somewhere one day and thought “How about a virtual Mellotron? That’d be fun to realize, and certainly easier than a massive analogue emulation.” I had a mountain of original Mellotron tapes that I’d accumulated over the years and the initial idea was to create a plug-in for ourselves. Don’t forget, these were the days when making music with a Mellotron was as hip as trying to start a fire with a twig and some string, but after word got out that we’d made this M-Tron plug-in, we started getting people asking “Can I buy one?”

We just fell into it really and we had no idea about support or bug fixing and it’s fair to say those first few months were fraught with problems and it was a kind of baptism by fire. At one point we just looked at each other and said “If we’re gonna do this, we have to do it properly” and that was the real start of it.

We have an extensive collection of old vintage keyboards and we’re always researching their histories. What often happens if that we get so absorbed in that research and the stories, the idea of recreating something in software takes hold.

SB: Are there any secret plans in the works for any new software products? The Oddity, impOSCar, and M-Tron all had new and improved versions. I wondered if there might be any new features added for the Virtual String Machine and/or the Minimonsta?

DS: I used to tell everyone about what we were up to, mainly because I loved the dialogue with our customers and other synth heads, but I changed that after impOSCar2. We spent so long saying “coming soon” and then watching as every deadline went whizzing by, that I think we frustrated a lot of people, not least ourselves. After that I promised everyone here I’d keep my big mouth shut about what we were doing until we were ready to ship. If I now say anything, they’re perfectly entitled to hit me around the head with a telephone directory until I pass out.

All I can say is that we’re always working on several ideas at a time, for both new and existing instruments. Sometimes we’ll get on a roll with certain things and they’ll literally fall out the sky whereas others need more time to gestate and mature. This can change on a weekly basis, but the rule we have is that nothing gets released until we’ve said “wow” at least three times.

SB: Now that the Oddity 2 has been out for a while, are there other projects you’ve been working over the past couple of years?

DS: To us, the stories behind the instruments have always been as important as the instruments themselves and we’ve always liked to think that we’re paying homage to those pioneers like Bob Moog & Alan Pearlman who, in our opinion, embodied an ethos and philosophy at a particular moment in time.

A couple of years ago a UK band called I Monster came to us with an idea for an album. It would pay tribute to a few of these pioneers, and in order to make that album truly authentic, they asked if they could have access to our extensive synth collection. Both Chris and I are big fans of theirs so we immediately said “Yes”.

During the recording process, Dean from I Monster asked if I’d make a short film to accompany the album, and I immediately recalled an occasion when I’d taken the back of our Minimoog off in order to take it to NAMM for Bob Moog to sign. On the way to the airport I realized I’d forgotten it and cursed, but Chris told me not to worry and that Bob would be at Frankfurt a couple of months later. Sadly Bob wasn’t, and the synth world lost not only a legend but a wonderful human too.

Dean’s question reminded me that we have but a limited time to document some of these synth pioneer stories and so I threw myself into making the Bright Sparks Documentary, interviewing and getting stories from people like Herb Deutsch, Michelle Moog-Koussa, Peter Zinovieff, Alan R. Pearlman (pictured right with Dave Spiers), Ken Freeman and others.

It felt like a ‘calling’, and it quickly morphed from a short film into an epic two hour documentary that I’m immensely proud of, and I’ve had some amazing feedback from. It’s not every day that people like Vince Clarke and Brian Eno tell you that you’ve done something cool and I’m eternally grateful for the opportunity to document these important historically important stories, and also to all the people that helped bring it to fruition.

SB: In closing, I want to say thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with the SoundBytes readers, and please let us know of any other developments. We wish you the best of luck in the future, and hope to hear from you again soon.

DS: Thank you very much for asking me.

 

For more information on Gforce Software, check out their website here:

http://www.gforcesoftware.com/

Information about the Bright Sparks documentary:

http://brightsparks.movie/

 

 

 

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