Ed. Twisted Tools are a special breed of music software makers, concocting wild-sounding instruments, sequencers, and effects, all with a distinctively-colorful and graphical approach to interface design. And they do all of this in Reaktor, Native Instruments’ deep toolbox for visual development of soundmakers, a patching cousin to tools like Max/MSP, Pd, and Plogue Bidule. Various patchers take a DIY approach to building musical tools in such environments, but Twisted Tools have successfully turned those creations into a business.
That’s part of what makes this interview well worth a read, whether you’re an end user or a developer. Writer Markus Schroeder talked to Twisted Tools’ Igor and Josh for the German publication AMAZONA.de; you can read that translated interview in German. But the interview itself was originally conducted in English. Through the generous permission of Markus and AMAZONA.de, we reproduce that full English interview, edited in its entirety, for CDM.
In it, Markus asks some probing questions about designing and selling musical tools, with some insights into the Twisted Tools’ current catalog. And Twisted Tools share both praise and criticism for Reaktor as a tool – there’s some tough love in there. I’ll let Markus take it from here. -PK
Tell us a bit about the foundations of Twisted Tools and its team members.
IGOR: Josh and I started Twisted Tools about a year ago now. It’s basically the two of us with lots of encouragement and support from friends and fans. Several years back, Josh contacted me because he was a fan of my work. He wanted help building an idea of his, and we got to know each other well using Google Chat. At some point, we decided that it would be cool to start a business together selling such things. At University, I studied Linguistics and worked as an English interpreter, which in many ways comes in handy now with Twisted Tools. When I was studying, I began fooling around with DAWs, then discovered Reaktor and got hooked. The rest is history. As for Twisted Tools, it’s my full time gig now.
JOSH: I think we began thinking about starting a business together because we saw eye-to-eye on almost everything; at the same time, we bring unique ideas to the table. I’m an electronic musician and a teacher, so I think I tend to approach instrument design from a user’s perspective. Igor spends most of his time on the inside looking out, from a builder’s perspective, so the partnership works out nicely. We still use Google Chat as our primary means of communication. In fact, all our work is done using chat, which I also think helps us to focus. Lots of people ask me why we don’t ever use audio or video chat, but I really think we’d lose something in doing so.
Until recently, I was the Course Director of Computer Music Production at a digital arts college in the San Francisco area. Now Twisted Tools is my main occupation, too. I don’t perform at all. Once upon a time, I DJ’ed and produced electronic music. These days, Twisted Tools satisfies most of my creative urges, though I’d love to get back to music making, too.
How long you have been actively developing with Reaktor, and why did you get started?
JOSH: Igor has been building for about five or six years, and I’ve been doing some basic building on and off for several years, but I wouldn’t consider myself a true builder. I tinker and understand the basics, but nothing like Igor, who probably has 20 years’ experience if you’re counting by the hour.
As far as why I got started, I bought Reaktor 3 to basically just use the factory stuff. There are so many interesting and unique things about Reaktor that I can’t remember exactly what interested me most about it. When you crack it open and demo it for the first time, it is pretty jaw-dropping. Then you open up the structure and realize the potential. The urge to make modifications creeps up on you and before you know it, you’re building stuff for fun. It is like an addictive puzzle that makes sounds.
What were the reasons to take the step to commercially selling your Ensembles? And does it pay off, in one way another?
JOSH: Well, I think it came down to simply gaining enough confidence to try. I’d hired Igor to help me build stuff before and was super pleased with the results. So I was totally confident in the quality; I just wasn’t sure if people would buy Reaktor ensembles and/or how many people out there were even using Reaktor. Reaktor hadn’t been updated in years and seemed forgotten, so it seemed like an unlikely business idea. But, when I saw the first versions of Vortex that Igor had made, I was pretty confident that people would buy it and so was Igor. So we moved on that impulse…
IGOR: As far as it paying off, I suppose it depends on what kind of currency we’re talking about 🙂 We spend a ton of time on Twisted Tools, more than most people would imagine. I would say that we spend at least four or five hours a day, usually six days a week on Twisted Tools. That’s a very conservative guess. The response has been incredible and as cliche as it sounds, I think that makes it worth it alone.
What was the reaction from the Community of the Reaktor User Library?
Were you worried about possibly sending some wrong signals out to them, since there are a lot of high quality Ensembles for free?
JOSH: To be honest, I’m not sure what the reaction was like for everyone. I’m sure some approved and some didn’t, but I think either way people respect the quality. The overwhelming majority of the things I’ve heard have been positive and I think that in many ways, selling Reaktor ensembles has been good for the Reaktor community. I don’t really see much difference between selling a VST/AU or selling a Reaktor patch. In fact, the only reason a VST/AU is better is because you can run it without owning Reaktor. Otherwise, having a Reaktor ensemble is so much more powerful than owning a VST/AU. You can open up our stuff, modify it, study it, make OSC routings, etc. Plus, our development process is faster and our updates/fixes come more frequently than most VST/AUs.
IGOR: In the end, the question is, do people find it useful and of value? If they do and want to pay for it, that’s great. If not, that’s fine too. There are still tons of amazing free instruments in the User Library and if someone finds what suits their needs there, that’s great. But we definitely don’t feel we’re sending the wrong signals. NI sells Reaktor ensembles too now in the Player format, so what’s the difference?
Was it difficult to suddenly deal with issues like online selling and customer support?
JOSH: Absolutely! Especially after our first launch. We didn’t expect that kind of traffic and the e-commerce cart we were using had a poorly-programmed PHP script that ended up crashing the server, due to traffic load. Our host didn’t like that, and not only shut us down in the middle of our first day, but locked us out and I couldn’t get to our files. Nightmare…but, we changed hosts and somehow managed to get things back up in a day or so. I learned quite a lot in those first days.
IGOR: It’s really a lot of work, still since we do everything ourselves — instrument design, GUI design, web design, support, marketing, documentation, videos, etc. At first it was very difficult, but it has definitely gotten a bit smoother. We are kind of lucky to be in two time zones because we take shifts which basically gives us a 24/7 customer support system. It’s rare that a customer sends in a request for help and more than several hours go by without a response. We’re happy about being able to provide that kind of support.
What was the reason of going Reaktor instead of making software on your own?
IGOR: Reaktor is a great platform to develop with. It has a great interface and many possibilities. All that I know about DSP and instrument design, I learned while working with Reaktor. Neither of us know any other programming languages, so there wasn’t really a choice. We’d love to do VSTs and AUs someday, though.
JOSH: If we do VST/AUs, we’d obviously be able to tap into a larger market, so it is something we are considering more seriously.
What did Reaktor already provide as building blocks, and how much did you have to invent by yourself in the form of Core programming or Macros?
IGOR: I use my personal macros and core library wherever it is possible. I trust these structures and know them inside and out, making it easy for me to tweak things and look for bugs. Building this library took years though. The initial steps were back-engineering the factory content of course. I think that this is a very good way to learn things in Reaktor when you are starting out. The documentation is only useful up until a point because there are so many variables involved in building.
If there was a lot of Core programming, can you tell us about the the process of working with it? Did you face any obstacles?
IGOR: Of course, Core is a great environment with lots of possibilities; however, it’s still pretty limited, and some very basic workflow features are lacking. For example, you can’t copy/paste input and output ports inside Core Cells, you can’t duplicate the selected structure preserving connections, as opposed to primary, etc. Then there is the lack of polyphony management, iteration issues, event loops, snap-able memory, the list goes on. Lets hope that the situation will improve in the future.
Ed.: NI engineers, I hope someone is taking notes. Core is incredibly powerful, and could be even more so… -PK
What were the hardest obstacles to overcome?
IGOR: I wish we had the ability to save in the Reaktor Player format, so we could share our work with more people, since it wouldn’t require that you own Reaktor.
Now let´s have a look at the catalog of Ensembles Twisted Tools have to offer, and get some insights on their inspiration.
What was your initial conception behind Vortex?
IGOR: The vision behind Vortex was to create a flexible, sample-based groove box that is capable of simple yet powerful control over one-shot samples as well as loops. In Vortex, you can stretch short one-shot samples and create long textures, slice and chop loops, or create drum kits.
How you know when what you’ve got is a final product?
IGOR: Well, as they say, perfect is the enemy of good, so you need to stop at some point when developing instruments. It’s impossible to fulfill everybody’s needs, but I think we did our best and covered the most important areas.
JOSH: There certainly is always room to improve something, but we also run the chance of making it worse by adding too much. Our devices get pretty complex and we always end up having to leave things out, which is usually a good thing. Sometimes simple can be good, too, though, so I think we’ll be releasing a new line of tools that have fewer options, but are still powerful, in the very near future.
What were you ideas for Colorflex?
IGOR: The idea behind Colorflex was to take a simple, 16×16 note matrix and push it to the limit.
JOSH: We wanted to make a sequencer that could be used for both hardware and software, with lots of creative possibilities. The graphic layer approach makes it fun to look at and use.
How much of it have you achieved to get into the final product?
JOSH: I think we squeezed as much into Colorflex as possible. It is a very deep and complex device, with tons of options if you dig into it. It started out as a simple cell matrix based on colors and kept growing from there. If you want to sequence MIDI CC’s you can use it just for that — or you can use it to automate other Reaktor devices using IC Sends. Those were things we added and that took a long time to get working properly, but make the device do a lot more than we’d initially planned. In some ways, Twisted Tools devices are like improvisations that start out in one direction and end up somewhere totally new by the time they’re finished. I think the ability to basically improvise while you build is one of the things that makes Reaktor instruments interesting compared to building standard VSTs.
The Matrix Sequencer is very powerful, as are the editing options. How complicated was developing the different edit layers and make them work?
IGOR: It was pretty complicated, of course; we had to deal with Stacked Macros and it’s not the most pleasant part when working on GUI.
JOSH: Igor is putting it mildly. Reaktor is limited to a four-pixel resolution for moving graphics around on the interface, which makes finalizing the look a true pain.
What was the driving idea for Buffeater?
IGOR: Obviously, Buffeater is not the first effect of this kind, but it was a personal take. It’s also entirely focused on buffer based processing (no filters, lo-fi crushers etc).
JOSH: We definitely wanted everything to be automatable and we wanted it to have a great library of sounds and presets to get people started. That was important. Not only is everything automatable, but each parameter’s automation lane can be set to a unique speed so that patterns overlap and evolve in unique ways. Each effect has presets as well that store the automation. You can even record live automation into a lane by turning on record and twisting knobs.
How much of the original concept survived in the final product?
JOSH: We’re very happy with how Buffeater turned out. It’s a ton of fun and we’ve received a great response. There are a lot of buffer effects out there now, and they all do something interesting and unique. We had a similar effect brewing before we did Buffeater that’s also good for live mangling, but sounds and feels totally different. Perhaps we’ll end up putting that one out, as well … it’s never enough.
What do you think makes these six effects so popular, generally?
JOSH: Well, people like to mangle and twist up audio. Buffer effects are a good quick way to do that.
Scapes is another way-out kind of thing. How did you get the inspiration for it?
IGOR: The initial inspiration was to create a multi-faced instrument that’s capable of creating rhythmic structures, soundscapes, process incoming sounds, etc., all with a unique twist.
JOSH: Again, this device was really something that took on a mind of its own. At first it was a soundscape generator, then it started to evolve into a percussive instrument and synth…then it morphed into an effects processor. Eventually we decided that it could do all of those things together in a neat way. Rather than making several devices, we put them together all in one, and the result is a very unique instrument. Whether you are a sound designer at Lucas Arts, a video game composer, musician, or an iPad enthusiast, Scapes is useful and fun.
We hadn’t really anticipated the iPad control potential until we hooked up with the guys from Konkreet Labs. They had just finished developing their Konkreet Performer iPad controller app right around when we were planning to launch Scapes. The two work brilliantly together. When I first set it up, I sat my wife down in front of it and she just started playing for about an hour. I swear I had to tear it out of her hands…she’s not an electronic music producer, but she had so much fun, anyways. This is a side of Scapes that we hadn’t anticipated.
Scapes is so versatile, is there still something that should be included?
JOSH: I think we truly created a unique device that we are both very proud of. The response has been amazing so far. So… no.
A short time ago, I honestly thought granular synthesis was mostly done, since only few products using the technique managed to produce their own distinct sounds or interesting sounds at all. Then, Curtis for iOS, from The Strange Agency , came along and rekindled my interest. What is your take on grains?
IGOR: I think Scapes itself answers this question 🙂
JOSH: The funny thing is, we kind of were worried that people would think like you, and we changed the name from Grainscapes to Scapes for this very reason. Scapes makes unique and complex sounds. The sounds can’t be used for everything, but they have their own place, as does granular synthesis.
Your products often revolve around the idea of chaotic and fractalized sequences. Do you see your work in terms of using data of stochastic, mathematic or physics sources as means to create musical events?
IGOR: I think Colorflex is capable of both – fractal, semi-random structures, and more day-to-day musical stuff. Though I wouldn’t place Colorflex in that area, entirely.
Right now, taking an academic approach to instrument development doesn’t excite me. There is definitely a place for this, but in our case, it’s all about music.
JOSH: The more important question for us is, is it going to be something that’s fun to use? Is it useful, simple enough to understand, but complex enough to grow into? What kind of sounds does it produce? Is it intuitive? Does that matter for this particular device?
Thank you very much for the interview Josh and Igor.
And also let´s have a big shout out to the Reaktor community. Without them, Reaktor could not be where it is today – one of the most sizzling music applications you can get.
This interview was conducted by Markus Schroeder and originally published by AMAZONA.de in German translation. This interview on CDM is the original English transcript, which is supplied in approval by the author, Twisted Tools and AMAZONA.de
More information at:
Twisted Tools – http://twistedtools.com