Sonnox Embraces New Technology

Rod Densham, Managing Director of Oxford based plug in company Sonnox, gives Audiofile a rare insight into his career and behind the scenes of the much loved professional audio company.

How did you get started in the audio industry?
Many years ago I was doing research in X-ray Astronomy. People do ask me how that can be linked to the Audio industry and why I jumped over. In an abstract way they both involve recording data (CCD or microphone) from a performer (radiating star system or musician), mathematically processing or filtering the signal, then outputting the data to an academic paper or loudspeaker. While I was finishing one phase of research I met the good people at Solid State Logic who offered me a job, and the rest of my life couldn’t resist the gravitational pull of audio.

Why did you start Sonnox?
By the mid-2000s, inside Sony the emergent software products were pretty much operating as a self-contained business unit. The opportunity arose to take the business out of Sony, which led to an MBO in 2007 and the formation of Sonnox as an independent Company. Being in control of our own destiny is an inspiring situation. Job creation is an honour as well as a responsibility. Freedom to take alternative technical paths towards innovative products is greatly rewarding.

How has the business evolved over the years?
I could happily reminisce about the evolution of business life in general – endless late nights in hotel rooms fighting the modem AT commands to try to get an email connection at what seemed like 3 baud. Nowadays, joyfully, the technology just works so there are none of those frustrations any more.

How has this software business evolved? There are many shifts: the growth of powerful laptops is possibly the most important, which enables audio software tools to run on inexpensive and portable systems, which in turn gives increasing numbers of talented individuals the ability to make music in the bedroom or the aeroplane. I would argue that automatic software generation packages and powerful development environments have had a similar effect in allowing software programming to become more widespread and efficient. As far as we are concerned, it increases the competition we have; but competition is healthy and leads to better quality products for the customer.

How do you keep up to date with customer demand?
That’s a difficult one! There are so many good ideas we can’t possibly work on all of them. But we’re lucky that we can pick the best and the most promising projects and devote our time to them.

How do you push the boundaries with intuitive and novel user interfaces?
We pay extreme attention to detail. We will not release a product until we are happy with every aspect of it, so we do spend months agonising over pixels on the gui, DSP performance, or arguing about a better work-flow implementation. We have the attitude that a tool should be invisible to a creative user. When you’re cooking, you’re not thinking about the pan! You’re focussing on the sauce, the temperature, the taste, the texture, the flavours. The best, most intuitive interface is the one you don’t notice you’re using. It does what you naturally expect it to do without you thinking about it.

How do you keep on top of emerging technologies and why are they important to the development of your plug-ins?
The technical world marches forwards so quickly, so relentlessly. It takes time, patience and passion to learn about and embrace modern techniques. A good example is the emergence of machine intelligence and deep learning. This area has sprung from nowhere in the last few years to become a vital tool for a new generation of innovative audio products. One thing we actively do internally to encourage blue-sky and wider innovation is developer 10% time. For one day every two weeks we encourage developers to indulge in a project of their own interest, not necessarily related to their current development project (but related to audio, of course!).

You work closely with engineers and producers. Why is it important to work with them when developing new products?
We do, and we’d like to do so much more. These are people who are the life-blood of the audio industry, and they are using our tools every day for their livelihood. They are in the best position to give us valuable insights and experience of how they are attempting to do their jobs, how our tools fit into their work-flows and how we could improve the tools to benefit them even more.

You actively exhibit at the likes of NAMM and IMSTA FESTA. Why is this important?
Shows are hugely important to us and we’re big supporters, particularly of IMSTA as a movement. They give us a great opportunity to talk to our customers and join the real world for a few days away from the computer screens! The feedback we get is overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic when we talk to customers. We have a personal development policy of inviting each employee to attend the shows as often as possible because the experience is always rewarding and full of enrichment.

Sonnox is supporting unsigned artists through an ongoing competition. How did this come about and what is the purpose?
There are a couple of initiatives to which we donate plug-in prizes. We support the song-writing competition associated with the IMSTA-FESTAs (the winner records at Black Rock Studios in Santorini!), and for several years we have sponsored the Student Delegate Association Recording Competitions at the AES conventions.

In a different initiative, we had a shout-out recently to unsigned talent because we wanted to engage with artists whom we pictured would be valuable for our toolbox demographic. In general it helps us get closer to our core customers and is another way of fostering feedback.

You are always developing new plug-ins. What is your most recent plug in?
We have several new releases on the horizon, all very exciting and in some cases a new twist to an old theme. To generalise, we have long provided quality tools for the high-end audio professional. We are passionate about bringing quality tools to everyone in audio, and we are working hard to introduce a “toolbox” series of small and focussed plugins that isolate one audio problem and then will solve that issue simply, quickly, intuitively and with no fuss. The VoxD (Vocal Doubler) is the first of these, taking a vocal and… well, it does what it says on the tin.

What plug in are you most proud of and why?
In a way, you’re always most proud of your most recent release. Otherwise, it wouldn’t get released!

It’s several years since I was involved directly with product development, but it was fun when we were developing the restoration tools, and the DeBuzzer in particular. We obtained many old classic recordings of famous speeches, and we processed them on the beaches. We processed them on the landing grounds, and in the fields. We processed audio of the people, by the people, for the people. One such original recording of a speech by a US President had a very low-level buzz at a distinct frequency, but that frequency hopped by a few thousandths of a Hz every 20 seconds or so. It was awe-inspiring to watch the plug-in lock in and track that troublesome buzz in real-time. And eliminate it, of course!

What has been your biggest challenge?
We firmly believe the most important asset of any Company is its staff. So I would say the biggest challenge is attracting talented, enthusiastic, intelligent and fun-loving audio devotees to Oxfordshire. And ensuring Sonnox is the place to keep their passion.

What has been your biggest success to date?
In terms of products, it must be the Inflator. It’s timeless as an effect, and it’s timeless in terms of sales. Simple, intuitive, effective; almost the perfect product.

How are the next 5 years looking for Sonnox?
The future is bright for Sonnox! I talked earlier about the rewards of being masters of our own destiny. We’re lucky to have tremendously talented and dedicated staff; and together we have plans for several remarkable new products and exciting new markets to develop. The next 5 years will be full of positivity.