How a Burlington software firm plays with muisical mix
When the phone rings at SoundToys, it could be someone as hip as Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails or as mainstream as singer Donny Osmond. Those artists are among the customers who purchase the Burlington company's digital processing tools that help manipulate music.
SoundToys, which describes its mission as "audio with attitude," designs plug-ins -- high-end computer-software gizmos -- with playful names like PurePitch, PhaseMistress and FilterFreak. Founder Ken Bogdanowicz, the New Jersey-born president and CEO of the lower Church Street firm, refers to "our passion for creating simple-to-use products that kick some serious ass."
Serious ass-kicking is apparently now an art form in the entertainment business.
SoundBlender, for instance, is a processor for adding "extra spice" to recorded instruments or vocals. Record producers can create echoes and delay-driven repeats or, by fiddling with an onscreen lever marked "weird and wild," convey noise akin to a rocket ship blasting off.
A software program called Speed controls tempo and pitch. "It can make a whole music mix faster or slower, and even change the key," explains Bogdanowicz, a 41-year-old electrical engineer. "Pop music uses all sorts of effects like this. Producers are always looking for their own secret little edge."
PitchDoctor, which is essentially a repair kit, can "perfect a performance that has a few flaws," says Noah Dater, 27, SoundToys' marketing guru. "This is a way to fix the mistakes."
A year ago that healing process found its way to one of the world's great opera tenors. "We got a call from an engineer working on the recording of a live concert by Pavarotti, who's fanatical about being exactly on pitch," Bogdanowicz points out. "Our product provides first aid for vocals if someone is off-key."
FilterFreak, a recent software implement that ironically gives digital technology a nostalgic analog twist, may appeal to people with retro sensibilities. "It's another sound-shaping tool that boosts or cuts different parts of the tonal spectrum," Bogdanowicz says. "Kind of like a wah-wah pedal on steroids."
One of the new kids on the block is the Tremolator, which provides a way of turning the volume up and down quickly in order to foster a kind of vibrato. It's being released this week, in fact. "We wanted something that captures the sound you can make with those old guitar amps," Bogdanowicz says.
Although the product had not yet been officially released, earlier this month SoundToys received an order for a Tremolator from a legendary folk singer. "An engineer for Paul Simon, who's working on an album, called the other day," Bogdanowicz reports. "He said, We need this now. Can we get it before anyone else?'"
Word of mouth is key for spreading news of any development in the audio demimonde, but a bit of savvy promotion can't hurt. "Ken's job is to design things," says Dater, who hails from Marlboro, Vermont. "Mine is to interpret that and get [trade] magazines to review them." FilterFreak just received four media raves, he notes.
"It's popular with the hip-hop, rap and techno set," Bogdanowicz suggests.
Every SoundToys invention comes in the form of a CD-ROM or can be downloaded for a fee from the company's website. The plug-ins must be used in conjunction with ProTools, an audio editing platform manufactured by DigiDesign. "They're kind of the Micro-soft of the recording industry," Bogdanowicz says.
Visual displays for his company's newer plug-ins have the look of hardware; the image that comes up on your computer screen resembles old-fashioned audio equipment. "Some people are comfortable with knobs," Dater says. "So this gives them a common language."
Technospeak -- whether in a digital or analog dialect -- is the common language for audiogeeks. It's virtually Ken Bogdanowicz's native tongue. The fact that his father is a power-company electrical engineer back in the Garden State probably helped. "I was good in math and I'm a practical-minded person," the younger Bogdanowicz notes, "but growing up I really wanted to be a rock star."
Leaving behind his unnamed high school "basement band," the teenage guitarist enrolled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, with no particular career goal in mind. After taking courses in physics, calculus and circuitry, however, "It finally all clicked," he says.
Bogdanowicz graduated in 1984 and found a job at Eventide, an audio firm not far from his home. Along with colleagues Bob Belcher and Dave Derr, he came up with the H3000 Ultra-Harmonizer, billed as "the world's first intelligent pitch-shifter and the studio standard multi-effects processor." They followed up that achievement with the DSP4000 Ultra-Harmonizer, "the world's first modular effects processor."
By the mid-1990s Bogdanowicz had launched his own enterprise, Wave Mechanics, on the third floor of his Victorian house in Montclair, New Jersey. Belcher joined him. The Ultra-Harmonizer gadgets were applied mostly to instruments. PurePitch -- which was soon followed by PitchDoctor, SoundBlender and Speed -- can accommodate voices.
Not long after the new millennium, Bogdanowicz migrated north "mainly for lifestyle issues," he says. "And my wife comes from Mon-treal, so it's nice for our two kids to be able to see their grandparents."
Today, SoundToys -- which switched from Wave Mechanics last year -- has six employees and sells its software worldwide. Musicians from South America to Europe, India and Japan have purchased the plug-ins either via the website or in stores.
Noah Dater, a 1988 University of Vermont graduate, earned a master's degree in web design from Marlboro College. He honed his marketing skills at Country Home Products in Vergennes and gained audio savvy through a job at Windham Hill, the West Townshend-based label specializing in folk, classical and jazz.
Dater's SoundToys gig, which began a year and a half ago, lets him work in a light-filled space where everyone dresses casually, the ambiance is easygoing and the terminology is intense. Try wrapping your artsy brain around this description of Phase-Mistress in the company catalogue: "[It] combines the warmth of classic analog phasing with tempo-locked modulation and programmable LFO shapes."
Such lingo is second nature to Jim Wolvington, a Burlington sound designer who lends his expertise to the Star Trek franchise of movies and television shows. Those aliens wouldn't talk funny without his creative tweaking courtesy of Speed, Pitch-Doctor and SoundBlender.
Why does a guy with every possible Hollywood technology at his fingertips stick to SoundToys? "Better than any other product I've seen, Speed, which I use the most, expands sound with the least amount of distortion and stretches it without changing the pitch," says Wolvington, whose one-man operation is called Savant Sound. "It's a clearer form than all the other tools out there."
Other Tinsel Town projects have benefited from Bogdanowicz's efforts. He's sworn to secrecy, but in an upcoming animated film by a major director, PurePitch will electronically change the voice of a famous actor whose character magically goes from middle age back to childhood.
Bogdanowicz says Sky-walker Sound, the California-based George Lucas endeavor, "owns our software." And the soundtrack for last year's Insomnia, a thriller with Al Pacino and Robin Williams, includes some of the company's effects.
Accolades might be available from SoundToys customers such as Missy Elliot, P. Diddy, Eminem, Julio Iglesias, John Tesh and -- gulp! -- Martha Stewart. But Bogdanowicz and his team tend to be modest. And not enticed by corporate greed.
"We have maybe eight significant competitors," he says. "In high-end, it's a bunch of little boutique businesses that can be more innovative. I've seen growth destroy a company's core values. You get far away from your original mission by just seeking profit. I'm personally into design; I don't want to be a manager. Bigness is not always better."
Accordingly, big egos are not in evidence at SoundToys. No autographed pictures of celebrities hang on the walls -- only framed Bob Marley and Jerry Garcia photos Bogdanowicz bought on Martha's Vineyard.
"I spend all my days working on technology, then I go home to play acoustic guitar," he says when asked about his youthful aspirations for rock stardom. "I'm into advanced noodling."
His noodling on behalf of audio with attitude is another matter. "Coming up with an idea is the easy part," Bogdanowicz admits. "Then we go through months and months of design work. That's much trickier. There's a six-month lag time between the concept and getting it out there."
The Trent Reznors and Donny Osmonds of America might be interested to know about some SoundToys concepts yet to reach the marketplace: FlangeThing, Echo-Boy, PanMan and the Decapitator. Stay tuned.