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Softube: Modelling Hardware In Software

Oscar Öberg, Arvid Rosén & Niklas Odelholm
By Sam Inglis

For many years, the Softube staff comprised only four people, all of whom had an active role in product development. From left: Niklas Odelholm, Torsten Gatu, Arvid Rosén and founder Oscar Öberg.For many years, the Softube staff comprised only four people, all of whom had an active role in product development. From left: Niklas Odelholm, Torsten Gatu, Arvid Rosén and founder Oscar Öberg.Photo: Igor Miná

Ever wondered how plug-in companies recreate classic outboard gear in your DAW? We take a peek into Softube's modelling lab to find out.

For every real Pultec equaliser or Fairchild compressor sitting in a studio rack, millions of virtual examples occupy DAW insert points. Almost every classic piece of studio hardware ever made has inspired plug-in versions, ready to be patched in at the click of a mouse; and the same goes for guitar amps, effect pedals and even microphones. Among the market leaders when it comes to authentic recreations of hardware devices are Softube.

The company have always been based in the Swedish city of Linköping, where, in the early years of this century, an engineering student needed to come up with a final-year degree project. Unimpressed with the digital guitar amps that were then available, Oscar Öberg and a friend decided to develop their own amp-modelling system. "I'm very stubborn!" laughs the man who is now Softube's President. "So when we started initially trying to model stuff, we had the explicit goal of doing it better than everyone had done it before. We really, really kept trying until we got it. And I think that stubbornness kind of got embedded into the company culture."

The very first device that Softube set out to model was this Marshall JCM800 valve amp head.The very first device that Softube set out to model was this Marshall JCM800 valve amp head.After lengthy negotiations, the resulting technology was licensed to Marshall in 2007, and Softube soon found their skills in demand by other companies too. The first native plug-in to be released as a Softube product was 2007's Vintage Amp Room; since then, they have built up a catalogue of more than 50 plug-ins, and in 2014, they launched their first product with a hardware component, the innovative Console 1 controller.

To celebrate the 15th anniversary of Softube's foundation, I visited Linköping to get a sneak preview of some upcoming products, and to find out more about the techniques that are employed in creating software models of hardware devices.

Soft Schemes

The first step in the modelling process, naturally, is to get hold of the hardware device being modelled, and the Softube offices are strewn with guitar amps, rack units and synth modules that have been acquired for the purpose. Ideally, you might think, the goal would be to measure multiple examples of each unit, but as Arvid Rosén, Softube's VP R&D, explains, this isn't necessarily helpful. "Individual variation between units can be quite significant, but it's easier to just have one and try to match that. Otherwise, you are never done tweaking if you have two. It's usually just one, but we try to make sure it's a good one."

The next step is to ascertain how the hardware unit actually works. "It's crucial to have schematics, and they need to be correct," insists Arvid. "This is not trivial, even for modern products. Even if we work together with a company and the people actually designing them, there are usually variations on schematics, and there are different versions. There's a lot of room for errors, so you always need to develop scepticism about what is correct and what is not, because that will save you time later.

"It's usually worth a lot to spend time just looking at it and trying to understand. What is this? How does it work? What's the main building blocks in the design? Have we seen them before? Sometimes, it's super useful to talk to the people designing it, because you can ask 'What is going on here? Why did you do this? I don't get it,' and they'll say, 'Oh, it's just to avoid AM radio emission here. It shouldn't matter.'"

The Softube offices display ample evidence of their ongoing collaboration with Marshall.The Softube offices display ample evidence of their ongoing collaboration with Marshall.Understanding how the hardware works and why it sounds the way it does isn't purely a paper exercise. Measurement is vital, and the schematic can help determine what Softube's engineers should measure. Arvid: "We have special equipment to measure the stuff we need to measure. Guitar amps have very high voltages inside, for example, so they're not super easy to work with. We have a lot of different tests and signals that are created to expose different aspects of our...

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Published June 2019