As they celebrate 20 years in the business, sample library pioneers EastWest are on the verge of relaunching LA's legendary United–Western studio complex. They've also developed an innovative sample–playback engine to power their next generation of virtual instruments.
"My philosophy on it all is that for every door that closes, another one opens," says Doug Rogers, summing up a view which has helped him and his company, EastWest, become hugely successful during a period of rapid change in the music industry.
Just over 20 years ago, before founding EastWest, Doug sold the recording complex he owned in New Zealand, realising that emerging new technologies such as sampling would soon threaten the profitability of large studios. The irony of the situation, which is not lost on Doug, is that now, 20 years on, it is the growing demands of his sampling business that have led him to buy an even bigger studio complex, rescuing it from its demise at the hands of sample libraries!
Doug describes his initiation into the sample-library business in the late '80s as being "accidental", a result of him stumbling across a gap in the market for an audio CD of drum hits. "Up to that point," remembers Doug, "like a lot of producers, I would compile sample reels of nice drum sounds from sessions we were doing, so if I had to work with a band who owned a crappy set of drums, we could replace them. I was mixing a project for Sony and found that I'd forgotten my reel, so I went looking to buy some commercial samples but couldn't find anything. It seemed ridiculous, because samplers had become really popular, and it was almost like having a computer without software. I thought, 'There's got to be enough people out there who want what I want for this to be a business,' so we set about creating a drum collection. Interestingly, we also had to develop new sales channels. I had a friend who worked in a guitar shop, so I said to him, 'I know you don't want to buy these, but can you put a box on the side, and if they don't sell, just give them back?' But he quickly sold the whole box and said that he thought I'd hit on a great idea."
Buoyed by the success, Doug went in search of a big–name engineer who would be willing to market his or her drum sounds. "In those days, sampling was frowned upon by everybody," Doug recalls, "so I thought I'd get a few rejections, but the first person we approached was Bob Clearmountain and he said yes! I asked him, 'Aren't your drum sounds sacred?' He said, 'If people hired me just for my drum sounds then, as a mixing engineer, I'm sunk!'"
Bob Clearmountain Drums CD1 proved to be phenomenally successful, catapulting Doug to the forefront of the sample library revolution, where he has remained ever since. Doug and his business partner, Nick Phoenix, are now creating extremely ambitious and detailed libraries — which are correspondingly expensive and time–consuming to produce. Doug reveals that their award–winning Symphonic Orchestra library, for example, cost well over a million dollars! "That's from hiring halls and personnel and moving crews and equipment from studio to studio. You're paying for accommodation and food, and then you've got things like marketing costs, artwork and all the rest of it. For post–production, we had something like 30 editors and programmers working on it for a year. Everyone wants 16 velocity layers and hundreds of articulations, and each of those has to be recorded and edited.
"The down side of recording in a concert hall is that all the venues you want to record in are very busy, so you can't spend a year there, and the orchestras themselves are very busy too. Because time is limited you can't afford to make errors. We were up against the clock, so Nick came up with the idea of scoring the session, which I'd never done before. The musicians had a chart in front of them telling them what to do. During a typical day we recorded each instrument with the orchestrated velocity and articulations and then we worked on the sections, so it was just a process of moving through the strings, woodwind and percussion, one by one.
"We only had ensembles for the sections, so the musicians were coming and going the whole time. We recorded everybody in the positions where they normally sit in the orchestra, and that gave us a very accurate stereo perspective."
In an attempt to curb the spiralling costs of hiring studios to produce the increasingly complex sample libraries, EastWest purchased Cello Studios on Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard in January 2006, allowing them to work almost entirely in–house. The complex, originally known as United–Western and built by Bill Putnam, had, sadly, gone bankrupt, despite being one of the most famous in the world.
"Unfortunately, this place went the way of many studios," explains Doug. "It just couldn't sustain itself on the rates that musicians and record companies are prepared to pay. A large part of the studio business has moved into the home and, ironically, we are partially responsible for that! I owned studios for 10 years and I wouldn't have bought this place if it hadn't been for our software business."
The complex, now renamed EastWest Studios, is proving particularly valuable to Doug's team, as it has six rooms, all with quite different acoustic qualities. "That's worked for us, because we can choose the studio that's right for the project. Studio 1, for example, has a live acoustic in which you can put a 75–piece orchestra; Studio 2 is more the rock studio with a dryer sound, and then Studio 3, which is really intimate and punchy, is where all the '60s hits were done, like those of the Mamas & the Papas and the Beach Boys. Then we have a mix room and another two studios. We won't be using all of them so they will be hired out on an 'as available' basis. If we don't need it, we'll let others rent it, but Nick and I always have more ideas than we have time, so we'll mostly be going straight from one project to the next.
"We found that the studios were in pretty good shape for 50–year–old rooms. The equipment was second to none: really hard–to–find vintage gear, and there was a fantastic microphone collection too. We haven't really touched the studios, although our preference is to use ATC monitors, so we've installed things we like to work with. We also hired Englishman Nick Whitaker, who has worked with Pink Floyd, and had him work on some of the control–room acoustics.
"The rest of it, which is about half that size again, was completely run down, so I approached the designer Philippe Starck, who has renovated a lot of hotels, and got him to design the non–studio areas. They have been completely demolished and rebuilt from scratch.
"We've got a string library we want to do in studio 1 the moment construction is finished. We anticipate it taking at least six months to record, because we are going to do true legato — going from note to note — which takes a lot of time. It's something we couldn't do in the concert hall because of the schedule. It will be a bit more of an intimate, chamber–music style, and will give us a library that covers everything."
As the boundaries between sample libraries and virtual instruments have become blurred, software design has become an increasingly important part of the equation. Initially, EastWest forged a relationship with Native Instruments to benefit their Symphonic Orchestra library. "We were going to use Gigastudio, but we'd recorded at 24–bit when the 24–bit version of Gigastudio was repeatedly delayed. NI released Kontakt, which was 24–bit, so we asked them to make a dedicated player, and that's how Kompakt and Impakt came into being. That worked for about three years, but we were in the hands of another company and could only move at their pace, so Nick and I decided to make our own software. We knew the difficulty and cost of development, tech support and updates, but we had to bite the bullet. We mapped out what we thought was lacking in the current software and decided to make it 64–bit from the ground up, because it was the way computing was moving."
EastWest's venture into software development resulted in the easy–to–use Play engine/interface, which has just received a major revision. Doug: "It's new to Symphonic Orchestra and we will use it on Symphonic Choirs too. Later in the year we are going to be releasing a 'tweaker's' version, for those people who want to create their own sample library. All of the editing tools we have to make the virtual instruments, like scripting, are included. Initially it will be an additional Play page, called Play 2, but eventually it may become a stand–alone product.
"The beauty of it all is that we can specify what the software needs to do for whatever library we are making. For example, when we were making the Fab Four library, we found that we had to recreate a frequently used recording trick called Artificial Double Tracking. ADT was done by having two tape recorders moving in and out of sync with each other, and this process has several variables to emulate. Over time, the effect changes gradually, but when someone is using a sample and just hitting a single note, there isn't time for that development! It was a challenge, because digital doesn't like variables, but I was able to head down the hall to the software department, drag the head of programming to the studio and show him what was going on. Within a couple of days they had a prototype and in the end it sounded absolutely perfectly like ADT. Now it's in Play and you can use it on any other Play libraries too. So things like that we couldn't do with the Native Instruments relationship."
Having a team of developers has also enabled EastWest to improve the interface for the Symphonic Orchestra library, making full use of the three discrete microphone recording positions. "The old approach to sampling, where you stick a microphone down the throat of the instrument, is not how orchestral instruments are perceived by audiences who hear a blend of room acoustics and instrument, so we recorded everything in a 2500–seat hall using three mic positions for every instrument and section. One was close up with a little ambience, another was at the conductor position, and the other was two thirds of the way back. That array gave a very powerful sound which led to our library getting 'the Hollywood sound' tag. You can't fabricate that ambience with reverb, because it would take a supercomputer to figure out all the reflections for each instrument, as each one excites different frequencies.
"The new Play version has a mixer on the interface so all of those positions are user–mixable, whereas before the user had to load multis and work with the sequencer — it was a mess. Also, with our Symphonic Choirs, we recorded vowels and consonants and then used an additional piece of software, called WordBuilder, as a means of entering the words for the choir to sing. We talked to Native about integrating it into the player but they didn't have the resources, so we had to release the library, played from Kompakt, with a separate application called WordBuilder. People used it because there was nothing else, but it's now built into Play, so if you want to type in your text you just go to the WordBuilder page. So we are able to customise the software on a per–library basis."
So much of Doug's success has stemmed from his ability to foresee future trends in the market that it would be amiss not to round things up by finding out what his predictions are for the next few years. "Some companies are experimenting by converting sounds into synthesis, which obviously gives you a lot more control, but, to my ears, none of it has sounded right. I think that's because the computing power isn't there to do it properly. If I was going to make a prediction, I would say a blending of sampling and synthesis is where we are going. Nowadays, we have to figure out everything a person could possibly need to do, but if we had synthesis control we wouldn't need to do that because it would be based on their playing style. In terms of the technologies that are being worked on, I think that that is where we are headed, unless something else comes along that no one has thought of!"
One of the first major projects Doug Rogers undertook at EastWest was the Fab Four virtual instrument, which offers emulations of classic Beatles sounds. This required fitting the studios with all the old '60s Abbey Road gear — not an easy task! "We recorded that in Studio 1, which is about the same size as Abbey Road's Studio 2 and has a similar acoustic. I think Bill Putnam tried to emulate it. The idea had been in the back of my mind for many years, but this seemed the obvious time to do it. I knew I had to have the same instruments, amplifiers and signal chain, so I started researching what I'd need. I cross–referenced a number of books and spoke to Kevin Ryan and Brian Kehew, who spent virtually a decade researching and interviewing everybody for their book, Recording The Beatles. I got a lot of information directly from them.
"During their recording career, the Beatles used two EMI REDD valve consoles and, on the Abbey Road album, a transistorised TG12345. The REDD was the hardest thing to find because there were only ever about 16 made, but we found one, which was all we needed. I hired Brian Gibson, who was the Abbey Road technician back then, to locate and fix up the TG12345, which cost something ridiculous like £170,000. So that came to me in good working order. Then I had to track down a [Studer] J37 tube 4–track and the Altec they used for the phase/bass sounds. We already had a Fairchild that was used for vocals and guitars, so we finished up with an identical signal chain. It took over a year to get it all together."
By good fortune, Doug was able to use the experience of engineer and producer Ken Scott, now an LA resident, who was originally approached to help out on a piano library. "I was attempting to get the Trident Studio Bechstein piano sound that Elton, Supertramp and Queen used, and one of the engineers who got that sound was Ken Scott," say Doug. "I called him and said 'We've got this really nice Bechstein, the same as the one at Trident, could you come and try to match that sound you got?' He took a look at the piano and said he thought he could, but while he was looked around he noticed all the old EMI stuff. I explained what I was doing and he said, "You know I worked on the Beatles, right?" and it all came back to me. He'd been second engineer on a couple of the early albums and the first engineer on The White Album and Magical Mystery Tour. So I said, "Would you be interested in working on it?" and he said, "Are you kidding? I'd love to!" That was such luck, because he turned out to be invaluable. It gave us confidence that we really knew what we were doing, but, even so, I hired ex–Wings members to play because McCartney had taught them some of the sounds. With all that on our side, it still took about a day to get each sound."