Tim Ryan, founder of Midiman (now better known as M-Audio) has successfully changed his company from a manufacturer of affordable sync boxes for MIDI sequencers into the fastest-growing American music technology outfit. We find out where he's taking them next.
Tim Ryan, engineer, music technology visionary and graduate of the California Institute of Technology, is the founder of M-Audio. His company is well known and held in high regard by musicians worldwide as a supplier of soundcards, interfaces and controller keyboards, but curiously, while Tim himself grew up surrounded by musicians (and his mother was a concert pianist), he never became a musician himself. Tim's childhood memories include playing with his toy dinosaurs underneath the piano while his mother was hammering out Chopin, so while he never took up an instrument himself, he grew up with a love of music. In fact, his mother did explain the concept of written music to him, and he recalls thinking that it was somewhat illogical.
"I remember thinking that was the craziest system for recording when to strike something at the right time I ever came across! It didn't make any logical sense to me, so I had to keep mapping these notes into some other framework! Later, when I looked at guitar tab — though I never played guitar — it made much more sense to me.
"When you're good at one thing but you love something else, which in my case was music, you try to bring those things together, so I applied my CalTech science, maths and engineering know-how to music and went into business."
"Back around 1977, we were looking at what Emu were doing and we were amazed that they were charging something like 400 bucks for a module that had something like 15 dollars' worth of parts in it. I thought we could make something similar and sell it for around $200. One of my room-mates said that the product could be done all digitally using 6502 microprocessors instead of the usual organ chips that simply did octave splitting. Unfortunately, in some ways we were too smart. We came up with an 800-chip behemoth called the Con Brio Advanced Digital Synthesizer, a 64-oscillator digital synth where the oscillators could be both amplitude- and frequency-modulated with 16-stage envelopes. It had incredible modulation and layering capabilities, split keyboard options, and multiple D-A converters, but it ended up costing $30,000!
"We built three of them and sold one. It was used on several Hollywood film scores and ended up living in Chick Corea's studio for years. It was a hard lesson in how much work you can put into something that's not going to sell — sometimes you have to be sensible and look at what the market actually wants.
"Yamaha spoke to us about our design, and naively, we thought that might lead to something, but essentially, they spent six hours picking our brains, then they went home and designed the DX7! At that time, we also spoke to Mr Kakehashi from Roland who was very generous and spent three hours with us. He didn't pick our brains, but was trying to find out where we were coming from. He said the problem we had was that our instrument was really around 20 instruments rolled into one, and that our challenge was to make new, smaller instruments out of our technology. That way they could be sold at a reasonable cost, but unfortunately, we ran out of money, and my room-mates/business partners didn't want to keep on working for nothing for the rest of their lives.
"I went on to write consumer software for Commodore and Apple computers to make enough money to live, but at the same time, I learned everything about the Commodore and the Apple, and landed a gig with Sequential Circuits to do all their Commodore MIDI software. They came up with several products, one of which was their 600-series synth with no knobs on it. Everything was to be programmed via the computer, so we did the software that allowed it to be programmed from a Commodore 64 via MIDI. That was one of the very first multitimbral synths, and we did the first multitimbral sequencer to go with it." Tim also went on to help design two of the best-selling US sequencers of the time, the Studio One (for the Commodore) and Studio Two (for the Apple II). But he was getting itchy feet...
Tim Ryan is not backward in coming forward to support Apple's new operating system, but neither does he seek to conceal that providing support for it has caused his company the odd logistical hitch. Nevertheless, he remains a convert.
"Apple OS X is an absolutely wonderful operating system for audio, and it stands a chance of being the best operating system ever for creating music or audio. Obviously, we're all much later than anyone expected, including Apple, in seeing product come to market, but OS 10.2, or Jaguar, which has just been released, has the complete audio engine, and it ships with our Duo, Quattro and Delta drivers in it. So if you plug a Delta device into a Mac running OS 10.2, it runs right away, without you having to install any drivers. Now that the audio side of OS X is stable and isn't likely to change too much more, I think we're going to see some real progress being made by the guys who are used to providing Apple music software, including Ableton and Propellerhead.
"Until now, every time OS X was updated, we had to respin our drivers and software companies have had to respin their apps, though we've responded as quickly as we could. For example, Doug Wyatt, who wrote OMS, is now doing the MIDI portion of OS X, and I know that he had a rethink at one point that effectively sent us back to our drawing boards. We had OS X MIDI drivers that worked fine a year ago, but as the OS evolved, they had to be rewritten. I don't know what the latest iteration is, as I'm mainly involved with the audio side, but around six months ago, we were told that we'd have to be prepared to totally rewrite our MIDI drivers. It's a testimony to Apple, who understand that it's not viable to have an operating system where they have certain vertical markets that they cater to, but where they don't control those elements of the OS. They obviously learned something when Opcode went out of business and OMS was unsupported for a couple of years. If Steinberg stumbled and fell, we could have had this problem with ASIO too under OS 9, so it makes sense that all the MIDI and audio support eventually has to be rolled into the OS."
"After that success, I realised I wanted to own a company, or more of a company, in order to control my own destiny. In 1988 I started a company which was originally called Music Soft, but Yamaha had a claim on that name, so we changed to Midiman. We couldn't compete in software unless we had a mainstream sequencer, but we realised we were too late to compete with the Steinbergs, Opcodes, and Cakewalks of this world, so in 1990, we switched to making hardware and our first product was a MIDI-to-tape device called the Midiman. This product let you record MIDI data directly to tape, then play it back into a synth or sound module to recreate the performance. It was novel, but didn't hit the mainstream markets.
"Then we made the Syncman and Syncman Pro sync boxes, plus all sorts of other little boxes — we became known as the 'little box' company. The first stage was sync'ing a computer to a tape deck, which was very important before computers became powerful enough to record audio. After the sync boxes, we moved onto MIDI interfaces, which sold about 10 times more than the sync boxes, so we ended up virtually taking over the MIDI interface market, just as we had with sync boxes. Four or five years ago, we saw the writing on the wall with computer speeds coming up, and realised that the audio would soon be streamed to disk directly. So we started making little peripherals such as D-A and A-D converters, digital-audio format converters, patchbays, and that sort of thing. At the time, these weren't mainstream products, but as we got bigger and more successful selling them, we finally made enough money to mount a serious attack on the soundcard market. If you look at our history, we never made one variety of sync box, we made five, and we never made one type of MIDI interface, we made five different ones — so when soundcards came along, we made several versions of those too, and we now have 15!
"Basically, we own about 80 percent of the music soundcard business in the United States, and probably about 40 to 50 percent of the overall market. The success of our soundcards has contributed to our growth — in 2000 we enjoyed 128-percent growth, which was mainly due to the soundcard market. Last year, we grew another 68 percent, and were the fastest-growing music company in the US for the second straight year.
"The same year, we also started branching out into other areas, such as monitor speakers and MIDI keyboards, and we started building our USB MIDI technology into a whole new line of keyboards. What we like to do is take core technologies that we have mastered, such as the soundcards, and then put that in different places to make different, unique products."
I suggested to Tim that as most mainstream music software has been evolving over more than a decade, it's getting increasingly hard for new users to get involved due to the steep learning curve. Apparently, this is one of Tim's main areas of concern: "One place I think the apple has rolled too far from the tree is that music software has become way, way too complicated. We are the US and UK distributors of Propellerhead Reason, which I think is brilliant. Most musicians find it fairly easy to use, because it mirrors the rack equipment they're already familiar with. Isn't that better than a whole lot of little tick boxes and sliders? Even so, we still feel that this approach could be simplified even more. We think recording software has to be brought to a level where every musician can understand how it is used. If somebody else doesn't do it first, we'll do it. The complexity of current software basically holds our entire industry back from providing complete solutions that anyone can use, so we're trying to inspire our partners to help bring about even simpler solutions that even somebody with a rudimentary understanding of music recording could use. That can be complex to implement even if it's simple to use — for example, if you're dealing with someone who doesn't know about reverb or EQ, and you want the program to put that in where appropriate, you're talking about some degree of artificial intelligence.
"We're currently in discussions with other companies about products of this type, so I can't say too much about it now, but the requirement is for a very simple multitrack recording front end, combined with a mixer that's very easy to use and can support surround audio."
Having successfully shifted the focus of the company from MIDI to audio products when the market changed (and having now altered the company name to M‑Audio to more closely reflect their main market), Tim now has M‑Audio releasing new products to support the next big change. Like many in the music-technology business, he believes the future lies with surround sound.
"This year, we started our consumer division, and we've just won 'Best of Show' at MacWorld for Sonica, our sub-$100 24-bit/96kHz, AC3-compatible, USB audio interfacing device. We have a very strong belief in surround sound, and want to help drive that market forward. If you compare stereo with 5.1, the difference is unbelievable. People asked whether there would be any interest in stereo instead of mono in 1935, and of course years later, you couldn't sell anything unless it was in stereo. I think it will soon be the same for surround. Fortunately, DVDs and the movie business have opened the door. If you go to a live concert, you hear surround ambience — and that is in no way represented by a stereo image.
"However, if you asked me if we have musicians knocking down our door for surround production tools, I'd say no. How can you have a lot of interest when there's no affordable way for the musician to make surround recordings and no way to listen to them? One of the main problems right now is that there are elements missing from the production chain, such as a cost-effective way to master and burn surround DVDs that will play back in consumer machines. The available encoding and authoring software is way too expensive and too complicated — it needn't be rocket science. The musician has to be able to mix surround on his computer, in a straightforward way, then burn that onto a disc in some standard format that can be played back on a consumer machine as well as on his computer. If we can come up with a complete system for maybe $1000 dollars, including all the speakers, and the musician can make a surround CD that he can take around to his friend's house and play on his home-theatre system — that's when I think musicians will get genuinely excited.
"With this in mind, all of our multi-channel cards now have eight outputs to accommodate the possible expansion from 5.1 to 7.1, and we believe that our distribution alliances with prominent music-software companies — we distribute Propellerhead, Ableton and now Arkaos, who make the VJ software, in the US and the UK — will enable us to provide complete software and hardware solutions.
"You need a recording system with a simple front end, a simple mixing environment and simple, inexpensive surround encoding. To show how imminent this is, Microsoft contacted us recently and said they had something very exciting to show us relating to surround audio, which resulted in us redesigning our drivers. At the same time, we gave them food for thought by pointing out how their operating system had relegated audio to too low a priority. The problem was that if the audio doesn't get serviced in time, it drops out. This wasn't such a big deal for them in situations where audio wasn't important, or if you were working with low sample rates, but at 24/96, with six channels of output, it becomes very important. And they want to push content over the Internet, so they must have a reliable system. Video can blink and you don't notice it, but if audio does the same, you will hear it click, so they have a very strong interest in getting this to work. After this, they publicly demonstrated their Windows Media Audio six-channel 24/96 decoder, which is going to be built into Windows XP sometime before the end of the year. That means everybody is going to get the encoder and decoder for free with Windows XP.
"We've now been showing people a straightforward six-channel recording environment in Syntrillium Cool Edit Pro. You can hit a button and encode your surround mix using the built-in WMA encoder, but you can then burn this to CD via the included burning software, and play your surround mix back from the disc on any computer with the built-in Windows Media player.
"Now, that may only sound useful for playback within a computer, but if you buy a new Panasonic DVD in the States, they are starting to offer WMA compatibility, and there are several in-car sound systems that already come with WMA decoding."
This makes it sound as though affordable surround is just around the corner under the aegis of Microsoft, but as Tim goes on to explain, there are problems with this scenario, not least from those players already established in the surround audio market, such as Dolby and DTS, whose competing AC3 and DTS data-reduced surround formats have been around for many years now, and who might act as a block to progress via some other format.
"Microsoft aren't stupid, and they know that Dolby is obstructing what they are trying to accomplish. We've contacted Dolby on several occasions and asked them if there's some way for us to get a Surround encoder at a lower cost — after all, their money comes from selling decoders, and if we can make encoders cheaper, then we'll be helping to push the content that drives their decoder sales. We had the same conversation with the DTS guys — and then in walked Microsoft with WMA. I'm sure they must have had a similar dialogue with Dolby, and said "If Dolby won't make a deal, then we're going to push WMA". In the short term, Microsoft has an uphill battle, because they have to get WMA accepted, but in the longer term, they aren't a bad horse to bet on. The fact that WMA is already in some hardware hitting the market now shows how compelling Microsoft is as a presence.
"When it comes to Mac users, we always like to be cross-platform, but WMA is currently a PC-only format, so we were so bold as to ask Microsoft if they might consider letting Apple use WMA. After all, there are more content creators on the Apple side, and Microsoft need to push content to market their playback side. Microsoft seemed to be listening to us, so perhaps something will come out of that. In fact, Apple, too, have a big problem with Dolby, in that Apple don't want to burden every computer with the Dolby licensing fee when perhaps only 10 percent of their customers will want to use it, but Apple need a surround solution of some kind, too, whether it's WMA or whatever. I think a time will come when Dolby will have to succumb to the pressure — someone will either have to circumvent them or roll over them, and Microsoft has the weight to do that. It's ironic that the biggest company on the planet is spearheading this egalitarian movement that aims to provide a low-cost encoder as well as decoder in the OS of domestic computers. That's an end-to-end solution which is really terrific. The fact that Microsoft are also getting WMA into DVD players means they're thinking a little like us; the solution has to have some legs or WMA will be forever confined to PCs.
"Because of Microsoft, I think that DTS and Dolby need to take note, and start being more aggressive. As I understand it, DTS only license a few hundred of their encoders anyway, so how much money can they be making from that? Wouldn't they be better off dropping the price and making encoding available to a much wider market — or even giving the encoding away for free? If they're hoping to get rich from selling encoders at the current rate, it's not going to happen. It might even make sense to pay people to ensure a growing supply of content — after all, without that, there's no sales market for their decoders! It's my hope that WMA should be the wake-up call for these guys."
This, of course, is but one way of looking at the situation — the other is that by pushing their own surround encoding solution instead of licensing one of the existing ones, Microsoft are introducing another consumer surround format, with the possible consequences of consumer confusion and delay to the widespread acceptance of surround generally. Tim Ryan, however, is unbowed: "I don't think the multiple formats are an issue. Everyone knows DTS is much better than Dolby's AC3 for music, and technically, WMA is comparable with DTS. It will be a case of natural selection, and if the hardware supports all the common formats, then multiple formats are not a problem for the consumer. DVD is already surviving with multiple formats recorded on it anyway, so until the format battles are won and lost, I envisage hardware — and hopefully, soon, software — with multiple decoders. Much of this may be decided by hardware DVD players anyway — DVD players are big business in the States. You can have a list of 50 freeware codecs, but if they're not supported by the DVD hardware, the chances are they're going to go away.
Asked to identify what else is required to make the idea of affordable home surround production systems a reality, Tim starts talking about high-bandwidth multi-channel audio interfaces, but this leads him neatly on into talking about another topic currently close to his heart — video. "We need multiple I/O FireWire or USB 2.0 audio devices, and this is a whole discussion in itself; FireWire is on top now, but in some ways it's more costly and complicated to implement than USB 2.0. "We're excited about both technologies, but I'm also convinced that video will play a much greater part in the future — the music business has got to reinvent itself in order to attract the same interest it did when we were kids, when The Beatles, Stones, Doors, and so on were hitting, and I think we have to think seriously about producing eye candy as well as ear candy. We're competing with the gamer market, and I was told that last year the sales in the games market exceeded all the Hollywood movie grosses combined. If you look at something like the Arkaos program VJ, which we now distribute, and what it can do by way of image creation, I think musicians will get excited at the prospect of adding a visual element to their music. After all, that's what MTV did, and if we can get the musician at home making music to embrace a video component, I think that would be a big advance."
"The bottom line is that in both surround and video, there has to be a point-to-point, end-to-end solution for content creation and playback, and at the moment, there are large gaps in that chain. But if we can give the musician an easy-to-use, affordable tool to do the job, and show that it sounds a lot better, then it's only a matter of time."