Attack editor Greg Scarth speaks to Urs Heckmann about how U-he has grown from part-time hobby to full-time career.
Since launching in 2002 as a solo operation, Urs Heckmann has slowly expanded U-he into one of the most respected music software companies around. Part of what makes U-he special is that you almost always get a sense of Heckmann’s personality in his soft synths and plugins. Perhaps it’s just because he’s happy to talk about his motivation for developing each piece of software, but there’s a real feeling that he believes in his products because they reflect his own tastes.
In the beginning, U-he was a part-time hobby for Heckmann, who worked as a university assistant at the time. Things changed in 2003 when he released the first version of Zebra, his much-loved ‘wireless modular’ synth. The success of that plugin allowed him to switch to software development full-time. He self-effacingly puts at least part of his success down to good timing: Apple launched the Audio Unit plugin format in 2002, and as an early adopter of the standard he managed to tap into the market of Logic and GarageBand users.
We caught up with Urs to discuss how the company has evolved since those early days and what might lie ahead. Could U-he make the move from software to hardware before too long?
Attack: To get us started, I’m curious to know about the growth of u-he as a company over the last few years. You started out as an entirely one-man operation. How has the expansion progressed?
Urs Heckmann: Until 2010 U-he was purely a one-man show – I paid specialists for one-off services such as sound design, graphics or minor programming jobs. So in 2010 I got my first employee, then two more the next year. In 2012, Diva and The Dark Zebra suddenly took off. We had 300% growth that year, so I took the opportunity to hire three more. Some of the staff have moved on in the meantime, but the U-he gang still reached 12 members in 2016.
I’m curious to know what all those people do. I assume the expansion of this kind of business starts by bringing in more programmers, but what comes next? Can you give us a breakdown?
Yes, the first two employees were indeed programmers. But then I went straight for an all-rounder – someone for customer support, soldering, building shelves – someone who wasn’t too precious to go shopping or make coffee if necessary. As U-he expanded, the jobs became more specialised: graphic design, sound design, software development, customer support, quality assurance… With all this expansion, our most recent addition to the team just had to be a business administrator!
What kind of surprise challenges have you encountered as you’ve grown?
Well, as I always tell the guys: “I’m the only one here who never had a real job. I have absolutely no idea what a boss is supposed to be!” In other words, the greatest challenge for me was to grow into the position, to face the responsibility that comes with being the head honcho. It’s kind of scary – we have to gross a certain amount of revenue each and every month. With a staff of 12, that figure is beyond the average person’s annual salary.
Aside from the managerial stresses, have there been surprising positives?
Haha! Well, it’s nice to realise that I’ve finally achieved my little piece of fame. Just the other day at a film premiere, the partner of one of the main actresses said to me: “Hey, you look familiar… do I know you?”
It must also be exciting to receive support from well-known artists and producers? When did that start happening?
To be honest, what most producers who expressed an interest in endorsing our brand really wanted was free software, and my response was a blunt “sorry, but I don’t buy opinions”. Artists who get free stuff don’t seem to mention it again, unlike those who actually buy the software. There’s some strange psychology going on behind the perceived value of software!
Artists who get free stuff don’t seem to mention it again, unlike those who actually buy the software. There’s some strange psychology going on behind the perceived value of software!
Actually, I can’t think of any big name electronic musician who hasn’t bought our plugins. We don’t talk about it much, though. We don’t send them star-struck emails, and we don’t plaster our website with artist endorsements. We’re happy when they mention our stuff anyway, even in private. My personal high point came when Hans Zimmer told me he wanted to concentrate on Zebra2 as his only software synthesiser.
U-he sounds must have appeared on plenty of hit records by now. Do you know of many?
I can’t answer that, mostly because I don’t follow popular music, let alone the Billboard charts. Once in a blue moon I meet a studio musician or producer who says something like, “Hey, we used your Filterscape on this and that Beyoncé track”. I guess most artists and producers aiming at the charts aren’t such synth geeks. As opposed to, say, film composers, who often tell us what they used in their scores.
As a company, U-he has always felt like its personality mirrors your own. I think you can see that in things like the way you openly admit that synths like Diva and ACE are CPU-hungry, but you make that a conscious design choice. Would you agree that the products reflect a certain ethos that sets you apart from other developers?
I like it when a real person takes responsibility for the quality of a product, and signs it with their name. Synthesiser icons such as Bob Moog, Don Buchla, Alan R Pearlman, Tom Oberheim – more recently Dave Smith and even Dave Rossum – all named their companies after themselves. I guess I followed this tradition by using my own name too, albeit abbreviated to U-he.
It’s very important to our company ethos that we openly admit to bugs and other errors. Everyone makes mistakes, and attempts to cover them up usually end in tears for the developer as well as the customer. I’ve seen companies collapse because the people behind them couldn’t handle criticism. It might seem unprofessional to say, “Oops – we messed up”, but it’s important for a company to reflect on its own actions and be candid about any slip-ups. People feel good about us because they recognise us as real people. Of course, they are real people too, with real concerns. I don’t think a faceless company with a fancy name and a posh website can communicate as effectively.
People feel good about us because they recognise us as real people. I don’t think a faceless company with a fancy name and a posh website can communicate as effectively.
Have there been any instances where you’ve realised that your approach hasn’t made the most commercial sense, but you’ve pressed ahead with a project or a particular direction simply because you believed in it?
This has happened several times, but making commercial sense isn’t always the right way to go. If my only goal was to increase company value, we could churn out an armada of rapid development, big revenue, low maintenance products. But to be honest, they would bore me to death – literally! To survive, I need a constant stream of creative challenges.
Can you give us a couple of examples of which u-he products might be less commercially minded but perhaps more creatively satisfying for you in some way?
Commercially-minded usually means conforming to the Keep It Simple, Stupid philosophy, which is fine if you need to work very quickly without having to learn anything complicated. On the other hand, simple plugins tend to be short-lived and their range of use much too narrow. In the end, people who decide to buy lots of relatively simple tools risk having to learn a lot more than if they had chosen just a few more complex, flexible ones.
All our current products belong in the latter category. A lot more ground can be covered than with a bunch of simpler plugins. For instance, there’s hardly any type of compression that Presswerk can’t do, and there’s hardly a delay effect that More Feedback Machine hasn’t got covered. If those two had been developed from a strictly commercial standpoint, we would have released a whole series of specialised compressors instead of just one Presswerk. And an equally large number of delays and delay-based effects instead of More Feedback Machine. We could have milked the same code for all it was worth. Fortunately, we didn’t take that route, as you can see in the free Presswerk update with its six Easy Views.
You’ve been developing synth plugins since 2002. In that time, the number of soft synth developers has risen exponentially. We see a lot of very similar products hit the market now: mainly variations on virtual analogue, but also other common trends. Do you think we’re in danger of reaching a point where there are very few original ideas left to explore? Is that a problem?
Hmmm… I don’t see it that way. Computers are getting faster and better specced every year, and we can do stuff that would have been impossible a few years ago. Sure, there’s more and more overlap between competing products these days, but there’s also a gazillion more potential customers making electronic music. On the other hand, to succeed as an audio software developer you have to be at least a bit different or original. I don’t think that a big marketing budget is enough.
Your own range has expanded quite significantly in recent years. At this stage I’m sure you have more ideas, but do you think there’ll ever come a point where the U-he range is ‘complete’?
I’m confident that we can look forward to many years of development, that new ideas will crop up all the time. I try to leverage our efforts such that the R&D we put into any new product can also be used to improve the existing range. We need to expand our portfolio, but we’re very careful not to repeat ourselves. The plan is to devote most of our time to the major projects, namely Zebra3 and Berlin Modular. Everything we’re planning to release this year can be seen as stepping stones towards these two.
I believe you have plans to develop a drum machine plugin at some point. How far along are you with that process? Do you have any expectations how it might turn out?
We have expectations, but it’s early days. One of the guys – Sascha Eversmeier of Digitalfishphones fame, the man behind Satin as well as Presswerk – recently switched from bass guitar to drum kit. He soon developed an obsession with drum modelling, which I let him explore during office hours. There’s some serious stuff happening now, which sooner or later will end up in a drum synthesiser and/or drum machine. However, we will also use that same technology to soup up Zebra’s physical modelling.
Do you still own a large collection of hardware synths? Do you have any desire to produce hardware at some point in the future?
Yep, there are 30 or 40 vintage analogue hardware synths here… plus a few digital gems and some modern analogue stuff we also use for analysis. Maybe I should stop buying synths, but it’s fun!
We’d seriously love to move into hardware, but we’d have to collaborate with an expert or two. One day I might just call Christoph Kemper with an idea. Or reschedule that dinner with Dave Smith which had to be cancelled due to everybody catching the post-trade-show flu! I can dream…