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View from the Top: Gilad Keren, CEO, Waves Audio

By Glenn Greenberg. Gilad Keren, CEO of Waves Audio, LTD., looks back at how a chance encounter while in the Israeli military led to co-founding one of the most prominent plug-in manufacturers in the industry.

Having developed an interest in pro audio during his last year in the Israeli military, Gilad Keren turned a meeting with studio owner Tommy Friedman, a key player in Israel’s recording industry, into the first step of a long and successful career. “When I got home [from the meeting], I went to my mother and said, ‘You know, I think I know what I’m gonna do with my life,’” he says. “And from that day on, I had the fever, the bug.”

Keren went to work for the late studio owner when he was 21, running his own PA company on the side, but his career reached a turning point when a cousin introduced him to Meir Shaashua, with whom he would co-found Waves Audio, Ltd., a leading developer of audio plug-ins and signal processors for the professional and consumer electronics audio markets. Currently, Keren serves as Waves Audio’s CEO, with Shaashua as Chief Technological Officer.

The two fast friends dreamed of using their combined skills to develop a digital Vocoder. “This was around 1981, and we already realized early on, that the world was going digital,” he recalls. Eventually Keren furthered his education at the Technion (Israel Institute of Technology), where he studied applied math. “Shaashua was also there doing research for the military,” he says. “Two years later, I went out and bought a development system—a Motorola 5600. DSP had just been announced and Meir and I would get together over the weekends in our spare time and develop what was to become the Waves Q10 [equalizer].”

Keren says he and Shaashua eventually realized that developing a Vocoder was too ambitious a project. “Since a Vocoder is essentially a set of digital filters, we decided to start with making a good digital filter first,” he explains. “The whole concept of a Graphic User Interface and controlling the curves using a GUI was the goal. There were no audio tools doing anything like that at the time.”

Looking back, Keren notes the now-primitive nature of the technology available. “At that point, when a hard disk was 20 or 40 mb, we were talking about how much music you could put on. You couldn’t even put one song on it! And the PC couldn’t do audio processing. It was way too underpowered,” he says. “Our first computer was running at 75 MHz. Our first code was written in DOS. For the first prototype of the Q10 interface, we were working on Windows 1.0, but by the time we finished, it was Windows 2.0.”

The pair presented a prototype of their interface to three companies—Audio Animation, Wave Frame and New England Digital—at the 1989 AES convention, in New York City. “All of them were venture-capital-based, and in the end, all of them went bust,” he says. “Audio Animation wanted to hire us, but they didn’t want us to work in Israel. We were thinking of doing a partnership, but nobody was willing to go that route, so in ’89, we moved to Knoxville and joined them. We worked at Audio Animation for two years until the company ran out of money and by the summer of 1992, our gig with them ended, and that’s when we said, ‘Okay, let’s go back to Israel and make Waves.’”

The main lesson from the experience at Audio Animation was “what not to do,” Keren says. “It was obvious that we needed to take all our know-how and retool it for the Macintosh system. We acquired Sound Designer and I met with the founders of Digidesign, which was then a relatively small company. They opened up their API architecture to third parties, which was precisely the opportunity we were looking for. Our dream was to make plug-ins and it was October of ’93 when we brought the first Waves plug-in, the Q10, to AES.”

Waves Audio, Ltd. has grown considerably since its founding 25 years ago, in terms of manpower, number of products, technical expertise, and global reach of the company’s sales and marketing division. Waves has two main offices—headquarters in Tel Aviv, home to engineering and support, and Knoxville, TN, which encompasses sales, the main Internet hub, IT, and the company’s storage facility. Smaller offices are located in the Ukraine and Taiwan. The company employs around 150 people, with the majority at the Tel Aviv offices. According to Keren, the person at the center of it all is Meir Shaashua. “He is the man behind the algorithms,” Keren says. “Meir and his team of R&D engineers are the engine behind Waves. It takes a lot of people to keep our 150-plus plug-ins up to date and ready to be used in every host and every platform.”

Keren emphasizes the variety and quality of the company’s products. “Under our Maxx brand, Waves has solidified its consumer electronics division, offering semiconductor and licensable algorithms for consumer electronics applications. Our technologies dramatically enhance audio performance and are used by industry leaders such as Dell, Google, TCL, Fujitsu, Asus, Hisense and more.”

He cites Waves Audio’s SoundGrid technology as a noteworthy innovation that provides “a powerful, cost effective, and extremely low-latency environment for high-precision audio processing and efficient Audio-over-Ethernet networking.”

Keren also mentions the eMotion LV1 Live Software Mixer, which he says is gaining popularity in the Live sector due to its “superior sound quality, distinctive portability, as well as its quick, convenient and user-friendly workflow needed in demanding live environments.”

The company has also made a mark on the burgeoning world of virtual reality (VR) with its Waves 360 Ambisonic Tools, which include the B360 Ambisonics Encoder, the Nx Virtual Mix Room over Headphones plug-in, and the Nx Head Tracker. The tools can be used in 360-degree mixing or mixing in non-acoustic environments, with uses from surround monitoring to enhancing the consumer-listening experience. “We are extremely excited about future applicable repercussions of this technology,” Keren says.

When it comes to facing competition, Keren says the company’s main focus has not changed since Waves was founded. He acknowledges that it is relatively easy to create a small company that makes a plug-in, but is quick to add that supporting the product over time, and making it run on multiple systems, is “very, very difficult.” Keren notes that the level of expertise required in signal processing is constantly growing, to meet rising expectations. “For the past 25 years,” he says, “we’ve done our part to help raise the bar and we will continue doing that.”

Keren attributes much of the company’s success to a lesson he learned early on: “A good company is just like a good person,” he says. “You need to be ready for hard work, you need to pay attention to detail, you need to listen, you need to be ready to admit your mistakes and move on. Our goal has always been, and still is, to contribute the very best tools possible to the artistic and creative process, and to develop and provide solutions that enable unparalleled sonic quality for all audio applications.”

Waves Audio, Ltd.