If you’ve been in a music store lately or visited a NAMM Show floor in recent years, you’ve likely noticed an explosion in the number of stomp boxes. Many of them are from big manufacturers but even more are from hordes of boutique makers working out of their garages and spare bedrooms.
Matt Ward finds that to be an apt analogy for what he faces as CEO of the Plugin Alliance. He sees that entity’s mission as helping its baker’s dozen of affiliated plug-in developers—including Accusonus, Brainworx, Chandler Ltd., elysia and SPL, from countries including the U.S., UK, Germany, Sweden, Greece and Finland—to find their way through what has become a global thicket of brands from developers large and small.
“There are some real diamonds out there,” Ward says, citing Unfiltered Audio, whose Sandman delay and G8 dynamic gate plug-ins were developed by a trio of Ph.D.s who began developing plug-ins while still in their college dorm rooms at UC Santa Barbara. “They personify a lot of our developers: They have really innovative designs, but lacked experience in marketing and distribution. That’s where the Plugin Alliance comes in—they’re the kind of boutique that we’ve presented to a far larger user base than they could have developed on their own.”
When Ward says “we” he’s also referring to Dirk Ulrich, the founder of both the Plugin Alliance and Brainworx, a plug-in developer based in Leverkusen, Germany, a mid-sized city halfway between Dusseldorf and Cologne. Ulrich was working from his own small recording studio there, producing local and international bands, as well as ringtones and radio commercials, when he branched out in 1999 to develop what eventually would become the bx_digital EQ plug-in, aimed at equalizing mid-side signals, under his newly established Brainworx brand. A meeting with Avid at the 2005 NAMM Show in Anaheim resulted in the pro-audio software giant including that plug-in in one of its Pro Tools bundles and Ulrich seeing his first substantial check from software development. He then hired his first coder that same year for Brainworx (which still has the lion’s share of titles under the Alliance’s umbrella), as well as for early partners SPL and Vertigo. That nexus became the nut for the Plugin Alliance.
“I had the idea to host a number of plug-in developers under one virtual umbrella, as a cooperative of several companies,” Ulrich says. “Brainworx would be the leading tech company, but everyone is treated equally.”
What they’re treated to is an expanding range of marketing, promotion and distribution services. Initially, that was limited mostly to word of mouth driving potential customers to the Website to learn about plug-ins from the four earliest sign-on affiliates. Those numbers grew steadily but accelerated in 2014 with the hiring of Ward as CEO of the Alliance. Ward’s background made him an ideal executive candidate. Prior to a decade-long executive tenure at Universal Audio, he had worked in product management for other professional audio and music companies, including Studer Revox, Otari and E-mu Systems, as well as doing some strategic consulting to Manley Labs and PreSonus.
“This year was kind of our coming out,” Ward says. “We made the investment in more traditional strategies for marketing and advertising, hired a PR firm, put out press releases.”
The goal was still the same, to drive more people to the Website, but it was also to improve the customer experience there. Visitors can test drive plug-ins under a 14-day free period authorization; they can also create custom bundles from the current portfolio of 62 plug-ins across all 13 brands, and take advantage of incrementally increasing discounts of up to 50 percent off with a bundle of eight plug-ins. There are regular promotions, like the company’s November “Every Friday is Black Friday,” which entices buyers with a different $9 plug-in each week. “The goal is to make it super-easy to try and to buy,” says Ward.
The Plugin Alliance has three types of partner developers. Several companies, like Brainworx and Lindell Audio, develop their own software and use the Alliance mainly for its authorization, marketing and distribution services. A second category uses Brainworx’s engineers as a digital OEM resource to develop plug-ins that are modeled after hardware units of analog audio partner companies; these plug-ins are also marketed under the brand names of the original hardware designers, including SPL and Millennia. A third cohort, which includes Noveltech and Pro Audio DSP, have developed technology in just one plug-in format or in outdated formats, which are integrated the into the Brainworx “framework”—a catch-all term that Ulrich jokes is the company’s “F-word”—a software platform developed by Brainworx that can adapt plug-ins to any major host platform. The framework is needed to meet the Alliance’s key requirements: that plug-in products sold through the Website be compatible with AU, VST and AAX native hosts; that they support Mac OS X 10.6 through OSX 10.10; and that they support DSP platforms, including UAD-2, AAX DSP and Waves SoundGrid.
“In addition to this, they have to go through our test program, which is often far more extensive than what they’ve done previously,” Ward explains. “This consists of completing a large test grid with many different DAWs, going through a very large list of functions. Once the test grid is complete, we put partner plug-ins through a complete beta cycle with our beta group, which includes a wide variety of users with different configurations and application focus, such as mixing, mastering, post and so on.”
The economics of the Plugin Alliance are straightforward, with the Alliance taking what Ward refers to as a distribution fee that is a percentage of the overall revenue, a number that varies based on a number of factors. “The amount of development we’re required to do will have an impact on the distribution fee,” he explains. “So on the one end, true third-party developers with fully completed plug-ins receive the largest percentage of the revenue; products where we essentially just license the trademarks and we take on 100 percent of the development receive the lowest percentage.”
The Plugin Alliance offers some collective heft to a group of smaller brands, but they don’t look at themselves as a group of Davids sparring with Goliaths. Going back to the stomp box analogy, Ward joked that if that were the case, “[Roland’s] Boss would be the equivalent of Waves.” However, Waves is actually a client of the Alliance’s, with Brainworx and other members developing and adapting plug-ins for Waves’ SoundGrid venture with DiGiCo. They also work with Avid in support of its 64-bit AAX DSP for the Venue console. In the ephemeral ecosphere of plug-ins, competitors can also be collaborators, an effect that Ward calls “co-op-etition.” “We’re definitely agnostic when it comes to formats and platforms,” he says. “We’ll work with anyone.”
But Ward makes clear that a company like Waves and the Alliance approach the market very differently. “Waves is very dependent upon the [retail] channel, selling through a dealer network,” he says. “It requires sales reps calling on dealers and doing trainings. That’s fine for them and for dealers who can also sell someone a microphone along with a plug-in. But we feel that our model is a better one for our customers. It’s the old world versus the new. There’s no question that software sales are headed into the B2C direction. It just works better for customers.”
The Plugin Alliance intends to get bigger through more affiliations—it has grown to 13 from eight since Ward arrived in January 2014. But Ward is not looking for rapid expansion. “We do try to recruit, at trade shows, for instance, but we’re trying not to bite off more pieces than we can chew,” he says. In addition to marketing, distribution and authorization services, Ward says they’re also responsible for support services such as creating user manuals and online video tutorials for members, and translations into English for European partners. They also have to maintain compatibility with platforms and formats that are in decline or have been replaced, to maximize the lifespan of members’ products.
“We constantly have to look back in time to see how long we’ll need to support Windows and OS X versions, because each one is a whole page in our test grid,” says Ward. “We were among the last to stay with TDM and RTAS, which Avid began replacing years ago.” But that kind of “heavy lifting,” as he calls it, would be even more burdensome for each brand to handle on its own.
As with smartphone apps, the universe of audio plug-ins would be familiar to astronomer Edwin Hubble: it’s going to keep expanding. Ward sees the Plugin Alliance building a curated galaxy within it, one that he hopes will expand yet remain coherent for consumers and manageable for its members.
Cliff Maag, founder of Maag Audio in Provo, Utah, was connected with Ulrich in 2011 when producer/engineer Dave Reitzas (Barbra Streisand, Josh Groban, Michel Bolton), a fan of Maag’s hardware EQ designs, suggested that Brainworx turn his EQ4 500 Series into a plug-in. Maag described a back-and-forth process of listening to Brainworx coders’ modeling efforts, making tweaks, and finally arriving at what Maag says was a perfect virtual version of his hardware. Maag also says that, while hardware sales continue to do well and that the high end of the market will continue to show demand for certain pieces of hardware, such as finishing EQs and preamps, the digitization of them into plug-ins extends his brand into a broader market.
“Their social-media outreach was monstrous for us,” he says. “And they’re great people to work with. I trust them.” A compressor product will likely join the current EQ4 and EQ2 hardware and plug-in lines next year, he says.
Joel Silverman, managing director at Millennia Music & Media Systems, was equally effusive, calling the arrangement, “A fantastic deal for us. We’re a hardware manufacturer—we don’t have a software division that can churn out plug-in products.”
Millennia has had two of its processors, the NSEQ-2 equalizer and the TCL-2 comp/limiter, modeled and digitized as plug-ins. Their hardware versions cost $4,600 and $3,590, respectively, while their plug-in versions retail for $299 each. Silverman says the lower-cost digital versions don’t impact the hardware sales, which he says was a concern initially when they began working with Brainworx two years ago.
“It’s never going to be exactly, exactly the same as the hardware, and there are people who will want that and will pay for it,” he says. “There are people who will buy the plug-in and it might make them curious about our mic pre’s, which is what we’re mostly known for.”