Inside Views: Steinberg Research
The first in a new series that takes a behind the scenes look at companies specialising in the development of hi-tech music and recording products. This month Tony Hastings catches the night boat to Hamburg to report on MIDI software designers Steinberg Research.
The series that takes a behind-the-scenes look at companies and design personnel working in the field of music and recording technology.
If you remember my review of the Steinberg Research Pro-16 Sequencer from a few issues ago, you'll know that I was very impressed with this German company's approach to music-oriented MIDI software. So, armed only with a well-chewed pencil and a pocketful of pfennigs, I set off for Hamburg to meet Mr Steinberg and Co, and to get the low-down on why Steinberg Research was started, how they work and, most important of all, to discover what new products they have in development.
I arrived in Hamburg on a cold, wet Saturday and made my way to the Steinberg offices near the River Elbe. I don't know what it is about Hamburg (apart from the infamous Reeperbahn), but it seems to be full of people beavering away and manufacturing everything from flightcases to PPGs. There seems to be more development of music-related products going on here than in any other German city.
Anyway, I was greeted with a cup of coffee and a warm welcome and to my delight discovered everyone could speak English.
I began by talking to Charlie Steinberg, the head of the company, and asked him to tell me how and why Steinberg Research began.
"I used to work in a studio as an engineer, and it was there that I met Manfred Rurup. He was working for a company selling musical equipment, and one day he gave me some sheets of paper which had MIDI data formats on them. As I had already been working with Sinclair computers - ZX81 etc - I suggested to him that it would be very easy for me to write a MIDI program. So I used a Commodore 64 computer to develop it, which Manfred had at home, and then we just started to sell it to other people we knew."
Was that the Pro-16 program?
"No. The very first program we made was a simple thing called the DX Saver or something. It's very rare - nobody really knew about it at the time, but it was good. And then we made the Multi-Track sequencer program which I believe was one of the very first sequencers for the Commodore.
Manfred said it was a very good program and so he started selling it from the company in Hamburg where he worked and people quickly became very interested in it. We also sold the software to Music Data in America, so Multi-Track became quite successful for us."
When did Steinberg first start then?
"At the beginning of 1983."
And where were you based ?
"I used to work at Manfred's home. That's where we started building the little MIDI interfaces which I developed and even soldered up all by myself. They were the very first things we did there."
Was it just the two of you?
"No, there was Manfred's wife too. She's very good at graphics and so she did some of the company adverts and helped produce the manuals. We had this little Roland computer plotter and we did our first manuals with that. Then we found we needed more space.
Manfred knew this musician who had been in a successful local band called Novalis (Germany's equivalent to Genesis) and he had a studio in a small building in Hamburg. He was looking for someone to take over the top floor who was creative in some way. So we moved here."
What was your next program after the Multi-Track?
"We had some orders from a company that distributed Korg products in Germany and through them we ended up making a Korg sequencer which pointed the way eventually to the Pro-16. I made other sequencer programs for Hohner and Wersi too before I started developing the Pro-16 program fully.
In the meantime I met Jason (one of the Steinberg programming team) who was something of a 'hacker' (that's jargon for a person who tries to break into other people's protected software). He was always asking me how to break into this program or that, and I could see that he was good at programming so I got him to write the DX7 Editor program."
Do you play any instruments yourself or are you just an engineer?
"I used to play in a semi-famous German group that made three LPs. I played keyboards and guitar. And Manfred, well he's a very good keyboard player. I always admired his playing. He used to play with some famous groups and was also a session musician for a while."
Does being a musician help you make your music software more user-friendly?
"Well I wrote the Pro-16 program with myself and Manfred in mind originally. I didn't really think about anyone else."
Did you expect the Pro-16 to be successful?
"Yes, in a way. When I first had the Multi-Track sequencer ready I felt it would be successful because I saw that there was nothing else like it around. I knew that using this MIDI mode gave you the capability to do such powerful things with computers so I was pretty confident the Pro-16 would also be popular."
To date, Steinberg Research have six music programs available: the Pro-16, the Scorewriter, the DX7 Editor, the Casio CZEditor, the Korg DW6000 Editor, the Piano Partner and Guitar Partner. The company seems to have grown rapidly in the last three years by producing music programs that people want, that are simple to use and yet give professional end results.
There are already EPROM versions of the Pro-16 and Scorewriter available and just released is a visual editor for the Ensoniq Mirage.
In the 'about to be released' bracket is a small 8-track sequencer with programmed rhythm generator called the Trackstar. This is designed for the Commodore 64 computer essentially with the 'home user' market in mind - although it does still have some very powerful features. The good news for Pro-16 owners who wish they had better step-time editing facilities is that Steinberg are about to release the Pro-16 Edit Kit which gives you two new screen displays: one screen for editing your music, and one dedicated to allowing you to write drum parts on one track and still be able to edit each voice separately.
And finally, there's Steinberg's latest 'hot property', the 24-track MIDI sequencer for the Atari 520. I asked Charlie Steinberg why they chose to write for this computer in particular.
"Well, the Atari 520 has a very powerful processor which is important if you are going to write large sequencer programs. Also, it is one of the few computers with a built-in MIDI interface, and it's not really that expensive either. We also learned that in Germany very many musicians bought this computer, just by word of mouth, even though no music software actually existed for it when it originally came out!"
Steinberg's Pro-24 for the Atari (reviewed in this issue) is a very exciting sequencer that makes full use of the graphics potential of that computer. It was programmed by the fourth member of the Steinberg team, Werner Kracht. Werner was responsible for the Piano and Guitar Partner software which are two very clever packages that can teach even a veteran muso like me a lot about scales and chord patterns. Werner has been working flat out on the Pro-24 software for the Atari and even now is still looking at future ways of improving it. To give you some idea of how long it takes to develop good software, that particular Pro-24 program took just over six months, which Charlie Steinberg says is quite fast - the TNS Scorewriter took one and a half years!!
We took a break at this point whilst Charlie showed me around the Steinberg offices. They have the top floor of a small building looking out onto the river. At the back is the development room, large and bright, filled with various Commodore and Atari computers and printers. There's also a table-tennis table near the wall.
"Actually, we spend most of our time here playing table-tennis, that's why the programming takes so long!" laughed Charlie.
At the front of the building there are two offices where the necessary paperwork takes place, and then there's the all-important research room. This room is full of every MIDI keyboard you could possibly imagine, all hooked up through a large, powerful sound system. In here, the programs are tested over and over again to check for bugs (faults) and to discover ways that they may be improved. Would you believe it's some poor person's task to sit in here all day and just play with all the gear - what a tough job! (Naturally enough, I asked if they needed any help.)
Actually, they left me alone in this room with their latest products so that I could check them out thoroughly at my own speed. 'Oh for a room like this in my flat' I thought.
To round things off, I asked Charlie what Steinberg's plans were for the future.
"I think we will get more involved in the studio side of computing. You see, I am a dreamer who once thought that we might build up a studio that only really works with computers and hi-tech instruments - no tape recorders. Maybe this dream will come true and there'll be a connection between that and what we are doing now.
The way studio technology's progressing, it won't be very long before you can record analogue sounds directly onto opto-electrical devices like read/write CDs that are controlled by a computer. And everything will be memorised and accessible instantly through the computer. You'll even be able to edit the material that you have stored, and it will also be very cheap technology to buy. It's the next step in computers and music."
Finally, just before I left Steinberg Research, Charlie told me about one other new device they were presently developing - a MIDI expander interface for the Atari 520 computer which also reads and writes SMPTE/EBU timecode and will be considerably cheaper than anything around at the moment. Sounds too good to be true doesn't it? If it isn't, then I know where my pocket money's going thisyear!
I'd like to extend my thanks to all at Steinberg Research for making me welcome and allowing me 'free run' of the place.
Now who was it that said software houses were all like Fort Knox...?