Native Instruments has innovated some of the most game-changing hardware and software for DJs and producers, not limited to the groundbreaking Traktor and Maschine platforms. We had the chance to sit down with the CEO and CTO of Native Instruments to discuss the past and present of the company.
Native Instruments (NI) has built a name for itself by creating and developing indispensable tools for the DJ/Producer arsenal, and today the brand is more than just a familiar name to music-makers the world over. Since it was founded in 1996, Native Instruments has ballooned into a leader in software and hardware solutions. The company is heavily founded upon Berlin's esteemed musical culture, and in the heady years following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Native Instruments took root. As the synthesizer was heralded as a revolutionary instrument, Native Instruments stepped in to shift the paradigm, presenting computers as a new era musical tool. Reaktor, Traktor, Maschine, and Komplete are some of the additions that Native Instruments has made to its catalog of music-making tools over the years, and the company is still striving to innovate and disrupt the scene to this day.
We stopped by the Native Instruments headquarters in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin to find out more.
What are both of your respective roles within the company?
Daniel Haver: I am the CEO, making sure everything comes together and defining the vision.
Mate Galic: I am the CTO/President and I work basically in the field of product and technology. My overview is the research of new product ideas and the conception of actual new products including to some degree the development of of these products.
What comments would you make about the Berlin startup culture and what other aspects about Berlin have helped build Native Instruments?
Haver: We are a music company, so being in Berlin in the '90s was essential to form a company like ours. As you know there was a lot of stuff happening, such as the techno movement dominating the party scene, and I think that people like us came to this city to meet people here, and connect with others, and also to embrace the energy that had already existed back then.
I would say NI was one of the early startups in the music space, before the next wave came where Berlin became this very international place with a bohemian party culture in the late '90s and early 2000s and then another group of guys, the SoundCloud guys, took things to the next level in the whole startups culture within Berlin.
What is your relationship with the Berlin night club Watergate? I know you guys test new equipment with them.
Galic: It has no meaning if you keep it all in the lab and we have to listen to what's going on outside, or in the studio, and, of course, the dance floor. The relationship with Watergate - a five-minute walk from here with a great sound system - allows us to check stuff in a real-world environment before the product is released. We are in touch with Prince Charles and all the clubs in Berlin. Usually we bring a computer to the club with a controller to test out new ideas.
Haver: I think what was very essential for us to build a music software company was to actually stay as connected as possible to music. We are about sound and lot of things happening around us are about contemporary music and progressive music. It's very fundamental to keep that connection that drives our inspiration.
Which DJs do you have an ongoing relationship with?
Galic: It would be strange to name just a few because we work with so many of them here in Berlin. We have strong foothold in the whole electronic music domain here - especially in the house and techno scene - but we also have a lot of artists in London, Paris, New York and more. We try to make sure we're not just speaking to one demographic. We are equally involved with the techno scene as much as we are with the bass scene in the UK.
We have people in the EDM space, too. For example, Zedd. He is super famous in America and will be heading up to different festivals with our gear. We're also in touch with people like Mad Decent, or more locally with Richie Hawtin from Minus. We want to inspire as many people as possible and get as much information back from them on how they are using our tools.
How is Native Instruments changing touch-screen technology?
Galic: Try our app, Traktor DJ on your iPad and experience how much we understand the potential of touch technology and envision a new experience around using touch. We have been pioneers in utilizing touch technology in very intuitive ways in how you basically play and perform in the DJ way. We are a very innovative company. When we see something like touch-screens, we automatically ask how can this be useful in a new and different way than before and we are proud of what we have achieved in terms of the Traktor DJ app.
Any particular reason you don't have an actual piece of hardware that incorporates a touch-screen?
Galic: I think there are many different reasons. We have the iPad app, and you also have to consider costs and production value. We are experimenting with all of that but so far we have yet to see an outcome we are truly happy with.
Will people ever be able to DJ on their Apple Watch?
Galic: Yes, in a very limited way. I think people will question if this is real DJing but that is a very relative perspective, because back when we started, people would question why we wanted to DJ using a computer rather than vinyl. Funny enough, people are still saying that today.
What is changing faster, music or technology?
Galic: I would say that technology is changing much faster than music and a lot of the new music released is driven by the possibilities of new technology.
Haver: I would agree with this because investing in technology that is used in the music industry comes from everywhere. Millions of people are working on technology that is not specifically meant to drive or change music, but that we can actually use to change music.
So maybe it's more fair to say music is changing because technology is changing.
Galic: Yeah, because some people have the inspiration of how to utilize technology and realize new musical ideas.
Haver: Think historically, like with Jimi Hendrix and his distorted guitar. How did that happen? Because there was a completely new technology available that sounds different. We believe that sound is a very important part of music. Sound itself makes a huge difference and we are working on the companies claim on the future of sound. So eventually people will pick the new sounds and create new music because of that.
Why is Native Instruments so popular amongst the people making EDM music as opposed to someone making jazz?
Galic: I think it might have something to do with the instruments. The jazz guys are usually using a different kind of instrument where as an EDM person is using a computer to put music together. I think you would also be surprised at how many different types of people are actually using our produc:, pop, rock, film-score producers. One of our most successful products is Kontakt, which is about the reproduction of acoustic instruments on the computer. But the difference between a film score producer and a jazz guy is that a film score producer is using the computer to piece and put together the music of film, while the jazz guy is usually just free to play his music the way he wants to.
Haver: If you make your sound choice already, the music is then defined by technique, or expression, or melody, or new compositions that you create. Native Instruments is only really valid for people looking for a new sound, or new ways to create a new sound. So if you just want to play the guitar then that's great, if you just want that one sound then we can't really do anything to help you progress, that is not our job. If you're looking for a new kind of guitar with a very different kind of sound you should talk to us and then we have something for you.
What is the biggest achievement or claim to fame Native Instruments has had?
Haver: We pride ourselves on helping music evolve and being different. However, part of why it is different is because more people can do music, so the other part of what we believe is an achievement of ours is that we really helped to make music production technology available to everyone.
Talk about your new initiative with "stems."
Haver: Basically we have been dreaming about how to take DJ performances to the next level. We are trying to find common ground between taking it to the next level without catering only to the turntable's persona. One of the core principles of DJing is using the EQ, the equalizer to make the frequency match better when you are transitioning from one song to the next. It helps to make smoother transitions, but what you actually do is you always effect the sound as a whole, so when you cut out the bass or the drums, you cut out the melody as a whole.
So we thought, wouldn't it be nice if you could just cut out the drums or just the melody while the drums don't change at all? Then we created the next generation EQ in the form of the stems format - that we are just launching - that basically takes the song and divides it into four groups as a drum channel, a bass channel, a melody channel, and a vocal channel, treating them all individually. You can just drop the drums and melody while you transition the vocal channel, and vice versa. With subtle mixing techniques you will create new music on the fly because you have more control and deeper access to the music itself. You're basically at the DNA of the music rather than the middle level.
So it's more accurate?
Galic: It's more accurate because you will have more control over the individual sections.
Haver: And you can be much more creative, it's basically what DJs have been wanting to do, but were never able to do because they could not access a specific part of the song. You want to achieve a certain result without effecting all the other parts of the song. But now with the four stems of the track DJs can do that.
So with a regular MP3 you can upload it into any media player, but if you have our stem engine behind, suddenly you don't have a stereo file but rather four stems that you can mess with and this is compatible with every media player.
Is it already available?
Galic: It's going to be available in the summer around the end of July, with a big launch featuring big players in the industry, labels, artists and more.
Haver: If I were SoundCloud or Spotify I would not feel very comfortable today because Apple is Apple.
Apple has the iPhone and iTunes, and music creation products like Logic, so if one company owns all or part of this, and also operates a music streaming service, that is concerning. Then the question is, is it a good situation for the customer? I'm not a fan of monopolies and I hope we won't see one.
With all the different subscriptions available, do you think it can be a little confusing for music lovers out there?
Haver: No, this is just the reality of the situation. For the mainstream, they find 90% of the songs you want to listen to are on all services.
So what kind of music do you each listen to?
Galic: I'm pretty diverse with what I listen, from heavy metal stuff to Lady Gaga. Over the years I have developed a very eclectic taste. I have a long history with techno and modern electronic music before I joined NI, but today it really depends more on what mood I'm in. I follow a lot of blogs and I invest time into finding the right music. I have a strange taste of what I like and what I dislike, so I'm still reading the magazines and music blogs.
Haver: I'm kind of diverse, I grew up in the '80s and listened a lot to the new wave and synth pop, goth, rock. But when the '90s came, I got completely sucked into electronic music and I still listen a lot to electronic music styles. So I have two sides and it usually depends on what my mood is during the day.
What is the best live concert you have ever been to?
Galic: I was very impressed with Daft Punk when I went to see them 10 years ago in Denver. For the first time they established a valid electronic music live show and they set the standard for everything EDM. Sure, my reasons come from a personal standpoint in relation to electronic music but also from a cultural standpoint - it opened up the vision of what the future holds for this genre of music.
Haver: It's going to sound boring but I have to agree, too. (Laughs) It was one of the best concerts. They didn't play one song the way they play it on their albums, but they remixed all of their songs and melted them into something completely new, and that was just mind blowing. Other than that, my favorite concerts were all in the '80s, but I was more into little clubs rather than big concerts. Being at festivals with thousands of people has never been for me, even though I have done it, I just prefer smaller venues.
Do you know if Daft punk were using any of NI technology during their show you guys attended?
Galic: To be honest, I don't know. They have always been longstanding users of our products - like Reaktor for example - which is one of our oldest products. The company was basically built on that product. I think when they performed, their focus was more about the performance; syncing the audio with the visuals rather than just the actual sound. But as we mentioned earlier, the aspect that was really special was their ability to remix on the fly, that was definitely something new at the time.