Tuesday, April 26, 2011

---> Sean of Valhalla DSP INTERVIEW!!!!

I really love the Valhalla DSP reverb plugs. They are priced modestly, to say the least, and sound really great. "Shimmer" is amazing, with a pitch shifted coolness that is like a cross between 7 things I already loved wrapped into one elegant plugin, and "Room" is just a great , quality reverb that can really do wonders for people with tastes in quality reverberation that extend out past the wallet.... I sat down, then emailed Sean, then went about my business in life doing stuff nobody would ever understand. This is the reply I got when I finally checked my interworld surfing device. I am a fan. 
Who the heck are you?
I'm Sean Costello. Pacific NW native, with an awesome wife and 2 amazing daughters. Decent guitarist, crappy drummer, ok synthesist if I concentrate on the knobs and less on the black and white parts at the bottom of the synth.

I am also Valhalla DSP, maker of audio plugins for the people.

How did you get into making such great reverb plugins? What makes your reverbs so great?
As an undergraduate at Stanford, I was lucky enough to study with some DSP geniuses (Max Mathews, Julius Smith, Perry Cook). I put that aside during the 1990's to pursue Anthropology, and the $8/hour lifestyle that prepared me for. In 1998, I talked my way into taking a yearlong computer music course at the University of Washington. I guess I did well enough there, as I ended up getting a job as an audio DSP programmer at a place called Staccato Systems, which was later bought by Analog Devices. 

During the first decade of the new millennium, I created audio algorithms and audio development tools for a bunch of clients. Almost none of these made it to market. For whatever reason, all the algorithms I worked on during that time seemed to be put in that warehouse seen at the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark."  This was kind of depressing, but I kept going. It paid the bills, and I got to work with some whip smart folks (Scott Van Duyne, Tim Stilson, David Jaffe, Joseph Anderson) from whom I learned a ton.

For the past 12 years, I have been designing reverb algorithms. Some of my algorithms from 1999 ended up in Csound, but the vast majority of the ones that followed got filed in the above mentioned top secret warehouse. In 2009, the good folks at Audio Damage hired me to design algorithms for the plugin that was released as Eos. These algorithms didn't get shelved - Eos sold quite well, and the Audio Damage guys were kind enough to call me out as the author of the algorithms, which is unheard of in most of the DSP industry. The last two reverbs I have designed, ValhallaShimmer and ValhallaRoom, have been under the Valhalla DSP brand.

Most of my reverbs have not been so great. At least 90% of my reverb algorithms have sucked big time. However, I'm obsessed with the stuff, so I've created several hundred reverb algorithms in the past decade+. The algorithms I have released are some of the ones that don't suck.


Why reverb specifically?
I'm sure that my love of big washy reverbs comes from the electronic music of my youth. PBS science documentaries and "Cosmos" were a big part of that. During the mid 1990's, I got into electronic music again, and sought out music by the Warp artists, the German kosmische bands, Brian Eno, and so on. My love of ambient tracks continues to this day.

There is also a bit of "forbidden lore" about reverberator design. I've read every paper on the subject I can find, staring in the 1950's AES archives, and the vast majority of published designs don't sound good. For the most part, people don't patent or publish the good reverbs - they keep them secret. So figuring out how to track down this hidden information is a fun challenge. It's like an Audio Grimoire.

The biggest reason for my reverb obsession is that reverb algorithms are COOL. An algorithmic reverb is a bunch of delay lines and filters that are combined together in twisted configurations and fed back on themselves, with the goal being to sound as random as possible. The various building blocks are like Legos that can be combined in an infinite number of configurations. It's a mental puzzle, that I can work on in my skull wherever I am. 




If avocados are the cashews of the jungle, then reverb is the mayonnaise of delay units. You know what I mean?
If yes, explain. 
Reverb is a sauce that, if applied sparingly, can blend everything together into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. I would never eat straight mayonnaise (I'm shuddering right now as I type this), but put a little bit inside of a Bánh mì, combined with some hoisin sauce and some sriracha, and the result is a unified entity of flavor. Reverb is a form of audio umami.

I also think that a good algorithmic reverb, with the modulation dialed in just right, is like an avocado. Put an instrument through it, turn up the decay time so that the sound just hangs there in space and evolves, and you have some delicious sonic guacamole.

I probably should have answered this question after dinner.

Would you rather see a shark and a robot fight, or see a unicorn and a T-Rex fight?

Fight to the death? Shark and a robot. I would hate to see a unicorn get hurt. How would I tell my daughters about that?


Thanks Sean!!

Thank you, Joel!

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