Synthogy founder and Ivory II developer Joe Ierardi talks to Time+Space

Synthogy founder and Ivory II developer Joe Ierardi talks to Time+Space

"I think it’s safe to say that this is the best piano plug-in on the market,”

“…sampled pianos so realistic they’re indistinguishable from the real thing.”

"Superb. Stellar. Excellent. Outstanding. Best in class.”

With reviews like that, it’s safe to say it’s been quite an incredible year for Synthogy. September 2010 saw the highly acclaimed virtual piano developers unleash Ivory II onto the world – a groundbreaking, powerful new engine that was set to deliver a playing experience that was simply extraordinary in its realism. With Grand Pianos as the first title, closely followed by Italian Grand and then Upright Pianos, Synthogy’s entire product line now encompasses the new engine setting a new standard for virtual pianos.

When Synthogy’s Co-founder, Joe Ierardi finally came up for air after the release of Upright Pianos in May, we got him to tell us more about Ivory, why it stands out from its competitors, his thoughts on the long-running dongle debate and what Synthogy has up their sleeves for the rest of 2011...

Hi Joe, let's start off with a bit of background info, what were you up to prior to founding Synthogy?
I worked for Kurzweil Music Systems for nearly 20 years designing hardware synths like the K2000 series as well as their line of digital pianos. I created samples and synth sounds for nearly all of their products since the early days of the K250. I have degrees in physics and piano performance, and always had a passion for programming synthesizers, so it seemed like the perfect career for me.

So how did Synthogy come about?
After leaving Young Chang/Kurzweil in 2002, I began doing some consulting work, but also began researching the software virtual instrument market, which was just coming into its own. I got pretty excited about the idea of creating sounds without any of the strict memory limitations we had to deal with in the hardware world. Also around that time, I got in touch with George Taylor who was a colleague of mine at Kurzweil and had left some years prior.
I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of really brilliant engineers, but George was among the best. We began talking about forming a company and doing some sort of software product. I mentioned I had an idea for a virtual piano product, and he thought it sounded cool. We basically decided to start a company and designed our first product all within that first 45-minute phone call!

How have your ambitions for Synthogy changed between then and now, if at all?
In many respects, they haven’t changed. Our primary goal is to innovate and design state-of-the-art musical instruments, and I feel like we’ve been true to those principles. Of course to do that without compromise often requires more development time, and I think when we were starting out we thought we’d be able to produce a wider variety of products.

We have lots of ideas for all kinds of products we could make outside of the piano world, but as a small company, it was best to keep our focus on Ivory for a while, until we implemented the major features we had always envisioned for the technology. The other things we want to work on will come eventually.

Congratulations on the terrifically successful release of the Ivory II product line, what do you feel are the key features of the software that make them stand out from your competitors’ products?
For Ivory II, Harmonic Resonance Modeling, the Sympathetic String Vibration technology that we’ve developed, is perhaps most significant. For as long as I’ve been in this industry, it really has been the holy grail of digital piano emulation. Lots of manufacturers have claimed to do “something” with respect to this acoustic phenomenon, but nobody really got it right. We studied the problem for a long time and didn’t want to offer the feature until we thought we could do it faithfully and convincingly. A lot of credit goes to George Taylor for this breakthrough.

Another feature that seems to set us apart is our Release samples, which are triggered by both velocity and duration. Our software’s ability to track the duration of each note and play the appropriate release sample provides a very natural key release. It’s a subtle, but very important auditory cue when playing a real piano, and if it’s not there, a player knows it immediately.

The Sample Interpolation Technology that we use when creating the Ivory sample libraries is another very unique feature to Ivory II. This is a very powerful routine that allows us to fine tune the velocity/dynamics of the piano tones themselves. The degree of control we have over each sample is extraordinary, and a big reason why the dynamic transitions and playability of our instruments are so smooth.

I would also mention the Timbre Shift feature in Ivory II as a very powerful new feature. For people looking for more timbral variations to explore in the product, there is a world of possibility here. I was quite pleased that one of the UK writers picked up on this in his review.

Of the three Ivory II products currently available, what was the most challenging and time-consuming to sample and why?
None of these products is particularly easy to develop, and each presents its own set of challenges. The first Ivory product (Ivory Grand Pianos) was perhaps the most difficult to produce because we were starting from scratch with the software, DSP and sounds.

However, in terms of the task of sampling, the Uprights were probably the most challenging because, for a vertical piano, the microphone placement is literally inches away from the player’s head. In this case that was my head, and in order not to make any noise that could be heard in the recording it meant that I couldn’t move a muscle, or even breathe as I played each note! This added an extra dimension of pain and cruelty to the torture that is sampling. ;-)

Here at T+S, we´ve received a terrific response to Ivory II from our customers, what´s the feedback been like for you guys?
It’s been fantastic, both from our customers and the press. Some of the reviews have been among the best we’ve ever received, and the feedback we’ve gotten from our users has been terrific.

It’s very satisfying to hear, and we also appreciate that so many have taken the time to write and tell us. To be honest, these products are so much work and the development time is so long, it’s easy to lose perspective by the time you finish. This kind of affirmation is truly encouraging and inspirational.

Synthogy products require an iLok key to run – how do you feel about the level of debate within the industry press and online forums about the use of keys/dongles with music software?

How do I feel about it… well, mostly I feel like people should get over it! {laughs} Look, we understand nobody likes copy protection. I don’t like it! I think I have every dongle that’s out there. When you’re a third party and you support every platform, you tend to collect them all, and I’ve got a few USB hubs full of them.

At first, like everyone else, I regarded them as a nuisance. But when you use this stuff for a few years, and go through numerous OS changes, updates, and migrating your setup to a new computer every couple of years, you start to realize that the products that had their license on an iLok key were the easiest ones to deal with because you didn’t have to authorize again. Also, if I wanted to use a product on a second computer I didn’t have to authorize again. All I had to do was move the key and again it just worked.

As much as I felt that I disliked the dongles, I had to admit that those products and licenses that used them pretty much just worked for me. I never really thought about authorization again once my license was on iLok. These are the benefits of license management that you get with a key, and admittedly they are not immediately apparent, but in the long run they prove to be very stable and reliable. Our old copy protection system was neither secure nor was it reliable for the customer, so when we chose a new authorization system we selected iLok because it was the best and most reliable of any that we had personally used, over a period of many years.

You’ve probably seen significant changes within the MI industry over the last 2 or 3 years, what significant developments do you predict over the next few years?
Our industry is in flux, no doubt about that. Everything about it is undergoing a tremendous amount of change and will continue to do so. There are far-reaching implications, but in terms of MI, I would make a few observations.

Certainly one area to watch is hardware integration with software. We’ve seen increasing emphasis placed on controllers in the hardware world in the past few years. Further advances will be made in their integration with software instruments and DAWs. I don’t just say this because I’m a software developer because remember most of my background is in hardware. I just think all the great software out there now very much needs great hardware. We need it to be more ergonomic, to work more efficiently, and above all as musicians, we need it to provide greater means of expression.

I also think that the migration we’ll see from desktop computing to handheld devices will have a profound effect in the MI industry as well. There are tons of great music apps for the iPhone and iPad and while those may not quite be serious pieces of professional audio gear, it’s not hard to imagine when they, and other devices like them, will soon be full-fledged serious kit.

I’m not just referring to PDAs here either. We’ve already seen some brilliant, handheld audio and video recorders on the market in recent years, their capabilities and specs increasingly impressive. These things are using flash memory now, but as the cost of solid-state drives comes down, the possibilities for portable music making are going to be even more astounding.

Ivory pianos are used by numerous well-known musicians and composers including Imogen Heap, Jordan Rudess, Gary Barlow, Pete Townsend, RZA (Wu-Tang Clan), to name a few. Are there any other musicians in particular that you’d like Synthogy to be associated with?
Sure, I´d like to see Nikolai Kapustin, Arcadi Volodos, Michel Camilo, Brad Mehldau, and Hiromi Uehara play Ivory... or were you referring to pop artists? ;-)

Truthfully, there are lots of artists already using Ivory we’d love to be associated with, but we just haven’t had the time to chase them down for quotes. However, as far as a wish list of those who aren’t using Ivory, (as far as I know), I’d say Ben Folds, Radiohead, Goldfrapp, Rufus Wainwright, and Richard D. James are a few that would be pretty cool.

What’s been your proudest Synthogy-related event to date?
Seeing Imogen Heap perform with Ivory was terrific since she’s one of my favourite artists. Other than that the 2009 Superbowl halftime show, with Roy Bittan of the E Street band playing Ivory during Bruce’s set, was rather epic. Just for the sheer tens of millions of people who heard Ivory that day, it ranks up there.

What else can we expect from Synthogy in 2011?
We have the 64-bit native version for Mac which is currently in test and should be out soon. I know there are lots of folks waiting for that, and this will be a free update on our website. Beyond that, we’re always working on something new and should have some very interesting news in the Fall. Stay tuned to our website, FB and Twitter pages for the latest news!

Outside of Synthogy, what do you like to do in your spare time?
Piano playing always, and composition when I can find the time. I’m also crazy about vintage synthesizers and keyboards and have amassed quite a collection over the years.

Spending time with my kids and family is very important to me. I also love sports, the gym, and I coach youth sports, something I’ve done for the past 15 years. Film, art, literature and cooking are passions as well, and when I’m not doing any of those things I like to get to a beach. But if the weather or season doesn’t allow then chilling with some lounge-core and a nice, cold cocktail will do.

What types of music and artists have you been listening to lately?
Apart from those I’ve already mentioned what I mostly listen to these days is jazz, especially from the bebop era. I also can’t get enough bossa nova, funk, soul and r&b from the 60’s and 70’s. Oh, and Stevie Wonder is always on my playlist, best artist ever!

Thanks, Joe, we’re already looking forward to Autumn’s exciting announcement!