Inside Brainworx and Plugin Alliance with Dirk Ulrich

By in Live Sound, Music Creation

Dirk Ulrich is the owner and CEO of Brainworx, and founder of Plugin Alliance LLC, a plug-in distribution company that includes some of the world’s preeminent developers, including Brainworx, SPL, elysia, Vertigo, Millennia, Mäag Audio, and others. Plugin Alliance released the 100% VENUE AAX Bundle in January for Avid’s VENUE | S6L live sound system, following up in March with a V1.1 update that added five additional plug-ins to this powerful live sound toolkit.

I recently caught up with Dirk to learn more about the company’s history and design philosophy, as well as to deep dive on the features and capabilities of the plug-ins included in the VENUE bundle and the benefits they offer to the live sound engineer.

Dirk Ulrich in his studio

DH: Let’s start at the beginning – what is your background?

DU: I started studying law, which I didn’t completely finish. During this time I had already started a little semi-professional studio where I recorded my own stuff and local bands. That must have been around ’90-’91.

Besides studying, I also started working in a professional music store here in Leverkusen, which had all the German professional bands come in and also touring bands. They were famous for tuning Marshall’s at that time. I am a guitar player and met a lot of interesting people. When that store moved to a big, old bunker, the owner offered to let me put my studio into that building and run a music school in there. So I did this while I was studying law and then after maybe a year or so the studio business really picked up, and the music school was quite successful in the beginning—I didn’t have the time to do all of it.

Dirk performing live circa 1995

So I decided to go all-in with rock and roll and I started producing more professional bands at that time. That must have been around ’94-’95. And ever since then I was producing music for a living. I started a small rock label, we had a little co-publishing deal with Warner/Chappell. I produced everything from local radio commercials to the music that the local [Bayer Leverkusen] soccer team plays when the team goes into the stadium, and also a lot of bands. I produced with James LaBrie from Dream Theater, Hardcore Legends Pro Pain, and even some famous classical tenors over the years, including a few releases that entered the charts. I was always into rock and roll and metal and punk rock, all the stuff with distorted guitars and real drums. That was my business mostly.

So around 2005 or so I had the idea for a hardware MS [Mid-Side] EQ, the bx_1 EQ. I was mastering some of my music at 301 Studio in Cologne, a big studio, and they had a custom built MS matrix mastering desk and I was really blown away by what they could do with MS. So I wanted to build an EQ that had this matrix inside and a friend of mine who runs a repair and technical store told me he could build one for me.

Working in the old studio in Leverkusen

We actually built two prototypes that are working—they sit in my studio here. Another friend of mine worked at Creamware, and I told him about the idea to make this MS EQ. The initial idea was to only make one EQ for myself—I didn’t have plans to sell the hardware EQ or anything. I was just a studio guy who wanted to have an EQ with an MS matrix on board for my Brainworx studio.

So I told my friend about this and he said, “Rather than spending thousands of Euros on power supplies and knobs and filters, why don’t you use our SDK to test your design first?” I was using a Creamware I/O card at that time anyway. They were pretty famous in Germany and they promoted me on their website and some print ads.

the current (V3) version of the Brainworx bx_digital MS EQ plug-in that started it all

He said they could unlock their software development kit, which is basically part of their system, giving me an empty plug-in with two inputs and two outputs and a tool kit of filters and all kinds of stuff so I could build my own plug-in into that empty shell. It would have no GUI or anything. It just had peak bands and shelving bands and I could sum signals and also inverse signals so I could make a little MS matrix inside.

So I prototyped a five-band EQ, shifter EQs, an MS De-Esser, and other tools and worked on this for a few weeks because I got really into it. It was very cool to be able to create my own mastering EQ. And when my friend saw what I did he thought it was really amazing and that we should cooperate on it to turn it into a commercial plug-in. I would have to design a real GUI for this, so a 3-D rendering expert helped me turn this into a real plug-in. The bx_digital V1 MS EQ plug-in, that they could start to sell.

Creamware SCOPE DSP and I/O card

We had just finished the Creamware version of the EQ when they offered to fly me out to the NAMM show in Los Angeles to help them set up their booth and demo their stuff, including my own plug-in, which I thought was cool. And then Mark Papakostas from Digidesign stopped by the Creamware booth and said, “Wow, that’s such a cool mastering plug-in!” His hobby was mastering stuff at home and he had even built his own semi-professional analog MS matrix. He wanted Ed Gray [in Developer Relations] to see this, who came by and said that if Mark says this should be out as a TDM plug in, then he wanted to sign Brainworx up as a developer right away. And as Digidesign was having their developer conference in the Hilton on the Monday after NAMM, I was told that I could attend.

It was very exciting because now I was sitting next to George Massenburg and all the guys from Waves and I felt totally lost in there because I was not really in the plug-in business yet. I didn’t even have a program at that time because my very first plug-in was basically made with a drag-and-drop type of software program. That’s really how it worked in the Creamware system.

Dirk Ulrich, Ed Gray, and George Massenburg

So Digidesign said that they’re happy to welcome everyone, some of whom they had worked with for 12 years now as well as a guy that they just started working with 12 hours ago. I didn’t understand a word in that meeting, all the technical stuff, because I’m not a programmer. I’m an audio guy and business guy, maybe, but not somebody who could understand what they were talking about.

Digidesign then offered to put the bx_digital plug-in into the next Pro Tools Massive Pack (MP7 I guess) if I could come up with a TDM version. And this was really what started our business. I then found some real programmers in Germany and also worked together with Softube on the TDM port of our native plug-in which we had developed by then. We got some nice royalties from Avid—it gave us our first six-digit check, which I then used to hire a very talented programmer. This was really the start of a software business for Brainworx. I don’t think Brainworx would be what it is right now if it wasn´t for Avid / Digidesign back then.

So it seems that my first design for this master EQ plug in was an instant hit (so to speak) and that’s cool. But it was never the pure intention, there was no business master plan in the background. To this day bx_digital is our best-selling plug-in and we won a lot of awards for it. It was voted plug-in of the decade by Future Music a few years ago, for example.

Dirk at Winter NAMM 2013

DH: What a great story. Your story is quite an endorsement for going to trade shows and networking. So take us into the next phase of your development—how did you grow the business into what it is today?

DU: Once the bx_digital took off and we had decent sales with it, I started experimenting with MS technology. I really loved it (and still do), so we came up with more ideas for MS and we invented plug-ins like the simple bx_control, which is a digital MS matrix and can chain other plug-ins into MS mode. We also designed the bx_hybrid EQ, which mapped to all of the ICON console’s EQ features—we even used the surround joysticks for the shifter EQ’s. And the people at Avid freaked out of course and loved it—they loved the interaction that the plug-in had with their hardware controller. So the Brainworx brand started to take off and that was maybe the end of phase one.

SPL De-esser plug-in

SPL Transient Designer Plus plug-in

Phase two was when I just naively called somebody at SPL who I knew from my days at the music store. I said, “I saw that you just released the Transient Designer plug-in with Universal Audio. You have so many cool units that you have developed and we now have a little software company, so why don’t we team up and we could create a whole line of SPL plug-ins for you.” I then met with the owners of SPL who liked the idea, and they gave us an exclusive deal right away to make all their future plug-ins, to basically turn all their hardware units that made sense into software, like the Vitalizer, their De-Essers and passive EQ’s and all that cool stuff.

That was very important second phase for us, because when we then went to more trade shows together with the SPL team we started getting attention from many other hardware companies as well. They said, “Well, if they make all the plug-ins for SPL, which is a pretty decent hardware company, then probably the team is pretty good, so let’s talk to them.” We then signed up maybe five, six other companies like Vertigo and elysia, and made plug-ins for them. These plug-ins were initially sold on different websites, their main web sites. This was what led to the idea of combining all of these products on one website and with one unified activation and trial scheme and web store, which was the birth of the Plugin Alliance.

Dirk engaging in another of his passions

DH: Tell me about the authorization scheme—why did you choose this approach and how does it work?

DU: Just as we were about to start the Plugin Alliance we decided that, rather than spending tens of thousands of dollars on commercially available security systems every year and then still see cracked version appear, we would rather create an activation scheme that’s as easy to use as possible. We feel that the best copy protection is offering a smooth authorization process and high value products. In other words, make your products easier to buy than they are to steal.

So we started Plugin Alliance, and it was a big success. When we started we had less than 10,000 individual user accounts and within one year I think we had 40,000 user accounts. We combined all our products, and everybody was able to demo them without a dongle at that time, which was a big deal, and people could combine plugins from various partners, create their own bundles etc. While we developed our own authorization system, which includes security protections, our emphasis has always been, and always will be, on customer experience. We want the process of authorizing demos and purchases to be as easy as possible for users and this balance has served us well as we now have over 150,000 user accounts.

in the US with wife Marina and son Tim

DH: This activation scheme seems especially well-suited for live sound engineers out in the field.

DU: Yeah. From day one we let people activate up to three machines with our licenses and not just one. And one of them could also be not just a computer but actually any regular USB thumb drive. So you just buy a $5.00 USB drive and you put your plug-in files on it plus the activation files which you can copy conveniently from our system to that stick and then just plug it into a live console.

Let’s say you’re mixing an open air concert without any internet connection. You can just copy the plug-in files, use them because the USB stick holds your activation and when you’re done with your show and the next band comes on you just pull the USB stick out. You can even leave the plug-in files on that machine. They just won’t work anymore if the USB stick is not inside. It’s similar to the dongle based workflow that many live sound users are already familiar with, but the difference is that you can use any USB stick and if it breaks or if you lose it you just tell our website and then you get a new activation with basically no questions asked unless you come up with a stupid amount of reactivations. Then somebody might ask you what you’re doing, and if you need some help.

Tim checking out an Engl amp

DH: So you explained that in the early days you developed for TDM—what was the process like moving your plug-ins to Avid’s AAX platform?

DU: What we really liked was that Avid took the time and did one-on-one developer meetings to tell us about AAX in the first place. I think that was during a NAMM or AES show, I don’t recall, but I know that we were invited for like a 90-minute meeting and they explained all kinds of details to us—a long time ahead of the release of AAX, which was fair. I mean some other companies, from California even, have the tendency to just send out newsletters to everybody and then you find out as a developer that stuff has changed when you get the first support ticket. So what Avid did was very cool.

What we also liked about it was that we saw potential to dramatically simplify our framework because the AAX stuff is not fixed point anymore. We thought that it would be possible for us to combine all of our code base basically into one system, so that all of our AAX native DSP plug-ins, and even our UAD plug-ins, could live in the same code base now. That was a lot of work for us, I think it took us more than a year actually to do this because we had a pretty big number of titles at that time already, but that was all time well spent.

Mäag Audio EQ4 plug-in

DH: In the case of SPL and elysia and Mäag, you are creating plug-in emulations of actual hardware, but how do you approach Brainworx plug-ins where you are not chasing any hardware equivalent?

DU: Basically we see Brainworx plug-ins as hardware that we wish existed—you can even see this from the GUI design. Most of our plug-ins look like hardware and have knobs, they’re not super futuristic like iZotope’s, for example. They’re very hardware based in their design, because I’m still more or less a rock and roll producer type.

For example, the bx_digital is a great idea, but up to this date we couldn’t really release this as hardware because it’s so complicated and would be so expensive. We’ve spec’d this several times because people still ask for it as it was on the website for a while as a concept. It would probably be like a $20,000 hardware mastering EQ if you really wanted to do it with all the MS inserts and the matrix and all that stuff.

some of Dirk's outboard collection

DH: Looking at the VENUE AAX Plug-in Bundle for S6L, how did you go about picking what plug-ins you wanted to include?

DU: When we first talked about this, we obviously looked at our catalog (which is now more than 60 plug-ins) and realized that we had a lot of plug-ins in our portfolio that were from partner companies like SPL or elysia and Maag who actually designed their hardware with a focus on live sound. I mean the SPL Transient Designer with only the two knobs is so effective in what it does, that it’s the perfect tool for live gigs when you don’t have a lot of time for sound check and sometimes can’t even solo stuff. You just have to do it in the mix or with headphones and that can be quite challenging if it’s really loud. And the De-Esser, which works basically automatically. We decided that when we released the first few plug-ins for the live bundle, we would pick the ones that made the most sense. Also the Mäag EQ with its Air Band, which gives you a nice high frequency tone almost out of the range of feedback. It’s one of those EQ’s that you can actually use on a big stage without fearing to get a lot of feedback on stage. The second thought was to pick a few plug-ins where you don’t have a lot of choice already, like the bx_saturator V2 which is a very unique tool, and the SPL TwinTube. We thought some cool distortion plug-ins that add vibe to a live show.

the 100% VENUE AAX Bundle V1.1 includes: Brainworx bx_console, bx_digital V3, bx_opto, bx_refinement, bx_saturator V2; elysia mpressor; Mäag Audio EQ4; SPL De-essers, Transient Designer Plus, and TwinTube

Brainworx bx_saturator V2 plug-in

SPL TwinTube plug-in

DH: Tell me a little a bit more about MS [Mid-Side]. How do your MS plug-ins relate to engineers not using this particular micing technique?

DU: First of all, as you said it started basically with people setting up microphones in a way that would record a very mono compatible setup, but which gives you a really nice stereo result. What we did with the EQ is basically reverse this idea and take an existing stereo signal like a mix in a mastering situation, but also maybe stereo overheads or a piano that has been miced or acoustic guitars, a choir, whatever it is, and then applied these techniques to the signal. It’s actually a very powerful way of doing it because not looking at left and right channels, but rather what’s in the center and what’s on the outside, gives you a lot of flexibility.

microphone placement is everything

For example, you can easily mono the low end. We have a “mono maker” feature in a lot of plug-ins that have MS technology inside of them. You just select a frequency, let’s say 120 Hz, and then the signal is fully mono up to that frequency and then from there on it spreads to regular stereo. This is great for live situations, because it reduces the problems in the low end like phasing and really low frequencies which can be a problem when you have subwoofers and crossover systems on huge setups.

And then you can also get rid of harshness in some signals, and make room for a singer, for example. In a lot of live situations it’s not very easy to make sure that people get a decent experience because maybe the room acoustics are not perfect and so being able to shape a stereo mix in a way that the vocals or the other lead instruments can easily cut through is of course very welcome.

The bx_refinement plug-in has MS technology. You can apply the active filter that’s in there only on the sides, for example, or on the whole signal. The bx_console, the stereo version, has at least solo buttons for mid and side. Obviously you would not really use the solo buttons while you’re in a show because it would drastically change what people hear through the speakers, but during sound check you can use it and help to cue stuff and determine what you really want to do. The bx_saturator is completely MS in the stereo version so you can drive the outer signal more than the mid signal which is really cool. Keeps the punch while adding the vibe still.

Dirk at his Neve VXS console

DH: Let’s dive into the bx_console plug-in, which I know was a major project of yours over the last year or two. How did it come about and what makes it so special?

DU: I was telling you earlier about the production I’d done with the singer from Dream Theater. When I was younger I was a big fan of theirs (and still am…) and I found a Russian entrepreneur who runs a big studio besides doing other business in Russia. He basically gave us the opportunity to finish the production. While I was there to record and to mix this album I worked on a Neve console for the first time in my life, and decided that if I ever can afford it, I want to have one. I was just blown away by the sweetness and the quality of that EQ. We keep one unit of everything we model in our studio and I had some hardware when I began this whole adventure because I was running my studio as well, so I had quite a lot of gear. But the Neve is really something special. What I really like about it is that you can boost quite a lot without the EQ ever sounding harsh or unnatural. Especially when you do pop and rock music, that’s what a lot of professional producers do—they EQ the hell out of a lot of signals and it will sound really weird I guess with a lot of other EQ’s, but the Neve does the job nicely.

And so a few years ago I found this console up for sale in Sweden and we decided to go and buy it and ever since then we used it as a reference for all the plug-ins we make. For example, when we do Brainworx plug-ins, we compare if something we do with the plug-in is at least as good quality-wise as what you can do with such an amazing console.

About two years ago we started seriously developing a concept for what is now bx_console, and it became a labor of love. We knew that we were pretty good already in modeling compressors and EQ’s and filters and all that stuff, but I had the idea to go one step further. Working on this console just made it totally clear to me that one of the big differences that people always hear when they say that analog is still a little bit ahead of digital, to me it became obvious that tolerances between the different channels are a very important part of this.

For example, if you have stereo signals, even if you really try to EQ them absolutely the same on left and right channels, it will just never happen. And the phasing that occurs out of this gives you a certain depth and something that the human ear just really likes. It might not be perfect in a technical or digital way, but it has something that the ear really digs. And if you add this to let’s say 24 or 30 stereo signals in a more complex mix, it really gives you that extra depth and width that people refer to when they talk about analog mixing.

Brainworx bx_console plug-in

So I talked with our developers and we came up with a solution. We perfectly modeled our gold unit channel, which is what most companies do, I guess, and then we determined about 150 components in that circuit that are responsible for center frequencies, for widths of Q settings, but also for different attack and release times. It’s not just about some frequencies being shifted. It’s about compressors and gates reacting slightly different. The whole console comes to live in your DAW.

And so we applied an algorithm that basically within an absolute realistic range of tolerances creates 72 different channels in that one plug-in, which of course for live situations is fantastic because it basically means you can take a big Neve VXS 72-channel board to a live show and mix with it, which would almost be impossible for most people with the real thing.

engineer Pat Guertin using bx_console on Marie-Mai's vocal channel

DH: What about some of the other plug-ins in the bundle? What are some of their strong points in the live environment?

DU: The bx_opto compressor is a really cool plug-in because it sounds amazing but it’s so easy to operate. It’s not like a mastering compressor where you have to dial in all kinds of parameters to get a really great tone out of this—it’s basically a one-knob thing. You turn it up and it sounds amazing. You can tweak it a little further then, but you get instant results with this one.

Brainworx bx_refinement plug-in

Brainworx bx_opto plug-in

We chose the elysia mpressor because it’s not a clean compressor. It’s like the bx_opto. It’s one of the compressors that really give you a tone and can pump up drums and snare drums for example, but can even tame very aggressive bass sounds in a really cool way. It’s easier to control than the big elysia alpha compressor, but we think it’s more rock and roll and adds more vibe to the signal than the super clean mastering compressor which we might release later for one of the next live bundles.

Ultimately I think one of the reasons why Plugin Alliance is so successful is that we’re able to offer our plug-ins for all these platforms including now the live market, which is great and we know that engineers appreciate this. Once they know how the Maag EQ or the mpressor or the bx_digital, whatever it is, they know they can use them in any situation and they will be able to find a cure for even the most problematic situations.

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elysia mpressor plug-in

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Sr. Marketing Manager for Avid Live Sound Systems and Music Notation. I previously worked at Euphonix and E-MU Systems before joining Avid.