Empirical Labs first made a name for itself in the ’90’s with the hugely popular Distressor. Founder Dave Derr and company built on their success by developing numerous other products, including the Fatso, Lil FrEQ, and Mike-E. In 2009 Derr worked with Universal Audio to create a plug-in version of the Fatso, before tackling the first Empirical Labs plug-in developed in-house, the acclaimed Arousor.
In addition to supporting a variety of native plug-in formats, Emperical Labs created an AAX DSP version of the Arousor that runs on the VENUE | S6L’s HDX-based processing engine. This not only gives engineers on-board access to this powerful compressor, but it also offers comprehensive tactile control over all Arousor parameters via the S6L’s surface knobs, as well as deep software integration into VENUE’s powerful snapshot and events system. After months of testing by Avid and engineers like Snake Newton using the Arousor for their tours, I spoke with Derr to get the story behind Empirical Labs and learn about his unique design approach for the Arousor.
DH: Tell me about your background. How did you get into the audio industry?
DD: I was actually a music major in college and ended up going on the road. The band that I played with longest was from Delaware/PA area. We played all over the place and had some album sales but never really broke out of the local East Coast market. But it was fun. And the thing that I was always surrounded by was technology. My dad was very technical-oriented, but not an engineer, whereas my two brothers and my brother-in-law were all engineers, so I always loved science. And I was kind of the geek that did the soldering and some repairs in the band, so it started very casual.
When the band broke up, I needed a job. I ended up running into somebody in a Radio Shack, of all places, that worked at a medical company in PA, and saw that I was very interested. He goes, “Hey, we’re actually looking for someone as a technician.” They did wireless monitoring of EEGs and EKGs, and that was my first job in electronics. And one day while working there, I saw an ad from Eventide that they were looking for an engineer, someone with audio experience and electronic interest. I applied and was asked up for an interview. I ended up interviewing with Richard Factor, the owner. I was actually given a written test, which, when you go to a job interview, that’s like your nightmare! It was probably the most important written test of my life, and I actually knew the answers. I was shocked.
Eventide ended up hiring me, which was probably a bad move on their part, because the first six months I was there I was pretty useless. But what I did do was work along Ken Bogdanowicz (founder of SoundToys), Bob Belcher, and of course Richard Factor—they provided a lot of training on the job. I was very lucky they had the patience for it, but I paid attention and took notes and of course loved it. I loved the feeling of being in a digital company in the ‘80s—it was very inspiring, and to work alongside those guys was just another really lucky strike.
I had a studio at the same time towards the end—first a 16-track studio, and then a full 24-track. I eventually got to a point where I could leave Eventide as I had enough business in the studio. That was about ’92. A year or two after I tied up loose ends at Eventide, finishing the PC board for the DSP4000, I slowly started playing with what became the Distressor. I had had a couple ideas about some products, and one of them was compressors, which I’d been fascinated with since I was in a band. I think a lot of people try a lot of different things before they find their “lucky spot”, and definitely the case with me, and how I ended up in electronics manufacturing.
It wasn’t an immediate hit whatsoever. The first couple years we didn’t really sell any. You second-guess yourself, “Maybe I wasted a lot of time.” But I got lucky, and a few big people took the Distressor up, and then it snowballed. We were really lucky with the timing. Digital did have some problems at first. Some of them were psychological, and when I started creating the Distressor, one of the first things was to be able to offer something besides just this clean, pristine sound in the digital age, because that’s kind of a problem when people are used to what analog did. So we started looking at making things colorful. We were one of the earlier companies to use that approach. In other words, not only can we compress, but we can help fix what you don’t like about digital. Whether that was actually an effective selling point or not, I don’t know. I think a few years later, we wouldn’t have had our success, because there’s a lot of stuff that came out to “analogize” digital.
DH: I’m guessing that you faced all kinds of logistics issues once it actually did start taking off for you. What was that like?
DD: We had a lot of help. First of all, the folks at Eventide really helped out a lot, even though I left them and in a way was a competitor. One of the first things when we started selling was hiring people, and I hired Judy, who became my wife—she is an amazing expeditor with the amount of stuff she can process in a day. So for the first two or three years, we didn’t need very many people. We were so efficient. Then we came out with the Fatso, which almost didn’t make it, because it was very expensive. Nobody knew what it was, really. But we had a few big guys that helped us out by buying some of the prototypes, and that kind of pushed us in a direction of turning it into a real product. And then we slowly grew, added another product, which was the FrEQ. That was probably 2002 to 2004 we were working on that.
DH: How did you progress from designing analog gear into developing plug-ins?
DD: I’ve obviously always loved the whole digital domain of audio. As early as ’95 we had people wanting a Distressor plug-in, so it was always in the back of our mind that we were going to move back into that. Avid’s own Ed Gray was encouraging too, taking me aside at a 1996 AES and showing me some of the first Plugs working in the still “new” Pro Tools. But either consciously or unconsciously, I kind of wanted to get a full product line: an EQ, a compressor, the Mike-E [preamp]. So we filled out our product line, and then started looking seriously at moving into software.
We were lucky. I had a lot of friends at UA [Universal Audio], one of the first being Will Shanks. We were at a Tape Op event in New Orleans and discussed doing the Distressor and Fatso. The UA Fatso was our first branded plug-in—that got us started. I got teamed up with a wonderful, brilliant person, Dave Berners. He reminded me a lot of Ken Bogdanowicz and Bob Belcher from Eventide—his personality was just so easygoing and helpful. UA’s got such a strong platform that, in a way, helped encourage and even finance us doing our own plug-in.
DH: Tell me about that leap from working with UA to then doing the Arousor plug-in on your own.
DD: Finding a really good developer who can support the various formats was, and still is, hard. Usually it’s a team, because the knowledge-base you need to support a bunch of formats and copy protections is a horrendous bunch of disciplines. Very hard, but I met a few folks that were capable of going from A to Z.
To several people’s chagrin, I decided early on not to call it a Distressor. Calling it a Distressor would’ve made early sales so easy. The feature set kind of started around the Distressor, but quickly grew to around twice what the Distressor did. We started out with the four big knobs, the same basic controls. But going to digital is very liberating for me. I didn’t have to stay within the same scope as the hardware. Parts are very imperfect. They’re like snowflakes—there are no two alike. And also the curves. Even on a good one they’re not ideal, they’re not smooth. There are always places where they get nonlinear. Many times the knobs aren’t even that close to what the Distressor does. But we were able to expand on the ranges, and in most cases, make the controls smoother. We were able to add displays that would require a lot of parts in the analog world. We rapidly distanced ourselves from the basic Distressor-type thing.
DH: How do you see the Arousor fitting in to an engineer’s tool set when they’re on the road and mixing an artist—what are some of the special features that you feel are of special interest to live sound engineers?
DD: A lot of it is obviously the world getting rid of their live sound racks. We had a lot of Distressors out on the road, and still do. Thousands. So part of it was making something that can do what the Distressor does for live guys. I want this to be around for a long time, for it to be super utilitarian, a Swiss army knife-type thing. And we’re seeing the fruit of it now that we’re out on at least four major tours with S6L’s.
First of all, we kept a big part of our hardware’s look and feel. It should be easy to use, and you don’t have to wonder where stuff is. So along with that, we kept a giant bar graph like the Distressor. We even expanded it a little bit on the Arousor, so you have more resolution and a display that’s very visible no matter where you are. Another display which we expanded over the Distressor’s was the saturation display in the Soft Clipping section. Idealizing it, now it actually reads out in percent distortion, which is really helpful. Distortion can be one of those things that while being adjusted, seems subtle and unnoticeable, then all of a sudden… you’re in a bad place. So we made this really great saturation display, which works with our unique Soft Clipping control. With the Distressor, you just basically had a switch that emphasized second harmonic, or third harmonic. The Arousor harmonic generation offers incredibly expanded control, especially with future features coming. But now we have a knob that’s infinitely variable, instead of just switching between three options. I think the Arousor has one of the most friendly saturation knobs out there. And it was based on what the Distressor does.
“Everything about Harry’s voice is complex. He has a massive dynamic range from a whisper to a scream in a flash. All of this has to be clear and under control at all times. The sidechain eq combined with the legendary compressor circuit and the ability to ‘cook off’ some of the hottest part of the signal with the soft clip is unique to the Arousor. Thanks for such an excellent product!”
– Snake Newton on tour with Harry Styles
It’s just that, again, we can idealize. Why just switch between a few points when I can put a knob on there and adjust a few parameters and give you this wonderful, smooth saturation control? For live people, sometimes there is stuff which a compressor just won’t grab in a nice way, whereas soft clipping can—I think that’s a big plus. And then for use on drums and things like that, we added a control called “AtMod”, which is attack modification, which the Distressor does not have. It does have it, but you can’t see it and you can’t adjust it. The sidechain EQ is also greatly expanded over what the Distressor can do. With vocals, you can have a singer that when he either backs off the mic or just gets really loud, it really could hurt your ears. With the side chain parametric, you can kind of find and emphasis that frequency so that it gets turned down whenever it pops up. I think all those things appeal to live folks, even over a Distressor.
“Since I’ve discovered the Arousor plug-in, I’ve managed to enhance my drum sounds. The saturation is spectacular and I can control all the parameters to my liking—it’s definitely my first choice for compression”
– German Tarazona, monitor engineer for J Balvin
DH: I know that you’re coming out with Rev 3.0 soon—how do you approach updating the Arousor and adding new features?
DD: Well first of all, Rev 3.0 is eminent and will introduce Opto, which is great for vocals. I can tell you that. I kept looking at all these features, and I said, “Wow. If I try to put all these into Rev 1.0, Rev 1.0 is not gonna be out for four or five years.” So a big part of it was paring down the huge feature set we envisioned, and in doing so, we quickly ran into issues like backwards compatibility. If you introduce a feature down the line and then somebody loads an old session with a previous rev, you cannot have it break that session. You can’t have their session change. People will kill you. So we came up with this term—a general concept—called “evolutional technology”. Kind of a generic-sounding term, but it was fairly specific in what it required from us, in that you provide for all these features in such that they’re backwards compatible.
“The Arousor on the snare and vocal is just amazing! Makes the snare fat and punchy and the vocal clear and loud right in the face. Love it more and move and I’m using it on almost everything now. Great job on the sound research and giving me the chance to use it.”
– Frank Joly, FOH engineer for Simple Plan
It’s very hard to do, really hard. You kind of have to know what you’re going to add, and that adds at least a year to development—coming up with what future features you might have and setting defaults, knowing that you’re gonna have to be able to go back to an earlier session and not break it. It’s not so much that people don’t plan on revisions, but the scope is much bigger, I think, on the Arousor than anything previously done. Compared to Rev 1.0, I think we had over 16 features to implement. Now I think we’re down to 10 or 12.
One of the most important things to me, and I think a lot of people, is when you get a rev and you hate the interface. You’re like, “Oh my god. What happened? I used to know how to work this.” I never wanted to do that, so interface stability was also a big part of the planning. We basically wanted to allow for all these future functions without crowding and convoluting the basic operation. It’s a way of future-proofing things. Our original price was $349.00, which for a company with no background in plug-ins, is pretty much out of the park of a normal plug-in price, but we promised revisions. I’m sure every company thinks their plug-ins are worth whatever they charge. But because we had this big, long term vision, we did not want to sell it at a cheap rate. So we tried to set a standard and a price range that made it a premium product, at least in our own minds. This is a long-term project, and I always told people. I said, “We’re not in any hurry to grab a profit and run.”