The FAST plug-ins are the product of a close collaboration between Focusrite, an industry stalwart with 30-plus years of audio design experience and Sonible, a software company founded in 2013 with a new take on tools for making music. The relationship between these two unlikely parties began with humble intentions, at Winter NAMM, 2018, in Anaheim, California. Jonathan Campbell, Product Manager for Focusrite, Alexander Wankhammer, CEO and co-founder of Sonible and some others first met to discuss a potential bundle deal — where existing Sonible products could be included in the suite of software that comes free with every Focusrite interface.
Campbell recalls, “I was interested in meeting the Sonible guys, as they were a relatively new company using very interesting technology. At NAMM 2018, our intention was to speak about bundling some of their software with Focusrite interfaces.” When the companies met their discussion of their long-terms goals and strategy revealed similarities that were to form the foundation of a close partnership. Alexander Wankhammer’s recollection is strong. “At the meeting, we soon realised that our companies have a similar vision: at Sonible, we always try to re-think current production workflows and tools, and Focusrite are constantly improving on their already amazing hardware technology. So somehow it felt obvious that we should do something more than just a bundle.”
With both companies sharing similar goals, the cross-brand team began thinking of ways to make a product that would bring the best of both worlds — and their common interests — together. The first product of the relationship was the Balancer plug-in, a tonal balance tool, which helps creators spend less time engineering and more time creating. However, there were loftier plans afoot: the FAST range.
Jonathan Campbell: “Sonible’s mission to lower the barrier of difficulty in terms of making music happens to fit perfectly with what we do with our hardware products, it felt like a natural fit from the start. Initially when we decided to build the FAST products together, the Focusrite team flew over to Sonible HQ for a couple of days, where we started conceptualising the idea of FAST. We were thinking about how we needed to approach the design, to make the best products possible. We came up with some principles that each product should abide by.”
Dan Clarke is Focusrite’s Senior Product Designer, whose responsibilities on the FAST project began once the product ideas were in development. “I didn't officially come onboard until we had the earliest version of FAST Equaliser. At that point, we had a big question about what the user interface (UI) for the Compressor should look like. To help answer that question, the two teams collaborated to create an interactive concept UI, along with representative audio, which I converted into a test that could be shared with target customers. This process allowed us to agree together on a new UI that broke some of the traditional archetypes of how to visualise and communicate compression.”
The visual design of the FAST plug-ins is one of the most advanced but underrated features. To enable music makers to stay focussed on the task at hand — making vocals brighter, adding some punch to the snare drum, or balancing two competing instruments, for example — the design should be clean, unobstructive and designed to flow. Dan Clarke worked with colleagues at Focusrite and Sonible to define the visual design language of the plug-ins early on in the process. “The goal here,” says Dan, “was to take the amazing work that was done in the earlier stages, and ensure that all design elements — from colours to corner radiuses — made their way into the finished product. This actually started with the Balancer plug-in but was far deeper for the FAST plug-ins. This was a challenge and a learning experience but overall very valuable and I think we've all benefitted from it.”
All plug-ins in the FAST range share Sonible’s core technology: the AI-powered smart:engine. It’s what drives the products and allows users to reach their creative goals faster. It is also the platform on which Focusrite and Sonible were able to use cutting-edge technology to rethink some problems that have become the ‘necessary evils’ of plug-in design today. Alex explains, “Our AI technology allows us to make plug-ins ‘content aware’. This means that a plug-in doesn’t just process an audio file; it listens to the audio, understands its structure and then automatically suggests ways to improve it. We call this approach ‘assisted mixing.’ From a user’s perspective it feels like mixing with an experienced audio engineer by your side. For example, FAST Equaliser listens to your track and then automatically suggests a filter curve that fixes spectral problems. That way, the plug-in can take care of time-consuming and frankly annoying repetitive technical tasks — and the user can immediately start working on the creative and aesthetic aspects of a mix.”
Dan Clarke adds, “Sonible's technology is all about helping musicians get over tricky barriers, and helping them get their best sound by themselves. Additionally, the technology then reveals things that users they may not have been aware of. For example, finding and removing a troublesome frequency.” However, key to the design of the FAST tools, Dan adds, is not to make these processes totally invisible. “The way the problem-solving features are implemented in the FAST plug-ins educates the user and helps them develop. They learn about what the plug-in is doing, and how it is affecting their sound. The goal is not to dumb things down but to inform the user. The 'Detailed View' is there for users who want to go further, but it is not mandatory. For those that do want to use it, it is not a completely different, complex UI, instead it builds on the FAST View adding useful parameters and freedom for users that want or need that. At Focusrite, we want to make it as easy for people to not only get started but to also continually learn — this fits our ethos perfectly.”
FAST: Now and in the future
Now the first FAST plug-ins are released, the Sonible and Focusrite team are looking towards the future, with new software tools on the horizon. With both companies’ shared vision and proven ability to create tools that positively change the way music makers work, they are confident that the FAST partnership will continue to make a difference to the way we create.
Alex Wankhammer comments, “The most important factor for a successful partnership is shared goals of music and creativity first. The company cultures at both of our companies are very similar: we all have a passion for sound, either as musicians or as producers. We don’t just do our jobs; we follow our passion.” Jonathan Campbell adds, “with the clever uses of tech in the FAST plug-ins, music makers are able to shape their sound quicker than ever before. Together, we have a goal of keeping our users in the creative zone for as long as possible without getting bogged down in the technical details. That’s what the FAST collaboration is all about.”