In the 20 years since Native Instruments was founded, it has grown into one of the largest companies in the world dedicated to electronic music. There are, of course, a number of companies that could vie for that title, but NI is unique. Roland and Pioneer, for example, are also giants in music equipment and technology, but they have roots in organs and hi-fi audio, respectively—their divisions handling synthesizers and DJ gear make up just part of a much larger whole, or, in Pioneer's case, are separate entities altogether. NI makes products that will appeal to musicians and producers working across a range of styles, but there's no part of what they do that doesn't relate to making music electronically. And unlike Roland, who took years to fully embrace their centrality to dance music, NI has been embedded within the scene, particularly the one in Berlin, from the very beginning, trying to make truly new tools for truly new kinds of music.
"The company grew organically from the subculture of the city," says Tobias Thon, NI's long-time head of communications. "The techno scene emerged here, and that was basically the first customer base for NI. That was where this demand came from, for a new kind of instrument."
That new kind of instrument, though, wouldn't take up rack space in your studio. From the very beginning, NI has been a software company, one founded on the idea that your computer could be the most flexible, powerful music-making device out there, capable of everything your hardware can do plus a whole lot more. That's made NI one of the great forces for change and disruption in music technology—from how we DJ to how we perform live to where we go in search of sounds in the studio, this company has been steadfast in its belief that a computer can aid, if not improve, these things.
As a music journalist who's spent the last few years covering tech, I'm well aware of the strong opinions people have about the role of computers in music-making, and that for the moment, "analog" and "hardware" are some of the biggest buzzwords in electronic music. This was the main reason I wanted to speak to NI right now: at a time when so much of the industry is enamored with working "outside the box," what does it mean to believe that the computer is still the most exciting frontier for producers and DJs?
An NI history written about ten years ago in Sound On Sound says Generator "caused a storm" at Musikmesse and attracted a good deal of engineering talent to the company, despite the fact they couldn't afford to pay anyone. At the suggestion of Bernd Roggendorf, who a few years later would found Ableton with Gerhard Behles and Robert Henke, Daniel Haver came on board to help wrangle the all-engineer team into a viable business. Haver remains the CEO of NI to this day.
When I approached NI about an interview with someone who could speak to the company's history and philosophy, though, they suggested Mate Galic, the company's CTO. We met in a bright room that's usually reserved for entertaining artists—a comprehensive NI production and DJ suite lines two walls of the space—and from the moment he walked in the door, I could tell why the company would want him as its public face. Galic, born to a Croatian family in Bosnia-Herzegovina who relocated to Cologne when he was five, lives in a state of constant enthusiasm, certainly with regard to NI but also about electronic music in general. (His knowledge of Resident Advisor's recent editorial offerings seemed quasi-encyclopedic, and I worried he'd come better prepared for the interview than I had.) As a top manager, he embodies the company internally, but he also represents the sort of restlessly curious creative personality the company caters to; you'd imagine he'd buy all NI's stuff even if he didn't work there.
Galic, like most of NI's staff, has a background in electronic music—at various points he's been a DJ, label owner, music journalist and television presenter (for VIVA, Germany's MTV). He'd done all of that by his early 20s, at which point he was feeling burned out and discouraged by the music that had enthralled him. "I started to get really bored with the whole techno thing," he said, remarking that the harder, loopier stuff that was gaining traction felt like a weak rehash of Jeff Mills. More experimental electronic music was beginning to catch his ear, music that was pushing the boundaries not just of sound but how the sound itself was generated.
Galic did what I sense comes naturally to him: he threw himself vigorously into what fascinated him. By his own account, he spent two years drinking liters of Coca-Cola Light and binge-learning to code at the expense of his fledgling career in club music. "I lost my whole artistic direction," he says, cracking himself up. But it paid off. NI happened to send a free copy of Reaktor to his studio, and by 1998, Galic was headed to Berlin as a newly minted shareholder in the company. His early job spec was effectively to get as many people on board as possible, from the engineers who would help build the software to the adventurous musicians who'd use it.
Nearly everyone I spoke to at NI told me Reaktor was their introduction to the company. "There was kind of this myth for me then, for a long time," remembers Gösta Wellmer, NI's head of user interface design. "This crazy sound machine that can do so much, but it's also kind of a fragile beast. It's not completely controllable." For Michael Hlatky, who heads up a team that makes rapid prototypes of in-development NI products, Reaktor "was a bigger name for me than Native Instruments" early in his career. "When you don't have the money for synthesizers, or when you always wanted to build your own, this was where you looked."
The software represented the promise of computers in the early days—where most physical hardware limits you to particular inputs and outputs and hardwired connections and controls, software like Reaktor (or a similar visual programming language like MaxMSP) lets you do whatever you want. In the early days, before processing power had really caught up with the software's potential, it was prone to melt downs ("You can run it for ten minutes and get all the craziest sounds, but you better record it because then it crashes," was how a friend originally described the software to Wellmer), but for a generation of producers, sound designers and musicians intent on pushing past established sounds and workflows, it felt like the future.
There were parallels between NI's original flagship product and the city it was developed in. Berlin in the late '90s and early 2000s would have felt like a blank slate; though it remains inexpensive to this day by big-city standards, at that time it was cheap, spacious and open-ended by any standard. Artistically-minded people from other big cities in Germany were streaming into Berlin, presaging the migration from other parts of Europe and the rest of the world that came later in the 2000s. "Berlin is very much about grassroots creativity," says Thon, a longtime Berliner. "People were just improvising and creating the stuff they want to use to generate their art. In that sense, Reaktor was totally this tool that electronic music producers wanted—like total flexibility to really create this wild, unique, innovative synthesizer sound."
NI, then, had a product that appealed to the city's sound artists, and the company's tradition of doing outreach with producers, DJs, labels and nightclubs dates back to those days, as well as its penchant for hiring talent from the music scene. ("It's an old cliché that everyone working in music in Berlin knows at least one person from Native Instruments or Ableton," says TJ Hertz, a DSP developer who moonlights as the DJ and producer Objekt.) But Berlin itself could also function as a kind of large-scale, physical-world version of that environment, where a tech start-up was the output instead of synthesized sound. "You could start up things with no resources beyond just your time and dedication," Thon says.
In the early days, NI was marketing a single product that could theoretically be any music product. As universally appealing as that might seem, though, not everyone would want to start from scratch every time. For some, the biggest advantage of working in the box wouldn't be profound customizability but convenience and price. "We realized that not everybody is going to build their own synthesizers," Galic says. "We started to discuss, 'Hey, wouldn't it make sense to also do individual plug-ins?'"
NI sought out a partnership with Steinberg, the company best known for the Cubase digital audio workstation, who'd developed the VST plug-in standard in the mid-'90s. In 2000, they released the Pro-Five, a software emulation of Sequential Circuits' classic Prophet 5 that had been developed in Reaktor but imported to C++ so that home computers could run it. The same year, NI rolled out a virtual Hammond organ called the B4, and Galic remembers it being the product that established the young company as more than a techno concern. "Suddenly the guys around Paul McCartney called us and were fascinated," he says. "We started to really reach out into different territories and to kind of justify the computer—make an example of what the computer is capable of and through this also legitimize the computer as a potent device to create all sorts of sounds within the box."
It wasn't just the production side of music that was moving inside the computer. This was also the era of Napster, and mp3s were beginning to proliferate on people's hard drives. For DJs, though, the files were basically useless, and not just due to fidelity: there was no good way to mix with them. "We felt that, as everything else is becoming digital, it's just going to be a question of time when the computer is also going to become a very potent platform to DJ," Galic says. "Daniel and I knew that was the future, at least from our perspective."
NI released Traktor DJ Studio in 2000, but after a couple of versions, they realized that you couldn't just make DJ software—DJs also needed a control interface and a good way of getting the output into a soundsystem. A Dutch company called N2IT, along with Richie Hawtin and John Acquaviva, had developed a DJ platform called Final Scratch that utilized timecode-stamped vinyl records to control mp3s. After Hawtin and Acquaviva demoed it for them, NI seized on the system as a solution to the control-interface issue and partnered with Stanton to release Traktor Final Scratch in 2003; Stanton would build the hardware, and NI would handle the software.
Hardware would also become a big part of NI's strategy for producers. They started in the mid-2000s with Kore, a comprehensive software/hardware package. The software itself included lots of sounds and processing, and the hardware, a rectangular box topped with knobs, transport controls and a small display, interacted with the hardware and contained a soundcard. Kore was more or less left out of the conversations I had with NI staffers—it was discontinued in 2011—but it was a big part of the conversation I had about the company with Peter Kirn, editor-in-chief of the influential music tech blog Create Digital Music. "Kore was the first step toward Native Instruments becoming the company it is now," he told me over coffee a few months back. "And the fact that it was maybe not a perfectly confident step suggests how hard that is."
The host software was complex, but the hardware was streamlined to the point of being limited. Kirn says that Kore never quite found its audience, but it was an early instance of the company developing software and hardware in tandem, an approach they'd really nail with Maschine, a hardware/software package for beatmaking first released in 2009. The hardware, with its grid of touchpads and LCD screens, was considerably more interactive than Kore, taking inspiration from Akai's legendary MPC sequencer. But the software, which could either run as a standalone program or as a plug-in within a DAW, gave it its versatility. Maschine has been a runaway success for NI, and its four products—the original Maschine, the larger Maschine Studio, the smaller Maschine Mikro and iMaschine, the iOS version—now make up their own product category at the company. (Traktor and Komplete, which encompasses NI's array of software instruments and effects, are the other two.)
Building dedicated hardware addressed a shortcoming of computers running software alone: they didn't always allow music-making to be intuitive and creative in the way working outside of the box could be. "We were sitting with the mouse all day, writing automatic curves and all of that," Galic says. "We were starting to design music with our eyes. We weren't really feeling it; we weren't really playing it." Hlatky, the prototyping head, put it even more forcefully: "A computer is essentially a typewriter. If you have an old Moog synthesizer, every function is out there on a knob. If you want to do something, you grab it, you can use your motor memory, you can play it blind if you wish to. That wasn't there anymore when the studio went into this little shoebox of a computer, and what we're trying to do essentially is bring the instrument surfaces out of there again."
Each of NI's product categories now includes some dedicated control hardware—Komplete has Komplete Kontrol, a series of keyboard controllers providing deep haptic and visual control over NI's instruments, and Traktor has a range of DJ controllers that either work standalone or as part of a larger setup.
None of this is to say that NI hasn't continued pushing forward with software. Any discussion of NI's influence would be incomplete without discussing Massive, a synthesizer introduced in 2007. With expansive modulation options, it allowed basslines to get bigger and wilder, and it's often credited with giving latter-day dubstep its wobble. Massive is a great example of NI doing something with software that you couldn't do in hardware—and that's still where the company has the most potential to be innovative. "There's a lot to learn [from analog gear]—their artifacts are actually a really desired part of the sound," says Steinunn Arnadottir, a DSP developer who's worked on projects ranging from reverbs and compressors to an emulation of the classic E-mu SP-1200 sampler for the Maschine software. "But we've done a lot more creative effects that are not necessarily based on something old. This is something that our customers expect of us."
That impulse has been boldly on display at NI over the past year. Last March, the company announced that it had developed an open-source audio format called Stems. Like WAVs or mp3s, Stems would contain a stereo mix of a track, and they could function like any other standard audio file. But with the right software or audio player, DJs could access four discrete sub-mixes of the track—vocals, synths, bass and drums, for example. More or less since the dawn of DJing, people had been stitching together elements of two or more tracks in the mix using EQs, acapella and instrumental mixes and any number of other techniques. Stems promised a new level of control over this process, allowing DJs to mix on a micro-level and do more detailed editing work than a mixer EQ could allow for.
On the other side of things, the format would give producers and labels a new and potentially lucrative product at a time when it's never been more difficult to make money selling music. Though Traktor was an obvious ground-zero for Stems implementation, it wasn't simply a new Traktor feature; NI's hardware and software would incorporate it, but the idea was that any manufacturer could use it.
Stems wasn't a new idea at the company. Externally, Traktor had included something called Remix Decks, which allowed for the play and manipulation of loops, for a couple of years. Internally, the conversation had been running for much longer. "Our bosses and everybody were already talking about Stems years, years, years ago," says Michael Koczynski, NI's product owner for modular DJ controllers. "We always wanted to have something that's just better than an EQ." Galic told me that the company had originally approached Stems as something that might work algorithmically, Melodyne-style, but they soon realized there was another way to break open tracks that would be easier to pull off and would have implications far beyond NI's own products. The company had a kind of a-ha moment at SXSW in 2014, when Richie Hawtin and Deadmau5 presented a panel focused on technology. "They were talking about 'stems'"—a general term for pieces of a full mix—"and we already had a full prototype running back then," Galic says. The timing felt right, and not much more than a year later, NI let Stems out of the bag.
When I spoke to Galic later in 2015, after he and the company had some perspective on the launch, he said it had met his expectations, and he was excited about where things were at. Throughout all of our conversations, though, he expressed an understanding that Stems would be an uphill battle, even if he couldn't completely wrap his head around why that would be. DJs have always been some of NI's most conservative customers, from the early days of Traktor through to their current offerings, and Stems seems almost perfectly pitched to ruffle their feathers. The format implies a move away from manual beatmatching, a skill which for many people distinguishes "real" DJs from people who are just pressing play. "I really don't get why people out there think that DJing with two turntables to sync up two records is worth more than playing with a computer and doing a more sophisticated performance," Galic says, his enthusiasm momentarily taking on an exasperated edge. "Of course it takes some time to sync two beats, but why are you trying to sell this to me as a defining standard for a culture? I don't buy into this."
NI may have created the space for the mainstreaming of digital DJing, but for the time being it feels a bit like they've ceded it. If you want to just play digital files and manually beatmatch them, maybe with a bit of looping and automated cueing, you can load everything on a USB stick and plug it into a Pioneer CDJ. For NI, that's OK, those aren't really their people anymore. "It was never the goal to build [an industry-standard setup]," says Koczynski. "If you're the guy who wants jogwheels, you can just connect two CDJs via USB, use their audio interface, that's it. There are really good jog wheels out there—the CDJs or the turntables—so why should we try to make something better here?" Indeed, the jogwheel is conspicuously absent on NI's latest batch of Traktor controllers, the modular D2 and the all-in-one S5 and S8.
Is NI making a bet that there's an audience out there hungry for a remarkably different paradigm for playing music in clubs? "I don't think that's the case, but I don't think that matters," says Susan Langan, one of NI's artist relations managers, with a laugh. As much as anyone in the world, she's clued in to how professionals use the company's products, as she's responsible for getting and keeping them in artists' hands. "What I do see is a lot of people being really impressed, just with what the possibilities are. There's a lot of people who are really keen to play differently." Koczynski, himself a techno DJ inclined toward tinkering with the possibilities of his craft, wondered if the pro market was even where NI had its sights set nowadays, at least in the short term. "A lot of our bedroom guys are really, really pro. They're wanting more than just mixing A into B."
I was reminded of a series of questions I asked Galic early in our first interview: does NI make a distinction between their professional and consumer customers? "No," he said. "We don't differentiate between our customers. We're not even interested in this differentiation between, 'Are you a music producer, a live music performer or a DJ?' As you could see from our releases, we are interested in blurring the lines. We know that some people don't appreciate that, but I think somebody has to do it. We may not hit it always at the right point in time, but, you know, we are obsessed with a certain kind of idea. We try to inspire people to think about stuff in a different way."