Neil Goldberg, Dave Fraser, & Ari Winters of Heavyocity
Neil Goldberg, Dave Fraser, and Ari Winters are the dynamic trio behind the glorious virtual instrument empire, Heavyocity. Starting off as composers and sound designers for New York's elite advertising agencies, Neil Goldberg and Dave Fraser set out to expand their purview and fill a void they identified in the sample industry. Recruiting their very first intern, wunderkind Ari Winters to flesh out their creative team, Heavyocity has gone on to release a multi award-winning, maximum efficiency product line over the course of a decade. Their best-selling virtual instruments are a must-have for composing giants, such as James Newton Howard, Brian Tyler, Rupert Gregson-Williams, Cliff Martinez, Ramin Djawadi, and many more. In honor of Heavyocity's 10th anniversary, Neil, Dave, and Ari speak on their family affair approach to work and the blood, sweat, and tears they continually invest to create trailblazing products of the highest caliber.
What was the fundamental inspiration behind the start of Heavyocity?
Dave: Around 2006, Neil and I had been working as composers, largely in the commercial advertising world, but also in video games. Ari had come on board on the gaming side and we were doing a lot of work in those fields. Virtual instruments and sampling technology were becoming more effective, but we were running into trouble finding the right sounds to put into our productions.
We ended up doing a lot of field recordings, mic-ing up odd things in the studio and recording them ourselves. We amassed this massive private archive of materials that ranged from loops to hits to pads to all these other things. What that collectively ended up becoming was our first flagship, Evolve.
We realized it was really something special at a point in time when we felt like there was a hole in the sample industry. We thought we could fill it with this hybrid sound that could influence how people composed. That was the birth of Heavyocity. It was the result of our own interest in finding good sounds for our own productions that we just couldn't find somewhere else.
Neil: Before Heavyocity existed, the composing side of our company was (and still is) called Heavy Melody Music and Sound Design. We were writing music for Discovery docs and then we started getting into doing TV spots in New York City. It wasn't just composing work. We did a lot of sound effects, sound design, a lot of logo treatments…You start to blur the lines between “Is it music or a sound effect?”
I think that’s where the biggest stumbling issue was for me and Dave. Early on, as composers, we didn’t have time to make our own stuff, but then we’d buy libraries and there would be maybe five cool sounds out of five hundred.
Dave: There’s a term that we had, we called it the creative fumble factor. Before Ari was a part of the team, Neil and I would go through what felt like thousands of sounds, trying to find the right thing. Often times we were forced to make our own sounds.
Neil: We were fortunate to be in New York City, working with big ad agencies on things for the NFL, GE, Pepsi. The expectation would be high. You’d have a room full of creatives, and everybody had a different opinion. It would go through many iterations. You know, I’m doing seven versions and Dave's doing seven versions…Those get tossed out and you start again. You had to find stuff that was cutting edge and could really impress them. That was the seed before the birth of Evolve, which was really the beginning of Heavyocity.
It sounds like it came from practical necessity.
Dave: That's it. Practical necessity. It's the whole cliché, “for composers, by composers.” For us, it became a company that builds instruments for the people who work at the company. In essence, we’re making the instruments for ourselves.
Ari: It's a mantra that's followed us through all the way to where we are today. Heavy Melody still exists. We put out albums every year for promo catalogs, we put out albums every year for trailer music. We have a good amount of placements that we've been doing for five or six years now. It’s important for us to do these things to stay creative because we’re creatives at heart, but we continue to make software for people just like us. The only way to really do that effectively is to make sure that you are still on both sides of the blade.
I understand that you two met at Berklee College of Music. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Dave: That’s correct. Back in 1989.
Neil: I think I was in my second year.
Dave: I had actually come from another four-year college, where I was studying medicine. I had a different road to get to Berklee, but Neil and I did meet in 1989. I happened to move in next door to where he was living and knocked on his door to borrow a corkscrew because I didn't have one. I was on a date with the first girl I met in Boston.
Neil: It was like, "Who’s this caveman answering the door with hair to his waist?”
Dave: Haha… It was like an instant friendship that came out of that chance meeting. We kept in touch after Neil went on to join the thrash metal band, Annihilator and I went on to tour with the guitarist from REO Speedwagon. We were always in touch, then Neil wound up at a production facility here on the east coast and called me up, saying, “Hey. They need more guys to work out here. Are you available? Do you want to check it out?” Long story longer, it became a professional working relationship. A quarter-century later, here we are.
And then Ari came into the fold as the very first intern that we had at Heavy Melody. He was still an undergrad at Carnegie Mellon. He was such a great fit for the scheme that we were envisioning for our company because he was very forward-thinking, and obviously very gifted and bright. In the three months that we had him around, we were just so bummed that he had to go back to school, and he said, “You know, maybe there's something in the future.” And here it is. He's pretty much been with us since he earned his graduate degree.
Neil: It’s been sixteen years and Ari is a legit partner in the company now.
Ari: That’s what the papers said. *laughs*
Neil: Ari came in at a time when Heavyocity still wasn’t even an idea. We were doing video game audio and writing the score, but we were also doing sound effects, dialogue, casting, and recording. Ari was on the deep end with us. He could program ogg vorbis audio files to work in a video game and he was also a composer and sound designer. It was a good mix because that was the road we were going down full steam ahead. We were trying to get away from commercials and get more into games. He found us through Game Audio Network Guild and we really just hit it off.
Dave: Ari was like the Swiss Army knife that Neil and I really needed because he complemented and filled in the things that Neil and I possess in different ways. I think that brought us together. We’re sort of the audio Three Musketeers. We're all very unique in what we bring to the table. These guys are like family to me. I’m sure they’d say the same thing…On a good day, of course *laughs*. We fight like a family and love like a family. We have been friends for so many years and we've had so many life adventures, life events, and ups and downs. We always joke that we're each others' first wives. You know, we're all married with kids, but Neil and I are almost joined at the hip and then Ari is like the third wife. Ari’s our mistress. *laughs*
That level of closeness must take the collaboration to another level.
Ari: Like Dave was saying, there’s a really good balance of dreaming, grounding in reality, and getting everything to meet in the middle to push ideas out into actual products — whether it's trailer music or software. Through the three of us, there's a really nice core foundation that's built for Heavyocity.
So, Ari… I know you are a multi-instrumentalist. When did you get bit by the music bug? Do you come from a musical tradition in your family? What instruments do you play?
Ari: Yes, yes, and yes. I started violin when I was four, piano at five, and then stopped violin at 13 and never played it again. I picked up the guitar, bass guitar, and viola at some point during college. My degree from Carnegie Mellon was an interdisciplinary degree in music composition and film and media studies. I crossed over with my Master's program in entertainment technology. Being at a school like that, you couldn’t avoid being involved with technology. This was almost 12 years ago, but it was a very tech-focused program.
Neil: Some might say he’s a nerd.
Ari: I had actually started working in the Master's program in my sophomore year. They had 14 students at the time. It was started by these two guys, Randy Pausch and Don Marinelli. Randy is known for “The Last Lecture”, and I was his teaching assistant for a couple of years while I was there.
It was an amazing experience to be a part of that. I think that definitely helped shape my focus into the creative tech world. Like Neil and Dave were saying before, by the time that I came in to work with them, I had already interned at Activision. I had worked at Activision Corporate in Santa Monica for four or five months. I am from New York originally, so when I came back, I was looking for an internship at that time. So, I met up with these guys, and it was at a point where the seeds were planted for the first product and development was there, but it wasn't really ready for a commercial release. There was a lot of formatting to be done. A lot of coming up with ideas about how to do things, how it would continue to work. It was really like perfect timing.
Dave: The timing was really poignant, and Ari hits the nail on the head. From the point he came on board, we all put our heads together and figured out the path to releasing Evolve.
Ari: And we had been in contact with a bunch of different companies, as we tried to figure out the right platform to release it on.
Neil: No pun intended [Kontakt].
You ended up going with Native Instruments… Konkakt. That’s a good one! You were saying Evolve was your first virtual instrument. What were some of the challenges you had to overcome during that initial product launch?
Neil: It was difficult finding the right engine that we could license. Dave and I were using Digital Performer from MOTU. We were using it as Performer in the early days. Pro Tools, machine chasing…we’re old. It turned into Digital Performer. They basically took all the Pro Tools audio stuff and started integrating it, so we became really comfortable with that. Things like Stylus RMX came out from Spectrasonics, and that was like, “Holy shit, you can do this? And you don't have to tune the loop really high to get the tempo right?” The only other thing on the block was MOTU's Mach Five sampler, which was actually really good because we could just drag sounds to a key. There was really no mapping that you had to do and you could adjust everything, but it wasn't an engine that was licensable. The only game in town was NI's Kontakt Player 2, which was pretty primitive back then. They were just introducing a feature where you could put loops in. You could make a REX file out of a loop and then put it in.
Ari: They had just launched the idea of scripting a skin. Not even an interface, just like an image.
Dave: Don't forget. I think they had Intakt and Kompakt because one was to play loops, and the other was to play the actual playable melodic instruments and Kontakt tuning integration as one thing.
Neil: The interface was tiny with a bunch of knobs and a logo. That's all you had. I think that the biggest hurdle was, as it is always, trying to make things sound more authentic as an instrument when it goes in the software. Fortunately, for us, we were doing that kind of music meets sound design vibe. We weren't multi-sampling pianos with 17 velocities and that kind of stuff.
Ari: No computer could have handled it.
Neil: Right. In our studios that we used for composing, we had Giga Studio on multiple PC’s and had “raided” hard drives to get increased read speed for larger orchestral instruments. And then suddenly Giga software wasn't an option any longer. I believe it was Tascam that bought it, and then totally discontinued the software. So that was done, no longer supported, so Kontakt was the road to go down and it worked well. We had a lot of loops in Evolve. Getting them to work, to play back right and figuring out how to loop it seamlessly if there were delay and reverb effects in the loop was a process. It took a lot of experimentation with different techniques early on.
Dave: Piggybacking on what Neil just said, when Kontakt 2 came out, it was still very primitive for a sampler. It had very limited features and people weren't doing really anything with the engine. It was actually an opportunity for us to focus more on leading people to the quality of the sound and the uniqueness of the sound we were presenting in the engine, as opposed to looking at all these things you can do with the sound. It was like, “no, just listen to this sound.”
We sold Evolve on the special quality that was in the sound itself. It was almost, in some ways, a blessing that it was so simple as an interface at the outset of Heavyocity. With time, we realized that engine features and functionality were really critical to take it to another level. So, it was a cool progression that transpired.
Ari: For me, the really exciting portion of the Evolve product was that it was our first product as a new company. We, three creatives and a couple of other people on staff at the time, were putting together a new organization. We were putting our hard work over the course of years on the line and getting it out there in a product that was commercially available, not just a piece of music to be placed in something.
It was very grassroots. Neil and Dave went to the first NAMM show and then the three of us went to the next NAMM show. We were the ones that were setting up the banners at the booths. We were the ones at the booths. Back in the day, when an order first came in, we’d be the ones unfolding the box, putting the disk in the box, running down to FedEx, and shipping it out.
Dave: I don't miss those days. We'd be rock-paper-scissoring to decide who had to go to FedEx for the overseas orders. We’d be like, “Damn, should have done rock.”
Speaking about the interface, the graphics on GRAVITY are amazing. Beyond the sound, it has a very cool appearance. It reminds me of a modern version of Hypnosis. They did all the Pink Floyd album covers. That must be a whole other realm of intense programming and work. What drove you all to prioritize visuals as well?
Ari: On GRAVITY, we had a very long discussion about the look and feel, as we usually do with products that we develop.
Neil: It was particularly deep-rooted for that one.
Ari: It ties in with what Dave was saying about us focusing on the quality of the sound. Heavyocity is known for their high-quality sound. The sound of the instruments, the sound of the individual assets, everything about it. That’s what our identity has become and always was. To us, the visuals were just as important to make sure it matched the timbre, tone, and style of each product.
Ultimately, we made a decision to not go with what was considered skeuomorphic. Skeuomorphic interfaces are when you see something on your screen, it has something that looks like a physical knob, or like someone emulating that, like, a Neve 1073 in a plug-in. If it looks like a 1073, that's skeuomorphic. With GRAVITY, it felt, to us, like an almost intangible product. We imagined it as sounds that elevated things to new levels. You know, sounds that you wouldn't find in the real world. It was like, “why should we make an interface that looks like you could touch it in the real world when it's on a screen?” So, we went down that rabbit hole of trying to figure out how to make something look different and new, and match the tone. We, fortunately, found a company that's just up the block from us called Perception. These guys do all the Marvel intro/outro credit rolls for the movies. They worked on Iron Man, they recently spent 18 months working on Black Panther. They’re amazing.
Dave: They're super talented. We have them to thank for the coolness of GRAVITY’s look and feel.
Ari: Having them so close, it is a really great process of being able to come back with feedback quickly and easily. The back and forth with them was great, and it turned into something pretty unique.
You additionally incorporate animation as well. For example, on the Punish Knob, you turn it up and it simulates fire. It gets brighter as the sound gets more aggressive. I imagine that adds another layer of complexity.
Neil: It really does.
Dave: Eye candy for the ear.
Neil: Like Ari said, we had a lot of discussions about it. We're typically using our own stuff as much as we can, but even in the early days, if you bought a new piece of software and it looked super cool, there's this thing in your brain that goes, “It sounds great. I love using it and it looks cool." I think it adds a lot of value to the product.
Dave: It’s just more inspiring to play with something that looks great. If you were at a toy store and one looks super cool and the other looks meh, you're going to want to play with the super cool looking toy, right?
Ari: With software, there's a reason that UX design is a thing now. There is something about this untouchable experience that a user has that ties everything together. It’s just as important as the sound.
As creators, we all have a million plug-ins, but which ones do you naturally reach for from the perspective of functionality and maximum effectiveness? What are each of your personal favorite plug-ins from the Heavyocity collection that get used the most?
Neil: Oh boy, we have more than 30 now, so that's a tough one.
Dave: That is a hard one. That's really difficult. Just from a standpoint of influence, I'd have to go with Damage because I think it really set a whole new level of expectation from the user, from what they're going to get from a percussion type of instrument. Damage elevated our exposure. It really bridged a gap between us being at a certain level. I think it broke us to a much larger audience.
Neil: I would agree with that, but I'd say, instead of giving the same answer, I'm a big fan of our new orchestral strings flagship, NOVO.
Ari: I was just going to say that.
Neil: It was our first true orchestral instrument, and so we traveled to LA to Warner Bros. Studios to record a 50-piece string orchestra at the Eastwood Scoring Stage. So, NOVO has got this organic side with these amazing players recorded at one of the premier sound stages in the world, and then also this other side - where we take all of this pristine orchestral string content and process it, and effect it, and treat it, so you get this really incredible kind of hybrid sound design content as well.
Ari: I think I find myself using GRAVITY a lot too. I just really love what's in there. If you really spend time tweaking, you can get lost in the four buckets of content and inside of that, there's just so much to play with.
Dave: Just to interject with Ari saying GRAVITY, I would say GRAVITY is almost like a sequel to Evolve in some sense, even though the content is not the same. It took what Evolve provided, which is a range of unique sounds that fit for multiple applications, and one-upped that on several levels for composers working in different genres. It’s definitely a very good utility and really crosses a ton of boundaries. It's useful to give productions an extra interesting sound. So, as far as utility goes, I would think GRAVITY would be the one.
Ari: I do use the combo piano dulcimer stuff from AEON a lot as well. There’s some really great organic combos and content in there. I really love the synths in AEON too.
Outside of your own products at Heavyocity, what plug-ins are your favorites?
Neil: I'm a big fan of most of the stuff that Universal Audio produces. I feel like they have the best emulations or reproductions of classic hardware gear. When I was at Berklee, I was a recording engineer, and I was a guitarist. I have training in that, so I just really enjoy a nice piece of outboard gear, whether it's a mic pre or an EQ or a buss compressor. I don't know that there's specifically one that I use out of their stuff, but I've never really been disappointed with the stuff they release. Having said that, I am definitely always going to use a Waves L3 if I need a limiter on something because everything needs to be as loud as humanly possible. So, that's a big go to for me as well.
Ari: Some of the Izotope stuff is really good. Nice reduction stuff. The RX plugin is amazing. Ozone is really a great down and dirty way to make tracks pop. Their maximizer is great.
Dave: The PUNISH plugin from Heavyocity. Honestly, I use it all the time. That's ours though.
I was going to say Izotope has Trash and you guys have PUNISH. PUNISH was a bit different in a way for you guys because it was more effect based as opposed to a software, a virtual instrument. What inspired you to make an individualized plug-in of this type?
Ari: We didn't really find anything or have anything that could do everything that PUNISH was doing in a single plug-in. So, PUNISH has three different emulations of our custom hardware compression I/O routing here. Internally, we have different kinds of outboard gear that we use in chain here. That's where we came up with the emulations for the compressor section.
We also have a custom chain of outboard gear here that we use when we want to beef up something with a little more saturation, so that was the model for the Saturation module in PUNISH. Then we added the Transient and EQ modules, to help spice it up as well. And we did all this because we didn't have a single plug-in that had all of that functionality in one to give us the sound that we were looking for. We also wanted to have direct control over all features with a single knob, so you can increase compression, or increase saturation, or decrease saturation while increasing compression while increasing the transients, all at once with a single knob. It was something we were sorely lacking.
Neil: The PUNISH Knob has been a feature in our virtual instruments for a long time now, and there were a lot of people that were like, “This would be so cool if it was an actual plugin.” I think Damage was the first time we implemented it, so there was a lot of figuring out to do under the hood to bring this to life in plug-in form. You know, what’s going to happen as you turn the knob, so it still sounds musical and punchy and beefy at the same time without turning into mush. In general, everything sounds better with PUNISH on.
Ari: Dave Pensado just featured PUNISH in one of his ITL’s on Pensado’s Place, and he closed out by saying something along the lines, I don't really know how to say it, but if you just want more, that’s what you get with PUNISH.
Neil: So, the idea was to make the plugin do what the PUNISH Knob does in our VI’s, and then expand way beyond it. We were like, "Okay, so it covers some compression, some distortion, some limiting. What if we had three flavors of this for the distortion?” Like Ari was saying, for the compression, there's an EQ, there's a Transient Designer, because if you squish up a sound too much, you need to get some more pop back in it. Just having a plug-in that could do that all that in one was pretty amazing for us. We made all these presets for mastering, or guitars and bass. It’s pretty powerful.
Similar to writing a piece of music, how do you know when a virtual instrument is complete?
Ari: When we hate it.
Neil: That's changed over time because we'd be like, “What if we added this?” midway and then it'd be a detour for a month and a half or two months.
Dave: I think the quick, concise answer is that early on in the company's history, an instrument was never done. Even after we released it, we were still needing to do more. Now, we actually have a very good system in place that helps keep production cycles in check.
Neil: Early on, I think we were trying to make the biggest statement we could with each virtual instrument. When we only had Evolve and it was time to do Damage, it was like, “Well, we want to cover cinematic stuff and cool crunchy electronic stuff. We should be doing this and this and this, let's go record in a church, let's go record in a small studio.” Now that we’ve released more than 30 instruments, sometimes the focus is a little narrower. We recently put out Scoring Guitars 2, as a sequel to the first one. We knew what worked, what we wanted to improve on, how we wanted to change it, but it wasn't like this open-ended thing like, “We're going to do guitars and we're going to do acoustics. 12-strings and dirty electric and clean.” You really have to plan, or you could spend two years on it, if you're us.
Dave: It’s like a gargantuan rabbit hole.
Neil: We’ve had to throw ropes down the hole and pull the guy out like, “Come on, dude. We're never going to finish this.”
Dave: The thing is, I'm down here, holding on, not wanting to come out of the rabbit hole.
Ari: We abide by the 80/20 rule. How much effort goes in for how few increased variables.
Neil: When you’re in a development cycle, you're so close to it, you don't notice, I mean, you're noticing things in these infinitesimal details that we want perfect. It’s like, I don't know that somebody's going to ever really see the whole picture and how these infinite details that we put into the instrument work. Not to say they wouldn’t, but when you spend a year to a year and a half working on something as opposed to buying a virtual instrument, it’s different. Say you’re working on TV, you load up some sounds quickly, and you find stuff that you really like that works…You’re happy and you’re on to do the EQ as opposed to hundreds and hundreds of hours dedicated to little OCD creeps in there.
Dave: I still believe that, in our hearts, we're like painters. We’ll finish the painting, which is a virtual instrument, and we'll walk by it, looking at it on the wall and we'll still feel like it’s not done yet. There's always something we would have liked to have done after the fact but given where we are in our progression, I feel really proud of the work we do and what we end up with every release.
Ari: And we have a very high attention to fine detail and as a result, we've never had to release a bug fix update. We’ve never had to release patches to make things work. The only updates we've done for our products are to make it compatible with Native Instruments’ Komplete Kontrol. When we're ready to release something, we want to make sure that people aren't getting frustrated with having a software at their fingertips, which leads them to hit walls in certain spots.
We’re in a creative field. We know that if you're a creative, that could break your momentum at any point. If you're writing a piece of music and suddenly something stops working, you're going to get frustrated and could potentially lose your train of thought. Internally, there's a very big system of checks and balances here and we definitely make sure that what we release is up to our standards.
Lastly, creating virtual instruments must work up an appetite. Can you share some of your favorite places to eat in New York?
Dave: Rosa Mexicano was one of my favorites for Mexican food. It's been around for ages.
Ari: Keens Steakhouse. Keens has really, really good steak. They have a crazy mutton chop, it's amazing. It’s an old school restaurant. The place they have in New York used to be a smoking parlor, so they have all the old pipes on the walls from the days of Teddy Roosevelt. It's a really cool place.
Neil: There's a place called The Breslin, it’s one of April Bloomfield’s restaurants.
Dave: It has the best lamb burger on the planet.
Neil: I wouldn't say it's a second best, but there's also a place we go to in our neighborhood called Le Singe Vert, which is The Green Monkey. It's a French bistro, but they have really good food.
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Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research | Paul Goldowitz
Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Neil Goldberg, Dave Fraser, Ari Winters, and Heavyocity.