Native Instruments Hunger for New Sounds

Daniel Haver
Daniel Haver | Photo (detail): © Native Instruments

The dream of powerful synthesizers in the mid-nineties, an artificial organ, the happy marriage of technology and music, and Berlin as the place where all this is possible – an interview with Daniel Haver, CEO of the Berlin music software company Native Instruments.

Mr. Haver, you’re CEO of Native Instruments, a firm for music software and hardware with 350 employees. Are you yourself a musician?

I play amateurishly the guitar and the DJ at my own parties, but I’m certainly not a musician in the strict sense.

Still, in 1997, one year after the company was founded, you joined Native Instruments. How did that happen?

I have a great passion for music, especially electronic sounds, and found the idea of the founders, Stephan Schmitt and Volker Hinz, terrific. But they were engineers and software developers; they didn’t know how to make a terrific idea into a successful market product or how to build up a global business. I went to them and said: “I think you could use someone like me”. And then we quickly came to an agreement.

Were you lured by the big money?

Of course I was aware of the commercial aspect and it appealed to me. But in fact, in the initial phase of Native Instruments, the company hardly had enough sales to make its owners a living. I was therefore set for a certain stretch of financial hard times and was rather motivated by the idea of helping to change the world of music.

So it wasn’t primarily about money. Is that typical for start-ups?

Often an idea is the focus for the founders and the firm is only a means to the end. It was this way initially at Native Instruments: the synthesizers from Yamaha, Roland and Korg then dominated the market – but they were big, expensive boxes. Stephan Schmitt, himself a musician, felt totally limited by this and put his mind to how it might be overcome.

And how was it overcome?

With the PC. Stephan was already convinced in the nineties that computers would soon be powerful enough to build much more powerful synthesizers than before. The first software synthesizer from Native Instruments was then “Generator”.

It enabled musicians to create new sounds. Who first tried out Generator?

Above all producers and DJs in the Berlin techno scene, but also someone like Trent Reznor of the Nine Inch Nails was aboard quite early.

“Native Instruments would hardly have been possible anywhere else.”

© Native Instruments © Native Instruments How was it to experience Generator live for the first time?

For us it was pure inspiration. We were always open to all genres of music, and Stephan’s background was in fact jazz, but I and our current Chief Technical Officer Mate Galic, who joined the company some time after me, were at home with electronic music. When we later began developing DJ software, interaction with the Berlin scene was again very important for us.

Berlin back then, with clubs like Tresor, was the melting pot for new music. How important was it that the company started in Berlin?

Very important; Native Instruments would hardly have been possible anywhere else. You need the feedback of musicians. You must be able to show them your product during development and you need this source of external inspiration. The other thing is that you need employees who have a special understanding of music and technology. And this too you find much more in Berlin than elsewhere.

In 1998 you developed the software B4 Organ, an organ simulation. Why?

We’ve always seen ourselves as instrument manufacturers. In the beginning, our products were used above all by musicians from the electronic music scene; with the software emulation of a Hammond organ we then clearly opened ourselves out.

Were there reservations about making an artificial organ?

Of course, even very pronounced ones, but we soon dispelled them. Musicians are very aware of sound, since music is above all about sound. When you show an experienced organ player the B4 software and it sounds professional, then he says “All right!” An original Hammond organ is a really heavy thing; with our software version musicians were much more mobile.

“The hunger for new sounds is infinite.”

© Native Instruments © Native Instruments Was that the accolade for the company?

It was exactly the time. You suddenly heard that Hans Zimmer or Stevie Wonder thinks your stuff is good – a small accolade each time. The year 1999 proved for the company and the world that classical instruments could be simulated by software. Later I sometimes heard a software synthesizer live on stage at the Berlin Philharmonic with Sir Simon Rattle. In the middle of that great orchestra. This was for me another high point, because it showed in a special way how broad our instruments’ range of application was.

Native Instruments is one of the old hands of the Berlin music scene. What was the moment you no longer saw yourselves as a start-up?

That’s not so easy to say. When are you no longer a start-up? It has something to do with size, maturity, company culture and, of course, with the figures. We’ve invested a great deal and so created the basis for much that is Native Instruments today. Our first really profitable year came only relatively late – in 2004.

Do you think start-ups have it easier today than back then?

A bit. I think there’s more infrastructure, more funding programmes and investors today for start-ups in Europe. Back then the world wasn’t quite so global; today Silicon Valley is very near Berlin.

What’s the next big thing?

There’s a lot about usability. But the hunger for new sounds and instruments is infinite. When I began here back then, I thought we would eventually reach a point when we would have to produce something else. Far from it! People always want fresh sounds, and for us there are still so many possibilities and challenges in this area. Now we develop a new instrument almost every month.