The Birth of iZotope Iris

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Cooped up in a synthesizer-packed workspace just west of London, UK, GForce Software is a mad laboratory of knobs, keys, and buttons, ripe for tinkering. Owned by synth boffins and industry veterans Chris Macleod and Dave Spiers, GForce Software is the birthplace of the must-have Mellotron emulation, M-Tron Pro. Other popular emulations by GForce include impOSCar2, Minimonsta, Vitual String Machine and Oddity. Most recently, GForce has released the Re-Tron rack extension for Reason. Since the 1970s, both Chris and Dave have had considerable experience getting their hands dirty with synthesizers. For Chris, becoming a keyboard tech for such global touring acts as Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, and Aztec Camera, was the tipping point for his interest in synthesizers. And as for Dave, he was simply just “synth obsessive from the get-go.” The GForce hardware synth collection is massive, and the instruments get used almost every day. The self-proclaimed synthesizer custodians know the boards inside and out and take great care to ensure they withstand the test of time. Their combined expertise and desire to create something truly unique outside the world of emulations made GForce the perfect fit to aid iZotope in creating the world’s first spectral sampling re-synthesizer, Iris, which was reviewed in the September 2012 issue of Keyboard.

“Obviously this won’t happen because everyone is too busy,” asserted Dave Spiers, live on Sonic Talk 192, a podcast on the Sonic State website. What had been an enthusiastic conversation surrounding RX 2’s spectral technology as a tool for synthesis became a quick call to action by Sonic Talk host Nick Batt, insisting on the software’s immediate development. “Sonic State users, let’s start a petition to make a synth so that we can use it!” Little did Dave know, at that moment, iZotope’s Director of Business Development, Alex Westner, was listening attentively, and that several months in the future, GForce would be an integral part of what would eventually be known as Iris. It became very clear after several meetings with both Mark Ethier, iZotope CEO, and Jonathan Bailey, Iris’ lead developer, that GForce was the secret ingredient iZotope needed to create such an instrument. “Mark made a point of coming to see us and he must have picked up on our enthusiasm because not long after, Jonathan was dispatched to discuss ideas that had obviously been talked about within iZotope,” Dave recalls. 

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Over the next 14 months, iZotope’s development team would start to create Iris by combining the spectral selection technology found in RX and the playback engine from iZotope’s virtual drum machine, iDrum. As iZotope’s first big foray into virtual instruments, Iris presented several challenges in its development stages including the design of its user interface. Over 20 mockups of the Iris UI were sketched over the course of development, each refining the amount of possible synthesizer parameters into digestible, user-friendly segments.

After having created several acclaimed emulations of analog synths, GForce was used to working with predefined and proven workflows. “Workflow is crucial with any instrument,” Chris MacLeod says, “particularly with a new one.” In the analog realm, workflow is designed around physically interacting with a device. Turning hardware into software, however, presents one large issue in turning those physical actions, such as a knob twist, into practical, ergonomic mouse clicks. “Everyone understands the idea of oscillators, amplitude envelopes, and LFOs so I really wanted to keep the simplicity of this paradigm as a starting point for the user.” Looking at Iris as an opportunity to improve traditional synth workflow, Chris landed on the “blank canvas” approach that would cater to both the casual user and the power user—but not before going a little crazy first.

“I actually started to dream about the instrument layout at this time, which was absurd, really.” Jonathan Bailey, Iris’ lead software developer, credits Chris for creating a forward thinking, non-hardware product interface. “It really is an innovative concept and design—a ‘keep it grounded’ synth.” Keeping very much in line with iZotope’s inclination for creating user experiences beyond knobs and faders, Iris’ design process was made easier for Chris knowing that iZotope could deliver. “It’s an exceptionally flexible design simply because iZotope had the ability to make it happen.”

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While Chris was hard at work on wire-framing the Iris UI, iZotope was deeply rooted in feature development. Implementing DSP, modulation, envelopes, oscillators, glide, key mapping, and selection tools while keeping a simple interface proved to be a momentous task. As for Chris Macleod and Dave Spiers, this meant helping decide which synth features were most desirable. “Chris and I got together and mapped out our ideal feature set. Of course a lot of this was dream-territory but when we relayed our thoughts to iZotope, no one flinched.” Jeremy Todd, iZotope’s CTO, helped lead the development in its final stages, reiterating that software lacks boundaries. “The sky’s the limit—you can do anything really,” he says. This helped GForce’s synth dreams become a reality. Combining iZotope technologies such as the selection tools in RX 2 and DSP from Trash, Iris is more Frankenstein than synthesizer. “The idea of being able to apply some of iZotope’s effect technology was a must. I really wanted two options here --globally as master effects or individually as send effects, so that you could assign something like distortion to one pool and reverb to another,” Dave says. “For me, the distortion in Trash is a thing of beauty, so it made sense to try and bring this into the fold.” Traveling further into the lush feature set, you’ll find Radius RT, iZotope’s revolutionary time and pitch shifting technology, enabling users to play their spectral selections on any keyboard. Iris is the only product in the world to wholly incorporate Radius RT, or real time pitch shifting. “Now we could make tool selections and play them back polyphonically and consistently across all keys,” Dave explains. Taking the “sky’s the limit“ approach made all the difference for Dave when transferring feature ideas between GForce and iZotope. “It’s natural when working on something new and exciting to incorporate new ideas along the way—and boy were there some great ideas voiced.”

GForce’s Dave Spiers took charge of creating many of the samples in Iris. Having worked with GForce before to create content for iDrum (Underworld Edition), iZotope had been looking for another excuse to work with GForce. “The stuff they make sounds really damned good,” asserts Jonathan Bailey. In GForce’s prior experiences, the best products had always been the best sounding, so Dave went to town cultivating audio for Iris’ sample content.

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Dave started by recording some of the older, more coveted synthesizers including the Yamaha GX-1, Moog Modular, and ARP 2500 using an RME Fireface 800. “I really liked the idea of layering specific harmonics from the mighty GX-1 with completely different harmonics from something like a Wasp filter sweep.” Deviating from his own synth collection, time was also spent collecting even more rare synth sounds at Benge’s Play Studios in Hoxton, London U.K. As time went on, he started seeking more non-traditional sounds. An early representation of Iris’ “find music in everything” ethic, Dave pursued a wide range of sounds that would be turned into something beautiful and musical, regardless of their origin. Zoom H4 field recorder in hand, Dave set out to record “anything and everything.” Also enlisting the help of sound designers Tara Busch, Ric Viers, and Scanner, samples were created such as liposuction, wolf howls, a tattoo needle, and many other unconventional sound sources. “Consideration was regularly given to functionality and musicality,” Dave says. “I wanted the synthesis elements of Iris to eclipse the thought that it was yet another sampler. Iris is so much more than that.”

For iZotope, Iris is a chance to become a force in the virtual instrument industry whilst keeping what developer Jonathan Bailey calls “an iZotopey way of doing things.” The fun factor of Iris was paramount, but iZotope didn’t want to downplay how powerful Iris’ technology really is. Pairing the canvas-like UI and streamlined controls with the creativity and quality of GForce sample content has hit the sweet spot between work and play for many. In a matter of days after Iris’ release, YouTube users were drawing in its spectrogram and playing it back. “It’s a beautifully human thing,” says Jack Côté. “It is really fun and it actually represents what sound design really is.” While users have flooded the Internet with spectral images containing everything from their names to amateur portraiture, for sound designers, Iris is becoming a must-have tool. Underworld, infamous electronic duo and long-time friends of Chris and Dave, have started to make their mark using Iris on their own projects and collaborations. “I know that Karl [Hyde] is working on several projects with other luminaries, such as Leo Abrahams and Brian Eno, where Iris has been used in a way of initiating or expanding a creative dialogue,” Dave says. Designers are now armed with the ability to use Iris as the means to create soundscapes out of any sound in mere minutes. “Iris needed to be fun and inspiring above all, but we also wanted to make sure it wasn’t perceived as a toy,” iZotope CTO, Jeremy Todd adds. And Iris is far from it. 

As a much larger company, iZotope had experience designing software for many sections of the audio marketplace. As a two-person team, it seemed overwhelming to GForce at times. “We’re acutely aware that there’s a million miles between an idea and realization of a product,” Spiers says. “The support given to us by the iZotope team was incredibly inspirational.” GForce’s highly specialized skill set and perspective were vital in creating Iris’ overall user experience. During the final stages of Iris development, it became very clear that what was created out of the partnership was something truly innovative --half synth, half enchantment. “When there are no egos or histrionics to dilute the objective, great things can happen with creative endeavors… and that’s exactly what happened with Iris.”

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Iris cast of characters:

Alex Westner – Director of Business Development, iZotope, Inc.

Jack Cote – Product Manager, iZotope, Inc.

Jonathan Bailey – Lead Developer, iZotope, Inc.

Jeremy Todd – CTO, iZotope, Inc.

Mark Ethier – CEO, iZotope, Inc.

Chris MacLeod – Co-Owner, G Force Software

Dave Spiers – Co-Owner, G Force Software

Tara Busch – Sound Designer

Ric Viers – Sound Designer

Scanner – Sound Designer

Nick Batt – Owner, and Host of Sonic TALK

(Below: Iris in its final state.)

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