The Virtual Guitarist Idea
The original idea came from an incredibly prolific swedish guy by the name Sven Bornemark. He approached me through Steinberg in early 2001 because he got inspired by a product my company Wizoo had done with Steinberg, called VST Drum Sessions. It let people use real recorded drums in Cubase because they were chopped up and REXed. Sven wanted to do that for guitars. I liked the idea but told him that he’d have to find somebody to build him a virtual instrument – Wizoo didn’t yet do that at the time – because unlike drums, guitars are hard to arrange with REX files, keys and chords and all. Admirably persistent as he is, Sven eventually found this british guy named Paul Kellett who did free VST instruments in his spare time. Long story short, he called me in September asking “Would you like to hear a demo of our VST Guitar”? We all met at Steinberg headquarters in Hamburg in September 2001 and Paul and Sven showed a few snippets played on a keyboard. Everybody got it in a millisecond – this was something completely new, and something potentially everybody would want. Wizoo agreed to build it, Steinberg agreed to distribute it, and the rest is history. On a more bitter and crazy note, that day we met at the Steinberg office in Hamburg was September 11, 2001. I vividly remember how we just had nodded to the idea of doing Virtual Guitarist when an assistant who was with us in the conference room checking CNN cried out “Nooo, a plane just hit the World Trade Center”. I remember driving home that day anxiously checking the sky – we had no idea what this was and of what scale. Sven still keeps a homepage with a lot of historical info about Virtual Guitarist and his other products such as Groove Agent and Broomstick Bass he went on producing for Steinberg. It’s really fun to dig around!
From idea to first product
If I remember correctly, that went pretty fast – half a year or so. Sven and Mats Karlsson recorded all the guitars, Paul did the engine and Wizoo – in collaboration with Steinberg – took care of product design and product management and put it all together. We launched Virtual Guitarist 1 at Musikmesse in April 2002.
The reception in public
Steinberg put out a press release before the instrument was out. It immediately got torn to pieces on the Steinberg forums. People who could have no idea what this was freaked out over it. That’s how we knew “sh…, we’re really on to something here”. But because it was the first of its kind, Virtual Guitarist was really hard to describe with words. Yet, the moment we showed it at Musikmesse and let people put their hands on it, they immediately got it. You could literally see their eyes flare up. Consequently, the reception was overwhelming, and so were sales. It became a huge success.
The success secret of Virtual Guitarist
I believe Virtual Guitarist did two things for the first time, and that was the secret: You could lay down a guitar track using a keyboard in real-time, which was fun too, and even more important, it was real enough to be confused with the real thing. It wasn’t like there hadn’t been attempts to emulate guitar before. There were tons of sample libraries and workstation patches. The problem with all of them was that they relied on the keyboardist’s performance, because you were playing samples via MIDI notes. But keyboard players play differently, and triggering individual samples isn’t the same as the complex interaction of six strings struck, picked, bent and whatnot. So, even where you would just trigger MIDI phrases, anybody could tell this is MIDI. That’s what Virtual Guitarist solved. Consequently – and at the same time ironically – half of Virtual Guitarists users turned out to be guitarists according to Steinberg’s research. We were surprised at first, but learned that they used it because it was faster and easier for them using the thing for a quick track than setting/micing up their rig and play it by hand. Also, super pros like Hans Zimmer or Steven Lipson used it although they can fly in any rock star guitarist in the world at a whim. But this thing gave them a level of experimenting freedom and immediateness that sometimes was what they wanted.
The Virtual Guitarist legacy family
Because of the overwhelming success, Steinberg wanted more products, particularly on the electric side because that fell a little short in the original VG. So, we teamed up with Thomas Blug (now also known as an amp manufacturer). That guy really dug in and spent 14 weeks recording Virtual Guitarist Electric Edition. He was completely spent afterwards, to say the least, but Electric Edition was a masterpiece. Next, we did Virtual Guitarist 2, which was more of an evolution of Virtual Guitarist 1 in every way. Then in 2004 we launched Virtual Bassist because everybody asked for the bass complement. All these products became a staple in many people’s arsenal.
Well, my company got acquired by Digidesign in 2005 and we all joined Digi as their AIR Group. Steinberg had the right to keep selling product for 2 more years, but that was it. Digidesign had no interest in doing a Virtual Guitarist 3 and I went on in 2008 to start UJAM as a cloud-based music creation service, and took Paul and a few other members of the team along on the ride. So we took a break from virtual instruments for a few years.
What happened to Sven and Paul
Sven eventually decided to do his own Virtual Instruments so I kept the Virtual Guitarist brand and he got to do very successful and typical Sven products like Groove Agent and Broomstick Bass. Later, he went back to his career as a professional musician. We’re still in touch every now and then. Paul joined Wizoo in 2003 and has been with me and now the Virtual Guitarist team to this day. He is the brain behind many instruments we did with Steinberg (Hypersonic, Virtual Guitarist 2, Virtual Bassist a.s.o.), later Digidesign (Xpand, Strike, Velvet, Structure), and now UJAM and our new Virtual Guitarist series.
The Rebirth of Virtual Guitarist
Why we resurrected Virtual Guitarist had many reasons. First of all, people wouldn’t accept that it was gone. I got countless inquiries from users and friends. VG2 started to sell for crazy prices on Ebay, I mean we’ve seen it sell for up to 500$. Secondly, the competition didn’t swallow the bait we left for them. Sure, there were companies trying to, but they all seemed to not get the secret sauce of VG: That it could only do very little, but that it did that really well, sounded realistic, and was very simple. I didn’t see anyone really pick up on that success formula. They all added complexity and tweakability and features and whatnot. Some of those wannabe VGs felt more tedious to me than actually learning to play the guitar. The moment to do something about that came when we got back to building an instrument development toolkit for Propellerhead and looked for something that we could put out as a test case for that engine. After much brooding and pondering over beer on a business trip to Stockholm, my partner in UJAM, Axel Hensen, went “Couldn’t we just do Virtual Guitarist again”?. And baam – the idea was in the world and that was it. We reached out to people and everybody was dying to get at it again for different reasons. I had kind of felt bad for abandoning our users because of company politics. Paul and Detlef (our musical and content mastermind behind VG) were eager to show the world the next evolutionary step. And when we finally got the name secured, there was nothing to stop us.
We kind of stealth-launched the new Virtual Guitarist by releasing it under the Propellerhead name, as Rack Extensions, in collaboration with our swedish friends. We were all just a little sceptical about how a mainly electronic-music-oriented userbase would pick up on it, but even there it became a success. UJAM had always retained the right to any non-RE versions so we set out to extend the franchise and bring it back to the VST/AU/AAX world.
Virtual Guitarist now and then
Obviously, things had changed quite a bit since we had developed Virtual Guitarist 2, and of course we had tons of ideas about what we would do better, bigger or more innovative in Virtual Guitarist 3. But after half a year of concept meetings, we realized we were really doing just that – a Virtual Guitarist 3. It was more of an evolution, not a really new concept. That’s when we zoomed out a bit, looked at the A-List guitarists and went: What if there weren’t a VG3, but a whole series of plugins, each one focussing on one single guitar playing style? That’s how we decided to branch out the series into what it is now, IRON for power chords, AMBER for strummed steel string acoustic, SPARKLE for strummed electric and SILK for fingerpicking nylon guitar. It allowed us to keep the user interface much simpler than even in VG, while offering way more functionality and content for each guitar. An absolutely obvious one was integrating amp simulation into the plugin so you don’t have to bake one amp into the sound like we did in the old days.
The launch of IRON
While it was clear that the Propellerhead Reason community appreciated straightforward, focussed and simple concepts in a Rack Extension, we weren’t so sure about users of the bigger DAWs such as Cubase, Logic, Live or even Pro Tools. So, for me it was a bit of a bungee jump that we’d make IRON as simple and focussed as we did, obviously sacrificing a lot of features, each one of which would have been totally defendable, but cluttering the UI and workflow just the same. For every control that survived on the user interface, at least 5 had to go. But the result was so clean, inviting and simple, it surprised even us. So, finally in December 2015 we launched IRON and it became immediately clear that we had hit a sweet spot. I was kind of waiting for that email or forum post from one of those people who had even torn apart our super-pro Digidesign instruments on Gearslutz tearing the thing apart. Didn’t happen, and consequentially we went growing the Virtual Guitarist family more and more, and we’ll spread out that concept across other product lines in the future. Peter is the founder of UJAM, the company behind Virtual Guitarist. You can learn more about him on LinkedIn and Facebook