ADC 2018 Spotlight - Nick Thompson

In this ADC 2018 spotlight, Nick Thompson talks about his transition from web developer for Facebook to independent plugin creator for his own company, Creative Intent (interview by Joshua Hodge)

We are happy to announce that Nick Thompson will be speaking at the Audio Developer Conference (ADC) 2018. The title of Nick's talk is "Breaking into Indie Plugin Development."

Nick is the founder and developer of Creative Intent, a new audio plugin company focused on modern design and inspiring sound. In our discussion, Nick and I spoke about the transition from web developer at Facebook to indie plugin development and his first encounter with the Juce Framework.

How long have you been developing, and how did you get started in development?

I started tinkering in the early 2000s when I first discovered JavaScript. I was around 10 years old, and that’s about when I also discovered Fruity Loops 3. That pretty much set the narrative for me all through grade school– making music and weird little JavaScript projects.  

I went on to study computer science at university, and in 2011 I took a course in Max/MSP. That was really the first time that I saw the border between music and technology. That was super inspiring, so I took another class where I explored manipulating sound in Python. This was around the time that the Web Audio API came out, which enabled me to write music software in my JavaScript domain, so here I had another avenue to explore music tech.

In 2013 I finished school and got a job straight away at Facebook, so I moved to California and worked there with the Instagram team.  This is where my career really went hardcore towards web development.

Around 2015 I started taking my hobby projects back to the border between music and tech, and began exploring dsp. My JavaScript skills had gotten to a point where I would pull up the Chrome source code to understand where and when I was creating an unnecessary array allocation. Once I was comfortable with that I started poking at the Web Audio API implementation. That’s really what pushed me towards C++, and then when I discovered JUCE, I realized I could actually build my own plugins.

That’s interesting to me, and it brings up a question I’ve always wondered.  Since I’m relatively new to development, and Juce is my first encounter with a professional API, I find myself being challenged a lot.  You’ve discovered Juce as a seasoned developer already, and I’m going to assume during your time at Facebook you worked with loads of API’s.  I’d like to hear about your experience getting up and running with Juce as a seasoned developer…

I love it- I think it’s really well thought out, and for me that’s apparent in how many brand new developers out there are able to make a product from start to finish using the Juce Framework.  Since I’ve been using Juce, there are some times where I feel maybe the documentation is lacking, but since the source code beneath is so well written, I can figure things out really quickly. I would recommend it to anyone and everyone!

You have an independent plugin company called Creative Intent.  How long has that been going?

I started working on my first product, Temper, in late 2016. I released it in 2017 and that’s when I established the brand.

Can you tell me a little bit about the inspiration behind Temper?

When I was first getting into the Web Audio API, I was really into bass music like that of Noisia and KOAN Sound.  I was trying to make these kinds of bass sounds and for the life of me I couldn’t get my sounds like theirs! I started reading all these forums on how to make the sounds and the suggestion was to resample your bass sounds like 15 times.  

Now the science nerd in me was like “timeout- what’s happening when you resample?”  I didn’t know a lot about dsp so I started reading up and finding out about basic linear interpolation, and with my crude dsp knowledge I thought “wow, that looks a lot like a first order filter if you move the coefficients really quickly.”  That was the core inspiration for Temper, and things kind of grew from there.

Wow that’s really cool, and do you have more in the works now?

Yeah, I’ve got a phaser plugin coming out later this year.  It’s roughly based on Vadim Zavalishin’s book “The Art of VA Filter Design.”  He has a really awesome section on modulation effects in there. I implemented his design and added my own little flair to it.

I wanted to build a phaser for two reasons. First, Temper and my other plugin Tantrum are strongly based on all-pass filtering, and a phaser is little more than a chain of allpass filters where you sweep the coefficients. So it seems like a natural progression for me. The other reason is because I’ve felt for a while that phasers always sound like phasers. They’re so distinct and obvious. Normally I’ve stayed away from them in my own music production for that reason, so I think there’s room to do something new in that area. Something different, inspiring, and creative.

With your experience at Facebook, you’ve had the opportunity to see 2 different sides of development- working for a large corporate company, and running your own company as a freelancer.  What would you say are the main advantages of those 2 sides? I guess the first obvious one is freedom…

Yeah freedom is definitely a big thing- I make my own schedule, and I have this really crazy flexibility- I’ll give you an example…

The other day I had this idea about a new idea for my phaser UI. I’d already been working on a previous UI, but the next day I completely pivoted from my previous UI and started working on the new idea. That would never fly at a big company! So, flexibility in terms of your schedule but also flexibility in terms of your creativity is awesome.

But I think more importantly, for me, is that with Creative Intent I’m able to develop a company that is really “me” and a reflection of who I am. I get to really put my heart into what I’m doing and that’s an extremely rewarding feeling.

On the other hand, one of the great advantages of working for a big company (especially Facebook) is that I learned at a really fast rate.  When you work for a big company, you’re often surrounded by a lot of talented people who are the best at their job, and you’re challenged and pushed. That environment can be great for your development. I guess the con for me was that I didn’t really believe in the product I was making, because I’m not really a user of Facebook or Instagram.

That’s amazing!  What is your long-term strategy now?  Would you like to stay independent, or are you interested in working for another big company?

I’m new in this indie freelance thing- the majority of time that I’ve been working on my own plugins I’ve been working for another company, so for now I’d really like to ride this wave and see how far I can go, but who knows for the future?  Life is weird, but for now I like the flexibility of being independent.

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