Interview: Soft-Amps Plugin creator Alexander Petrov-Savchenko

untitled-1When it comes to the plugin producers out there who are cool enough to give their stuff away for free, they don’t get much cooler than Alexander Petrov-Savchenko, better known as AXP, better known still as the juicy brain behind Soft-Amp.

Over the years he’s released some stone-cold killer guitar plugins: The sweet Marshall Guv’nor-clone, the SoftDrive; the weird and wonderful hybrid amp/pedal, the Flextron; and his latest creation, the fantastic SoftAmp PSA Amp Sim (which is in the running in this year’s KVR Developer’s Challenge).

Given that we’re long-time fans of Alex, we thought it was high time to touch base and hit him with some hard questions.

LaptopGuitarist: Whereabouts are you based, Alex?

Alexander Petrov-Savchenko: I live in Saint-Petersburg. It’s a huge and beautiful city in Russia that attracts a lot of tourists. Unfortunately you don’t get to notice much of the place you’ve been living in your whole life, as you are more concerned about air pollution and getting through the traffic jams.

How did you get into making music software?

I started doing it for the very same reason I started DIY’ing guitar stompboxes and preamps earlier – to be able to play through the gear I could not afford. As for the actual event that triggered the shift from analog to the digital realm, I would trace it back to the university years when I was introduced to digital signal processing. Sometime between implementing my first delay line and a naive distortion model I came to realize how much more I could do with algorithms rather than with a soldering iron.

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Are you a musician too?

Not really a musician, but I do play guitar.

Do you build this stuff full time?

No, I have a “normal” job unrelated to music or even audio, so I have to spend evenings, nights and holidays on my hobby projects. I haven’t made my mind yet on whether I’d like to do it full time at some point, as part of the fun is never being forced to do anything or depending on it financially.

How long does it usually take to produce each release?

In retrospect, I think that all my releases were made in a rush. The latest two, both made for KVR Audio developer challenges, followed a similar schedule of doing research and implementing algorithms for a month and spending another one on the user interface and integration.

How did you hear about the KVR challenge?

I think I was a casual reader of the DSP/Plugin development thread on their forum when I saw the DC banner. It all quickly clicked together as I had been experimenting with VST user interface design and also had a bunch of nice algorithms in a semi-ready state. I decided it was time to make some of it publicly available and picked a generic tube stage model to appeal to the widest audience. That’s how SoftAmp 3OD was born.

What’s your experience with the competition been like?

It’s a thrill! I couldn’t wait for the voting to end and the results to be published. Also, the community and fellow developers are always fantastic and I get a ton of valuable feedback and support during the challenge.

You have some pretty slick GUIs. How do you produce them?

Thank you! It’s all about doing as much as you can with limited tools. When working on the layout and designing the interactive controls, I always keep thinking: “How am I going to implement this?”. Since I’m not using any GUI frameworks (not even the common VSTGUI SDK), my hands are not tied. However my goal is to have the fastest UI code possible, so I try to break down the visuals into little elements that could be drawn at run-time conveniently and quickly. For example, the knobs in SoftAmp FM25 consist of 3 layers, with only small band with the numbers really rotating, while the knob base and the light/shadow overlay remain stationary.

psa_splash_medAre there any other developers out there that you particularly admire?

Of the KVR DC fame, I really dig what Ivan Cohen is doing (he’s the man behind Musical Entropy). Having a track record of commercial audio software and scientific papers on tube modeling that I learned from, he now develops very innovative and fun free plugins. I also keep an eye on other enthusiasts who do free guitar modeling software as I feel a sort of connection between us.

What’s the secret to making a great sounding plugin?

Be careful when you are cutting corners. It’s tempting to save some memory here and optimize some cycles there, but in the end it could all add up to be the difference between good and great sound. Also, mouth-watering UI’s are known to improve the plugin’s sound a lot 🙂

Who has the best guitar tone of all time? Is there a ‘holy grail’ tone that you love above all others?

It’s hard to come up with a name, but I do have a very particular tone in my head and every time I play around with a new amp or a plugin it usually ends up sounding this way. It’s definitely not the now popular scooped metal tone, but more of a mid-rangey middle to high gain distortion suitable for punk or glam-rock.

axp-softamp-fm25-dll_What’s your next project likely to be?

If I don’t end up finally doing some mixing/mastering tool, I think it’s safe to say it’s going to be an amp model. Likely a low-gain tube one this time.

What advice would you have for someone hoping to follow in your footsteps?

It requires knowledge in several unrelated disciplines, such as music, programming, graphical design, circuit modeling and mathematics. I suggest trying to learn one thing at a time. If you are new to programming, use modular audio software (such as SynthEdit) instead, if you never done any GUI programming, ask someone to design and code the interface for you. If you can’t make any sense out of circuit schematics, don’t bother with modeling and design a new effect or synth instead.

What’s the long term goal for you?

I have never really tried to define it yet. Maybe I’d like one day to come up with a new algorithm that nobody have thought of? Or sometimes I think it would be great to lead a team designing audio effects as a full-time job. What’s best is that I make free effects that people seem to like along the way, regardless of where this way takes me.

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How can people support you?

I mostly miss good demos of my current and forthcoming plugins. A modest donation is always nice too.

What have I missed here? Any question I should have asked you that I haven’t?

Well, maybe this: I’ve discovered this site when mine started getting hits from your links. And I’m here to stay, for sure! I have already found many cool plugins I didn’t even know to exist before. Keep up the good work!

More from SoftAmp:

FREE: SoftAmp GT Overdrive Pedal
FREE: CharBooster Overdrive Pedal Sim
FREE: FM25 Amp Sim
FREE: Flextron DC14 Amp Sim
FREE: SoftDrive GV Overdrive Pedal
FREE: SoftAmp PSA Amp Sim

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