It was 21 years ago today…” – How The First Software DAW Came About

It’s hard to believe, but it was 21 years ago, at the 1990 NAMM Show that Opcode and Digidesign announced the results of a collaboration that had begun the previous spring. With much ballyhoo we demonstrated the first software application that combined recording and editing of MIDI and digital audio in the same environment. It was a long time ago so it’s hard to give proper credit to everyone involved, or for that matter pinpoint exactly where the genesis of the idea occurred. Suffice to say it was the right (and obvious) thing to do for our mutual customers. In fact it changed forever the way that music is produced.

I first met Evan Brooks and Peter Gotcher (founders of Digidesign) in the early 80s when I jammed with a band they had put together. Evan played keyboards and Peter played drums. Our musical styles weren’t the same, but I liked the way that Evan played, so I hired him for some casuals. A year or so later I was working with a techno band and asked Evan if he would be interested in joining. He said he didn’t have time because he and Peter had started a company to make samples for the Drumulator, a new product from a company called Emu Systems. Fortunately for him (and for me as it turned out), I wasn’t able to persuade him to quit his day job and join a rock and roll band.

My partner (and founder) at Opcode, Dave Oppenheim met Peter and Evan at the 1985 NAMM Show (the first for both companies) in New Orleans. He and Evan became good friends. Both were passionate about music, talented programmers, and creative thinkers, so they had a lot in common.

Digidesign moved quickly from creating the Drumulator samples to marketing the software they used to create and edit them. The product was called Sound Designer. It was a bit time consuming to transfer samples back and forth over an RS-422 serial port, but it was the only way to do it with the growing number of hardware samplers from Emu and others. As new technologies (like SCSI) came into play it became easier. Digidesign charged a premium price knowing that the customers for their product were most likely earning a living with their samplers and Digidesign’s software was a small percentage of the price of the hardware they had to buy.

sounddesigner.jpgSound Designer

In 1986 Opcode was the leader in patch librarian and MIDI interface sales so we had a pretty good idea of the size of the market and how fast it was growing, but we had a problem with our sequencer. Although we had loyal and passionate customers we were #3 behind both Performer from MOTU and Mastertracks from Passport in terms of sales. We believed we could change this by reinventing our sequencer and incorporating both a list view like Performer and a graphic piano roll view like Mastertracks. The primary editing windows were linked in such a way that the user could easily move back and forth to match the type of editing they were doing. The commands were set up to optimize the strengths of each type of editing. Whenever you made a change on one window it was automatically updated in the other, saving time and effort when you switched between views. There was a powerful strip chart feature in the graphic window where you could edit note parameters like Velocity and Pitch Bend, which hadn’t been done at the time.


Like Opcode with our MIDI interfaces, Digidesign was the market leader in hard disk recording hardware with both their Sound Tools product, which connected to the Mac through SCSI, and their lower cost NuBus Audiomedia card, which was designed for the fast growing ‘multimedia’ market. As they moved more into hard disk recording their primary competition was New England Digital. NED was marketing an extremely expensive system called the Post Pro. Though they were interested in the high-end market Digi knew that they didn’t yet have the feature set to appeal to post production customers so they were looking for ways to broaden their market beyond sound designers.

They had only one serious competitor in the software market and that was Blank Software, which had been founded by a local sound designer, Donny Blank, and David Willenbrink, a very clever engineer from Kentucky. Willenbrink had written a full-fledged audio waveform editor and patch librarian (called “Sound Lab”) for the first affordable sampler, the Ensoniq Mirage in May of 1985, while Donny was finishing school. It was his first experience with waveform editing. The two partners first showed it at the same Summer NAMM show in New Orleans that Opcode and Digidesign were showing their products. Like jazz and great cooking New Orleans was the spot of the initial convergence of the Macintosh, MIDI, and digital audio.

In 1987 David, Donny, and Swedish engineer, Mats Myerberg (from Ensoniq), went undercover for a year to write Alchemy, a new sound editor that was designed to compete with Sound Designer. In addition to its elegant GUI it worked with many samplers, while Sound Designer was sold in sampler specific packages at the time.

alchemy_blank.jpgAlchemy by Blank Software

david_and_marsha.jpgDavid Willenbrink and Marsha Vdovin at the 1987 Winter NAMM Show

Myerberg brought some great DSP chops that were needed for Alchemy to accomplish: High Quality Sample Rate Conversion, EQ, FFT analysis & re-synthesis, and the first ever independent Time Scale & Pitch Shifting algorithm using granular synthesis on the Mac. After its flamboyant introduction at the 1987 Summer NAMM Show Alchemy was starting to gain steam among serious sample editors.

Meanwhile, back on the Opcode farm, after all the work we had done on Vision we were surprised at the 1989 NAMM show by the introduction of a new MIDI sequencing application called Portrait from our friend Geoff Brown. Geoff had previously written Deluxe Music Construction Set, an excellent and low-priced notation product that was being distributed by Opcode and the giant (at the time – and especially compared to us) game company, Electronic Arts. Portrait had many of the features we were showing with Vision, as well as some that we hadn’t thought of. It may have been the best sequencer application that never shipped and it had the unintended effect of putting Digi and Opcode together for Studio Vision.

It made a lot sense for Opcode and Digi to work together. By coincidence we occupied office space across a small parking lot from each other in a business park in Menlo Park (also the home of Studer Editech – an HD recording competitor of Digi’s). Dave and Evan respected each other’s abilities, which overlapped but were perfectly differentiated, but it took a chance encounter to get the ball rolling. Shortly after the NAMM Show Dave wandered over unannounced to have lunch with Evan as he often did. He walked in as the principals at Digidesign were getting a demo of Portrait from Geoff Brown, who was looking for a distributor for his product.

We didn’t think of this as a good thing so my next call was to Donny Blank to arrange a meeting. If Digi was thinking about distributing a directly competitive product we needed to have an alternative ourselves. A few days later (and by further coincidence) Peter and Evan showed up at Opcode while Dave Oppenheim and I were meeting with Donny and David. Soon after these two encounters we started talking seriously and decided that we should work to put our products together in some way. It was a natural thing to do because that’s what all our customers wanted. Peter and I signed an agreement to license their audio engine at the 1989 Summer MacWorld in Boston.

Blank Software was looking for a distributor for Alchemy so Donny Blank could get back to sound design and David could move on with his career. We recognized that competing with Digidesign in this category would be hard especially given how much competition we already had in our backyard from the likes of MOTU, Passport, and other newcomers to the Mac market, like Steinberg, so we passed on it.

Ultimately Alchemy found a home at Passport and David Willenbrink found a home at Opcode. He told us that the way he liked to work was intensely for as long as it took to finish a particular task and then take off for as long as it took to get ready for the next one. It wasn’t the norm for us, but there was something about him that gave us confidence, so we went with his program.

studio_vision.jpgStudio Vision -The first application to integrate Audio and MIDI Recording and Editing

Work began in September of 1989. In fact David Willenbrink’s first day at Opcode was the same day as the San Francisco earthquake, which destroyed the office at Blank Software. We were not disappointed when he showed up a few weeks later with the initial UI for Studio Vision. He had taken a complex set of parameters and elegantly integrated them into a wonderfully simple design. It was pretty exciting to see jaws dropping during the first design review with the principals at Digi…

Evan Brooks and Peter Richert at Digi set about creating an audio engine that could be integrated into a 3rd party application. The huge job of synchronizing everything so that professionals could use it and incorporating audio events in both the Event List and Graphic Editors fell to Dave Oppenheim, David Willenbrink, Ray Spears, and later Dan Timis at Opcode. David W. did most of the audio stuff, the GUI and getting things ready for Evan and Peter’s engine, and Dave O made sure the MIDI played at the right time relative to the audio (besides working on all things MIDI), except for the Graphic editor window, which was done by Spears.

The product was announced and demonstrated at the 1990 NAMM Show with a cool little video put together by our Director of Marketing Paul deBenedictis, with our friend Thomas Dolby doing a demo. It took a few months longer than we would have liked to ship the product, but that is the nature of software schedules. They are never less than you predict… Digi got impatient and signed a licensing deal for the same audio engine with MOTU and Steinberg as soon as the exclusivity period ended. Both companies promptly announced their competing products, but neither shipped until long after Studio Vision became available. It was A LOT of work.

studio_vision_a.jpgStudio Vision

Our overall goal was to take control from MOTU in the sequencing category, so I’ll never forget doing a Studio Vision demo for some guy at the NAMM Show that year. Here we were showing a MIDI sequencer that had audio editing built into it. Wow!! He was pretty impressed until his friend walked by and said “Hey, Performer has notation now!”, bursting my balloon. It was a constant reminder of how hard it is to get people to switch from their adopted musical word processor.

It was Digidesign’s good fortune that the traditional players in the tape market like Otari, Studer, and TASCAM stayed away from HD recording for as long as they did. First, their core technologies were the ability to design and manufacture machines with moving parts (Otari also marketed a kiosk that vended fresh flowers in Japanese malls). They also believed that people would feel more familiar and secure continuing to use tape. This was partly true and there certainly were a lot of 2” reels of tape in garages and recording studios, but ignoring the value of instant punch in and out and virtual editing cost them dearly. All of them eventually brought HD products to the market, but their delay in doing so allowed Digidesign to build marketshare with Pro Tools and dominate the important new category ever since.

The current leaders on the Mac platform are Avid and Apple, of course. It will be hard for another company to compete profitably unless it is in a specific niche. After all Apple’s market cap is larger than the entire professional audio industry combined and the profits from the professional audio market are insignificant compared to what they receive from the consumer electronics market!

Where are they now…
Between eclipses Dave Oppenheim still works with David Willenbrink at Digidesign (now Avid). He is responsible for coding much of the MIDI that is appearing more and more in Pro Tools. David manages a UI group, developing the appearance of Pro Tools and Media Composer and many other Avid products. Evan Brooks is comfortably retired and playing music. Peter Gotcher has gone onto fame and fortune with several other companies like Line 6, Dolby Labs, and Pandora. Dan Timis went on to work for Muse Research and then Apple Computer and unfortunately passed away a couple of years ago.

In 2008 Studio Vision was honored with a TEC Hall of Fame award.


I would like to thank David Willenbrink, Dave Oppenheim, and Evan Brooks for the accuracy checks (at least what they can remember) and Marsha Vdovin for the picture of the Blank Software NAMM booth.