Tuesday, November 21, 2017

End of an era for Cakewalk

Cakewalk Boston HQ closes
When I first heard the news that Cakewalk’s Boston HQ offices were closing and the remaining 26 employees were informed that they no longer had jobs, my heart ached for them. It truly is the end of an era in the world of MIDI and Digital Audio recording. However, after reconnecting with many former Cakewalkers this past week in an FB Group and hearing everyone express their condolences regarding the demise of Cakewalk, the conversations quickly turned into celebrations, reminiscing and sentiments of feeling proud to be part of a group that worked many hours, days, weeks, months and years together to help build a company that introduced ground-breaking features and technologies to hundreds of thousands of tech-hungry musicians looking to create music in a home studio.
Beginning of a new way to record
To tell you the story of Cakewalk, as many of you old schoolers know, it all starts with the super cool quiet and humble Oberlin graduate Greg Hendershott, the man who founded and built a MIDI sequencer called Cakewalk. In the beginning, the company was called Twelve Tone Systems. My understanding is that in 1987, Greg wrote much of the first version of Cakewalk for DOS in the basement of his apartment in Watertown. He placed an ad in Electronic Musician and the rest is history. In the morning he would code, in the afternoon he would take orders, in the evening he would fill the orders and UPS would pick them up. From those humble beginnings, the company had several growth spurts, running annual sales up to an estimated 12 million and employing nearly 100 young musicians and music enthusiasts in the greater Boston area and across the US.

Carl Jacobson, Anthony, Slash, Terry Howard
My Cakewalk story
To tell you the story of Cakewalk, I need to tell you my story. Please allow me to digress and rewind a few years prior to my arrival there. For me, it all started at Dr. T’s Music Software, my first job in the music industry. Being a musician in Boston in the 80’s was totally awesome. Playing gigs at the Channel, the Rat, Bunratty’s, TT the Bears and the Middle East. With Berklee in town, the scene included a hotbed of great bands. Many of these bands would go on to major label deals and are likely still on your play lists today, transferred over from your cassette tapes and vinyl records (yes, those same album covers that you used to filter out the seeds from your bags of weed). While I cannot recall the local musician who turned me onto music recording on a computer, I for sure know the name of the sequencer he recommended, Prism. In between jobs and looking for a day gig, I saw an ad in the Boston Globe placed by Dr. T’s, a music software company in Needham looking for a sales rep. I noticed that Dr. T’s was distributing Prism at the time, so I called to arrange an interview and luckily enough, I got the job. My journey into the MI industry and the world of music software recording on a computer commenced.

Twelve Tone Systems meets Creative Labs’ SoundBlaster 16
For those of you curious to know why the company name was changed from Twelve Tone Systems to Cakewalk, I can tell you why. The first growth spurt of Twelve Tone Systems was due to one OEM deal that changed the company forever. In the late 80’s, Creative Labs was coming out with a soundcard called the SoundBlaster. Unable to figure out how to write a MIDI driver, Creative Labs approached Greg to write the MIDI driver for them. Greg negotiated a deal that included annual lump sum payments for unlimited use of the driver. As significant as the monies were for the company, perhaps the more important part of the deal was including a copy of Cakewalk Apprentice in every SoundBlaster. The result was Cakewalk Apprentice falling into the hands of literally millions of SoundBlaster customers.

I can attest to that fact. As a part time marketing associate at Creative Labs, my job was to visit Comp USA, Computer City, MediaPlay and Circuit City stores across New England during the holiday season. My unique skill of knowing how to use a MIDI sequencer landed me this pretty cool gig. Every weekend, the store manager would roll out a pallet of SoundBlaster 16’s and I would set up in the aisles of these big box stores all day showing customers how to record music using Cakewalk Apprentice. While most of the customers were fascinated and completely flabbergasted at what I was doing, what really turned them on was when I would start playing X-Wing and they would hear the Star Wars theme and the beautiful sounds of wave table synthesis. At the time, customers were used to computers playing back pings, blips and boops and the ugly sounds generated by 8-bit sound card technology. By the end of each day, it never failed, the first pallet was sold out and a second pallet was nearly empty.

Cakewalk founder, Greg Hendershott
From Twelve Tone Systems to Cakewalk
Over the next few years, so many of these SoundBlaster owners were calling Cakewalk customer service trying to figure out what the hell to do with Cakewalk Apprentice and asking how to use it.  When answering the phones, we used to greet customers with a “Good afternoon, Twelve Tone Systems”.  So often, like hundreds of times a day, many customers would respond “Is this Cakewalk?” that it became easier just to rename the company Cakewalk instead of explaining the name Twelve Tone Systems.

The birth of syncing MIDI and Digital Audio
While there are so many memories that I cherished, personally and professionally during my 19 years at Cakewalk, twelve of them as Vice President of Sales, perhaps the most awe-inspiring moment was the time that Senior Developer Phil Sours ran out of his office jumping for joy. It had been the first time that he was able to successfully sync MIDI and audio in Cakewalk. Maybe this claim is contestable (Midisoft and others were working on this technology too), but I believe that Cakewalk Professional for Windows Version 3, was the first “DAW” in the world to allow for MIDI and Audio to be recorded simultaneously and played back in sync.

I can remember taking a beta copy home that night and recording my first audio / MIDI project.  After playing back a project with two tracks of audio and a few MIDI tracks, I can still feel the shivers in my bones of that unique experience.  Wouldn’t you know that unlike today’s powerful computers that can handle hundreds of tracks of audio, MIDI and effects processing, my 386 IBM could only handle playing back no more than a few tracks of audio before choking. It was at that moment that I realized how far ahead software technology was from computer hardware technology.

Terry Howard, Greg, Ray Charles, Mr. Kakehashi

Hello Mr. K, nice to meet you
As both the Consumer Electronics and Music Industry began to take notice, we found ourselves traveling around the globe adding distributors, training staff and going to tons of trade shows. There is one day in the mid 90’s I will never forget working in Cakewalk’s German Distributor’s booth at Musikmesse. Giving product demos all day, I found myself tired, worn out and just about ready to shut it down. Two executives came up to me and introduced themselves. It was Roland founder Mr. Kakehashi and his assistant Mr. Kondo. I’m thinking to myself saying “Seriously? No introduction necessary”. As they expressed interest in wanting to distribute Cakewalk worldwide, I found Mr. K to be one of the most humbling and kindest men I have had the pleasure to meet. The next day we met with Mr. K and his executive staff at the Roland booth and began negotiations for exclusive worldwide distribution.  Years later, around 2008, Roland would go on to acquire Cakewalk.

Cakewalk the reluctant step-child
Mr. K and the Roland Japan group were elated and excited to take on the distribution of Cakewalk in Japan. SONAR was introduced around the turn of the century, and sales of SONAR in the US and Japan were skyrocketing. The Roland sales team in Tokyo embraced Cakewalk with open arms. The same cannot be said for most of the other Roland Joint Venture worldwide affiliates. Because of the worldwide exclusive agreement, Roland JV groups in Europe were not so elated and excited because they were all using Macs and many of them were distributing Logic at the time and had to give up the line, and, some serious revenues. While all the Roland Groups were gracious hosts and very welcoming during our training tours, it was apparent to me that Cakewalk, to at least some of the Roland JV’s, had become the reluctant step-child.

Roland acquires Cakewalk
So, while the Cakewalk distribution agreement was met with mixed reviews at Roland, everyone at Cakewalk HQ could all see it coming. The big questions we had were when was Roland going to acquire Cakewalk, and, what were our shares going to be worth?  In need of a fusion of cash to support growing staff at HQ, a team of US sales and marketing reps, and adding product managers and engineers to develop and launch new products to shed the “one-trick pony” business model, Roland eventually acquired Cakewalk.

VS-700 Console
What went wrong?
This is a tough question to ask but simple to explain. The introduction of the V-Studio 700 and VS line of audio interface and control surfaces was the beginning of the end. While the VS-700 was an awesome product in and of itself, because of the proprietary nature of the integration, and because it included PC-only software, the target market for such a professional was clearly not big enough. When Guitar Center balked on picking up the line and stocking in all stores, we all could see it coming. In the subsequent years to follow, as many of us began to leave Cakewalk (voluntarily and not voluntarily), we could see the beginning of the end of an era had commenced and a new generation of Cakewalkers were going to be the last bastion of gatekeepers to fight the fight.  Roland too saw the writing on the wall and eventually sold the company to Gibson. The rest is history.

Classic Brandon Ryan and Robin Kelly product demo
What’s next?
While at the time this article was published we do not know the fate of SONAR or what Gibson’s plans are for Cakewalk, I am hopeful that all Cakewalkers futures are bright. Many former Cakewalk alumni have moved on to advance our careers and start-up companies developing and selling excellent music software and hardware products that are used every day in the industry like iZotope, Roland, Acoustica, Harmon, Zoom, Line 6, Tascam, M-Audio, Akai, Presonus, Microsoft, Google, Bose and Sonos.

A message to SONAR users
For the last six years, I have been lucky enough to have landed at a like-minded company, Acoustica, makers of Mixcraft 8, an award-winning DAW for the PC. Not coincidentally enough, Acoustica freakishly reminds me of the early days at Cakewalk. A small but growing music software company made up of great people who are passionate, innovative, hard-working, and who have all become my family. Acoustica is committed to making Mixcraft a DAW that SONAR users will want to seriously consider adopting. I would be remiss if I did not let you know that thru December 31, 2018, Mixcraft 8 Pro Studio is being offered to Sonar registered users for $99 ($179) as a crossgrade. If you’d like to take a look at Mixcraft, please visit Acoustica.com for more details or a free trial.