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Bigga Giggas' John Thomas


An Exclusive Interview with Bigga Giggas' John Thomas about the new libraries, FM Encyclopedia and Studio West Piano Library -- both now available for purchase on the TASCAM Store. Interview By Diane Gershuny Fleming.

Can you give us some history on Bigga Giggas?
Bigga Giggas began as an online venture between Per Larsson from Sweden, and myself. Per, who now runs Sample Tekk, had the only online site that had free downloadable Giga samples and was asking for participation from people. I sent him some things and he was fairly impressed. He had this very Swedish notion of wanting to give away everything for free, but he couldn't manage really large files. He wanted to give away "Bigger Giggers" (which is how it sounded with his Swedish accent). So in order to do that, we were going to have to charge something to keep from going broke.

That was sort of the basis for Bigga Giggas, as there wasn't anything out there for guys that were less "well-heeled". Literally, all the sample libraries for GigaSampler were like $180 and above; libraries were fairly expensive. We came out with three libraries by the end of 1999, priced about five-times cheaper than they were probably worth, but we weren't trying to compete with the other companies; we were just simply trying to provide something different. They were synthesizer libraries, things that hadn't been done, that we could pull off without a big budget. As it turned out, there was an immediate response much larger than we'd imagined, and people were asking for more!

And it grew each time we did a library. We were devoting more time and energy to it and the people getting the libraries were expecting us to be every bit as professional as any other sound developer they'd ever dealt with. Which of course couldn't be the case at first, but it didn't take very long. I had already been a Roland GS developer previously, and figured out what was necessary to fill in the gaps. From there, we simply expanded our field of interest, going from synthesizers to the instruments that most GigaStudio users considered to be primary.

Now we have 35 more libraries, 40 libraries later! I personally have done quite a few, but being the one guy that had more experience in American business, I wanted to make sure that any work done by anyone else under the brand name was really professional. So I kind of ended up being editor and chief art guy, English text guy, in addition to whatever libraries I could create. For a while, the workload was so heavy that I was unable to do any of my own libraries. After four years of this never-ending spiral upwards, Per felt like he might as well just do it himself full-time without any help from me here and started his own company there in Sweden.

What's your background?
I was one of those kids that had monster high scores on the college SAT tests and they tried to entice me to come to MIT, but I'd wanted to go to the Naval Academy all my life because my Dad's a Navy captain. By the time I was old enough - this was at the height of the Vietnam War era­ - I didn't want to go after all. I couldn't see participating in that debacle if I didn't have to. I ended up going to this very airy-fairy college in St. Petersburg called Florida Presbyterian - it's now Eckerd College named after the drug store heir. It was a school made for creative people. What I discovered there - from guys like my literature professor - was that the school wasn't going to teach me what I really wanted to know. The only thing that was going to teach me anything, was experience.

I wanted to be a poet. Brilliant, huh? That'll make you a great living… NOT! But eventually, I got interested in music because I could sing, and guys in bands kept asking me to be their lead singer. I did that for a little bit during the last year-and-a half of high school, and then I picked up guitar and started to play. And lo and behold, it worked! My family was horrified! I was supposed to be a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon, and I just wanted to be James Taylor!

I dropped out of college in 1970 and started writing my own songs and in about two years, I was good enough that I was playing in nightclubs in Atlanta. I now realize that this was a shockingly short amount of time to learn an instrument at a professional level. I wasn't a super great guitarist but after 30-some years, I got a lot better.

As I progressed, I participated in bands and became familiar with a lot of styles. The first place I played professionally was one of the old-school dinner houses where you had to play standards like "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," rather than "Spirit in the Sky" or some other hippie anthem song which was closer to what I was mentally aligned to. Right away, the concept of music as a business forced me to rethink my artistic ethics and I learned to like almost every style.

What are the tools of your trade?
Bass guitar, guitar, keyboards, synthesizers, and mandolin which I learned on a borrowed 1910 Gibson. The manager of the restaurant was going out with Rita Coolidge and she left her mandolin at the restaurant for six months and gave me permission to use it. I've been spoiled ever since and have never owned one of my own because that 1910 model was astonishingly good.

What about recording, what gear are you using?
It depends on what I need. I use an M-Audio Delta 1010 as my primary sound card for recording and for editing and I use a PC with Windows XP Pro. I started with MIDI before Windows could really handle audio back around 1988. Computers were flaky enough then that I became an expert and learned how to build them up and tear them down from scratch. Actually, the system I have now is the first one that I didn't entirely build myself.

The primary answer for me all along has been the audio software. Some is better suited for manipulating individual sounds necessary to create a good sample instrument. One that I found that I really like is Cool Edit Pro and I am still using it - now it's called Adobe Audition. When I talk to guys in the sample world, I frequently find that that's also one of their favorites. There's lots of great software out there, but it's wonderful professional software for this specific task. You want something that has really scientific commands to be able to know exactly what you're doing to the audio so you don't harm the original sound.

So that's my most important tool: a good Windows PC and Adobe Audition. Of course, you need microphones and preamps that are suitable to get the signal into the computer to begin with.

What's new from Bigga Giggas?
The Studio West Piano Library. I'm calling it a piano instead of a grand because it's a Yamaha C7, which is a far cry from a 16-foot Steinway D. It's still a grand piano and quite nice in its own right, but what I wanted was a piano that was a little less grand and a little more useful in modern recordings. A really large grand piano only sounds right in really large music. The C7 has become the studio standard worldwide - it's used on recordings from rock to blues as it fits better in the mix.

So that was my starting point. I asked around for who had the best room in Southern California and Studio West in San Diego was recommended to me as having an awesome "A" suite, and boy, that recommendation was an understatement! It's possibly the best recording room I've ever seen. The suite is over 3,000 sq ft and the original design won awards when it was originally built, probably because it was one of the first large facilities with curved walls that utilized multiple surfaces to diffuse the sound in a scientific kind of way while still looking artistically pleasing. The isolation rooms are 12x12' with glass fronts that face the suite as well as the control room. It reminds me more of NASA than the typical recording room. You can put an orchestra in the A suite! I think the room may be bigger than the scoring suite at Paramount Studios, in terms of square footage. The ceilings are 24' high and the sound goes away from you and doesn't come back. The room doesn't have that deadened air quality that a smaller room by necessity creates in order to avoid harsh reflectivity. Most small rooms simply pad the heck out of the walls and ceiling in some way, and it's become more sophisticated in the last couple of decades and more scientifically correct. I can't overstate how important having great-sounding air is in a sample recording and I really lucked out.

I went in and recorded like mad for three solid days and ended up with massive recordings of the piano. I'm really happy with it and I think it sounds wonderful.

Why did you decide to make it available only in the GigaStudio 3 format?
All of the preparation work for Studio West was done before GigaStudio 3 was ready to go. I participated in the beta cycle of GS3 and was enormously impressed with the GigaPulse resonance. Having a really huge piano like I had created was a big step forward in sample instrument design in its' own right; this is the largest grand piano sample in the world. But having the soundboard resonance created by Jim Buskirk made such a difference to me that I was determined not to release it in any other format, and I stuck to that.

The soundboard resonance allows you to put the sustain pedal down at any time during the playing, not just at the moment before the player strikes the MIDI note. The problem, that is the downfall of sampled grand pianos, is that they don't behave like the acoustic instrument. But with the soundboard resonance modeling that Jim created, one can press the pedal down at any point and the modeling kicks in even if you don't access the true pedal-down sample. Mine has both, so you get the best possible traditional sampled piano, plus you get the modeling capability, which is the best part of the new GigaPiano.

Because I had to wait while GigaStudio 3 was finishing up its beta cycle to release Studio West, I was looking for something to fill in space, something easy to do. So I went back to my roots, to synthesizer sounds. I had made a multi-velocity DX7 electric piano for David Govett that he used in his tutorial CD for how to edit Giga samples, and it surprised the heck out of me. I made it for him for free as a favor because I'm expert at FM editing and had a DX11 in the house. He needed one in order to deal with a major league Giga sample. That had never been done with FM, and I don't think it had ever been done with any synthesist to create an 8-velocity electric piano. It seemed like overkill, but it sure is nice to have!

I started wanting to make more sounds like that, because my original DX Rex FM, which was my very first library that I created, was only single velocity, and I felt like it would be possible to go back and beat the quality rather easily just by making it multiple-velocity. Well, I did that. I got hold of a DX7. It's real easy to record because there's no microphones and it's real easy to edit because I use Adobe Audition and I've got years of time in now on preparing my samples, and other people's, to be Giga instruments. So, it was a relaxing sort of thing. But I really wanted to make a whole bunch of sounds better and possibly the key is that GigaStudio 3 came out on DVD. It's just too darn big to fit on CDs. That fit in perfectly with how big the FM Encyclopedia is. If you really record every usable sound that a DX7 can make, you end up with what I've got here - which is about 10.5 gigabytes of sample instruments. But I had a 100 gigabytes of source samples to work from and I was just doing it in every spare moment when I wasn't working on Studio West; since last year's NAMM show. It just kept on getting bigger and bigger. And the simple thing that I was doing to go back to my roots was turning into a massive project in its own right! Only I couldn't resist it because it was turning out so well. It didn't take me but maybe a week to record the 100 gigabytes of sounds then it took me all the rest of this year to prepare them.

Every thing that is a sustain instrument like an organ, had to be correctly looped after 12 seconds or 14 seconds and have a loop segment that lasts for 5. So we're talking about a lot of organs that are looped between the 12-second point and the 20-second point. There are a lot of electric pianos with a lot of 4 and 8 velocities. A ton of bass sounds that are 4 velocities, some of them only two velocities if that's what it wanted to do. I just took my actual cues from the actual hardware. Whatever it wanted to do, that's what I wanted to record because I was no longer limited to the idea of, 'oh, 650 megabytes on a CD… it'd be a 4-cd set which had been the previous large size that I had made. That didn't have to be an issue. Whatever it takes is what I'm going to do - that was kind of my outlook on it. I literally couldn't tell anyone how big the FM Encyclopedia was even after I came up with a name for it. All I knew was I was on the letter D or whatever it was…. There were so many source files, that that was what suggested the name "FM Encyclopedia" because I was literally spending weeks and weeks on an individual letter of the alphabet. Every velocity layer of a 61-note sample instrument has like 21 samples, so a 4-velocity instrument, you've quadrupled your work. An 8-velcity instrument, you're really beginning to push it. Now do about 4 of those in a row and it's next week already. It's an instrument collection that was done out of a lot of love and caring for the actual hardware sounds, and the idea that with a synthesizer, it can only do certain things well. Once you edit it, no matter how many dials you turn, sooner or later you're going to come up with, 'this is what this thing that it does best.' And these are the things that I like that it does and you can use those things over and over again. I've been doing FM synthesis since 1988. I went in with literally thousands of source system exclusives, voice edits for the DX7, and recorded them all! And then when I found that these 5 pianos are really the same piano, take the best one that is the most representative of that piano. So I was able to prune it down that way. But I literally think that the library is all of the usual noises, some of them aren't even usable instruments, they're effects sounds. All of the usual sounds that can come out of a DX7 are included in this library.

What is the future of sampling as you see it?
My main thing has been that first off, GigaSampler as a platform was an awesome advancement in the quality of samples. When I first got involved in it, I didn't know how much better the overall platform was than the previous standard - which was the Akai hardware era of the '90s. just having the opportunity to record the entire length of, say, a bass note on an acoustic upright made that sample library a better sample library than any other upright library that had ever been created. Anything that was done in GigaSample, that was targeted for it, like my libraries were, was automatically going to be the best attempt at capturing that instrument that's ever been done. And that's been continuing that, as the GigaStudio platform progressed, libraries became more sophisticated but the primary advantage is size. The overall sampling world rapidly came to that conclusion about the GigaSampler platform and competitors started scrambling. It remained to be seen what the upshot of it is, but I do see hardware catching up with the size advantage at some point. For instance, the Yamaha motif, which is the most popular hardware keyboard that I'm seeing out there, can handle 1000 megabytes of sound now. And boy, was their rep ticked off at me when I told them that that would only be 13 gigabytes too small to handle my new piano! They're thinking it's really up there, and it is, compared to the 8mg pianos of the late 90s. Hardware is catching up but it's really slow to react. It costs a whole lot to develop hardware. They're reluctant to do it, so it's going to be another 5-10 years before the hardware fully catches up with the Giga advantage and by then, Giga is going to be advantaged in 5 more new directions that I can't even imagine because Jim Buskirk is so creative. The convolution modeling that he came up with that's in GS3 was a surprise to us guys that makes sounds for GigaStudio. We didn't know what he was doing, but he's the kind of guy who'll find interested things that he thinks will make a difference and bury himself in them and come up with a massively good new product.

So what I see for the future, particularly as long as TASCAM and Jim are involved in it, every couple of years they're going to surprise everybody again and then everybody's going to scramble land catch up.