Top Secret - Propellerhead behind the curtain

There are some things you just don't talk about. Propellerhead has it's family secrets, that are kept private until the very last moment - the release party.

"People may consider us to be snobs, but if we reveal the contents of our upcoming products, we don't have enough buttons left to push in order to manœuvre the project. We can work on the time frame, features and quality. The quality button is always pushed at maximum. Time is in an intermediate range. The number of smart features is the button we push the most," says Marcus Zetterquist, head of development.

Halfway up the stairs leading to the attic office where the programmers are stationed, is a stop sign. Only authorized personnel allowed. If you pass this point in real life, you've probably just been hired by the company. Beyond the sign, thirteen developers are stationed, some of the few to know what products are to be released.

"Sometimes when you come up with something really cool you'd like to talk about it, but you have to wait until the release party. Silence is not forever!" says John Engström.

If you manage to get past the stop sign, you'll find a room inhabited by computers, musical instruments and huge potted plants. This is where the developers work, alone or together in front of the screens. The fan noise is mixed with the sound of low voices. Work proceeds according to an internal method, in which programmers take on substantial responsibility for planning and results. Each project is divided in milestones and thoroughly planned ahead. If the schedule turns out to be too tight, the milestone is moved ahead, or the feature removed. The most important parts are always taken care of at the beginning of a project, and each feature that is brought to conclusion must be completely finished - and bug-free. The greatest nightmare for Marcus Zetterquist is a situation where the developing department is "almost finished" for six months while all minor errors are cleaned up.

The method of applying a substantial personal responsibility is appreciated by the programmers.

"What's great about this job is that you have a lot of freedom. No one's breathing down your neck, demanding that you'll finish up by tomorrow. But in order for it to work, people must take responsibility. I think it works well, there isn't a strong hierarchy in the company and if you need help, all you have to do is ask," says Peter Fornwall, who's worked as a developer at Propellerhead for a year and some.

Today's discussion in front of his screen is about technical specification. Marcus Zetterquist fills in the gaps and explains the thinking behind the general description.

"Some things are tricky. We have interesting tasks that varies a lot from user interface programming, to low-level programming and DSP," says Peter Fornwall.

He went straight from his university studies as Master of Science in Applied Physics and Electrical Engineering to a permanent job at Propellerhead. To him, having music and programming as his major interests, it was the job of his dreams being advertised. The first step in the application process, the on-line test, made him even more interested.

"It shows that they have high standards, that it's good if you're interested in what you're doing," he says.

As the time of the interview came closer, his pulse went up. The initial half-hour of social chit-chat with the human resources manager was expected. But then Marcus Zetterquist came charging in with a laptop under his arm...

"Here's a snippet of code that we're going to discuss during the next thirty minutes," he said.

"It turned out as an open dialogue, with very few rights and wrongs, and us discussing pro's and con's. I guess he wanted to check if I knew how to program. I was very nervous, but I must have done well since I got the job!" says Peter Fornwall.

John Engström was employed during the same period. He has a completely different background, having spent six months at a post-upper secondary technical education before starting to work. When the position at Propellerhead was advertised, he'd been engaged for three years as a financial programmer at a company in the Netherlands.

"I've always had Propellerhead on my list as a potential employer. Besides, the test was a lot of fun and made me put together an application," he says.

Obviously, we're not told what he's working on right now. But the tasks consists mainly of programming, combined with system design and planning.

"The tasks are definitely challenging. I've been programming all my life and what we do here results in really interesting problems, tough nuts to crack. In a positive way, of course, since they are possible to solve."

It's more of a disappointment when finished code is removed from the product.

"Sometimes stuff is completely discarded. But you have to live with it. Usually it's not because of a bad solution, but because we're not supposed to do that special thing at that special time," says John Engström.

Like sheets hung out to dry, the print-outs are suspended from the sloping ceiling above his workstation. The developers work on just one computer each, even though the programs are written for both Mac and PC. There is no need for multiple computers since approximately 85 percent of the code is platform independent. The remaining 15 percent is retrieved from a code library named after the classical Swedish ice-lolly Igloo.

"You know, the cola flavoured popsicle with two sticks," Marcus Zetterquist explains.

He considers his task to be to eliminate technical limitations in order to create music. User-friendliness is paramount, the drawback being that a lot of the flexibility is lost in the process. Feeling and intuition are immensely important, it's essential to understand which options are necessary and which are only time consuming.

"The scary part, and at the same time the strength of our programs, is everything that the user cannot do. We make decisions for people, and if we make a mistake, they can't correct it themselves," he says.

He's truly pleased with, for instance, Remote.

"You can buy a MIDI-keyboard with controls and buttons, or a mixer panel, like the ones from Mackie, plug it in, and voila, it works. In the old days, the user had to program every button!"

On the other hand, no efforts are made in optimizing code for certain processors, or in being up to date with the latest techniques. The order of priority is clear: the program has to work on all computers, even older ones. Nevertheless, the multi-core processors take up a considerable part of Marcus Zetterquists thoughts. How can you make Reason work on older computers and at the same time use the full potential of future computers?

"This is the first time since I started doing this that I see something is on the verge of happening, something that will completely affect how you design a program. How can you make Reason use 128 cores in the future? It's a new and tricky problem," he says.

The fans keep on spinning in the programmer's attic, the heart of Propellerhead and the most secret place. Two bare feet in sandals protrude behind a monstera, resting comfortably on the desk. The atmosphere is relaxed, but looks can deceive. The solution to the problem of multi-core processors may be well on the way. However, the question is if anyone on the outside will know.

"Propellerhead NEVER leaks," says John Engström emphatically.

Photos: Johanna Hanno