After identifying a gap in the market, dBs tutor Chris Page and creative partner Dan Havers (DC Breaks) developed HALO; their very own hybrid synth rompler plugin. We joined them to get the full story and how they went from knowing nothing to creating an exceptional sonic tool.
Creating a software plugin is a common aspiration amongst producers and engineers, yet the intimidation factor that comes with actually developing and selling one is often too much. It was a similar story for Chris Page and Dan Havers, but rather than shying away from the project, they dove in headfirst. So, what better way to take inspiration from their experience than to learn how they made it happen.
Before we get into the story of how they made HALO, it's important to understand the story behind their creative partnership and how in many ways, those years together as DC Breaks meant HALO was a challenge rather than an impossible task.
"We met in Edinburgh university,' recalls Dan. "I started a band with one of Chris' housemates who actually went on to become Hidden Orchestra. We started a little posse and every now and then I'd pop my head through the door to check out what Chris was producing. We were writing completely different styles, but after a few gigs together it was a no-brainer to go into the studio together and see what happened."
Dan (pictured left) and Chris (picture right)
From there, Chris and Dan put out a few releases under their respective monikers - DJ Kryptik and DJ Samurai - on some local labels, and then formally joined forces to become DC Breaks in 2005. Over the years, the duo signed tunes to Viper, released two albums with RAM Records and played spots all across the world in North America, Japan, Russia, Europe etc., South Africa and Australia. After 10 plus years of DJing and producing, Chris and Dan decided they wanted to change things up.
"Over the last few years, we've been looking at the different ways we can monetise our skills," says Chris. "We spent a lot of time building up DC Breaks dot com, selling merch, sample packs, synth preset packs and that's kind of where HALO came in as a development of our online store. The store started to get a lot of traction and the volume of sales was really encouraging and signalled that people really wanted this kind of stuff.
"We'd just made an official pack for Phase Plant, which is a great synth but not that widely used as it's quite expensive, and we'd grown a bit tired of creating Serum packs - how many does one person really need? So Dan and I were thinking about other products we could develop other than presets or sample packs as we felt the market was somewhat oversaturated. Dan came up with the idea of building our own sampler and that's basically how HALO started."
The DC Breaks online webstore
The idea was by no means new though. Dan had previously created a sample bank for the Virus TI synth, but was dissatisfied with the process. "To keep the file size down on the samples, I had to remove all the effects from the original audio clip, which meant that you had to add the sauce when dropping them into something like EX24 and I just wasn't happy with that workflow. That was about 7 or 8 years ago, but last year I woke up one morning and thought there must be a way of creating a sampler with built-in effects modules without having to spend 10 years learning C++, and there was!"
Designing the plugin
With the idea cemented in their minds, it was time to make it a reality, and Chris' role in the development process lay predominantly with the sound design and preset creation.
"A lot of HALO is about workflow," says Chris. "For instance, when we make bass sounds for our tunes, we quite often use Serum or Massive, but when you want that in the track it needs sub layers and effects to make it unique, which requires another synth and then mirroring that in MIDI. With HALO, it allows you to take a great sound and add a synth layer, add a sub layer, run it through effects and modulation all within one plugin."
HALO's main user interface
Building their catalogue of presets saw them capture samples from digital, soft and analogue synthesisers, which were then processed using HALO's built-in effects and modulation controls to create banks of over 300 presets. That may sound like a huge undertaking, but Chris points out that it could have been much larger.
"We actually had to limit it to 300, which was a nice problem to have. Over the years, Dan and I had built up a sizeable library of sounds and presets developed for DC Breaks dot com; some of which had never gone up for sale. That side of things was probably the easiest part of the process when compared to the delivery of the product and coding HALO."
It would be Dan who took up the unenviable task of getting to grips with the world of coding to create the plugin ecosystem; a process that was entirely new and foreign to him.
"I had absolutely no idea what I was doing," laughs Dan. "I remember being sat in front of this program [JUCE] asking myself, 'What now? What do I type?' I asked questions on forums, watched some videos on YouTube, and bit by bit it slowly started to come together."
Despite being an amateur coder at the start of HALO's development, it was only six months from writing the first line of code to having a product they were happy to sell.
"It was a bit of a miracle," remarks Dan on their achievement. "I worked very long days, and because of the lockdown I didn't really have any other distractions. It sounds like an absurdly quick time; it took Steve Duda three years to write Serum - but it's obviously a very different product.
"Writing HALO using JUCE allowed me to take advantage of some shortcuts. The forums that I used were incredible; I don't know why the people on there are so helpful but they are. I spent a lot of time pestering people with my questions. I also subscribed to some Patreon accounts that had video coding courses.
"One of the forum guys took a look at my code and told me it was Frankenstein code, which was fair. My code is long, untidy and unsophisticated - but it works! Another coder tweeted that she much preferred longer, more basic lines because she could analyse it and see what the person was trying to do rather than some super code that compressed 20 lines into one. Getting those two perspectives proves why anyone thinking about developing their own plugin should just do it - it doesn't matter if it's messy if it works."
Dan is quick to emphasise that gaining the knowledge of coding experts was just one key aspect of making HALO. It wasn't enough for it to simply work - it had to be user-friendly.
"The first port of call when we had a workable version of HALO was to give it out to our peers - producers and DJs in the DnB scene. Several ideas were requested during this time that I then integrated into HALO - some of them took a very long time to figure out - but they were all really helpful in refining what we were offering."
It wasn't just their peers that provided suggestions for improvement. Though Dan and Chris both had their respective areas of focus, HALO was still very much a collaborative project that saw many iterations, which presented them with a few challenges.
"There was a lot of back and forth on the look and feel of HALO," says Chris. "Dan had by far the hardest job of coding and I was amazed on a weekly basis by what he was able to achieve. We spent a long time on getting the UI right and making it intuitive.
A look at HALO's step sequencer, sampler and matrix controls
"It's also got a unique visual aesthetic that reflects our branding and identity which is really important. It's the little details like the little arrows on the knobs being the 'A' in the HALO logo. We owe a lot of our heritage in our brand to sci-fi and the cutting edge, so that informed the design quite heavily and was a really fun challenge compared to the coding."
"I genuinely found the coding really fun," adds Dan. "You have no idea what you're doing and suddenly you make something happen. I amazed myself on almost a daily basis, to the point where I now like to go on forums and help other people out. It feels really good to pay it forward.
"The development was tricky in places, but it hasn't been laborious, other than having to manually bounce out your samples, making sure they're correctly chopped up and at the right volume - and doing that 300 times."
DC Breaks' top 5 tips for developing your own plugin
Though Chris and Dan approached the project with years of experience behind them in some areas, they were complete amateurs in others. With that in mind, and the scores of people wondering where to start with plugin creation we asked them for their top five tips to help others hit the ground running.
1. Learn JUCE
"JUCE is a coding platform that specialises in audio application creation and it's what we used to create HALO. As I mentioned earlier, it features a lot of helpful shortcuts so you can make meaningful progress with minimal coding knowledge."
2. Take advantage of forums
"Forums really helped us a lot throughout the development process, and the community is so giving with their expertise and their time. Make sure you've got good forum etiquette, be a really nice person to everyone and be responsive."
3. Be patient
"Things don't happen quickly, even when you're working all hours of the day. There's a lot of just staring at code and asking yourself, 'why doesn't this work' and not having the solutions to those problems."
4. Be really creative
"No one needs another SSL EQ emulation. There are so many small developers trying to emulate vintage hardware and it's been done to death. What we need are tools that make producers' lives easier."
5. Hone your idea
"This is almost an extension of the last tip, but think really hard about your idea. It's an incredibly saturated market out there, so you've got to be positive that what you're going to create is filling a gap and not going to be lost in the noise."
Knowing your worth
With all the work that had gone into HALO, Chris and Dan were now presented with a tricky obstacle; pricing their plugin.
"We were speaking to one of the big plugin retailers", recalls Chris, "and discussing the option of white labelling HALO and them co-developing it and releasing it through their channels. That was potentially quite exciting because of how big their reach would be compared to ours, but it came with all kinds of caveats with them being quite involved in the development and Dan didn't feel like his code would be well received by their team, so we were asking ourselves, 'how is this going to work?'
"We'd already discussed our plan to develop add-on packs of our own as well as label/artist packs so that we could continue to monetise HALO after release. In order to make that happen, you need to get people to invest in that ecosystem and that was the longer tail of where we saw the value of HALO.
"We knew we weren't trying to compete with someone like Serum or Phase Plant - it's a completely different product - and we felt pricing it for £100 or more would be quite off-putting for a lot of people, so we settled at £59 which I think is the right price."
"You've got to remember," adds Dan, "that we were once bedroom producers too, and they are one of the key demographics that HALO is aimed at. There wasn't a lot of cash spinning around for us to spend on plugins, so we only bought ones that we really wanted and that we felt could advance our sound. We took that mentality all the way through pricing and marketing."
Getting the plugin out there
Though much of the heavy lifting was behind them, there was still the matter of getting HALO out there to those that wanted to try it. While coding had presented challenges that were fun to conquer, plugin delivery didn't boast the same sense of satisfaction.
"It was three months to figure out delivery, which was an absolute nightmare," recalls a still salty Dan. "I had to learn two new pieces of software to create the installers for Windows and Mac and at this point I never wanted to look at a line of code again in my life. Despite the plugin being finished, you can't just give someone the AU component or VST file, you have to work on the understanding that people know nothing about using a computer. In hindsight, we probably should have paid someone to do it for us."
With the matter of delivery solved, Chris was ready to take the lead in getting HALO in front of a wider audience, and fortunately there was a substantial one waiting already.
"We'd already built up the website and had 3,000 opt-in email subscribers already, so straightaway we were able to run email campaigns. We knew the social media posts that had worked in the past for our sample and preset packs, but we had to change tack a little for HALO. In the past we've always used comedy as the vehicle because it just gets better reach, but with this we wanted to be much more professional.
"Beyond that, it was using some of the artists that helped develop it to reach their social media followings as well. A lot of drum and bass producers would hit us up and we provided them with a free copy of HALO, which they would then test out, give us feedback but also shout about to their followings, which in turn would drive sales from an audience we wouldn't have previously reached.
"I don't think you have to necessarily go down one single path and you've got a longer time to experiment and see what works. We're still learning as we go, so just get stuck in and see what works."
DC Breaks' top 5 tips for marketing your plugin
1. Know your audience
"Like with the actual plugin, you really need to think about what it is, what it does and how best to convey that. If it's aimed towards a particular genre, look at where that audience spends most of their time and target those places with your advertising."
2. Set an appropriate tone
"We knew that how we advertised our preset packs would not work for HALO, and it's important that you don't assume your existing tone will work for whatever you create. If you're asking someone to part with their money for your plugin, the advertising has to look the part otherwise no one is going to take you seriously."
3. Be personable
"One of the really nice things about this process is we're not a faceless plugin corporation and our fans feel like they have a much more direct connection, and are happy to reach out to us and we respond personally. Cultivating that intimate community can be really advantageous both in generating quality feedback, but also fostering goodwill and encouraging those fans to shout about you and what you do."
4. Think long-term
"When you release music there's a really short window to promote it and then it's gone and forgotten, but with software it can run over a much longer period of time where you can have multiple campaigns to generate sales."
5. Establish your brand identity
"We put a lot of work into ensuring that HALO's visual aesthetic was in keeping with DC Breaks. Not only does it set our plugin apart, but it also means that all our future releases for HALO and even other plugins can use that template and be consistent with our other work."
Plugin and play
As our conversation draws to a close, it's hard not to feel energised and motivated by what Chris and Dan have achieved. Before saying goodbye, we asked them for their final bits of advice for those aspiring to create their own plugins.
Dan: "Just be really genuine about it. Don't try and do something that you're not capable of doing or that you're not comfortable doing. It needs to come from a good place and you need to be patient."
Chris: "Don't underestimate the ability of other people to help out. Our peers have gone above and beyond with their encouragement, support and helping us promote HALO as well. We wouldn't have been able to make it as successful as it has been without those connections and their generosity.
"Although it is hard, it is doable and the biggest challenge is just starting - so start! Dan was in exactly the same position, but once he got the ball rolling, he was able to produce something pretty amazing. So get stuck in, call upon whatever resources you can and just give it a go."
HALO is available to purchase from the DC Breaks store now for £59. dBs students are entitled to a 30% educational discount and can find the code on the job board.
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