The developer and lathe technician talks about his fabrication feats, necessity of invention, and the durable mobility of his software architecture in the new Dangerous Music D-BOX+ Summing Mixer and Controller.
By Neal Andrew Emil Gustafson
The HUB: Congrats on launching the new D-BOX+!
Todd Mariana: Thank you! When you reached out about this interview, I was delighted to hear of your interest in this product, so thank you for this!
The HUB: Give us a little background on your professional career.
TM: As you know, I just finished up the first product of my partnership with pro audio manufacture Dangerous Music. I developed the firmware, apps, and lead some critical product design on the Dangerous Music D-BOX+ 8-Channel Summing Mixer and Controller, and it was officially unveiled on Wednesday at NAMM.
Originally from Chicago, I've been a professional software developer in a variety of industries for twenty years now, and about four years ago, I moved to Los Angeles. Once in LA, I started developing software architecture for a number of different companies in the creative arts industries, which eventually led to linking up with the team at Dangerous Music. It's been really cool to work on this product with them.
The HUB: How did you find yourself connecting professionally with the team at Dangerous Music and working on this product?
TM: About ten years ago, I met a guy named Chris Muth through my purchase of a Neumann VMS70 vinyl mastering lathe. Chris is a very well-known lathe technician, and also does electrical engineering for Dangerous Music.
Being acquainted through the vinyl lathe community, Chris knew that I was a software developer and about three years ago, he reached out about Dangerous Music looking for a new developer. He asked if I was interested, and it sounded like a great project to work on. After that, I met with Bob, the owner of Dangerous Music, at NAMM that same year, did a little interview with him right there on the spot, and was invited to join the team. Kinda wild, actually!
Together, we've been working on the D-BOX+ for a couple of years now and it's been an interesting experience for sure. This is my first professional product release that I've ever written the firmware for and also developed entire suite of all of the remote apps. There were a lot of lessons in there, but yeah, it's really rewarding.
The HUB: You're also a vinyl lacquer lathe technician?
TM: I am. I do lathe tech work, provide parts for VMS 70 lathes, and have invented my own professional stereo feedback cutter head.
It’s been quite the journey, from researching, purchasing, transporting, and assembling the lathe in my two bedroom apartment in Chicago, to learning how to cut a good master and maintaining the machine, to eventually—out of necessity—having to figure out how to fabricate and invent parts that needed replacing.
Vinyl lathe cutting technology, for the most part, is over a half century old and this presents a few obstacles. First, finding highly-skilled and knowledgeable technicians, who are still alive, is becoming increasingly difficult.
Then, there is the replacement parts saga… I could go on for hours about this one, but I will save you.
The HUB: What an undertaking! You mentioned that D-BOX+ was your first professional pro audio product released and the development took a few years. What utility does the product offer and how did your work contribute to those feature offerings?
TM: The Dangerous Music D-BOX+ is a studio controller, D/A converter and audio summing mixer. It is an upgrade from a previously released version called the Dangerous Music D-BOX, no plus. Similar to the center section of a large format recording console, the D-BOX+ is a centralized signal switching device, controlling all audio signal paths within a studio.
All of its robust functionality can be remote controlled entirely with a variety of applications I developed for iOS, Android, Mac OS, and Windows OS.
Beyond creating the remote control applications, I solely developed all the firmware for the D-BOX+, including selecting the 32-bit microprocessor that the firmware resides on, and the Airplay compatible Bluetooth Wireless SOIC (system-on-an-integrated circuit).
Furthermore, I got the app through the App Store—which is a huge undertaking by itself, as Apple has a lot of restrictions, and expectations—and I got Dangerous Music accepted into the Apple MFI program, which allows us to put their Airplay logo on the device.
The HUB: What were some of the biggest challenges getting the app through the Apple app store?
TM: Apple takes great care in ensuring that apps in the App Store are of a certain level of quality. The registration process is pretty comprehensive.
First, you have to demonstrate who you are, prove that you have a business, and there are a number of guidelines and expectations with respect to the organization. They go through your code, line by line, to ensure that there's nothing malicious going on and they make suggestions for things that you might have missed.
We also had to submit a video demonstrating the actual box with an iOS device, either an iPhone or an iPad, just to demonstrate that this app does actually work with this device. It was either that, or we had to actually submit a D-BOX+ for them to test with if we couldn’t provide a sufficient video demonstration.
TM: The new software architecture that I developed for the D-BOX+ is going to be reusable in all future Dangerous Music rack products. The CPU I selected—it's extremely fast—it's got 100 pins on it, so it's got more capacity than we're actually even using right now. We didn’t just create the D-BOX+, but developed a structural platform and framework from which Dangerous Music can leverage for a long time.
The next box that Dangerous Music comes out with is going to be able to have way more features than they were really expecting to be able to provide through this new architecture. Then also too, now that we've done the hard work, the amount of time that's going to take to put out future releases is going to be dramatically decreased.
The HUB: As an engineer who helped to create this product, how do you see the D-BOX+ feature offerings differentiating it from similar, competitively-priced devices within this category?
TM: I think price point is pretty much in line with other offerings, but Dangerous Music brings two distinct things to the table.
For starters, it’s the commitment to quality—they put a lot of money, time, and effort into the signal path that's in the boxes, from the converters and the transceivers, to the relays that are selected and how they have been mapped out on the boards. This attention to detail, and use of high-quality components is significant.
Next, I would say the Bluetooth thing was huge. Dangerous Music was getting lots of user requests for Bluetooth integrations, mainly, because users were tired of having to provide a patch cables to people who wanting to stream stuff from their phone. This new integrated wireless functionality is a huge win.
There’s also the Dangerous Music approach to interface design. Unlike a lot of other manufacturers, everything is right there on the front panel. There's no LCD display to menu dive, and that's by design. Every single button is very clear about its function, and every feature is accessible directly from those buttons. They're very intuitive, professional grade products, and the D-BOX+ is a representative example of this ethos.
The HUB: Now that this is released, what do you think you would have done differently in the development of this product?
TM: As far as the actual hardware and firmware are concerned, nothing. No regrets there, I think we nailed it. I worked with a guy named Brett Grossman, who does QA for Dangerous Music, and between us we've really refined the device’s operating system. I am very proud of that process and those results.
I would have liked to create an automated testing platform a lot sooner than I did in the process. I should have done that almost from the first day that Bluetooth was integrated. Essentially, this application would run a bunch of QA processes, then toss it at the box in an automated fashion.
The time saving benefits of this sort of application are obvious, but more importantly, it's a very accurate way to assess each version of the firmware. I should have done that a lot sooner, but we’ll have this for the next rack.
The HUB: If your only regret from your first professional product outing is not developing an internally automated QA program sooner, then it sounds like this outcome is a huge success for you and the team. That's fantastic, congratulations!
TM: Thank you!
The HUB: What are you working on next for Dangerous Music, or otherwise?
TM: Right now, we're still finalizing the Android and Mac OS versions of the remote app, so there's still a little bit of spillover. However, that'll be done very soon. Later this year, I'll be working with Dangerous Music on their next rack, but I can't really say much about it at this point.
The HUB: But you're going to start working on it this year, which means it's probably going to be similar development timeline as this one, or are you looking release it over the course of the next year?
TM: Ideally, I think it's only going to take about a year to eighteen months to come to market, as we've streamlined so many developmental processes. These streamlined developmental optimizations, combined with the reusability of my structural framework designs, I really don't predict it taking three years to get there again with it.
In the lathe world, I am currently developing a professional stereo feedback cutter head. A critical device on any lathe, this cutter head is solely responsible for putting the wiggles into the grooves on a master. I had to develop this out of necessity as a replacement for my Neumann cutter head, which is extinct at this point. I've been fabricating metal parts for this cutter head for some time now and this process has forced me to learn how to do CNC machining myself. After much trial and error, I am finally able to fabricate these essential parts and now that I have successfully done full body builds. I am very excited about being close to bringing this product to market with Mantra Audio as well as continuing my lacquer cutting and technical work with Deep Grooves Mastering.
Neal Andrew Emil Gustafson is a Chicago-based musician, record producer, brand marketer, content editor, and Eventide Audio artist. For more information about his work, check out his home on the web.