R&D: An Interview with Shane McFee, The Mad Scientist behind Kazrog Plugins

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“I try to focus on doing one thing well, it also helps to like what you’re working on.”

Shane McFee of Kazrog plugins at his “other” job.

These are true words, and ones to live by, spoken by self-proclaimed guitar geek and Kazrog Plugins CEO, Shane McFee.

McFee founded Kazrog Plugins in 2008 with the release of “Recabinet”, a comprehensive speaker cabinet impulse response library.

“All I wanted were some good sounding speaker cabinet emulations for my own productions,” he says, “and I figured that even if the product failed commercially, it would prove very useful for me personally in the studio. Thankfully, the product succeeded beyond my expectations, and served as a springboard to launch my own pro audio software company.”

Fast-forward to 2017 and Kazrog has released a line of amp modelers, a pristine limiter, a baxandall EQ, and a subtle but effective dither.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Shane about his company, guitars and amps, and the future of the audio tech industry. Kazrog’s slogan is “Obsessively Engineered Audio Plugins” and after talking with Shane, it’s clear that the man is sharp as a tack and completely devoted to releasing unique, quality plugins you won’t find anywhere else—and that don’t sound quite like anything else either.

Tell me about the software/process used to make the plugins and how you get the ideas.

I build what I’m inspired to make. I create things that I want to exist, so that they can exist.

Like most other plugin developers, I’m using C++ to create cross-platform code. The JUCE framework helps tie everything together in terms of the GUI and compatibility with the various major plugin formats.

Why did you wait so long to branch out of the amp simulator world and dive into dynamic/eq processors?

[Laughs] Loaded question! This assumes I was waiting in the first place!

Emulating 40 guitar amps took a few years of [research and development], both to get the process to where it fooled me in blind tests, and to gain access to that many amps, thanks to some very generous people who let me borrow or sample their gear. Only a handful of the amps were from my (small) personal collection.

Making other kinds of plugins was really just a natural byproduct of the rest of it. Each plugin I’ve made is unique in important ways, or it won’t get built. There are certain things I will never make, because I feel that existing solutions from other companies are already more than good enough. I never want to be redundant.

What are some of your favorite amps, guitars and pedals?

Amps? Really, the Peavey 5150/6505 series has always been a mainstay for me. For high-gain guitar, it’s still a desert island [amp]—although after modeling a couple of Diezel VH4s recently, the island is now a bit less deserted.

The whole process of creating Thermionik, though, really broadened my horizons in terms of my appreciation for a wide range of amp sounds. You have to go with where an amp leads you. I found myself particularly inspired by the Vox AC30 non top-boost model—which I didn’t expect at all.

A view of the Thermionik amp sim by Kazrog. Minimal GUI, maximum tone.

Honestly, every amp I’ve modeled in the Thermionik collection has been great in some way, or it didn’t make it into the collection. There have been a few I tried that sounded so terrible that I saw no reason to emulate them, actually.

[For] guitars, my two main guitars are RAN Crusher 7 strings. One is loaded with EMG 707s, and the other is loaded with Fishman Fluence, which I’m really enjoying as well.

For more classic rock stuff, I have a late 80s Fernandes Burny [a Japanese-made Les Paul copy] loaded with vintage 1966 Gibson humbuckers, which are electronically identical to PAFs—just a couple of years after they got the patent.

That guitar is so much fun it’s hard to put down. I have quite a lot of guitars, but these are the main ones I’m using for day to day stuff.

For pedals, I’ve honestly never been too much of a pedal guy. I’ve really always had a pretty sparse selection. The pedals I’ve emulated are some of my favorites. I also recently brought out some of my old pedals from when I first started playing guitar: Old [made in Japan] Boss stuff that’s incredibly good-sounding. [I’ve] also got a script MXR Phase 90 that’s been blowing me away lately.

Kazrog’s K-Clip saturator.

What are some plugins we can expect to see from Kazrog in the future?

More plugins on the mixing and mastering side.

Definitely some more pedal emulations as well, and a few more amp emulations.

I’m also working on something really innovative right now with a very cool partner that I can’t discuss yet.

Where do you see the audio tech industry going?

I think we’re going to see further stagnation and customer-averse behavior from the older, larger companies—what I call the “Donglesphere.” This will drive more consumers over time to new insurgent companies who respect them and support them.

I also think that analog emulation will matter less and less the better it becomes across the board. A lot of people now are more interested in creating new sounds, and have no real interest in sounds that were popular before they were even born.

What are the challenges that come with launching a plugin company today?

Shane McFee

When I launched in 2008, the number of companies in this industry was much smaller than it is today.

I think the sheer number of choices that people have is staggering, and when there’s, for example, a dozen different emulations of an SSL bus compressor to choose from, how does an independent musician making music at home for YouTube even know what to choose?

This is especially true when real hardware units are so prohibitively costly that there’s no easy way to conduct a proper blind test. The challenge, then, is to do something truly unique.

Also—at the risk of angering some very talented people who I respect immensely—I’d say that the tools for even creating audio plugins out there aren’t particularly mature, at least when compared to development tools for other, larger subsections of the software industry as a whole. You have to really want to do this. It’s brutally difficult work, and there’s not anyone getting rich from it

Conversely, what are the opportunities that you see in today’s environment?

The fact that virtually everyone has a PC capable of many tracks of very high-quality, real-time audio processing power is exciting. There are more people making music at home than ever before, and it keeps growing. Record labels are obsolete, and people can get their music out there instantly to the entire world.

What’s an example of a Kazrog plugin that proved surprisingly complex to put together and why?

Aside from Thermionik, everything else was much smoother sailing.

Emulating the characteristics of tube amps was extremely difficult. Yes, there are lots of companies doing it, but most of them don’t even get remotely close, let alone indistinguishable from the hardware.

The latter was my goal, I achieved it, and the response has been (mostly) apathetic—again, because I think the world has changed, and most people have never used the real amps, so they don’t care about authenticity as much as people did 10-15 years ago. Oops!

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