Back in the ’80s, when people tied bandanas around their legs and jumped around to Wham!, a young Israeli-American sound engineer named Gilad Keren was cutting his teeth in the music biz, recording Israeli artists like Shalom Hanoch.
Today, Keren and his business partner Meir Sha’ashua are primed to collect a Grammy award, the most prestigious honor in the world’s music industry, for software tools from their Waves Audio company. These tools, used in the music business niche called the audio plug-in market, are a favorite of America’s biggest producers.
Keren will share the stage with the likes of Dolly Parton, Julie Andrews and the Ramones in a special ceremony where technical and lifetime Grammys are to be awarded. He has not yet written his acceptance speech, but he plans on making it creative. He does, after all, have to follow in the footsteps of past award-winners in the technical category such as Apple, Sony and Yamaha. “It’s different – not something we expected,” says an excited Keren. “We were just working and dealing with the day-to-day stuff that has to do with our company.”
He, Sha’ashua and a couple of other Waves Audio representatives plan on attending the ceremony in Los Angeles on February 12.
The sound of Shrek and Springsteen
Some of the world’s biggest music stars have had their voices and sound enhanced, compressed and improved by Waves Audio. Some of the more notable ones include U2, Bruce Springsteen, Rihanna, Beyoncé and Coldplay.
Keren, 51, was born in Israel but grew up in Houston after his dad’s job at El Al took the family there after the 1967 Six-Day War in Israel. Since then, from age eight, Keren has been flying back and forth between both countries, finding both pluses and minuses to each. “All my life I have been going back and forth. It’s a love-hate relationship. You always love the other when you are not there,” he says.
Although his work brings him into close contact with sound engineers and producers for big labels, he’s met a number of music celebrities and in some cases, like with Kanye West, has worked directly with artists to achieve the sound they seek. Waves Audio tools have also been used to remix the sound in films like Shrek, American Beauty and Star Wars.
The company has little name recognition among Israelis, and that’s because the 150-person company based in Tel Aviv has done virtually no publicity for itself outside the industry. In fact, the award came as a bit of a surprise to Keren: “Until this award, we didn’t look for any PR,” he says.
Except for sales and marketing people, most of the company – its engineers and R&D staff – is based in Israel. “Probably more R&D than usual,” jokes Keren, lamenting that the economic situation in the United States recently has forced him to outsource some of the less creative coding work to the Ukraine and India.
The bicontinental business side of the venture has “become a nightmare because of the exchange rate,” he says. “We make money in dollars and pay out in shekels. The huge shift [in the US economy] has hurt us significantly.”
Cutting through the noise
Headquartered in Tel Aviv, Waves Audio is a private company, founded in 1992 with a product from the get-go. It has enjoyed some private investments; Yahama invested in it about 10 years ago.
“Although we are involved in hardware as well, at the end of the day what runs it is software,” says Keren. “Most of what we do is write software. We’re also involved in semi-conductor design – anything that’s audio-related.
“In the world perspective, we are a small company, but the audio business is very segmented with a lot of protocols. In the audio plug-in market, you’ll see us in radio and TV stations, and in recording studios at the audio work stations,” he adds.
Some of the company’s customers include Sony, JVC, Toshiba and Dell. And one of its latest projects was to dampen the noise of the enthusiastic vuvuzela blowers at the World Cup games in South Africa, as the game was being transmitted. “In some ways we are still a start up,” says Keren. “We are very product- and industry-oriented.”