Magnus Berger - We want to democratise music making

He didn’t actually want to have his interest, his hobby, as his job at all, but fate had other ideas. Now Magnus Berger says that “you shouldn’t work for work’s sake, but instead because it’s fun.” He really looks like he means it.
You can’t miss Magnus Berger’s enthusiasm when he shows me round the office located near Hornstull in Stockholm. Here at Propellerhead Software about 50 people develop software for music makers.
“I first heard about Propellerhead when I was a student at Chalmers. I was reading my daily nerd news and saw an article about the company in an American magazine,” he explains.

Although he was extremely impressed that a Swedish company could garner so much positive attention in the wider world, he had no thoughts at that time of being able to work there one day himself. And to get here he took a slightly winding road.
Magnus Berger grew up in Trollhättan, near Gothenburg, and decided in his early teens that he wanted to go to Chalmers.
“I’d been working on computers and programming ever since I was really young and I’ve always been interested in technology. My parents opened a computer shop when I was five years old.”
So as not to “ruin a fun hobby” Magnus Berger chose to study engineering physics. He spent one of his years of study at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, to be a little further away from Trollhättan than just in Gothenburg.
“I wanted to travel a bit further afield in the world; experience and learn something different.”
It was almost by chance that Singapore is where he ended up studying. The fact that English is one of the official languages was one of its selling points.
“I sent in my application at the last minute and didn’t have much time to think about what I’d chosen.”
But it turned out well. His time abroad whet his appetite, and after Singapore he spent six months doing his degree project in a physics lab at the Australian National University.

His plan was to then look for a job focused on optics or microwave engineering.
“But I graduated in 2003 during the financial crisis, and the entire engineering industry had practically stopped recruiting.”
So to get started and actually do something, he first attended the School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg for six months, alongside working on a few consulting assignments in programming via a company of his own.
Magnus Berger’s first assignment was for a company called Idevio that had just been established at Chalmers Innovation. Following that, he worked on industrial communication solutions at Ascom, and eventually, in 2007, via a friend he was headhunted to start a business in Stockholm.
“The weather’s actually better here than in Gothenburg, and Stockholm is beautiful with all its water,” he smiles.

And after a few years in Stockholm he saw that Propellerhead was hiring.
“The recruiter showed me a music magazine with a special edition solely about our products and said ‘surely you want to work here’ – and of course I did.”
Propellerhead’s good reputation was hatched when they created software called Rebirth for emulation of expensive analogue synthesizers. Since then they have continued to develop software that makes it cheaper and more accessible in various ways for more people to create music. Reason is their most popular product, a complete digital music studio built on an interface that simulates its analogue originals in a neat way. Anyone who has ever used a mixing console will be very familiar with all the knobs and other controls. Using virtual cables, various modules are placed in a rack and connected to the console.
“Reason is extremely popular with those recording at home in their basements, and it’s also used professionally quite a lot,” says Magnus Berger.

For those who don’t want to delve too deeply into the mysteries of recording techniques, there are simpler apps that turn your mobile phone into a mini studio: Figure, which includes many ready-made drum and bass lines to add to what you’re recording yourself, and Take, which is optimised to record and play with vocals and which also includes built-in beats, loop options, and so on.
“This is a way of democratising the creation of music. It should be cheap and simple. With Figure you can make music on the bus or wherever you like if you just happen to have a few minutes to spare.”
Many people find Propellerhead software via social media, partly because users upload their creations to Youtube and other channels where they can showcase themselves, and partly because the company itself focuses intensely on being active online.
“One of our job titles is Musician’s best friend, a guy who works full time on social media, answering questions, being visible and being heard.”
The support is also important, and a handful of people work solely on that.

The programs now also have a built-in function that allows the individual music creators to share their ideas via a social network that Propellerhead has developed in house. Here, users can upload a guitar line, for example, someone else can add a suitable beat, a third can add some vocals, and so on.
“The main aim is not to create finished productions in this way, but to stimulate creativity.”
After working at the company for nearly six years Magnus Berger has now advanced to the position of CTO and holds ultimate responsibility for all the technology. He will soon take parental leave and try to put work totally out of his mind. However, he will still have one work task, but it is completely unrelated to Propellerhead: Magnus Berger is the chair of the Chalmers Alumni Association in Stockholm. In May next year it will be time for the association’s centenary.
“This naturally calls for celebration. We have hired the city hall, where spectacular things will happen. It’s a little too early to reveal exactly what will take place, but information will be published in plenty of time, I promise.”

Text and photo: Siri Reuterstrand

Published: Thu 02 Jun 2016.