Interview with an Engineer: Rob Stenson

Rob Stenson, outside the Eagle Rock Recreation Center (August, 2017)

Hi, I’m Rob — one of the co-founders of Goodhertz. Because I’ve been the one conducting interviews for the blog with our engineers, I decided it would make sense for me to interview myself, so I recently sat down at my desk to ask myself a few questions about my work at Goodhertz, my career in engineering, and what music I’ve been listening to currently.

When you’re at a party and someone asks “so-what-do-you-do?,” what do you tell them?

I usually say “I make audio software” which almost always means the conversation will break in one of two ways: (1) I find myself comparing audio plugins to Instagram filters, or (2) it turns out I’m talking to someone involved in music production (quite common here in Los Angeles) and suddenly I’m handing them a business card.

What was the last thing you programmed — i.e. the last commit you committed to a Goodhertz project?

I’ve been working on this blog, actually, making small design changes, like updating the titles to use OHno Type Co.’s Covik Sans Mono, and the body text to use Process Type’s Elena. (Update: this refers to an earlier version of the blog, which no longer uses Elena, though it is an awesome typeface!)

What was the first thing you ever programmed — the first line of code you ever wrote?

Sometime near the end of my time in high school (~2006), I became convinced that I should learn how to make artsy Flash websites, but I didn’t know what Flash was or how to get started, so I started learning about HTML and CSS — haltingly, at first, and then I bought “Web Design for Dummies” or something like that, which had a tiny introduction to Javascript. So after reading that, just as the light was fading and the summer cicadas were chirping, I opened up my then-favorite browser (RIP Camino) and a blank HTML document in TextWrangler, then I somehow figured out how to write a for-loop that constantly and randomly changed the color of a piece of text. The whole experience was insanely exhilarating and I felt like a genius, even though the effect was terrible and I think all of the code was one big string because at the time — and here’s a deep-cut for any programmers reading — I thought you could only pass strings to setTimeout in js. Anyway, from then on I was hooked.

What first attracted you to the world of audio and sound engineering on computers?

This is a strange question for me, because I’m the least involved of all the Goodhertz employees in the actual nitty-gritty of sound and audio engineering. My own background is in user interface programming, so in a way what attracted me to audio programming was the really atrocious quality of most existing digital audio interfaces, or at least just how different-looking audio interfaces tended to be from other digital numeric controls. I could talk about this for a long time (and probably will in some future blog post), but I feel like using a knob on a computer is probably the worst possible way to change a numeric value with a mouse or a trackpad. Basically, it felt like there was an opportunity to make much more functional user interfaces for audio plugins. (And I hope that’s something we’ve accomplished!) Other than that, I’ve always been interested in music.

Rob Stenson, Goodhertz Co-Founder
Rob Stenson, Goodhertz Co-Founder

What is your favorite programming language?

To be quite honest, I think this is what really got me hooked on computer programming and sustained my interest in it past rudimentary web design. I really love all aspects of human language, and I took a few linguistics classes in college, but I’m pretty bad at actually learning human languages, and the only language I do know (this one) does not have a very rich or exciting orthography. I studied Arabic (my choice for world’s most beautiful writing system) and also German in college, but I gravitated towards programming because learning programming languages became kind of a thrilling surrogate for learning human languages. Programming languages are also full of esoteric symbols and terminology and have incredible backstories — and they’re much easier to learn than human languages. Also I really love syntax highlighting.

I realize that doesn’t really answer the question, but it does explain why I’ve always loved learning about new programming languages, like Ruby and Python and even Haskell once for a couple months. More recently I went on a year-long vision-quest and learned to love Clojure, and I even went so far as to write a few things at Goodhertz in Clojure. That said, it’s a fairly eccentric choice for a company that’s essentially required to write most of its code in C++ (given the restraints of real-time audio programming), so lately I’ve been coming back around to the “English” of the programming universe: Javascript. And, to be fair, since it got the => function syntax, I really feel like it’s great now; I’d be very happy to just write Javascript forever. So I guess Javascript is my favorite language? Feels good to admit that, to say it out loud.

If you weren’t a software engineer, what would you be?

I’ve always loved writing. I think for most of my life, I hoped I’d end up as a writer, a journalist, like John McPhee or somebody, writing for the New Yorker (as if!). But I remember one time in high school some friend of my dad’s took me aside and told me not to study journalism because that was a useless skill; he said we don’t need journalists who know about journalism, we need journalists who know deeply about a topic, any topic. That advice really stuck with me, probably too much so. In college, I really threw myself into finding “a topic” I found interesting, and one of the ones I found was computer science. I lowered myself slowly into the great cave of technological knowledge, looking to learn something that I could bring back to writing. But at some point I think the rope snapped and here I am, wandering the caves.

What’s your favorite Goodhertz plugin and preset?

I’ve always loved Lossy, because it’s so aggressively ahead of its time. I mean, we still live in a world haunted by encoding artifacts. So to seek out that sound and put it in music — that’s a little unhinged, but in the best way possible. It’s like building a vinyl emulation unit in 1980, or a gramophone simulator in 1940.

It’s something I talked about this a little on this blog, but I really can never get over quite how cool the sound of Lossy is. In the late 80s, in a forest in Germany, some scientists came up with an incredible algorithm to shrink musical data using all kinds of crazy tricks and yet still make it intelligible to human ears. And then — even more incredibly — it was both vilified by the public and completely embraced. The MP3 won and it lost, all at the same time. But in the process it added something completely unique to the world of sound, and in Lossy we’ve captured that sound — and parodied it to an extent. After all, no lossy codec has ever been as bad as the Digital Garbage preset (my favorite).

What music have you been listening to while programming lately?

Here are a few tracks I’ve been listening to a lot lately (presented in the order I’d probably listen to them over the course of a day):

I have to call out the album by Haley Heynderickx — somehow I found her Bandcamp page years ago and really fell in love with the Fish Eyes EP, so it’s incredibly cool to see some of those songs take on new lives in I Need to Start a Garden.

Also the song Fasuluka because it has that elusive two-unrelated-songs-playing-at-once vibe.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you live?

Singapore? Or someone near there in Malaysia, probably. Lately my wife’s been sending me pictures of refurbished shop houses in George Town — it looks like an incredible city. I love nasi lemak and for some reason that’s one of the foods not all that readily available in Los Angeles. Unless it is — if it is, let me know!

Bonus question: why are all these employee interview pictures taken at the Eagle Rock Recreation Center?

Back in August of 2017, during the first-ever Goodhertz Engineering Retreat, we had the idea to take company portraits, and I wanted to do it at the historic Eagle Rock Rec Center, which Richard Neutra designed in the 1950s (you can read more about it here). It’s an interesting building because it’s architecturally significant but also in truly terrible shape inside and out, which I kind of like, it’s rare to come across building like that, or at least to be aware that you’re looking at one. Anyway, we got there and it was like 100 degrees everywhere and there were people playing basketball in the rec center so we just decided to take photos under this big beautiful tree. Looking back it’s probably not a coincidence that the photos look like stills from Errol Morris’s Gates of Heaven, since I had just watched that a few months earlier. The more you know! ?

A still from Gates of Heaven, 1978