NAMM 2018 – Marcus Ryle (Line 6 CEO) Interview

by Alec Lee

On Friday, I got some time to sit down with Line 6 Co-Founder and CEO Marcus Ryle. We talked about Line 6’s philosophy, its relationship with Yamaha, and the significance of guitar as an instrument.

TGP: You were recently promoted to manage Yamaha’s Guitar Division. Can you tell us about that?

MR: I think it’s really a testament to Yamaha’s commitment that started four years ago in acquiring Line 6. They really want to make an impact on the future of guitar. Yamaha is already a world class manufacturer of guitars, making a tremendous number of guitars every year.

The reorganization they did in April was to formally start a guitar division as opposed to guitar just being one of many instruments they make. I’ve owned a number of Yamaha guitars over the years and was always impressed by them.

It’s great to have a dedicated guitar division and a gentleman named Shoji Mita who is the co-general manager of the guitar division in Japan. He’s an amazing guitar player, very passionate about guitars as well. The intent is to take the best of Yamaha’s and Line 6’s capabilities and see where that can lead us in the future.

It’s still two independent brands and identities but we want to be able to collaborate really closely on technology, on craftsmanship, and all sorts of things in the future. You could say that the very first collaboration is Variax Standard because that’s a guitar that was designed with our technology but we worked with Yamaha’s Custom Shop and we have guitars manufactured at a Yamaha factory. Clearly Yamaha has much more expertise and experience in making instruments. Our expertise is in the technology so it’s a really nice marriage.

TGP: What’s changed about the company since the early days and what has stayed the same?

MR: It’s funny. Companies are kind of like people. They start out as youngsters with lots of energy and ideals and then sometimes go through a challenging adolescence as you grow up. It’s really been a fascinating journey. Like many companies, Line 6 started out in a very entrepreneurial mode and I think we’ve been able to keep that innovative spirit that’s really part of our DNA.

Believe it or not, since our acquisition by Yamaha, we have been enabled to even more return to our roots, truly focusing on our passion to make really meaningful innovation and to have the support of a big company in achieving that goal.

What I really admire about Yamaha is life cycles. Line 6 is 22 years old, Yamaha is 130 years old. I really respect how they say that we are very different from Yamaha but also complementary. There’s lots that we can learn from Yamaha and vice versa. They were very conscientious to avoid the typical acquisition pattern of telling the new company “This is how you should do things.” It was very different, more like “If we join forces, we want to make sure what makes Line 6 special is maintained.”

For example, this guitar division is something that Line 6 has helped instigate because of our desire to work more closely with and learn from Yamaha. It’s not something that’s been forced on us. It’s very unusual. This was very much a strategic merger and a long-term view that was shared in making a difference in the future of guitar.

TGP: Line 6 is involved in a number of categories from guitars to modelers to wireless to PA.  How do you decide which categories to pursue and which to leave to someone else?

MR: I’d say where we’re really trying to focus is the user. In our case, the most important core market is the guitarist. The common thread is that the products are coming from that frame of mind. Even though we’ve branched out a bit with products like wireless and PA systems, they’re really designed from a musician’s perspective rather than from a sound engineer’s perspective. Yamaha already has products that are oriented towards sound engineers and does a great job of it! They make the best digital mixers in the world.

If you’re a sound engineer doing front of house sound for a big band, the best stuff you can buy is Yamaha. If you’re a musician responsible for your own sound, we just took a different approach even though at its heart it’s just DSP and software. Ours is just a different customer approach. Even our wireless microphones are designed to be as simple to use as possible as opposed to needing to have a degree in radio frequency engineering. <laughs>

Gutar players are the main focus and even being part of Yamaha I personally have interest in lots of different uses of technology but it’s great to have the ability to focus and the freedom to focus on what we can do for the guitarist. Yamaha continues to innovate in other areas, from keyboards to drums to PAs so we’re focusing on guitars.

TGP: After the Yamaha acquisition, how has the thought process changed around choosing which products to create?

MR: As a small privately-held company, it can be smart from a business sense to develop a more diversified portfolio. We’ve always had ideas for products for different types of customers so we were going down a path where we might have broadened even further. The downside of that is that you can lose sight of your most important core customers and what you’re trying to do for them.

By being part of Yamaha instead of being a small privately-held company, the imperative of diversification isn’t so much an issue. This lets us focus on creating great solutions for guitarists. A lot of other companies are built to diversify and their products, though great, are’t quite there because they’re no so able to really dedicate themselves to really listen to the players. Intimacy with your customers is crucial! I think one area where we’ve really evolved is in listening to our customers and enjoying it. We have so many people in the company who love being on message boards, being on social media to talk to people about what they’re doing and how we can help.

TGP: What made Line 6 an attractive target for the world’s largest musical instrument company?

MR: Yamaha, despite being the world’s largest musical instrument company, despite being 130 years old, have not made many acquisitions. It think that’s to their credit in demonstrating discipline in ensuring alignment across the organization. What’s most important is having like-minded people across the business who want to make a difference.

We were two companies that had great admiration for each other. It was actually similar to when we acquired [wireless company] X2. I met them and the NAMM show and thought “These products are awesome!” We spent some time with them and they were awesome. At first we were thinking maybe we should do some stuff together and it quickly evolved into a realization that we should merge because there were so many great things that we could do together.

It was fairly organic with Yamaha as well. We just started talking and realized that there was great chemistry and complimentary skill sets. There wasn’t a whole lot of overlap between the things we both made. They liked our approach to innovation. I give them credit for recognizing that for their next 130 years, having a more diverse pool of thinkers in both Japan and other countries was the best way to drive a new future.

TGP: Over the years, Line 6 has partnered with some noteworthy builders such as James Tyler and Reinhold Bogner.  What do you look for when choosing a partner?

MR: It’s a similar answer to the acquisition question. You look for a like-mindedness. Who wouldn’t want to work with Reinhold Bogner? In my mind, he’s one of the best tube amp builders around.

He’s also very pragmatic…as opposed to opposed to being dogmatic about things like tubes vs. digital technology. What it shows is that he most important thing to Reinhold is tone. “What’s the end result?” Frankly, we should care if there’s hamsters on a wheel inside! Even though Line 6 is known as a “digital” company, digital is just a means to an end. If there was some new analog technology that could do a beter job to get great tone, we’d use it. We’re not married to any one thing. Reinhold really appreciated what we were doing and could articulate what’s great about tubes and develop them to their fullest potential. It just made a lot of sense.

Jim Tyler, what a great talent as well. There is no substitute for decads of experience and craftsmanship. While you can say “Anyone can build a guitar”, it’s kind of like saying “Anyone can play guitar.” While it’s true, there’s a big difference between the guy whose just starting to learn and someone who’s dedicated decades to the craft. It’s no different in instrument building and it was great to work with Jim and see the attention to design and iterations we did.

The bottom line is that they’re both great guys who make great products. What’s not to like?

TGP: When you released Helix, it had been some time since the Vetta line had been discontinued and you’d never released a floorboard modeler with a four figure price tag.  What made you decide to take on that market segment?

MR: It was a bit of a scary leap of faith. We decided a good five years before the Helix launch that we wanted to make the very best guitar product that we could. We knew that if we were to embark on that journey, it would be difficult to determine how much it was going to cost, what’s it going to take, how long is it going to take.

I can tell you it took longer than we thought <chuckles> but we were willing to go back to the drawing board a few times, test things with customers, test things with customers, really study IdeaScale [Line 6’s feature request portal] and all the input customers had given us over the HD500X and al the Pods that came before it. We were willing to put a month or more into each model knowing that it would take significant time to have enough models to have a completed product.

Even so, we had no way of knowing whether people would be as passionate about it as we were. That’s the risk with anything. It’s the risk a musician takes. Imagine dedicating years to a recording project: It’s a complete work of passion, putting your heart into it but you don’t know until you get it out there if it’s something that really resonates with people or not.

We did have the advantage of having so much feedback from customers on previous products that we got more and more confident that we could be on to something because we were listening. We had 160 IdeaScale suggestions already implemented when we initially shipped Helix. That made us more confident that we were doing something right because we were building what people told us what they wanted to have. It’s also what we wanted to have with so many guitar players in the company. There are some features in Helix that were just personal passions of folks. We’re so thrilled that it’s been received so warmly and that the feedback loop has grown even stronger. Seeing so much feedback on The Gear Page and IdeaScale that we’re taking in is just fantastic.

It’s kind of funny. If you go back to when we started IdeaScale and Helix was in development, all these users were sharing ideas and none of them could see the results. Understandably, some people were getting frustrated: Some would send us emails asking “What’s the point of me giving you ideas? You guys aren’t doing anything!” We couldn’t really say anything about how we’re working on something great. Now it’s so cool that people can see that we really are listening. It doesn’t mean that we can do everything. There are some suggestions on IdeaScale that we need to prioritize and keep whittling away as best we can.

TGP: What does “Helix” mean to you?  Is it about the algorithms or the user experience?

MR: It’s quite a symbiotic relationship. At its core, the goal with Helix was “This really has to sound amazing.” Music is about sound. You need to be able to plug in, start playing, and be inspired. You don’t want to fight with your gear. We spend so much time fighting with gear, trying to achieve that tone in our heads, you want tob e able to play more. That, at its core, was critical.

Another thing that I’m passionate about, that a lot of people at Line 6 are about, is sonic exploration. All the classic music that we think of today was made by sonic innovators. They were doing things that we hadn’t heard before. We want to continue to expand. That where I think the user experience in Helix is so critical. To make it so easy to see “What if I have the chorus modulate my chorus speed while at the same time change the drive on my amp and do this and that?”

To make it easy to do that means that people will experiment with that.  I hope people do more and more with that. My background is with synthesizer and it’s still a personal passion. That’s what got me so into sound in the first place. People were creating sounds that didn’t exist before.  For me, that’s the greatest benefit of how great that user interface is: explore just a little deeper than you would have otherwise. Did you see that article that Craig Anderton did?  He did thing on Helix about creating multiple paths and using EQs to split your guitar signal into different frequency bands and then process them through different effects. How great is is that Helix can inspire that kind of thinking and enable guitarists to explore more unconventional signal chains?

TGP: You have some products such as PA that seem to overlap with Yamaha.  In the future, what will differentiate Line 6’s offerings from those of Yamaha?

MR: I think the decision is based on the customers we’re focused on: Take a mixer designed for the sound engineer.  Yamaha does that better than anyone.  I use Yamaha mixers myself.  We are a group dedicated to guitarists and with this guitar division, whether it says “Yamaha” or “Line 6” on it, we’re all talking to each other.  We’re not competing with each other. By being more connected, we can do even more for guitarists.  The Yamaha brand will continue to do everything else and we won’t have to worry about that part. <chuckles>

TGP: With the Variax Standard, we saw Line 6 electronics in a Yamaha-built guitar.  Is the embedding of Line 6 technology in Yamaha products going to become a more common occurrence or was that more about leveraging Yamaha’s manufacturing resources to meet a particular need?

MR: It’s really about “How can we best serve guitarists?” What makes sense? Does it make sense to something in the Yamaha factory or not? Does it make sense to be Yamaha branded vs. Line 6?

Being part of a multibillion dollar company that loves music, that loves what we do is so fantastic. The president of Yamaha, Taka Nakata is a guitar player. He loves being able to play on a Variax. He’s a products guy and that’s not very common. I think that’s why Yamaha has been able to achieve what they’ve been able to achieve and why they’re so respected.  They’re so committed to quality and committed to music, it makes for a great environment for us. Of course we have to do things that make business sense but business success should just be the result of doing the right thing for the customer.

TGP: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

MR: Thank you to you and to your audience! I want you all to know how much I appreciate how we’re able to get direct feedback and interact with folks, hearing people’s music, being able to see people’s videos and all the creative uses they have for gear. I’m just happy to be a part of this community that really helping drive something that I think is important to humanity: the expressivity of music.  Music as a means of  communication for the world is so important.

Guitar in particular…what’s drawn me to it even though I’m a lowly keyboard player…is that guitar is unique in the spectrum of musical instruments in its blend of expressivity and polyphony.  Obviously, you can be extremely expressive on a violin or a trumpet but largely being monophonic instruments, you need more than one to achieve harmonic complexity. With guitar, so much of your sound starts with your fingers, no matter what gear you’re plugging into, you truly hear the person through the instrument.  As a way of expressing yourself, guitar is an important instrument that needs to continue to evolve and I’m eager to be a part of it.