NAMM 2019: Q&A with Eric Klein (Line 6 / Yamaha)

Perhaps better known as Digital Igloo, Eric is the Chief Product Design Architect for Yamaha's Guitar Division.  He graciously sat down with me at the NAMM show.

TGP: Eric, you joined both Line 6 and TGP in 2010. Is that a coincidence?

Eric: Was it 2010? I lurked for a few years. When I was at Roland, I'd lurked in Harmony Central and Harmony Central was starting to wane. When I came to Line 6, the product manager who started out managing Helix said, "Hey, you should check out TGP." I had never been there before and when I jumped in the community was really unique. I was like, "Wow, these guys wax poetic about a lot of stuff" and it was not in a bad way. It was refreshing that it got really heavy at times. And you don't see that in other tech communities where it's not just a debate but it's almost like being at a party that's gone on a little bit too long with too many kegs. [laughs] So it was fun and interesting and weird and everybody had almost a character or a caricature to play and I was like "This is actually kind of fun." So I would lurk here and there and it wasn't a big part until I think it was Firehawk FX was announced and people started talking about it and I'd think "Well that's not right" or "That's not how it works" or "That wasn't our intention for this product". Let me just go in and correct a couple of assumptions. And at that point, it just kinda snowballed and I was the only one at Line 6 contributing in any way at that point. I think a lot of people were scared about that. And Line 6 currently has no official stance on social media. They say, just don't lie, don't be a blatant jerk.

TGP: ...and don't break the law [reference to legal issues with pre-announcing products]

Eric: Don't break the law. And so I would pop in. I think the reason I was able to pop in and not get scared away is because I'd been part of Harmony Central since the mid-nineties--almost since the beginning--so it sort of came natural to me. So at least I felt like I knew the mindset of forum members. It's like, "I can fit in. I'm a nerd." You know, there's a certain mindset that you have to be in to share as much as a lot of people do on forums. It's kind of fun and it's interesting and people are really smart and they have really cool things say, and they have really dumb things to say and I just kind of stuck with it. Nobody at Line 6 told me "No". Nobody said, "Hey, why are you there? You shouldn't be there." But it was never a conscious effort like "We've got to do this for some sort of non-altruistic reason." It was more like, "This is cool." And I missed being part of a cool forum where I'm not stuck answering technical questions because that's really boring and it's not fun.

TGP: You've often commented about the challenges of modeler playback. Do you see the future in hybrid products like Power Cab or do you see other techniques coming out in the future?

Eric: Power Cab attempts to bridge that gap. It's effectively an FRFR speaker if you want it to be. But because it has birch ply cabinet and because it has a guitar driver, it can also just be a 1x12 cab. The problem with Power Cab 1x12 is that you're not going to get it to sound like a 4x12 and no matter what you do. That's just the laws of physics. So as long as people understand that the technology doesn't come just from the modeler, the playback system is this really intrinsic, extremely important part of the experience of playing guitar, then that's all I really care about.

TGP: So it's so partly an educational issue for you guys to help change the perception?

Eric: I think so, and I've talked about this before, but I have this big blog that I want to write. It's about half done and it's about modeling in general. I'd love it to be brand-agnostic and I'd love to go talk to the Atomic guys and talk to Christof [Kemper] and say, Hey, can I get your sign-off and include illustrations with multiple companies, brands and multiple products where we all kind of get together and it's like, "Hey guys, this is how modeling works. This is what it is. This is what it isn't. These are the pitfalls. These are the things to be aware of." So instead of having these conversations taking place over and over and over again, somebody can go just read this blog and it wouldn't necessarily be a Line 6-centric blog. It would just sort of be this is how modeling works and how it doesn't work.

TGP: PresetsSuck.com [laughs]

Eric: Yeah, exactly. Although we have some thoughts on that too.

TGP: What are the most important skills for a product manager?

Eric: Lots of tenacity. There's a lot of political maneuvering involved, so it doesn't matter how great your product is or how focused your vision is. If you're not able to convince people that it's worth pursuing, it's going to get shut down. And that's difficult because we have some amazing designers who are sort of in their own little zone and it's really important to make sure that you have sign-off because every time you show it to somebody, you're able to pitch it in a different way and you're able to gauge the reactions and so the next time you pitch it to the next coworker, you know how to tweak the message and tweak the verbiage so they're able to understand it faster. Then once you've gotten around the building and you've pitched it to everybody, you realize, "Well wait a second, half the marketing has done because I know what bullet points work and I know what verbage works." I know what features people kind of grimace at. I know what features that you would normally think are kind of milquetoast that their eyes sparkle and I'm interested in, there's something here, but there wasn't something here. So collectively just the sitting down and interacting with your coworkers tells you a lot about whether a product will be successful or not.

TGP: Describe the process for prioritizing features. It appears to be more collaborative than your title might indicate.

Eric: It definitely is. There are a lot of things that determine what goes into an update. It could be something as simple as an engineer has been bugging us for so long that we're just sick of hearing them complain. [chuckle] Sometimes it's the masses demanding an amp over and over and over again. Sometimes it's a product that may not necessarily be well known, but it happens to fill a sonic gap in our platform. Sometimes it's just popularity. There's a buzz about a new amp that's coming out. We happened to know somebody there. Sometimes it's convenience. Somebody comes in and says, "Hey, I happened to have this really expensive boutique amp. I'm willing to sell it to you for almost nothing." Hey, we wouldn't have bought it otherwise. But it's a perfect opportunity. IdeaScale is also a big portion of it, but overall it's just a big amalgam of stuff.

TGP: Both you and Marcus [Ryle, Line 6 co-founder] are keyboardists. Do you think that a synthesis perspective provides you with a framework for designing guitar systems?

Eric: I will freely admit that it may have been a hindrance early in my career. The stuff I designed was way too complicated and it did too much stuff and it did sort of have a modular approach to it. Hanging out on Harmony Central and seeing how a lot of guitarists think...there are different types of guitarists, but that particular sub-forum [Digital & Modeling Gear] really exemplifies the mindset of what we call the discerning guitarist. The one who actually cares about how parameters are labeled and cares about the nuance of how sag and bias interact. And they'll argue on about fonts and we'll argue about iconography, argue about the feel of foot switches. That stuff's fun and interesting and cool. And because it's almost like in a way they're doing our job for us. And the advantage of something like TGP or Chad Boston's Facebook group [Line 6 Helix Family] is that it's really hard to understand what the problems are just lurking and reading comments from people. If you're able to open up a dialogue and communicate with them and if they give you crap poke back a little bit and they'll tell you what the real problem is. If you understand what that is, suddenly the solution isn't necessarily what they say it is. There may be a faster, easier, and more elegant solution that is just kind of waiting there in the wings and becomes evident when you have a one-on-one conversation versus trying to figure out what they meant by this particular phrase.

TGP: That kind of leads into my next question. How do you find a balance between giving musicians tools they didn't realize they need and giving them what they're asking for?

Eric: It's pretty easy. What's nice is that we have a team of people who want stuff in Helix. For example, Igor is our lead embedded firmware engineer and he's really active on Chad's Facebook group as well. People there just straight up ask him and say, "Hey, how come on this feature isn't in there?" And he'll text me at the middle of the night going, "ey, should we do this?" And, and sometimes it's, "Yeah, do it if it's easy. Kick it in." And sometimes it's "Yes, but that might preclude something we want to do in six months. So let's see if we can't approach it from another direction and they end up getting what they want." But instead of it being sort of out in the open where it's confusing the messaging, it's now part of a bigger whole

TGP: WIth Helix, you went from a point in time product approach to platform-oriented product family. Can you tell us about what kind of organizational changes that entailed or was it a pretty straightforward process?

Eric: Oh, it was a mess. So at the risk of, of exposing too many skeletons, there was a perfect storm of obstacles around 2013--about two and a half years into development of Helix--where a good portion of the team left. They were sniped by Apple. Our lead system architect went to go found Maris. Angelo, who is brilliant, we love him. The product manager left. We got bought by Yamaha. Marcus came back to act as President and General Manager of Line 6. And so there were all these changes that took place and then I stepped in and realize that we had at least another six months before we could release something. Even then there were some gaping holes in usability and speed of use that we really needed to tackle. We knew that if we didn't have something that was rock solid at v. 1.0, the notion of Line 6 releasing a $1,500 product where our previous flagship was 500 bucks would have failed miserably. So Helix was a year late out of the gate.

But I think we did everything right or at least did things as well as we could have given the circumstances. There were a lot of people worried that we weren't going to be able to pull up a $1,500 product, not just externally, but internally. At one point it was suggested that we scrap Helix altogether, fast track LT instead. We fought really, really hard because we spent a lot of time and energy and believed in the product. It's worth 1500 bucks and released it and people embraced it and it's been great so far.

TGP: What does Helix mean to you: UI, algorithms, or something else?

Eric: It's a platform and that will be clearer tonight when we talk about 2.8 but it's the ability for guitarists of all incomes, all experience levels, all technical levels, to be able to take advantage of modeling in general and also how modeling can interact with their existing rig. From the outset, we were very concerned that people would see it as a replacement for pedals and amps and never wanted it to be that way because we were going to make more amps and we wanted people to use it with our amps and other amps and other pedals. So we made sure that it was the sort of open-ended platform that allowed people to use it as a centerpiece of the rig as opposed to replace their rig. So when people say, "I sold this amp for Helix", it actually kind of makes me a little sad because we don't want them to. If they want to ignore the cab models, ignore the IR modes, run straight into their favorite amp and use it as FX-only and then swap preamps out via 4-cable method. That's the kind of stuff that we want people to do.

Our design team measures success not by number of units sold but by percentage of functionality used. So if people are talking about using snapshots, that's great. It's an esoteric and ambiguous term that previously people didn't really take advantage of in many other products. But when we brought everything top level and we've kind of hid all of the deeper functionality, people were able to understand it and take advantage of it and now suddenly becomes an integral part of the rig. Same with command center: if you have a central repository of all the things that you could control externally.

It's not this crazy, scary, nebulous, multiyear, super deep multilevel interface that people avoid actively, at which point you're now spending all of these resources creating functionality that only 2% of the user base is going to use. So from an ROI perspective, making some of the deeper, more powerful functions, top level and easy to use means that you've now created, in effect, five or six products.

TGP: That ties back into the earlier question about how to prioritize things so they're used by the 70% rather than the 30%

Eric: Exactly. And, there' a user experience way of thinking. We call it the 80/20 rule where it's clear that 80% of your customers need to be satisfied. When you get into something like Helix, that's very sophisticated and technical, you also need to cater to that 20%. The problem is that what the 20% wants is sometimes intimidating so you have to hide functionality from the 80% to prevent it from getting in the way. So you hide things in menus. Instead of having an 87 buttons on the top panel, you hide buttons in touch functionality, or push knobs or joy sticks where the joystick can do eight different things. But it appears as if it's just a single element. So there was a lot of purposeful approach to making sure that the right functions are attracting the right customers,

TGP: Thank you, sir.