Darwin: Okay today, we are going to be interviewing one of my favorite people in the world. It's Matthew Davidson, who goes sometimes artistically by the name Stretta; he is a fanatic for so many things that I can appreciate - such as monomes, modular synths, and a big cat guy. I'm not sure that I'm into that as much. He is just a tremendous person to be around and spend time with and I'm really excited to be able to do this interview. Hi, Matthew, how are you doing?
Matthew Davidson: Darwin, cats like me. I see that I share my life space with them and we kind of like coexist. It's I guess I like being around cats, but they seem to really enjoy being around me.
Darwin: Well, good for you. Cats, for some reason - I have such a weird interaction with animals. It's not even funny. Cats seem to think that I'm going to eat them. Dogs seem to think that I'm actually holding really interesting food in my pants. So there you go. That's my interaction with animals in a nutshell. So, thanks a lot for being part of the interview. I really appreciate it. The podcast needs a guy like you...
Matthew: Thanks for giving me this opportunity.
Darwin: Sure. Why don't we start off by having you give us a little bit of background?
Matthew: You know, where, where did you grow up? So I grew up in Iowa and so I'm from the Midwest and we both kind of share that. I wanted to ask you a question about when did you first become aware that you were really interested in synthesizers?
Darwin: I don't know that I was always like really into sound. So my mom has stories about me being in the grocery store, like trying out the sound of things, rubbing my fingernail against different kinds of paper plates, because they each had their own sound, right? And stuff like that. And then, my uncle had was really into the Hi-Fi things. So he had a reel-to-reel tape deck and stuff like that. And he got me into the recording thing. And so I just would record I had this setup in the basement bathroom. That was my recording studio, and I would just record ridiculous things and do the whole pause/edit thing on cassette decks. And he had a Tascam 3340 reel-to-reel deck. So I got a chance to do a little overdubbing, which was really pretty awesome, but when I first went to college, one of my best friends there was a keyboard player and he kind of introduced me to synthesizers.
Darwin: So I was like, well, that's cool. I was a guitar player. And I was like, well, "Hmm, I like this kind of stuff." And then when I went into composition in college, I all of a sudden realized that synthesizer gave me the opportunity to try out my compositions without having to get a full band together. And so it was kind of like a twisty passage. I've always been into sound and synthesizers just happened to be a really cool way to work on my own.
Matthew: That, that sounds very familiar because I feel the same way. I was always interested in sound. And, things that could generate new sounds from nothing and before synthesizes are really available. What that meant was I was really kind of very interested in home organs and I wanted to, I wanted a home organ so badly. I pestered my parents and I never got a home organ. I never, never got one. But I had spent a lot of time down at the mall where they would sell these things and be fascinated by all the buttons and the multiple manuals. And that was just really very fascinating to me. And I was really kind of fortunate because my dad was a successful entrepreneur. And so we apparently had some disposable income that he pursued. One of his interests that today we would be calling multimedia, or maybe a few years ago we'd be calling multimedia.
But what it involved in those days was, he was a photographer first and he almost always shot on slide film. And so he got to the point where he had like multiple projectors under computer control and computer in those days meant like a dedicated sequencer device about the size of the Roland MCH that would control the brightness of these, the sequencing of the projectors and do it to time code. So you could have this reel-to-reel machine that was like spewing off the time code on one track, and then another track would have the music. And so, that's how I had a reel-to-reel in my house and I had a basement studio and a guitar, and I would be trying to synthesize all sorts of weird sounds with tape. And then also I was fortunate enough that he had a really early interest in computers.
And when I first started composing music because of the Macintosh and we had a 128 K Mac in 1984, and I used a program called Musicworks, and this program changed my life essentially because what it allowed me to do was, it had a staff and you had like a palette of notes and you could drag a note from the staff or from the palette and place it on the staff. And you had four voices. Now we had Apple two computers before that, but unless you had like extra hardware, like a Mockingboard or whatever, you can only get one voice out of it - it was not very interesting. The original 128K Mac had a four voice synthesizer, and you can get like kind of different tones out of it without any additional hardware. And Musicworks allowed me to compose little motifs, but dragging notes gets kind of tedious after a while.
So then you quickly learn I want to copy these two measures and paste it somewhere else in copying pasting, and then you could like transpose stuff, and then you could write some counterpoint to that. And so it was the computer that taught me how to compose. And that was really wonderful because it was not judgemental at all. Like I could explore whatever I wanted and the computer wouldn't be like, well, that's crap. It would just play back whatever it was that I put on there. And then only shortly thereafter I was able to upgrade to a MIDI interface, but that also involves having some type of synthesizer that also supported MIDI input and output. And I had like in lieu of having like a home organ, what I did have was a Casio keyboard, which is almost as good.
I mean, you had to do all sorts of little hacks that you could do to make it sound kind of different than what they had intended. But that didn't have MIDI. And so my first real MIDI synthesizer that allowed me to connect to the computer was a Casio CZ-101. And I had the code editor. And that was, that was like '85 if I remember correctly. And by that time, I had upgraded my Mac to a 512, in a really brutal hard way by soldering the RAM onto the motherboard. And you upgraded the ROMs to Mac Plus ROMs anyway. So I had a 512K Mac, and I had this other device that was an analog to digital converter that you could plug into your serial port.
Matthew: It was an 8-bit analog to digital converter. And it had like four different things you could do, you could sample with it, which was doing sampled stuff without a Mirage, which was available at that time was, it was kind of a big deal and be able to do that. But even more interestingly, or at least on the equal footing, was the ability to use all the RAM inside my Mac as a delay pedal and do sound-on-sound recording. And I did this ridiculous stuff with my guitar, plugged into my computer, doing these really long delay lines. And I had so much fun with that. It was just such a great, great experience. And so that period of time between like 1985 and 1988, when I was just working with this computer and then acquiring, either through borrowing or buying, other things and kind of augmenting that kind of putting together a little bit more substantial studio before I headed out to college. That's that kind of sums up my original background in musical tech.
Darwin: It's really interesting that you talk about the nonjudgmental nature of working on these things. I think that that's incredibly important. I got into it roughly simultaneous with going to music composition school and I found - so I went to North Texas. I was a guitar performance major. And, the brutality of the process was... I was not wired up for that. So I switched over to the new music composition thing, and I mean, it was fun. We did ridiculous things like writing a piece for 27 marimbas and a guitar synth.
Darwin: But the problem was twofold. One was that you had to like find 27 marimba players first of all. And then secondly was that the second that you put that number, that amount of resources behind something, it right away went into the spanking machine where it was judged for validity. It's like, "Oh, you would have done so much better if you would've had this passing line here." or whatever. And I wasn't really wired for that kind of judgmental behavior. And it really put a bollix on me.
Matthew: I think there's like two stages you have to go through when learning any sort of new technology. And the first stage is the exploration of the process and you do this because you just love doing it. You're intrinsically motivated to explore. You're not necessarily looking for an outcome. Like this is going to be a compositional statement that I want everyone to hear, but you have to get through, you have to love the mechanical or technological process behind it and just do it over and over and over again, without someone telling you that's bad - that you shouldn't do that. It should be aimless exploration for the love of doing it. The second stage is putting the technique that you've learned in the service of an idea and some people, they want to go right to stage two, but they don't have the technical or mechanical background in order to execute their ideas. And they get frustrated and quit. There's people that get so wrapped up in stage one and never leave. And so what they do is just like aimless exploration all the time. And they never actually develop a compositional sense.
Darwin: Yeah. Which I think for people who are looking for sort of a diversion from the real world, I think that's, that's awesome to be able to embrace that stage one behavior.
Matthew: Well, you need to be clear what your goals are. If your goals are to have fun, then stage one, never leaving stage one is perfectly fine. It's awesome.
Darwin: So, one of the things that I think people will find interesting is that you have a background not only with keyboards, but you would rake on a guitar occasionally. And I see it's interesting because really, for me, I always think of the guitar as having been my proto-controller. It was before someone had invented controllers, I had this thing that I could do stuff on and it would generate sound that I could further manipulate. I would say that for an awful lot of people, you came on a lot of people's radar initially with your work with the monome, your development programs there, your interaction with the community. Discuss a little bit about why you got into the monome and what it is that was special about the monome that spoke to you.
Matthew: You know, I don't want this conversation to involve a lot of Max, and it's necessary to talk about the monome, especially with the way that I look at it. And so unfortunately, you are going to have to invoke Max here...
Darwin: But I love me some Max!
Matthew: I'd like to point out that it's 2014 and the monome came out in 2006. So we're almost looking at a decade already of the monome and its cultural impact on the musical landscape. You know, it's almost time where we can kind of reflect back where we were at that time. So in hindsight, the monome seems really obvious doesn't it? But, when I first saw the monome, I immediately saw it as the physical expression of a Max patch because, by 2006, I spent how many years using Max/MSP and trying to draft MIDI controllers into the service of being a Max interface. And if you use like a PC 1600 or a MIDI keyboard, and you're trying to map your Max idea to these two controllers, you're blind, the controllers don't give you any sort of feedback at all.
Matthew: And so I've been frustrated with physical controllers, and actually, the lack of physical controllers eventually kind of turned me off of Max for a little bit. And then I kind of went back to DAWs and focused on that for a long time. monomes were the things that actually brought me back to Max. And so it's this idea of intelligent feedback. That is the not-so-obvious idea, with monomes and grid controllers; if monome had come from a corporation, there would have been some default LED behavior that you would have to override in order to get to a permanently decoupled operation. You know, if it was designed by Akai or Roland or whatever, it would do something out of the box, and monomes didn't - they didn't do anything. But the beauty of that is you don't have any LCD menus or like start-up sequences in order to get it into that state, which is its native state that it was actually designed for. So the not so obvious thing about the monome isn't the the grid or the LEDs, it's the fact that the LEDs are permanently decoupled from the buttons. And that was the revolutionary idea.
Darwin: I have to tell you that I met Brian Crabtree, somewhat before he kicked off the monome. He was working in LA with someone and I was asked to help out. And so I met him and we kind of got along pretty well right off the bat. And one day he comes, comes in and he's like, "Darwin, I have to show you what I'm really working on, and this is my passionate thing...". And he shows me this little block of like four buttons and I'm like, "Cool, you're inventing buttons..." He's like, "You know, it's got these particular feel and stuff, but the main thing is that the light underneath the button is decoupled from the button." And I was like, "Yeah, that's that sounds unfortunate." Little did I realize how important that was to the functionality of what became the monome? And also, I think it really does point out something that you just mentioned, which is this idea that not having default behavior is actually a really freeing option when you're going to develop something that interacts with that device.
Matthew: The decoupling made it more simple because you didn't have to accommodate any other default behavior. Now regarding Brian, I didn't know him before monome, but you know, after I met him, I would have to say - it's hard not to like this guy. My theory about personal relationships, and people like Brian is you're fortunate to be able to meet someone like Brian, like every 10 years of your life. And that by definition, I'd say, if you meet someone who can change the way you think, or challenge some of the things that you thought were true, that's the kind of person that Brian is. And so every 10 years you might be fortunate to encounter someone like that. So, yeah. He's a pretty exceptional guy.
Darwin: He's a special guy. Yeah. So, you actually developed several applications that became pretty widely used in the monome community. I'm thinking particularly polygome, that's how you say it?
Matthew: Polygome came from this larger application I made for the 256 called Gome and it was a monophonic thing and it was kind of, I don't know why they call it Gome and why it was like, kind of weird like that. And Gome never actually saw the light of day. It was just not very easy to use or understand. And I simplified it in one way and then made it polyphonic and that was Polygome. That's the way you say it. And I apologize for bringing to the world another like weird word that nobody knows how to pronounce. They're like afraid to mention in conversation - like myself, like no one knew how to pronounce monome. So yeah, it's a weird name.
But you know, the face of monome and the killer application for it was MLR, and that was the sample cutting application that Brian made. And I think that drove a lot of the design ideas for monome. And that's the one that everyone really knows. I think a distant second is maybe Polygome, and the reason it was popular is because someone could get among them and play with MLR, but they wanted the idea that there was other applications there, other things that you could do with it, and Polygome had this. And when I first made it polyphonic and started playing with it, I knew immediately it was one of those fun things that people would enjoy playing. And I think that's why it became really popular. They could show their friends like, "Oh, here's MLR. And then here's this other application Polygome...", and you could shove it into somebody's hands and they could start mashing buttons on it and get something really kind of pleasant.
Darwin: It's interesting you say it that way, because that's been my experience. So I teach a little visual programming class at a local university and inevitably about once every quarter, some kid will come in and be like, Hey, have you ever seen this thing? And what they'll do is they'll show me a monome or one of the monome clone things or whatever. And they'll start off showing MLR, and then they'll show Polygome and that's all the farther you get into it. And from their standpoint, that is an amazing world of fun. And why would you need anything else? Anything else it's ... it's everything you could want!
Matthew: There's two things: you've established that it does more than one thing.
Darwin: Right. Which is kind of a big deal, right? That's a big deal. Now, to what extent did the monome actually integrate itself into your music-making process, as opposed to being an interesting development device?
Matthew: I see Max patches, and again, I'm gonna return to Max again, as an expression of like a musical idea. It's like, you can express kind of an interactive or a generative music idea visually in code in Max. And that's really powerful to me. If you then couple a physical interface to it, like a monome, you have this interactive system. Using these tools, a lot of the things that I made for the monome they're good for, like, you can make an A section of a composition, but transitioning from like an A section to a B section, or like trying to really sculpt a compositional statement that can sustain people's interests, would require editing or like something more involved. When I do something in Max that is a musical idea that's expressed in code. Once it's done I tend to forget about it. It's like, okay, that's a finished musical statement.
And instruments like Polygome - I think you could lump in the Tenori-on in the same area, it's like those things are somewhat - a large part is the expression of the person who designed that software. And then it's kind of being manipulated in real time by the person using it. And Polygome suffers from the same issues as I think that Tanori-on does that, to a certain extent, if you put it in different people's hands, it kind of masks the musical intention of the artist. So you're hearing more Polygome, or you're hearing more Tanori-on than you are hearing the person that's making the aesthetic decisions, pressing the interface. And, this isn't limited exclusively to like things what I make for the monome. But it's like, I have this idea I want to express and I express it in Max. And then once it's done, I'm ready to move on to the next thing, because there are so many ideas that I want to get to and work on that I just don't have time to like go back and think more about it.
Darwin: So, one of the things you just said in that last statement is that these kinds of devices and programs suffer from, the injection of the developer into the music, but to a certain extent, isn't that what all instruments do in one way or another.
Matthew: Yes. It's just exacerbated by the fact that you're using software. And I want to say that it's not the device, it's not anything to do with the monome. It's the software that's running behind it. And so I think there's a spectrum where things fall, and more like you're expressing the person who did the software and making your own expression. There's a spectrum where you could fall between, what any particular piece of software does. The main issue for me is you can take a guitar and you can put it in the hands of several different people. And if you can tell the difference between who's playing it, that makes it more of a musical instrument. If you can't tell who's pressing the buttons, if you close your eyes and you can't tell who's making the music, then that's the real difference for me. All musical instruments are an expression of technology. I totally agree with that. This is just like my way of like drawing this particular line. If you can't tell who's playing it, then what's the point?
Darwin: Yeah. Now, to what extent do you think that that there's an element of time involved there too? You know, so for example, I would say that during the early days of electric guitar, everybody sounded like Charlie Christian or Les Paul, and then eventually as people spent time and built facility on a thing that it took on more individualistic characteristics; software tends to be something that we roll pretty quickly. We get into software and then a month and a half later, we're like, "Oh, there's a better thing out there. I'm sure." And we download something new and there you go. You're off to the races with a completely different instrument, even if it has the the same physical expression through a monome or whatever. The "change out" of software sort of limits the, I mean, I hate to say it because this is getting to be a common theme in my podcasts, but I'm always interested in exploring with people what they think about sort of the rapid turnover, the nature of technology and especially software.
Matthew: In general, I think software when applied to music is a type of expression multiplier. And I like to divide that into two different categories. There's expression multiplier. If you're expressing something in real time, there're things that you can do with software by yourself that would require multiple people to do in real time. And that's really powerful and not real time. In other words, like a recording environment, software is a different kind of expression multiplier. And I don't think it - and again, I treat software as a tool and I treat a musical instrument as a tool, but I think we also need to acknowledge that automation and software automation are things that are kind of fundamentally different than just saying, "Oh, a guitar is a piece of technology." And since we are, since electronic music and software assisted electronic music are still in their infancy, we can't really make any sort of projections about where this is all heading and you did key on something that I totally agree with. And that is the speed at which, things are turning over is accelerating, but that's true for any facet of technology.
Darwin: That's true for everything. You're right. Very interesting. Now what, as we talk about the monome and the software control of things, it actually makes me think of another aspect of your public persona, as well as I think your music making world. And that is sort of the exact opposite, which is your interaction with modular synthesizers, which if anything, exchanges the flexibility and speed of software with the obsessive/compulsive driven world of lots of little modules and lots of little patch cards. And, I mean, there are obviously similarities, particularly with your use of Max and then your ability to use a modular synthesizer, but how do those two worlds match up for you?
Matthew: The monome world and the modular world?
Darwin: How did this match up at all?
Matthew: Well, I mean, I spent a lot of time combining the two: modular and monome. So, I guess maybe we should kind of regroup and say, why modular? Why, - what is the appeal of modular? So I asked you when you first started getting interested in synthesizers, let me also ask this question when, what was your appeal for getting into modulars and when did you, when did you first have your own what I would say complete modular system that you had available all to your own?
Darwin: Well, that's kind of a complex question because one of the things I didn't talk about with my early days of synthesizes was when I was going to school at North Texas, having an opportunity to work in a little - it was a time when the school was really excited about Synclaviers coming onto the scene and they wanted to take all their analog stuff and put it in the broom closet or the closest equivalent. So one of the things they did was they had a little room and they put an Arp 2600 in it and a 3340 and a Model 3a mixing desk from Tascam. And it was sort of like, okay, you undergrads, you have to use this scuzzy system in the broom closet, and all of us really smart people, aren't going to use the Synclaviers.
Well, it was great because for me, I could go in there and that was where I was like, "Oh, okay, this is what this is what filtering does. This is what FM between two oscillators does. This is what an envelope does. I mean, this is what these different kind of control stages do." And that was really, really important. So the 2600 was laid out there as, as kind of the way that I learned synthesis, which is a pretty awesome way to learn synthesis. But after I washed out of North Texas, and I just like wandered the wilderness for a decade, the internet comes along and I stumble across this mail list called Analogue Heaven. And I start reading it and people start talking about all this stuff that I loved. I was like, "Ooh..." so I started - I was traveling a lot of time. And so I would just like, say...
Matthew: What year was that when you were on?
Darwin: I think I started in maybe '94-ish. The main thing was that what I would do first of all, I mean, I remember getting on it through like PAN, right? The old network interfaces, it was kind of ridiculous. But, one of the things that I would do is I would just be like, "Okay, I'm flying to Atlanta for work. I'm just going to find out someone on analog heaven that lives in Atlanta and drop in on them", or "I'm going to San Francisco...", or "I'm going to..." wherever. And so I would just show up at these people houses and they'd be like, "Oh, Hey, how are you doing? Let me show you my gear." Cause that's what we did. And that was when I got kind of introduced to the real modular systems, because a lot of these people had some form of modular system. It really blew open when I met Grant Richter in Milwaukee, which is where I lived.
Matthew: Now, at that time, all modulars were all vintage. There wasn't a new one.
Darwin: I mean, well, you could, you could still have Rex Probe make a Serge system. And that's how I got back into it - a combination of getting Serge equipment. And then, I ran across the opportunity to purchase a bunch of old Aries modules. So I had, I had an Aries system and quite an extensive, like an 11 panel - Serge system. It was awesome. But at the same time, much of it was not only vintage. I mean, some of this stuff was the old paper sheet front panels. And so getting them to work generally involves a lot of shaking of the cabinet and stuff. It was pretty awesome, but I mean, I was just drawn to it because there was this sense that there was always an unexplored world of: I'd never plugged this thing into that thing. I wonder what happens? There was that, and there was also this thing where you would plug something in, you turn it off when you turn it on the next day, a completely different sound would come squirting out of it. I just sorta like the animalistic behavior of that.
Matthew: I had, I had a good 10 years of music making with MIDI, from '85 to '95, it was all about Multiport media interfaces and buying lots, of having one controller and buying a whole bunch of modules and you'd have a different synthesizer module, which would have a different of sound. And then if you wanted to edit anything - I tried various editor librarians, but I mean really when it comes down to it, it involves knowing kind of like a different operating system in different LCD menu and how to get into each of these things. And then I remember reading in the mid-nineties and a lot of my heroes at the time were making music the same way I was and I remember reading that Vince Clark was abandoning MIDI because the timing was awful.
And I thought "That guy's nuts!" You know, it seemed like it was such a huge step backward technologically. But that was the moment where I started thinking about analog and I was gone on analog heaven. And I've been online since. And I had my first Unix shell account in like '89. And so I was accessing Usenet and all that back then, that's how I got in touch with the Analog Heaven. And so the people there, it was all vintage everything. So it was like tracking down mono synths, and having like a collection of monosynths or like a a really nice analog polysynth was like the ideal, like that was what everyone kind of like strove for and people weren't really, it wasn't about the sound, although there's aspects about the sound that was really compelling.
It was about interface, nobody in the mid-nineties... with very few exceptions, it was all menu driven stuff and you were kind of getting the sense that people we're tired of it at the same time. You know, if you're chasing these monosynths and gradually eBay came about and they started like rising in value pretty, pretty rapidly. Then it kind of shifted from like analog vintage stuff to trying to get your hands on modular and modular was, you know, your choice was vintage. And so it was impossible. And then Doepfer first started making some modules. And I remember I was, I was at the point where I don't know what year this was, but I had a choice between I'm maybe building some models via MOTM or, or like trying to find something via, trying to find a system that I didn't have to build, but it was also pretty cheap.
And so my first modulator was, I spent a thousand dollars and I got it from eBay in Germany. And I, I conducted the transaction through Babelfish. And, so I got a 6U Doepfer basic system from Germany, it was a nice little starter. And that was the beginning of the modular thing. And, so then I have to kind of ask myself, well, why modular - which is how we started this conversation. And I wanted to provide some background about where we were coming from, because I never had the first wave of analog. And I don't, it doesn't sound like you did either. So I came of age using MIDI and modules and, and I was tired of LCD menus and increment buttons and pages of parameters, it just got in the way of the process of making music that felt really natural to me.
And so I really began to appreciate one function per interface elements, as you would find on an analog synthesizer. In other words, if you have a data entry knob, it's always going to be data entry. It's not going to be modal or context specific or changing its function underneath you - software products that do that drive me nuts. And for space reasons or economy reasons that still happens. But when I encounter a product that does it, it just drives me bonkers. So that was the, that was one thing why I really liked modular. The other thing that I really liked about modular was the beauty of one volt per octave. And this has the kind of simplistic beauty that I see - also in what I was referring to like Brian's beauty when he designed something minimalistic, if your Max is really awesome, if you were, if you were coming from, eighties or early nineties synthesizers, they displayed values and like arbitrary units, zero to 127.
The octal display Mirage is a great, is a great example. And so when you got to Max and then you got ways to express data in real-world units, which was, which is great. So now you can specify things in terms of frequency and MIDI notes. And that was really wonderful. But then you would create something in Max and want to be able to use it with something else. And if you, when you start trying to create reusable code, part of the reusability is the ability to hook one thing to another thing. And when you start doing this, you have parameter mismatches; like, what is this message? Even though it's a rich, real real-world message, you're going to have to translate it or scale it to this other thing, the beauty of one volt per octave is that you can specify any parameter that you want, from musical expression, you how loud something is, the shape of the modulation, how the timbre is changing. The note, everything can be expressed with the same one volt per octave signal, and this is exceptionally powerful because it's so simple. And that was the thing that I really, those two things were the things that really, got me to enjoy using a modular. It wasn't about analog versus digital. It was about interface: using your hands, and you weren't worried about if I plugged this cable under this one, is it going to do the right thing? Or is it not going to understand the message?
Darwin: Yeah, I think that, you really laid it out. Well, I know that there are a lot of people that really have a strong reaction to the quality of the sound, since I've always been fascinated by sound, no matter where it's come from. Digital and analog sound are just gradations of the great world of sound, but that user interface, the end, I guess, had never really thought of one volt per octave has as having some sort of intrinsic and minimalist beauty. But, you know, maybe for me, that's, that's a better expression of my love of being able to plug anything in anything and see what happens.
Matthew: Compare it to, OSC where you have a zero to one floating point range. And it doesn't really compare one volt practice where if you add a, add a volt, you get an octave to kind of like cramming everything into this zero to one arbitrary you know what I mean? And so it's actually more beautiful than, I think, OSC in that.
Darwin: Yeah. In some ways. Sure. Well, now one of the things that I would say is maybe I shouldn't frame it as a problem, although it's expressed to me as a problem a lot of times, because I'm sort of out there as modular guy. And I'll go, I'll do performances or I'll go to meetups or whatever. And people are like, "Oh, you're the guy with the modular..." sort of like, "Oh, you're the guy who lives in a van down by the river." But a lot of times they'll say something like, it seems really interesting. A great sounds come out of it, but I can't do it because I want to keep on doing music. I don't want to get like fall into obsessive compulsive world. And I think that there is a lot of precedent for people becoming so entranced with patch cables, and finding exactly the right filter and comparing exponential curves of envelopes and stuff like that, then that there's never an opportunity to get around to actually making music in the end. How do you face that scenario? How do you find a way to engage with the modular and still be making music? I mean, the music you make to me is some of the most beautiful electronic music I've heard. And I'm just wondering how you bridge the gap of enjoying the modular as a play thing, into making it be a real musical instrument.
Matthew: There's absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying the modular and having fun. And that's it, as long as you, and I said this before, as long as you're clear about your goals, and it's really the interface and, and when you're presented with it, it encourages that type of that type of behavior. And, if you don't have a clear goal set up ahead of time, that act of using the modular is probably in the end a lot more interesting to the person using the modular then to someone who would be listening to it. And my goal is to create a finished piece of music for the modular. Then I spend a lot of time composing first before I get to expressing it on the modular.
Darwin: Oh, that makes sense. But at some point then you have to use the modules. Do you, how do you interact between the modular and, and your DAW or whatever you use for your composition and recording tool?
Matthew: Well, if you came the background of being able to use a media arrangement is that you can work compositionally and here your orchestration, as it's going, and then you can go back and change bits of your orchestration that aren't working. And that's the main thing that's different when you're using a modular. You have to be able to imagine the rest of your orchestration, and how it's going to fit together, because you need to commit your work to the record button on that path. And so, to somewhat mitigate that, often what I do is the line that I'm currently focusing on. I will record a lot of different variations of it, and I'll do all sorts of different passes because recording is cheap, it doesn't cost anything to store these different takes. And so if I'm recording a composition that I'm working on, there's a process that emerges where it's kind of conducive to doing things like laundry.
Especially if it's a really long composition, you know, I might do a take that's that's five minutes long and all the, all the modulation is automated and, with the software. And a lot of people don't work this way a lot, but this is the way that I work and I will set up the take, listen to make sure that it's doing the thing that I expected to do. And I specifically do not listen to the tape as it's recording, because I don't want to hear it when I'm sleeping the next day. If you hear the same thing 20 times over and over. And the other thing that allows me to do is, I'll just go ahead and double it because I'll record a take that in that particular timbre, and then I'll record another take. And, and because all the modulations are still specific to that point in time, unless I'm doing some type of free running, running modulation, I have another exact copy, but it's not exact exactly. That can make a stereo patch out of it's actually just two takes left and right.
Darwin: Well, I just, I, I guess I have to admit that I've never really thought about using that as an option because again, I too did so many years worth of MIDI-oriented stuff. And so what you tend to do is because you wanted to have the flexibility of changing everything after the fact you'd never committed anything to the record button, unless you absolutely absolutely had to. And then if you did, you would like, obsess over getting the ultimate take, because then that was gone. Now I've never really thought of the idea of with the modular system, do five takes, do little tweaks in each one of them, and later, if you need flexibility, there's the flexibility of multiple takes.
Matthew: Sometimes I will do a performance take we're where I'm manipulating the modular. I mean, most people do that, but for me, it's more kind of like, here's a special take that isn't going to matter. You know, but mostly compositionally I'm going for something very, very specific. And if I'm doing a performance take it's to create a particular effect that is either difficult to automate, or I'm trying to leverage serendipity in some way, but it's less common than I do that.
Darwin: That's really interesting. And it sounds like a really cool approach that plays with both the ability to do real time, the ability to have a very thoughtful, compositional and, and timbre creation process. That's pretty neat.
Matthew: Well, you couldn't do something like this before having computer control and monitoring.
Darwin: That's absolutely true. That's really true. So at this point, where are you at with your creative output? Are we going to see another release from you anytime soon?
Matthew: You're familiar with the phrase you're only as good as your last hit for pop stars. And so what that meant was like your last album or your last single, if you bombed them, people didn't really pay attention to you to, a lot of things have changed in the recording industry in the last 20 years. Things have changed a lot, but one of the things recently that has changed for people like myself is the stream, things like Facebook and Tumblr and best exemplified by, by Twitter. And what you see there is like, what have you done for me in the last five minutes? And streaming something you worked on for 30 minutes has the same value as something that you've worked on for a year. And it's kind of disheartening. In this video collection of, Miquel Gondry videos that I have, he comes up and he says, I don't know if he's serious or not... "I wanted to choose between it and choosing between quality and quantity. I chose quantity because quality fades and quantity stays."
So, what this obviously does is it increases the amount of crap out in the world. If you are in this trap of constantly feeding your audience stuff that you just did kind of like a few minutes of nonsense and "Hey, maybe it's great...", but it really didn't take much effort.
Darwin: Well, I'm going to assume that you're not talking about my podcasts when you're talking...
Matthew: No, I'm talking about musical. I'm talking about someone who's getting a musical expression. And for me, this gets back to, like, who is your master? And part of the reason I make music is because I want to make the kind of music I want to hear. It's the music that I want to create. And I don't want to cater to, I don't want the audience to be dictating what it is that I'm doing, because I don't think that's fair to the audience. It's like you end up optimizing for the Maximum Audience and that's not at all why I wanted to make music. And I don't want to make something that's... I value your time. I don't want to put something out there that doesn't mean anything, or it's just going to be a waste of your time.
Darwin: Yeah, that makes sense. I'm always surprised by people who say that they want their audience to drive the direction of the music when I consider that the audience showed up originally because of the original content of this person's vision.
Matthew: It's fine. It's fine to do it. It's just not what I want to do.
Darwin: Okay. All right. That's good. You want to embrace everyone and shun noone, I get that.
Matthew: No, no, I don't. I don't want to embrace anyone other that the physical desire to express this thing that's inside my head.
Darwin: So are, are you just taking a break or are you just doing things for yourself at the moment, or are you focused on other projects?
Matthew: Well, there is the other projects thing. And, the main thing that I've been kind of focused on the last last year, that's significant is the BEAP modular project that kind of consumed most of my available free time when that was being developed. As far as my music is concerned, due to what I'm doing professionally, both, two aspects of my life, one with Cycling and one with teaching, that sort of blew up any sort of available musical time that I have in the short term. I'm not trying to work on an album right now. But I do see that changing. But at the same time, I can't not work on music. It's just that I have lots of things that I haven't released.
But at the same time, I'm kind of enjoying making things that make music in kind of a more algorithmic way. I would like to be able to make things that continue to make music when I'm not working on it. I have some ideas for some kind of longer term music releasing projects that one I told you about earlier, which is like the, the recording robot, where I was like a client of a Max patch. Do you want me to describe that process? Okay. So, if you're not familiar with Mechanical Turk, it's a way of kind of like outsourcing a job to a lot of different people. I want to create a Max patch that is a Mechanical Turk. And I happen to be the thing that it hires.
And so the Max patch will, via some inputs, will create a new piece of music. And then it will hire me to render that piece of music. And I will render it in short little phrases, like one bar or two bars, either by singing - mostly by singing - but via other instruments. And I will never hear the completed composition. It knows the structure of the composition, but I never get to hear it. I'm just there recording the parts that it tells me to record, and then it assembles it and then uploads it to a SoundCloud account or a Tumblr or something. And so it would have, it would do like a new composition on a regular basis. I haven't decided that is. And it's kind of an experiment in decoupling me as not being a composer or really involved in the composition of the project, of the music, except for setting up the software that does it. And so I have no ego involved in the composition and I was just a client and people could discuss it and I would have no idea what they're talking about.
Darwin: Wow. All right. Well, that might actually solve your feeding-the-masses situation without having to get personally involved. I like this out of that. Well, Matthew, it's been fantastic as always to talk to you. I appreciate you taking the time out to subject yourself to this interview. Any last notes for the listeners?
Matthew: No, I just, I would like to say thank you for this opportunity. And, it was wonderful speaking to you.
Darwin: All right. Great. Thank you very much.
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