Transcription: 0025 - Olivier Gillet

Released: March 30, 2014

Darwin: Okay, this week we are going to have a really special guest. His name is Olivier Gillet and he is the man behind the Mutable Instruments Systems. Now, if you're not familiar with them you should be, they are amazing. I have one of his Eurorack modules in my small performing system. It's called The Braids and it represents so many unique methods of synthesis that I couldn't not own it. In addition to making Eurorack modules, he also is involved in developing and offering standalone hardware devices. There are synthesizers, there's a mini processor that's available, but he also has a really interesting background in doing some software development. So let's say hi to Olivia. That's always an awkward transition, but I hope that you don't mind me gushing over you a little bit. I find your work fascinating and inspiring every time I use it. Let's start off our conversation by having you give us a little bit of your background. Tell us how you got to where you are.

Olivier Gillet: So one thing I can say, as far as I can remember the first time I learned to program computers was in the 1990s. The first thing I remember that, we started programming in basic. So you do this first program, like, input what is your name and then print your name. So we are these classes at school, when we learned basic programming. And the first question I asked the teacher was, can we program it to make music? So if you remember basic programming. At the time you had this statement in the programming language called play. You had to type a string with the notes. So you type a C, C, E, F and played a middle D with this shitty beep sound. So I was really fascinated by that and I started thinking, okay, can we make can we make it play a random strings or, can you make here strings of interesting middle Ds? So really, I think the thing that got me interested in programming and, later mathematics, was music.

Darwin: Sure. What was this first computer system that you were using?

Olivier: I think at school we had Amstrad PCs, or maybe it was the CPC or something. I did not have a computer at home, in fact it took me four or five years during which I was interested in programming, but did not have a computer at home. So I was using the computers at school or, staying at some friend's house just to play with the computer. And I was writing the program on just paper at home and then trying it at school. So, I did not have my own computer.

Darwin: Oh, that's, that's incredible. Would you say then that you were hooked by programming immediately?

Olivier: Yeah.

Darwin: The place where I inadvertently first met you, I didn't know you at the time, was through a program that you wrote for Palm Operating System for small handheld devices. You had two programs. Well, first of all, I don't even know how to say the name of the company. It was like Chocopoolp, right? But, there were two programs that you had written for that one called Microbe and one called Bhaji's Loops that were incredibly important to me. At that time I was traveling a lot, I spent a lot of time on in airports and on airplanes, and there's probably no less creative place in the world than an airplane. And so, I found myself sitting on the airplane wondering how can I turn this time into creative time? And I did some searching around and talking to some people and they were all like, you got to take a look at this Bhaji's Loops and these Microbe programs, you might find them interesting.

And so I looked at them and I saw that they required a Palm OS device. And I actually went out and bought a Palm specifically to run these two programs. And I had a blast. It was amazing, but it was also completely unlike anything else in the world. I mean, it was so much more advanced than anything I had seen on handheld devices at that time. And in a way there's of this is like more advanced than most of what you even still find on an iPhone. How did you wedge that much music making into a small device, like a Palm system?

Olivier: So, I got interested in these devices because, I got an internship in a company developing software development tours for Palm. So, my project there was a competitor. So the boss of this company told me, okay, if you want to develop any application in your spare time you can do it, or you can even do it on company time. Try to make it as advanced as possible. And it will be your kind of tests to exercise the competitor. And I think the development tool we were working on was quite good. And it allowed me to really push the limit of what I was making on this system.

Darwin: Oh that's really interesting because you see a lot of programs that are people's labors of love, but they often don't have this kind of complexity. For those of you listening it was, Chocopoolp - C H O C O P O O L P - which the website for that still exist. In fact, it looks like you are giving away free copies of this to anyone who can still find a Palm five device, Huh? Yeah. Well, it's really interesting because, the complexity is there, but also it reveals some of your clear interests. So like, Microbe very much had an orientation towards an analog feeling device. And certainly the synthesizer tool inside of Bhaji's Loops allowed you to explore some ideas with sort of virtual analog type devices. So I thought that was really interesting because at that time, I would say, especially on these small mobile devices, people were all about samples and your system not only did samples, but it did this synthesis. It did sequencing. I mean, it was a pretty much a full fledged DAW. Really what experience had you had with sort of like analog systems and analog synthesizers prior to working on this software?

Olivier: I was making electronic music since I was a teenager. Yeah, 15, 16. So, progressively I bought a couple of analoge synths, I got an SH 101, which is not probably purely analog, but it was a great synth. And then I bought a [unknown]. I bought some early drum machines. So, I got some experience with music gear.

Darwin: Sure. Now, at what point did you make the transition from doing the work on the Palm system to the development of the Mutable Instruments devices?

Olivier: So there is a big black hole between 2007 and 2009. So in fact the Palm platform just died. By 2007, it was already dead. Then the iPhone came and I thought for a while, okay, Maybe it's time to make a move to the iPhone platform. And at the beginning it was still a closed system because the API to develop apps, it was not open. The first few days of the iPhone you couldn't relate to a web apps, right. Then the development SDK was released, I don't know, around the end of 2007 or beginning 2008, but somehow it did not feel right. I think that I was not interested in this platform the same way I got excited about the Palm. Maybe it was because it was closed. I was looking for a better platform to continue developing something.

Olivier: And then, I remember when I did this internship on Palm Software development stuff, one of my teachers asked me, so are you going to continue your studies and work on compiler or embedded systems? And I told him, no, I'm not sure I will probably focus on signal processing, but then I remember that this teacher thought that I would be good at that system. And I started wondering maybe what I'm looking for is not a smartphone or a computer platform. Maybe what I'm looking for is one level done. Maybe what I'm looking for is algebra platform electronics. So I started thinking, okay, maybe, you have to learn electronics. And I was not sure how to start, because I had absolutely no prior experience with electronic.

Olivier: And then in summer, 2009, I saw online an article about a hack using an Arduino. This is a point at which I thought, okay, maybe this is what I should try to learn. So I bought an Arduino board and immediately I was hooked. Just like when I started programming it was this kind of, wow, this is what I had been looking for. So just in a couple of days I started, created, simpler MIDI devices. The first thing I did was a MIDI to a CV/Gate interface, and then I started creating simple, sound generators and basic digital synthesizers. And this project ultimately became the Shruthi,

Darwin: These in these early experiments where you actually using the Arduino for sound generation, or did you have it controlling others?

Olivier: Just for sound generation.

Darwin: My goodness. Having done some work with the Arduino, I'm aware of that getting that to run well enough to make sound is actually quite an accomplishment. Now when you first developed these products they were sold as kits, right? And how did you like doing kit sales? I mean, you got excited by the Arduino. Did you find that the community for that sort of, kit building a synthesizer environment that that was growing also? Or was it already pretty big?

Olivier: I think I was quite isolated at the time I did this because, when I announced that I had built my first synth on the Bhaji's Loops forum. So, when I started this project I did not even look at what kind of projects other people were doing. I think, for example if you look at the Synth DIY community, you see that most people are building modules. I did not want to look at that because, I thought that it would push me in one direction or another. So I just close my eyes on everything other people were doing and just, did my stuff in my corner and published it on the Bhaji's Loops forum. And there are a couple of people interested in it. So I decided, okay, I will make kits. How many people I want one, two, three, four, five, okay. I would make 10 kits. And that's it. I did not want it to become a business or whatever. It was just that some people might enjoy building it, so, okay. I will sell kits

Darwin: Well, but it obviously became a business because you followed that initial kit up with your first scaled up item was at the Shruthi. So that's like the first big project and I think that's still available, Right?

Olivier: Okay. So, there was a transition at one point. When I started the Shruthi, I wanted it to have an analog filter. So I decided to use some of the chips from a synth. Since it was an eight voice synth I got eight chips. So it was enough for my first batch of kits. Then 10 people, 20 people that people came and wanted one too. So I tried to find small stocks of the filter chips from the synth. And then I had to give up, because it's quite a difficult to find parts. There was this very small initial run. And then I had to stop because of this part. And I redesigned the entire project from scratch, this time taking into account that I should be able to sell 100 or 200 of them if there is demand. So I restricted myself to only easy to find parts.

Darwin: Okay, sure. That makes sense. So you had hoped to sell 100 or 200, but I don't know, I'm thinking that you sold more than that. because I see them around a lot and I also see that you're still selling them. So that's pretty impressive. Now I have to ask, because I am fascinated by this, you didn't have any formal training in electronics, You just learned this by yourself?

Olivier: Yeah, but I had training in signal processing and statistics. So, it was sort of easy to learn.

Darwin: I see. So because you have the DSP background then, that kind of points to the idea that you're using these microprocessors as the sound generation tool. That makes a lot of sense. And it also helps me understand how you're getting such good performance out of relatively low powered processors. When is it that you transitioned from doing standalone instruments to deciding you were going to, start doing modules?

Olivier: Yeah, at the beginning of 2012. I wanted to purchase a bit of test equipment to design analog circuits. So I needed a function generator, amplifiers, and so on, and I looked at the market at what you could buy as regular artistic equipment. And it was quite expensive and it was not really targeted to this application. And then I considered buying some modular stuff, not to use it to make music but, just to have a good sine wave generator, or sawtooth wave generator and so on. It was a good idea, so I bought a small rack with a, VCO, and LFO, just the bare minimum. And once I switched it on I started patching it and, Oh my God, I love it. So I think I just did as a test equipment, maybe just twice and, really got into the patching and the sound creation. I really loved it so immediately. Okay. I want to make modules now, right.

Darwin: That's hilarious. I have to admit that. I understand where you're coming from, because in fact, it seems like so much test equipment now is really made to work on like cell phones or something. Thinking of a case of Doepfer modules as being test equipment and then falling in love with it as an instrument, that is a wonderful story. Was the Braids your first module? I'll tell you a little story. When I first saw a demo of it, I first of all, whatever I was holding I dropped because I thought I was fascinated by it. As you probably can guess from my email address, I do a lot of things in sort of like software DSP design. And, I had always felt like a lot of that activity, I was shut out of that. With my modular system, I have a small modular system and I was shut out of doing some of those processes because they just either weren't available or would have taken so many modules that it wasn't practical for wanting to keep my systems small.

Darwin: Then I saw, I saw a demo of the Braids and I was blown away because not only did it do a lot of different processes, you have physical modeling in there. You have sort of the VOSIM process. You have a really cool FM implementation. You have multi oscillator implementations. It's just a playground of sound generating stuff. But the other thing I really noticed was how musical it was. In designing this how do you put together a module and say, I'm gonna make a module and it's going to have like 15 different sound generating processes in it. I mean, first of all, how did you know that the system could support that much? And secondly, what is it in your background that makes you comfortable with working with all these different kinds of sound generating models?

Olivier: Okay. So if you look at the oscillator section in the Shruthi, you already see that it tries to cover as much ground as possible in terms of synthesis techniques. But, of course when I work on the Shruthi oscillator there are many technical limitations, you have a budget of 400 clock cycles and then you have to divide it by two because you have to oscillate when running the Shruthi. So when I started working on Braids, I decided to use a small ARM CPU. It's almost like 10 times more powerfull than the Arduino. And then it will be running one voice of synthesis one voice, suddenly I got 20 times as much processing power as what I had been working on for the past three years. So that means like everything is possible.

Darwin: Well now you've been active in continuing to change what the Braids does too. I know that since I got my system there has been some upgrades, first it included some built in envelopes, and then some new routing options were made available. Which is really interesting and, the question is where do you see the point being reached where now there's not enough user interface controls to really support the many things you're doing. Already isn't it a little hard to imagine working with built-in envelopes when they don't have their own controls?

Olivier: Well, I think at the beginning the built-in envelope was just required by the physical synthesis modules because, when you do physical simulation you simulate excitation propagating through a medium. So, there had to be this initial expectations. This is why I put this envelope and then since it's available in this mode, I thought about extending it to the other modes. So we could have some consistency between this model. And then when people asked me to turn it into a VCA, can you turning it to a modulation envelope? So it's some new code so it's possible. I agree that in terms of a user interface it's not real pretty to have this extra option hidden in menus. But when I implement this feature, for example the quantizer, I say to myself, okay, it's just 10 lines of code or 20 lines of code, that's it. If you want to pretend it's not there in the module and if you don't want to look at the menu, just don't.

Darwin: And in fact, that's maybe the beauty of the Braids is that there's a lot more complexity there that you can choose to use, but you don't have to. Yeah, exactly. The only way that you know there's an envelope involved at all is because of the trigger input. And it makes perfect sense. The first time you use the pluck to model and you trigger it, you're like, Oh, of course it has to have that, you know, that's what makes it not be a sample. But, otherwise I think it's just brilliantly designed and, the implementation is nice. It's also a beautiful looking module. It's one of the few modules that has what I would say has like an artistic faceplate. I mean it has like, is that an imprint or is that just the printing right?

Darwin: Of sort of like the Paisley shape on there. And just like all of it, even your logo, you have little edging on the tops and the bottoms, your choice of muted but nice colors makes it so that you seem as concerned about the tastefulness and the expression of the instrument as you are about how it sounds. And I noticed this about your standalone units as well. You have plexiglass glass cases, but it's not just a square box where it sits in. It'll have interesting cutouts, it'll have interesting printing on it. What about that part of instrument building? What about that is important to you? Why do you think it's important to have sort of like beauty in the device itself?

Olivier: So, when it comes to modules I looked at what the manufacturers and designers did. And, I thought that there wasn't much variety in term of the theme or the universe of the modular. It was either really test equipment like, or maybe one could find influences from a science fiction, like with, planet names or lightning bolt. A very fancy device from a scientific experiment, by the name of this Module the Morphagene. I like it, I understand it, but I want it to do something different. So, I started doing some sketches and I started collecting some documentation, pictures of things I liked and did not like, but I'm not a good graphic designer.

Olivier: I'm interested in graphics and design but, I don't think I'm good enough. So, I gave all the stuff all the pictures, all the photos, samples of Indian textiles, everything I wanted to have in one way or another in the design of the modules to a graphic designer. His name is Harnes, that's quite unique so far during two or three months he worked on the design language for the module and, we met a lot about fonts, color, everything and I'm really happy with the reasons.

Darwin: Yeah, well it's funny because, I, like you tend to think of modules as being very much like lab equipment. At first, when I bought the Braids, I was like, well I don't care what graphics it has. I'll just bring it in. But when it's sitting in my system, because it has kind of like this depth of look and stuff, it actually inspires me to use it more. Which is kind of a funny thing. Because with modular systems, you tend to think, well, I'm going to connect this process with another process. You don't tend to think of sort of like the visual nature of it being inspiring, but, I find the style of the Mutable Instrument stuff to be very inspirational to me. Now since the Braids you've come out with a number of different modules. Edges, which I've not used nor have I used the Grids I have used the Ripples, which I think is a pretty phenomenal little module. Are all of these DSP based or are some of them pure analog?

Olivier: The filter repairs are purely analoge.

Darwin: Okay. I'm still amazed that all of your circuit billing knowledge, you self learn that stuff. I have to ask a question because I'm curious about this, where did you go to learn about electronics, to learn about music electronics, particularly?

Olivier: So, I found one absolutely excellent set of class material online. It's from Aaron Lanterman, and he's a professor at the Georgia Institute of technology. And I think the only in the US teaching a university class about analytics synthesizers. So, you can find on his website, class material and problems, even the video was of the classes. And so really he is teaching, how to make a VCO or to make a VCF and so on. I really liked his stuff because it's made for students in electronic electrical engineering. So there's not a lot of hand-waving, it's pretty, writing down the questions for everything and it was something I could process.

Darwin: Well, it seems like your background in DSP probably set you up to deal with that pretty well. So it makes a lot of sense. Now, one of the things that I think is pretty... Oh, well, before I talk with that, I want to talk about one more thing with modules. So right now, currently available is the Braids, the Edges, the Ripples, and the Grids, but there are some new ones. I know there's one called Frames that's coming out, which is like an animation sequencer for CV. And then there is Peaks, I think, which is sort of like an envelope. Are there any others that I'm forgetting?

Olivier: So, there is a module called, Tides, which is attack decay or attack release, envelope generator. It's also an LFO and also a digital oscillator. It might sound a bit strange to have all these different features in one module, because usually people breakdown modules into function, like, this is going to be an oscillator. This is going to be an LFO and this is going to be in envelope and for Tides the process was a bit different. So I thought, okay, I will module with the thing that go up and down.

Olivier: So I explored all the different ways in which we can make a wave form go up and down. It can have a different ratio for the up and down time. It can have a different curve for the up and down section. You can add little wiggles on the on the wave form. And so if it does a single cycle, it's going to be an envelope. If it's repeating it's going to be an LFO. And depending on LFO frequency, it's going to be a severe LFO or oscillator. So it's really this basic concept of something going up and down, but with all the variation of this concept you have a module that can do different functions. And then there is also a MIDI interface. I got the factory on the phone this morning and they are finishing the testing of, frames, yarns and dyes. So I'm going to get them next week.

Darwin: I'm looking forward to that. One of the things that I find that's really interesting about both your instruments and your modules is that you have pretty completely embraced the open source community. Such that you publish the hardware circuits, you publish the software. And in fact even in your project you go so far as to offer some of the libraries that you use to do the work. What is it about the open source community that has you embracing them that significantly. A lot of other modules out there that do have a digital basis and certainly all of the hardware modules, very few of them have this open source mentality. What about open source compelled you to do that?

Olivier: So there are two things. The first one is that for many, many years I worked for companies who were really secretive about what they were doing. And I did not like the fact that everything I was working on was hidden behind NDAs or pateints or things like that. When I started developing this, synthesizer, it was the first project I was really doing for myself. I said, okay, well this time you are on your own. So if you want to share it, please do it because you won't have the opportunity at another point in your life.

Darwin: Right. Well that's actually really amazing because I think a lot of the things that you're putting out there for the next generation of people like you, they're going to be able to look at that code, or look at that hardware and use that to learn how to do their work and do the next generation of hardware and software and modules and great stuff.

Olivier: The secondary reason is that many times I got very frustrated with the gear I was using. For example, I remember that on the MIDIverb. For example, there are some parameters which were constraint in a given the range. The delay could not go below such a millisecond or the feedback could not go beyond such percentage. And I really wanted to change it and I was really frustrated that there were some limitation in the control probably for some good reason, maybe because it's not perform well or did not sound good if the parameter range were extended, but still I wanted to be able to make this change. Since at the time I was already programming music software.

Olivier: I knew that it was really just a small change. It was just a constant somewhere in the code, or just one line of code to turn the instrument into something I really wanted to play with. And I did not want people who bought my instrument to feel the same frustration about them. So, every day by email or on the forum some people ask me, I love you. I love your synthesizer, but it would be even better if it had this small option or said setting was available, or if the UI worked in a slightly different way. And because the code is open source it's possible to do this kind of customization.

Darwin: Yeah. That's really interesting. And certainly I know what you mean about the frustration you would feel with closed systems. Often, you know, someone like Alesis was making a reverb that would sound good on pop music. And those of us doing electronic music sometimes wanted things that would sound ugly in pop music, right. But for us, it would sound good and not having the ability to experiment like that was quite frustrating. Well, Olivier, I appreciate so much your time. I feel like I've sort of used up your time and you're a busy guy. I want you to get back in there and make those modules so I can buy some more. But thank you very much for your time. One last question. What do you think is in the future for you and Mutable Instruments? What do you see coming in the future?

Olivier: So I have this huge list of module ideas. And I want to continue implementing everything on this list. Since the beginning of the year, I have started work on four concepts of modules and I think I will do three more before the end of the year. So, there will be seven new modules finished at the end of the year. Probably four or five more for the next year. So one thing I haven't done so far is a standalone, a complete standalone synth, of course you have the Shruthi, but it's a DIY kit. So I'll probably at one point or another, get it back to doing a standalone synth.

Darwin: Sure. Well, thank you so much. I appreciate you taking your time out of the schedule to talk to me and have a great day. Bye.

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