Darwin: Today I get a chance to revisit a discussion with the person who I consider a friend. I also consider him one of the most incredible musicians and artists that I have come to know. His name's Robert Rich. We interviewed him way back in the dark ages - I actually had to look it up and it was podcast number 35, done in June, 2014; so it was back when Robert and I were young children and we talked about childish things at the time.
Now we're all grown up and I'm sure we're going to have some nice grown up stuff to talk about. So with that I will shut up and we'll talk to Robert. Hey Robert, how's it going?
Robert Rich: It's great. Thanks Darwin.
Darwin: Thank you so much for getting a chance to chat. I really do appreciate it. So in our initial conversation, one of the things we talked about a fair amount was your background and how you first got into synthesizers and all that kind of stuff.
And it was a really great vision into how you got into things. And you know, certainly hearing about your introduction to the Prophet 5 and stuff like that, going back and listening to your work, it was a real match with the music that we were hearing. What I'm curious about though now, six years later - I've had six years to think about more questions. One of the things that I didn't get a chance to talk to you very much about it, but I have always been curious about (with regards to your work) is the use of percussion in your work. I am curious: to what extent did you study percussion in any way or were you influenced by certain kinds of percussion or how did you get to it? Because there's a lot of your music - I think the things like a Medicine Box for example - where the percussion plays a very specific role in the work that you do. Where did you get your ear and your voice in working with percussion?
Robert: Well, I've always listened to music from everywhere, and I grew up listening to a lot of Indian classical music and also I love West African drumming and Egyptian music and things like that and there's a lot of interesting rhythms to hear in the world. The way I started using hand percussion and shakers and gourd drums and stuff came about from being really bad at programming drum machines back in the 80's when the first sample-based drum machines were happening - like the LinnDrum - and I had friends at Sequential and the Sequential Drumtrax showed up and things like that. You know, I just couldn't make them groove like a lot of the techno guys are so good at doing. My drum programming was always rigid, but I could pick up a gourd drum and just, it kind of grooved itself.
You know, there was certain way that you could hit things and [it] just felt like part of your body. I didn't really play percussion until I met the same person who showed me how to play flute - a guy named Darrell DeVore. He was an itinerant flute and percussion salesman back at Stanford University in the late seventies, early eighties. And I grew up near the university and even before I was an undergrad there, I go over there on my bicycle to pick up records at the bookstore because they had a really good section of electronic music and things. I was still in high school and there was this beady-eyes shaman sitting there on a Guatemalan blanket selling bamboo flutes and I'd go over and we'd chat. And it turns out he was a jazz musician from the 60's, from the free jazz scene and he was building all sorts of really cool stuff, inventing his own instruments.
And he taught me how to play flute and I bought some $10 flutes from him. They became some of my first instruments and he made these wonderful gourd drums with the goatskin heads and big dried gourds. And they just sounded fantastic. And so I would just pick up these instruments from him and they were part of my early arsenal just to figure out how to make sound. When I was starting out, we all figure out how to work with whatever tools were around. And back then I didn't have a lot of money and there weren't a lot of tools available. Not like now, when you can cover your wall with modulars and things. So it was just figuring out how to track percussion loops. Sometime around 1982 or maybe '81 I picked up one of the first longer looping delays. It was the Electro-Harmonix 16 Second Delay. And I quickly figured out how to make some interesting loops in that playing percussion. So it just became a language; you work with the little tools you have.
Darwin: That's really interesting because I immediately made the assumption that you found some way to do sampled... Again, knowing your, knowing your background with Sequential, I was like, "Oh, were you like burning chips with hand-drums?" And, no, you had a gourd with a head over it, right?
Robert: It was just playing things. Yeah. I mean I didn't have a lot of equipment so I just worked with really simple tools. I mean Darrell DeVore is a fascinating guy. He passed away about 15 years ago, but he had several articles in Experimental Musical Instruments - the magazine that Bart Hopkins published - and he was teaching what he called Sound Magic in Marin and Sonoma County schools in Northern California. And [he] eventually came to know Tom Waits because he was teaching Tom's kids in school. And from the way Darrell told it, he basically said he gets this phone call from one of his kids. One of the student's fathers is, "Hi, this is Tom Waits. I really liked some of the stuff you're doing with my kids. I was wondering if you'd like to come over and play some instruments?" So the albums Bone Machine and a couple of the others from that era used a lot of Darrell DeVore's instruments, bamboo and strange percussion - and I [them] used a bunch.
There's an instrument called a Mallet Kalimba that he showed me how to build with spring steel and you'd put it on a foam ice chest and play it with ping pong ball mallets. And I used that a lot. I used it on Geometry and Lumina in 1985 there's a piece called Moss Dance that uses this instrument that Darrell showed me how to build. A lot of homemade instruments, you know? he would do ocarinas out of film canisters and soda straws and a rubber band instrument that I ended up making a sample for EMU with it, in fact Darrell called it a Spirit Catcher. And it was this long stick with a big heavy rubber band around it and you'd spin it and it would sound like an Aboriginal instrument.
You know, I made the sample along with many other samples I did for EMU on their Proteus 3 - the World box. And about a year later, there's a song on an album by Dead Can Dance, called Spirit Chaser. And it's opens up with the sound of that instrument from the Proteus 3. In fact, the whole lot of the rhythms on that album are from the Proteus 3. So it was kind of funny because you know, there're these little threads of musical contribution from everybody woven throughout the musical world and you realize that it's a really small family of things interacting with each other.
Darwin: Right. I mean you still have this part of your practice that is building your own instruments - I think you still use your own PVC-based flutes and stuff, right?
Robert: Yeah. That was out of necessity because I was playing these bamboo flutes and started building new PVC flutes when I was trying out new tunings because I do a lot of work with non-equal temperament. And then about 15 years ago I wrecked my hand real bad in an accident. I slipped with some glass and kinda... my right hand doesn't move properly any more. About half of it's numb and two of the fingers move together only - they can't separately move. So I had to rebuild all of the flutes that I was playing with with a thumb hole and only two holes on top for the for the right hand so that I could use the thumb instead of, cause I couldn't move my fingers separate. So then I suddenly had to start building all of the flutes from PVC pipe and putting holes where I could actually reach them, which always limited the tunings.
Darwin: But the flip side of it is, sort of like congratulations to Darrell for opening the door of saying, "Hey, this is a whole practice!", right? This is a thing that the doors opened for you. And by already having some comfort in doing that, it wasn't a big leap for you to say, "I have this one limitation. I can find a way to make an instrument that still helps me work."
Robert: Right. Well, and I think part of that wonderful lesson from Darrell is to pursue the joy and the play of building instruments and learning how to play new things to make your own sounds from scratch. It's just so much more invigorating and, I dunno, life-enhancing than sitting through long lists of presets and trying to figure out which sounds fit your music. I'd rather just make an instrument, figure out how to play it and then then start writing a piece around it. There's more of a sense of play and of discovery. Just yesterday actually I was having a little brief interchange with Qubais Reed Ghazala, who is the person who invented the phrase Circuit Bending. And he also wrote things for Experimental Musical Instruments, the same magazine.
You know, I was just basically saying that I just remembered how he was such a joy to discover this idea of play. Really, the openness of experimentation without rules and without the idea that you have to do anything right or that there's no right or wrong, you know? And that's part of how I ended up doing a lot of work with synthesizer companies making sounds and doing a lot of things from scratch because I firmly believe in envisioning possible instruments and then then trying to see them come to fruition, you know? And so having that longtime friendship with employees, doing preset design for Dave Smith Instruments and now it's called Sequential again. So like just last September, November area, I was doing design for the new Pro 3 synth along with Drew Newman and a couple of other people.
I did a lot of the wave tables for it and then a whole bunch of precept designed for it. And you know, it's getting back to that sort of area of invention or trying to envision a new sound and create it from scratch. And, that's also what's happening right now with, Synthesis Technology and the E-520 Hyperion Processor, he calls it. And a lot of that was because I had conversations with Paul Schreiber back in the late 90's about the future of analog synthesis. I'd been publicly saying for years, even when I wrote an editorial in Electronic Musician back in the mid nineties about the possibilities of intelligent design behind synthesizers, like having macros, I called it a 'gruzz' knob, something where you can be very intuitive about pushing into a synth and having it react in a complex way, not just a whole bunch of knobs, but certain kinds of controls that would be mapped to somewhat chaotic variables.
And so I'd been talking about this whole idea of using modular synthesizers in a context with DSP and computers behind the modules. Like you're still using this idea of knobs and patch cords and voltages, right? But now we've got these wonderful microcontrollers that can do very sophisticated things and you don't have to think about the sophistication. You can simply have a few knobs in front. And so a lot of that, I think a lot of that approach stems from being unafraid to build things from scratch. You know, including cutting a PVC pipe in half and drilling holes in it. It's really the same idea.
Darwin: Right. And also the time you spent with PAIA gear and staff also gave you a sense of having your fingers into it.
Robert: Oh yeah. It's on Simonton, my goodness, we don't have... we all have curses and blessings all at once.
Darwin: So true. But talking about this E-520, the Hyperion Processor, I mean - one of the reasons we're having this discussion is I had been talking with Paul about the efforts that he's been putting into it. And it's really quite a remarkable machine because of the amount of time that he's putting in on voice and algorithm design. And he mentioned that you were actually very influential in terms of the kinds of effects and the kind of effect algorithms that were chosen to be built into this system. Can you talk a little bit about that? I mean, you've collaborated with a lot of people on making presets or patches or whatever, but this is very - it sounds like you're very much in the weeds in terms of helping Paul design what the engine itself is going to provide.
Robert: Yeah. Well, I mean there's a lot of history to this, but we need to mention Eric Brombaugh, because he is an absolute genius and he's doing the work of three or four people at least. If you look at great processors in history, let's say like the Eventide H3000, there's one person who was the main brain behind that, but probably a team of six or eight people who ended up building that. This is pretty much just Paul Schreiber doing hardware and Eric Brombaugh doing software. I mean, Eric is incredible and he's so much fun to work with because he's so undefended. You know, like a lot of engineers, if you say, "Why does it do it this way?" And they'll go, "Oh, well, because this is the best way to do it." He'll be very open about it: "Did you think of a better way? How should we do this?""
And if you find a bug, he thanks you. He doesn't say, "Oh, that's not a bug. That's a feature." He goes, "Really? Oh man, I missed that one." You know, it's just like a really beautiful interaction. What has happened for the last decade or two decades is that sometimes Paul will will call me up and say, "I'd like to do something that's a dah, dah, dah. What do you think it should do?" And so that started like with the wavetable oscillator, the E-350, he basically said, "I'd like to do something a little bit like a PPG or a Waveterm or something, but I want it to sound good." And so it took me about three months to come up with wavetables that had no glitches in them.
And then what Eric did is basically come up with these amazing smoothing algorithms that could morph between these wavetables. And then the main innovation we had there was that I conceived of a kind of grid of harmonic complexity so that there would be vectors that could move in an intuitive way - so that the higher the voltage, the brighter the sound. And that's something that if you look at, like the Waveterm and the PPG stuff, they were much more zippered and chaotic. They didn't really act in a normal sequential harmonic way. And so the idea was, we could stick some of the noisy things in there, some glitchy waveforms, but the whole first bank I had conceptualized as a whole bunch of complex signwaves, very smooth, something that wouldn't even need filters. So that was again, one of those things where Paul calls me up and says "Can you help me with this?"
I should mention, I don't get paid by him. I get, I get free gear. But but a lot of it though is this sense of play. And so about a year ago, I think it was March of of 2019, he does the same thing and calls me up and says, "You know, finally we've got a chip that's fast enough to do these things you've been asking for." Because what I was saying for years is you don't have these Michael Norris spectral filter plugins that work on the Mac. Couldn't we do that on a modular? Wouldn't that be amazing to have some of these time-domain spectral weird bendy kinds of sounds, but behind a patch panel? And Eric has been right on the forefront of that. In fact, he did something for - he did the Spectre, for Audio Damage, which is a little module that basically freezes sound using spectral effects.
You know, this is basically with the FFT and you've got bins in it, samples the bins whenever the gate is high. And then it sort of extends the FFT. It just basically freezes the sound right there, right? And so Eric really knows his DSP chops. And for him the next step was, okay, now we've got this ARM processor that can run rings around the old chips that they were using for these things. And you know, this processor is, I mean this is like something that's about at the level of a Xeon Mac circa 2006 maybe or something. I mean 2008. This is a very powerful chip. So the challenge then is, okay, let's try to think of things that are weird and cool and unique and new, taking a lead from some of the classic things that we love. So I still have my Eventide H3000, although it's starting to get really questionable.
The DSP is probably on its last legs and I've already replaced it once. But there's certain things in there that I just love - the kind of squelchy echoes with filters in them and the slight pitch shifting and you know, resonant resonators and things like that. And so looking at some of the cool rhythmic effects that that had, I basically wrote this text document. I've actually got it open in front of me right now on my computer and there were just a whole bunch of brain farts, basically a bunch of splatter of concepts, ideas like a Voder filter and things. So that's something I loved on the old Ensoniq ASR-10 that was done by Waveboy. So a guy who worked at Ensoniq created this fantastic filter frame using the effects chip in the Ensoniq.
And I made so much heavy use out of that in the late nineties, making everything talk - like put a bunch of white noise into the input of your sampler and out it comes as robot speech. It's wonderful. So that was one. And you know, like resonators and one that is actually in this new unit, I called it the chowder delay and this was essentially on the idea of a bunch of stochastic messy, glitchy echoes. So it would basically be - you could make it pitch up, pitch down, stutter, go backwards, all based on sort of stochastic settings. So the higher the knob setting, the more likely it would be to glitch. And, so a lot of these ideas that I came up with were trying to figure out how to do a lot of complex things with very few voltage inputs.
And that's an important idea here because the challenge for doing some of these wonderful Michael Norris algorithms is that he's got a sort of standard Mac user interface with 10 or 20 sliders on it, right? You can just add another software parameter and make it move. You can't do that on a piece of hardware or you can, but you'll end up with a $3,000 piece of hardware. Right? And so there were certain concepts that, well first of all, you know, Paul gets to me with a set of specs. He says this is going to be four voltage inputs. There's going to be two feedback controls that are voltage controllable, a tap tempo and a blend so, okay, what can you do with that? Oh, and four buttons and a soft controller. Okay. So we've got a fair amount of voltage controllability here, but you also want things to be somewhat intuitive.
Nothing bugs me more than to buy an expensive Eurorack module and not really have it do anything until you read the manual and sit there and program it. I love Intellijel. I have a lot of their stuff and I was one of the early adopters on the Rainmaker, which is a favorite weird processor delay. And that's doing some of these cool things. We're talking about DSP with multi-tap delays and filtering and pitch shift. But one thing that drives me crazy about it is that it's very much a preset-oriented idea. You have to program it and then you recall a preset. It's not really encouraging you to just wiggle, you know what I mean? I wanted something that was really live, that had all of the parameters up front, that discouraged that kind of tweezing mentality, but encouraged to sandbox.
So for me with a modular synth design, it shouldn't have any layers. It shouldn't have any memories even. I really don't want it to do too much. I wanted to do one thing deeply and weirdly and so to a certain extent we're compromising on that. This does have memories, but the memories are the hidden part. The memories are down and the algorithms are up. It looks like a flat interface. You scroll to a different algorithm and now you're in a live sandbox. You've got your Legos right in front of you. You don't have to sit there and build your Lego building and save it and then recall it. That just drives me crazy because it's not the spirit of modular sense. So the idea was can we have everything sort of live? Can we have everything dangerous?
And this can come back to bite you because we, our general approach to this is not to make it safe. It goes to 11. The feedback will scream, the filters will go into full resonance. And so if you switch algorithms from one to the next, and if you have all of your knobs up at full and the next algorithm has a filter resonance set, well you're gonna scream, it's gonna explode. So we've gone back and forth a lot about whether that's a big problem or not. And I think we're all sort of on board with the idea that it's dangerous, but it's not a problem. We want it to be dangerous. We want it to be live. And I'm part of this - I have a rather disappointing memory of helping EMU with their Morpheus module back in the early and I was part of the team that was doing filter frames for this amazing vector filter - The H chip.
We came up with some really cool things and there were some filter frames that I designed that could basically shift between odd and even harmonics if you had everything tuned correctly. And it was really very specifically oriented towards certain samples. Like you had to tune the filter to the sample and then it could create some amazing effects that were really like like plastic in your hands. But the problem was that the DSPs weren't fast enough to put data limitation on the Z-plane filter. And so you had these basic nodes and troughs in the filter, right? And the problem is you could define things that were so resonant and two resonant peaks could cross each other and explode and you would get full code, white noise coming out of the speakers and a blown filter and a blown tweeter.
So the marketing department at EMU - I have to say probably wisely - put the lid on the box. They said, okay, this will not be programmable. The choice of samples is going to be locked in there. We're actually, in the prototypes, we could actually have put chips in with our own samples and the filter frames were loadable from a piece of software. You could send your parameters down to the prototype and it would save it and you could make your own filter frames. It was so powerful. and when they came back with this, "No, we're not going to allow that..." Then I was very sad because they really deadened a lovely concept and they made it less interesting. Very, very less interesting. We wanted to avoid that caution and yes - this can blow a tweeter if you're not careful, so probably at least when we're developing things it's a pretty good idea to put a limiter on the end.
Darwin: I mean realistically sort of like the lack of baby bumpers is one of the things that is charming about modular, since I think it's the fact that by bolting stuff together yourself, you're sort of preventing someone else from saying, "No, no, you can't do that!"
Robert: Exactly. And that's in a modular environment. You should be able to put a 10 volt peak-to-peak, 5 Hz square wave through your speakers, right? You'll blow your speakers, but you should be able to do it. That's what modulars can do, you know. I've done some sound design with two oscillators that were both modulating each other at hypersonic frequency. So they were both set above 15 or 20 kilohertz and their FM was going to each other. So what happened was basically a theremin, and it was FM difference tones. And so it was the most chaotic, like it was basically like an FM radio. And you're hearing the modulation tone, right? Like the sub-like subharmonics at that point, right. The subharmonics of hypersonic oscillators and the fact that a modular system would let me do that was exactly how some insane, crazy, chaotic sounds could happen. So we're very much in that mindset. And trying to avoid the sort of cursor-enter-preset mindset of the nineties synths with a big knob and a bunch of buttons.
Darwin: Well, one of the things that this implies, is you talking about or imagining or ideating some sort of a idea in having Paul and Eric put something together and you test it, the testing process and getting that iterative stuff done. Is that done through a software emulation or do you have prototyping hardware that you can flash updates into?
Robert: Yeah, there's about three or four prototypes out in the world right now. One is in England and is with a bunch of guys who are much more inclined towards rhythmic and more technically sort of sound design than I'm inclined towards. And what's wonderful about that is that they'll come in with a lot of ideas that I miss because I'm not thinking in terms of synchronized tap tempo effect. And so they'll come in with requests for a much tighter rhythmic kind of concept. And often my approach is more stochastic and a little bit more like academic music - of trying to do things that are surprising and aleatoric, so like my Chowder algorithm, which Eric has done such an amazing approach with the, the challenge with that was I was looking at sort of, I don't know if you remember the Max hHeadroom videos, these kinds of Max Headroom sorts of sounds, stuttered delays and you know, things that I guess people like BT have become pretty famous for doing by hand.
And I think BT did a plug in for Izotope that does stutter echoes and things like that. So the guys doing more of a rhythmic approach to this, we're thinking I would love to have the pitch shift go all the way to an octave. And because Eric was worried about it being too glitchy sounding at a full octave, we had limited it to a fifth. It was, I think it only went up to plus or minus 700 cents in the shift. And the interesting point brought out as well, if we set it to an octave, and make it so that it's only an octave, it's going to be a much more rhythmically interesting and more musically interesting thing for using it for more melodic music I guess. So I really enjoy having other people's opinions come and set me a little bit straight because I often am thinking more in terms of really weird aleatoric ideas.
Darwin: I mean also there's a thing that no engineer should ever work alone, right? Because, because everyone's blind spots are huge and and bright spots are narrow, right? And so I think it always helps to have a fairly good team of people working on any project because it will prevent you from going down the wrong rabbit holes or by just doing something that doesn't have the right flavor, doesn't just doesn't work.
Robert: Well sometimes it's interesting. This is one of the very first algorithms that Eric provided before we really got our dialogue down. He just tried a few things to see if it was possible. He did some things that I had never thought of and I had trouble even getting my head around. Because he could figure out how to make an algorithm do something in particular. I think there's something in there called spectral delays, which have very unusual ways of skewing the bins. They can raise or lower the bins with voltage curves and make these weird little zippering sorts of noises. It's an FFT going on to underneath, but then it's like shifting the bins higher. So you get these really unusual effects, which when you try something from that engineering point of view, you're going to get something that a musician might never have thought of because it was something outside of their experience.
There was a few others which were amazing, which I had trouble even figuring out how to use. And so in those, we had a lot of back and forth trying to figure out how to make it understandable to a musician. And I'm going to actually have the thing over here, so I'm gonna remind myself it was the... Time Machine. There's an algorithm, it's called the Spectral Time Machine right now. And it's based upon some software, there's a plugin... I don't know the software personally, I haven't tried it, but it's very strange, basically it's a buffer that you can imagine like a piece of tape and you've got your hands on a tape recorder and you're holding the reels and you're rubbing the tape back and forth over the play head. And it has a record head, too, and the record head and the playhead are sort of next to each other and there's going in, but you can sort of stop the tape and make it go backwards, and speed it up and slow it down. You can do this with voltages and you can create the most puzzling, really strange effects of real time bending of frequency and time. You're basically... there's live audio coming in and then you're making it play backwards at half speed. Or you can have it go slower, but with a pitch shift upwards, right?
And then you can freeze it so that sound, so like you've munchkin-ized the sound and then you're freezing it so that it's just going yeeyeeeeeyeee on one vowel and it's, it's very strange. It's really like it's Einsteinian strangeness and the problem was none of us could get our head around how the record and playback were working because the buffer was always live. And so it took us a while to figure out that, Oh, okay, well if we treat it like a Looper and have a record button and a play button, then it is something that we can get our head around because now it's a little bit more like a musician. It's something we've tried before rather than this very confusing sort of the buffers always recording and you're always playing it back different. It's so oftentimes we'll also... not finishing that thought, but jumping to the next parallel thought: A related idea here is that we put a lot of Easter eggs in this thing. So sometimes the testers are very confused because they imagine that some algorithm is going to be great for something. They just can't figure out where it is. And they'll say, "Oh no, it's in there. Just do this turn the feedback knob to the left and now you've got to filter things like that." So there's a fair number of tricks that we're trying to put a lot of depth into each algorithm with only six voltages and a tap tempo gate, you know?
Darwin: yeah, well I was going to actually ask about that because some of these algorithms you're talking about, I mean, when you're talking about things like spectral delays and spectral manipulation, the software that works on these things generally has multiple sliders per bin and stuff, and they'll take up your whole computer screen with just it's control mechanisms. In this case you have to boil everything down. So there are like four parameter knobs for modulation control, modulations, control, voltage modulations, and four buttons and a central control, right?
What are the kinds of things you do to wedge massive parameters sets into... frankly, one people's first reaction when they look at this module is probably like, "Oh my God, that's the size of a Buick!", you know? But on the other hand, this thing will never fit for you. Right. Especially in these days of two HP modules - having something this large initially seems crazy. But then as you start talking about it, literally to be able to have access to the kind of parameters that this needs in a useful way and without it being overly presetted. I think that's the thing that I'm hearing that I like the most, which is that it's not oriented towards pressing buttons seven times to get to a certain algorithm - and then this one knob does three variations of magic.
Robert: That's right. See the voltages are always live and so it's always paying attention to six voltage inputs. Four of them are for the parameters. There's a little secret parameter extra that we've got, which the the feedback knobs left and right feedback - they zero at noon. And so they go negative to the left and positive to the right and there's a voltage attached to each of them. And also, a CV gain input unit for the CV controller to adjust how much that external voltage is being paid attention to. So we can sometimes put little Easter eggs in the feedback knobs because they're just controllers as well. All of the knobs are actually going to the computer, right? And so, well, except for the voltage attenuators are analog, but the,
Darwin: Everything else acts as parameters into the algorithm.
Robert: That's right. So we can redefine feedback if there's... A lot of times, like in delays, it makes sense to have a positive phase and a negative phase feedback. But in other times it might be possible to sneak something else under there. So, for example, Eric has come up with an amazing version of a spectral freeze, which has a few features that are different from Michael Norris's awesome spectral freeze - which I've used for years in my sleep music to slow things down and make into infinite drones. So Eric is facing some limitations in the active memory in the DSP; unlike a computer, we don't have gigabytes of operational RAM, right? So there's a fair amount of buffer RAM. We've got up to 16 minutes of delay - buffer RAM, right? So we can have incredibly long looping delays if we want, but to do an FFT there's only a few megabytes.
So we can't do these crazy long FFT time windows you can do in Michael Norris plugins, right? I often do my infinite drones with 16,000 K of buffer time and that's within the bins. So each bin of the FFT is accumulating an average over like eight seconds, right? And we can't do that. We're really limited to an internal RAM limitation that's like... We can get about a half second or a quarter second on each bin, which is still a lot, but there's going to be a sort of drone of about 48 Hz if you turn all of the randomization off. So it's has its internal sound and that's just because of the sample rate of the processor. So what Eric has found out how to do is to turn off some of the grid quantization and to turn on or off the variance that is available on a drone-maker kind of plugin.
And we've snuck it into the feedbacks. So basically there's what we've called pinging, which is basically, by changing the quantization characteristics of the pitch within the FFT, if your feedback is zero, it's at noon. If you turn it to the right, it does sort of the standard drone-maker thing, but you turn it to the left and you get these strange little bell tones that are coming within the algorithm because it's actually using a different kind of grid quantization. And so there's a lot of really deep and subtle Easter eggs that are hidden within each algorithm. We're trying to make this depth in the algorithm be immediately available with voltage control. There's another place where one of the controls, I think there's a few algorithms - I forget which ones right now - where one control will increase the resonance of a filter and the pitch of the filter at the same time.
So one knob will sort of create a dual sound. You know, we can throw a few different parameters under a couple of knobs and make it complex. Another way of doing this is with randomization. So like with the stutter echo, the knobs actually increase the likelihood that a certain event might happen. And so we're doing a fair amount of that. So between the ability to go... Certain algorithms, it really makes no sense to have negative phase feedback - like a Looper for example. So what we can do then is make turning the feedback to the left, it might add a different kind of distortion or it might add some filter cutoff to make it murky. Things like that.
So we're doing a lot of ganging. But then also it's, sometimes it's simply making educated guesses about what are useful parameters to fix into the algorithm. You know, my own feeling is that I want to keep that sandbox feeling of putty in my hands when I'm in a modular environment. And so I don't want people to have to read a manual to use a module. I think that there's a certain amount of turn-until-it-sounds-cool kind of mentality, that there should be enough chaos and enough weirdness that you can be surprised and that once you get to the learn an algorithm deeply, you can dive in really deep and get some significant things - so like, you can take some resonators or a flanger kind of thing, and you can turn it into a Karplus Strong synthesizer, right? So that's in there. You know, you take a short delay and it suddenly becomes a pingable delay and you see now you've got a Karplus Strong synthesizer, and that's possible.
Darwin: So from a musician standpoint, how do you take something like this... I mean, this is going to be like a whole new set of fungible tools for you, right? How do you integrate that into your musical practice? Because in a way, a lot of the instruments that you use, you've been using forever. Some of them you've been using it at the very least for quite a while. And I'm wondering how you take... So you talk about things like having an H3000, which has been part of your practice for a long, long time. Your use of that, or of the lap steel, something you've used for a long time. How do you take something brand new and find a way to integrate it into your own work so that it can meld its way in without it being just an irritant of like, "Ah, I have a gig to do and this is just in a way!"
Robert: Well, there's, there's a couple approaches to that. I mean, one is the sandbox play approach where every musician knows that having a new toy can create new ideas, that you can be inspired. And so my hope is that this will inspire a lot of people to explore radical new sound design. I tend to treat modular synths myself personally as a place to explore sound design. So, and oftentimes like in my own music, what people think are nature recordings might be a blend of actual acoustic night sounds and things coming off the modular that sounded like underwater bubble creatures and you know, weird science fiction whales and stuff or even just birds and insects. Oftentimes they're patches, there's certain tricks that I've learned over the years of like really narrow pulse width oscillators at low frequencies, resonating filters to create little crickets and cicadas and things like that.
And so oftentimes when I'm working on a new album, I'll set up patches on the modular and just have the recorder ready to go at all times. And as soon as something interesting starts happening, I just push record and I explore with record running. And I might only get a minute or two or 20 seconds of interesting stuff out of there, but I let myself be in the moment and just make a new sound like especially chaotic approaches of looping feedback, of outputs of a patch back into the inputs of a patch. And if you do feedback patches, then it's really nice to have some time domain, some delays and things. Pure analog synthesis with no digital buffering, like with no delays, becomes really hard to do a lot of chaotic things because the feedback becomes pretty much hard feedback very quickly. You just get screaming.
But as soon as you start bringing in some of these nonlinear effects and time-domain effects, then your chaotic patches can become very surprising and very interestingly different and hard to control. You know, I'd liken some of these tricks to being on a tanker ship with an iceberg in front of you - and you have to start turning two days before the iceberg is there because you're not going to be able to turn fast. You know, so you've got these big slabs of electrons that are moving around sort of slightly outside of your control. And I love that chaotic place where I'm just out on a limb. You know, oftentimes the speakers are turned way down because it could just end up exploding. And I think a device like this, because of the complex spectral nature, the very nonlinear kinds of things that are possible, a lot of time domain, it'll be really encouraging for that kind of play, for pure experimental sound design.
I think though a lot of people who do dance music and more rhythmic music will find the tap tempo and the clockability of it to be really interesting because you can put a gate into the tap input and you can drive it with an external clock. And so a lot of these very complex timbral echoes, things like the spectral delay and reversing things, or the chowder delay can make what's coming into it come out in different, very abstract, sequences. One of the ideas that that go into the chowder delay was a thing that came out of Cal Arts that was - it's one of my favorite radical plugins. It's called Argeïphontes Lyre. Do you know about this? It's a wonderful program. Akira Rabelais was the guy who wrote it, I don't know his human name, that's his artist name.
And he wrote it as a graduate student at Cal Arts back in the 90s, perhaps, a long time ago anyway. And there is one module within Argeïphontes Lyre, if you've ever used it, you know how crazy it is. You almost don't know how anything's working - it automatically assigns random words to your files when it creates them. And whenever you start processing a file, it creates this little animation of two people hammering on a piece of metal. It's wonderful. It's just really quirky. And one of the plugins is called Eviscerator ReAnimator. And I've used this for experimental pieces. And what you do is you put a bunch of audio files into a folder with different names and you alphabetize the names to be the sequence that you want them to be chewed upon. And the Eviscerator ReAnimator basically goes down through each file alphabetically and takes a grain from each one in series and loops around back to the start and slowly builds a new file of a granulated mix and match of whatever files you have in that folder.
It's very ill. It's medically crazy and it's wonderful. It's really insane. And you can make some very disturbing sounds out of this. So the idea was that using some of these stochastic processes and the chowder delay, what we can actually do is rearrange the audio that's coming out. It's so audio will come into the E-520 and then if you set yourself up with a really big buffer, you know like 20 seconds, you can set the sequence of the output so that it's actually doing an Eviscerator ReAnimator with real time audio and it's taking chunks that happened earlier in chunks that happened more recently. They can play them back backwards and forwards. It can play them back at different pitches and then using the feedback controls, you can make those pitches like up and down and it becomes a real time sicko-making machine. It's a wonderful, wonderful sick thing.
Darwin: I was just actually having a conversation with someone else today where we are talking about how there are a lot of people who are very skilled at DSP and making things work like audio processors that we've experienced in the past. But there's this whole aspect of potential manipulation that just says, "Hey, audio is also data, right? It's numbers and what happens if you take little segments and sort them? What happens if you take little segments and shuffle them up?" You know, that's what this sounds like this ReAnimator thing does, right? If you started treating it like data instead of like audio content, there's like a whole area of effects processing that hasn't really been explored that much yet.
Robert: And the spectral domain allows for even a deeper version of the data approach. And so for example, with the modulation of the spectral delays, you're basically doing what you've described. You know with the chowder delay, it's doing it in the time domain, right? But in the spectral delays, it's doing it in the FFT domain. So it's in the frequency domain. And so now what you can do is you can start putting data from one frequency band into another frequency bin. You can say, "I'm just going to put this 50 Hertz chunk over here." And there're voltages that tell you the pattern that you want to do that there's like built in sine waves that you can change the frequency of. There's curves with slopes, so you can make it slope upwards, so that it's like a bucket brigade. Every bin will get tossed to the next higher band or the next lower bid, right?
And so you're essentially doing that in the frequency domain. And once you can start doing that, well pretty much all bets are off. You can be in a very, very nonlinear place. Now the question is how to get your head around it so that you can come up with musically-interesting ideas. It's one thing for all of us to dream about a sound nobody has made before, right? When we're in the world of synthesis, we imagine somehow a module doing things that nothing else has done well. And when you actually start looking at most of the options that happen in the nonlinear realm, and you can hear this with a lot of the Eurorack inventions that have come out, almost all the time it simply sounds like a new kind of distortion. Because you're simply adding harmonics to things and what's that? It's distortion.
And so to get something that's actually musical and not sounding like distortion, but [that is] uniquely different from something you've heard before, it turns out to be really, really hard because you can try something that's mathematically different from what anyone has ever tried. And you end up hearing, "Oh Gee, it's another kind of distortion report", or "Gee, it sounds like an echo with a filter, or it sounds like something blurry." So we very quickly organize our sensory information into experiences that we've had before and we name them very quickly. We're amazing at that. We are structuring, organizing animals. You know, our brains put things into logical groups on shelves immediately. So to come up with a shelf that nobody has ever dreamed of before, it's like coming up with a color that nobody's ever seen before. It's a lot harder than it sounds, right? So a lot of the time I'm struggling with just trying to come up with something that isn't yet another echo with distortion, right? Oh gee, it's a different kind of echo with diffusion this time, you know?
But sometimes a very simple tweak can make a very radical change. So an example of that, one of my favorite effects in my lifetime, one of my favorite effects boxes was the Sony R7 reverb. I had that as my basic reverb for mixing all throughout the 90's. The thing came out around 1991, 1990 perhaps, and I was using... I had one blow up on me so I found another one used and then that one blew up on me five or six years later. All of them by now that are out in the field, probably their DSPs have blown up because they just, they stop working basically and there's no way to fix them. You know the DSP was custom. And so the last one I had I think gasped its last breath about six years ago maybe, but there was a reverb phase shifter algorithm in that which sounded more phase shifty than anything I have ever used before in my life.
It was so swishy, it was just like you were getting sucked through a black hole. And I was like, it was just cool and I couldn't get that sound anywhere. And I was trying to reverse engineer what was happening with it. And I realized that it was very simple - they simply had a diffuser before a swept phase shifter. And so that's nothing fancy. It was just a really good implementation, smart, just a really easy tweak. And so that was one of the easier things that Eric got working. And it's in the phase shifter. It's what is it called? It's called diffusion phaser, I think. I'm cheating now cause I forget some of these things. It is just a very, very swishy or... flanger I guess, it's not, it's the flanger - stereo flanger delay is what it's called.
So it's a flanger with a diffuser at the front. It's just deep. You know, it's very rich sounding and very swishy, and also there's this new territory we're in engaging right now, which is dual mono plugins. So basically a way to daisy chain effects, you can't do it with all of them because even this DSP gets a little bit hampered. It can't do two different simultaneous spectral plugins for example. It's just too much. But for some of the time domain algorithms, we can actually daisy chain them. And so Eric has gotten that working pretty well and those are the ones that can really explode, by the way, if you've got like resonance on. I managed to almost make myself go deaf two weeks ago with testing a flanger going into the phaser and setting the feedback so that it was going back into the beginning of the loop and it just, it took off on you. Immediately. So yeah, you have to be a little careful, especially with headphones on. Cause these things can happen. But as you know, we give people enough rope basically.
Darwin: So true. Well, Robert, unfortunately our time is up. And normally this is the time when I would ask what what have you got on your work bench? Or what are you working on that's about to come out. And the fact of the matter is, we're talking about right here, this E-520 is is basically, I think the early adopter purchases was going to be ending very soon. So people that are interested in getting a break on this should hop on it. But it also sounds like, it's really it's rushing towards completion, too. So this is something that we're going to be able to see in people's racks pretty soon as well. So that's really exciting. What else are you doing? Do you have any releases coming up anytime soon?
Robert: You know, for the first time in ages, it's been a year since my last release, which is a two CD set: Tactical Ground, and Tactical Ground came out in January of 2019. And I've just been busy with concerts and this kind of stuff, and with product design and also tons of mastering work. So I have a new album in the works, but it's going to be at least another six months away. It's a tough one. A lot of notes, a lot of micro-tuning and it's going to be, well the working title of the next album is Neurogenesis. It's all about. let's say, the plasticity of the brain, which means it could be a bit of an ear-bending album. It might be a real turn off for a few people.
Darwin: Well, I'm looking forward to it and I will be looking forward to the next time we get a chance to talk. This was really fantastic. Thank you for sharing the process and the geekery behind your work on this processor. This sounds really interesting. I'm anxious to get my hands on it and I'm anxious to hear what people are going to be able to do with it
Robert: And I am having a lot of fun. It's so much fun to work with Eric Brombaugh too, because he is one of the great geniuses out there right now doing this stuff.
Darwin: That's awesome. Well, thanks a lot for your time. I do appreciate it and have a great one.
Robert: It's a pleasure. Thanks.
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