Keyboards Magazine Germany (2003)

Interview with Robert Rich and J├Ârge Sunderkoetter

Q:First I would like to know about your musical background, where did you begin?

RR: Although I took some lessons on viola when I was young, and I sung in choirs, I really started thinking about music when I was about 13 (around 1976), when I began improvising on my parents piano and also began building synthesizer kits. I slowly assembled a cheap modular synth by around 1979, and started playing in a very bad improvising electronic noise group around the San Francisco Bay area. (My friend Rick Davies played with me in that group, and I continue to work with him occasionally as Amoeba.) I started making my slow ambient music around the same time, and performed my first all-night “sleep concert” in February of 1982, in my first year at university (Stanford). That same year I also released my first album “Sunyata”, based on this very slow music. A few years later I was able to talk my way into the computer music labs at Stanford (CCRMA), and used the tools there to help me create just intonation tuning tables that I could use for more accurate microtonal experiments. I found that I couldn’t really make good music at CCRMA. I just could not think musically while writing computer programs to make the sounds. I got much better work done at home with my cheap modular synth, a Prophet 5 and a Revox B77. I’ve been a home-recordist at heart since the beginning, I guess.

Q: When did your interest for analogue/modular synthesizers start?

RR: From the very beginning, when I started building my own. Back in the late ’70s, the only way I could afford to get started was to build modular kits. Modular synths became my most comfortable method of working. Anyway, that’s all there was back then.

Q: Or whats the reason for your decision to work with a modular system?

RR: These days, analog modulars seem a bit outdated, like a dinosaur. But I still feel that they guide me into more creative ways of thinking, more experimental. Also, it’s impossible to do exactly the same thing twice. I like the way they force me into a creative corner. As soft synths get more powerful, perhaps hardware seems like an indulgence, a luxury. But I find that the physical synth imposes a different way of thinking. And, it sounds better!

Q: Are you using other equipment like conventional synthesizers?

RR: I think of a modular as a “real” synth… but yes, of course I use other synths and keyboards, and acoustic instruments too. I don’t buy every new thing that comes out, though, because many of the new synths don’t do what I need. I still use my old Korg Wavestation, ASR10 sampler, DX7II, TG77, and even my original Prophet 5. (I don’t tend to get rid of old synths.) I suppose I still rely primarily on hardware synths, though, in part because my old computers are too slow to run the latest soft synths.

Q: What’s your opinion about virtual synthesizers and esp. Modular Softsynths?

RR: Quite simply, a picture of a knob isn’t a knob. I like the visceral feeling of patching real patchcords, of processing live instruments with the modules. Also, DSP isn’t fast enough yet to acheive some of the crazy audio-frequency modulation and feedback that I use to get sounds like those on Bestiary, for example. Someday I am sure that DSP will catch up and become fast enough to do audio rate cross-modulation, and I think the new developments are exciting, especially for time-domain related synthesis (FFT transforms, granular, phase vocoding, etc.) I do use virtual synths and DSP for some things, of course. I am a big fan of Pluggo, and I often use it to do strange damage. (Analog isn’t good for time-domain effects). I also frequently use shareware called SoundHack for phase vocoding and convolution off-line. Some of these features are now becoming available in realtime, and that’s an exciting developement. I like the sound of some of the more experimental soft-synths, especially Absynth, which Ian Boddy and I used a bit on Outpost. My main wish with all the new synths is that they should support the MIDI Tuning Spec. I can’t use them if I can’t tune them to my own intervals. I get very frustrated by the lack of this feature.

Q: Can you discribe a little the way you work with the system?

RR: My methods change a bit with each album. I’ve been using a pair of old beige Mac G3s, accelerated to G4 500 MHz, running CuBase VST32, patched into a Mackie d8b with MOTU and RME interfaces. I tend to track audio directly into CuBase, playing the parts by hand, not using its advanced MIDI features. If I need to trigger rhythmic events with MIDI, I still tend to use Opcode Vision on an old laptop, like a stand-alone sequencer. I like the way I can quickly set up independent loops with different durations in Vision, where they phase against each other indefinitely and I perform the sounds live on the modular. It’s a bit silly and primitive to separate the environments like this, but somehow it works for the way I think. Often my other sounds come from heavily processed acoustic sources, which I track clean into CuBase and use off-line DSP or Pluggo to mangle it. Sometimes I’ll process sounds by looping audio out to the mixer, creating feedback webs among outboard processors that I mix live and dub back onto the computer.

Q: On the collaboration-CD with Ian Body I heard some interesting ring-modulation-like sounds – they sound really dark but absolutley transparent and clear (hard to discribe:-). Are you patching “self-players” with a random moment or are recording track by track? I just would like get an idea of the way you put everything together to a complete piece of music…

RR: Hmm… I wonder if you are refering to the prepared piano, such as in the intro and end of the CD. Those are acoustic, of course. I inserted rubber erasers between the piano strings before Ian arrived at my studio in California, and he was so enchanted by the sound that I suggested he play those parts. If you are refering to the ring-mod sounds in the electronic rhythmic sections, those come entirely from the MOTM modular. I recorded the modular rhythms before Ian came to California. I set up some rhythmic MIDI loops on my laptop with Vision and performed the rhythms from the MOTM with 8 channels of MIDI-voltage conversion (Encore Expressionist). I recorded the rhythms “live” as audio to two tracks, complete with all the processing (echoes, reverbs, flanging, etc.) Later, Ian and I picked the rhythm performances we wanted to work with and layered those sections around the stereo rhythm submix. On many of my albums, I like all the tracks to run together as a suite, so I often keep the entire CD in the form of one huge song file in CuBase, mixing the album with help from the d8b automation in one long pass. These CuBase files typically consist entirely of audio tracks. I have barely touched the MIDI features of CuBase, using it more like a digital multitrack. I like to get the sound complete from the start, rather than wait to make my final decisions with virtual tracks. Once I get the sound I want, I commit to it.

Q: When playing live, are you working with your system or are you using a “transportable soulution”?

RR: I still prefer to carry my synths, including the modular. A fast laptop would be a lot easier for me to carry, but I think it’s boring for the audience to watch. Many people have told me they appreciate the difference, and they prefer to see me work with all the gear, even though it may be an “obsolete” method. Also, few of the soft-synths and plug-ins support alternate tunings, so I still need my old gear to play in just intonation. (I do use the old Mac laptop as a sort of stand-alone MIDI sequencer, triggering pieces in Vision with the keys of the laptop keyboard.)

Q: Can you tell a little bit about your choice of MOTM?

RR: I discovered it when a magazine asked me to write a review for them. I fell in love with the incredible audio quality, the full range of modulation, the stability and solid construction. It sounded better than any synth I had ever used, analog or digital. I purchased the review modules and started asssembling a system. I began suggesting ideas for new modules to the designer, Paul Schreiber, who wanted to hear more feedback from professional users. We started to come up with new designs, things that nobody has done before. Some of these modules will become available this year, I hope. Now I help Paul demo the synth at trade shows, in exchange for new modules. It’s a good trade! I like the modular nature of a system like this. There is a community of independent designers who make third-party modules that fit the system. Everybody’s system grows to fit the personality of its user. I think we will see some very surprising and challenging new developements with analog/digital hybrid modules. The quality and the concepts behind the system seem less likely to become obsolete than most soft-synths.

Q: Whats your current project about? Are there plans for touring in Europe?

RR: My most recent CD “Temple of the Invisible” is actually entirely acoustic, using a lot of prepared piano and simple instruments like zithers, flutes and percussion. I wanted to create the music of a lost culture, something completely mysterious and organic, like an undiscovered field recording. When I finish my current concert tour I plan to return to the studio for a while to work on another electronic album, probably a bit more melodic than “Bestiary” and using some new tools to achieve just intonation with the modular synth, including a prototype sequencer and midi-voltage converter that should store tuning tables using the MIDI microtuning specification. I have a concert planned for Paris in springtime of 2004, and maybe also in Spain. It’s a bit difficult to carry electronics on airplanes these days, so I will probably do more improvised slow concerts in Europe, with some borrowed synths, homemade flutes and lap steel guitar, rather than the active rhythmic concerts with MOTM that I am performing in North America, where I can carry the heavy gear in the car.