Beauty Isn’t Always Pretty
In The Studio with Robert Rich
by Rob Riddle
Working with audio for over two decades now, Robert Rich continues to define and refine his own particular niche in alternative, independent media. Robert creates trance inducing, hypnotic chill out soundscapes for imaginative, thinking people; at times lurking, almost disturbing and yet also prone to a gorgeous lightness, always with the intent of realizing his own sense of hidden truth and beauty found in overlooked, wild places, internal and external. He designs environments that continually play with the listener’s perceptions of time and space, creating pieces that soothe the spirit and gurgle out of your speakers, alive and evocative of possible realms both past and present. As an artist he works with a number of contemporaries in the electro-acoustic and ambient genres, such as Steve Roach, Brian Lustmord and Ian Boddy.
His surprisingly gritty DIY work ethic, which includes the construction of his own instruments, hints at old prog-rock and punk influences, but the music he makes is of a different sort altogether. Robert’s interest in acoustics, microtonal tunings, computer processing and chaos theory combine with his studies in psychology and his instinctual hunter/gatherer knowledge of fungi, herbal concoctions and wine vinting to weave a wonderfully complex and occasionally contradictory tapestry of old ways and new science; like his music the artist also reflects an effective mishmash of the organic and the digital, the modern with the perennial.
Part shaman, part scientist, disarmingly goofy and friendly we caught up with Robert at his home studio in Mountain View, CA. With a new improvisational piano album (that he describes as somewhere between Keith Jarrett, Erik Satie and G. I. Gurdjieff) ready for release on his own label, we tried to talk about gear but the conversation kept flowing to, well, everything else.
Do you have an insatiable appetite for new stuff, like so many musicians and producers?
RR: I’m not a gearhead in the sense that I don’t crave new gear, although I buy gear, but the gear is just a tool; i have ideas in my head and I work on the ideas, I work on sound design, and if the gear gets in the way of my sound design, of my flow of ideas, then I don’t use it.
What constitutes the backbone of your recording studio?
RR: Currently I use a pair of Apple Macintosh G3s, running OS9 and Steinberg Cubase 5.1 OS9, with MOTU and RME interfaces. I have a new dual G5 on order, which I’ll use to run Logic.
And your favorite devices?
RR: Duntech Sovereign speakers – I still think these rank among the 10 best speakers ever made, at least to my ears. I found a used pair about 5 years ago after hearing the Duntechs that my friend and mastering mentor Bob Ohlsson had obtained. I had never heard anything as critical and accurate. These have helped maintain my edge as a mastering engineer, where critical listening prevents errors in overprocessing.
MOTM analog modular synth – The most fun I’ve had with a synth in my entire career. It lets me experiment with approaches to sound design that other architectures won’t allow. A good real analog synth like this one has several advantages over plug-ins: it allows me to modulate anything with anything else, at amazing audio rates if desired, with feedback loops and chaotic relationships. Real knobs are way better than pictures of knobs on a screen.
1925 A.B. Chase baby grand piano – Piano is the one instrument I can still enjoy improvising on for hours on end, even when the power is out!
When you were a teenager you put together your own modular synthesizer, an impressive task, and this type of instrument remains the cornerstone to much of your work. Can you explain how and why you get so much use out of it?
RR: The reason I like modular synths and the reason I still use mixers (as opposed to just doing everything on the computer) is that I like to flow with effects and to work real time with things.
I’m still not using many soft synths for example. I find that when things are in the box the edges are too sharp, you can’t squish them. I want sound to be like clay when it’s wet.
But you’re not opposed to virtual synths either; you use software manipulations as well as analog don’t you?
RR: I do work in the box sometimes. On “Bestiary” the strange vocal mangling that I did at the end of the album is in Sound Hack. That’s stand alone non-realtime shareware made by Tom Erbe out of Cal Arts, who used to be at Mills College; I use it for all sorts of odd effects. I also use another wonderful program, MetaSynth, often.
How about Cycling ’74 software like Max/MSP and Pluggo?
RR: They’re great, I love that stuff, because it’s messy!
But they’re tools. It doesn’t matter, what matters is what’s coming from your head, the idea you have and how you want to realize it. The tools, if they get out of the way of your method and allow you to flexibly realize what’s in your head, then they’re doing their job.
The problem I have currently with a lot of soft synths and a lot of recent developments in electronic music is that they are so oriented towards dance music, they make it too easy to make cookie cutter music. A lot of these programs guide you into the box; so I make an artistic decision to make my life more difficult, to keep myself in the moment so I have to wrestle with each sound. When I patch sounds up on the modular synth they’re never the same twice.
Ease of use in life can become a poison. Making music is becoming a passive entertainment, with pre-packaged ideas. I would rather struggle to learn the chops to actually play something of my own than to play loops of other people’s perfect playing.
In the end you choose to take the parts of those tools that help you realize the stuff that you have in your head. Sometimes the tools suggest to us new ideas, and I love that, that’s ok, but I’m constantly trying to break rules and that means sometimes ignoring those suggestions or making a personal decision to not pay attention to certain things that are available.
You have a very nice but not lavishly equipped studio, does that reflect your method and philosophy?
RR: I would rather push a limited studio to the limits because I think what happens then, the human elements come in because you’re thinking creatively, and you hear that in the sound.
It sounds kind of stupid that you should have to struggle with technology in order to make good art, you’d think that the technology should get out of the way, but it doesn’t work like that. The machines push back on us, any instrument pushes back, it suggests to us certain pathways that work and other pathways that don’t, and that gives us meaning in our decision making process.
I feel that when we push our tools to the very limits what happens is the pushing becomes the human endeavor, not the tool showing what the tool can do. People do what the tools give them, but good artists can push the tools to the absolute limit to find something relevant and fresh.
We can ignore the noise that tells us what we should be doing, and try to find a little bubble of silence. An internal voice says, “I need to do this, I don’t know if anybody else needs this, but it’s just what I’m hearing” I prefer to follow that voice. I’ve probably embarrassed myself many times by exposing my love for things that are basically good and beautiful.
What constitutes great art work in the modern day?
RR: For me personally great art expresses life and death, the experience of being here now and the realization of that being a very precious thing.
I love the senses and the way they teach us that there is something beyond the senses. The more attuned we get to each moment the more we realize that there’s a thing tuning us, and that thing hovers in this mist, the more we look the more it goes away.