SonikMatter Interview (part 2)

by Rick 'Brujo' Wishart with assistance from Brian 'Cowzar' Cowell

6. What gear do you currently have in your studio Martin?

As you might expect from someone who writes so much about PC music technology, my Pentium 4 computer takes centre stage running a huge variety of music software. In the early days I was known to my friends as Martin 'six keyboards' Walker, and used to cart most of them around playing live, but over the years I've sold most of my music hardware, keeping just a few favourites. I'm not a hoarder, and if anything isn't earning its keep it gets sold.

Despite the huge advances in technology since its release, my favourite hardware synth is still Korg's Wavestation, for its unique evolving sounds. It's a classic example of the sounds being worth battling past the restrictions of a front panel interface. I also have a Roland JV1080 for quality bread and butter sounds, and still use my ancient Korg M1 as a master keyboard, and occasionally its sounds as well, as I created hundreds of my own programs and combinations over the years - there's nothing more rewarding than writing music with your own signature sounds.

Most of my more recent hardware acquisitions are PC-related. For instance, my trusty SW1000XG soundcard provides me with a Yamaha MU90 synth, but is hooked up to a Kenton Plugstation containing four PLG daughterboards covering FM synthesis, analogue physical modeling, pianos, and virtual acoustic physical modeling. These provide me with a wide range of expressive sounds along with huge polyphony, without straining my computer's processing power, which is then free for other duties.

When it comes to software, two synths in particular have also captured my imagination over the last few years - Reaktor for moving the goalposts of softsynth design, and Tassman for adding modeling of physical objects. I love their open-ended approach to sound design, although it can be intimidating for beginners. I also love Atmosphere for its superb-sounding pads, and Hypersonic for its versatile yet easy-to-use sound library.

However, GigaStudio has provided the most revolutionary change to my music making over the last few years, along with its wonderful range of streaming sample libraries from developers such as Dennis Burns (Bolder Sounds), Dan Dean, and Gary Garritan.

Now that software can produce sound of such high quality you just have to make sure the playback chain is as good as you can manage, and my ATC and AVI monitors help a great deal in this respect.

7. What forms of synthesis do you think should be explored more, or least revisited again?

Again, I think it all comes down to the sounds and the interface. Who would have thought that in 2002 we'd be getting so excited about a sample+synthesis instrument? But that's exactly what happened with Eric Persing's Atmosphere, due to its inspiring 3Gb library and easy-to-use interface.

Most of the hardware classics are already being revisited in software form, and Native Instruments' FM7 takes FM synthesis to new heights, again because it's much easier to use than the original. I missed out on FM synthesis the first time round, but met it at the deep end when programming a sound editor for Sega's Megadrive games console, which effectively contained a Yamaha TX81Z that I had to talk to at chip level. I fell in love with its unique timbres, especially the metallic and bell-like sounds, but the beauty of dealing with synthesis at a low level is that you can investigate anything that takes your fancy. I found adding a little randomness at various places to the algorithms gave FM a more living, breathing quality.

I still think there's a lot more to be squeezed out of wave sequencing in its various forms, particularly if someone can make it more accessible for editing with a decent computer-based front end like Korg have just done with the virtual Wavestation of their new Legacy Collection. Stringing together a sequence of sound snippets can produce some unique results, and once you reduce their size you're entering granular synthesis territory - again, another fertile breeding ground for new sounds, although in many cases rather unpredictable.

Physical modelling has also still got a lot more to offer, especially now computer-based interfaces can make it so much more approachable. However, there's often a fine dividing line between order and chaos in physical modelling, and hardware designs tend to restrict the available models to those that behave well. Software-based applications like Tassman let you push the boundaries rather more, and you can end up with some totally unique sounds if you're prepare to steer carefully.

However, I've always loved sounds that evolve and have a life of their own, and that you can adjust in real-time. I'm not just talking about wiggling a filter frequency knob either, but having enough control over the sound that it feels 'alive'. Acoustic instruments are rewarding because they allow each player to extract a huge range of sounds, depending on how you hit, pluck, or blow them. And once started, the notes carry on evolving harmonically, as well as (in polyphonic instruments) interacting with others over time. You can get the same 'organic' quality with some synths if you're prepared to put some effort into controlling them in real time, but although the breath controller is ideal for wind players, I'd like to see some more expressive keyboard-based controllers available.

8. What are your thoughts on the "workstation" concept of today?

I may be untypical, but I've never once used the integral sequencers in any of the keyboard instruments I've owned, apart from playing the demo songs. Personally I much prefer the graphic interface provided by a computer-based system - this gives you so much more freedom that I'm not sure nowadays how many musicians would be interested in a dedicated hardware workstation with a fixed spec. After all, now that we can run our choice of synthesisers, samplers, effects, MIDI sequencing, audio recording and playback all from one handy computer, many musicians only need to plug in a keyboard controller at one end, and amplifier and speakers at the other.

Where dedicated hardware scores is its reliability, and here computers still have some way to catch up, although a PC purpose-built for music using high quality components, emitting low acoustic noise, and properly set up for the special requirements of music, can be extremely stable, as can a Mac, which at least starts out with a specification known to each and every developer.

Computers go wrong precisely because we have so much freedom, and can install whatever new hardware and software we fancy, and tweak so many aspects of software and hardware performance - there are just too many ways to bring your computer to its knees if you don't know what you're doing. We're also partially victims of our own impatience, since most of us now expect to buy software once and get a lifetime of free support and upgrades. So, software developers are constantly developing new products to tempt us to part with our money. The result is that the contents of most musician's computers are never static for more than a week or two, which isn't the ideal recipe for long-term reliability.

9. What sort of features do you think manufacturers are missing on synths these days

I'd like to see more performance controls, since you can get so much more expression out of most synths once you start waggling a few knobs. Novation's new Remote 25 is a good example of what I'm talking about, since this starts with a quality semi-weighted 25-note keyboard that responds to aftertouch, and then adds 24 buttons, 8 knobs, 8 encoders, and 8 sliders, plus (best of all) a programmable joystick and touchpad. If only someone would create five, six, and seven octave versions of this I'd buy the largest one immediately, whether it had any sounds in it or not.

10. With groundbreaking products like Reaktor and a plethora of other music software 'plugins' of hugely varying quality presently available to musicians, what do you believe are the key programming achievements which are necessary that distinguish the innovative from the mediocre?

I'm not sure you can itemise a series of 'key programming achievements', particularly when it comes to softsynths and plugins. Sometimes innovative products take a huge amount of development time and resources, as for example the huge sample libraries involved in the excellent Spectrasonics softsynths, and in this case only larger companies can create them.

On the other hand, the beauty of products from smaller coding teams or even individuals is that without a lot of staff on their payroll they can code wherever their fancy takes them, and come up with genuinely different products that sometimes break new ground. I was particularly inspired recently by DelayDots' Spectral plugin suite for instance, since it let me create radical new effects in the frequency domain that I hadn't heard before. I ended up creating a bank of presets that's now bundled with the plugins, and even the designer was surprised by some of the sounds that his own code was capable of.

Then of course there's the middle ground, where smaller developers get taken on board by larger ones to further develop new ideas - a good example of this is NI's Absynth. This enables ambitious products to be funded for long enough to let them mature and become more commercial. Ultimately you just have to use your ears and decide for yourself what works and what doesn't, whether it's freeware, shareware, or a full commercial offering - the boundaries are quite blurred nowadays.

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