Aphex Twin on Nylon

Simon Farintosh talks about arranging classic tracks like “Avril 14th” and “Alberto Balsalm” for classical guitar.

Almost three years ago, back in April 2018, Simon Farintosh posted a two-minute video of himself performing an Aphex Twin song in his own arrangement for classical guitar. The video was 10 days late. That is, it was posted on April 24, 10 days after April 14, the date from which the song in question, “Avril 14th,” takes its title.

Since then, Farintosh has more than made up for that slight delay. In a little more than half a year, he has posted to YouTube one by one a half dozen live video performances of Aphex Twin tracks, including an updated version of “Avril 14th” (see above), mixed in with what might be expected from a classical guitarist (Bach, Scriabin, Villa-Lobos), plus more modern works by Philip Glass, Thelonious Monk, and Nils Frahm, and even “In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)” from David Lynch’s Eraserhead (humorously, Farintosh opted to do this last one in black and white).

The additional contemporary material gives some aesthetic context for what Farintosh is up to. I was intrigued by his Aphex Twin project and sent him an email. He had mentioned online that he was collecting the six pieces into an EP, and replied to my email with an advance copy. I spent time listening to the tracks and comparing them with the source material. I grew interested in the decision-making entailed in Farintosh’s effort, and we agreed to do the interview that appears below.

There is no shortage of Aphex Twin covers, from post-classical ensembles like Alarm Will Sound to adventurous jazz groups like the Bad Plus to countless amateur piano and guitar players who post videos of their homemade performances. I wrote about several of these in my book on the album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Few have the sustained attention to detail that Farintosh’s exhibit. As he explained, “I think that in a sense, every transcription is a cover. … The reverse is not true, however.” (There’s quite a bit in the book about the correlation of the music of Aphex Twin, aka Richard D. James, and classical music, so I won’t go over it in this brief introduction.)

“Arranging electronic music for guitar is similar arranging orchestral music,” he told me our back and forth, “as there are so many moving parts and subtleties within the textures.” Below is a lightly edited transcript of the interview, which took place over email. Farintosh, who is currently pursuing his doctorate in music at the University of Toronto, talks about learning difficult time signatures, what tracks didn’t make the cut, keeping in mind that pianos are a kind of percussion instrument, and branching out into his own electronic music.

Update: The album is now on streaming services, as of February 5, 2020, including Spotify and YouTube Music.

Marc Weidenbaum: How did this project come to be?

Simon Farintosh: I arranged “Avril 14th” back in 2018 as an encore piece to use in concerts. Upon uploading a recording to YouTube, I quickly became inundated with requests for tabs and sheet music. This outpouring of interest encouraged me, so I invested in better recording equipment and began to work on “Kesson Daslef” and “Flim.” Before I knew it, I had the better part of a digital release arranged and recorded.

Weidenbaum: I believe that you were born in 1995, the year “Alberto Balsalm,” one of the tracks you perform here, was released. How did you become exposed to Aphex Twin’s music?

Farintosh: I don’t remember exactly when I discovered Aphex Twin, but the music has been with me for a long time. The song “Rhubarb” was definitely my gateway to playing Aphex Twin. I’ve had bad insomnia for a while, and I used to listen to this track for up to an hour on repeat in an effort to fall asleep. I quickly became entranced by the more cacophonous side of Aphex Twin, as well, and listened to the album Drukqs in its entirety many times. As a classically trained musician, I was extremely impressed by the harmonic and rhythmic ingenuity of Aphex Twin’s music. His synthesis of the minimalist classical aesthetic with modern hip-hop elements bridged two seemingly disparate worlds, and helped me imagine the nylon string guitar in a non-classical setting.

Continue reading “Aphex Twin on Nylon”

How Instruō Went Virtual

The story of how the Glasgow-based hardware company ported its synthesizer modules to VCV Rack software

Just as December 2020 was coming to a close, and the year’s surprises, both good and horrible, were seemingly behind us, a new surprise — quite the former — popped up for modular-synthesizer enthusiasts. The hardware manufacturer Instruō, based in Glasgow, Scotland, announced that it was making almost all of its modules available in software form, 17 total, and better yet: entirely for free. The modules run on the free VCV Rack software platform, which is available for macOS, Windows, and Linux. (Visit Instruo at instruomodular.com, and VCV Rack at vcvrack.com.)

The response was immediately enthusiastic. At cdm.link, writer Peter Kirn said, “It’s got just enough of the sorts of tools that let you get adventurous with sound design, while remaining accessible and balanced.” The gearnews.com website praised the originals for their “beauty, depth and innovation,” and pondered whether the free versions would disincentivize hardware sales (its verdict: “I don’t think so”). Discussion boards quickly started chiming in, paying particular attention to the Instruō hardware modules that weren’t ported over, including Arbhar and Lúbadh.

I reached out to Instruō founder Jason Lim to learn more about the process and decision-making. Why weren’t those few modules included? How did the company manage what must have been a considerable undertaking? Why had they opted to make them free, since VCV Rack has introduce “premium” (aka paid) modules from a range of developers? As many of the original Instruō modules are analog or analog hybrids, what was the experience of porting them to the purely digital domain? How did the company approach the differences between the hands-on, knobs’n’sliders originals and the software versions? Lim graciously agreed to be interviewed via email, and below is the discussion, along with visual examples of both the original modules and their virtual offspring, as well as the process involved in bridging the gap.

The Instruō modules in hardware (above) and VCV Rack software (below)

Marc Weidenbaum: How did this project come to be, making the hardware modules available in digital form on Rack? Were you or anyone else at Instruō using VCV Rack before initiating the process of porting the modules to it?

Jason Lim: There were a few factors that led to this project, but it was very much a case of very fortunate timing. The planets aligned, so to speak, and allowed for this to become a reality. For a bit of background, I quite regularly have internship placements ongoing here at Instruō. Some positions have been coordinated as more formal partnerships with various educational institutions. In many cases meetings are more personal, friend of friend introductions and the like. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have Instruō develop so rapidly. At first it was me alone in the spare bedroom. Since those days I’ve been able to grow the team quite quickly with a really creative group.

I am Glasgow-based, and there are a number of very good universities and colleges here. My friend and collaborator, Dr Sebastian Lexer (co-dev of the Arbhar and Aithēr modules with myself), teaches at Glasgow University in their Sonic Arts department. He splits his time between education and working at Instruō. He gave recommendation to me for a couple of Master’s students last year who were approaching their final years of study. Their program requires an industry work placement in which they would work on, document, and develop a project within the field of music technology. This was of course all put in place pre-COVID and their start dates were planned for mid-June 2020. As the time approached, we had to rather quickly shift gears and figure out a new project that would be better suited for remote working.

I’ve followed VCV as a platform since its release, with great interest. What Andrew Belt has brought to the community is huge! It’s the sort of thing you’d read in forums as speculation and pipe dreams. It’s an immense undertaking and I think he’s built something truly groundbreaking. I occasionally teach a synthesis/sound design course here in Glasgow at subSine | Academy of Electronic Music (subsineacademy.com). (This is my friend’s music school, and we operate from the same premises in the Southside of Glasgow.) Several years ago I developed a curriculum for a 10-week course, which I have taught there semi regularly. I have since reformatted it as a shortened weekend-long intensive workshop. Modular synths are the primary tool I use, but it is a broader look at synthesis in general. Working from the modular building blocks really helps build a strong foundational knowledge.

Continue reading “How Instruō Went Virtual”

The Circuit Board Record Album

Tristan Perich on Loud Objects, machine art, and the aesthetics of code

Tristan Perich - Noise Patterns - 7 - Headphones
The Noise Patterns album, plugged into a pair of headphones

Tristan Perich’s Noise Patterns comes in a clear jewel case, but it isn’t a CD. It’s a small, matte-black circuit board. Powered by a watch battery, it produces a series of musical compositions built from the on/off operations on the minuscule chip at the center of the device, the same sort of chip you might find in a microwave oven.

What follows is a lengthy, detailed interview in which Perich talks about the development of Noise Patterns, and various other aspects of his artistic efforts, which range from full-scale museum installations of drawing machines and “microtonal walls,” to live performances in which he builds circuits in front of the audience.

In Perich’s telling, his previous circuit-board album, 1-Bit Symphony, was built from “tone” while Noise Patterns, as its name suggests, is built from “randomness,” from what sounds like white noise twisted and tweaked to Perich’s design.

There will be a more detailed introduction to this interview posted here soon, but in the interest of time — there is a party/concert celebrating the release of Noise Patternstonight at (Le) Poisson Rouge in Manhattan, with guests, Robert Henke, Karl Larson, Ricardo Romaneiro, Leo Leite, and Christian Hannon — the transcript, along with annotated images from the production of Noise Patterns and other aspects of Perich’s work, is being posted today.

01 - Tristan Perich - Microtonal Wall at MoMA
Perich’s Microtonal Wall, installed at MoMA in Manhattan

Tristan Perich - Noise Patterns - 1 - Angle

Continue reading “The Circuit Board Record Album”

Synth City, Part 2 of 2

Chris Randall of Audio Damage talks about the March 5, 2016, Sync 01 event at Codeword in San Francisco.

Sync 01 is the name of an event, due to be held at Codeword in San Francisco on March 5, celebrating modular synthesizers, with an emphasis on the Eurorack format. The featured manufacturers will include Audio Damage, WMD, Dave Smith Instruments, Rossum Electro-Music, Roger Linn, Makenoise, Toppobrillo, Mordax, Industrial Music Electronics (formerly The Harvestman), Blue Lantern, Noise Engineering, 4MS, Synthrotek, and Percussa. Featured retailers include Robotspeak and I/O Music Technology. And there will be four performers: Rodent, Bana Haffar, James Cigler, and Tyler Thompson. Sync 01 was organized by Audio Damage’s Chris Randall, whom I interviewed via email for an article at 48hills.org. Below is the full transcript, lightly edited, of the interview:

Marc Weidenbaum: How did Sync 01 come together?

Chris Randall: I was thinking about having an Audio Damage clinic at one of our retail partners in the Bay Area, since your city is one of the main loci of experimental music (and thus our customer base). The opportunity presented itself, through the good graces of the owner of Codeword / DNA, to have an event with a somewhat larger scope, and it just kind of fell in to place. All of the boutique synth manufacturers in the Western US are fairly friendly with one another, and these sorts of events are a very good promotional opportunity for us, so it’s not a complicated thing to put together.

It’s worth noting that, as experimental and boutique synth makers, we don’t really have anywhere to advertise, and our products aren’t in every Guitar Center in the country. These sorts of events are how we connect with the users, so we’re always looking for ways to make them happen.

Weidenbaum: It’s Sync 01. Is Sync 02 also going to be in San Francisco, or are you taking this medicine show on the road?

Randall: We’ll see how the first one plays out. My intention is to make it a going concern, but I haven’t really sat down and thought about the potential scope of it yet. The Midwest has a very large boutique synth show every year in the fall, and I think there’s a need for one on the West Coast as well. At the risk of sounding remarkably self-absorbed, I simply can’t bring myself to actually pay money to go to Schaumburg, Illinois. I’d very much rather spend my time in San Francisco, since it’s much closer and isn’t Schaumburg, Illinois. As to whether I could justify doing it elsewhere, well, that remains to be seen.

Weidenbaum: That’s pretty great to have Roger Linn and Dave Smith Instruments involved. Were there any San Francisco Bay Area must-haves you didn’t manage to convince to participate?

Randall: I wanted to get Dave Rossum to come, of course, and I was very pleased when he decided to attend. While he’s obviously part of the pantheon of great synth builders, he’s new to our little Eurorack market, and it’s great that he’s involved and engaged. So Roger and the two Daves were at the top of my wish list. I actually had to turn away a couple small manufacturers, which really pained me, but this quickly grew to fill the available space, and I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew.

Weidenbaum: For an unfamiliar audience, could you characterize some of the smaller firms who will be participating?

Randall: Well, I think the over-riding commonality among the companies participating is that, with the obvious exception of Dave Smith Instruments, they’re all one- and two-man shops. That’s par for the course in boutique musical instrument companies. My point being that “smaller”is a hazy term. I mean, there are hundreds of thousands of instruments out in the world with Roger Linn’s name on them, but he doesn’t have any more employees than Audio Damage does. Ditto for Dave Rossum.

Weidenbaum: Could you talk a bit about the first modules you developed, and how it used different parts of your brain than software or composing or performing had previously?

Randall: While my business partner Adam Schabtach (who is the coding half of the company) tried to warn me about the pains of hardware development, I didn’t internalize it. The designs themselves were actually fairly easy, since we initially decided on a platform, then figured out what code we could shove in it from our existing stockpile. What I wasn’t prepared for, at all, was how long everything takes. I was used to having an idea for a plug-in on Monday, and having a more-or-less working prototype, or at least a functional design, on Friday. This is the same, except add three months. So my desire for immediacy, which is easy to satisfy in music-making, and relatively easy in plug-in making, was soundly thrashed when it came to hardware.

We now have a beautiful and (for hardware) extremely fast prototyping system in place with the help of William Mathewson of WMD, and our digital platforms are designed by Eric Brombaugh to allow that rapid prototyping, so we’re nearly back to plug-in speed. At least for the prototypes. When it comes to actually shipping a product, add three months. Still.

Weidenbaum: Did you have significant hardware-design experience before making your early Audio Damage modules?

Randall: None at all. Adam had built a huge modular synth, and is quite handy with electronics. My hardware knowledge largely consists of knowing that you shouldn’t pick up the hot end of a soldering iron, and I didn’t have the vaguest notion of the logistics of manufacturing. So much of this has been on-the-job training for me. But then again, I’d never touched 3D Studio Max or written a line of code before I started designing products and user interfaces, and I didn’t have a single minute of musical training before I decided to be a performing musician, and I did okay at those things. I’m a quick study, and the one thing common to all of these careers I’ve had is that they revolve around my main skill set: working through a problem to its obvious solution, not being afraid to ask for help, and having an intense desire to reach that solution. The only thing that changes is the definition of “problem.”Whether it’s putting together an event like Sync 01, recording an album, shipping a piece of software, or shipping a piece of hardware, the process is always the same: get the right people together working on the same goal, and if that goal is worthy, the solution will present itself.

Weidenbaum: Just for a broader sense of your musical experience here, are there clubs — existing or long gone — you use to play at here that you have formative memories from?

Randall: We played the Trocadero a few times; I don’t recall if Sister Machine Gun ever headlined there or not; I feel like we did, but I can’t be certain. There was a venue in Palo Alto called The Edge where I have some really great memories. It was a large Quonset hut, wasn’t it? I fell off the front of the stage there once while playing guitar. Landed on my feet and didn’t miss a note. However, DNA Lounge is, and has always been, the best venue in San Francisco.

Weidenbaum: My favorite Audio Damage plugin is Automaton. Any chance that’ll be a module someday?

Randall: While it seems like a fairly simple plug-in, translating it to hardware would be a real bear. There’s a lot going on under the hood that would be difficult to do in an embedded context. However, rest assured that it’s on my wish list. When I bring it up, Adam gives me the side-eye, but I’ll get my way.

Weidenbaum: Is there a house rule, an overarching approach, that you could use to describe Audio Damage’s approach to modules?

Randall: First and foremost, a potential product has to be something either Adam or I (or ideally both of us) wants to use. We very rarely (never?) do something just so it will generate income. This is probably not the wisest business practice, but it works for us. When one of us has an idea, he has to be able to make a convincing case to the other that it is a viable expenditure of resources, and at the end of the process, it’ll be something that one or both of us needs to make our own music.

The other main consideration is more practical: we have a lot of big ideas, but our business model relies on a steady release schedule. So we have to look at any potential product in a return-on-investment light. As in “is this big idea going to take both of us working non-stop for months?”Because if it does, the company will suffer as a result. In general, Adam tends to work on the bigger, more long-term products, specifically products that generate a lot of intellectual property, while I tend to work on smaller products that utilize subsets of that generated IP. For example, while he was making Sequencer 1, I was working with Eric to design our ad-ab-03 platform, with which we’re able to make multiple small products utilizing existing code (basically all of our current line except for Sequencer 1).

Weidenbaum: What was your own education about using modular synthesizer? How long was there between your using the technology and your making the technology?

Randall: At the end of the day, synthesis, sound design, and production are synthesis, sound design, and production, whether you use a hardware workstation, a stack of vintage synths, a modular synthesizer, a computer, or any combination thereof. I’ve been comfortable with that world for 30 years now, and don’t draw any particular demarcation between the tools. Like most people my age that have been in this business their whole lives, the first patchable synth I had experience with was an ARP 2600. The first large modular synth I owned came much later, a Frac-Rack system from Blacet. I got rid of that a few years ago and switched to Eurorack.

To actually answer your question with hard numbers, I believe my first fondling of a patchable synth was in 1987, and our first modules were released at the end of 2012, so 25 years.

Weidenbaum: When you hear music made by someone else with your modules, does it ever feel — to the musician part of your brain/identity — like you’ve been sampled, like you have some partial authorship of the music?

Randall: It doesn’t feel like I’ve been “sampled,”per se. When you’re a tool-maker, the ultimate joy isn’t in making the tools, but experiencing the creations made with those tools. Yes, I do feel like I had a hand in it, though. The first time it happened, I was watching a movie, and I heard what sounded like one of our plug-ins, plain as day, in the score. I immediately paused the movie, found out who the composer was, and checked our database to discover that yes, he had purchased that very plug-in. (To answer the obvious follow-up, it was Man on Fire, with Harry Gregson-Williams.)

That was a satisfying experience, and I’d say that it was a similar experience to hearing one of my songs on the radio for the first time, or the first time one of my videos played on MTV. (Back when they actually played videos.) But that’s our goal: making things that help people make music. When that lofty event actually occurs, we can’t help but be happy about it.

Read more about Sync 01 at 48hills.org.

Synth City, Part 1 of 2

Suzanne Ciani on her March 5, 2016, Dial-Tones performance in San Francisco

This is a short interview I did via email with synthesizer player Suzanne Ciani, five-time Grammy nominee, in advance of her planned March 5, 2016, performance in San Francisco as part of the Dial-Tones concert event put on by Moog, the modular synthesizer manufacturer. The interview was for an article I wrote for 48hills.org:

Marc Weidenbaum: How did you come to be involved in the Dial-Tones event?

Suzanne Ciani: I am going to be performing at Moogfest this year in May and someone at Moog asked if I would do a brief performance in San Francisco for Dial-Tones “¦ and since I live so close to the city, and since I am preparing for Moogfest, I thought why not make a brief visit to the city for a good educational cause.

Weidenbaum: I read that it’s been 40 years since you did a solo performance with a Buchla synthesizer. How have you been preparing for the concert?

Ciani: I’m preparing by just spending time with the Buchla system. If you just be with it and interact with it and continue to get to know it, things start to happen. My new system is very very different from the old one, as I am discovering, and it’s been a challenge to let go of ingrained expectations and focus on what is possible now. Also, a limited edition LP of some of my live Buchla concerts from 1975 is just about to be released by Finders Keepers records and I will be including some little snippets of those concerts to honor my roots, so to speak.

Weidenbaum: What unique challenges and opportunities does live quadraphonic performance provide?

Ciani: In the early days, when I was an avid performer on the Buchla, I always insisted on performing in quad … and even turned down a concert once at Lincoln Center because they wouldn’t put up two additional speakers. So, I think, since I am revisitng those old days in some ways, I should uphold the vision of that time. It is very natural to include space as a musical parameter in electronic music, probably the only genre where it makes sense.

Weidenbaum: There has been so much new equipment developed in the modular synthesizer world in recent years. Do you spend a lot of time keeping up, or do you stick with a fairly set amount of equipment for your own music-making?

Ciani: I do use various hardware and software tools in my recordings, but for electronic performing, I am/was a pure Buchla aficionado. I recently went to NAMM and was awed by the number of young modular synth designers. Amazing. This reminds me of the exciting period of early analog synths when instruments were identified with their individual designers as opposed to a generic company: Don [Buchla], Tom [Oberheim], Dave [Smith]. I hope that this time around the inventors stay in control.

Read more about Dial-Tones at 48hills.org.