Interview with Robert Rich, Sound Designer

Robert  Rich
Robert Rich
Robert Rich is a multifaceted musician. He is a renowned electronic music solo artist, who uses ethnic musical instruments in his music. Rich also collaborates with other high profile musicians such as Steve Roach and Ian Boddy.

One of his most recent releases is React, the third collaboration between Robert Rich and DiN label boss, British musician Ian Boddy. React is a recording of their first ever live performance at the Star’s End Radio Show 30th Anniversary Concert in Philadelphia in June 2007.

A lesser known side of Robert Rich is his work as sound designer, sampling world music instruments and other sounds. World Music interviewed him in June 2008.

Q: You are one of those musicians that crosses musical boundaries. Most people would consider you an electronic musician, but you also seem to have a great interest in world music. Which are the connections?

I love expressive sounds, and I love thoughtful music of all sorts. To quote Lou Harrison, "All music is world music." I see no boundaries. I love the surreal potential of electronic instruments, the plastic qualities that computers can offer us while mangling acoustic timbres, the emotional expressiveness of the voice or solo acoustic instruments. I gravitate towards lead melodies that carry a vocal-like expression, so for those parts I often gravitate to something like flute or lap steel – it’s all part of the fabric within a range of tools that I try to adapt to my needs.

Q: Can you explain how the recording process works when you are developing projects such as Ambient Atmospheres and Rhythms for Sony Acid Loops. Did you choose the instruments that appear on Ambient Atmospheres and Rhythms?

Yes, I basically started by writing several pieces of music in the style that I became known for on albums like Rainforest and Propagation – my more melodic rhythmic side, with a range of my own acoustic instruments and my own samples and sound design. Then I deconstructed those songs into their component tracks. That method is rather standard in loop libraries such as these. It ensures that the tonal center of all the tracks will work together an allow a more predictable, or useful, experience to the person writing with the loops. I thought of it a bit as a "build your own Robert Rich song" toolkit.

Q: Will you be doing additional projects for the Sony Acid Loops or any other companies?

I’ve made a few sound libraries since then: synth presets for WayOutWare’s excellent TimewArp 2600 plug-in; and samples for Cameleon in Scottland, for an upcoming soft-synth that they are working on. I actually started on a second big loop library for Acid back around 2000, but that was around the time Sonic Foundry’s future became unstable, before Sony bought the company. I wanted to do an extreme modular synth library, but my work didn’t fit their shifting needs at the time. I liked the sounds so much I pulled the project and it became my album "Bestiary".

Q: Ambient Atmospheres and Rhythms is not your first project involving loops and sound libraries. What other music sampling projects were you involved with?

I did a lot of contract work for Emu back in the early ’90s. Many of the sounds in the Proteus 3 "World" box came from my instruments, and I made many of the filter frames and presets in the Morpheus. The Morpheus could have been a wonderfully powerful synth-sampler, but the marketing department dumbed it down horribly. Then around 1997 Seer Systems hired me for a few months to create synth presets for their soft-synth Reality. I built the synth presets, alongside Ron Macleod who worked on the samples (many others contributed sounds as well, but we had to organize and standardized them.) Reality was truly the first viable full featured software synthesizer to run natively on a standard PC, and it was truly powerful. Alas, a combination of aggressive bootlegging and bad distribution killed the product, not to mention it was a bit too far ahead of its time. The founders of Seer Systems were Stanley Jungleib and Dave Smith of Sequential Circuits, whose
names you might recognize as the inventors of MIDI.

Q: Did you ever listen to an album that had your samples included in it or is it difficult to tell?

Some folks have used my ACID loops from Liquid Planet and sent me their disks to show me their application. To be honest, it doesn’t matter much to me either way. I learned that the first season of "Survivor" used those loops a lot, but I never saw any episodes. (Something about a chicken sacrifice, I’m told!) I also remember some Dead Can Dance songs where I heard entire rhythms built up from my Proteus 3 samples, and it sort-of ruined the transparency of the songs for me.

Q: You play live as a one man show. What is the main different between studio recording and live performances for an electronic musician?

I treat them very differently. Live is about energy and communication in the moment, trying to take the audience on a shamanic journey of sorts. Recording resembles carving a sculpture for me. It’s a lot more fussy. The challenge with electronic music is that each sound and element involves a lot of preparation in the studio even when performed live, so it can be a challenge to make the live experience FEEL live, in the moment. That’s one reason I tend to integrate flutes and guitar, to give myself an outlet to express more directly through the body.

Q: You are credited as film music designer? What kind of work does it imply?

Music Design is like a cross between writing parts for the score, and creating sound effects. It’s a process of coming up with odd sounds that no-one has heard before, that can add unique elements to the music, to enhance the mood of the film. For example, for "Pitch Black" I made a bunch of screeching and puffing flute dissonance, for Graeme Revelle and Paul Haslinger to use along with the scenes of the bat-like creature’s eggs hatching, and some creepy cloudy layers of flute loops to accompany the nighttime dessert scenes. These ended up getting merged into the musical score, as a sort of texture. Likewise, Paul Haslinger asked me to make a bunch of fragile glassy and bowed drones to haunt some quiet scenes in "Crazy Beautiful." Just last month I spent several days doing similar sorts of work for an upcoming horror film, and just this week some commercial work for a Hewlett Packard product release. It keeps me busy.

Q: Technology changes every year. How do you keep up to date?

I don’t! I’m still trying to find enough time to learn my old stuff. One secret is not to attempt to learn everything about every piece of gear. I just try to get each piece of software or hardware that I own to do what I want, and I ignore the features that make it sound like other people’s music. Too many tools these days go too far. They write half the music for you. Then it sounds like everyone else. My first step is to erase the presets and try to create my own sounds. Then, it feels like I can express myself honestly with it.

Q: Do you still keep older electronic instruments?

Yes, pretty much until they die.

Q: Which electronic instruments are your favorites?

I love the MOTM modular, which I’ve been slowly accumulating since around 1999. It’s modern-retro custom state-of-the-art handmade electronics.

Q: And which acoustic instruments do you prefer?

I’m a bit attached to the old baby grand in my studio, which I don’t play very well any more but it still gives me great joy. I rarely tire of my junky old generic lap steel guitar, but I don’t know if you’d consider that acoustic. I also have a special attachment to my early bamboo flutes that Darrell deVore made. He has since passed away. He would go around to college campuses and sell his homemade instruments in the plaza. He taught me how to play flute back in 1980 when I was just getting started, and his flutes have ended up on almost every one of my albums. Now I make my own out of PVC.

Q: Earlier this year you released a live album with British musician Ian Boddy. Tell us more about the project and how you met Ian.

Ian released "React" on his label, DiN. It’s a live recording from our first and only concert together, at Stars’ End 30th anniversary last year in Philadelphia. Ian wanted us to come up with a set of entirely new music, to record as our third collaboration. We came pretty close to meeting that goal; although we did play some pieces from Lithosphere and Outpost, the live versions have a very different feel to them, more rhythmic and intense.

I met Ian back in the late ’90s through our common friend Paul Haslinger. At the time Ian was working in England for the Japanese synth company Akai, and would come over to Los Angeles every year to work at the NAMM show. NAMM is a big trade show for musical instrument and software manufacturers. Ian and I knew each other’s names from being on the electronic music scene for so long, but we actually didn’t know each other’s music that well. At the time, we had both been shifting away from our more melodic styles into a slightly brooding vocabulary, and we found some good crossing points where our interests converged.

Both of our first two collaborations – Outpost and Lithosphere – landed during awkward times that made for some creative challenges. We recorded Outpost during the two months following 9-11. In fact Ian had purchased his airline ticket to fly to California on September 10, 2001, and we had a tricky phone call on the afternoon of the 11th trying to figure out if we would even have air travel in a month’s time. A few years later, just as we started planning to get together for Lithosphere, I had a big accident that made my right hand rather useless. I recorded all my parts on Lithosphere one-handed, still somewhat spacey from pain killers.

Happily, everything went smoothly for React – no personal nor international disasters. I recorded a bunch of modular synth rhythms and sent them to Ian before I started rehearsing for a national tour. While I was working on my own stuff, Ian was busy building rhythms in Ableton Live, layering new sounds with some of my sources. We then got together in Philadelphia in the middle of my solo tour, and rehearsed for a day in the back of a design studio called AxD (we titled a song after them in thanks.) Amazingly we pulled the whole thing together in about 24 hours. That’s the basis for the title "React". To make something like this work, we have to be very alert and responsive to the music. There’s a lot of improvisation, but that only works with good planning.

Q: What projects are you currently working on now?

Well, as I mentioned above I’ve been rather busy with film and corporate work these last few weeks. I have a collaboration sitting on the back burner, with a friend in St. Petersburg Russia named Andrey Sadovnikov. He sent a bunch of long dense drones, which I am trying to figure out how to augment. That might come out later this year or next. I’m playing a few concerts here and there, including one coming up at the end of August in Riga Latvia. And, as usual, I have some ideas for a new solo album, but I haven’t started it yet. Mastering work also keeps my quite busy, and I’ll start teaching a college course on audio mastering in August, so I’m working on the syllabus for that as well.

More information at Robert Rich.