Since building his first analog synthesizer kit in the mid-1970s, Robert Rich's career is a virtual history of the last 30 years of experimental and electronic music. Growing up in Silicon Valley, Robert's exposure to the technical, musical and artistic allowed him to merge his interests in the realms of science and engineering to emerge as one of the first true multimedia artists. Rich integrated computing, music and natural phenomenon to become one of the leaders of the ambient and atmospheric music. Synth ME was fortunate enough to ask Robert Rich some questions touching on topics from the past, present and future. We wanted to learn about what Robert thinks of synthesizers, ambient music, the Internet and much more. Read the Robert Rich Interview
Synth ME: Tell us a little about yourself and how you got started as an electronic musician / artist?
I want to avoid repetition, as it's certainly not the first time I've answered this question. Suffice to say that I grew up in the '70s in what was to become "Silicon Valley" in a middle class family, with a father who specialized in microwave and aerospace engineering - also a jazz guitarist - who encouraged me to follow my technical hobbies. I started building analog synth kits around 1976, and started playing noisy improvised music in bands soon after. My musical interests encompassed free jazz, progressive, environmental-sound and minimalism (Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, for example, early "industrial" and German space-music.) I started exploring very slow soundscapes and moved forward from there.
Note: You can read a nice history write up on Wikipedia at:
Synth ME: As instruments, what do you like about working with Synthesizers, and not?
Robert: I love the ability for synthesizers to move into the realm of the Surreal, to paint with sonic abstraction, to allow me to compose at a completely sonic level. I dislike their distance from emotional, subconscious muscular expression. For that reason I prefer to blur the boundaries between acoustic and electronic. I use electronics as a context for more expressive performances on acoustic or electro-acoustic instruments. I'm not saying that electronic instruments are incapable of emotion, just that I prefer the seamless interaction that I (personally) have when playing an acoustic instrument, when my subconscious intentions migrate from my muscles into the air. When I attempt the same with electronics, my mind usually intervenes. So for me, the perfect balance is to process acoustic sounds and surround them with the abstract elements of electronic processing and synthesizers.
Synth ME: Are you into the synthesis aspect of creating sound? How do you go about developing and choosing the sounds you use?
Robert: I create most of my own sounds from scratch. I rely deeply upon the synthesis process, and sound design in general (I love creating my own sampler instruments by recording odd noises in the studio.) When I compose, I start with sounds in my head, an imaginary landscape of timbres. It would take a lot longer for me to try to find the sounds I imagine in some sample or preset library - it's actually easier and more fun to start from scratch and develop each sound close to how I imagine it. What's best, is that when I miss the mark I find a new creative direction that pushes the music into new unforeseen areas. Using other people's sounds feels like "painting by numbers" to me, and I actually find it more difficult than starting from inside myself.
Synth ME: What is your experience with software synthesizers versus hardware?
Robert: They each have their place. I try to find the strengths in each tool. I love analog modular synthesis because of the immediacy, the openness, and the way it forces me to push RECORD when I find something cool. Some soft-synths sound amazing, especially after they go through a bit of processing. Logic's Sculpture is an example of a very deep sound design tool that offers many subtle ways to "break it" and discover new worlds of timbre; likewise, Camel's "Alchemy." People often forget that processing plays an essential role in synthesis, and sometimes a rather simple sound can become rich and complex with a bit of mangling. Some of my most evocative sounds started simple. Soft-synths often sound best when taken outside and messed up a bit. There are no rules.
Synth ME: Do you have any favorite new synthesizers or other electronic gizmos.
Robert: Modular synths allow me to integrate little new toys into a big system. I love the new Morphing Terrarium from Synthesis Technology (which I helped develop) because it creates a bridge between the analog world and the sorts of smooth timbres that I use to use the DX7 to get - shifting harmonic sine waves, glassy round sounds. I love the sick tones I've been able to squeeze out of an odd "Experimental Guitar Amplifier" from Metasonix (Eric Barber gave me this a few years ago, and I loaned it to Steve Von Till of Neurosis - he gave it back to me a few months later shaking his head saying it was so sick he had trouble using it for anything but chaos... I found its chaos to be a lot of fun!) Otherwise, I haven't been collecting many outboard synths other than little solutions for touring, things that let me downsize for air travel. I'm happy to work with compromises when necessary.
Synth ME: The flute has been a regular part of your instrumentation over the years. What is it that keeps it in the mix?
Robert: A few things keep it in the mix. First off, flute is expressive like voice. I can breath through it, feel emotion, energy, life. Second, I can make a new flute for every new piece that requires a different tuning. Most of my music uses odd tunings (Just Intonation, usually, and various raga modes for example) and I love the fact that a few dollars worth of PVC tubing offers me a totally new expressive vocabulary. I carry about a dozen flutes with me when I tour, mostly homemade from sprinkler pipe, each with a unique sound. I'm not a great flute player, and my flutes are sometimes rather hard to play, so it gives an element of struggle that gives life to the music.
Synth ME: You've been working more with modular synthesizers lately?
Robert: Most of my life actually. I started with PAIA in 1976, which was a struggle but taught me a lot. Then I returned to modular with MOTM in 1999. I consider it to be my native musical language. I was astonished to discover how far analog had matured during the time that digital seemed to be taking over. The new modular synths sounded so good, so stable, so expressive. The last decade has seen a new renaissance of analog modular synthesis. I want to see it evolve into a realm of analog-digital modular hybrids, where the modular physicality and immediacy gets adopted into circuits that offer esoteric DSP, like phase vocoding, granular synthesis, convolution, spectral filters, things like that.
Synth ME: How do you work with open modular based systems differently from digital synthesizers?
Robert: I use more intuition. I feel through the process. It's autonomic, like a heartbeat or breathing. Modular synths encourage experimentation. I'm far more likely to think "what would happen if I plug this into this?" and I might surprise myself. Because I'm in the moment, I keep a recording setup handy, and I am far more likely to record my experiments. Everything is more in the moment, more visceral, more live, because there aren't any stored presets. Once I change some patch chords, I might lose the magic, so as I try to make a sound "better" I focus on the performance aspects and quickly begin to lay the seeds for a full performance. This sense of immediacy can become an idea machine. Although I might throw away many of these seeds, a few of them grow into compositions or interesting soundscapes. That is a precious outcome.
Synth ME: Your MOTM system was a part of your tour this year? Did that pose any unforeseen problems or benefits in a live situation?
Robert: This year I toured with a portable-suitcase version of the MOTM (about 10 modules). Because it's modular I can configure things differently each tour. The big system stayed home, and I removed a few pieces to configure a little system for performance. I pull things in and out all the time. It's a living beast. When I plan my live sets, I try to share major structural duties between all the different instruments, so if something isn't working smoothly on one system the others can fill in the gap. I reserved the MOTM suitcase for expressive shimmering beds, thick baselines, glurp injections and, on three or four pieces, the main melodic analog sequencer parts that drive the piece. If for some reason I goof on oscillator tuning or envelope settings, there are some other sounds going that give me time to fix things (with a grimace and a blush, usually, hoping nobody notices the gaff.) I like how this makes the event more energetic, more alive.
Synth ME: Each of your albums seems to explore new ground. Often with a conceptual focus on a person, place or thing. Is that something you cultivate for your own education or the listeners?
Robert: I'm a very curious person, and I tend to find new obsessions every few years. I love the energy that lives on the border of human ingenuity, the edge where scientific curiosity, spiritual wonder and technological invention meet in explosions of beauty and truth. I love to celebrate those people whose spark ignites at that juncture. As I seek new musical inspiration (sometimes I do run dry for periods of time) I look for energetic examples in other fields besides music. I often find them in the realms of physics, poetry, architecture, biology, history - anywhere actually. I guess I'm a bit insatiable, and I want to explore the best that humanity has created, and echo it as well as I can in my own work.
Synth ME: What was the inspiration for the atmospheric style you started early on? Did you ever think Ambient music would develop into its own genre?
Robert: I wasn't thinking in terms of a genre. I was very interested in certain ways to use sound: sculptural, environmental, hypnotic, trance-inducing. I liked Pauline Oliveros' term "Deep Listening" which proposes a method of interacting with sound rather than a prescribed genre or tonal vocabulary. I get bored with music that presupposes some fixed relationship between instruments, like when people who grew up with techno ask me if I use "beats" which basically means drum machine sounds. It strikes me as an odd narrowing of expectation. Of course I was aware of Brian Eno's use of the term "Ambient" to refer to music that could be used in the background, while being more interesting and evocative than the elevator music of the time. I liked that idea very much. However, for a long time I didn't identify so much with Eno's terminology as I did with avant garde composers such as Annea Lockwood or Bill Fontana, who used relocated environmental recordings to make people more aware of themselves and their surroundings. I borrowed R. Murray Schafer's term "Soundscape" for my record label (Soundscape Productions) when I started to release my first cassettes in 1981. If you cross all of those interests with the German psychedelic-electronic scene of the '70s, the new tonalism of Terry Riley and microtonalism of Harry Partch, add a bit of spice with crazy art noise like the Residents, Tuxedomoon, Fred Frith or Henry Kaiser and you get a bit of a sense of my internal musical stew. As for "Ambient Music" - I'm a bit tired of it. I find much of it to be the result of laziness. Personally I would rather immerse myself in Bill Evans or Miles Davis, classical Indian music or Javanese gamelan.
Synth ME: What was it like working at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics?
Robert: I was a college senior in 1984. I had to request permission to take the graduate student series at CCRMA from its founder, John Chowning, who invented FM synthesis. I went to his office and he asked me what previous musical experience I had. I showed him the three cassette albums I had released. He perked up and said, "Oh, you have albums out? That's fantastic. We would love to have you!" ... and he didn't even ask if I had formal musical training or a computer science background, supposedly prerequisites to be at CCRMA. He just wanted more musicians there. To this day, Dr. Chowning is a very warm and generous person.
CCRMA was located up in the hills, a few miles from campus, in an odd derelict donut-shaped building called the Power Lab, near a small lake with frogs, oak trees and rolling dry grass. People were up there working on music 24 hours a day, especially the composer Bill Schottstaedt, who seemed to be completely nocturnal. Bill was not only one of the best composers at CCRMA, but he also wrote most of the synthesis commands that we were using. Brilliant guy. We were using a timeshare mainframe computer with terminals, where we would write the music as a computer program, with inline code using the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Language (SAIL.) When we were ready to hear our fragment of sound, we would have to wait until the Samson Box synthesizer was free after playing someone else's sound-bite. When we finally finished our piece we could record it onto 1/4" tape. I created a few simple pieces using clouds of vocal timbres, and some FM polyrhythms that I would use in performance. Perhaps the best thing I accomplished there was a set of tuning reference tones with exact frequencies, which I could use to tune my instruments in just intonation. Ironically, I was able to get much more music done in my college dorm room on my homemade PAIA modular and a Prophet 5 with borrowed Portastudio and 1/4" Revox.
Synth ME: Electronic music has diverged in many directions in the last 20 years. What is your take on today's electronic music scene?
Robert: I'm a little disappointed that electronic music has become synonymous with dance music. It creates a lot of confusion when trying to sort through categories in iTunes and such. I have no problem with dance music, it's just that I love diversity. It seems that people have trouble branching out of expectations and listening to (or creating) music that defies categorization. I think if more of the newcomers would teach themselves a bit about the history of innovation in electronic music then they might avoid the sort of stylistic repetition we tend to see, reinventing the wheel. The tools now make it very easy to create certain types of music, beat based, repetitious, synchronized, using canned loops and presets. I like to hear musicians who challenge these tools and find a unique voice. I like the nascent "circuit bending" scene, started decades ago by Qubais Reed Ghazala, because it counters the trend of "easy tools" by introducing a little chaos. I like the way Richard Devine has found ways to "break" some of the digital soft-synths in creative ways, pushing them into some extreme nonlinearity. I like the way Tom Dimuzio uses effects processors to modify sounds in real-time to create these very intelligent abstract washes of sound. I love the way Forrest Fang integrates acoustic instruments with algorithmic composition and fractal-based patterns - he hides a huge intelligence under the veneer of very beautiful music.
Synth ME: Is there still room for new ideas in Electronic music? Where do you think we will be in 10 years?
Robert: Electronic music should be the laboratory for new ideas. It would be quite sad if it were to stagnate into clichés. But that doesn't mean it always has to be abstract or confrontational either. I think there will always be a dialog between melody and abstraction, between comfortable and experimental. One thing that makes electronic music vibrant is the willingness to explore new tools and radical new sonic possibilities. But if the results are to have a lasting impact, the music must use those new tools to express human existence, to express something about our own place in the universe. For me at least, it's important that our experiments with these new tools don't lead us down impersonal and lifeless forms of non-expression. I want to hear creative sparks in the music. I want the artists' life experiences to inform the experiments as we push the sonic vocabulary forward.
Synth ME: You've been working and traveling as a performer. Can you share some of your insights and challenges about that in today's music environment?
Robert: Live performance is increasingly important in a world where everyone can make albums in their bedroom with a laptop computer and a pair of headphones. It puts a human connection to the music, and brings people together in that essential non-virtual physical way. I try to keep my live performances as "live" as I can. It's quite easy to fall down the slippery slope toward karaoke, relying entirely on Ableton "Live", which makes performance more like a DJ set. By retaining the physical instruments (flute, guitar, keyboard, modular synth) and allowing room for improvisation, I try to keep a level of humanity in the performance, a level of spontaneity. Still, it can be difficult to get people to leave their homes and go listen to live music, if it's not a party or dance music. With the level of distraction that home entertainment can provide, we are becoming an increasingly isolated society of media-saturated hermits. I hope that we can find new ways to bring people back together as a real community of diverse and interested creative individuals.
Synth ME: You started out with the Cassette culture movement in the 80s. How do you see that movement now? Is that experience useful to you these DIY days?
Robert: Cassette Culture has become Internet Culture. What started out as DIY obscurity has migrated to an instant world stage for many artists who may not be ready for prime time. This is of course a blessing and a curse (like all new technology.) It means we can all reach everyone in the world, but we're in a world of chattering voices with everyone else also publishing their first thought. I have a personality that tends to edit the first thoughts until the best thoughts remain. That's not always a good way to remain visible in a world where people Tweet what they're having for dinner. Most useful for me, is to stay focused and try to make sure that each release to the public actually means something, that it took some time to filter the best thoughts forward. In a world of decreasing signal-to-noise ratio, I don't want to be part of the noise, I want to be part of the signal.
Synth ME: How has the Internet impacted your work both in content and context? How are you approaching the uncharted future as an artist?
Robert: Of course, we live in a quickly changing and contradictory landscape of info-culture. I happily adapted to the Web quite early, and I have held my own domain names since 1996. It's a blessing for independent artists like me to be able to control our own image, our own distribution, and to be able to contact listeners directly. In this regard, the Internet is a tool of empowerment. I love the fact that people can share their own music with each other immediately.
On the other hand, the ease with which people can share free bootlegs has undercut not just the mainstream music business, but also the independent scene. It has rendered the music disposable in many people's minds, which can get discouraging for someone who spends a year or more on a new release. People don't realize that someone like me might only sell a thousand copies of an album, compared to tens of thousands of free copies shared. I console myself that file-sharing is a form of marketing, and that the people who get the music for free would not have purchased it anyway. The only way to survive in "free culture" is to remain enough well-liked by the listeners who follow one's artwork that they *want* to pay for music as a show of support, as a vote of confidence. Without those few supportive listeners, it would get rather discouraging.
So while independent musicians are empowered with greater visibility, and novices have a better chance of getting heard by a handful of people, we are simultaneously rendered incapable of sustaining ourselves financially through recordings. Artists have become marginalized in a propaganda battle between "free culture" proponents and their perceived nemesis the "recording industry." This means we artists have to find different ways of surviving, whether by keeping a day job, or by repurposing our art. For these reasons and others, I think music is becoming increasingly subservient to image, as more musicians rely on "work for hire" corporate jobs like sound design for film, television, computer gaming, and other multi-media outlets that remain commercially viable in this information-saturated culture.
Synth ME: What are you working on these days?
Robert: I'm teaching a class on audio mastering for local Cogswell College, also doing a lot of mastering for other artists, beta testing software and hardware, and experimenting with new ideas for my next solo album. This week I'm starting to work on some collaboration tracks with my friend Torin Goodnight aka "Bird of Prey". It's also harvest season for my winemaking cycle, so there's Cabernet Sauvignon fermenting outside on our back patio.
Synth ME: Where can people find out more information about you and purchase your recordings?
Robert: Listeners can learn almost anything they want about me from my website, http://robertrich.com. Clicking "Contact" there reaches me personally. The CD order form on the website (click "Shop") goes directly to me and my wife Dixie, who helps fill CD orders. It's a homespun operation. The next best place to hear samples and purchase downloads would be http://www.cdbaby.com/Artist...
Many thanks to Robert Rich for taking time to answer our questions. You can get more information and updates on Robert's work at the links above. Feel free to leave your comments about the interview and for Robert in space provided below.