Roger Linn wants to change the world of musical instruments. Again.
In 2011, Linn was awarded a Grammy for his contributions to music technology. His LinnDrum drum machine helped define the sound of synth pop. And his MPC workstations helped define the sound of hip hop.
His latest instrument, the LinnStrument, is designed to bring new dimensions of expression to electronic music. It goes far beyond what is possible with most MIDI instruments, giving you continuous control over each note’s pitch, volume, expression and more.
He’s also one of the most passionate advocates for Multidimensional Polyphonic Expression (MPE) – a new standard for communicating expressive performance information over MIDI. MPE is already supported by Apple, Bitwig, Haken Audio, Moog, Native Instruments, ROLI, Spectrasonics and many others.
In this interview, the first in a new series produced in collaboration with Darwin Grosse of the Art + Music + Technology podcast, Roger Linn shares his vision for the future of electronic music instruments. You can listen to the audio version of the interview below or on the A+M+T site.
Darwin Grosse: Let’s start off by talking about what you are up to with the LinnStrument, because I believe that that’s where a lot of your focus is right now, correct?
Roger Linn: Yeah. I like to think of it as I’m on a quest to rid the musical world of on/off switches.
Darwin Grosse: I had a chance to actually play the LinnStrument a bit at the last NAMM show, it was really quite an experience, and quite different from anything else that I’ve worked with that is attempting to do this real expressiveness stuff. It seemed like you made a thing where it had the multiple levels of expression, but it also was discrete.
As an instrumentalist, one of the things I like about the on/off switches, is I know when I’m turning something on, and I know when I’m turning something off, right?
Roger Linn: Yeah.
Darwin Grosse: Sometimes you don’t necessarily get that feeling of knowing exactly the discrete level what you’re doing. You found a way to make an interface that has that sort of thing that’s going to be comfortable to keyboard players, which is, “I know what note I’m hitting.” It still has a lot of play-ability and flexibility.
How long did it take to just come up with something that would have that feel to it? It’s obviously a part of your design decisions, right?
Roger Linn: Well there was about 4 years of solid development, but before that I thought about it for a while.
I was inspired in part by Lippold Haken‘s wonderful Continuum (right), which went back to 1999, when he was even doing, as I understand it, models of it before then, and working on it. He was, as far as I’m aware, the first guy who actually created something that would respond to 3 dimensions of touch, polyphonically.
Of course, there were others – there were instruments like EWI in the 70’s and 80’s, and the EVI, Nyle Steiner, and other monophonic expressive instruments that would give you a couple of dimensions, and sometimes 3. Don Buchla did some very cool stuff, but I think the Continuum was the first one that really blew it wide open. So, to give credit where credit is due, he did inspire me quite a bit.
Darwin Grosse: Is the concept of Multidimensional Polyphonic Expression (MPE) based off something that Haken did?
How close was the stuff that he originated to what we’re seeing come out now?
Roger Linn: Well, I’m not quite sure, I’ve never owned a Continuum, I knew some people that did and I’m not sure exactly how his protocols worked. But the idea of MPE is primarily to get around the limitation of MIDI, of only having one pitch bend, or one CC number per channel.
Darwin Grosse: I see, okay.
Roger Linn: MIDI, to it’s credit, does have polyphonic pressure, or polyphonic aftertouch, as they call it.
On one channel, you can have a separate pressure signal for each simultaneous note. But if you wanted to have polyphonic pitch bends, you couldn’t do that on one channel. Or if you wanted to have polyphonic y-axis control, forward or backward movement, you also can’t do that because you’d have to use a CC, and control change message for that.
In truth, the creators of MIDI, Dave Smith, and Roland, and the early people that were doing that, kept this in mind, and that was one of the reasons they had 16 channels going over the MIDI cable, so that you could, if you wanted to, have 1 channel representing one note. This was primarily at the time to meet the needs of MIDI guitarists, so you’d have one string over every channel, and get independent bends, and vibratos, and things.
Darwin Grosse: Yeah, I was going to say that my recollection was there’s even like one special MIDI mode that was oriented towards the needs of the MIDI guitarist, where it was literally channels split by string.
Roger Linn: Yeah, they called it MIDI mono-mode, and it’s otherwise called MIDI mode 4, mono mode 4 or something like that. MIDI mode 4.
Actually that worked fine, I didn’t see any reason to change that at all, you don’t even need those MIDI mode commands at all. All you really need to do is just send each note on it’s own MIDI channel.
The original MPE spec was created by a group of people, led by me and Roland Lamb, who’s the founder of ROLI and the main designer of the Seaboard.
When we first created this MPE specification, I just thought, “Why not just agree on it?” He felt it would be better to pass it by the MMA (MIDI Manufacturer’s Association), and that was nearly 2 years ago. The MMA is still debating it at this point.
Basically, MPE is pretty straightforward. It’s just sending each note over its own MIDI channel. The funny thing about it, is while the MMA has been debating it for nearly 2 years, there’s about 30 different synths that have already implemented it, and they’ve done it in a very simple way.
Just basically allow each channel to be it’s own receiver – so if you send one note on that channel, it will be it’s own unique note. You send a different note on a different channel, they’ll be simultaneous. Or, if you send a bunch of notes on one channel, they’ll just act like a current single channel synthesizer.
Darwin Grosse: Polysynth, right?
Roger Linn: Yeah, exactly. I think it works great just like that, and the only other thing that’s in the spec, which I think is optional, is to have one channel reserved as a common channel, or a main channel, so that you can send messages that are common to all notes.
You can do that even if you don’t have a main channel anyway, just by saying that any events that are not the main 3 dimensions would apply to all voices. It’s a little bit of flux, but all the people that have implemented, almost all of them, have done it this way, where if you send a note to a certain channel, it will be independent from notes sent to other channels.
Darwin Grosse: Right. Actually as part of my work with Cycling ’74, I was involved in doing some development with it.
In my case, what I worked on was an arpeggiator that would work in that kind of environment. It was really interesting to see the data that would flow through the system, but also the unique challenges that come from saying, “Wow, I’ve got these things coming in on all the independent channels.”
It’s working with MIDI in a completely different way. But at the same time, it’s working within the MIDI spec – so it’s not coming from Mars, either.
Roger Linn: Yeah, yeah.
Darwin Grosse: You said that you worked with Roland Lamb on this, how long did it take for you guys to hash out what was going to be? Because, I assume that everybody comes to a table like that and says, “Well, my dream of the spec-of-all-specs has these 47 things,” and another person will have a different 47 things or whatever.
How long does it really take to whittle things down to a simple and straightforward specification? Because, I would say MPE is as simple as it needs to be, right?
Roger Linn: I was a big proponent of keeping it simple. Some people wanted to put additional things in there, but that’s the democratic process. It just sometimes takes a while through discussion, for people to recognize that what they want could be done in other ways.
Then again, sometimes people have some very good ideas that you didn’t think of before, that really needed to be part of the original agreement.
It ended up being fairly straightforward. I don’t know what’s going to end up happening with MPE with the MMA. They don’t actually let me participate, because I’m not paying the $500/year for the manufacturers ID that I haven’t used in 20 years.
At any rate, they’re doing a good job with it, and all the different directions they took, what they’re finally coming down to is what we suggested in the first place, which was the way, interestingly enough, that the Logic team had already decided to do it.
They’ve actually had what they call MIDI mono mode in most of their synthesizers for quite a few years, and before we were even thinking about MPE.
In 7 of their synthesizers, there’s a little triangle in the lower left hand corner of the synth window. If you click it, a little bit more space opens up to the window and it is a field called MIDI mono mode, and you can set it to off, or on with common channel 1, or on with common channel 16. If it’s on with common channel 1, then channels 2 through 16 are the voice channels. If it’s on with common channel 16, then the per note channels are 1 through 15.
It’s really well thought out the way they did it!
Darwin Grosse: Let’s talk a little bit about the LinnStrument.
You are very thoughtful about how you develop an instrument. I’ve used the LinnDrum, I’ve used the early Akai drum machines, I’ve used the Adrenaline, I’ve always appreciated the kind thoughtfulness and mindfulness of design that you put into it.
What is the process that you go through in terms of validating a design? How do you get to the point where you’re comfortable?
To me, what you’re doing is kind of a form of artwork that is really hard to say, “This is the thing,” because you loving your own artwork is irrelevant since this has to be played by players. It has to be played by extremely opinionated people who will put their mitts on your work and decide if it’s any good or not.
It seems to me like that has to be an extraordinarily tough thing to do, and I’d like to hear a little bit about your process and how you get to the point that you feel strong enough about an instrument to say, “This is the thing.”
Roger Linn: Well, I’d like to think of myself as a top down designer. I start from the outside in.
I draw pictures of it, arrange the controls in Illustrator or something like that, and then I basically just drill down into the inside, and I make all the parts. That to me is a much more satisfying experience that I think ends up with a better product.
Now, at the same time, there are excellent bottom-up designers that start with a very good circuit, and then once they have the circuit that works, then they create a user interface around it. There are merits to each, and I try to do a little bit of each, so I’ll drill down a little bit, then I’ll zoom out, and zoom in, and zoom out, because everything has to be optimized.
Let’s face it, it can’t be too expensive or nobody can afford to be able to use the great features it might have, or might not have.
What I do, the process I do these days, is I usually start off with Illustrator, Adobe Illustrator, and just arrange some controls around and start off with a parameter list that ends up being a data structure for example. I think about how I want to use it, and I’ll sort of almost test the knobs on the screen, and play with it. Then once I think I’ve got in general what I want, I recreate the same thing in my 3D program which is Rhino 3D, Rhinoceros. Which is a great 3D program, it’s not very expensive, it’s very free-form so it’s good for designers. It lets you get into trouble because it lets you make solids that aren’t quite solid, or water tight, so you have to be careful about it.
It’s kind of like Max/MSP, you can easily write spaghetti code in Max/MSP …
Darwin Grosse: Do all kinds of bad things, right?
Roger Linn: You can, yeah, exactly. If it’s like any language that gives you that flexibility, if you don’t have some discipline it won’t produce the best results. Anyway, it really helps me to see it in 3D, and I’ll render it, and take a look at it, and, “Does it feel right?”
Looking at it, if I were to approach this thing, would it allow me to make music, which is always of course the first goal, and have the technology be secondary. I feel like most of us, people who are playing music with electronic devices, are dragged, kicking and screaming into the world of technology. We’d prefer not to deal with too much of that, so if I can shield people from that, I figure that’s the role of the designer.
Some people like to make an instrument that has options for absolutely everything, under the assumption that you will configure it the way you want. I prefer to think that it’s the responsibility of the designer to make some decisions about the defaults, so that you can walk up to it and make music.
You mentioned the Akai drum machines I made, the MPC series.
Often I would get the compliments from users that they would just take it out of the box, put a sound disk, a floppy disk at the time, into it, load it up and they’d just press record and play, they’d hear the metronome, and the feel was right, the sounds were right, and everything would work.
It reminds me a little bit about what Ray Kurzweil said once when he had the old, first Kurzweil keyboards. He said, “I’m the only one,” which I think was true at the time, “who is making a sampler that’s not a development system.”
Darwin Grosse: Right.
Roger Linn: He actually took the time to create good recordings of samples that worked together well, and so you actually played the instrument. Whereas others were just making samplers, and you always had to make your own sounds.
Darwin Grosse: Now, in doing that kind of work, at what point in the thing do you actually get outside advice? I would assume that, especially when you’re working on something that is kind of groundbreaking, and again, you’ve done that a lot.If we go back to the LM1, or if we go back to the early Akai machines, or if we look at the LinnStrument, all of these things are designs that are kind of groundbreaking.
To a certain extent, you have to be careful about … I mean you can’t dance in your front yard with it because you don’t want everyone to see what you’re up to, but at the same time you need to get feedback from people that are going to help you refine the design.
When does that happen? Who are the kind off people that you talk to? Does that ever get you in trouble? Or does that ever just wave you off of a project completely?
Roger Linn: Well, I think I learned early on that I’m often wrong, I often miss the best uses of a machine, and so I recognize that I don’t know it all.
I do talk to people and try to get their feedback about it, and it’s usually very, very helpful. Sometimes, I want to shield the users too much from technology, and I make it not flexible enough the first pass around, and so I learned my lesson through that.
Ultimately I think you find, after I talk to people for a while, get feedback, there’s a point at which it really starts to feel more right. You always start off also thinking there’s a price point I’m trying to hit, because if it’s too expensive people won’t be able to buy it.
I’m not nearly as good as the larger companies at getting low price points, so I choose the place I’m comfortable at, and I try to keep my expenses low so I don’t have to sell a boatload of them to be able to make a living. You put all these things together and there are a number of factors. For me it’s all kind of in a fog right now, but there’s a point at which it all feels right, where you feel like people are going to like what it does for them, they’re going to like the interaction, they intuitively feel they know how it works, it’s about the right price, it looks pretty, it fits in a backpack, and things like that.
Darwin Grosse: I like this idea of you making design decisions, so often you see … If someone would take some of the typical design guidelines and make a guitar, it would have completely optional strings, as well as a completely optional number of strings and frets. That’s ridiculous because that’s no longer a guitar, right?
Roger Linn: Yeah.
Darwin Grosse: There is to a certain extent where that kind of design has to … you have to make decisions, that’s the job. Now, you said something that interests me, you said that there have been times when you’ve shielded too much.
Can you give me an example of something like that?
Roger Linn: In the development of LinnStrument, I didn’t want to have an alphanumeric display on it, so instead what I did was, an idea that I was inspired by Lippold Haken again. He would print the parameters on the upper edge of the Continuum.
What I did is, since I had lights in each of my note pads, I printed parameters above and below. Now, the good thing about this is, is allowed me to make the margins very narrow, so you could even strap this thing on with guitar strap pins and play it as almost like sort of a (Chapman) Stick would be, in a near vertical position. The downside is, I had to decide what those parameters were.
I had known him, because we had done some talks together and things like that, but I didn’t really know how great he was as a software engineer, and at one point he offered to help me with the software for this because I was fumbling around, not getting it done. I had got to the point where it just worked enough to show it at Moogfest a couple of years ago. Once he started helping me with it, the software development went much, much faster.
What’s great about Geert is he understands the context of musical instruments, because he’s a player himself. Geert would often push me in the direction of having more features, or more controls, more flexibility.
I had this image in my mind that this thing should just be a musical instrument and it should allow you to do things like select MIDI channels and that, but I didn’t want to get it into something that was too complex and would scare musicians away. Geert and I had this very productive banter back and forth, and what we finally ended up with is something that had more flexibility, but by doing deep editing. The parameters that are printed on the top and the bottom of the screen are actually the most useful ones for most musicians. Then you can hold the parameter, and then have the screen change to a full screen numeric display that you can slide by swiping left and right. That allows you into some of the deep editing functions.
Darwin Grosse: You mean the lights on the interface actually become an alphanumeric display?
Roger Linn: Yeah, they do because you’ve got an 8 by 25 effectively, LED display, because you’ve got 200 of these RGB LED’s, one on each of the 200 note pads. On the panel it says that the y-axis can be assigned to either CC1 or CC74, and Geert said, “Nah, you need to have it be any CC.”
So, if you hold down the note pad for CC74 for one half second, the screen changes to a big 74, and if you slide your finger left and right on it you can select any CC. Geert said, “But it should also select channel pressure, and poly pressure.”
Geert was right, but we were able to implement it in a way that’s a revealed interface, which I think is the important way to do it.
You shouldn’t have every detail presented in front of you, or else it looks like a cockpit of a plane, but you should have the important ones there, and then if you want to dig deeper, you can dig deeper too.
Darwin Grosse: Yeah, that’s really interesting. Too much stuff is literally going to make the instrument scary.
Roger Linn: Yeah, that’s true.
Darwin Grosse: Not enough stuff is going to make people think it’s an inflexible brick, and so coming up with that sweet-spot in the middle, that’s got to be a lot of work in and of itself.
How much of that is something that you gnash your teeth over and how much of it is just the serendipity of like, “Well here’s what I decided, Geert said it was okay so let’s rock it.” How obsessive so you get about that stuff?
Roger Linn: Well, I would put it a different way. I really enjoy doing it.
Sometimes I’ll sit at night, and I have a cup of tea, and I’ll be with my 3D model of a particular product. I’ll be rotating it around, and trying this here, trying that out there, or there might be a knob or a button or something like that.
It’s fun to try it out and to take the time to allow yourself to allow a certain configuration to feel right. I think I heard a recording of John Cleese talking about writing, and particularly his case for comedy, or for Monte Python routines. He said, “The best creativity comes when you feel you have no time constraints, and you can just play.” You get out of that workspace, you get into that play space.
Now, it’s almost impossible to ever feel like there’s no time constraint, but at least I try to do that. For example, I love to wake up on a Saturday morning and play with this sort of stuff, because I feel like it’s bonus day.
Darwin Grosse: Sure. Okay, but I will just say, just in case you’re wondering, people who are obsessed can actually enjoy their obsession. You have to own that, because waking up on a Saturday morning and playing around with parameter listings on the face of your instrument, I think we can all agree that that might be obsessive behavior, but we’re also all really happy that you’re doing it.
Roger Linn: Well, talk about obsessive, when I was a kid, maybe 10 years old, I had started playing guitar when I was 8, and took guitar lessons. My dad wanted me to play classical guitar because he was a music professor, he taught theory and comp at USC in L.A.
But I was a Beatles fan, and I loved all those tones that they would get. I would love to see pictures in magazines of electric guitars and amplifiers, and I never had one for quite a few years, but I sort of drooled over it.
I thought what I would do would be to write a letter to the Fender company, and to the Gibson company, and to the Rickenbacker company, the Marshall company, and I’d ask for their catalogs because that’s what you did back then of course. You’d get a catalog sheet or you’d get a catalog. I used to just dream about having one of these guitars and they were magic to me, or the guitar effects pedals, or the amplifiers. What I would actually do, and this is funny, my mom had a little bit of an artist background, so she taught me how to draw a grid on something to enlarge it, to draw it on a larger piece of paper.
I would take the pictures in the Fender catalog sometimes, of a Stratocaster, and I’d draw a little grid on it with pencil so the grids were only maybe quarter inch square, and then I’d take a big sheet of notebook paper and draw the grids at say 1 inch square, and I’d copy each one to it. For me it was almost like my little work of art at 10 or 11 years old.
Then what I’d do is I’d try moving the knob over a little bit, and I’d say, “This guitar has 2 knobs, I’ll give it a 3rd knob.” Talk about obsessiveness, I was a nerd at an early age.
Darwin Grosse: This sounds like a great start of the story because quite frankly, it resonates with me.
I was one of these kids that if there was a scuba diving catalog, I would get it, and then the next thing you’d know, I’d have this huge list of all the scuba gear that it would take to have the ultimate system, and I’d be drawing pictures of myself or whatever. It resonates very much. I’m curious, so you had a father who was a music professor, that had to be a really interesting way to be introduced to music, but how is it that you found that instrument making rather than instrument playing, was the thing for you?
Roger Linn: I always had an interest in both music and technology, and so it was the marriage of the 2. I think as much as I enjoyed, for example, songwriting, or guitar playing, the technology was more fascinating to me because there was a magic inside that I didn’t quite understand.
I think also as I grew older, I found out that I was better at the technology part than I was at the playing part. I could never quite get my 2 hands to agree with each other, whereas the 2 sides of the brain tended to agree with each other in making the products.
Darwin Grosse: Yeah, it’s funny, my left and right work together, but the reason I always failed as a drummer is because my hands and my feet, they don’t separate. As soon as my feet have to do something, I start crying! Which is why I was a fan of your stuff right from the get-go, because the way I could drum was to have a drum machine.
Now, as you got involved into technology, which … Because there’s a lot of technologies that go into making these products. When I think of you, I think of the LM1 as being kind of the first design of yours.
Roger Linn: Yes.
Darwin Grosse: Did you do anything prior to that that maybe was labelled by someone else? Or was that really your kickoff?
Roger Linn: That was the kickoff. When I was in high school, I used to take some of my guitar pedals and modify them. I didn’t really understand electronics very well, so it was kind of on a circuit bending method.
There was a guy named Steve Ridinger, who had a company called Ridinger and Associates, that made guitar pedals. He had a fuzzbox, a distortion box, called the Foxx Tone Machine. Because it was a fuzzbox, he covered it in this sort of a velour fuzz finish.
I remember I got one of those, and I found out, I had a treble boost, a wah-wah pedal, and when it’s fully forward it’s a treble boost. I would put that before the Foxx Tone Machine, and I’ve got a tone that I really like.
I thought, why don’t I just take a little treble boost circuit, and stick it inside the Foxx Tone Machine box. I drilled a hole in it, put a switch to switch that in or out, and it worked.
I learned a bunch of things that either worked or didn’t work, from things like that.
I actually had no formal training in electronics, or engineering except that when I was in my mid-teens, there was an ad of the back of a Popular Electronics magazine from a place called Cleveland Institute of Electronics. It was a correspondence course in electronics, so I signed up for that, and of course the ad had a picture of a huge building in Cleveland, well there’s no huge building, it was a P.O. Box, and one guy that was running it probably, right?
Darwin Grosse: Of course, right.
Roger Linn: Anyway, it was well written. I learned electricity was like water from a pipe, things like that, but I knew the basics of electronics. Then past that point I just read a lot of papers here and there, and picked it up.
I still have big holes in my engineering knowledge, that I get helped out occasionally from Tom Oberheim or others.
Darwin Grosse: The leap from putting a treble booster into a Foxx Tone, going from there to a LM1 is a pretty big leap.
What part of it was you, and what part of it was people that helped you out, or people that you hired, or people that you collaborated with? Did you focus on the electronics? Did you focus on the firmware? Did you focus on the design? What was the thing that represented the you in the LM1?
Roger Linn: Well, I wrote the code for that, and a far as the circuit, I mainly just stole from other people’s schematics.
I remember at the time I had a Radio Shack TRS-80, and I got the schematic for that, which was based on the Z80 processor, which was very popular at the time. I stole the basic computer memory ROM circuit for that, and then I knew I wanted to play back samples because digital sampling was already around because there were digital tape recorders. 3M, BBC had a collaborative digital tape recorder, Sony had one, and so the concept of storing audio digitally was already around and commonplace.
I think the one novel idea I had was if I could just store, even though it was very, very expensive, if I could just store 1 strike of a bass drum, 1 strike of a snare drum, it wouldn’t take up that much memory. I looked around at some circuits for clock generators, chips that would put out the incrementing digital parallel address that would go into the ROM, and then the output of the ROM would go into the D to A converter.
There were recommended circuits along with these chips, and I would basically take the recommended circuits, and then hook them together. Then take the circuit I had stolen from the Radio Shack TRS-80 for the main computer circuit, and learn enough about it here and there, and I’d ask a few questions to a few friends.
Basically, that was a nice thing about these digital circuits, and a true engineer right now is probably throwing up while he hears this. Great engineers like Tom Oberheim or Dave Rossum, these guys understand the theory down to the fundamental analogue level, and to the physics of it. This is the great seduction of designing something in building blocks, as you know with Max/MSP.
Darwin Grosse: As I know, right.
Roger Linn: It seems, “Oh that’s good, I’ll just put it all together,” and 2 weeks later you’ve got a rats nest. I did actually have a rats nest because what I didn’t understand very well are things like drive current of certain chips, so I had to replace certain chips with bus driver chips. Fortunately the speed of the chips was slow enough at the time that you couldn’t screw too much up as far as fast edges getting slowed down.
I asked some people, like the guy who was doing the circuit layout on the circuit board for me, which I didn’t know how to do, he gave me some pointers on it. “You’ve got to have a good strong ground plane, and power plane, and then try to keep your higher speed lines as short as possible,” and things like that.
Darwin Grosse: One of the things that everyone says about the various things that you have designed is that, the feel, particularly the timing, is very musical.
That’s whether we’re talking about the way that you did metronomic and swing-type timing in the drum machines, the Linn label drum machines, the MPC’s. That’s always something that people point to as being a hallmark of your designs.
What do you attribute that to?
I used to tour in his band when I was about 20, 21, and when we were off the road in the studio, he had his own studio, and I was sort of his nerd assistant. I could play a little guitar, but I wasn’t nearly as good as the guitar players he knew from all his friends in L.A. and all that. I would basically play other people’s parts on the road. I would engineer the records, because I knew enough about recording, and I was, very early on, into synthesizers, and he liked that because he wanted to use some of these new sounds, but he didn’t understand them quite as well.
One of the things he taught me was about swing timing, because he understood the concept of a good groove on a recording very, very well because he had worked with some of the greatest drummers. Guys like Jim Keltner, and good bass players, other musicians. There’s this magic that happens when everybody just gels, and you get one of these recordings that just makes people move in the room.
He said, “Some drummers play with a very strict time, t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t. And some play with a very mathematically perfect swing, where the 16th notes fall on triplets like, t-tt-tt-tt-tt.” “But”, he said, “What really makes it work well and makes the groove work well, are the drummers that are somewhere in between.”
It’s this loose feel, and you can just lean it a little bit from straight 16th towards swing and you get a completely different feal, or if you take the triplet swing, and lean a little bit towards straight time, it makes it better.
I had those things in the back of my mind when I first started writing for the first LM1. One of the problems I had was memory was very expensive, and I wanted to have 100 drum beats in it, or maybe 88, I forgot what it was. I wanted to compress the memory, and I thought “Well, most drum beats are 8th or 16th notes, so what I’ll do is just store 1 byte for each 16th note.”
I wanted to be able to record it in real-time, because musicians think in real-time, so I did this, and low and behold, when what I entered played back, the timing was corrected. I thought, “This is incredibly cool,” because it’s hard to play on these buttons with the accuracy that a drummer could on a real drum kit.
I thought, “This is a great idea,” and I ended up calling it timing correct. The rest of the world subsequently called it quantize.
Where swing comes in is I figured, “Let’s see, but Leon used to talk about this bit about swing.”
Well, all swing is, is delaying the 2nd 16th note in each 16th note pair. So, I decided just to make it variable, or at least there were 6 different increments between. I think the combination of the introduction of timing correction or quantize, plus swing, and a third thing, dynamics (explains that ‘feel’).
I recognized that a great groove has to do with many different dynamic levels. My compromise was to have, instead of one hi-hat button for one level all the time, now this is before I created pressure sensitive pads with the Ultimate Linn9000, but all I had were just buttons at the time. I wanted to have one button for a loud hit of a hi-hat for example, a different button for a soft hit. That way, by hitting them in different orders, like doing a paradiddle on them, you could get t-tt-tt-tt-tt-tt, things like that.
Then you have the open hi-hat as another one, right? I had 3 levels for the snare, I had 2 levels for the hi-hat, and I had 2 levels for the percussion instruments, and that allowed the combination then of the dynamics, the timing correction, and the swing, which really allowed you to get very good grooves.
The last thing is, I made sure all the samples were very tightly trimmed at the start, so when you hit the button they played.
Darwin Grosse: Yeah, it wasn’t sloppy. Well, this idea of starting by correcting, and then loosening up after the fact. I think one of the reasons why people love those instruments so much is because it was very forgiving for technique, right?
Roger Linn: Yeah.
Darwin Grosse: One of the things, certainly for me, I did an enormous amount of music using MPC’s, and one of the reasons was, it allowed me to do that tightening of the timing but still gave me all of the dynamics using the pressure sensitive pads. That was really a key feature.
One of the things that happened as a result of your work with the development of all these different devices, is that incredible new areas of music showed up.
I would say that the various LinnDrum variance, and the Linn9000 included, were really important in the development of a lot of L.A. based pop during a certain time period, but also a lot of English and European proto-techno.
All that kind of stuff came about because of the development of those instruments.
Then your work on the MPC series, I would say almost single-handedly developed a whole world of rap music, and you’re right dead-center in the middle of that.
Your work on the Tempest sort of extends the field of a lot of techno and electronic music, and now you’re coming forward with this new instrument. This highly expressive instrument, and I’m curious, what do you imagine that developing in terms of music? Because it certainly is different, it certainly is yet another ground-breaker, how do you see that affecting music and the way musicians interface with their instruments?
Roger Linn: It’s a fascinating question because, the way I like to put it is, almost everyone who’s playing synthesis right now is playing on/off switches.
What I mean by that is, a MIDI keyboard is little more than an array of on/off switches. Yes, it’s true they’re velocity sensitive on/off switches, and yes, it’s true that they have that very limited after-touch feature which means that if you press a key down, 95% of the way, then it senses the pressure from 95% to 100. Which to me is not terribly useful.
And because they recognize it’s not bending notes, they put a couple of sideways pots on the left side, one for pitch bend, and one to introduce a mathematically perfect vibrato. As we all know, people have tried for 50 years to make those pitch bend and mod wheels do something as natural as an expression as a saxophone, or a guitar, or a violin, and it hasn’t really worked.
Jan Hammer did some great stuff in the early days, but these controls have been, in the Darwinism of musical instruments, the mod wheel and the pitch bend wheel haven’t really turned out very good. They haven’t done a great deal.
A lot of people, since the 70’s, have tried to put more expression into instruments.
Yamaha has some wonderfully expressive instruments, their wind controllers, Akai have their EWI and EVI, and then Buchla did some wonderful things. Then of course in 1999, Lippold Haken made the Continuum.
I think these are basically … these will be considered very important stepping stones toward what I call the era of expressive electronic instruments. Up until roughly 1970, was the era of expressive acoustic instruments, from about 2020 forward, is the era of expressive electronic instruments, and the 50 years in between I refer to as the era of on/off switches. This is really fascinating, and I have an essay on this on my site.
In trying to find out if expression was important to people, I’ll play the LinnStrument and they won’t get it. They’ll say, “What’s the big deal? I’ve have envelope editors, I’ve got LFO’s, what do I need beyond an on/off switch?”
Well it’s interesting, 2 months ago I went to the Billboard Hot 100, this is popular music, and the reason I went there is because this tells me what influences a lot of people, or the listening taste of a lot of people, popular music, even though I don’t listen to popular music. I went there and I looked at the top 20 songs.
Of this top 20, 18 of them were electronically generated. Either all sequences and things like that, or they were hip-hop songs with drum machines and a few other lines, right? Then there were 2 songs made with traditional instruments, either electric guitars, or other instruments, or acoustic guitars. The 2 songs that had acoustic instruments, that were made from acoustic instruments, both had an instrumental solo. The 18 songs made with electronic instruments, not a single one of them had an instrumental solo.
Now Darwin, when you and I were kids, just about every song had an instrumental solo. There was either a guitar solo on a rock record, or there was a … Thank God there was never a drum solo on a pop record, except for Cream jams. Country songs had a fiddle solo, or a peddle steel solo. Jazz records had a …
Darwin Grosse: Saxophone.
Roger Linn: Sax solo, or a clarinet solo, or other instruments, trumpet solo, or they were all solos, right?
There were instrumental stars that you would actually pay to go to a concert where you sit down and listen to an instrumental star play. Now, that doesn’t exist anymore, virtually it doesn’t exist anymore.
If someone’s playing an electronic instrument, they’re either a DJ, where people don’t actually go to a concert specifically to listen to them, they go to a dance concert and they dance and the DJ is providing the background music. Now it’s wonderful background music, but it’s still the background music for the event.
It’s the same thing in these 18 of the 20 songs on the Billboard Top 20. All the music was background music, it’s sequences, it’s programmed. I asked myself, I said, “Is expression no longer important?” I said, “No, that’s not the case because the singers on these songs are wonderfully expressive.”
They have wonderful variations in timbre, dynamics, pitch, gestures. But all the music is very static, it’s programmed music.
Then I asked myself, “Are there no good musicians?” No, I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think what it is, a part of the answer is that all these people who are playing electronic music, are playing on on/off switches, and on/off switches are simply not that interesting to listen to.
Darwin Grosse: That’s a very interesting thesis, because while you were talking about that, I was like, “Yeah, the electronic music doesn’t have expressiveness,” except it seems to me like in different time periods, whether you go back to look at disco or some of the more electronic focused soul music, or some of these things, a lot of times it’s as things got more strict, from a timing and more on/off oriented from the instrument side. It’s almost that it forced the singers and some of these other musicians to become more, or even overly expressive, just to almost make up for it.
Roger Linn: Yes, that’s possibly true.
Darwin Grosse: How much is something like the LinnStrument sort of like you taking the feeling and the playability of the guitar, and trying to bring that to a MIDI world?
Roger Linn: I would say that my goal is to bring the expressiveness of any of the wonderful instruments that we’ve grown to know and love over centuries to electronic music.
Whether it’s guitar, or peddle steel, a sax, or it’s a violin, and I can play a very convincing part on each one of those, and even drums too. I can do excellent drum parts on a LinnStrument, or you can do the same thing on a Continuum, or on the Seaboard.
When you’ve got those 3 dimensions, it’s just amazing how well you can either simulate traditional instruments or, more importantly, you can create the new sounds, the new instruments that are missing in contemporary music.
Darwin Grosse: As part of developing an instrument, to me an instrument is the way that you physically interface with the thing, but it’s also the sound that comes out.
In a lot of the cases of these MPE capable interfaces, it’s half of the instrument, right? You have the physical interaction with the instrument but there’s still the sound generating thing on the backend.
Roger Linn: I would love to have a sound generator built into LinnStrument, and that’s where ROLI for example has an advantage in their larger instruments. They have a sound generator built-in, and the Continuum has a built-in instrument that’s the wonderful Eigenmatrix software
I was trying to reduce the price to make it affordable for more musicians, and I talked to people about it and they said, “We’ve already got all the synths we want, we just want a better man/machine interface, and we don’t mind if it doesn’t have the sounds built in.
I suppose at one point in time, if I could really make a great sound generator that encompassed the best parts of the sound generators that people are using, it would be nice to have it built in to LinnStrument. The way people make music these days is they tend to make it on the computer, and so if you have sound in the instrument, you can’t sequence it in the same way. There’s a lot of advantages to having the sounds in the computer.
The other thing is that I found most instrument players, they already have their favorite synths.
I could, for example, have a great violin sample, but it’s never going to sound as good as the modeled violin from Sample Modeling. Or any of their modeled orchestral winds, or their cello.
I could have some good sample type sounds, but if you’re on Mac, for 30 dollars you can get MainStage, and that’s going to give you: an MPE analog-modeled synthesizer ES2; an MPE sampler that’s very, very capable, the EXS24; an MPE physical modeler Sculpture; an MPE FM synthesizer and an MPE Alchemy.
It’s very hard to argue with that.
Darwin Grosse: That’s a great point because, as you were talking about it I realized, I don’t necessarily want a sound engine built into the LinnStrument, but what I would like is something that says, “Here’s the sound component that is the right match for this interface.”
I think what you just did was point out that there are a number of options, and any of those options may be the thing that speaks to you.
Maybe in one way, leaving those options open also gives you the ability to serve many musical masters, right? Because I may really badly want drumming kinds of sounds, where the next person may want to do Hoover-style rave synths, and the person after that wants to simulate a cello.
Not tying the device to anything specific gives all these people the ability to think that you made it for them, right?
Roger Linn: Well, in truth, I would like to have a single plug-in that does tons and tons of stuff that I could ship with each unit. So what I do instead, I have a very nice downloadable project file for either Logic or Mainstage, that takes advantage of those wonderful synths that are built into both of those programs, and for such a low price, and they’re all MPE sounds. Now, I have some sounds also for other synths, but the most extensive set of sounds I have currently are those ones for Logic and Mainstage.
And, if you buy any of the Sample Modeling instruments, that are all traditional sounds of wind or bowed string instruments, each one of them has a setup button that says ‘LinnStrument Defaults’, and it will set it up perfect for LinnStrument.
Darwin Grosse: Oh, that’s cool. I didn’t realize that that was happening, because prior to that if you had something that did have some expressiveness, you’d always have to co-opt the breath controller or something like that.
What you’re able to do now is get people to actually embrace the LinnStrument as a specific input device.
Roger Linn: Yeah, one thing I should mention too is that, as important as MPE is, LinnStrument actually works very well with one channel synths. If you think about it, if you’re doing very expressive work like violin, or cello, or the equivalent in synthesized sound, you’re usually playing single lines. In fact, it’s hard to play too expressively with more than one expressive voice.
Geert wrote this wonderful software that just is so elegant how it does it.
LinnStrument has a one channel mode, you can either play on one channel, or in the MPE mode, where it uses multiple channels, one for each voice, one for each note you’re playing. If you’re in one channel mode and you’re just playing a monophonic line, you’re getting your full dimensions.
You have either channel pressure or poly pressure for your z-axis, your note pressure, and then you slide your finger left to right, and that’s just pitch bend message, it’s just standard vanilla MIDI. Then forward and backward movement, the y-axis, is sent by this agreement we have, and which Lippold started, of using CC74, right? It’s very straightforward.
The problem of course, is you’ve only got one pitch bend for the whole channel. So, for example, if I were holding a chord and then I would slide a note somewhere else, it would slide the entire chord that I’m playing as well. What we do is, if you’re only playing one note, the slide is completely continuous. If you’re holding any other notes, the slide is stepped semitones.
Darwin Grosse: Oh, so you actually regenerate notes then, on the fly?
Roger Linn: Yeah, yeah. The interesting thing is, if you’re only holding a chord and vibrato-ing a solo note, it still vibrato’s it because the vibrato will just vibrato the whole chord, and it actually sound very musical. When you slide up, you’ve still got the movement within the cell, but it’s just stopping that bend when it gets to the next note.
You can actually, you could even play chords and vibrato the chords, like…playing a pedal steel.
It works very well within one channel so you can play chords and still get expressiveness.
Darwin Grosse: Interesting.
I know you’re still really actively tweaking the LinnStrument into what you hope for it to be, but I’m curious, what’s the next thing inside of your head? What’s the next master move? What’s the next rock-star thing that you’re going to do?
Roger Linn: Well, I haven’t really decided yet.
I would like to make another drum machine because very frequently people say, “Make another drum machine.” I mean they like Tempest, but there’s a lot of people that wanted to live in the sampling world, as opposed to the Tempest world.
The LinnStrument technology is wonderful for drum beats – I’ve got independent pitch bend for each drum.
There’s an 8 minute overview video (embedded below) that includes drum beat pitch bend examples (at about 4:35 in the video):
Darwin Grosse: Is it the tilt that’s doing the filtering?
Roger Linn: Yeah, what I’m doing is when I tilt my finger forward, then it becomes a pressure controlled filter.
Darwin Grosse: Ahh, nice. Okay.
Roger Linn: That’s using the built in swing arpeggiator, so it’s great for creating very funky beats, and the lowest row is set to be a control strip, and what this is doing is changing the speed of the arpeggiator, so I can do fills.
That actually works great as a drum machine, but I would like to take that into a form factor that would be more suitable for drum machinists, with the sounds built in and the whole deal.
Darwin Grosse: Well Roger, I want thank you so much for taking this time out of your schedule. I know you’re a busy guy, but it’s been fantastic, I learned an awful lot about you and I’ve also been inspired by many of the things you said, so thank you so much for that.
Roger Linn: It’s my pleasure.
Darwin is the Director of Education and Customer Services at Cycling ’74 and was involved in the development of Max and Max For Live. He also developed the ArdCore Arduino-based synth module as his Masters Project in 2011, helping to pioneer open source/open hardware development in modular synthesis.
Darwin also has an active music career as a performer, producer/engineer and installation artist.