After a break of 6 years, Atlanta-based electronic musician, producer and sound designer Richard Devine returns with a new album, Sort\Lave, on Venetian Snares‘ Timesig imprint.
Recorded between 2016 and 2017 using Richard’s custom built Eurorack modular system and two Nord G2 Modular units, Sort\Lave features 12 tracks of intricate electronica, ranging from abrasive percussive experiments such as Revsic to Astra’s dazzling juxtaposition of sounds and to the radiant ambience of the album’s closer Takara.
We asked Devine to tell us about the new album, and his process in making it:
Synthtopia: Before getting into your new album, I’d like to ask you a few questions about you and your background.
What originally sparked your interest in electronic music?
Richard Devine: It started back in high school. I was buying lots of records and began DJing around the age of 16. I bought my first set of Technics 1200 turntables and began collecting music.
I was mainly into a lot of early Detroit techno music, and electro. I eventually got into acid music, in the mid 90’s. I had a few major turning points after meeting a few friends in college, and discovered more experimental adventurous music.
Synthtopia: Were there particular artists or types of music that inspired you?
Richard Devine: I met up with a local synth tech named Tim Adams in 1992. I was collecting lots of vintage analog synths at that time. I would go to the local pawnshops here in Atlanta and buy what ever I could get my hands on.
Many of these machines would be broken. During that time, I bought many analog mono synths, sequencers, and drum machines. I found an Oberheim Expander from a local shop near by my house that wasn’t working. So I wanted to find a tech who could fix it here locally.
I saw an ad in the back of the Atlanta Advertiser magazine that mentioned a shop that could repair old Sequential/Oberheim synths, and got in touch. I spoke to the main tech Tim Adams, whom I later met in person. He was moving into a new house from his old apartment at the time. He had about 4 crates of records that he needed to get rid of. So I told him I would happily take them off his hands.
In this collection was everything from Kraftwerk, John Cage, Stockhausen, to all the works of Morton Subotnick.
It was an amazing time for me. I was 17 at the time, and would listen to these records every night in my room.
I was completely blown away by the works of Morton Subotnick. In particular the albums Touch, Sidewinder, The Wild Bull, and Silver Apples Of The Moon. I had never heard music that was so organic and free.
I remember looking at the back of the records and seeing the black and white picture of the Modular Electronic Music system built by Don Buchla. I was fascinated by this idea of this instrument. It was big turning point for me early on.
From that, I started to seek out other music that was similar to Morton’s. The early Warp/Rephlex records labels also heavily influenced me in the late 90’s. Hearing the music of Richard D. James was another major turning point.
Synthtopia: How did you go from being interested in electronic music to actually making music?
Richard Devine: It was actually from one record release I bought from this band, Meat Beat Manifesto. It was an EP called the Mindstream (1992) and it had remixes by several artists.
I remember hearing the Aphex Twin remix of this track and was completely blown away. I knew at that point I wanted to make music like this. It was the perfect balance of experimental syncopated beats with futuristic sounds. It really inspired me to try something like this on my own.
Synthtopia: Was there a first synth or first tool you got started with?
Richard Devine: The first real analog synth I bought was the ARP 2600, which I still have and use today.
The ARP 2600 is a semi-modular analog subtractive synthesizer. It was a wonderful introduction into the world of sound shaping and synthesis.
The ARP is semi-modular with a fixed selection of basic synthesizer components, which are pre-wired. You can mix/modulate signals via the on-board faders, or use any of the 66 patch points to manipulate signals. So you can operate the ARP either with or without patch cables, which was ideal for getting a basic understanding of what was happening.
I learned about the basic building blocks of synthesis, like what a VCO, VCF, VCA, and ADSR did. From there I was able to move into more advanced concepts like cross modulation, FM, AM, Ring Modulation, Envelope followers, Noise generators, Voltage Processing, Sample and Hold circuits, and envelope generators. The main reason why I got the ARP in the first place was after reading a short interview in the Vintage Synthesizers Handbook by Mark Vail, with sound designer Ben Burtt, who created many of the iconic sound effects for the early Star Wars films.
I remember seeing Ben pictured with the ARP 2600 and how he described making all the sounds of R2-D2 using only his voice and the ARP. I was fascinated by this, and had to find one for myself.
Synthtopia: You keep busy with sound design work and other projects, in addition to your own music. Can you tell us about some of your recent projects?
Richard Devine: I do a lot of work with companies in Silicon Valley; currently working with Apple on one project, but it’s under an NDA [Non-Disclosure Agreement] so I can’t say much about it.
And I just finished working with Google on their new Daydream Virtual Reality platform for the Pixel phone. I was asked to create all the Ambisonic ambiences and UI sounds for most of their new VR apps, like Photos VR, YouTube VR, and most recently Google Earth VR for the HTC Vive system.
It was a lot of fun; I am currently working on two new projects with another company in the Bay Area, creating UI sounds for a new 360° camera, and completed sound design for my first electric car [project] that was released this earlier year. It was an absolutely fascinating project to work on.
Synthtopia: With all the things that you work on, how do you balance them against finding time to work on your own music? And is the timetable of your album releases driven by the need to carve out time, or by other artistic or personal reasons?
Richard Devine: I have always been a music nerd at heart. I feel making music for me is very therapeutic much like painting or drawing. It’s just another form of self-expression, and its something I enjoy doing every day.
I usually work on sound design client work during the day, then work for a few hours into the night on my own music. It’s a nice change, since most of my work is done on a computer for most of the day.
So after a full day of work, I will turn the computer off, and just move over to the modular and patch up something. My goal has been to try and record a new song almost every night.
I started doing this around February of 2016 and have accumulated over 250 tracks now. Some of them are just basic patches while others are more completed pieces. I have two kids as well, so I have to really make the best of the time I have every day.
Synthtopia: Sort\Lave is your first album release in about 6 years. How would you describe the music on the album?
Richard Devine: This new record is very different than my previous releases, that had been pretty much created with computers/field recordings/digital processing, etc.
With this record, I wanted to do pretty much everything with synthesis. All the drums, sounds and textures where generated with the modular or Nord G2 Modulars. I wanted the overall sound of every track to feel more organic, and move away from digital processed plugin type sounds.
With this album, I also spent a great deal of time on the mixing and mastering. I wanted the album to sound big, warm, and bold but still have lots of macro detailed textures and interesting juxtaposition of melodies and rhythms. I also mixed the album with all analog outboard gear to give it a more rounded warm sound overall.
Synthtopia: In your release notes for the new album, you describe your earlier releases as “cold, digital, clinical even” and the new album as ‘organic’ and ‘warm’. Why the difference?
Richard Devine: I really wanted to try something different with this album. It was more about doing things with my hands rather than working with patches on the computer and working to a timeline.
I wanted the entire process to be more organic and hands-on. I wanted the flow and feel to be completely different. I spent many months figuring out the track order, as I wanted it to feel more like a journey of different compositions and spaces. To be an album you just load up and let it play all the way through to the end.
Synthtopia: It sounds like some of the changes in your music reflect changes in the ways you want to make music and interact with sound. What’s your impetus for wanting to change the way you make music?
Richard Devine: With this release it was all about doing things with my hands.
I wanted it to be more organic in the structures and the way the tracks mutated and changed over time. I loved starting out the patch at one point then taking you to a completely different place by the end of the piece. Some of the pieces would travel through 3 to 4 different movements, ending up in completely different places. I really wanted to play around with this idea for this album.
Synthtopia: You mentioned that your music on Sort\Lave sounds very different than your earlier music. What are the aspects of your music that haven’t changed – the things that make one of your tracks a ‘Richard Devine’ track?
Richard Devine: I think everyone will still know this to be my music, with certain trade mark things I like doing in my pieces.
I guess it’s my own little twist on things, the way my brain works. I just gravitate towards doing certain things. For example on this record, I didn’t program any of the rhythms on a timeline or with audio editing, pasting in piece by piece like I have done in the past. Instead, I created most of the drum sequences with generative, probability-based sequencers.
I also created all the percussion sounds with synthesis, vs. using samples or field recordings, etc. I also did this, as I wanted the sounds to be more alive and move dynamically throughout each piece. This is something I would always try to do in the past but would do this by putting in every little piece by hand.
Synthtopia: Your notes for the album mention that you spent around 5 years building up the systems you used on Sort\Lave – a Eurorack modular system and two Nord G2 Modular units.
Can you tell us a little more about your rig and the process you went through to build the system you used on the new album?
Richard Devine: For most of the tracks on the album, I set up 5 to 6 cases of Eurorack modules. Each case would play at one point in the track; sometimes two cases would play for just the first two minutes. All of the cases would share the same clock signal.
I would have transition modules to bridge between each case. Sometimes, I would use a sample from 4ms STS, BitBox or from the ER-301to buy me 20 seconds to prepare settings for the next case. Then [it would] fade into the next section of the song.
For me, it was the only way I was able to quickly change into completely different sounds/textures in a shorter 5 to 6 minute window. I would usually breakdown my pieces into 4 to 5 different distinctive sections. I usually have two or three cases just to do different drum sounds/synthesis, one for melodies, and one for effects/mixing. Each case would have a dedicated function.
It was fun as I could change out different modules for each track, and sometimes re-arrange the entire case to achieve a certain effect or sound. It was all an experiment to see what new sounds and textures I could come up with for each of these compositions.
Synthtopia: Was that process of building your system a matter of developing it into one that you feel inspired by, or more a matter ‘bending it to your will’ and making it yours?
Richard Devine: I spent about 5 years testing out different configurations/modules to get things setup to write music here at my studio. My goal was that I wanted to design a system that would allow me to compose music very quickly, but at the same time have points where I could interject nuances of probability and chance to any of the sequencing chains.
So I have processing CV/Gate modules that allow me to either remove incoming signals or add to the signals on the fly. I spent a lot of time researching different ways to speed up certain tasks like programming drums, or generating melodies etc.
I am still integrating and adopting newer modules all the time to this setup, so it’s a ongoing process that I feel will always get better.
Synthtopia: Can you tell us a little about your process for making the music of Sort\Lave – or walk us through the process of creating one of the tracks on your new album?
Richard Devine: I would usually set one case to be the master clock, that would be then sent to 4 to 5 other cases of modules. I would at least try to stick one or two sequencers in each case. Each case would also have its own set of voltage-controlled modulators, LFO’s, envelopes, generative CV modules etc.
Everything would play its part at a specific point in the song. For each patch, I would setup each part on all 5 cases, for example. I would have a transition module to bridge each section going from one case to the next case. This would usually be some sort of sample interlude playing from the ER-301, Rossum Assimil8or, or 4ms STS samplers. This would buy me about 20 to 30 seconds to setup things for the case to play the next part of the track.
I would practice through this many times until I got just the right performance I wanted. I would record all the takes, sometimes; there would be 20 versions of one patch. I would go back and listen and choose my favorite take of that patch.
During these sessions, I would use my iPhone timer to keep sense of how long I was playing each part. I would try to condense each part to about 1 to 2 minutes and keep most of the pieces to about 5 to 6 minutes in total length. It’s easy to get carried away playing on the modular and drag a patch out for 40 + minutes without realizing it. So I really wanted to pay close attention to what was happening at every point during the performance.
Synthtopia: For the hardcore Synthtopia readers, are there particular synthesis techniques or other techniques that you used in making Sort\Lave that you can share?
Richard Devine: I spent a lot of time tuning the drums for each track with this album.
Since everything was synthesized, I was able to really dial in things to fit the entire scape of the track. I would tune snares, hi-hats and other percussion elements as if they were part of the melodic palette of sounds. Even if the track had bare hints of strong melodies, I was doing this throughout the record.
I also experimented a lot with the idea of taking one sequencer and feeding it into another sequencers, to get combinations of different patterns. Running two at the same time, but having one play at one speed, then the other running at half speed. I would do this for almost every patch.
The interesting things would happen when I would feed these into CV processors like gate clustering or probability-removing modules. I would be able to quickly dial in polyrhythms on the fly just by turning a few knobs to alter the incoming sequence data.
I used a lot of digital oscillators for this album, including two Intellijel Shapeshifter, Erica Synth Graphic VCO, and the Mutable Instruments Plaits modules. I also created many patches on the Nord G2 that would handle a bit of the synth voicing and synthesized drums. I was able to synchronize all of this together using the Mutable Instruments Yarns, and Polyend Seq modules.
Synthtopia: What can you tell us about the title and track names?
Richard Devine: The album title derived from a collection of works that span from 2016/2017.
The word “sort” is a word that I choose that meant to arrange systematically in groups; separate according to type, class, etc. This pertained to the collection of tracks, and sorting them into different styles/spaces/emotions etc. I recorded so many modular tracks last year that I had to come up with a system for cataloging and organizing all the tracks. I had a folder on my drive that was simply labeled “Sort.” So I would remember to go back and figure out which tracks would end up going on the album.
The word “lave” means something that is left behind, or the flowing of a river, sea against, past or wash. Which really defined the way I created the entire album using electricity and control voltages. It was like creating this neural network of wires in which electrical currents moved like water between each system, creating these exotic sonic landscapes.
Synthtopia: I remember the first time I listened to many of my favorite albums, whether it was sitting between the stereo speakers, staring at the album cover; or listening to the album in the car, driving home from the store.
Now, it seems like people are just as likely to be introduced to new music via an algorithm.
As a composer, are you hoping that people will listen to Sort\Lave a particular way or that they’ll have a particular type of experience with your music?
Richard Devine: Well, I hope this record will be one of those albums you just put on and play all the way through. I hope people enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed creating it. I am already working on the next album now, so I’m excited to share some of the new things I am working on for the next chapter.
Synthtopia: Richard, thanks for taking the time to tell us about your new album and giving us some insight into its background!
Richard Devine: No problem, it was my pleasure.
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