Ross Bencina is the programmer behind AudioMulch, a realtime virtual studio musical piece of software. DDN is the left ventricle of Tin.RP, a minimal/noise/glitch electronic project. As you’ll see, Ross made AudioMulch for himself. Tin.RP have been using AudioMulch as their only tool for composing music over the past six years. As you’ll also see, Ross has a classical and contemporary classical background. Tin.RP comes from harshnoise and industrial. Surprisingly, they have a lot in common and quite a few things to say to each other.
Just that we know what we're talking about, could you please give us a musical definition of yourself? (Notably the musical background and culture you come from)
I started piano lessons when I was about 5 years old. I was taught using the Suziki Method which emphasises learning by listening rather than sight-reading. I never really developed my ability to perform music from scores too well. Later I studies Jazz piano and by the time I went to university I was more interested in what computers could do with music rather than trying to perform or compose for traditional instruments. I studied sound synthesis and computer programming along side the more traditional music theory subjects. I've been making music up at the piano for as long as I can remember, so improvisation has always been a part of what I do. I guess for a while I was more interested in "composing" music with computers -- writing software to generate musical materials and then gluing them together as pieces in Pro Tools or something, but these days improvised performance is really where I'm at. I've studied western classical music, various 20th century techniques, but I guess the things that have influenced me most are some ideas of Pierre Schaeffer about the primacy of the sonic experience (over semiotic musical elements) and some ideas of John Cage about chance and silence in music. I tend to view all sound as musical sound, I'm quite happy sitting here in my office listening to the hum of the computers, people's pens clicking, computer keyboards clacking away and chairs squeaking... to me this is as structured a sonic experience as any composed piece of music.
What difference would you make between "composing" music with computers and "making" music with computers?
I don't think I would go too far in differentiating "composing music" and "making music" because I think the whole composition/performance split is already under strain when it comes to improvised music and I just prefer not to use the term composition too much within the area I inhabit (strangely I do still call myself a composer). What I do think is that, at least in the western tradition, composition has typically involved interacting with a notation system, a representation of the music, whereas performance has involved translating that representation into the sound through another interface (the musical instrument). In the case of AudioMulch at least, the representation and the performance interface are conflated so that the performance is being immediately articulated through the user interface, which is at the same time a form of notation/representation, and (in my view) a musical instrument. Because I create the instrument, and perform with it, I feel justified in calling myself a composer but I guess there are lots of things which I do (writing software for example) which while I view as part of my compositional role, are not actually part of "making music" to me -- I probably need to rethink this, since a lot of my own internal conflict arises from the relatively small amount of time I spend "making music".
I really like Schaeffer too; his ideas are always a great source of inspiration: did you read his book 'a theory of musical objects'?
Unfortunately I don't read French, so my access to Schaeffer's ideas have only been through secondary sources. Palombini's dissertation which compares Schaeffer's Typomorphology to Smalley's Spectromorphology for example. I have listened to a lot of music from the acousmatic school, which is heavily influenced by Schaeffer’s thinking. In fact the whole acousmatic thing is pretty attractive to me; I enjoy performing live, but dislike creating a spectacle by being a visible performer.
You made AudioMulch. Why? I mean, wasn't Reaktor good enough for you?
AudioMulch came out of an older program overSYTE which I wrote in 1995, at that time I was improvising with live musicians and vocalists, granulating their sound on one of the first Power Macs. I don't think Reaktor was around, perhaps Csound ran in real-time but I'd already cemented a dislike for that program for reasons related to my desire to control micro-scale sound elements using my own programs. About the only thing that was around at that time was Max/FTS (the predecessor to max.msp) and that was really expensive and I couldn't afford it. In fact I can't really afford max.msp now ?. Actually, back then I couldn't afford a Power Mac either, I was borrowing or hiring them for performances.. to some degree that's why I wrote AudioMulch for PC since I already had a PC for work.
What sort of music was AM designed for?
Well that's a really good question, and I think the answer is always in flux since to a fair degree the answer is "my music" which I hope isn't always the same. I always wanted AudioMulch to bridge the gap between more academic electroacoustic genres and the electronic mainstream. Of course ReBirth came out around the time I was starting, and later Reason, and that kind of killed my dream of being "the" program for those genres, but the idea of supporting musical fusion was high on my list of priorities -- especially given my interest in dance/trance genres.
I absolutely don't agree when you compare AM to Reason (ReBirth isn't an audio program to me; it's just a well designed toy so I won't even mention it). Reason was made for people familiar and comfortable with hardware MIDI gear, not for people starting music or really "composing" music as you said with a computer. I can't imagine something LESS intuitive than reason when cables and hardware samplers mean nothing to you) Anyway, is AM kept simple on purpose or is it just a lack of time or money?
It's interesting to hear your perspective about Reason, I hadn't really thought of it that way before. I do try to keep AudioMulch simple, in the sense of keeping the interface uncluttered and only including the important features without distracting features which might only help one or two people (there are exceptions but I try to keep them few). I also try to make things consistent and intuitive, so simplifying and generalising things is always a goal. The lack of time and money probably comes into it too, although I would hate to loose the simplicity just because development accelerated. I think in terms of capability there would be more functionality if I had more time (indeed in the future there will be more, and if you go back over past releases you will see that it used to be even simpler). There are no shortage of plans for future versions which will make the software more capable, but these plans won't necessarily make the software more complicated, hopefully they'll make it simpler.
You just said that to you, listening to the sounds in your office was "as structured a sonic experience as any composed piece of music" yet you say you also like trance/dance music (the kind reason was designed to make): I'm happy to see some people keep on being open minded but don't you think it "corrupts" your "musical integrity"?
I don't think there is any need to partition the sound world into sounds which corrupt and sounds which don't. There is plenty of music which I choose not to listen to. Perhaps it is my aversion to listening to some music which is more corrupting of any musical integrity I have than my interest in listening to other forms. I think people have the ability to make good music in any genre and with any instrumentation, if I have an opportunity to hear it then I am happy. At the same time, I think different music affects people in different ways, and often my choice of music is guided by wanting to create a certain mood or state of mind rather than to subject myself to an artistic experience which may or may not be pleasant.
So you actually use the software?
Mostly I play live improvised beatless ambient / experimental noise. There's a link on my home page to a recent performance I did in Australia: http://www.audiomulch.com/~rossb I work a lot processing recorded sounds and also building up patches on the fly. I like to improvise from almost nothing -- it doesn't always work out, but I prefer not having a preconceived notion of what I will play before hand, it keeps things fresher that way and it makes it easier to adapt to the vibe, and the acoustic space I'm performing in. I guess in this respect I learnt some ideas from Indian classical performers (although I can't say where, I really know very little about that tradition). One key idea is, I guess that "the tuning" is part of the performance.
How does it feel to have people telling you AM is great and actually using it as a tool for making their own stuff? Any artists using AM whose music you like?
Meeting people who use AudioMulch is always interesting. I love finding out about how far people are pushing the software in directions that I've never thought about. Although sometimes it can be embarassing to know how much hardship I've put people through by not making some or other feature simpler. I'm always really glad to hear that people are making good use of the software which I put time into producing, it makes it even more worthwhile than getting to use it myself.
There's a lot of good music being made with AM, and I like a lot of it, really. Lately I've been listening to Brendon Bussy's “Diesel Geiger” (www.openrecord.co.za/dieselgeiger.html) quite a bit, it's subtle in its eclecticism and very well put together. A lot of the AM music I really like hasn't even been released, people send me CDRs or mp3s some of which are among my favorite CDs. It seems that I like a disproportionately large fraction of the music made with AudioMulch, perhaps the software attracts my kind of musician.
I’m starting from scratch and I wanna be the next Fennesz: what gear should I get? And what plugins if I wanna use audiomulch?
Who's Fennesz? (OK, OK, I have heard of him). Gear? Well I guess perhaps you need a computer, but don't forget there's other ways to make music... Like banging cans or swinging detuned transistor radios around your head on strings, perhaps even getting some kind of recorder and recording your environment, then listening to it back for a few months might be a good start. For recording, a good microphone could be useful. If you have a PC consider getting a decent sound card (I'm not going to mention brands here, but ask around don't just believe the advertising or the "pro" name tag). I probably shouldn't get started, but the whole Electronic Music Gear thing is such an incredible time sink -- once you get into the gear loop you're going to be buying and selling stuff for 5 years before you find something you're happy with... The whole thing is dominated by big companies who cater to the lowest common denominator. On the other hand, things like good speakers are important, and the quality and price of cheap Genelec rip-offs is a lot better now than ten years ago, so perhaps it's not all bad. So in summary: get a good amp/speakers or at least good headphones, get a decent soundcard (decent means low latency and good drivers), and if you're going to record get decent mic preamp(s) and decent microphone(s).
For plugins it really depends what style you're pursuing but there's plenty of free stuff out there and you should probably check as much of it out as you can. I use some stuff from my friends at smart electronix (www.smartelectronix.com/) but usually just go to kvr-vst (www.kvraudio.com) when I'm looking for something specific. For me the sounds I put through AudioMulch are probably more important than the plugins (I mainly use internal AudioMulch contraptions anyway), for sounds you can go to the freesound project (http://freesound.iua.upf.edu/) and perhaps consider contributing some of your own sounds, it's a great site.
I heard you stayed a while in Barcelona lately and seen from my shithole in Southern France it darn looks like a musically active city... what do you think?
Yes, I've been working in Barcelona for the last year or so, I'll be going back to Australia soon. Actually I don't see a lot happening in Barcelona aside from the big festivals like Sonar (too commercial for me these days) and LEM (good music, but too international to be anything but a passing thing). The thing I miss about Barcelona compared to my home town Melbourne is the lack of a regular scene where I know I can go to specific venues and hear good experimental, improvised or electronic music every week. Perhaps it's the bigger size of the city, or perhaps I just haven’t connected with the right people, but things here seem musically fragmented and sparse to me. I guess for me music isn't just about going to random concerts and sampling what people are doing, but its also about a community of practitioners which form around the music and feed off each other.
What's the biggest cultural shock you had while being so far away from home?
Wow, that's a difficult question. This is the second time to Barcelona for me so I think any culture shock happened the first time. Not that it's a shock really, but the language barrier has really been a challenge for me. Australia isn't as culturally isolated as the U.S.A. but linguistically it's probably worse in that English is the accepted language everywhere and being an island we have no bordering countries. Probably Indonesia is the closest non-English speaking country and that's over 4,000 kilometers from where I live. So the culture of speaking multiple languages is not strong among people born in Australia (even among the children of immigrants like me) -- getting used to "learning a language out of necessity" has been as much of a challenge, if not more so, than actually learning Spanish since I moved here.