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The Possible Worlds of Steve Roach

December 6, 2005
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For over 25 years, and on more than 80 releases, Steve Roach has created multidimensional soundscapes that provide a seemingly endless variety of electro-acoustic timbres and textures. For his latest release, Possible Planet (Timeroom Editions), Roach went back to basics and immersed himself in the world of analog synthesis. The resulting pieces have a rich, organic quality, yet retain Roach's remarkable sense of color and motion.

I spoke with Roach over the phone in November, 2005. He had just completed rebuilding his studio, the Timeroom, in a new location, having moved from Tucson, Arizona, where he lived for many years, to a more rural setting.

In addition to the main studio, Roach has created the Analog Cave, a separate part of the room where he can immerse himself exclusively in the sounds of his analog modular system.


What I find remarkable is that each of the three pieces on Possible Planet was created in real time, using analog modular synthesizers. What led you back to the all-analog approach?
Admittedly, it was your magazine that led me back there. It was the article that I was reading with Gary Chang. I had put my toe in that water a few years back, and I was doing some work with Patrick O'Hearn—we both grew up with the same ARP 2600s, and all that sort of stuff—and we were talking about modulars at that time, and I had just bought an Analogue Systems synthesizer, but it just wasn't the right time for me.

That was three or four years ago. And then I read that article, and that was at the right time in terms of what I was going through in my own process of discovery—getting burned out on the virtual analog stuff and soft synths. I was just finding my way back to my original instruments, and finding the voice in there that originally inspired me.

Gary talked about this new explosion happening in the modular world, and there were a lot of people building stuff. He mentioned Peter Grenader [founder of Plan B synthesizers], who I remember back from when I used to be associated with Synapse magazine in the late '70s. It just happened almost over night: It lit a switch on in my mind.

Then I went online and started looking at some of the sources, and talked to a friend, Loren Nerell, who works at Analogue Haven now. He already had some Analogue Systems stuff, and pointed me in the right direction. And it just caught fire immediately: I couldn't buy and build a system fast enough.

Basically, the process of creating the sounds, combined with the visceral import of the sound itself, that was the combination that got me going deeply back into it again.

And I had never let go of my Oberheim analog stuff...

I see from the photo that you have an Xpander in your system.
Yeah, and a Matrix 12. Those came directly from Oberheim. when I lived in L.A., I was good friends with all the people at Oberheim, and I actually had early prototypes of the Xpander, before it had any graphics on it. I'd worked with the OB-X and the OB-Xa, and the OB-8, and went through that whole world, and felt like "When in L.A., play the indigenous instruments." [laughs]

The Analog Cave

Much of my early music was centered around the ARP 2600, analog sequencers, and other analog synths all patched up together. This was my studio and live system throughout the '80s until the arrival of MIDI, the Oberheims, and so on.

This system I built happened so naturally. Back in the day, I couldn't afford a big Serge modular. Now, this stuff is a lot more affordable, and you can combine the different manufacturers, like I've done with Doepfer, Analogue Systems, Blacet, and Peter's Plan B modules, which are really cool.

Part of the excitement is that it's so custom: you can build exactly the system that suits what you want. It brings that individuality into it, where I felt like the soft synths and a lot of the VA [virtual analog] stuff was just starting to get really homogenous to my ears. The tonal quality, not the range of sounds you could do, with a modular was certainly open ended. I love [Native Instruments] Absynth, and still play with that. But for me the [analog modular] interface is a big part of that visceral connection to the sound, and the universe of subtlety that you can find in just a few knob tweaks.

That's why Possible Planet is a very conscious move away from what was familiar to me for many years, which was having a keyboard hooked up to [my synths]. This time I had no MIDI keyboards, no keyboards converted through a Kenton, or anything with any of those pieces. It was purely my will power to create these soundscapes with knobs, and performing it through that means.

How did you approached this particular project? Did you do multiple takes with each patch, or were these performances that happened to come up and you knew they were keepers?
How I approach so much of my music is that I create a foundation and then live with it, and let it continue to unfold, and fine tune it and tweak it over a period of days or weeks.

So you just leave the patch up and your constantly revisiting it?
Completely. There will be some days where it feels sort of mechanical, and you don't feel that magic in your fingertips. And there's other days where it just feels like an extension of your nervous system.

And so by recording endlessly long passages—now you can put on a CD-R or go directly to the computer—you can just let it run, and forget that anything's running, and just get into that place where you find those magic takes.

Your system is on all the time?
It's cool to have that stuff on when you wake up in the morning. And then you hear it different times of the day, through the night, into 2 or 3 in the morning. I've got a patch running right now that's been going on for three days now. And it really sounds like the longer it runs the more stewed and blended it feels, where the stuff gets really melted together. The circuitry likes to be left on. It just sounds better to my ears.

You've got to have it set up to where you can record immediately, because you can lose those moments so quickly. At certain points, I can have something running, and I can just feel I need to record it at once. It's also a common occurrence to actually "over tweak" a great sounding patch and lose the feeling of its magic. This is where the discipline of knowing when it's time to sit back and listen is important.

So you're constantly recording, and improvising, and moving through the space?
Exactly. This is one project where I had a fairly specific kind of tonality and design that I wanted to go for. And that's when I got a hold of Peter to build an analog shift register, which was connected to the days of hanging out with my Serge friends. I really wanted to bring that sound into there. [This particular analog shift register is based on a design by Ken Stone.- Ed.]

The three movements on Possible Planet are basically heard in the progression in which they were recorded. The first part happened as you hear it. The second part unfolded over that same process, in terms of recording lots of sessions, then finding the one with the best feel that was congruent to the earlier one.

And the patches would continue to evolve, too. Eventually the first part of the first movement would sort of BREAK down. At some point, that patch would get so convoluted, and then it would turn into the next one. And through attrition, you just kind of wear it down, and the next one would grow out of it. To me that was also really exciting: to find a process that truly is an organic kind of creation. Then it dies away, and then another comes growing out of that.

At a certain point the shift register arrived. I think at that point I had quite a bit of stuff. I turned off one of the racks to install it, but everything else continued to run. Once I installed it and turned the rack back on, I patched it back into the system and just kept going.

So I was really building the system as I was building the music. It's like updating with ongoing transplants of new body parts. There was a kind of urgency around it, like you want to capture this while it's alive. That's what I love about the modular and the analog stuff at this level, because it really has that feeling of being alive. You've got your hands directly on the current and you're shaping it.

The kind of soundscapes I love to create are unfolding, but somehow interacting together, over periods of time. You leave and you come back and maybe something would change. I'd come back, and the tuning would be different, where instead of corrupted data in the computer, you have some other patch that formed itself. So, I went with that sort of thing, too.

Are you thinking in terms of tunings? I know Robert Rich is always very aware of pitch and tuning. And your pieces seem to be more about timbre.
Absolutely. Tuning is a part of the emotional resonance, so to speak, of what the piece is saying and where you're going with it. And that's something I have always worked at from a directly intuitive state, and not working specifically with any particular kind of Just intonation scales in the way that Robert does. Somehow I feel that you can kind of end up in the same place.

How did you envision using the analog shift register?
I had a DNA-like vision of a sequence that is spiraling and churning, and I wanted to create that shifting, slightly delayed, almost chorusing-like effect. But there's a different timbral and pitch occurrence that's happening when you take that sequence and run it into the shift register, and then take the three outputs of the shift register into three oscillators.

At first I started with a unison tuning on the three oscillators, where they were slightly beating with each other. Then that's where the shift register does what it does: it shifts its pitch and timing relationship, so that you create this moiré-like pattern of harmonic shimmer. That's how I used it in that setting.

Peter ended up combining two of the circuits in there, so now I have six outputs on the shift register. That's really wicked for harmonic gestures, but I haven't used it beyond that yet. I imagine there are a lot of cool ways to use it.

The tuning is really critical, and it took hours to get the proper tuning to where it sounds the way I wanted to hear it.

So you were primarily using the Analogue Systems and Plan B oscillators? At that point, the Plan B was not shipping, so I didn't use it on that album. I used the Analogue Systems and Doepfer oscillators. The first part features the Analogue Systems oscillators in that range where you get them into that real clicky, resonant place.

Then the Blacet modules arrived around Christmas time, and that was part two: the second movement is centered around the Mini Wave. Part three is what you heard with the shift register and the more orchestral kind of thing.

I love how "Cell Memory", the third movement, unfolds. It has a nice blend of layers: sustained breathing ones; one with chewy, bug-like interjections; semi-arpeggiated figures; etc. How many layers do you have going at once in a piece like that?
[long pause] A lot of layers! [laughs]

How many channels are you running, typically? I know a patch will use several modules...
If I'm going into my Soundcraft board, I would have the board loaded—something like 36 channels, including effects such as the Eventide, [Lexicon] PCM-70s and 91s, and all that stuff. In including the return channels, I probably have at least eight stereo outputs coming out of the modular itself. Each one of those stereo pairs I would treat as its own kind of area on the planet.

I'll almost always, simultaneously, record to CD-R just as a backup. And I also have a laptop in the new Analog Cave, so I can record everything to a LaCie drive and put it into the main computer system if I need to.

A lot of what I do is build these dimensional forms up, with lots of layers, and then melt them back down so your focus is always moving. But they're related to each other in different ways, and they're not always being clocked together.

I do a lot of wild-sync stuff. That's what I really love in terms of working with the modular, in the ways I worked with the MIDI sequencers over the years, which is where I do a lot of cloud-like atmospheres that are not in sync, and create multiple sequences of things running in relationship to each other. It's constantly shifting and changing, but there won't be a master clock on some of that stuff.

You're prolific in releasing recordings. Do you have a schedule, or do you simply release the pieces when they're finished?
Quite often I'll have several projects running parallel with each other, and it always seemed natural because one project will start feeding another. And then it might simply be that I don't want to go into this space for a couple of weeks. Then I'll start something else.

My process is similar to that of a visual artist, where you typically work in your studio and have, maybe, several paintings going on, and you're moving between them and they inform each other. Sometimes elements from one will end up in another, but totally unrecognizable. Or sometimes it is related to it.

Being possessed as I am with sound, it's kind of the natural process and result of wanting to create and work every day with sound. The outcome of that are these releases. To me it's not a sense of being prolific, except in relationship to the standards that the music industry set for people to think that it's unusual to release more than a couple of albums a year. Whereas, if you're an artist or painter, and you have an art opening, and you have one painting there, it doesn't seem right.

When you record, is it direct to 2-track, or are you multitracking into a digital audio workstation, and doing more processing?
Once the piece has evolved, and is breathing and living, I'll isolate the different soundscapes onto tracks, and EQ them against each other, and orchestrate it timbrally, so that everything fits together.

I'll run it down through a [Echo] Layla into [Sonic Foundry] Vegas—that's my platform. I'll put it down onto, say, four, six, or eight stereo tracks. But typically I don't record individual parts that often. I always aim to create a bigger picture that captures all the effects and everything together.

I have found, over the years, that when I record a lot of things dry, they're too isolated and separate. A big part of my sound is a combination of all these outboard effects, with two different Eventides, three or four Lexicons. You can pull the sliders down just slightly and it changes the whole sense of depth of something. That's why I've stayed with that world. I don't want to lose my connection to that way of working, in terms of going into all computer-based processing—I've worked with it enough to know that I'm not happy, sonically, with the results, for the style I have developed.

Typically when I would mix it down, I would go deeper in the EQ so everything fits together well, and I may add a little bit more processing. For the segues between the sections, a lot of times I'd let them run quite a long time. That's where there's some layering happening—between the sections.

You're talking about a living timbral blend that you're riding herd over.
Completely. With Possible Planet, I was really able to apply that sense in a way that's so responsive because of the nature of the instruments. The slightest tweak of a filter—you can feel it in your spine.

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