Interview: Jordan Rudess and Steve Horelick - EMusician

Jordan Rudess and Steve Horelick

On 'InterSonic,' two longtime collaborators release their first album together
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Although they’ve appeared in these pages far too seldom, Jordan Rudess and Steve Horelick are probably familiar to many, if not most, EM readers. Best known as the virtuoso keyboardist for the Platinum-selling progressive metal ensemble Dream Theater, Rudess is a former member of the Dregs, Paul Winter Consort, and Liquid Tension Experiment; and he has recorded with David Bowie, Steven Wilson, and many other luminaries. He’s also an accomplished solo artist, iOS app developer, online music educator, and the driving force behind Keyfest, an annual gathering of keyboardists in New York.

Though his accomplishments are many, Horelick will be forever known as the synthesist who composed and produced the theme to the PBS show, Reading Rainbow. He is one of the principles behind Nonlinear Educating, where he’s in charge of content creation and acquisition for the websites macProVideo.com, AskVideo.com, and Ask.Audio. If you’ve ever watched any of his online tutorials, you can certainly see why this Emmy-nominated film, game, and TV composer is considered an authority on electronic music production.

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Both men are immensely talented musical visionaries, and longstanding friends and collaborators. In their off-hours, they have made a habit of getting together whenever they could to play and record their musical improvisations. Until recently, however, they’d never completed an album resulting from their collaborations. In November, Lazy Bones Recordings released InterSonic, which very successfully blends acoustic piano sounds with purely electronic timbres. I recently had the opportunity to speak with them about it.

What were the origins of InterSonic?

JR: Originally when Steve and I got together, it was just for the love of making music, our friendship, our spirit. We just had this bond, which was important to us. One day not that long ago, we looked at each other and went, “You know what? We’ve got some really nice music here. We should let the world hear it.” And pretty quickly after that, we found a way to get it out there.

SH: It’s not like we were just setting out to do an album. We were setting out to take what we love and put it out there.

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You didn’t realize it was going to be an album until it was coming along?

SH: That’s true. We record every improvisation that we do, sometimes direct to stereo just to catch it live.

JR: There was really no commercial venture here. It wasn’t about that at all.

At what point did you realize you wanted to release it?

JR: We were together, we were making music, and I think it was like a lightbulb moment. I think I said, “Steve, we’ve got a lot of really good music.” And we started to go back and see just how much we had. We had more than an album’s worth. And then we thought, “Okay, maybe I’ll put it up on my website,” and Steve was like, “Yeah, I’ll put it up on mine.” But then I said, “You know, I have some people that I work with in my other stuff—I mean, it’s a little different—but they might be interested to help this.” Steve was into the idea.

I mentioned it to the gentleman who had put out the Levin Minnemann Rudess albums. He heard the album and was also really excited about it. He was like, “Wow, this is very different than anything else I’ve ever done, but I absolutely love it, and I want to work with you guys.” Then we had to go back through the process of figuring out what music we had, what we wanted to put out, what, if anything, needed to be done to the tracks…

SH: …and also create new tracks just specifically for the album.

You said you pulled stuff from your collection of things you’ve done together. What are the oldest tracks on there?

SH: Some of it’s going back as far as eight years.

JR: Yeah. I think “Quantum Fuzz” might be a really old one.

On the surface, your musical styles seem so different. How did you get them to blend so seamlessly?

JR: There are a lot of differences in what we do, but the main thing that kind of joins us together is a kind of musical sensitivity, if you will, for sound and the spirit of improvisation. So obviously, if you get together with another musician or a group of musicians to improvise, it’s all about having an open ear to hear what people are doing and react. One of the things that’s a real pleasure about making music together is that there’s so much resonance there—sensitivity—to what the other person is doing. It almost feels like being in a classical chamber group or something like that.

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Have you performed together in a live context?

JR: Yes.

Are you planning more live shows together?

JR: We really want to. One thing that we’re very interested in is moving sound around the room. We’ve been talking about finding opportunities to play where we can do that. At this point, right up to the new year, we’re making a list of different opportunities we have and people that we know.

SH: I’ve been developing some really interesting things in [Apple Logic Pro] doing auto-panning surround stuff—creating patterns in surround and having them interact with what the player’s doing using Logic’s environment. I’m performing a lot solo doing that stuff. At [Jordan’s] Keyfest, we did some together using that system. It was just so beautiful to fill a room completely with our timbres. It was fantastic.

Where did you record the album?

SH: Mostly in my home studio, some in Jordan’s studio. There are a couple of bonus tracks…

JR: …that were recorded live at SUNY Purchase. We did a master class there and a performance at SUNY Purchase.

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You didn’t do a lot of editing after the fact?

SH: Very little. There was one tune where we just wanted to accentuate something.

JR: I added a spacey vocal on one of the tracks. I was in my studio just going through stuff, and I thought it would be really cool if we had some weird something. So I put my voice through one of my crazy apps and processed it a bit and added it. There were very little touches that we would do, and Steve did a little bit of mixing on a couple things where we did have things separate. But for the most part, things were laid down just as they were.

Jordan, what factored into your decision about whether to use a real piano or a software piano?

JR: A couple of things. For one, if we were at Steve’s place, then the best solution for getting piano was to use a virtual instrument. In that case, my piano of choice is the Synthogy Ivory piano, American Grand. I’ve been a very big supporter of Synthogy and Joe Ierardi. Although, of course, I’m coming from a piano background, I find that there’s a certain magic to have it in the digital domain. It really lends itself towards processing, like on the song “Beyond Time.” I played that at home as a piano solo thing, and then I did it with Ivory, and then I sent it off to Steve.

SH: I was using the actual audio that Jordan created and sending it into lots of different types of processors and recording those tracks separately. So maybe I did four or five different passes with it, without really knowing it’s a piano in the processing, but that was the source material, and then mixed in between them to create those colors. So we spent a lot of time getting that sound just right, getting the echoes just right and the reverbs and whatever processing we put on there. That would be much harder to do with a real piano.

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Aside from the pianos, Jordan, what else did you play?

JR: I did a bunch of [Roli] Seaboard stuff and, of course, I used my [Wizdom Music] apps. We used GeoShred. We also used MorphWiz. And Steve actually used an interesting app made by a friend of mine called Finger Fiddle. It’s a physical model string instrument. You can determine where you’re bowing on the instrument and what kind of bowing you’re doing with your finger, whether it would be really sforzando things or very beautiful legato things. We just love expressive instruments. I think that’s what it really comes down to. It’s all about that. I also used Thicket.

What did you control with the Seaboard?

JR: I controlled mostly Equator, Roli’s synthesizer. A little bit of Kontakt, as well, because we have some samples that we were developing when the Roli stuff was just getting off the ground. I still had some things within Kontakt, like some weird guitar things that were processed very heavily through some Native Instruments Guitar Rig plug-ins, as well.

Steve, I understand you played Zendrum on this album. What can you tell us about how you used it?

SH: I took MIDI out of the Zendrum and turned it into control voltages for my modular, for my Eurorack system. I’m using it in a lot of different ways. There’s a module by Mutable Instruments called Rings that has a very acoustic sound. [It generates] different emulations of different types of acoustic objects, whether it be a string object or a striking object. The Zendrum is such a sensitive little instrument because every pad has a little piezo microphone underneath it, so the slightest little touch will produce the softest, beautiful little sounds, and you get the whole dynamic range in a way that I find that no other MIDI instruments give you. I’m controlling two different Rings modules with some processing, throwing in some randomness on every strike to change the position of the strike, just to give it some wonderful variety and realism. Having that kind of electronic string along with Jordan’s beautiful acoustic string, especially on the piano, creates a magical world that we fell in love with.

JR: That was one of the things that actually developed over a little bit of time where we realized that the piano and the electronics really created a magical combination. So as we would get together more and more, we focused a bit more on that—those elements. I think after doing this album, we’re kind of left with the feeling that needs more exploration as well. Probably when we work on another album, we’ll get even deeper into that.

I forgot to mention that one of the instruments that we used on the album from some of the older stuff was the Eigen-harp. I was involved with that, to a point, when that came out. It’s a very interesting instrument. It had a lot of good things about it and I enjoyed playing it. I think we played that out at Purchase. The Mini-moog is part of our setup as well—one of those sessions that got recorded.

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Steve, besides the Buchla, the Eurorack system, and the Zendrum, did you play any other instruments on the album?

SH: Well, really just the iPad and a little bit of keyboard. In some of the pieces, like “Northern Lights,” most of that was created using Logic. It’s a setup I have in Logic that has all kinds of wonderful, different sounds that I fell in love with using Sculpture and Alchemy. So a large part of “Northern Lights,” actually the first three-quarters of it before Jordan comes in, is just me playing live and then Jordan coming in with that beautiful piano representing the lights themselves.

Could you give us some details about your Buchla system?

SH: My most recent one is a brand new Music Easel. It has the card that allows you to do programming on your iPad, so all the setups, all the patching, I can do on the iPad remotely, transfer it over to the card, and that gives me the ability to switch sounds very, very quickly on the Easel. It holds like 36 different sounds—completely different patches. I love the Easel keyboard. It’s a lovely keyboard to play, the way that you can slide across the notes and get that tactile feedback along with the aural feedback. It’s pressure-sensitive also. So you have all these abilities to put your emotions right into whatever it is you want to control with it. I’m also very fond of the way [Buchla] oscillators sound. It’s not like taking something that’s complex and then filtering it down. It’s always using more like wavefolding and other types of timbral shifts. So you start with nothing and then you build it up to something.

My favorite axe, though, is the 200e. The 200e enables me to play things like “Particles” live, because it memorizes your patches, which is very rare on a completely modular synth. The 200e has that digital/analog hybrid technology in it, so you can quickly move in and out of different timbres and shift tonalities. Unlike a normal keyboard, though, the [Buchla 223e] Multi-Dimensional Kinesthetic Input Port is really interesting because you have to tell these keys what to do. In other words, there’s nothing built in. I can set up my own scales and my own tonalities for a particular patch and determine how other keys may be controlling modulation and sequencer speed. It gives me this wonderful little performance space where I can do a lot of things.

What about your Eurorack system? What can you tell us about that?

SH: It’s expensive. [Laughs.] The Eurorack system is like an addiction. I spent a couple of years collecting a lot of modules, and I really enjoyed it. I’ve always been a modular guy. When modular kind of went out of fashion and was taken over by other types of instruments, it’s like, what the heck? And so it’s so wonderful to have all these different manufacturers making all different things that work together. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful world. So yeah, I love the Eurorack world.

It sounds like an essential part of your piano sound is the reverb.

JR: An essential part of our collaboration is the reverb, I would say.

What reverbs are you using?

SH: Several different ones. [Audio Ease] Altiverb is probably one of the major ones. On the electronic stuff, I use Logic’s SilverVerb. I happen to love the way it sounds on electronics. So we used the Altiverb, the SilverVerb—what’s the other?

JR: Space Designer, a little bit.

What about Zynaptiq’s Adaptiverb?

SH: That’s what I was using to a large extent when Jordan sent me just a piano piece. I did four different tracks with just the Altiverb and then mixed between them in interesting ways to match his piano on the last track of the album.

I thought so. I thought that’s what I heard, because it has a unique sound. You can do things with it that you can’t do with other reverbs.

JR: Zynaptiq is an amazing company. They make great stuff.

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Any other effects plug-ins you got a lot of mileage out of on InterSonic?

SH: Nothing extraordinary. When I put sounds in motion, I always add a little phase shifting, because it helps accentuate the effect of something moving. As things move, obviously, they change phase. So I always add a little light phase shifting to a lot of my electronic sounds to help the motion seem more real.

Where do you go from here? Have you already started on the next album?

JR: We want to. As soon as we can find time to collaborate, we will. We both have been getting such amazing feedback. We didn’t ask for it, really, we just kind of put it out. And all the sudden I got a letter from Joe Satriani the other day. He said, “Jordan, I have to tell you, I love this album.” I was like, wow, okay. I heard from Steve Hackett from Genesis, who wrote to us and said he loves this album. And Steven Wilson wrote to me and he was like, “This is a beautiful, beautiful album. I want you to do more of this stuff.” All these people—I’m like, okay!

You can’t get much higher praise than that. That certainly should motivate you to keep doing it.

JR: Yeah. And then my buddy Richard Divine heard it. So the feedback has been great, and we really appreciate it so much. It kind of encourages us. When Steve and I would finish doing one of these sessions, we would both be like, “Man, I wish we could do this all the time. This would be great.” But of course, we’d have to go back. Steve’s got a meeting for MacProVideo. I’ve got to go back and write a Dream Theater song or whatever. We’re both like, “Man, this is so great. We need to figure out how to do this more often.”