Richard Devine Is Living the Dream

FORGING NEW TIMBRAL TERRITORY, ONE WAVEFORM AT A TIME
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Composer, performer and sound designer Richard Devine leads a charmed life. Armed with an impressive arsenal of tools and talent, Devine has evolved from the darling of the experimental electronic dance-music crowd to a major force in sound design for synth builders, computer makers and bastions of international commerce. Along the way, his advertising clients — such as Audi, BMW, Ford, Lexus, Estée Lauder, Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Touchstone Pictures — have picked up numerous awards for the commercials he has contributed to.

Devine's career has been like a dream come true, almost from the moment he took his music public. You'll hear his sonic imprint in everything from television network logos to the clicks and buzzes of cell phones. You may also be familiar with his work on Toontrack's Electronic EZX and with his sound libraries from Sony Creative Software (The Electronic Music Manuscript and Pulse: Pure Analog Lifeforms).

Devine's full-length CDs — Lipswitch (Warp, 2000), Aleamapper (Schematic, 2001), Asect:Dsect (Asphodel, 2003) and Cautella (Sublight, 2005) — have had a tremendous impact and earned him a loyal global following. When you're first exposed to his music, you'll notice that it's different from traditional songcraft. There's very little in the way of melody, but it's texturally rich and rhythmically dense — on some tracks, too dense to comprehend in a single listening.

Devine is a mainstay of the electronic underground concert scene, traveling frequently in the United States and around the world to play shows and festivals. Using audio software for both Mac and Windows — as well as a huge collection of instruments including synths and samplers, the waterphone and various musical toys — Devine continues to develop the distinctive musical voice he discovered shortly after his college years, when he studied to become a visual artist.

For this interview, Devine invited me to spend some time with him at his home outside Atlanta. What you see here is only a fraction of our conversation. For the entire interview (lasting more than an hour and a half), see Web Clips 1 through 10 at emusician.com/web_clips/web_clips_1209. And check out Web Clip 11 for a video tour of his home studio.

It's been more than four years since your last album was released. What have you been doing with yourself?

Working on so much commercial stuff, doing sound design with so many companies — they keep me busy. I have some pretty big companies that come to me on a daily basis.

How did that get started?

I released my first album on Warp Records in 2000, a U.K.-based label that releases experimental electronic music, the likes of Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada. That same year, I got a call from Mate Galic at Native Instruments. I was touring through Germany, and Mate said, “You should stop by our office. We love your music. We would love to have you come in and work as a sound designer. Have you ever thought about that?”

I never thought about making sounds for anyone else. I've always made sounds for myself. At the time, [Native Instruments] seemed like a little mom-and-pop operation. Some of the first projects were working on Battery and Absynth. I remember Brian Clevenger, the programmer behind Absynth. We did the whole Absynth 2 expansion library. From that point on, I was hired to work on multiple projects.

That same year, Clavia contacted me. They said, “We heard your patches working with Native Instruments. We would love to see if you'd be interested in [creating patches for] the Clavia Nord [Modular G2].” Before I knew it, I was working with Korg, Roland and all these other companies.

Arturia is another company I've started working with. I did sound design on the Origin synth, and that's a beautiful instrument. I've also worked extensively on the Virus TI Series from Access. I did my signature artist patch bank for them in 2007. That was hugely successful. I started doing work with other software companies that were coming out with synthesizers, people who had never heard a single note of my music.

You learn a few things with each company. With Korg, for instance, I got graded on my sounds. It was like being in a college class. The Japanese developers would grade you on how well the sound played. How expressive is it? How musical is it? How much animation does the sound have? How much is going on? Can you hold down one key and it tells a story? With each project, I learned new things that I applied on the next project with another company, or with a new piece of technology.

How did that lead to television commercials?

In 2001, I got a cold call from an old friend of mine in high school. She said, “Hey, Rich, I'm working at this advertising agency in New York. Did you put this record out on Warp? Wow, my creative director wants to really meet you.” It just all sparked from there, and we ended up doing two TV spots for Nike, which was my first commercial gig. Most people start local and work their way up. I just started at the top, which was kind of crazy. I did two spots for this agency called Wieden+Kennedy, and they won a couple of awards with some of the advertising.

That helped your reputation, I'm sure.

Wieden+Kennedy were one of the top advertising agencies that you could work with, and they still are. They're a huge account. It was kind of a wakeup call for me. I didn't realize that my services as a sound designer or a composer doing this strange music I'd been doing could be applied in this area. Since that point, I've gotten calls from all sorts of other agencies because the sound design was so unique. Just being different and going in my own direction opens doors. Somehow it just kept on going, and now I'm doing really crazy stuff.

Such as?

Anything from Microsoft's startup sound for their mobile phones to working with companies like Apple developing sounds for people to use all over the world. I was just a person in my house listening to Morton Subotnick and [Karlheinz] Stockhausen records and wanting to make weird noises, and now here I am designing sounds for these big companies. It's been an exciting journey. I find myself the scientist of sound, constantly researching.

It's really weird how I'll hear all these things pop up. The other night, we were watching the BBC, and [when] the BBC's logo comes up, I can hear my Absynth patch. I hear my stuff in all sorts of places. I'll hear somebody's ringtone or TV commercial — “Oh, I did that.” It's just an amazing feeling that you've created all these little things that affect people on this universal level.

So you've been really busy. Is that one reason it's been so long since your last CD?

Yes, since I started doing a lot of the commercial sound-design work. I've actually been doing a lot of remixes, too, so it's been harder for me to be back in the studio working on projects where I've been doing my own stuff. I just finished a remix for an artist named Kiyo; he's an electronic artist from Japan. I did a remix for Ryuichi Sakamoto. I also did a remix for Maynard James Keenan from Tool and A Perfect Circle for his new project, Puscifer.

And you do all that here, in your home studio?

I do it all here, yeah. And recently I finished a remix for Sound Tribe Sector 9. I helped them produce their new Peaceblaster album last year. Earlier this year, I completed a remix for BT for his new EP. We've worked on a couple of projects together. I'm currently wrapping up a project I started with Telefon Tel Aviv that will be released on Ghostly International once it's finished.

I understand your next musical release will be a surround DVD.

It's a collection of compositions I've been working on over the past two-and-a-half years, very electroacoustic. I played some of this stuff at [UC] Berkeley two years ago when I was invited to lecture about making music in surround sound. I think people are going to find it a little different than some of the stuff I've done in the past.

With electroacoustic music in particular, almost any sound could be a viable source as an instrument, whether it be glass breaking or impacts, dynamic movement sounds, voices. I love how open the palette can be. There's no defined format that you have to stick it in, like with traditional electronic or dance music where it's all based on beats and bars. This is almost like a liquid, gestural painting that you could throw at the listeners. Some of it's kind of scary, I will admit.

Scary in what way?

I guess it's kind of intimidating to the listener. Some of the tracks are dark and heavy. And there's a lot of field recording, a lot of different environments where I've recorded forests, different insects and experimented a lot with nature. It's been more of an exploration of different sound formats, whether they're synthetically created in the computer or outside environments. It's more like putting people in these surreal environments, in a way. That's what the intention of the record is.

Part of the problem now is the form I'm going to release it. The first two labels I was going to do it with both went under. Sublight Records went out in 2007; then shortly after that, Asphodel Records just stopped releasing physical CDs and DVDs. Now I'm looking at the whole project and wondering if I should just release it as a free thing for people to just download and enjoy. I've worked on all this music, and I would hate to just not see it go anywhere.

Do you do live shows in surround?

I've actually done quite a few live shows in surround. I got back from Denmark a few months ago, playing at the [Danish Institute of Electronic Music] in Aarhus. I actually performed my going-to-be-released surround DVD for them, and they had a whole surround system set up in the theater. It was mind-blowing. It was just like, “Wow, if I could just figure out how to get this out, people would really enjoy this record.” It's a very interesting sonic experience. I just have to get over the hurdles of distributing it.

Do you use a sequencer in live performance?

I do. My live setup is Ableton [Live] 8 running with [Elektron's Machinedrum and Monomachine]. Those are two pieces that I've been doing my shows with since 2007. I've taken the skeletal pieces of tracks that people will recognize and imported them into Ableton, cut them all into little loops and then reprogrammed all the drums and synth stuff in the Machinedrum and Monomachine to have this whole new live take on things. Every piece of what I'm doing in my live shows is now happening on the fly. I think Ableton's amazing for that. You can almost paint a picture in real time and interact with people in a way you weren't able to do even 10 years ago. My main sequencer in the studio is Apple's Logic Pro 9.

How often do you perform?

Probably close to [100 times a year]. It's a lot of festivals, some one-offs, a lot of shows and festivals in Europe — London, Germany, Italy and Amsterdam. I play on the West Coast quite a bit, in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and in Colorado, Seattle, Chicago. I play every year at the Detroit [Electronic] Music Festival and at the Winter Music Conference [in Miami]. I've been recently doing the City Skies shows [in Atlanta]. It's funny, in my hometown, I'll play for 50 people in a café, but then I'll go play in the U.K. in front of 5,000 people. It's really weird how that works out.

Senior editor Geary Yelton has been writing for EM since 1985, using the Mac since 1984 and programming synthesizers since 1974. He works at home in North Carolina.