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Decibel Festival Video: Richard Devine Talks Modular Synthesis For Live Performance, Live Setup, Sound Design Concepts

by Nate Mars
music & audio

richard devine creative live

Richard Devine is one of the world’s most creative sound designers and experimental artists. With releases on labels like Warp and Schematic, in addition to numerous sonic contributions for synthesizer patches, video games and films, he continues to push boundaries and bring sine waves together in new ways. This year at the Decibel Festival Conference hosted by CreativeLive, Richard explained his live modular synthesizer setup in detail; joined by composer, sound designer and educator James Patrick. You can watch the full video below and read on to learn more about Richard’s unique perspective and creative approach to synthesis.

What were you most excited about for Decibel Festival this year? You haven’t been back in a while? Can you tell us about what you have planned?

Richard Devine: Recently I’ve been playing these modular sets, it’s been kind of this renaissance time now, where I’m in this age of discovery. There’s all these new exciting things happening, and I’m actually being able to play music, and make new music, utilizing some of this new technology.

I say new technology, but it’s new-old technology. It’s technology that’s getting introduced again in a new format, but in a really exciting way, because there’s all these new designers and engineers. This new generation of people making this stuff now that are making some really unique modules. Things that didn’t exist before are happening now.

It’s creating this really cool synergy between the artist, and the instrument, that wasn’t there before. To me, it’s one of the most exciting times in electronic music. Coming to play at Decibel Festival, it was really exciting for me to actually play this new material, play these new songs that I’ve been working on. Utilizing this completely new alien thing that I’ve been getting into. Just this kind of a fun thing. What’s even more funny about it is, I’m not even trying to push a new album or like, “Hey, this is my new EP,” or, “This is my new thing I’m trying to tour.”

This is just me messing around every night after I do my sound design work during the day, and somehow, people are taking notice to my nightly jams, after I put my daughter to bed, or what not. Somehow, people are sort of catching on to that. It’s funny, I’m playing a lot of these new festivals lately, and I see people that are like, “You have records out?” “I just follow you on Instagram, because my friend told me to follow you on Vimeo,” or Instagram, or some of the social media sites. Some of them are like, “I didn’t know you had put out music since like in the ’90s.”

James Patrick: I have a great connection personally with the Decibel community. I was actually booked to DJ at the very first Decibel Festival. Decibel number one, I DJ’d with my great friends Akufen, and Bruno Pronsato. Also Jay Hunsburger from Toronto.

Now when I come back, I get to have this feeling of remembering people from 11 or 12 years ago. I feel like I have a deeply-seated connection here. Beyond that though, being able to be here, like Richard said, during a really exciting time in electronic music production.

In this current world, with everything changing so much, and especially within the modular world, or the synthesis and sound design world, there’s no single recipe. I think Richard demonstrates that better than anyone, in the way that you learn a simple single module, and push it as far as you can and break some rules with it.

That’s the exciting part. We’re in a time now where, really — I’m sure Richard has played. I’ve seen you on the bill of some of these shows, during Knobcon or during NAMM or during these other conferences, where it’s all modular people. I know that the sounds, you’re not going to go to any other show and hear those sounds, anywhere else in the world, and that makes it truly unique. The artistic ability to put your thumbprint on music is stronger, in a way, now than ever before.

I wonder, in 5 or 10 years, what kinds of tools will be enabling the young generation. It will be exciting as well. Right now, I feel like we’re just standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, in a way.

Richard, can you tell us, when you prepare a live set, how much of that is jamming out, and how much of it is planned? A lot of DJ sets kind of have have an arc where there’s a beginning, a middle, an end. How do you work with so many variables in modular?

Richard Devine: There are a lot of variables, so what I do is I make notes. I have to make notes, because if I don’t, that exact thing will happen — I’ll deviate off the path. I even did this last night during my show, when I planned to play, roughly, eight or nine songs that I had set up in my patch, and I only got to play five, which may have seemed a lot more to people. My patch is set up in such a way to where, if just accidentally something happens, I can turn that accident into something really cool and then jam that out, and it becomes a whole new song idea for a few minutes.

What I do is I make patch notes, and they’re general notes. It’s just a setting for each song. It just basically tells me to put it what mode. I have a general idea of where I want to leave my settings. I’ll also set a timer on my phone. I’m watching the phone. It’s like, “All right, I’ve been playing for five minutes. I need to move to the next part.” It’s all done by hand, and your brain, there’s nothing telling you. There’s nothing where I have something programmed, where it’s going to play, like, “All right, this song plays for three minutes and 20 seconds.” No, it’s just running. Everything’s running all the time.

James Patrick: Right. It’s truly, truly generative.

Richard Devine: Generative, yeah. You have to make all the decisions on the fly. I have to set up these guidelines, a basic outline, like, “OK, this is basically where you’re going to go with it,” and then you just feel it out. That’s how it goes.

I also wanted to talk about your process archiving your compositions. A lot of people are following you more and more on Vimeo where you archive patches and songs. Can you talk about some of the reasons behind why you do that?

Ascension – Modular Patch from Richard Devine on Vimeo.

Richard Devine: People ask me like, “Man, you really write really detailed long patch descriptions.” I’m like, “Well, they’re for people to also get ideas from, and also they’re for me to catalog, and sort of document certain ideas, or things that I thought were really inspirational for me. So I can go back and refer to those things.”

It might have been just some idea, or just a couple of new modules that I’d gotten that week, that inspired me to do something in a certain way, that I may have not done before previously. I always try to do something a little different with each one of the videos. When you go back, you’ll see that I’m always highlighting different modules. It’s never always the same modules. If you look, I always switch the configuration. The configuration is never the same for any of the videos.

James Patrick: I’ve noticed that, and it’s mind-blowing how you can manage to have that kind of creative intention, and still pull it off. You never see, although there’s standard eight modules that are backing up everything, it’s a totally different system configuration for each video. It’s amazing.

Richard Devine: Exactly. It’s like documenting not only the modules themselves, but maybe some sort interesting feature about them that I could turn into some sort of musical application, that I can refer back to. I’m like, “You know, these worked really great than this combination. This was a really cool musical example of that.” Some of this stuff happened by accident, but it’s just a great way to catalog and document things because it’s really hard to document. There’s no preset memory with modulars.

How do you continue to learn? How do you think working with modular has helped with the process of learning the synthesis?

Richard Devine: I would not be here today, had it not been for modular synthesis. For me, it was the basic beginnings of sound design. I work as a sound designer full time. A lot of what I do, the basic fundamentals of sound-shaping, filtering, amplitude modulation, FM modulation, white noise, pink noise, random voltages, reverb. All these things, I learned very early on.

When I got my first synth, one of the first synths I learned all this, was an ARP 2600. It has three oscillators, it has a multiple section so you could multiply signals. I learned about all these basic concepts about, “Oh, what does a square wave do? What does a sine wave do? What does each one of these…” You could bring the faders up and learn about what each module did by themselves, or you could bring all the faders up at the same time and understand how each block works together. Or you could patch them separately, so it was what I call a semi-modular synthesizer. You had the ability to use a complete system or you could separate the modules and learn what everything does by itself.

James Patrick: I had a profound realization that I’ve made in the last 10-plus years of teaching electronic music. There’s a gradient between music production, which is making sounds that people want to hear for a particular function, and then artistry — that is, creating for the sake of creation. I think the best person has both sides of that brain, if you will. But in the end, in the pursuit of a lot of this modular componentry elemental stuff comes from the more artist side of the approach. You have to let go of the “I’m trying to make that sound I heard in that track right now.” You have to let go of that and even sometimes let go of tempo and key signature and everything. In fact when you do you unlock a huge part of your brain. When you’re building things from the ground up you get rid of that top-down “Looking for the recipe card” kind of idea. When I walk into the kitchen and I have to grab a recipe card I feel like I’m wearing handcuffs as far as being an artist is concerned.

When I can go in there and be like, “I know right where the cilantro is and I got the tortillas and I’m just going to improvise,” I feel a lot more connected with the content and I think that therefore, working on a componentry and elemental level like this solves a great problem in the world of electronic music artistry or production.

For people who are getting started a big problem is endless options. They end up like…they’re like, “Dude, I’m not just cooking with cilantro, tortillas, and fish and olive oil or whatever. They have every ingredient in the world.”

Richard Devine: I call it option anxiety. I have that every time I look at my plugin folder. I’m like, “I have 1859…”

James Patrick: I have that every time I look at your Vimeo page.

[laughter]

James Patrick: For me I think that it’s insanely liberating being able to get rid of many options and be like, “I’m starting with the oscillator and I’m going to figure out how to key-track that.” It’s the most simple function ever. Once you have a relationship with that, though, you start building on it and you start to really learn how to improvise and express yourself.

Jimi Hendrix wasn’t thinking, “G, E, F.” He just figured out how to communicate through the thing and that happens with the intimacy. This is what I said earlier today too, is when you look at a modular system at first you’re like, “Oh my God, you must have to have a PhD to even touch that thing. But at the same token, flip that thing around. It’s extremely simple elementally and if you understand the way voltage works and the way vibration and harmonics work, you approach that and you can now start to build things that are entirely yours.

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Nate Mars

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