by Ito Kazuo "Kaz"
Spring 2016. Vol 3 No 2. Back-translated from Japanese. Used with Permission. Assoc. Irregular Rhythm Asylum (IRA)
Thank you very much for interview. Nice to meet you. I'm sorry about my limited English speaking.
You're welcome, glad to be here. I should be apologizing for limited Japanese.
Oh, it's no problem. So, pardon the interruption but we discovered your kind of sudden practice session here in Osaka. What brought you here?
I've been coming back and forth to Japan for many years. On this particular trip, it is mostly for academic reasons. I'm leading a travel course for my students.
You're a teacher?
Yes, I'm a professor at a small university back in the (United) States and this is a cultural travel course for one month. I sometimes stay longer. I also worked briefly in Shibuya (Tokyo) years ago, but I'm much more familiar with Kansai area. I guess I've visited Japan over 40 times by now.
Wow. So many times. Thank you. I hope you like Japan. You don't look like professor.
I'll take that as a compliment. Definitely, I do like Japan. Today is a day off and I'm enjoying producing some music here just for fun, inspired by the hustle and bustle of Amerika-mura (section of Osaka). This is not an "official" Furnace Creek installation.
Ah, what's your project usually?
Well for one my partner is would be here [laughs]. Maybe my "better half" you could say. Ordinarily Furnace Creek as a project is me and David Smallwood. But during my free time while traveling, like now, I try to work on some of our material.
Oh, it seems I am interrupting your free time.
No way, this is an honor to be interviewed. Hey, maybe I can say we are "Big in Japan" now.
Oh, thank you so much for time. OK, if you don't mind, can we talk about your equipments which will be of interest to synth enthusiasts here in Japan. Yes, it seems you have a small setup.
Sure, we can geek out. So this is just the Arturia (Microbrute) synth and some [effects] pedals, along with the little Tascam to record ideas and act as a mixer. It's my "mobile work station" when I travel. Space is limited in my carry on luggage. Maybe in the same way space is limited in Japanese homes and apartments. But it is enough for making some things happen.
What is the [technical] arrangement here?
Well, the Microbrute is the source and it is an absolutely excellent little analog monosynth. For the price, there's nothing that can compare to it. It's also not too heavy, and weight is an issue for me in these traveling circumstances. I could say it's about the same footprint as a laptop really. From the Microbrute, I go into a digital delay, which has some great "degenerative" capabilities, and from there on to the reverb. I find it to adequately create dark and creepy atmospherics. From the reverb I patch out to the Tascam and I can capture track at a time, or little sketches. I monitor through the Tascam with my headphones and I'm good to go. The biggest bulk is the power supplies and power strip to run it all. Ha! Only the Tascam can run on batteries.
This is the hardware you use to make your art?
Well, this is my mobile version. Honestly, a person could get pretty far with just this setup. Maybe throw in another sound source at the beginning, something percussive, and a looper at the end, and you could certainly cover a lot of ground with this configuration. However, I like toys too much, so in our normal installation we have a lot more gear running. That opens up sonic possibilities of course, but in a way it also creates its own limits.
Simple is better and doing more with less is an admirable approach. I ignored the advice for years to set limits on yourself in order to generate more creatively. It seems counter-intuitive at first, but I can tell you it is the truth, at least for me. The more options you have, the more it seems you get bogged down in those options. Even if you don't exercise all the options, you take time to consider then accept or reject them. This additional work, cognitive load of sorts, creates a slowdown.
If you listen to all the masters of this craft, whatever this craft is, you'll hear many if not most of them make that claim. A simple way of thinking about it is in my old workflow, where I had Ableton Live as the core of what was going on, I had literally thousands of choices when it came to drum sounds. I'm thinking of something like Ableton Drum Rack for example. Even if I tried to limit it by creating 4x4 or 4x2 "kits", I still found myself cycling through all of the possible drum sounds for each of those cells. You can get lost for a long time, can't you, entranced by all those snare sounds. Ableton Live is one of the most powerful sonic tools on the planet -- and I'm not knocking it all. In fact I know it well and love it.
But I think there is a lot to be said for sitting with a drum machine or groove box that by nature has way more limits, and see what happens within those limits. The Electribe is somewhere in between these two worlds, but does offer the helpful constraints that weened me off using a DAW to produce and perform.
You use Korg Electribe? The new model?
Yes, and I use it as the "control center" for the whole Furnace Creek arrangement. Basically it drives everything except the video -- and our brains, haha. I'm using what I guess is called "Electribe Sampler" -- the black one -- that some people call the Electribe 2. The sound quality is excellent and even if the workflow is quirky, once mastered, like anything else, it is an indispensable tool. But anyway, it's the centerpiece and sequencer that drives everything else.
It is MIDI controller for other hardware?
In a manner of speaking yes. I don't use it to control notes per se in outboard gear, but it is the master clock and the other hardware, at least the hardware we want to have in sync with the beat, is fed a MIDI signal from it. It will actually allow much more than clock data to be sent out. The Electribe can "play" the other MIDI gear in terms of notes and CC data, but I don't use it that way. It seems a little too complicated. Plus composing, or at least editing, MIDI on the Electribe is not its strong suit. For us, it is in essence a primo drum machine that plays short samples and often basslines. The rhythm section I suppose. We're playing the other synths, either manually or by running built-in sequencers on them.
What is the other hardware besides Electribe?
Yeah so we can get into details on signal path and gear choices. This is going to be boring as hell for people who don't salivate over their machines, and I probably do that too much. But from the Electribe as a master, I split the MIDI clock out to David's Roland System-1, my Arturia KeyStep, my Moog Sub Phatty, and the (Pigtronix) Infinity Looper. We use the sequencer or other controllers to establish rough sketches of sound and melody. The controllers have arpeggiators and in the case of the KeyStep, a built-in sequencer too. The Moog rarely needs MIDI clock, but it is good to have it for the LFO sync. The most crucial MIDI sync connection I suppose is the Infinity looper, which is one of the few loopers that can be controlled by MIDI sync, somewhat surprisingly.
The looper is important part of your work?
It's a crucial part, even if it isn't a big part. An out-of-sync loop, well maybe that's what you are going for, but even with drones that are looped, I want to the looper to be in time. I don't always want the delays to always be in sync, but my looper yes. I love the TC Electronic Ditto looper, and maybe their new big version can MIDI sync, but some of the loopers out there, like the Boss ones, even when they have MIDI ports, don't sync properly.
On the other hand, the [Pigtronix] Infinity looper is dead on accurate and can even time-stretch, a little at least, the looped sample as tempo changes. Koltai and those folks at Pigtronix have made what I consider to be the absolute best looper on the market, and I've tried a bunch. But the main reason I consider it the best is the sound quality and mixing capability. It is 24 bit. You can create two loops, run them parallel, and from the pedal mix them in and out. Plus the memory is essentially unlimited. It stores on an SD card.
As far as what we loop, the looper is actually configured as its own instrument on our stage mixer. Sometimes we're looping rhythmic stuff, but since the Electribe does that well, it is often a loop of a bassline or melody that we spontaneously produce and get tired of playing over and over. Maybe if we were better musicians we'd do it by hand, but I need to free up my hands to do other things. It is convenient, even if we could continue to play some of the riffs we come up with. I read somewhere that Giorgio Moroder would manually play those famous synth arpeggios on the stuff he did with Donna Summer. God bless him, but I bet if he'd had a sequencer or looper, he would've put it to use. At least sometimes.
So you have many synthsizers.
I'd say we have too many synths [laughs] back to the earlier wisdom of keeping it simple, but as gear junkies we all know that there is no such thing as "too many synths". On stage, it does become problematic to really have more than four synths, mainly due to trying to sync everything. But so far we've kept it to about four synths and the crucial thing is labelling patch cables, MIDI cables, power cables. I'm "OCD" and use color-coding for everything, otherwise you run into very long and problematic setup times.
What types of synthsizers do you like to use?
David's Roland System-1 is amazing and I think highly underrated. The Plug-Out option, while seemingly gimmicky at first, is a strong point. It simply sounds great and is easy to use. His JU06 Boutique is so lush and much of the time we just use it for pads -- something it does better than anything else. David actually has a real vintage Juno-106 and side-by-side, I believe they are indistinguishable.
My Korg RADIAS was my first "real" synth in the sense of all the capabilities it has. I actually detached it from the keyboard that came with it and as mentioned us the KeyStep to control it. Mostly, it excels at sequences and "Berlin school" sounding stuff that we occasionally integrate, although in a much harsher fashion than say Tangerine Dream.
What about analog synthsizers?
We have a mix of the digital and analog voices. In live performance, the "travel-friendly" Microbrute is replaced by my Moog Sub Phatty. I can say that the Microbrute has its own special character -- I will never part with it -- and it is not necessarily inferior soundwise to the Moog. I love how Arturia managed to create multiple, mixable oscillator waveforms out of one oscillator, somehow, and the Brute Factor is a unique and highly useful distortion circuit.
But the Moog, well, the Moog just cuts right through the mix every time and as a monosynth, obviously can handle all of the duties of the Microbrute, with the addition of more advanced waveshaping and modulation. That and that wonderful 24db ladder filter of course. The sounds that come from that synth are just gorgeous and I only recently acquired it after owning many other brands of synths over these years. I suppose part of it is that I live 10 minutes from the factory in Asheville where they are hand made. But while expensive, they truly do have a superb, arguably inimitable sound.
So there are several synthsizers in the live [performance]?
Yes, and that's a liability if you're not careful. With all of this fun time synth explosion, what you inevitably end up with when running so many of them is a battle for frequency spectrum. The thing about synths that is different from a traditional band live sound setup with let's say guitars and bass guitars is that synths can run the full sweep from 20hz to 20khz. Things can quickly turn to mud right? That's where compressors and dedicated EQ "spacing" on the channels comes in. I never cared about sound engineering, and assumed all the live sound would be handled by the proverbial "sound guy". But if you are running multiple synths, you basically have to run your own sound. Looking up from a stage of traditional instruments and saying "Can you turn up the bass?" can't happen so easily. What's it going to be? "Can you turn up the June JU06? How about the Microbrute sitting next to it?"
You mix your own sound in live [performance]?
Yeah, so you have to take matters into your own hands when it comes to live sound for synths. That's why a lot of synth folks even in a pro setup will submix on the stage. But whether it is through the mixer, or inside the Electribe, getting the mix right -- from a true EQ manipulation perspective, is an ongoing challenge and a craft I had to work on, which is probably not something a "musician" normally has to worry about. The challenge is even greater because we are using a "compact" mixer (Mackie VLZ04), which typically do not have complex EQ options on the channel strip like a studio mixer would.
But the synths have slowly found their respective roles in the Furnace Creek auditory landscape: the System-1 does best in the mid-range we've found, as does the JU06 with its pads (perhaps "lower mid-range"). The RADIAS excels at high end, kind of chirp or zap style sounds, sequences and modulations. Due to this, it is also useful to bring pink noise into its playback. Then the Sub Phatty does what you would expect it to do -- hits hard down low. Since some synth riffs and basslines also originate from the Electribe, which has a pretty decent synth engine, a special challenge has been EQing the Electribe "inside the box" as it only has stereo outs, unfortunately. If it only had one extra out, we could route the kick drum or bass and achieve more separation. In that way, I really miss the (Roland) MC-909.
It sounds like you have experience with many hardwares, and seems like you rely on Korg now.
I've become a big Korg fan, yes. My very first synth was a Yamaha DX-21, a paired down version of the famous DX-7. It was a great synth, but lacked the immediate hands-on control of parameters. So I sold it and, it is sacrilege I realize, bought a Yamaha CS1X. I actually loved that little VA [virtual analogue] synth, and still own it. Underrated, with some great sounds (and certainly some not so great ones). It felt cheap and was cheap, but it brought me into the virtual analogue world.
From my first Yamaha synths, my upgrade was to the Korg RADIAS around the time they came out  and it will always be with me. I've heard people say it is a poor man's Virus and I can't compare so I don't know. But I continue to discover so many things with it, plus it is built well too. I house it in a table-top rack box. With it, I find compression and gain down the line (at the mixer channel) are important to get a good live sound.
I had a Novation Bass Station 2 and absolutely loved the sound of it. In fact, I probably would not have bought either the Microbrute or Sub Phatty if it had worked out. But unfortunately, and strangely in my opinion, the Novation lacked a "catch" mode on the knobs. So if you switched between patches and touched a knob which obviously wouldn't be in the "right" place for the new patch, it would "jump" and that's no good. I truly wish they had released a firmware upgrade to deal with this problem. In the studio, I can't imagine a better monosynth. While we're not particularly, if you're seeking the 90s/2000s style EBM basslines -- like Frontline Assembly or Leaetherstrip -- there you will find it. I especially liked the speed of the oscillators on the Bass Station 2 thanks to DCO.
But the Microbrute and Sub Phatty are my most recent synths, unless you count the synth engines that have been in my sequencers and groove boxes. That leads to the Korg Electribe, which replaced my Roland MC-909. I do love the Electribe, but like many proponents of it, if we're honest with ourselves we'll readily admit its faults too. The lack of extra outputs is nothing that can be changed with the current design, but firmware upgrades would hopefully fix some of its shortcomings that are seemingly pretty simple: like the ability to copy a part from one pattern to another. But Korg continues to bring it as they say.
Elitists can extol the virtues of expensive synths, but truth be told, if it weren't for the high quality, high value prospect of the Japanese made gear, many of us would not have had the opportunity to make this kind of music.
So you don't use Microbrute in live [performance]?
I easily could, but again the Sub Phatty kills it so the poor MB sits at home when we leave. Except, unlike the chunk of a Sub Phatty, it gets to travel the world with me as my mobile rig. So the Moog is probably jealous there. Here sits the Microbrute in this park in Osaka, Japan. Again, I will never get rid of the Microbrute and I sample a lot of great patches from it. The fact that, unlike the Sub Phatty, it doesn't save patches is a blessing and a curse, in ways that synthesists will understand I think.
What about effects?
We couldn't do what we do, or achieve the sound that we want to achieve, without effects of course. The System-1 and RADIAS have built-in effects and they're not bad. But we love pedals. We have three effects chains going, not counting compressors which sit at the inserts of the synth mixer channels. The System-1 and the Sub Phatty each have their own little pedal board that sits on the table next to each synth. David has his and I have mine in other words. They are somewhat similar, but each board allows us to have immediate control on the effects that mangle the sound from each of those synths.
Basically the System-1 built-in effects are bypassed in favor of the pedals, and the Sub Phatty benefits from them down the chain as well. The only difference is that since the Sub Phatty has the multi-drive, I don't use a distortion pedal after it, although I do have a bit crusher. So that's two effects "rigs" if you will. The third one runs off the AUX bus on the mixer and sends to an Eventide Space reverb pedal that sits between us near the mixer. That way, we can add reverb to any channel using the send-return loop. The Space is absolutely amazing and outside of rack mount verb units, I can't imagine a better, more versatile reverb unit, especially for synths. Infinite decay on tap, plus all the strange warping and built-in overdrive stuff. It really does more than a reverb pedal should do, which is great.
What is your most important hardware?
That's tough of course. I guess the Electribe, in terms of expendability, is the thing that is most essential. Although giving it some thought, our style is such that the "show could go on" for sure if the Electribe went down for some reason. We're comfortable at freestyling and building up riffs, even if we're not keyboardists by training. But yeah, in order to achieve our "intentional" performance the sequencer would have to be there. If you think of it in dollar terms, the Moog is literally the most expensive, but honestly also the most expendable in terms of what I'm using it to achieve in the sonic arrangement. Ha, now that I think about it, the most valuable piece of gear is the compressors-mixer setup. That or the Hercules laptop stands, which we use as synth and controller stands. I absolutely adore those stands. That's pretty geeky I realize, but I think it is the most superior, stable and portable stand on the market. It also allows us to "layer" our hardware so we can fit it all on a 6' by 3' table.
What is your advice to other electronic music performers?
I feel awkward giving advice because we are still learning, both musically and in terms of our gear. But more general advice I suppose would be to get a piece of gear and learn it inside and out. I'd rather have a sub-standard, or not the latest, piece of kit and know it inside and out. That means read the manuals, I believe. Also, it means avoid the temptation to get a new piece of gear -- says the guy who has a whole table full of noodle boxes, haha. But it is definitely far easier, and sexier, to buy a new piece of gear than figure out how to squeeze everything out of what you have.
I guess our talk is all technology. Can you say what is your music about?
Asheville, North Carolina & Tri-Cities, Tennessee
© Furance Creek 2017