A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to chat to Scottish Reaktor musician grüm~pé for an exclusive insight on how he produces his unique music. We explore how his music works and also, hopefully, provide newer Reaktor users insight into how deep the sonic capacity is with Native Instruments' DSP lab.
To set the mood, I highly recommend you hit start on this album and listen as you read on!
How would you describe your music?
I would describe my music as electronica, or EM. There are so many different types of electronic music that it’s difficult to put a more specific name to what I do, especially as the style changes from track to track.
There are a few main areas I tend to work in:
- Berlin School (BS - don’t laugh!) - a melodic sequencer-driven style, harking back to the music of Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream from the seventies;
- Modular - an improvised style using software modular synths, usually very rhythmic;
- Percussive - as the name suggests;
- Dark Ambient - industrial drones and deep space drift. More sonic exploration than melodic;
- Experimental - noise based pieces.
Tangerine Dream - Zeit (1972)
Why the name grüm~pé?
My kids have always referred to me as ‘grumpy dad’, so I thought, that’ll do for my nom de musique! I pronounce it ‘groom pay’, though, because I’m an artist…
Tell me a bit about yourself, what’s your background with making music?
I’m based in Cumbernauld, near Glasgow, in Scotland. I’ve been a Maths teacher for almost 40 years, and my background has been really helpful in the construction of polyrhythms in my music, as well as in the understanding of step-sequencers, which I use all of the time. Music is an application of Maths at its core, after all.
I was never a musician, never played in a band or even hung around musos. I was, however, a music fan. I spent huge amounts of money on LPs and later CDs, mostly non-mainstream stuff, electronic music from Europe, a lot of instrumental music, etc. I listened to music all the time, and this gave me an appreciation of where it is possible to go musically and an understanding of the sonic vocabulary of electronic music.
Around 1999 I bought an iMac for the family and acquired Propellerheads’ ‘Rebirth’, an emulation of Roland’s Acid House synth TB303 along with the drum machines 808 and 909. It was possible to chain patterns together to make ‘songs’, and this got me started. I acquired Reaktor 2.0 soon after before it was even in VST format, and everything was done live. Things are a bit different now…
Propellerhead Rebirth for IOS
This led me to buy Ableton Live and Reason, which I use now and have done for almost 15 years. Ableton suits my workflow better than anything else. Reason has a fantastic collection of sounds and great midi manipulation.
I have been making ‘albums’ for all of this time - more than 50 to date - never releasing them properly, just for friends, and have only in the past few years started putting my music online, mostly for free but also for sale on Bandcamp, with some degree of success. Although the music I make is never going to be commercial, there are a lot of listeners worldwide.
I have also had a fair bit of (internet) radio exposure, and even been played on RTE, Ireland’s national radio station. I also have my own weekly show on the Wrock Radio network, showcasing my music around the world, getting around 10 000 listeners each week, which is great given the styles of my music.
Who are your inspirations?
My personal inspirations are solo artists forging their own long-term paths in the area of electronic music. People like Klaus Schulze - still making albums at 70, and Ian Boddy - sound designer, live artist, label boss.
Also, outwith the EM scene, artists like Peter Hammill and Robert Fripp, are still relevant and creating high-quality material after 50 years in the music industry.
If it comes to music that inspires me…jazz fused with rock is very high on the list - Brand X, Zappa, Magma - as is progressive rock like Van der Graaf Generator, Yes and King Crimson. The only current artist I follow, though, is Steven Wilson.
I listen to much less EM at home nowadays, as I find that I spend all my time analysing it when I would prefer to just listen, but I listen to it on the move all the time as I can use that analysis to help me create and to come up with new ideas.
You are a massive fan of Reaktor, how much of the sounds and effects in your music are from Reaktor?
As you say, I am a massive fan of Reaktor. I’d say around 50% of my music is almost entirely Reaktor, with a further 25% quite heavily Reaktor-based. There is a Reaktor ensemble on almost everything I do.
You have to remember, though, that Reaktor is a universe of sound, not just a synthesiser. It can do virtually anything you want, from granular synthesis to multi-effects, drum machines to modular synthesis.
It is possible to get easier - not necessarily better - results from other more straightforward synths, but for its ridiculously low price you could use nothing else and never feel short-changed. The sound quality is amazing too.
Do you build your own Reaktor instruments, or explore the vast world of community built ensembles?
I like to concentrate on making music, so I have never built my own synths in Reaktor unless I’m using Blocks, which is the Reaktor modular environment.
I modify User Library synths if I feel they lack something I need, but not as often as I used to. The creative talent out there is astounding, and there are over 4000 ensembles available for download.
You’ve been using Reaktor since 1999, I imagine a lot has changed, including all the new VSTs emerging on the market over the years. What made you stick with it?
The GUI in Reaktor is user-configurable, so modern Reaktor synths don’t look like each other, or like anything else, really. The creators - not just Native Instruments guys but the UL guys as well - come up with a fascinating variety of ensembles which approach making music from all sorts of angles, often extremely unconventional.
Library ensembles like:
- The ‘Newscool’ drum-machine’, which operates using Conway’s Game of Life for beat creation;
- ‘Metaphysical Function’, which can create beautiful ambient tracks on its own;
- ‘Nod-E’ and ’Spiral’ which are designed for the creation of generative music;
- ‘Cloudlab’ from the user library which is a fantastic emulation of a Buchla series 200 modular synth;
- Blocks, the modular environment, currently with over 700 modules!
There also many instruments available to purchase, which can be incredibly sophisticated:
- The ‘Molekular’ effect which utilises motion to mix the four effects available, allowing an improvised performance on the effect;
- ‘Form’, a phenomenal granular synthesiser;
- ‘Razor’, an additive synthesiser;
- The ‘Twisted Tools’ collection, which twists beats and samples in weird and wonderful ways.
Molekular is one of the best digital effects processors on the market.
Most importantly for me, because I’ve been using Reaktor for nearly 20 years, I’m not intimidated by its complexity, as many beginners might be. It’s my go-to for inspiration. In fact, while thinking about these questions, I’ve been listening to some ensembles that I have put together, and have got the basis for half a dozen potential tracks.
That’s how good Reaktor is for me…
That’s not to say I don’t use other VSTs - Omnisphere, Kontakt, Diva, Predator are all used regularly in my music.
What are your tips for building ensembles in Reaktor?
As far as putting together ensembles, I only do this at the top level, using pre-built ensembles to create ’super-ensembles’, e.g. one of the ideas I got, as mentioned before, came from an ensemble I created a couple of years ago by putting ’Newscool’ into ‘Molekular’ and messing around with presets - or snapshots as Reaktor calls them. I have spent hundreds of hours over the years creating my own snapshots for every ensemble I use and saving the ones which appeal to me. This means inspiration is never very far away.
My advice would be: put two or three things together then spend an hour or two getting to know the sounds. You’re guaranteed to find something usable in that time.
In terms of hardware, what sort of gear do you use for your music production?
I work exclusively on Macs. I have NI’s Komplete Kontrol, which is amazing for quick patch-browsing and playing, some Novation and Akai midi controllers and keyboards, and Ableton Push. My only ‘proper’ hardware is a UAD satellite with its mixing and mastering plugins, and a Novation Circuit groove box machine, an impulse purchase which as yet I am still learning.
My full kit list, as seen in the photo:
from the left -
- iPro keyboard for iOS devices
- Novation SL37
- iPad running Moog Model 15
- Launchpad Pro
- On stand 1: Mackie mixer, Akai MPKmini
- UAD Satellite
- Under MacBook: Propellerheads Balance USB audio input
- NI Komplete Kontrol 49
- On stand 2: Akai MPK25, Launch Control
- Behringer BCR2000
- Ableton Push.
- Monitors are KRK Rockits.
The iPad can be controlled by MIDI from Ableton Live also, and the audio transferred via USB if required, or through the mixer.
I use a second MacBook as a further audio source, with an old MacPro for running software no longer compatible with modern Macs.
What would you tell people who are interested in modular synthesis?
If you haven’t done so, you should investigate VCV Rack, a free modular synthesiser for PC and Mac, which has purchase-able add-ons. It is quite remarkable for its emulation of modules which would cost tens of thousands of pounds to buy.
It’s limited only by your computer, but it gives 90% of the Eurorack experience for next to nothing! Only the knobs are missing, and a Behringer BCR2000 with 32 knobs will cover that, for about £100, although it takes a little time to program the knobs each time, but no longer than using patch cables on a real modular.
If I was asked about getting a modular system, my advice would be to buy the best spec’d computer I could find, buy Reaktor, load VCV, and run it through a DAW. You get to save your patches this way as well, which for me is a deal breaker, as I often revisit old ensembles/patches to provide inspiration. Then if the bug bites, you can start to buy a modular system from a position of knowledge, as skill learned on VCV are totally transferrable to hardware.
"A Subtle Shift of Awareness" is an amazing album, what went on in your head as you were making it?
I never really have a pre-arranged idea of where a track will go, just what kind of piece I want to make. ‘A Subtle Shift of Awareness’ is a BS album, so it’s very much based on Tangerine Dream-style rhythms and melodic sequences. I’ve been told that the sounds are similar to those used in the TV series ‘Stranger Things’, which has a very retro soundtrack.
The first and last tracks on this album were composed by jamming to sequences, which constantly evolve, although they don’t appear to change much, extracting the bits which work, developing them, then stitching the separate pieces together. This can take anything from a couple of hours to a few weeks…
I don’t commit to audio at this point, keeping everything in MIDI to make it easier to work with, but tend to kick it around for a while, listening and changing things to (hopefully) make it stronger. A track can ‘mature’ over a period of months before I’m finally ready to commit.
The slower parts of each track come from a different place, usually when I’m noodling around. My ideas for the slower pieces are less musical than sound-based, to begin with. For me, the sound is more important, to begin with as a catalyst, and the music comes from that.
For example, there is a wonderful emulation of the old Solina String synth in the user library, which set me off for the opening section of ‘Per Un Amico’, backed up with the ‘Junatik’ from Reaktor’s own library.
ARP Solina String Synthesizer
I use the ‘3-Osc’ (a MiniMoog emulation) synth as my ‘go-to’ bass synth and for a lot of sequence sounds, along with ‘Junatik’ and ’Nanowave’. These are emulations of the Juno-6 and Waldorf’s Wave respectively. These ensembles made up the bulk of the sounds on the album.
While it’s the album that put you on our radar, it’s not the only album you’ve made. Tell me about some of your other work.
I have completed over 50 albums’ worth of material. My earlier albums are split into two camps - melodic and dark ambient. The melodic ones are very varied, ranging from world music to dance music through Berlin School and gentle ambient. The dark ambient ones are as it says on the tin. These were released on CD - homemade - and distributed to friends.
Around the start of the decade, I stopped producing these CDs and just recorded music for my own enjoyment. I collated these into more ‘themed’ collections, which for me made more sense. Now there were albums specifically Berlin School, Modular, Industrial, Dark Ambient, even ’Soundtrack’-type.
I also started playing ‘gigs’ at home for family & friends and recording these. These were long-form pieces, ranging from 20 - 45 minutes in several continuous sections, and some of my best work.
Three years ago I dipped my toe into Soundcloud, with very encouraging results. I currently have over 300 individual tracks there, and listens are rising every year. Eighteen months ago I started putting music up on Bandcamp, in structured album format, again with very encouraging results.
I have also been working with a poet, putting music behind his words for an audiobook project.
Recently I have played some gigs in Glasgow, again a positive experience, and am open to more as and when the opportunity arises.
Does your creation process remain consistent between albums, or is each album a different process entirely?
I have a really wide scope of musical interest, but limited keyboard skills, so I make music that I can play, hence the reliance on sequencers for intricate melody & bass lines a lot of the time, although I do play the leads and pads, with a little help from quantisation!
The creative process is not on an album basis, but track by track, and is determined by whatever happens to sparks my enthusiasm.
At any given time I have four or five tracks in various stages of completion. For example, at the moment I have two ambient pieces, a modular piece, a percussive piece and a long sequencer track on the go. These will eventually come together into separate albums.
The albums get released when I feel I have enough tracks of a particular type, so there is no schedule or any pressure.
Some of your songs are over 25 minutes long, do you open a project with the intent of producing that length?
I like to go on a journey when listening to instrumental music, and the length of the journey matches the music. If I feel my music is strong enough, with enough variety in the different sections, I’m very happy to go above 20 minutes, and regularly do.
Some pieces are too strong to attach to another piece, and therefore end up as a medium rather than long pieces. In general, I see 7 minutes as a short piece, 12 minutes as medium, and 20+ minutes as long.
I try to let the music ‘breathe’, and allow the listener to get used to the sound world I have created. It doesn’t always work, of course, but that’s the optimum scenario.
Which song is your proudest work?
There is a ‘live’ piece - as in played from beginning to end in front of an audience, with no post-production other than level adjustments called ‘Exigencies I-VIII’ on Bandcamp which is 45 minutes long, and I’m very proud of that one.
Also, I really like ‘Per Un Amico’ from ‘A Subtle Shift of Awareness’, and a shorter piece called ‘Circling the Universe, Forever’, which uses spoken samples from the classic sci-fi movie ‘Dark Star’, also available on Bandcamp on the album ‘The Tyranny of Distance’, which is probably my favourite piece of mine.
Which album is your proudest work?
I made an album ten years ago based on the film ‘Apocalypse Now’, called ‘Apocalypse’. It was designed to sound dreamlike and ‘druggy’, and I think it does. For me, it works as a journey, and is greater than the sum of its parts. It is not my favourite - or best - album, but I am very pleased with the way it turned out.
It is currently being played track by track, weekly, on the sinefm.com show, ‘Electronic’.
What is coming next for your listeners?
Next is: more of the same - I hope - and much that is different - I fervently hope!. That seems to be the way of my music.
I also have those half-dozen Reaktor ideas to investigate first!! I do have to say, though, that the next album of BS music is, to my ears at least, very strong, and will hopefully be out by the end of August 2018.