Veteran Sound Designers Spill the Beans on Making Audio Magic
Sound design. The phrase itself implies an uncanny skill—the ability to shape and morph audio to create something fresh and pleasing to the ear. In the case of veteran sounds sculptors like Jim Stout and Francis Preve, audio synthesis is a way of life. Jim and Francis are the minds behind thousands of patches for a wide range of classic synths. Most recently, the duo lent their encyclopedic knowledge of acid house to Roland Cloud’s techno patches suite. We sat down with Jim and Francis for a round table about heroes, patch creation, and life as a synthesizer sound design professional.
Roland Cloud: When and how did you both discover your love for synths?
Jim Stout: I was in sixth grade at Atascocita Middle School and there was a local music store called H&H music. They came by the school and brought some of the organs and electric pianos, but they had one synthesizer, an Alpha Juno One. This guy made a jet plane take off sound on it and I lost my mind. I was obsessed; this was the coolest thing ever.
Jean-Michel Jarre did Rendez-vous Houston that year so it was like, this is a synthesizer and what can be done with it. I was 11 or 12. After that I read every issue of Keyboard magazine, Electronic Musician, and every book about programing synths I could possibly find.
Roland Cloud: Francis, what about you?
Francis Preve: When I was 11 or 12, I was a fan of The Cars, and I thought to myself, “What are those sounds?” I was super into new wave. When I was around 14, Radio Shack came out with the Moog Concertmate MG-1 which was like a version of the Rogue or the Liberation, and I just begged my family to get me that. They said yes, and that was my first synth.
Since there were no presets, there was no safety net. You had to learn.
Roland Cloud: What were the first couple of synths you owned?
Francis: The first was that MG-1, and the second was a Polysix.
Jim: Poly-800 MK2 was the first synth that I owned. The second was a Kawai K1.
Roland Cloud: That was one of my first two as well!
Jim: I loved it and I couldn’t afford a D-50! When you’re 12 years old and tell your parents, you want a $2000 synthesizer in 1986, they said no.
Roland Cloud: Back in those days, did you have any great sound design influences or heroes?
Jim: I’ve always been a huge fan of traditional Hollywood sound effects. Ben Burtt, those kinds of guys. I was fascinated with how those sounds were created. Growing up in Humble, Texas there were not a lot of resources, especially in the ‘80s. Like Francis, I was a new wave kid, and if a song didn’t have a synthesizer in it, I wasn’t interested. I was a fan of Jean-Michel Jarre, Tomita, Mark Isham, Howard Jones etc. but I was more interested in how they were doing it and the gear used, not the artists. I can listen to a song and tell you all the gear that was used on it but couldn’t tell you who the artist is or who programmed the synths.
Synths added a whole new magical ability to stuff. It was pure magic.
Roland Cloud: Did you know of any synth sound developers when you were first starting?
Francis: I had my subscription to Keyboard magazine. Eric Persing was the person who made me realize that being a sound designer was in my future. It’s also worth mentioning that I grew up one street over from Michelle Moog, and we used to play together.
Jim: When you heard the D-50 for the first time in person, I mean, it really was incredible technology. That’s lost on a lot of people these days. A lot of the mystery is gone. There hadn’t been sounds like that before.
Francis: Would now be a good time to bring up “Frantasia?”
Jim: “Frantasia” is your test patch.
Francis: Most sound designers have a sound that they immediately try to create when they get a new synth. When I get a new synth, the first sound I make is a recreation of the D-50 “Fantasia.” I like to see if I can separate things out enough to get a bell and a saw tooth pad and apply some effects. But since my name is Francis, I always name it “Frantasia.” So, there is a “Frantasia” in Dave Smith's synths, there is a “Frantasia” in Serum, “Frantasia” is everywhere. Go look at your synths and look for “Frantasia.”
Roland Cloud: Do you have a sound design philosophy and does your philosophy manifest itself by moment, by necessity, or something else?
Francis: My philosophy is: it has to be usable.
Jim: That’s number one.
Francis: Yeah, as Jim always says, “No weasel farts!” For me, the sounds have to be unique. You want to play to the strengths of the synth that you’re designing sounds for. Every synth has its own identity because of its architecture and finding something usable is extremely important. I mean, unless you are Michael Jackson you can’t use “Digital Native Dance.”
It is the defining sound of the D-50 that shows off the architecture and that’s the way MJ used it. However, you need the meat and potatoes sounds too. I need a good bass sound. I want a good pad sound. You want to play to the instrument’s strengths, but the sounds can’t be so weird that they can only be used once.
Complicated sounds might demonstrate the power of a synth on a showroom floor, but I like making the sounds that people can drop into their tracks.
Jim: I think the most beautiful sounds are the simplest sounds. I treat sound design like art. You want to keep things bright with good contrast. You don’t want to just throw paint on your canvas just because you can do it. The more colors you start mixing up, the more things become brown and muted. What is this mess? Every sound needs to be usable. Also, sounds need to be inspirational.
The reason some synths are more successful than others, regardless of their architecture, is what sounds they have inside of them. A synth might be ten times more powerful than another, but if the sounds are amazing in the weaker one, it doesn’t matter. Take the TB-303, for example. It has one sound and is one of the most popular synths of all time because it does that sound so well. Other synths can do it, but nothing quite sounds like the original.
When I first touch a synth, I play with it, and all the fluff falls off and you are left with the core of what that synth really is. It has to be inspiring and usable.
Roland Cloud: Can you give some us some background about the impetus and intention you had when creating the Roland Cloud techno patches?
Jim: Actually, I couldn’t believe that was the project. I built a little bit of a career on the 303 in the techno scene and I had all of the legendary Roland instruments. I used to tour the country with these things and so I know them inside and out and what people want out of them. The techno patches are such a wide range of sounds and genres and micro-genres. We wanted to give every sub-genre of techno a really strong foundation to build from.
I’m not saying you just put this track on and it’s a techno track. That’s not what techno is all about. Techno is about having a starting place and massaging it into your sound. That massaging can be very minute. It’s a swing setting. A different resonant setting, adding a seventh note to make it deep house. All of these little things. We wanted to give the best foundation that was true to form and respectful of the genre.
Francis: I just wanted to see if I could get the JUPITER-8 to do the Hoover.
Roland Cloud: We are in a huge sound-rich era, I don’t think there has ever been a time with so many synths, sample sources, hardware, software, sound engines, libraries, options, and techniques. What advice would you give in managing this endless field of options?
Francis: As a college professor at Austin Community College, I always tell my students to start with a very simple synth that is easily manageable like the SH-101. Get a really good monosynth that pads the walls—preferably single oscillator so you don’t have to worry about tuning. When you get the hang of the simpler synth, get a really beefy synth with a ton of options. In the case of Roland, that would be something like the SYSTEM-8.
Jim: I echo that completely. There are a lot of people that are into the synths for the wrong reasons. Embrace your inspirations and the people that inspire you, but just be brutally honest with yourself when considering what you like and what kind of styles you make.
If you are into it and love it because it’s an art form, keep it that way. Don’t do it just to try and be successful. Sound design is art. It’s now coming into the light how valuable that skill set is, and that’s awesome. Someone created the sounds on all your favorite songs, and genres are defined by those sounds. People have created ground breaking works, just doing what they thought was cool. They didn’t have a plan—they just loved it. Find your inner voice.
Francis: You have to find your inner voice.
Jim: It’s OK to emulate other artists but you need to be able to make it your own. When someone can hear your work and recognize its you, that’s the best feeling.
Roland Cloud: What is the most common people mistake when using a synthesizer in their tracks?
Francis: People don’t customize their presets. You can get a cookbook and follow the ingredients to the letter, but if you are making a dish you have to tweak the recipe. I like to cook but maybe I’ll throw olives into a dish or use salmon instead of chicken. With presets, learn what the cut off frequency knob does. It’s the synthesizer parameter that delivers the biggest bang for your buck.
Jim: You have to know the basics. I learn stuff every day and I feel like I have been doing this forever. I’m always amazed at how much I don’t know. Have a sense of humility and let your ego go. In the music industry it’s all ego, you know? I sit in a cave and play with knobs and try and make pretty things and that’s it. If I didn’t have that I don’t know what I would do with myself.
The lifers like us do it because we genuinely love it. I can’t think of a day where I wake up and don’t do what I do.
Francis: I’m either designing synths or teaching people how to design synths. That’s all I do!
Jim: The most gratifying thing is when you get a call or an email and somebody says, “This was really cool, I made this with a sound that you made.” The fact that we can inspire someone to make art is the most rewarding thing you can do because the world needs more art. If all I contribute to the world is some pleasant sounds and happen to make it a little bit better, then that’s brilliant.
Roland Cloud: What’s your favorite Roland Cloud instrument?
Francis: It’s a tie between the JUPITER-8—because it was unobtainable when I was a kid—and the D-50, which was slightly more obtainable, but I didn’t have one.
Jim: The D-50 and the TB-303.
Roland Cloud: Where do we go from here? Is there a new frontier coming?
Francis: I think it’s hard to predict exactly where it’s going to go.
Roland Cloud: Where do you want to go?
Francis: Some new architectures. I don’t know what they are yet, but I know that somebody is going to change it. West Coast is doing something interesting. I just want to see something new.
Roland Cloud: What about you Jim?
Jim: Everything has been done. It keeps getting reimagined and refreshed.
Francis: Refined, evolving.
Jim: Totally, but the core ideas have been the same for almost everything. New architecture would be super interesting and exciting, but also it potentially terrifies me. When I came up with this term, it was on my Emax and I had the spectral synthesis expander part so you could draw new waveforms. I would draw a harmonic and wait 45 minutes for it to render and then hear something like, “Eeeeeeeee.” I just waited 45 minutes for a weasel fart!
I want to see people staying creative and pushing the envelope. Also, don’t blame the gear. I think we have all said to ourselves, “If I just get this piece of gear it would open up other world.” The people that impress me the most use the least amount of gear.
For instance, in the early '90s, I opened for Autechre and I had all of the gear. I had two 303s, an 808, a 909, a JUPITER-6, and an MC-202. I had the ultimate techno band. These guys had an R8 drum machine, an EPS -16, and an MC-202, and blew me out of the water. It was unreal what they could do with three pieces of gear. It was a wall of sound!
Less is more. It’s just about how much you can push it.
Roland Cloud: One final crazy question: Hardware or software synths? Which one is better?
Jim: Can you make music with it? Then yes.