Interview: Rob Papen

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Rob-Papen1

The producer's among you will be quite acquainted with the name Rob Papen. Whether you use his products or not, the breadth of his name is far-reaching in the world of music production, with hundreds of artists having spoken highly of his products, from Armin Van Buuren to Skrillex. I decided to approach this software giant, to find out some more about his company, and himself, and you can now read the result of our conversation below, where he reveals his past history as a band member, his beliefs about digital vs analog synthesizers, and his company's future products.

I’ve heard that you got into synthesizers at age 15. What was it that sparked your interest for that? Was it more a fascination with the music they created, or the technology behind them?

Like many other children I would have loved to become a pilot. Luckily enough for the passengers, I never became one. I  think my flights with an airliner would included many loops and inverted flights!

I had already heard synthesizers at age 10 or so, without knowing what they were. I think it was in one of the early tracks of Giorgio Morroder. My first love came with Jean Michel Jarre's track “Oxygene”. I saw his big hits on TV, with all the dials and wires (like an airplane cockpit). These machines even produced amazing sounds! Wow, this is it! So the fascination for the sound, and the way synthesizers look made me fall in love.

What was it like for you to have your #1 hit with NOVA and “Aurora” in 1982? Didn’t that make you want to continue your artist career, if you were having such success?

At age 15, I joined the electronic music band PERU, and we also formed a 2nd group, which was called “NOVA”. We wanted to keep the PERU music as more darker electronic music. Nova was a commercial step out, with very ‘light’ electronic music. The first album by Nova, “TerraNova”, is still something we are very proud of. It was a big change when we had that sudden big success! Without that, it could well be that I was not answering this interview.

My fellow musicians were 10 years older than me, and were doing a lot of other things on the side our band PERU and Nova. We even produced a few regular pop songs, but to little success. So from electronic music, we went into mainstream. At that time we had no good management, which was pity, and we didn't utilize our full potential, in my opinion. But no complains here. We did many records, and had fun doing it. With PERU, we had even an #1 hit with  in Austria, with "Africa".

We also lived a bit too far from each other (I was living 150km south of the studio). Otherwise I think we would have produced more records/projects.

In the beginning of your synth creation days, was your intention for many people to find your synths suitable for dance music production, as has become the case, or were you aiming to create them for all kinds of electronic music?

My background is, of course, electronic music. European trance music has its roots in that. So it was an easy thing to make sounds for this style of music. Also, at the time when I started making soundsets, house music had a huge boost in Europe, although I always also make a lot ‘standard’ synth sounds, which are great for jazz, fusion, hip hop and so on.

My aim is to create great sounds that work in any kind of contemporary music. It all crosses these days. Producers also look in other style folders. For instance, the hardcore lead sounds I made, appear  a lot in Hip Hop tracks.

Can you tell me how you met your coding partner Jon Ayres? I’ve heard that he plays a big part in your work. How do you guys divide the workload when making your software?

I was looking for a dedicated partner for coding all the RP products. Somebody tipped me about the ConcreteFX synthesizers that Jon Ayres programmed. From the start, I was impressed by his skills, so I contacted him, and he was willing to join our team. We started with BLUE as our first project together, and from there it went very well.

He is for sure one of the best DSP coders on this planet. I mean, having a creative idea like Blade, that's one thing. But to program such a complex synthesizer, you need to be skilled! He is absolutely amazing, and we have a great team work in addition to that.

He also has great ideas which complete our synthesizers, with the addition of some wicked additional features. For instance, in Blade he got the idea for these circlular ‘spiral in/out’ features for the X/Y pad. The right mouse menu on the XY pad has some cool features, that Jon added too So Jon Ayres plays a vital role in the brand of Rob Papen. Without him, I would be lost, as people with these skills are rare!

As someone who transitioned from using analog synths in his early career, to making and using digital synths, what are your thoughts on one versus the other? If you had to choose one to use forever, which would it be?

Well, I was always very stubborn on this subject, being so very analog-minded, using only software if they where using digital synthesis, like FM or sampling. But analog has also some disadvantages (you need to record them all the time) and in the end, it is about the music you produce.

I focus on music, and whether it's analog or digital, doesn't make a difference. Music is what counts. The risk now is more in the overkill in the amount of software and synths, rather than the the quality of it! We did some amazing tracks  with an organ and a few Korg synthesizers in the early 80's. So it's not in the gear, but in the inspiration and musician behind it!

Chose one? I would chose both in fact. But if I would have to pick one, it would be digital, computer-based synthesizers. Because they are more versatile. Of course, the sound of analog is unique. But it can’t do everything. So if I had to pick one domain, it would be computer-based synthesizers.

I’ve heard that you’re quite fond of your Predator synth. Why is this exactly? Does that mean that you won’t be striving to make another synth that can top Predator?

Predator is a great balance between user friendliness and wicked features, with a great punchy powerful sound. Of course, if you look at it, it has a decent amount of dials and knobs. But if you look more closer, and have knowledge of synthesizers, it has a simple layout. You can stay in the upper section to change the sound in a very fast way. Also, it perfectly shows how subtractive synthesis works!

If I was on a lonely island with only one synth, I would pick Predator to make a whole album. From synth, to drums, to choir sounds even. All can be done using Predator.

Can you take me through the process of developing some of your synths, with regards to where the inspiration came from, and some challenges when creating them?

Predator:

The idea came while I was teaching masterclasses about synthesis. I noticed that not everybody likes a million features and trillion pages in order to edit a synth sound. When I look at my hardware synthesizers, I prefer often to use the MiniMoog and Jupiter-8 above the Andromeda. Simply because they are faster and less complex to use. So that was how I got the idea for Predator. Of course, it was a battle to decide what to include and leave out, but we nailed it fully!

Predator

Blue:

I first saw FM synthesis with the DX-7, and at that time I had the Jupiter-8 already. I liked the sound, which was unique, but missed the faders and dails. (DX-7 was a sheer horror for a dial freak like me).

I must say that I have big respect for the first sound designers that made some classic FM sounds for the Yamaha DX-7! BLUE is my vision on FM synthesis. So a slightly different approach was used, with great filters on board and additional features like waveshaping being added.  BLUE is more of a combination of best of both worlds. Subtractive and FM.

We're now working very hard on BLUE-II, which will have some cool new features!

Blue

Punch:

This was all about drum synthesis, with some new ideas added. Inspired by the classic analog drum machines, but with today's features and the new possibilities offered up by DSP codes. An example is the the stereo spread feature for the synthesized claps inside Punch, as well as the option to have distortion on each pad/sound. It's all about hearing new stuff, without forgetting the classic drum machines of the past.

Punch

Subboombass:

The initial idea came from Dinshah (a music industry guy and musician), to have a dedicated synth bass for HipHop/Urban music. It can very easily produce deep sub basses but also classic MiniMoog style basses, among other things.

Next to regular waveforms, we added tuned percussion and oddly-sampled sounds, which you can combine these with synthesis to create cool, fresh sounds. The sequencer we added can have an different oscillator waveform for each step.

SubBoomBass became very popular, not only among hiphop/urban producers, but contemporary dance producers too. Even film computers use it, due the ultra low sounds it has.

Subboombass1

RP Verb and RP Delay:

I was lacking a great reverb inside my own setup. Apart from outboard gear, I missed this typical warm and dense sound in my computer. Of course convolution reverb sounds very natural, but there's nothing to tweak. So I discussed it with  Jon Ayres, and that is where we started tweaking.

RP-VERB can do rooms which are impossible with hardware reverbs. It's quite unique in its sound. I call these ‘storm rooms’, and they are great on drums and percussion. These rooms are inspired on the Phil Collins drum sounds, as well as the Power Station sound of “Some like it Hot“. The late Robert Palmer was another influence. (pity that he passed away so early. He was a great artist)

RP-Delay is a very insane delay, which can be bit overpowering, with a built-in reverser, filter and distortion. We made plenty of presets, which are great as a starting point. The tempo-based groove delays are great. Things can be turned on and off very easily. So a simple delay function isn't no big deal for RP-Delay either.

RP verb
You’ve said in the past that making a hardware synth would be difficult, given the time involved and technical effort. What if you were able to partner with synth manufacturer, like Moog, Dave Smith or Access? Would it be a possibility then?

It would be great to make a hardware synthesizer. But I would have to be able to tweak and change things to get the sound I would want. I haven't discussed the prospect of building a custom synth with Moog or Dave Smith for instance. It may be an interesting idea.

What do you think about what other software manufacturers like Native Instruments, LennarDigital, Refx, etc? Do you ever compare your products to synths made by such companies, in terms of their capabilities, or try to match them, when making a news synth?

Not really, to be honest. I do hear great things about them and know that they are around. But I follow my own route. From the input of our users, we get feedback on our synths. Their input has great value for us and we use it to better our products. I don't study other brands. Their influence on me right now is about zero. Also, I have no time for this, as I have many ideas of my own which I would love to realize. This does create the risk of producing a product that nobody understands, or is expecting. But that is a risk I am willing to take. I seek new directions.

Would you ever strive to make any synth emulations of hardware, like the way Arturia modelled the Minimoog, or D16 recreated a software version of the SH-101 with Lush?

Nope,  I can create great MiniMoog basses with SubBoomBass, and MiniMoog style of lead sounds with Predator. Or Pad sounds that have the feel of my Jupiter-8 with Predator. It is still an emulation, although in music. If I'm seeking a JP-8 style silky pad sound, I simply use Predator, with the newer filter types (type2), and it sounds great.

The real thing still sounds different. But I do no think that it is bad. It is a matter of what you do with your synths. A great song with software synthesizers will sound great and a bad song with analog synths, will still sound bad. So, as I said, it is the man behind the machine that makes the difference.

There is now an immense amount of virtual synths on the market. Hundreds, I would guess. From freeware to $500 Spectrasonics stuff. Do you think this is a good or bad thing? After all, one synth can only create sounds within a certain timbral range. Sylenth will never sound like a Minimoog V, for example. Is this diversity in synths something to worry about in that case, or embrace?

There are real people behind the products, so they all sound different! Of course, there's a lot of overkill, with there being too many software synthesizers. As a user and musician, you might get overwhelmed, and instead of tweaking the synthesizer, some people load in another instrument to seek their sound. It can be a big trap. Keep in mind that limitations makes artist creative. So sometimes it is wise to limit yourself down to a certain range of instrument and simply make music, and not always take the easy route.

In the past, I was happy with only one organ, two Korg MS-20 and a sequencer. We did our first album, live album and the second album on 4 tracks. But I will never forget that we where very creative at those moment. We also dreamt about a whole studio with tons of synthesizers. But that doesn't always makes your music better.

Is making sample-based synthesizers or romplers something that you’re interested in? Spectrasonics, for example, has made Omnisphere (which they say isn’t technically a rompler, but hopefully you get what I mean). Is that something you could afford to explore for yourself?

We are expanding the product line each year, but we do our own thing. Inside Punch and SubBoomBass we already use samples. But always in combination with synthesis. So sure, sampling has our attention, but we do it our own way.

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What would you say is the biggest difference between making a synthesizer and an effect plugin? What’s the most challenging about making each of those?

To me there is not a big difference. In the end, it is the sound it produces that I am after. This should always be top notch and unique.

The presets inside of the FX products are as important as presets inside the instruments. Because a good preset is always reflecting the quality of the software, and can be also a great starting point to tweak it into the mix.

There are a few ideas that I have concerning new FX types, but first we have to release BLUE-II and Prisma.

You’ve had a lot of artists speak highly of your products. What do you think about all the popularity that your products attained? Was it a surprise?

My success started already with the preset range for the Waldorf Microwave, Access Virus and the work I did for Ensonique, or E-mu.

The red line in all these years is that my presets are musical and fit very nice into the music. The sounds are not always spectacular if you play them solo, but they fit very well in music, and are also a great base to tweak to a new sound. So among pro-users I became very popular because of this.

Which artists in the electronic music world are catching your attention right now?

Skrillex is of course somebody who thinks out of the box, and he did some amazing new things. He dropped me an email recently, saying he likes and uses our products. So now and then, an artist drop a note, and it's always a big joy to hear that they enjoy the products.

One artist that I like a lot is Paul Kalkbrenner. His hit song "Sky and Sand” impressed me a lot. Of course, it's already a few years old, but an awesome track nonetheless!

I am very slow in catching up with music and sometimes the coin drops late. The best album for me from past years is not electronic. It's Keane with “Hopes and Fears”. Oops...already from 2004!

What has been the response to your book on subtractive synthesis, “The 4 Element Synth”? Has it been well-received? Will you be doing any more books?

It has been very well received. It it also a coffee-table book, meant for causal reading. These days, of course, a lot of the content can be found on Youtube. But this training is unique and timeless, in my opinion.

It's not a snap-shot solution for making a certain sound, but rather shows the system behind subtractive synthesis. If you study this book, you can work with any subtractive synthesizer. This does not mean that you don’t have to read manuals. But it does remove the illusion of there being secrets behind synthesis.

This book is not for the ones that know already everything (synth geeks). Although, there is always something to learn. I learnt a lot myself while writing this book. Some parts where in the back of my head, but I had to dive into other parts as well.

Some people request electronic versions of this book and the 4DVD’s. But I wanted to have it as a physical product and a book.

Rob Papen

How many hardware synths do you own? Do you collect synths?

Around 12 items.. 2x Korg MS-20, Korg SQ-10, MiniMoog, Synthesizer.com System-22, Prophet-600, Jupiter-8, Andromeda, Waldorf Pulse+, Waldorf Microwave I (2x) with access programmer, Access Virus b, Emulator IV.

It is very tempting to collect synths, especially the ones I longed for when I was young! But lack of time results in me hardly hardly playing them, which is a pity of course. However, I may use them on my new album that I'm planning/working on.

One problem with the older gear is that some are hard to keep alive. If they get a defect, it's a big problem, even though there are people that can fix that.

I’ve heard that you’re working on a new project called, “Prisma”, as well as” Blue II”. Can you tell us anything about those, or any other future plans for your company?

Prisma will be a great new product, but it will be different than some might expect. It will generate sounds that blow your socks off! BLUE-II is in progress, and will have an XP pad, similar to the one in Blade. In combination with it's FM features, this will be fun for sure! With Punch we have also a great new add-on very soon. A product that is installed alongside Punch, which dance music producers will love for sure!

After these two big projects we plan another product, which many people gave asked for. So plenty to look out for!

That sounds great! Well, thanks for taking the time to speak with me. I'm certainly looking forward to seeing what your company drops in the future. All of my readers can check out Rob Papen's website for more info about their products.
SamInterview: Rob Papen

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