Rob Papen is a manufacturer of software synthesizers whose users are littered throughout the electronic music world. It’s one of the most-recognized brands in the genre, whose sounds can be found on music by the likes of Armin Van Buuren and Skrillex. I decided to approach the founder of the company, Rob Papen himself, to find out some more about his company, his beliefs about digital vs analog synthesizers and his company’s future products.
Hi Rob. I’ve heard that you got into synthesizers at age fifteen. What was it that sparked your interest for that?
Like many other children, I would have loved to become a pilot, but luckily enough for the passengers, that never happened (laughs). I heard my first synthesizer at age ten in one of Giorgio Morroder’s early tracks, though I didn’t knowing what the sounds were at the time. My first real love for synths came when I heard Jean Michel Jarre’s “Oxygène“. I saw his music video on TV, which had synthesizers full of dials and wires like an airplane cockpit. So my fascination for the sounds they produced and the way they looked made me fall in love with the instrument.
What was it like for you to have a number one hit with “Aurora” in 1982? Can you tell me about that?
At fifteen, I joined the electronic music band Peru, and we also formed a second group, called Nova. We used Peru to make edgy electronic music, whilst Nova was meant to be more commercial electronic stuff. The first Nova album, “TerraNova”, is still something we’re very proud of, though it was a big change when we had the sudden success.
My band members were ten years older than me, and were doing a lot of other things on the side of Peru and Nova. We even produced a few pop songs, but to little success. At that time we had no good management, which was pity, and in my opinion we didn’t utilize our full potential. But I have no complains. We made many records, and had fun doing it. Peru even had a #1 hit in Austria with “Africa“, and Nova had success with “Aurora”, as you mentioned.
Was your intention to make synths that specifically catered to dance music?
My background is, of course, electronic music. European trance music has its roots in that, so it was easy to make sounds for that genre. Also, at the time I started making soundsets, house music had a huge boost in Europe.
My aim is to create great sounds that work with any kind of contemporary music, since many genres cross each other these days. For instance, the hardcore lead sounds I made tend to appear in a lot of 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.
I was looking for a dedicated partner to handle the coding for Rob Papen (RP) products. Somebody tipped me about the ConcreteFX synthesizers that Jon Ayres programmed, and I was impressed by his skills, so I contacted him. He was willing to join our team, and we started with BLUE as our first project together. Jon is definitely one of the best DSP coders on the planet. I mean, having a creative idea like Blade is one thing, but to program such a complex synthesizer you need to be pretty skilled.
Even when most of the development of a synth is completed, Jon has great ideas for how additional features. For example, he had the idea for the circular ‘spiral in/out’ features on the X/Y pad in Blade. So Jon Ayres plays a vital role in the brand of Rob Papen. Without him, I would be lost.
As someone who transitioned from using analog synths early in his career to making digital ones, what are your thoughts on one versus the other?
Well, I used to be very stubborn with regards to only using analog synths, given my background. I only used software for digital synthesis, like FM, or sampling. But even analog synths have their disadvantages, like having to record them all the time.
Nowadays, I prefer to focus on the music; whether it’s analog or digital doesn’t make a difference to me. We made some amazing tracks with just an organ and a few Korg synthesizers in the early 80s, so it’s not in the gear, but in the inspiration and musician that counts. The issue these days is that there’s an overkill in the quantity soft synths available, rather than the the quality of them.
(Above: Rob Papen)
If you were an artist today, what kind of synth would you prefer to work with: analog or digital?
Actually, I’d chose both. But if I had to pick one, it would be digital synths, because they’re more versatile. Of course, the sound of analog is unique, but it can’t do everything.
I’ve heard that you’re quite fond of your Predator synth. Why is this exactly?
Predator is a great balance between user-friendliness and great features, with a punchy, powerful sound. It has a decent amount of dials and knobs, but if you look closer, and have knowledge of how synths work, you’ll see that it actually has a simple layout. You can use the upper section to change the sound quite quickly, and Predator offers a pretty good showcase of how subtractive synthesis works.
If I was stuck on an island with only one synth, I would pick Predator to make a whole album. From leads to drums and choir sounds even, everything can be done using Predator.
Can you take me through the process of developing the following synths:
Predator: The idea for Predator came to me while I was teaching masterclasses about synthesis. I noticed that not everybody liked going through a million knobs to edit a synth sound. Also, when I turn to my hardware synthesizers, I prefer to use the Minimoog or Jupiter-8 to my Andromeda A6 simply because their interfaces are less complex. So that inspired me to make Predator. Of course, it was a challenge to decide what to include and leave out, but we finally nailed it.
BLUE: BLUE is my take on FM synthesis, which is something I first saw FM synthesis on the Yamaha DX7. However, we used a slightly different approach by adding in great filters and features like wave-shaping in order to make BLUE the best of both worlds of subtractive and FM synthesis.
We’re now working very hard on BLUE-II, which will have some cool new features!
Punch: This synth was all about drum synthesis, with some new ideas added. It’s inspired by the classic analog drum machines, but with today’s features and the new possibilities offered up thanks to DSP. An example is the stereo spread feature for synthesized claps, as well as the option to use distortion on each sound.
SubBoomBass: The initial idea came from Dinshah (a music industry guy and musician). He suggested creating a dedicated synth bass for urban music that could produce both deep sub-basses and Minimoog style basses, among other things.
In addition to regular waveforms, we added tuned percussion and oddly-sampled sounds which you can combine with synthesis to create something new.
SubBoomBass became very popular not only among urban producers, but contemporary dance producers too. Even film computers use it, due the ultra-low sounds it has.
RP Verb and RP Delay: I was lacking a great reverb inside my computer setup, and missed having the warm sound you get from analog reverbs. Of course convolution reverb sounds very natural, but there’s nothing to tweak. So I discussed it with Jon Ayres, and 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’re great on drums and percussion. These rooms are inspired by Phil Collins’ drum sounds and Robert Palmer’s music.
RP-Delay is an 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, and the tempo-based groove delays are great.
You’ve said in the past that making a hardware synth would be difficult, given the time and technical effort involved. What if you were able to partner with a synth manufacturer, like Moog or Dave Smith?
It would be great to make a hardware synthesizer. But I would have to be able to tweak and change things on it the way I want. I haven’t discussed the prospect of building a custom synth with Moog or Dave Smith, but it may be an interesting idea.
Do you ever compare your products to synths made by other companies, like Native Instruments or LennarDigital?
Not really, to be honest. I do hear great things about them and know that they’re around, but I follow my own path. We get feedback on our synths from our users, and their input has been valuable for us to better our products with. 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 like to realize.
Would you ever make synth emulations of hardware, as Arturia have done with their V Collection, or D16 did with the Lush-101?
Nope, I can create great Minimoog basses with SubBoomBass, MiniMoog-style lead sounds with Predator, or Jupiter-8-style pads with Predator. Besides, it’s more important 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.
You mentioned earlier about the overkill in quantity of synths in the marketplace. Can you talk more about that?
Yes, there’s a lot of overkill. As a user, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by options, and instead of tweaking the synthesizer, some people load in another instrument to look for a preset; that can be a trap. Keep in mind that limitations make artists creative, so sometimes it’s wise to limit yourself to a range of instruments and simply make music.
In the past, I was happy with only one synth: two Korg MS-20s and a sequencer. My band made our first album, a live album and the second album on four track recorders, but I’ll never forget how creative we were able to be. We also dreamt about having a big studio with tons of synthesizers, but that wouldn’t have necessarily made our music better.
Is making sample-based synthesizers or romplers something that you’re interested in? Spectrasonics seems to be having success in that format with Omnisphere.
We are expanding the product line each year, but we do our own thing. Inside Punch and SubBoomBass we already use samples, though always in combination with synthesis. So sure, sampling has our attention, but we do it our own way.
What would you say is the biggest difference between making a synthesizer and an effect plugin?
To me there’s isn’t a big difference. In the end, it’s the sound it produces that I am after. The presets inside of the effect products are as important as presets inside the instruments, as a good preset reflects the quality of the software, and can be also a great starting point to tweak during the mix.
There are a few ideas that I have concerning new effect plugins, but first we have to release BLUE-II and Prisma.
You’ve had a lot of artists speak highly of RP products. Has it always been like that for RP?
My success actually started with my preset range for the Waldorf Microwave, Access Virus and the work I did for Ensoniq and E-mu.
The red thread through-out all these years is that my presets are musical and fit well into the music they’re used for. The sounds are not always spectacular if you play them solo, but they fit very well in the music, and are also a great base to tweak to a new sound. So I became quite popular among pro-users because of this.
Which artists in the electronic music world are catching your attention right now?
Skrillex is someone who thinks outside the box, and he’s done some amazing new things. He dropped me an email recently, saying he likes and uses our products. Every now and then, artists drop us a note, and it’s always a pleasure to hear that they enjoy our products.
One artist that I like a lot is Paul Kalkbrenner. His song “Sky and Sand” impressed me a lot. It’s already a few years old, but is an awesome track nonetheless.
I’m very slow in catching up with music and sometimes the coin drops late for me. The best album for me in recent years is Keane’s “Hopes and Fears”…which came out in 2004 (laughs).
What has been the response to your book on subtractive synthesis, “The 4 Element Synth” ? Has it been well-received?
It has been very well-received. It’s a coffee-table book, meant for causal reading, even though a lot of the content can be found on Youtube.
It’s not a snap-shot solution for making a synth sounds, but rather shows the system behind subtractive synthesis. If you study this book, you can work with any subtractive synthesizer. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have to read synth manuals, but it does remove the illusion of there being secrets behind synthesis.
Some people requested electronic versions of the book, as well as DVDs, so we released those too.
How many hardware synths do you own? Do you collect synths?
I have thirteen of them: two Korg MS-20s, a Korg SQ-10, a Minimoog, a System-22, a Prophet-600, a Jupiter-8, an Andromeda, a Waldorf Pulse+, two Waldorf Microwaves, an Access Virus B, and an Emulator IV.
It’s very tempting to collect synths, especially the ones I longed for when I was young, but I hardly have the time to play them, which is a pity. However, I may use them on my new album that I’m working on.
One problem with older gear is that they can be hard to maintain. If they develop an issue, it’s a big problem, even though you can have them repaired by a technician.
Can you tell me anything about your upcoming releases or future plans?
Prisma will be a great new product, but it’ll be different than some might expect. BLUE-II is in progress, and will have an XP pad, similar to the one in Blade. We also have a great new add-on coming for Punch which dance music producers will love for sure. After that, we plan on developing another product which many people have asked for. So there’s plenty to look out for!