Technically speaking, Roger Linn is not a DJ. Far from it essentially. Yet his creations are cheered by generations of DJs and other types of musicians. Roger Linn is a designer of high-tech products for musicians. Among his celebrated work we find the legendary Linndrum and Akai MPC 60 drum machines. More recently he released the Tempest drum machine in cooperation with Dave Smith. We’re delighted to have him for an interview with us.
Roger, the true digital sound and functionality of the LinnDrum (and other contemporaries like the DMX) is absent from newly manufactured hardware units today. Do you think there is a market or possibility of a new, high-end digital drum machine incorporating a similar technology being released in the future?
RL: Regarding LinnDrum’s sound, I must say that it’s audio quality was pretty horrible, with only 27 kHz sample rate and 8 bit samples. So I think it’s pretty difficult to find any current product that doesn’t sound better. I think the reason many people romanticize the sound of the LinnDrum is that it was used on many good recordings, so people tend to associate the sound of LinnDrum with the artistic quality of those old recordings. Fortunately, there are many samples on the web of LinnDrum’s sounds, and these samples faithfully and accurately capture that horrible sound quality.
Regarding the quality of LinnDrum’s functionality, thank you for the compliment. I have always tried to design products for musicians like me who have a very short attention span and dislike reading manuals.
What is your opinion on newer units birthed in the same vein as the MPC-60/Linn 9000 but require linking to a CPU, like Native Instruments Maschine and new Akai Ren?
RL: I don’t know much about Akai’s current products but I like NI’s design ideas and I think that if you’re making music on a computer, it makes good sense to use a well-design human interface for the type of music you’re making, as long as the hardware/software integration is well thought out. These days there’s another alternative: instead of connecting a control surface to your computer, you can put your computer — in this case an iPad or IPod Touch– inside your control surface, which has the advantage of greater portability and physical integration.
The LinnDrum was arguably the dominate drum sound of the 80′s, unarguably the driving force behind SAW, a lot of Italo and new wave. Are you a fan of these genres and did you anticipate your machine being used in such fashion?
RL: I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t know what SAW and Italo are. I did listen to some New Wave at the time but often thought it an unfortunate label because it now refers not to anything new but rather to a 25-year-old music genre. I recall Paul McCartney once being asked in the 80s if his music was New Wave, and he responded by saying that he considered his music to be Permanent Wave.
One of the biggest omissions with newer drum machines is lack of a dedicated trigger out. When studios went full MIDI in the early 90′s it’s logical to see why this started getting left out. But with so many studios now running a hybrid setup with older synths, modulars, etc, it seems like it should be there again on new machines. Care to shed light on why this feature is still a rarity?
RL: When you say “Trigger Out”, do you mean individual trigger signal outputs for each drum? If so, none of my products has ever included such outputs, though my LinnDrum did have five trigger inputs. If you mean “Sync Out”, all my old products included a sync out and in, and all the current products I’m aware of include MIDI In and Out (sometimes over USB) for syncing, which I think is far superior to the variety of incompatible sync standards that existed in the 80s.
Korg has released a line of small and very cheap analog synthesizers with the Montotrons and Monotribes. Would you see a future for pocket sized samplers/sequencers with analog filters/circuitry priced at no more than $200?
RL: Yes, especially for people with unusually small fingers.
Your instruments have been widely used by artists from all over the world. Which artist using your creations has Linnspired you most?
RL: Interestingly, my drum machine designs weren’t inspired by drum machine users, but by great drummers like, for example Jeff Porcaro, Jack DeJohnette, Jim Keltner, Dave Garibaldi and others. I wanted to make a machine that sounded as human as possible without requiring a drummer’s timing, which is why I first introduced the ideas of timing quantize, swing and drum dynamics.
What type of music do you like to make yourself?
RL: The only gig I currently have is playing Italian mandolin with a piano accompanist at a cafe in my home town of Berkeley. When I play guitar at home, I usually play soft solo electric guitar with no beats, using my AdrenaLinn III product for interesting tones. I’m also a fan of gypsy jazz guitar in the style of Django Reinhart. In fact, I used to hold a series of gypsy jazz concerts at my home: www.rogmahal.com.
RL: When I first conceived of Tempest, I wanted to make a drum machine for the way people make music in 2012. By comparison, it seems that Akai’s recent drum machines are largely recombining my old MPC60 design ideas from 1988, which were good ideas for the 1980s but in 2012 this seems like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
In designing Tempest, I looked around and noticed a few emerging trends:
1) The formerly separate musical production phases processes of composition, recording, editing, mixing and performance are becoming integrated together into real time performance by musicians that use looping, beatmaking and sequencing. In these performances, the creation becomes the compelling part of the performance, not unlike watching a painting create a painting. Otherwise stated, the reward is in the journey.
2) Many musicians today are doing something I call Object Oriented Composition or OOC. Instead of playing the individual notes in performance as a drummer or percussionist would, they first create (or otherwise obtain) a variety of loops, drumbeats and sequences, then their performance is comprised of the creative arrangement and manipulation of these objects. This is not unlike the Found Object movement in visual art.
3) Many of the human-interface elements found on music products–buttons, sliders and knobs– aren’t that different from those found on any data entry machine and therefore not very capable of capturing subtle human gestures. I find that this limits the range of musical expression compared to the subtle nuances of acoustic instruments, as well as limiting the ability for each musician to develop his individual performance gestures as a guitarist or violinist does.
4) There’s a big emphasis on sampling as a sound source, which often results in static, immutable music because a sample is by its very nature static and immutable compared to synthesis.
So in creating Tempest, I had the following principal design goals, all of which I think we have achieved:
1) It performs all of its functions– sound design, drumbeat creation, editing, arrangement, manipulation, processing and more–without stopping the beat. The entire creation process–or any part of it in any order– can become the performance.
2) It provides extension methods for arranging and manipulating drumbeats and their sounds in real time during performance, including stuttering, reverse play, guitar amp-style distortion, compression, filtering, swing and changing any sound parameters like attack, decay, tuning, etc.
3) In addition to the velocity- and pressure-senstive drum pads, it includes 2 pressure- and position-sensitive touch strips, which can capture subtle human gestures in the simultaneous real time control of a large variety of sound and drumbeat manipulation parameters. We’re pleased to see that Tempest owners are appreciating their ability to develop their own unique and subtle performance gestures and style.
4) Though Tempest does include samples as sound sources, all sounds are completely synthesized in real time, and therefore the opportunities for sound variation in performance are infinitely greater than with sampled sounds. And because of Dave Smith’s exceptional analog synthesis voices, refined after years of analog products, the sound of Tempest is very open and huge and in a word, extraordinary.
Oh yes– even with 90 panel controls, it fits in a backpack.
You have received the 2011 Grammy Award for technical merit. Did you ever think you would win a Grammy Award? What was the experience like?
RL: It was a complete surprise and a great honor to be included in the company of former recipients Thomas Edison, Leo Fender, Les Paul and Bob Moog.
What other forms of art and artists do you really like, other than music?
RL: I find a tremendous amount of art and beautiful ideas in the design of some of the new tech products appearing on the market, and have great respect for their designers. Examples that come to mind are Apple products, Microsoft’s Kinect and Surface (the big table touchscreen), the Leap Motion hand gesture controller, the Lytro light field camera, the MIT City Car and City Home concepts, 3D printers, the Lit Motors C-1, the YikeBike, Yamaha’s Uni-Cub and others.
Have you done any rather unknown projects that were really fun to do?
RL: Here’s a page full of them:
If you had to name one specific synthesizer from another company you truly love, which one would that be and could you explain why this instrument means so much to you.
RL: If you’ll permit me to expand your question beyond a favorite synthesizer to a favorite high-tech musical instrument, I’m afraid I love too many to limit my answer to one. Here are 2 pages full of my favorites:
Is there a final thing you would like to say to our readers?
RL: I’d like to offer two gentle suggestions:
1) The best part of music lives in that special place between silence and whispers. Don’t forget the value of dynamics and subtle nuance in your musical journey.
2) To all the DJs who prefer to forgo the creation and playing of notes in favor of merely combining loops, beats and sequences, I ask you to consider the value of creating notes to the long-term value of the music you will create. Please join me on my one-man quest to save the note from extinction.
Thanks again Roger for taking the time for this interview!
With thanks to Jordan Passmore for assisting with this interview.